Going Dutch: the 3rd Earl of Bute’s Genre Paintings

30 August 2018

Caitlin Blackwell, our inaugural Bute Fellow, looks into the preferences of the 3rd Earl of Bute when amassing his fantastic picture collection and just how ahead of his time these choices were.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792) is best remembered as the first Scottish-born Prime Minster, and the widely reviled ‘favourite’ of George III. But this fascinating and unfairly maligned figure was many other things too – a keen intellect, an amateur botanist, a patron of several of the leading artists and writers of the day, and, above all, a voracious collector. Thanks to his tireless activities acquiring all manner of things (plants, fossils, coins, books, and paintings), we have the foundation of The Bute Collection, and many of the masterpieces that can be seen today at Mount Stuart.

At first glance, the 3rd Earl’s picture collection may appear indiscriminate, all-encompassing and representative of all the prevailing styles and subjects that were fashionable and available to buyers in 18th-century Britain. He owned sumptuous Italian Renaissance paintings by Veronese, elegant French rococo pastels by J.E. Liotard, and monumental ‘Grand Manner’ portraits by modern British artists, like Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay. However, on closer inspection, The Bute Collection reveals the particular personal preference of its founder. The 3rd Earl of Bute seems to have had a predilection for 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting – what we now generally refer to as Dutch ‘Golden Age’ art. Today, these kinds of works are much loved by museum-going audiences. They are greatly prized for their realism, accessibility, and virtuosic detail. Yet, in Bute’s day, these very same qualities drew a fair bit of criticism.

David Teniers, A Card Party

Like nearly all aspects of Georgian society and culture, art in 18th-century Britain was organised into a hierarchical system. Building on earlier European theories, British art critics of the period espoused a value system that placed Italian (or ‘Italianate’) painting at the top of the heap. In particular, classicising pictures of biblical or mythological subjects (‘history’ paintings) were most highly valued. These works were believed to inspire and elevate the viewer through their lofty subjects, moralising messages, and idealised aesthetics. Considerably lower on the scale were landscapes, still life, and ‘genre’ paintings (scenes from ‘everyday life’) – the stock and trade of the typical Dutch ‘Golden Age’ artist.

Dutch Old Masters were acknowledged to be technically proficient artists, but they were chastised for focusing too closely on minute material detail, rather than grand universal truths. Worse still, they were known to depict scenes of riot, debauchery, and general uncouthness. Reynolds, the leading portraitist and President of the Royal Academy, summed it up as follows:

“The painters who have applied themselves more particularly to low and vulgar characters, and who express with precision, the various shades of passion …. deserve great praise: but as their genius has been employed on low and confined subjects, the praise that we give must be as limited as its object. The merry-making or quarrelling of the Boors of Teniers; the same sort of productions of Brouwer, or Ostade, are excellent in their kind!”

Jan Steen, A Cock Fight

Intriguingly, all three of the artists referenced by Reynolds – David Teniers, Adrian Brouwer, and Adrian van Ostade – are present in the 3rd Earl’s collection. Though not the only one to ignore the edicts of art critics, it is surprising that such ‘vulgar’ subjects figure so prominently in a collection formed by a nobleman with a reputation for being serious, shy, and a touch pretentious. Many of the same artists are represented in the Royal Collection as in the Bute Collection. However, most of the more ‘vulgar’ subjects in the former were acquired not by Bute’s friend and former pupil, George III, but rather his son, George IV. This is reflective not only of the younger George’s taste, but also of the improved reputation of Dutch art by the turn of the century. Perhaps, then, we can see the 3rd Earl as a man ahead of his times.