top of page
  • Writer's pictureQ&Q Publishing

Appreciating Art in the Regency Era

By Jessie Lewis, author of The Cad, The Couch, and The Cut Direct

The early nineteenth century marked a seismic shift in cultural sensibilities, heralding the end of what we now call the Enlightenment, and ringing in the Romantic Era. During the eighteenth century, every aspect of western life had been indelibly affected by huge advancements in scientific discovery. A constantly accelerating capacity to discover and learn led to a society that was obsessed with rationalising the world in which we lived. To the modern person, who benefits daily from innovations in everything from medicine to technology, this might not seem so great an evil. To the people whose lives were being forever altered by the rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution, as well as seemingly endless wars, it was a scarier time. 

In reaction, society began to turn away from that rationalised, ordered world view. They sought to rediscover the wonder in nature, rather than concern themselves only in its scientific properties. They rejected philosophies that sought to rationalise morality and thought, and instead placed a greater value on the individual and emotion. The rampaging progression into the modern world began to be tempered by what was, essentially, the idealisation of the past, as classical influences gave way to medieval ones, folk art was glorified, and sense took second place behind sensibility.

The country saw a significant shift in its political landscape, as well as scientific thinking, education, and—perhaps most profoundly and lastingly—the arts. A newly intensified appreciation for the aesthetic led to what has been called by some ‘the golden age’ of arts and culture. From the pottery of Wedgwood to the sculptures of Sir Francis Chantrey, the poetry of Lord Byron to the novels of Jane Austen, from the music of Mendelssohn to the paintings of Constable, from the architecture of John Nash to the landscapes of Humphry Repton—creators across every discipline were in their heyday.

This blossoming of creativity did not only involve the artists; interest in art was, for the first time, creeping through all layers of society. At the very top, the Prince Regent himself was “a magnificent patron of the arts,”[i] as the Duke of Wellington is said to have described him (amongst other less favourable remarks). The Prince’s love of art was purportedly one of his only redeeming features, but he did it with gusto, giving patronage to the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and David Wilkie. He ordered the conversion of Buckingham House into the Palace we know today, largely in order to display his vast art collection. His most famous legacy is arguably the Brighton Pavilion, which epitomises his fascination for other cultures.

At the other end of the scale, a broadening section of society was learning to appreciate art in a way that had not been possible before. Members of the nobility had, for many years, been exploring the Continent, bringing home weird and wonderful art and artefacts for their private collections. Historically, however, those in lower classes had not had the means, the opportunity, or the inducement to explore the world beyond the place in which they lived or worked. Many were unaware that such antiquities as were being collected by the nobility even existed. But upwards social mobility and significant improvements to travel meant that more and more families who had previously been restricted to one village or town were now travelling around the country, exploring landscapes and landmarks that were unlike anything they could previously have imagined. This new knowledge inevitably manifested in a greater curiosity about the wider world—and the viewing of art from varied cultures began to gain popularity amongst a whole new demographic.

Ian Mortimer, in his book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain, explains how, at the start of the nineteenth century, the British Museum was considered a must-see attraction, yet only allowed groups of suitably ‘studious and curious’ personages to view the exhibits in groups of ten at a time on guided tours. By 1808, after the museum installed a new sculpture gallery, the increase in visitor numbers forced the trustees to admit more people at the same time. They also stopped requiring tickets. In 1810, the trustees relaxed the rules completely, and allowed “anyone who was suitably dressed to wander through the galleries at his or her pleasure.”[ii]

Mortimer notes that visitor figures reached 33,074 in 1815, which was 2.4% of London’s population at the time. Nowadays, the museum regularly attracts over 6 million visitors annually. That is, coincidentally, 62% of London’s population today, although that statistic is far less relevant than it was, since international travel has made visiting the museum possible for people from all around the world. In 1815, when visitors, by necessity, were predominantly those within easy travelling distance, it is remarkable that numbers were so high.

This growing fascination with art drove an increased need for places where people could see it. There were many established ways of doing so. The wealthy often had vast collections displayed in purpose-built rooms or galleries in private homes. These were predominantly kept for the enjoyment of their friends and families, but some “wealthy and civic-minded patrons opened their homes to the public,” [iii]Robert Morrison explains in his book, The Regency Revolution:

“At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, John Soane steadily converted his home into a museum, which (then as now) was open to the public and ingeniously displayed all manner of models, drawings, prints, paintings, and antiquities. At 3 Soho Square, Sir Joseph Banks painstakingly assembled a natural history museum where he welcomed all serious naturalists. Thomas Hope exhibited his exquisite collection of paintings, sculptures and, especially, classical vases in both his London mansion in Duchess Street and his country house in Surrey…Walter Scott made Abbotsford, his home on the banks of the River Tweed, a shrine to Scottish culture and history.”

Then there was the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, held, during the Regency, in Somerset House (it now resides in Burlington House). For most of the year, the Academy was closed to the public, but the founders wished to host an exhibition that would showcase the work of the finest artists the country had to offer to the general public. The first Summer Exhibition took place in 1769 and the event has continued to be held every year without fail until the present day. Admission was not free, as is explained on the National Gallery of Art’s website:

“Admission fees and catalogue sales for these popular events made the R.A. self-sustaining. Its financial success even allowed it to grant pensions to needy artists.”


Then there was the British Institution on Pall Mall, founded in 1805 and also privately owned. In 1813, the Institution hosted an extremely popular and highly publicised exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ paintings, which Jane Austen herself visited. The exhibition attracted hundreds of daily visitors, the opening night drawing such celebrities as Lord Byron, Sarah Siddons, and the Prince Regent. So popular was the exhibition that opening times were extended by two hours daily, and the occasional candle-lit evening openings were put on.

A reconstruction of the exhibition can be found at the website What Jane Saw. The curators of that website proudly draw attention to the connection between the Reynolds exhibition and Austen’s fiction:

“Ultimately, it is Austen herself who playfully connects her visit to the Reynolds retrospective with her fictional characters in a letter to her sister Cassandra, dated 24 May 1813, where she writes of that day’s plans to visit several art exhibits. In the letter, she turns these visits into a virtual search for portraits of 'Mrs Bingley' and 'Mrs Darcy'. She writes of being 'very well pleased…with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her' in the Exhibition in the Spring Gardens, but that she has not yet found 'one of her sister…Mrs Darcy'. Although she declares that there is 'no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings which is now shewing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit,' she jokes, 'I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow' (Letters, 212). Even if Austen, known for her ironic wit, did not mean for these words to be taken literally, she licenses, as it were, a search for the portraits of her imaginary characters among the pictures in this gallery.”[iv]

The voracious appetite for art from people outside of the nobility was eventually rewarded. In 1817, the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened. Designed by Sir John Sloane with an enviable top-lit exhibition space, it was England’s first ever free public art gallery, and allowed anyone who wished to view its collection. Then, in 1824, the National Gallery was established by the British Government on behalf of the British Public—though governments being what they are, there was still an admittance fee of one shilling. It is, thankfully, free to enter today.

People have partaken in and enjoyed art for millennia, but it was during the Regency Era that the public consumption of art in this country became the phenomenon that it is today. There are now 4,615 art galleries in the UK, and art is a fundamental part of the school curriculum. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that in my latest Regency era book, The Cad, The Couch and The Cut Direct, although the majority of the action happens in an art gallery, the paintings are of much less consequence than the viewing couch.

Source and References:

[i] George IV, Regent and King, Christopher Hibbert

[ii] The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain, Ian Mortimer

[iii] The Regency Revolution, Robert Morrison

Image Sources (all public domain):

The British Institution (Pall Mall) by Rudolph Ackermann – 1808, with artists copying works

Marriage of Cupid and Psyche - Wedgwood, c. 1773 - Brooklyn Museum

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Gidea Hall, 1797 from an engraving made by Humphrey Repton

Exhibition at Somerset House, by Thomas Rowlandson, Augustus Charles Pugin, John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sutherland, J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers)

The Age of Innocence, by Joshua Reynolds





515 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 commentaire

16 avr.

Reading your blog post brought me back to an art history course I took (long ago) as an undergrad student—and to my last visit to London and the south of England, which included going to several museums and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton! Thank you for the trip down memory lane and the interesting post.

bottom of page