This post first appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 3 September 2020.
From your Regency readings, you may be familiar with Somerset House and the Summer Exhibition, a lavish and popular yearly art show. A catalog (and therefore entry) could be had for a shilling, and everyone who’s anyone in London would have gone to see the exhibition at some point!
While I haven’t used it as a location yet, I have used the Royal Academy of Arts, which was the group who put on the art show. (The original Somerset House was where Queen Charlotte was supposed to live if George III died before her. Instead, she was vested with Buckingham House, and they gave the new North Wing to the Royal Academy of Arts.)
Anyway, it was an art exhibition to which anyone could submit a painting. In fact, the founding group of the Royal Academy of Arts included two women, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser! Which is pretty cool.
However, more to the point for my story purposes, not everyone who joined the Academy and received the honor of displaying work in the Summer Exhibition was aristocratic. Joseph Mallord William Turner (abbreviated J.M.W. Turner) is a great example. (In fact, it was a post here on Austen Authors that introduced me to him when I was researching my last series!) Turner was from a middle class family in Covent Gardens, burdened with a Cockney accent but remarkable talent. He was admitted to the Academy when he was fourteen, and displayed his first work at Somerset at fifteen!
I practically rubbed my hands together and cackled like a villain. What’s this I see before me? A middle/lower-class man who gained success and (could have) interacted with the highest families through his skill with painting and portraiture? Yes, please! (William Turner even received a snuff box from the King Louis Phillipe I!) I wanted to put Darcy through the wringer with Georgiana’s romance, and this fit the bill perfectly. Acclaimed painters were received everywhere, particularly portraitists… but at the same time, they definitely weren’t members of the “Upper Ten Thousand.” How would Darcy handle it if Georgiana fell in love with a such an “accepted outsider?”
I only used the barest idea of J.M.W. Turner for my story (and his last name, since it is fairly common), but his actual life story is also quite interesting. After his mother went to a mental institution, he was sent to live with a maternal uncle (rather like Fanny Price), and it was there that he was able to make his first forays into painting. His father would proudly display his son’s sketches in his barber shop window.
Eventually he traveled and gained more acclaim, particularly for his seascapes and other dramatic paintings. A huge volcano erupted in Indonesia in 1815 (making 1816 the “Year with No Summer”) and Turner painted the incredible sunsets caused by the ash in the upper atmosphere. He witnessed the burning of Parliament in 1834 and made watercolors of it. Turner’s experiments with color and light would become precursors of impressionist and abstract painting.
Although he grew reclusive in
later life, he did (re?)gain a close relationship with his father, and lived with him for 30 years until his father’s death.
So with that as background, here is a short excerpt from A Lively Companion, when Georgiana and Lizzy meet a young, up-and-coming painter…
Lizzy watched the little boy, in his ruffled shirt and small jacket, squirm upon the picturesque lounge. The painter seemed inured to that sort of thing, and also to being discussed as if he were not present.
“My mother’s portrait was done by Sir Thomas Lawrence,” Anne told them proudly.
Lady Catherine was just returning to them with her friend Mrs. Winkleigh. “Indeed, it was. Unfortunately Sir Thomas is off painting generals and such on the continent now. It would have been as well for him if he had stayed; I should have strongly counseled him to stay. I must have Anne’s portrait taken soon.”
Mrs. Winkleigh performed the introduction to the painter while his subject took a break for refreshment.
Mr. John Wesley Turner was a youngish man, not very tall or handsome, Lizzy thought, but with an intelligent, good-humored look to his eyes and forehead. He showed his smudged hands and apologized for being unable to properly greet them. He joked with Mrs. Winkleigh about painting her son on a stallion someday and was “deeply honored” to be considered by Lady Catherine and so on.
As they were leaving, he asked Miss Darcy whether she was satisfied with the expression and shadows of the child’s face.
“Oh, yes,” Miss Darcy said, “I’ve attempted my cousin’s children and never captured so much character. Not that I mean to compare… You are a professional…”
He smiled quizzically. “You look rather familiar to me, Miss Darcy. I’ve never painted you before; I think I would remember that, but perhaps we’ve met?”
Georgiana paled. “You are, perhaps, thinking of Miss Climping’s School for Girls in Bath. I believe we met in passing there.”
“Of course!” he said. “The arts mistress is my aunt. She had me judge some of the schoolgirls’ pieces or some such thing before the summer term. I believe you won.”
“You must have an uncommonly good memory,” Miss Darcy said. “Only a week’s visit for you, I believe.”
He laughed. “I’m afraid I don’t remember your artwork, except that it was clearly superior to the rest and made my decision quite easy.”
That’s it for now!
So, do you enjoy these kinds of dramatic, impressionistic paintings? Or do you prefer more realistic?
A Lively Companion: A Pride and Prejudice Variation
from Corrie Garrett
Lizzy Bennet is more insulted than flattered when Lady Catherine asks her to be a temporary companion to Miss de Bourgh. Yes, a visit to Tunbridge Wells would be an interesting diversion, but at what cost?
When her father unexpectedly supports the plan, wanting Lizzy to gain a wider acquaintance and knowing it won’t get easier than this, Lizzy reluctantly submits. Thus begins a springtime trip of misunderstandings, revelations, and unexpected proposals.
When Mr. Darcy realizes Lizzy is not going home as planned, he feels foolish for nearly proposing due to an arbitrary deadline. Determined to make up his mind one way or another, he accompanies the party to the Wells.
While Miss de Bourgh takes the famed waters, Lizzy stumbles feet first into a friendship with Darcy’s sister and cousins. Indeed, she enjoys nearly all Darcy’s friends and family. She almost likes him, when he’s around them.
But that only makes it more painful when she must resolutely reject the proud head of the family…
A Lively Companion is a traditional variation on Pride and Prejudice, celebrating the humor, poignancy, and surprising inconsistency of life.