Early Victorian Painters, Tate Gallery
( Originally Published 1908 )
Let us now study the work of some of the painters who date from the time of George III to the middle of Queen Victoria's reign. In landscape painting at this time the name of John Constable, R.A., is supreme. He was an essentially English painter, interpreting to us our own country side. Like Rembrandt he was the son of the mill. He was born at East Bergholt in 1776, and he wandered in his childhood in the fields and lanes of Suffolk. No other county was ever so dear to him, and when he grew to be a man he painted the pleasant flat Suffolk country oftener than any other. Constable went to nature, walked humbly with her, and loved her: He did not love her in all her moods, however, for he seldom painted sunshine, rarely storm. He preferred a rather wet day when rain had fallen or rain was in the sky. A French critic once said that when he went to see Constable's pictures he took his umbrella with him. We have here (1237) Hampstead Heath as it looked in the days of George III. It was then a rustic retreat from the bustle of the great town, where people would take lodgings for a few weeks, to breathe the pure air. Constable loved the fine view of the heath which he had from his house in Well Walk, and thought that no finer landscape could be seen anywhere. In those days, as you will see by this picture, cattle grazed on the heath, all was rural peace. That fine open space so dear to Londoners, was second only to Suffolk in the artist's affections.
With William Hilton, R.A. (1786—1839) we come to a type of painting which has gone entirely out of fashion. He was a typical painter of his time. When he was a boy of fourteen his father sent him to London as a pupil of John Raphael Smith, an engraver. His master was a man of low tastes and did not do much to make the pupils comfortable. One day Hilton and a fellow student ran away, but not quite knowing what to do with themselves, they came back again looking rather foolish. Hilton would paint enormous historical pictures for which he could not always find purchasers. Benjamin Haydon, his contemporary, and a painter of much the same kind of unsaleable works, tells us in his diary an anecdote of Hilton which shows a generous trait in the latter's nature.
Hilton was in great straits for money, when one day he had the good fortune to sell a picture to the British Gallery.* He went to Haydon with the news. His friend congratulated him heartily.
I know what a relief it must be,' he said, ' for I am on the brink of ruin.'
' How is that ? ' asked Hilton.
Haydon explained the circumstances, and before he left, Hilton had lent him enough to tide over this difficult time. ' Nature Blowing Bubbles for her Children' (1499) is a good example of Hilton's work. The bubbles are symbolic of the pleasures of life, so beautiful for a few moments, and so soon to fade into nothingness. Nature blows them as she lies there, her children clamber for these trifles so fascinating in their iridescent beauty. They might be taken as representing Hilton's work, for the life of his pictures was scarcely longer than that of a bubble. He used colours that were brilliant at first, but soon faded away. Paintings of his which were at one time exhibited in the National Gallery are to be seen no more : their beauty has vanished into thin air.
With Sir Charles Eastlake we come to the reign of Queen Victoria. He was born in 1793 and was a pupil of Benjamin Haydon. He was a popular artist in his day, and from 185o to 1866 he was President of the Royal Academy. The holder of this important position must be a man of courtier-like manners, and this qualification Sir Charles Eastlake had. As an artist he is disappointing to some of us. We will look at ` Christ Lamenting over Jerusalem (397). It is a carefully arranged picture, but we do not feel that it was in such surroundings that the tragic lament was given, ' Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.' Eastlake has planned the scene care-fully, but he does not touch our hearts. Christ is like a poet, and his attendant disciples are the admiring friends listening to the latest sonnet. They are not men pierced to the heart by the knowledge of the terrible fate that is to come.
In the chapter on ` British Painters at Hertford House, you can refer to a short account of Sir David Wilkie. We will look at one of his pictures John Knox preaching before the Lords of the Congregation' (894). Again I feel inclined to say to you the actual scene was not like this. We see Knox, stern of face, bending over the pulpit, thundering against the evils of the Roman Church : it is like a scene in a play. The congregation seem for the most part unmoved, untouched by the personal magnetism which Knox undoubtedly possessed. They would have forgotten themselves, forgotten everything, as they followed the words of the great preacher. There is no absorption in their faces, no kindling fire. Though the effect of the scene may not be realistic, the details, as painted by Sir David Wilkie, are particularly so. The pulpit is copied from one in which Knox actually did preach. In the congregation we see the Lord Provost and other important people of the day, who sat under Knox. But we are not persuaded that this angry man in a black gown would have been able to exert so important an influence over Scotland as we know he did.
We will now come to three painters who know how to tell a story. Charles R. Leslie, R.A., the first of these (1794-1859), was an American, the son of a clockmaker. He had in his childhood some of those adventures which do not fall to the lot of boys in this twentieth century. On his journey home from London to Philadelphia with his parents, when he was only five years old, the ship they sailed in had a fight with a French privateer. When Leslie was older his father apprenticed him to a publisher, but the. boy was bent on being an artist.
One day he painted a portrait of a great American actor, G. G. Cooke, who was then the rage in the States. Leslie took the likeness to his friends, they admired it, and thought it showed he had the right stuff in him : so they subscribed together and were able to collect enough money to send him to England to study art.
His early days, spent in the company of books, had an effect on his choice of subject. He generally painted scenes from his favourite authors, especially from Shakespeare and Cervantes. There is real humour in Leslie's rendering of Falstaff (1794), and of ' Sancho Panza and the Duchess' (1796). His fault, from an artistic point of view, is that his colouring is somewhat hard. Let us look together at ` Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman ' (403). It is a scene from Sterne's ` Tristram Shandy,' and tells the story of the innocent little scheme of the widow to marry Uncle Toby. She has got some-thing into her eye, she says. Will Uncle Toby look and see if he can find it ? They were very pretty eyes, as we can see, and we can also guess that there wasn't much wrong with them. Uncle Toby is delightful as he sits there, holding his long church-warden, with a puzzled expression on his face.
If you want to realise what schools were like before there were County Councils you should look at two scenes from the brush of Thomas Webster, R.A., ` Going to School' (426), and ` A Dame's School' (427). Very little learning was the portion of that small boy and girl who are looking through the open door. The fields and lanes are pleasant that sunny morning, how they long to play truant. They would not have been much worse off if they had, for village children seldom mastered the three R's sufficiently to be able to sign their name when they grew up. We see the dame in her mob cap sitting waiting ; I am afraid the late arrivals will not have a friendly reception. Webster, like Wilkie, was a genre painter. Small scenes of the everyday life of rural England were his favourite subjects.
With Daniel Maclise, R.A., we come to a painter whose reputation does not stand so high now as it did in his lifetime (18o6-187o). He turned, as Leslie did, to books for his subjects, but he had not his brother artist's sense of humour. Here is the play-scene in Hamlet (422), one of the most widely-known of pictures, and which is familiar to most of us by photographs and prints. Most of you know the story which is here set forth in a vivid dramatic fashion. Hamlet suspects the Queen of having arranged the murder of his father. He tries to think of a way by which he can judge if she is guilty or not. At last the idea comes to him to have a play per-formed at the palace which will present his father's murder, much as he believes it took place. We see Hamlet lying on the floor, his gaze fixed on the King and Queen. His friend Laertes, who stands at the back of Ophelia's chair, is also watching keenly for any sign of guilt. The Queen looks on at the play, but the King grows very uneasy as the scene on the miniature stage progresses. In a moment he will start up with terror and indignation. When this picture was first exhibited it was much admired by Macready, the great actor, though he saw faults in it. Now-a-days Maclise is criticised severely, and especially for his way of painting the skin.
We will pass on to his contemporary, Edward Matthew Ward, R.A., who is also a typical painter of the mid-Victorian days. He loved the drama of history, and shows us many an interesting scene. We will look together at ` The South Sea Bubble,' a scene in Change Alley (432). The painter takes us back to 1720, the reign of George I. Then, as now, everybody wanted to get rich in a hurry. A company was started with the idea of securing to certain merchants the sole right of trading in the South Seas. No one knew much about the prospects of such a venture, but people were willing to believe that there was wealth beyond the dreams of avarice to be had. `they flocked to the city to buy shares. The promoters of the scheme told them they would make their fortunes. There was no room in the offices for all the crowds that came, and clerks had to sit out in the open street to receive the money. We see it all here, with men and women flocking round the tables. The golden age was coming they felt sure. But, as you know, the bubble burst, as bubbles will, and many of them were ruined.
The third story-teller on canvas is Adolphus Egg, R.A., who, in his picture of ' Beatrix Knighting Esmond' (1385), goes to his contemporary, Thackeray for a subject. You must read in the novel of Esmond's hopeless love for the beautiful Beatrix, of his steady devotion to her cause and that of her mother and brother. We see her here touching him lightly with the sword, and dubbing him their knight. We know that he faithfully fulfilled all the requirements of chivalry. Beatrix is in a white and amber-coloured gown. Esmond is in a military uniform, red coat and silver lace. It is a splendid sword with which she touches him : it has a red velvet scabbard and silver handle.
Now we are in all the hurly-burly of Derby Day (615)in mid-Victorian days, with W. P. Frith, R.A., for our guide. We can only dimly see the race course from where we stand. We are so much interested in the people who have come down for the day that we hardly look at it. They have come in hundreds, for business and for pleasure. The money making is not of a very honourable kind at such times, betting, fortune-telling, and so on. A poor little acrobat is performing tricks hoping to make a few pennies. He looks round with longing eyes at a coachman who is spreading on the ground the contents of a well-filled hamper. We see here riches and rags jostling each other. W. P. Frith painted, as a rule, scenes of the day, and his pictures have a special interest as illustrating the period in which he lived.
We will now pass from the ways of men to the ways of dogs. In their simplicity and friendliness they teach us many a lesson, which we might learn the more readily if we were not so convinced of our superiority to the brute creation. I have told you that it is said that Landseer's dogs* are too human—they are very living to us, any way. The ` Distinguished Member of the Royal Humane Society ' (1226) is an old friend. He is a magnificent Newfoundland, known to his intimates as ` Paul Pry.' I need hardly introduce you to ` Alexander and Diogenes ' (608). You know the story of the great philosopher Diogenes, who lived in a barrel. One day Alexander the Great came to see him, and asked him :
` Is there anything I can do for you ?'
` Only stand out of my sunshine,' was the answer.
I must leave many important artists of this time unnoticed, but before we pass out let us look at William Müller's beautiful landscape of `Caernarvon Castle in the early morning' (1565). Mailer (1812-1845) was an artist who had little appreciation in his life-time, but who now ranks high. He travelled much abroad, and was always at work with the restless energy of one who knew he had not long before him. When he was dying he would be sketching the flowers and fruit that his friends had sent, wielding his brush with his left hand. This is a beautiful and poetic scene, showing the grim castle where the first Prince of Wales was born, in the pure light of the early morning. The world is awake and starting the work of the day.