An obscure footnote to the Restoration period of art in England (1660-1700) tells of a scorned artist who managed to display an upturned chamber pot alongside some of the most cherished paintings of the day, including by Anthony van Dyck and Peter Lely.
More than a century before public exhibitions and galleries were introduced, aristocrats held gatherings in which they displayed their art collections to guests. This was during a period in England that saw the return of Charles II, who brought back with him a taste for the latest European styles, which he had gained during exile in France and the Netherlands. Charles II opposed anything that smacked of the Puritanical, as the Puritans had previously controlled the country and its moral and artistic standards. Instead, he championed the style of French writers, and even their vices.
It was during this cultural climate that pranks became popular, and even the religious services at the Chapel Royal were occasions for practical jokes. This spirit of irreverence may be what inspired sculptor, Martin Milward, to take a pot shot at the established art of the day. In 1664, patron of the arts, Sir Francis Ensenfans, held a party at the Manor of Dulwich to display his acquisitions of paintings by Van Dyck, Peter Lely, and other contemporaries. Milward’s sculpture did not make the selection, and was hidden away in a closed room. Milward however was present at the party, took umbrage, and clandestinely placed an overturned chamber pot beneath a painting by Van Dyck [The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian].
When his prank was discovered, Milward, intensely inebriated, launched into a philosophical defense of the sculpture, arguing that the flat paintings tediously labored over in stuffy studios could not contain the “empirical essence” of a simple object “the design of which was forged and honed by necessity and practicality, and not by a single man, but by society as a whole”. By overturning the pot, argued Milward, the recipient would see it “in a new light, out of ordinary expectation, as if for the first time”. Rather than ushering out the impudent young sculptor, the aristocrats and art patrons were impressed by his argument. The philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes was the most respected thinking of the era, and Milward’s appeal to knowledge that can only be gained through direct sensory experience meshed well enough with their theories to persuade his audience.
For a brief period of months the chamber pot remained where Milward had placed it, and the portrait and landscape painters were seen as “bakers of musty grain”. The revolution of the avant-garde, however, would have to wait another two and a half centuries, because Milward died less than a year later in the Great Plague of London. Ensenfans lived on, but after the Great Plague and the Great Fire, came to realize that the chamber pot “offered no solace for those who had lost their loved ones”, and was “as indifferent to the human condition as was the fire”. Ensenfans mourned not only the people he’d lost in the great tragedies, but the paintings which “recorded the living touch of [his] fellow men, and their depiction of a world that has been destroyed forever”.
If it were not for unforeseen catastrophes, Duchamp’s avant-garde revolution could have come centuries earlier, and we would have been spared the overextended painting to come, including the tiresome and moribund canvases of Delacroix, Gauguin, Van Gogh, David, Turner, and so many other paint daubers living on borrowed time. Or perhaps we might agree with Sir Francis Ensenfans himself, when he surmised that for the time he’d kept the overturned chamber pot on display alongside Van Dyck, he’d been a “blinking idiot”.
Guest post by Ivor Unsk