Stefanis, Konstantinos – abstract

Nathaniel Hone’s 1775 Exhibition: The First Single-Artist Retrospective

Konstantinos Stefanis

E. J. Finopoulos Collection, Benaki Museum, Athens

This paper will present the first, fully recorded, single-artist retrospective ever staged by a living artist to showcase his/her work. The exhibition, presenting the work of the Royal Academician Nathaniel Hone, took place in London in 1775 after his painting The Conjuror had been censored by the Royal Academy.

In our current age when exhibitions are deemed worthy of their own retrospectives (e.g. Turner Prize: A Retrospective 1984-2006 & 50 Jahre / Years Documenta 1955 – 2005) this paper will focus on the origins of the retrospective exhibition as a distinct type of exhibition format. The ‘retrospective’ is understood as the presentation of a considerable body of works by an artist spanning an extensive period of his or her production so as to represent a career. Even though, the term originated and was made popular in France in the middle of the 19th century, the practice of assembling a significant number of works by a single artist for the purpose of a temporary exhibition, as I argue, was first conceived in England the previous century.

Nathaniel Hone’s exhibition, shows that artists – long before institutional or state attempts to honour the oeuvre of established, national artists – had realised the need to be both masters and promoters of their production and not to rely on the available exhibiting opportunities of their time.

I will argue that Hone consciously chose the retrospective format to safeguard his damaged reputation. My paper will highlight the uniqueness of Hone’s venture within exhibition practices of the time, present the motivations behind it and will recognise the exhibition as a forerunner of the retrospective format. Following Hone’s exhibition a myriad other private exhibitions were staged in England by artists who felt no longer constrained by artists’ associations and institutions in the advancement of their careers.

With Hone’s retrospective an emphasis was placed on the work and the career of the artist, while this exhibition decisively singled out the individual from group associations. This interest on the individual and their work is also clearly manifested, from the beginning of the 19th century, with the appearance of the artist’s monograph. Without doubt private exhibitions, like Hone’s, had a significant role in stimulating the attention on the artist and his/her productions.

Moreover, Hone produced an accompanying catalogue (a primary – but biased – source of information on the event) that exemplifies clear signs of historicity: it provides a selective account of Hone’s career up to 1775 and narrates the facts that led to the exclusion of The Conjuror from the RA show of that year.

It could be argued that these two latter features of the exhibition (focus on individuality & historicity) had an influence on the nascent discipline of art history. Hone’s exhibition presents the historicization of the career of a contemporary individual, in line with English tendencies in art – England had neither Old Masters nor an established British School of art to compete with the rest of Europe hence the interest in contemporary production.