'Seeing Double’ Explores Art in 1820s London as a Visual Puzzle

A small exhibition that is both a visual puzzle and an exploration of the art world in the 1820s London will be featured this summer at the Yale Center for British Art.

In 1829, artist John Scarlett Davis sought to make a splash on the London art scene with his painting “Interior of the British Institution.” An image of a 19th-century art exhibition, the painting is also an elaborate puzzle that includes miniature works by famous British artists. “Seeing Double: Portraits, Copies and Exhibitions in 1820s London” will offer visitors an opportunity to decode the puzzle and, in the process, explore the relationship between display and replication. The exhibition opens on Thursday, June 24.

Long recognized as a valuable record of a period exhibition venue, “Interior of the British Institution Gallery” represents canvases by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, among other British artists. What is less known is that the figures that chat amiably or stoop to examine canvases are themselves replicas of paintings. Davis copied the figures from pre-existing portraits, most notably by Sir Thomas Lawrence. By examining this practice, “Seeing Double” will reveal previously unknown connections between works in the center’s collection. For instance, Davis based his posthumous image of the painter Benjamin West on another work held at the center, Lawrence’s 1810 depiction of the artist. Visitors to the exhibition will be able

to compare Davis’ copy to his model. Through an important loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum, John Pasmore the Younger’s “Benjamin West’s Gallery” (circa 1821), they will also be able to see how Lawrence’s portrait of West was displayed to contemporary viewers.

The center’s collection of prints, drawings and rare books has provided additional material to recreate the 19th-century environment of likenesses, replicas and reproductions. “Seeing Double” will also shed new light on prevailing issues of this period, including the abundance of portraits; the tension between emulation and innovation in artistic practice; and the status of the copy as a fundamental element of professional artistic training, a common practice of amateurs and a means of perpetrating fraud in the art market.

“Seeing Double” will remain on view through Sept. 19.

The Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. It will be closed on July 4. For more information, call (203) 432-2800 or visit www.ycba.yale.edu.

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