This remarkable sheet, showing a group of heroic, acrobatic figures, belongs to a fascinating series of drawings dating from June and July 1779. Executed in a highly mannered style, they are now recognized as exemplary of the violent imagination of British neo-classicism.
The drawings belonging to this group comprise some twenty large sheets and a similar number of smaller sheets, which have been known since they were extracted from an album and exhibited by Roland, Browse & Delbanco in 1949. Clearly made in Rome and demonstrating a close interest in sculpture as well as Italian printmaking, they seem to have emanated from the international circle of artists who worked close to the Swiss painter Heinrich Füssli (known by the Italianised version of his surname: Fuseli). Various attempts have been made to identify the hand, who was dramatically christened by Roland, Browse & Delbanco ‘The Master of the Giants’ on account of the colossal, heroic figures with attenuated limbs which characterise the majority of the sheets. The most convincing attribution, made by Nancy Pressly, who noted the similarity of some of the works formerly contained in the Roland, Brolwse & Delbanco album with the surviving works of the British history painter, James Jeffreys. (Nancy L Pressly, ‘James Jefferys and the ‘Master of the Giants’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 119, no. 889, April 1977, p. 280, 282-285)
Jeffreys arrived in Rome in 1775, having received a scholarship from the Society of Dilettanti to practice as a history painter; a series of his historical studies survive in the Royal Academy of Arts, which along with a signed drawing in Maidstone Library, were used by Pressly as evidence for his authorship of the album. Whilst some of the identified drawings show obvious stylistic affinities with Jeffreys work, others, including this newly rediscovered sheet do not. Jeffreys pen and ink drawings tend to be richly hatched with short pen lines, the forms described in a calligraphic mesh, with only the major areas of shadow being worked in wash. By contrast the present sheet is almost completely lacking in hatched pen lines, the forms and features being strongly modelled in wash, this therefore raises the possibility that more than one hand was responsible for the contents of the album.
In the early 1950s both Leonard Duke and the great Fuseli scholar, Frederick Antal, suggested some of the sheets might be the work of the painter and sculptor Prince Hoare. This is an attribution which deserves greater consideration as the present sheet corresponds closely to Hoare’s surviving works. Hoare arrived in Rome in 1776 and quickly established himself amongst the group of artists who worked in the Campo Marzio, Hoare is recorded living in the Strada Felice along with William Pars, Alexander Day and James Nevay. Hoare became particularly close friends with James Northcote, who records their frequent trips to draw in the Sistine Chapel (James Northcote, Memoir, British Library, Add MS 47791, vol. II). The present sheet shows obvious debts to the work of Michelangelo. The figure at the top of the composition recalls one of the damned from the Last Judgement, whilst the two supporting nudes, shown from behind, recall ignudi from the Sistine ceiling. Rather than being direct quotations from Michelangelo’s work they show a debt to the visual language developed by Fuseli and others in the early 1770s which relied on an inventive reconstitution of Michelagesque motifs.
Fuseli arrived in Rome in 1770 and shortly afterwards began to produce highly inventive interpretations of literary subjects. Along with the sculptors Johan Tobias Sergel and Thomas Banks, Fuseli found in the prescribed diet of Raphael and Michelangelo, not classical harmony but vast, swollen heroic bodies engaged in violent actions, ingredients he recast to form a distinctive visual language. It was a language adopted by a large number of young painters and sculptors studying in Rome including Northcote and Hoare. Both copied a number of Fuseli’s Roman sheets – Hoare’s drawing after The Death of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester survives in the BM and a copy of one of Fuseli’s five point sketches is preserved at Yale – and began producing compositions in a similar style. The geographic proximity of the painters, their personal intimacy and stylistic similarities has caused difficulties of attribution for later scholars. We are afforded a better idea of Hoare’s work from an autograph sketchbook from his Grand Tour consisting of over a hundred studies, principally of famous antique sculptures and old master paintings, preserved in the V&A. These drawings offers further support for the attribution of the present sheet, since the handling of wash and awkward exaggeration of hands are identical in both. Hoare’s surviving historical compositions, such as the study for an unidentified subject in the Tate add yet more weight to this supposition.
Hoare returned to Britain at the end of 1779 and in the following years exhibited intermittently at the Royal Academy. In 1788 he gave up painting in favour of the theatre, becoming a playwright, although he never lost sight of his background, being made honorary foreign secretary to the Royal Academy in which capacity he produced a number of publications. On Fuseli’s death in 1825 he wrote to his old friend Northcote, observing: ‘there are no other two persons, whose feelings are probably so similar in regard to the decease of Fuseli’ reminiscing on ‘the long train of years during which so much of intimacy, more or less interrupted subsisted between us three.’ (Hoare to Northcote, 24 April, 1825, Osborn Collection, Bieneke Library, Yale University) The present sheet underlines the difficulty of establishing precisely who was engaged in making drawings within Fuseli’s circle in Rome and it may be that ‘The Master of the Giants’ is an assemblage of sheets, perhaps an album amicorum, by a number of hands, including both Jeffreys and Hoare, who were working in Italy in the summer of 1779. Whoever the sheet is by, it is an important example of the kind of proto-Romantic image which were being executed in Rome in the 1770s and would in the following decades have enormous impact on a new generation of artists, most notably William Blake.