Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Head of an Academician

Self portrait by John Prescott Knight
I knew  that Richard Evans (see earlier post) had stopped showing at the Royal Academy following an argument over the hanging - or non-hanging - of his pictures at the Summer Exhibition. I didn't, however, realise that he actually came to blows over the matter, or rather to one single and decisive blow, which he admininstered to the head of the secretary of the Academy, John Prescott Knight. William Powell Frith tells  the story in his autobiography. His racial stereotyping is somewhat misplaced,  Evans having been born,  as far as I know, in Shrewsbury.  The incident actually occured  in April 1849.
A Welshman named Evans, a portrait-painter of merit, had been a pretty constant exhibitor for some years. He assisted Sir Thomas Lawrence, many of whose columns and background-curtains he is said to have painted. I have been told, but I cannot vouch for the truth of it, that all Welshmen are choleric; anyway, Evans was, and when he found that not a single portrait by him was allowed to appear in the exhibition of (about) 1846, he armed himself with a thick stick and took his way to Trafalgar Square, where we were then located.
"Where," said the furious Welshman to the porter, " is your blanked Hanging Committee ?"

"The Hanging Committee, sir ?" said the affrighted porter ; " the gentlemen — the members, sir, are all in the galleries varnishing the pictures, sir."
" Bring one or two of 'em down here," said Evans, as he stood in the hall grasping his cudgel; "fetch 'em, sir, fetch 'em ! I should like the whole lot."

"Oh! it's against orders, sir, I couldn't do that; but here comes Mr. Knight the secretary; perhaps he will do for you ?"
" Do for me?" muttered Evans, as he ground his teeth. " I'm more likely to do for him."

Knight approached :

" What is it ?" said he. " What's the matter ? Ah, good-morning, Mr. Evans."

"Good what! Good-morning — a precious good-morning this for me ; but perhaps you've had nothing to do with this infamous — now, Mr. Secretary, I insist — I want to know all about this! I will see the Hanging Committee or some of 'em. They have turned out my portraits, and I want to — I will know why they did it!"

Evans was a big man; Knight was a little one, but with a courage beyond his size, for he said:
"I can give you every information, Mr. Evans; I was one of the Hanging Committee, and the reason your portraits were rejected exists in the pictures themselves; we did not give them places because we did not think them deserving of  — "

Knight remembered nothing between the utterance of the above and his return to consciousness, when he found himself on the porter's bed, with a large lump upon his head, which one of the porters was tenderly bathing with a mixture effective in all cases of blows or bruises, while sympathetic R.A.'s stood around him. The assassin had disappeared, leaving a heavy cudgel — snapped in two — awful evidence of what the porter called his "wiolence."

How well I remember the whole affair! I was quietly working at my picture, when a member rushing past me, said: "Come along, Frith, come along! somebody has murdered the secretary!" — a startling announcement in the halls devoted to the arts of peace.

Poor Knight looked very rueful, and little consoled by our vows of vengeance — legal vengeance. We would have the wretch before a magistrate; he would get six months' imprisonment at least, without the option of a fine. Or, if the secretary preferred another method of punishment, we would get Baker, the model, who was a pugilist, to thrash Evans within an inch of his Welsh life; or an action should be brought, free of expense to the sufferer — an action for assault and battery: a verdict with a thousand pounds damages would be certain.

Eventually, much to my disappointment, a civil action was brought, with a result so inadequate in our estimation, that we were persuaded that the presiding judge's portrait had been amongst the rejected. One of the Council said he recollected the picture coming before him — he knew the face in a moment; it was a good likeness, though a bad picture, etc., etc. I don't think any of us believed our friend, we thought him mistaken; but there was no mistake about the value a British jury placed upon the head of a Royal Academician. For the sum of twenty pounds — or it might have been twenty-five — any evil-disposed person may indulge himself in breaking the head of anyone amongst the forty whenever he pleases; but, as I have no wish to deceive any rejected one inclined to revenge himself, I have to remind him that though twenty pounds was the price of the amusement forty years ago, it might be more expensive now; but I don't think the heads have risen in value, so the difference of cost is scarcely worth consideration.
Frith was writing in the 1880s. More contemporary accounts give a rather different story, implying that it was indeed, Knight, rather than the whole hanging committee, who was the target of  Evans'  wrath, and that the violence was something of an afterthought. 

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