The Interior of the British Institution Gallery

Gateway to British Art Prize 2022
Runner-up: Kaitlyn Madigan

This painting by John Scarlett Davis is an eye-catching, ironic piece. While walking through the art gallery, there was something so timeless about this piece that grabbed my gaze. Davis had created this oil composition in 1829, capturing a moment in time. As this artwork stood before me, it was staring right back at me like a mirror, as in that moment I realized there is something so ageless about art.

When I finally arrived at Davis’s oil painting it stopped me instantly. His representation of the people admiring the artwork in the gallery was certainly amusing, as myself and others were doing the same exact thing. I felt feelings of introspection, as I reflected upon this painting, and thought about how different modern life is compared to when this painting was made in 1829. This conversation piece shows other English artists such as Benjamin West, shown in the front left holding a historical painting by Joshua Reynolds, and the seated James Northcote, appreciating the artwork. Attention was also given to the ladies in the background, painted delicately viewing the art. 

All of the people in the exhibition that Davis painted are surrounded by other marvelous works, featuring Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, Italian, and British paintings that were once in the former Shakespeare Gallery, located in central London until 1805. Some of the most widely recognized old masters are seen on display, such as works by Van Dyck, Ribera, and Titian.

John Scarlett Davis passed away in September of 1845, making him twenty-four or twenty-five years old when he created The Interior of the British Art Gallery, continuing all throughout his life refining his skills to become a specialist in interior architecture paintings. Davis was a young aspiring artist, like myself and many others, when he painted this piece of art. There is something so fascinating to think that nearly two hundred years later, myself and others who are around the same age as Davis once was, all have the same passion for art.

In this modern day and age, artwork is a window into the past, as Davis probably once thought, as he illustrated the gallery in 1829, with his own composition now being considered classic. There are so many ways to consume art, whether it is physical, you walk into an art museum, being able to see the paint strokes on an aged canvas, touching a chiseled sculpture, or turning the pages in an old art book. Today, anyone can appreciate art even if they are on the other side of the world, being able to view those same pieces that consume the walls of an art museum. When viewing this piece, it was like I was put into Davis’s shoes, as I looked around and saw so many of my own peers discovering and admiring artwork like I was. I believe that Davis would have loved how accessible artwork is currently, as he spent his life becoming a master in portraying the liveliness in art.

What I love the most is that in this piece he encapsulates the feeling of being surrounded by artwork, and that centuries later there is relatability in our current times linked by this painting. The world has changed drastically since this artwork originated, but Davis painted something remarkable. This painting is proof that throughout different lifetimes, art is a staple in culture and influences people and society, as myself and others actively cherish art. Whether people are in an art gallery like Davis painted, or virtually indulging in artwork, the same sentiment is clear: art is timeless.

Top image
John Scarlett Davis, The Interior of the British Institution Gallery (detail), 1829, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection