Mary Evelyn's Juvenilia: Fashion and Sociability in the Mundus Muliebris (1690)

Stream: Session B
Date: Wednesday, 20 July 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


In 1768/69, when the Royal Academy of Arts opened its doors in London, its twin mandates were to set up a school to train young (male) artists and to hold an annual exhibition. The founding of Royal Academy Schools provides one critical source of the assumptions connecting youth and art in England at that time. Just as important, however, was the determination to hold an exhibition, since the display of paintings for the public was still an innovative practice—and one from the start associated with youth. Most scholars date the first public art exhibition in England to 1760, when the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce held its first show. This Royal Society thought to advance the arts (along with manufacturing) in England by awarding prizes or premiums for best works, with special categories focused on young people. From 1755, and for a 100 years afterwards, boys and girls in several youth categories—under fourteen, ages fourteen through seventeen, and “amateurs of the upper classes [descended from peers] … under twenty-one years of age”—could compete (“Miscellaneous: The Early Art Prizes of the Society.” Journal of the Society of Arts, vol. 43, 1895, p.797). An early history of the Society notes the many eminent painters who “received in early youth perhaps their first encouragement to persevere in an artistic career by the award of one of the Society’s medals … some of whom obtained their first medal at the age of ten or eleven” (Wood. History of the Royal Society of Arts, 1913, p. xi). “Premium Day”—the highly-attended awarding of prizes—became a late-eighteenth century social event for adults and young people alike. Almost a generation before the Royal Society explicitly associated exhibition with encouraging youth actively to create and display, youth had already been associated with early exhibition—in this case passively: youth was what was to be displayed. The Foundling Hospital had opened its doors in London in 1741. William Hogarth, who sat on its board (as well as stood godfather to, and fostered many of, its orphans), donated a collection of works to decorate its hallways. It immediately became a fashionable charity—the most in vogue in London—where the chic and wealthy came to see and be seen. Scenting potential patrons and buyers, more painters donated works, and the Hospital became de facto the first public fine arts gallery of its time. The curious poured into its galleries seven days a week to look at its collection and ogle the orphans taking lunch at long tables arrayed underneath the paintings. Some scholars argue that Hogarth, and others associated with the Hospital, pioneered a new style of children’s portraiture based on ideas about childhood underwriting the Hospital’s mission (Eustace. “The Key is Locke.” British Art Journal, vol. 7, no. 2, pp 34-49). My paper asks: what alters when we recognize how, early on, associations with juvenility permeate the very grain of the concept of exhibition? I focus on the work of draftsman and sculptor John Flaxman, who won a Royal Society medal when he was twelve and joined one of the first classes at the Royal Academy in 1770, when he was fourteen. As his statue in the Royal Academy’s next to Leonardo’s and Raphael’s demonstrated, as an adult Flaxman was eminent in the early nineteenth century; he became professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy School. Renowned in the art world, he was also famous to the mainstream: his “outline illustrations” for Homer took the public by storm. Flaxman was situated to be especially attuned to juvenility and display. He was seen as a “precocious exhibiter” (Nisbet, Insanity of Genius, 1891, p. 176). In addition, because he had a physical disability from birth involving his back and spine, in the harsh language of his time he was also regarded as an object of display, “a prodigy of deformity and genius” (Vassall. Further Memoirs, 1905, p. 371). This paper considers his early art, later writings, and reception, to chart preconceptions within and connections between early genius and visual display.

DEBORAH FAITH RAMKHELAWAN is a Clarendon Scholar and DPhil in English at Oxford University. Her research centres on the unpublished manuscript archives of the Evelyn family currently held at the British Library. Her thesis attends to the writings of John Evelyn’s wife and daughters and their contributions to seventeenth-century fine, applied, and literary arts, including a critical edition of the devotional and poetic writings of their eldest daughter, Mary. In her spare time, Deborah is an avid fencer and creative writer, and enjoys playing the piano, including classical pieces and selections from the esteemed Burt Bacharach.