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Sir John Tenniel
1820–1914

An allegory of the Great Industrial Meeting of all Nations

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Medium
Oil on canvas, lightly marked and annotated for transfer at the edges
Size
22 ½ × 42 inches · 570 × 1070 mm
Notes
Signed with monogram and dated 1851.
In the original frame.
Collections
  • Private collection, UK, to 2011.
Exhibitions
  • London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1851, no. 383, Sketch for a large picture in progress, representing allegorically the great Industrial Meeting of all Nations, A.D. 1851 (with the verse above).
Literature
  • Art Annual, 1851, review of the Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition.

Peace and good-will to all men
O Thou! By whose almighty nod the scale
Of Empire rises, or alternate falls,
Send forth the saving virtues round the land,
In bright patrol: white peace and social Love;

...Rough Industry: Activity untired,
With copious life inform’d, and all awake:
While in the radiant front, superior shines
That first paternal virtue, Public Zeal;
Who throws o’er all an equal wide survey,
And ever musing on the commonweal,
Still labours glorious with some great design

James Thomson, Spring

'Tenniel has much of the largeness and symbolic mystery of the imagination which belong to the great leaders of classic art: in the shadowy masses and sweeping lines of his great compositions, there are tendencies which might have won his adoption into the school of Tintoret; and his scorn for whatever seems to him dishonest or contemptible in religion, would have translated itself into awe in the presence of its vital power.'  John Ruskin, The Art of England, 1887.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations of 1851 was arguably the defining moment of the Victorian era and marked the apogee of British power. The ‘Great Exhibition’ intended as a showcase for Britain’s industrial prowess attracted some six million visitors and paved the way, on the back of its success, for the establishment of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

This remarkable painting is a sketch or modello for a work of considerable size (probably a mural), which never seems to have been executed, in spite of the claim made when it was exhibited at the 1851 Royal Academy that it was a “sketch for a large picture in progress”. Such an ambitious project was not new for the thirty-year-old Tenniel, son of a dancing master, who had early been encouraged to become an artist by John Martin, a family friend. Tenniel studied for a period at the Royal Academy Schools before leaving due to his “utter disgust of there being no teaching” and was largely self-taught, spending much time at the British Museum studying the Elgin Marbles and in the Print Room where he became a protégé of Sir Frederick Madden, the learned keeper of the Department of Manuscripts.

Tenniel had early displayed a Scott-like nostalgia for the chivalric values and Puginian appreciation of Christian values and in 1845 submitted a sixteen-foot high design to the Commission on Fine Arts (commonly called the Fine Arts Commission) in the competition for the frescoes in the new House of Lords at Pugin’s Palace of Westminster. Peter von Cornelius, the leading German painter of frescoes gave advice to the Commissioners, many of whom favoured commissioning German painters to fulfil the decorations. Cornelius opined, “it was a difficult thing to impress upon the mind of a nation at large a general love of art unless you were to use as an instrument painting upon a large scale". Tenniel's late entry consisted of a watercolour sketch and an unfinished cartoon of The Spirit of Justice. The composition is now only known from the lithograph after the watercolour which had been purchased by Lewis Pocock, the founder of the Art-Union of London, for 100 Guineas (reproduced in Cosmo Monkhouse, Sir John Tenniel R.I., 1901). Tenniel appears to have been strongly attracted by the work of the Dresden artist Moritz Retzsch (1779-1857) whose prints also influenced three other of the 1845 competitors, Richard Dadd, Daniel Maclise and Ford Madox Brown.

The Commissioners and especially its Chairman, Prince Albert, had a pronounced taste for the works of contemporary German painters and awarded Tenniel a premium of £200, although some controversy surrounded the award as his submissions had been made too late and Daniel Maclise's design for the same subject was ultimately selected. Contemporary critics were much taken with Tenniel’s design, one reviewer noting that “he exhibits extraordinary talent for design and…although but an outline, the parts are made out with astonishing boldness” (The Builder, no 3, 1845, p.316). Roger Simpson (Roger Simpson, Sir John Tenniel: Aspects of his work, 1994) has argued that Tenniel’s success in the 1845 competition was due to the fact that his was the only entry that implied a faith in the precise dictates of radical politics, a sentiment that would have echoed the Prince Consort’s own sympathies.

Tenniel was then commissioned by the Commissioners to paint for £400 a smaller work representing John Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast; or the Power of Musique, An ode in honour of St. Cecelia’s Day” (usually referred to as A Song for St. Cecilia's Day) for the Upper Waiting Hall where the scheme was intended to be illustrative of the great poets. On receiving the commission Tenniel immediately travelled to Munich, in the company of his fellow painter, Edward Corbould, to study fresco painting in the acknowledged centre of the art at that time. Little is known of his stay in Germany but he undoubtedly studied the work and techniques of Peter von Cornelius (1784-1867), director of the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, and his disciple Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805-74). Cornelius had been one of the members of the Nazarene group in Rome and this influence is clearly seen in the work under discussion: An Allegory of the Great Industrial Meeting of all Nations.

Having returned from Munich, Tenniel set about starting A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, executed thinly with very fluid washes; this was finished and placed in the Upper Waiting Hall by 1850. Many of the frescos deteriorated rapidly and were causing concern by the early 1860s and the Parliamentary Papers for 1895 record that Professor A. H. Church who had been called in to report on them, decided that Tenniel's 'St. Cecilia' was the only one worth preserving. Today it is only Tenniel's work that survives in the Upper Waiting Hall.

It may well be that Tenniel was hoping for further patronage from the Commissioners and his 1851 Royal Academy exhibit was possibly intended as an inducement for a commission based on the great event of the period. Decisions for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament were still being made well into the 1850s with Edwin Landseer, Charles West Cope, John Rogers Herbert, Edward Matthew Ward as well as Daniel Maclise being awarded commissions.

An Allegory of the Great Industrial Meeting of all Nations undoubtedly owes much to Tenniel’s time in Germany in its bold graphic style, its historicism and in the purity of its colouring. The present work has been unknown until its recent emergence and its importance in Tenniel’s oeuvre as well as in the context of mid-nineteenth century art and of the Great Exhibition has gone un-noted.

Tenniel certainly did have an important and prominent connection with the Great Exhibition; one that is directly linked to the present work under discussion. Tenniel was responsible for designing the title page of the Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition (1851) with a composition that was closely derived from his Raphaelesque The Spirit of Justice and which is also directly related to the present oil. By 1851 Tenniel had already proved himself as an illustrator and graphic draughtsman of note, taking over from Richard Doyle at Punch, and he evidently, on the basis of the title page commission, enjoyed the good opinion of Prince Albert. Roger Simpson (op. cit.) in a discussion of Tenniel’s title page design has noted its importance as a transition between the Westminster commissions and the main body of his career at Punch as the most influential political and social cartoonist of the second half of the nineteenth century, and his enduring fame as the illustrator of Alice in Wonderland.

The Allegory of the Great Industrial Meeting of all Nations expands on the design of the title page and given the fact that the Great Exhibition opened on 1st May 1851 at about the same time that the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy opened the two images must have been conceived in tandem.

Tenniel’s title page is both a celebration of hierarchy, history and the applied arts as well as the emancipation of labour, which is represented by the heroic but relaxed figures lounging in the foreground of the monumental design. The composition of the painting, either directly or indirectly, owes much to Raphael’s School of Athens, as well as to Moritz Retzsch’s engraved illustrations to Shakespeare, which was published in 1849. A more immediate prototype may well Delaroche’s great eighty-eight foot long Hémicycle, a Raphaelesque tableau influenced by The School of Athens in the award theatre of the École des Beaux Arts, Paris. In what was intended, in its finished form, as a monumental work, Tenniel celebrated Britain’s and at that moment London’s place at the centre of the world. In it he combined Classical, Medieval, Renaissance and contemporary figures representing the nations as well as the crafts, trades and arts of the world – the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and a representation of The Pool of London packed with the vessels of the world form the pendentives of the composition. The reviewer in the Art Annual described it thus:

'This is a pyramidal composition, the apex of which is occupied by Britannia and Peace – on each side of whom, and arranged on the steps, are allegorical impersonations of all nations; while at the base of the composition appear the multifarious productions of human industry, under charge of representatives of various nationalities.  An examination of the figures shows great command of resource, and an inexhaustible fund of invention – the variety and poetical qualification of the personae are beyond all praise.'

The nations of England, Scotland and Wales are represented by the mail-clad figure wearing the cross of St George at the summit, the energetic men in plaid and a tam o shanter working in the foreground and the ‘Bardic’ figure clad in pink and green carrying a harp. Africa, the Near East, the Mediterranean and the Americas are also represented by emblematic figures as are a multiplicity of crafts, arts and industries. It is interesting to note that George Gilbert Scott adopted this device some ten years later in his design for the Albert Memorial where the Frieze of Parnassus (carved by Henry Hugh Armstead and John Birnie Philip) echoes Tenniel’s treatment.

Another somewhat smaller oil sketch of this painting measuring 11 x 20 ¼ inches was exhibited by the Fine Art Society, London, in 1974 as part of the Handley-Read Collection. The small size and very sketchy nature of the Handley-Read study would preclude it being an exhibited work and it would certainly not have warranted the detailed review in the Art Annual.