The 1790s were a time when society and the arts debated the relative merits of good sense and reason as opposed to sensibility. ‘Sensibility’ was a heightened awareness of beauty and deep feelings. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and was set in the same decade as this painting. We see this heightened sense of feeling takes the form of a fashionably dressed girl and her brother handing a coin to a hunched over beggar. Such emotional scenes of charity had become fashionable at this time but there might be another justification for this scene.
The artist, William Beechey, did not identify the children when he exhibited the work but they were recognised by Horace Walpole, son of the first British prime Minister, Robert Walpole. They are Francis Ford and his sister Mary, the children of Sir Francis Ford, who owned a sugar plantation in Barbados and a property in Ember Court, Thames Ditton, Surrey.
While William Wilberforce was fighting to stop the British slave trade there were many wealthy plantation owners, like Ford, who were arguing that their slaves enjoyed a better quality of life than the poor in England. It is possible therefore that he commissioned this painting not just to show the refinement and sensibility of his children but as pro-slavery propaganda, to show how his family cared for both the poor in England and his slaves in Barbados. Although not connected, Ford fell ill the year this painting was exhibited and died in 1801 after eight years of suffering from ‘a severe and painful illness’.
Finally, following a twenty-year campaign for abolition Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Many believed this would end slavery but it only slowed the trade and slavery continued for a further twenty-six years. The Royal Navy enforced the ban on the slave trade and between 1808 and 1860 they seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard.
William Beechey was a sound artist known for his lack of extravagance which appealed to those like King George III, who regarded other artists, such as Thomas Lawrence, as too flamboyant and ‘eccentric’. When this painting was exhibited the well-known portrait painters Thomas Gainsborough and his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds had both died and the year was a turning point in Beechey’s life and career. He painted a full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte who appointed him her official portrait painter and he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. He went on to paint not only the royal family but most of the famous and fashionable of the period. The up-and-coming portrait painter was Thomas Lawrence who also painted Queen Charlotte but she did not like the picture. Lawrence’s flamboyant approach appealed to many including the Prince Regent but Beechey remained the favourite of George III and Queen Charlotte while Lawrence went on to become the leading portrait artist of the period.
If you have visited Knole House near Sevenoaks, Kent, then you might have noticed a nude woman reclining on a chaise longue at the bottom of the stairs. This is a sculpture of Giovanna Baccelli by Giovanni Battista Locatelli. Baccelli was principal ballerina at the King’s Theatre Haymarket and mistress of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, the owner of Knole. He was a handsome, extravagant man with a string of mistresses but he thought highly of Baccelli and set her up in a suite of rooms at Knole. A few years later he commissioned Thomas Gainsborough to paint her full-length in a dynamic pose with the costume and heavy make-up she wore for one of her roles. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 an embarrassing incident was narrowly avoided. Gainsborough had also painted the Duke and the picture was going to be shown at the same exhibition. To exhibit a Duke alongside his mistress would have been a flagrant breach of decorum and the Duke’s portrait was withdrawn, we presume for that reason.
When the Duke was appointed ambassador to France, Baccelli accompanied him to Paris and she was a great success as a ballet dancer at the Paris Opéra. It is said that when he was awarded the Order of the Garter she performed with the blue ribbon of the Garter tied around her head. They became friends of Queen Marie-Antoinette but as the French Revolution unfolded they returned to Knole. They separated the same year but remained friends and the Duke married a respectable heiress with a dowry of £140,000. According to an inventory of Knole in 1799, the statue of Baccelli was rechristened ‘A Naked Venus’ and moved to a less prominent position and she was given an annual pension of £400 and left her son to be brought up by the Duke as a gentleman.
The painting by Gainsborough is now at Tate Britain and is a wonderful example of his mature style with its lightly flicked brushstrokes and immediate sense of delicate animation. Accounts at the time describe her as charming rather than beautiful and her character was thought to have been captured by Gainsborough. As one contemporary critic wrote, the portrait was, ‘as the Original, light airy and elegant’.
Go is the oldest game in existence, it was invented in China 2,500 years ago. The rules are simple but the strategic thinking required to play well led many people to claim that a world-class human player would never be beaten by a computer. However, in 2016 one of the best Go players in the world was beaten by a computer program called AlphaGo. AlphaGo is an example of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
The number of possible Go games is so vast that the number of atoms in the universe and the age of the universe look tiny in comparison. Therefore, for a computer to learn to play through brute force, that is by examining millions of games, seems pointless as countless trillions of games are less than a pin-prick in the vast universe of possible games. Yet, that is exactly what AlphaGo did, it examined thousands of games played by humans and then played millions of games against itself and from that blind analysis, without any strategic thinking, it achieved a level of play beyond any human player.
AlphaGo was produced by a company in London called Deep Mind, which was acquired by Google in 2010 and is now part of the Alphabet group. The latest version of AlphaGo is called AlphaGo Zero and it takes the program to a new level of capability. AlphaGo Zero started with just the rules and no prior knowledge of the game. It did not analyse any human games and only played itself yet within three hours it played like a human beginner, within 19 hours like a human expert and within 70 hours it surpassed all human players, and it never stops learning.
The next step is to apply the same approach to solving other complex problems, such as finding new drugs, diagnosing diseases, reducing energy consumption or searching for revolutionary new materials. We can only speculate about its ability to solve other problems such as weather forecasting, economic forecasting, predicting human behaviour and reading human thoughts. The latest AI research work at Google has found a way to use the same mechanism to solve many types of problem and to combine different problem solvers in order to tackle a wide variety of problems.
The Problem with Neural Nets
AlphaGo Zero and most of the other recent artificial intelligence (AI) systems are based on neural nets and suffer from one major problem, they are unable to explain their actions. Neural nets are impenetrable, like the human brain. Why do I say, ‘like the human brain’ when our thoughts appear open to us. When we are asked ‘why’ we can give a considered response that explains our reasoning. However, is this what is happening? Back in 1976 in my PhD thesis I speculated that there are two mechanisms at work. There is an underlying brain machine that analyses our environment, controls our body and makes decisions and there is a separate but integrated language system that believes it is in control and uses language to construct reasons why the other part of our brain has done something. The combination can model the world and forecast the future better than the brain system on its own. When we are asked ‘why’ it is our language system that constructs a set of reasons to explain what we have done or said.
As a footnote, you may be wondering about free will. Well, that depends on what you mean. If you mean the ability to make decisions and control one’s behaviour without constraint and in response to reason then that can be achieved through the combination of the brain machine and the language system. However, generally our actions and decisions are constrained by our unique genetic makeup and the circumstances of our upbringing but this does not free us from responsibility or remove the appropriateness of praise or blame. We take what we consider to be the best action in all the circumstances of our individual makeup. So we are predisposed free agents, as is AlphaGo Zero.
See The Economist, 21 October 2017, pp. 80-81 and New Scientist, 21 October 2017, p. 9.
The Hampton course ‘A Stroll Through Tate Britain’ has been extended by a week to 6 December 2017. Apologies but I had to cancel the class on 11 October because of a slipped disk.
I just gave my first tour of the Bruce Nauman gallery at Tate Modern. The tour went well and my guide notes can be found at http://wp.me/P9iOZ6-2id