In the present cartoon, H M Bateman satirised a long-held practice of the National Gallery. From early in its history, the gallery, opened in 1824, had given special privileges to art students, and allowed them access so that they could copy the works in the collection. By the end of the nineteenth century, that access was allowed on Thursdays and Fridays, which were designated as ‘Students’ Days’, and it was exclusive during the first hour of each of those, so that copyists could set up their easels and start work. Members of the general public could enter on those days, but only from 11 o’clock at the cost of sixpence (while on other days they could enter from 10 o’clock and for free).
If potential copyists had never exhibited at a London gallery, they were required to demonstrate proficiency in oil or watercolour by submitting a specimen of work to the Keeper of the National Gallery, who, throughout the Edwardian period, was Hawes Harison Turner. However, once a card of admission was granted, it remained available for life, so that the numbers of copyists increased each year. These copyists could be divided into three categories: current students, ‘artists who come to make copies either on commission or for sale on their own account’ and ‘dilettante ladies and gentlemen’ (a distinction made by Frances A Gerard in Cassell’s Family Magazine on January 1893, pages 119-20, in one of a number of articles on the subject of the Students’ Days published by various authors during the late nineteenth century).
The presence and productivity of these copyists is suggested by the parliamentary report on the National Gallery for 1898, given by Sir Edward Poynter (its Director from 1894 to 1904 as well as President of the Royal Academy until 1918): ‘the total number of students’ attendances at the Gallery in Trafalgar-square on Thursdays and Fridays was 18,990’, and ‘independently of partial studies, 841 oil-colour copies of pictures have been made, viz, 357 from the works of 73 old masters, and 484 from the works of 39 modern painters’ (London Evening Standard, 6 April 1899, page 2).
The institution of Students’ Days remained in some form at the National Gallery until the outbreak of the Second World War, after which copyists were allowed to return in 1952.