Enfilade

Reviewed: Portrait of the County of Dorset

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions, reviews by Editor on May 1, 2011

Notice of the exhibition appeared here back in February. Alex Kidson’s recent review is, however, much more illuminating — and laudatory — than the general description.

Alex Kidson, “Review of Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County,” The Burlington Magazine 153 (April 2011): 274-75.

Anyone expecting . . . the kind of celebratory ‘treasures from local houses’ show that was a staple of regional museums until the later part of the last century is in for a surprise. The sixty-seven portraits that make up this exhibition are for the most part not masterpieces; but they have been selected with immense rigour. . . Gwen Yarker, the curator, for whom the show is a triumph, has lived in Dorset for many years, and her understanding of the history of the county is apparent at every turn. She has explicitly based her selection on the structure of the Revd John Hutchin’s ‘History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset’ of 1774, with its emphasis on social hierarchy, and has given full weight to eighteenth-century modes of patronage. She fearlessly prefers, for example, to include replicas over originals to remind us that our present-day obsession with ‘originality’ is not one that was shared in the eighteenth century. . . .

Yet in Yarker’s text [for the catalogue], as well as with her selection, art-historical revisionism is far from suppressed. . . . In fact, the show is full of art-historical trouvailles. . . . It seems almost an understatement to say that the exhibition is at the forefront of the current study of eighteenth-century British portraiture. More than that, in its concern for local detail, its accuracy, but also its willingness to confront problems and to speculate, it points the way forward for future research. In revealing just how powerfully the old county structure acts as a focus of inquiry, it occupies some of the same research terrain as the catalogues of the Public Catalogue Foundation, or some of the initiatives of the National Portrait Gallery’s Subject Specialist Network project Understanding British Portraits (which supported the exhibition’s study day); yet its impact is far more direct and forceful than theirs. . . What takes this exhibition out of the realms of the remarkable and into those of the miraculous is that it was accomplished on a budget of £1000. . . .