This drawing is an important addition to the evidence of the activities of the Great Queen Street Academy, which has thus far been limited to the contents of the Edward Byng album in the British Museum. Lens was one of the original subscribers to the Academy, which opened under the leadership of Sir Godfrey Kneller in October 1711. However, Kneller's governorship was contentious from the start. He was appointed in the expectation that he would step aside after a year in favour of Michael Dahl, but he failed to do so, prompting Dahl's resignation. By 1713 the academy had fallen into faction, and Kneller was having to write to an ally to confirm that another member was 'one of us', threatening the expulsion of others and expressing his confidence that 'our laws (which are writ and framed) will be continued'. Thornhill and Chéron were prominent opponents and in autumn 1716 Thornhill finally wrested the governorship from Kneller.
In 1716 Thornhill was still a rising artist, but already something of a figurehead for English painters. He was mid-way through a huge public project at Greenwich, and he had recently been chosen to paint the interior of St Paul's Cathedral in preference to foreign candidates. On his election as Governor, Thornhill wrote to his fellow artists to assure them that if the academy 'were as publickly encourag'd as in the Nations round about us, [it] would not fail to do service and credit to our King and to our Country.' The letter found its way into the newspapers on 10 November. Lens’s theatrical drawing was made only three days later. This drawing suggests that the model was posed as a fierce-looking St George thrusting a spear into an imaginary dragon, perhaps a patriotic expression of the mood of the painters on news of the new academy.
This grand, finished academic figure was probably worked up from more modest studies. The drawing shows little impact of the work of Chéron, save for the addition of drapery, almost certainly invented to add narrative drama to the figure. By this date Lens was already a mature artist; he had been apprenticed in 1698 to John Sturt who ran a drawing school in St Paul’s Church-yard with Lens’s father. This raises the question of what a mature master was doing spending time making highly finished figure studies at the academy? Lens certainly made use of his knowledge of life drawing in the elaborate copies he made after old master paintings, such as his 1719 copy of Hercules between Virtue and Pleasure after Nicholas Poussin. He attended the academy to participate in the communal life of a painter, just as he was a member of the Rose and Crown Club. In the absence of annual exhibitions, drawing at the academy was probably the most effective way for a painter to establish and maintain a reputation within his peer group. Chéron, for instance, used it to develop an entirely new phase of his career, supplying designs for engravers (see Louis Chéron Mars and Bacchus website entry). As one of the only dated drawings made at a pivotal moment in the evolution of Britain’s art academies, this sheet is hugely important evidence of the ambition of British painters in the first decades of the eighteenth century.
- British Museum, museum no.1879,0813.9.
- Letter from Kneller in October 1713, quoted in William T. Whitley, Artists and their friends, London, 1928, vol 1, p.12.
- Weekly Journal, Saturday 10 November 1716.
- Chéron's St George and the Dragon academy study, also in red chalk, is British Museum, museum no.1953,1021.11 (99).
- Vertue, vol.III, p.24.