British Painters And Their Works, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
I think if you want to see some of the most beautiful examples of our own painters, you had better begin in Room XVI.
Let us come first to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and as you are looking at his portrait of Mrs. Robinson as Perdita. I will tell you a little of his story. I want you to think of the man—brush in hand in his big studio, to which came all the great men and women of the time. He was born in 1723 and died in 1792 ; the whole of his life was spent in the eighteenth century of which the Wallace collection tells us the story. His father was a clergyman at Plympton in Devonshire. We are told that Joshua, as a boy, was anything but industrious, preferring to sketch on his Latin exercise book to doing his lessons. One such piece of paper has been kept, on which his father has written ` This drawn by Joshua in school out of pure idleness.' The first portrait he painted was with shipwright's paint on a bit of a sail. It was in him to paint, and the materials mattered no more to him than to Giotto who drew on the rocks. He was the pupil of a painter named Hudson, but it was not from this master that he learnt so much as from travelling abroad and studying the great Italian pictures.
When he grew up he became the friend of all the illustrious people of his day, of Goldsmith whom he loved so much that he did not touch a pencil on the day he died, of Garrick, the great actor, of Dr. Johnson, who tried to make him promise not to paint on Sundays.
He was rather fond of show and built for himself a big house in Leicester Square. When it was finished he gave a grand ball for the house-warming, and to add to his glory he set up a fine carriage, with the four seasons painted on the panels, and with servants in laced silver liveries, which were the talk of the town. I suppose he liked to have the carriage, but he does not seem to have gone out in it often.
Reynolds, as I told you, had been to Italy, and studied the old masters, and especially the greatest of these, Michael Angelo. They taught him the beauty of colour, but they knew how to mix their paints better than he did. The glory of their pictures is hardly dimmed by age, but of his it was said that they did not last out the lifetime of their subjects. To this criticism a friend of his made reply :
'Never mind, a faded picture by Reynolds is better than a fresh one by anybody else.' In his wish to render the charm and beauty of his sitters he used certain colours which, though brilliant at first, did not stand the effect of the atmosphere. Look at one of his canvases and you will see minute cracks all over it ; this is because he was not sufficiently careful in the varnish he used.
Of his position as a painter Ruskin says that ` no one entered so subtly as Sir Joshua did into the minor varieties of the human heart and temper.' He cultivated the power of observation, and his sitters, as we see them on these walls, have a grace, charm and delicacy all their own. He was especially the painter of women and children.
You have been looking all this time at ` Perdita,' and I daresay your eyes have wandered to two other portraits of her, by Gainsborough ( and by Romney (47). In contrasting them you will be better able to understand the differences in the method of treatment of these three painters. Reynolds laboured at his work, trying to make each picture better than the last. ` Labour,' he once told the Academy students, ` is the only solid price of fame.' His picture is grey in its general effect, but this is relieved by a delicate pink in Perdita's cheeks and a touch of red at her waist.
Quite near her is another lovely woman, Mrs. Rivett Carnac (35), standing up straight and stately in a white satin dress. The wooded back-ground gives a romantic atmosphere to the picture.
You must think of these graceful women in his studio, looking so charming, and of the courtly -painter saying a word to them now and again as he gazed at them, working away and giving them an immortality which some of them would not have had otherwise. To one of them, Mrs. Siddons, the great actress, whose fame rivals his own, he paid a gracious compliment. He had just finished his picture of her as ' The Tragic Muse,' which is in the National Gallery, and signing his name on the edge of her gown, he said :
` Madam, I should like to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment.'
The Strawberry Girl' (40) is a picture of which he himself said ' it is one of the half-dozen original things which no man ever exceeded in his life's work.' It was a portrait of his little niece, who lived with him for many years, Theophila, ` Offy ' as he called her. She is a quaint child with wistful brown eyes, and she holds on her arm a queer shaped basket of strawberries—a pottle, I think they call it—with her tiny hands folded in front of her. Near her—she will have companionship, if the portraits come down from their frames on Christmas Eve, as I can't help hoping they do—is a bright eyed maiden who will cheer her up, I feel sure. She was known, when she was painted, as ` Little Miss Bowles ' (36). I daresay she grew to be a grey-haired grandmother, but she will always remain to us a child. She is hugging a delightful puppy with beautiful eyes and floppy paws, who I am sure must have wriggled away many a time when he was being painted, and come back and licked his little mistress's face apologetically. I can't help hoping that Sir Joshua had a larder near at hand, and a kindly cook who gave the black puppy a bone now and again, to help him through the tedium of the sitting.
Another very fine Sir Joshua, ` Mrs. Hoare and her Son' (32) shows us a young mother with her chubby boy putting his hand up to her cheek. Her hair is not powdered, I suppose she was thought very eccentric by the great ladies of those days in sitting in so simple a fashion.
We will now pass on to Thomas Gainsborough, who was living at the same time as Sir Joshua, and died a little before him. He, too, was not a very model boy, for he often played truant from school, forging notes from his father with the request ` Give Tom a holiday.' When the father heard of it he foretold that ` Tom would be hanged.' He altered his view later on when he had been shown some of his boy's drawings, and uttered another prophecy which had the merit of coming true :—` Tom will one day be a genius.' There is a story told of the lad's sketching the face of a man who was stealing apples in an orchard, and with such success that the thief was identified by it.
When he grew up Gainsborough became a favourite court painter, rivalling Reynolds in popularity. Reynolds appreciated his brother artist's power, speaking of him as the finest landscape painter of the day. Gainsborough was not of such a generous nature, and there was a strained feeling between them. When he was dying he sent for Sir Joshua and apologised for any little jealousies and unkindness on his part, whispering to him as a last good-bye ` We are going to Heaven, and Van Dyck is of the party.' This beautiful story reminds me of the lines in Kipling's ` L'Envoi,' which tells us of the artists in heaven, ' when earth's last picture is painted' :
`And those that were good shall be happy, they shall sit on a golden chair,
They shall splash at a ten leagued canvas with brushes of comet's hair,
They shall find real saints to draw from,—Magdalen, Peter, and Paul,
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all.'
Gainsborough studied from nature, he would not accept tradition, and M. Chesneau tells us ` He strove to take in all that was noble and pure in his sitters, and thus without flattering, he gives to every work produced by his hand a particular character of ideal dignity combined with truthfulness.' We see these qualities in his ` Perdita' (42), the most remarkable of the three portraits of her here. She holds in her hands a miniature of the then Prince of Wales ; she is not looking at it, nor even at the fine Pomeranian dog by her side, but away, thinking sad thoughts meanwhile.
The third great name of the eighteenth century is George Romney, who left school when he was eleven, and whose acquaintance with pictures began with the inn sign at Dalton in Furness, where he was born. And, not unnaturally, the first picture he painted was a sign, it was for the post office at Kendal—a hand holding a letter. He was apprenticed to a painter, and used to travel about the North of England, calling at people's houses, and asking if they wanted to have their portraits painted. This sort of wandering life did not suit him for long, and he pined to go to London and try his fortune there. He was married, but he left his young wife behind when he went on this great venture. He left her in the bleak Westmorland country where her home was, and he lived in London and became one of the notable men of the day. Not till thirty-six years after did he return to her, his life work done, to die at home at last.
Reynolds had not the same generous feeling for Romney that he had for Gainsborough, and he was annoyed that Romney shared with him the patronage of the town. He used to call him ` The Man in Cavendish Square.' Romney's portrait too, is Mrs. Robinson as Perdita in ` The Winter's Tale '—a king's daughter who was brought up as a shepherdess. I wonder what sort of a dress she acted in—it could not have been in any of the three we have seen—not this one surely, with the lace bonnet framing her face, her hands in a big muff. She has a charming expression, and is a woman of delicate beauty.
There are two portraits by another painter of this time, who was much influenced by Reynolds, John Hoppner. He was born in Whitechapel, and George III who knew him as a chorister at the royal chapel, made him an allowance in order that he should study art. The Prince of Wales (afterwards George IV) was his great patron, and sat to him for a portrait (563) which abounds in distinction and dignity—Hoppner was no realist in his work, but this seems a faithful likeness.
We pass on to the great rival of Hoppner, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769—1830), who became President of the Royal Academy. His father kept the Bear Inn at Devizes which was a place where the coaches stopped on the way to Bath, and here, in the inn parlour, the small son at five years old, would stand on the table and recite passages from the poets to the customers. The father, who was very proud of him, would introduce him, saying;
`Gentlemen, here's my son, will you have him recite from the poets, or take your portraits ?' It was said that people got tired of the infant prodigy, and wanted to drink their ale in peace.
Thomas Lawrence was wonderfully gifted, and began to earn money by drawing before he was ten years old. By the time he was twelve he was a man of the world. His studio in Bath was crowded with sitters. At that time Bath was the resort of all the rank and fashion of the day who used to come there to drink the waters, and to meet their friends. Lawrence was one of the fortunate artists, he was brilliant, clever, handsome. He painted very much in the style of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and has been called ` a second Reynolds,' but he was by no means so great. He painted the beautiful, the witty, and the brave men and women of his day so flatteringly that sitters flocked to him. Campbell, the poet, said of one of his portraits, ` he makes one seem to have got into a drawing room in the mansions of the blest, and to be looking at oneself in the mirrors.' We see here a portrait of Lady Blessington (558), the friend of Byron, to whose house in London came the notable people of her time. We see her here sparkling and vivacious in her rich velvet dress—as she must have looked on many a gala night. Lawrence fully appreciated the beauty of colour, and this picture has retained its freshness.
The names of the artists of whom I have been talking to you so far, you have probably known before coming here, but I now pass on to Richard Parkes Bonington, of whom I dare say you have not heard. He was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and he died before he was twenty-seven. Perhaps it was whispered to him in his cradle that his time was short, for he began sketching when he was only three years old, and was able to do good work before he reached his . teens. He went to Paris when he was fifteen, and lived there most of his life, obtaining the gold medal for his picture in the Salon when he was twenty-three. But fortune was slower than fame; for his work at first he could obtain only a few guineas. He is claimed by both the English and French schools—a great tribute to his genius.. His colour is very beautiful, and his drawing remarkable. There is a great finish in his pictures which you cannot fail to notice.
In St. Mark's, Venice (375), you see the fine Campanile tower stretching to the sky, and round it standing a few Venetians in picturesque costume. You will notice how delicately the picture is painted and the soft atmosphere that surrounds it. Bonington had the gift of humour. Look at ` Henri IV and the Spanish Ambassador' (351). A dignified man, with a supercilious face and a stiff ruff round his neck, is about to enter for audience. Where do you think he finds Henri IV—not seated on a gorgeous throne as befits a great king, but scampering about on all fours, with his small son astride him, his wee daughter pulling away at the blue ribbon that holds the cross of his order. Henri IV was that French prince who so narrowly escaped death in the horrible massacre of St. Bartholemew, the King Henry of Navarre' of Macaulay's Ballad of Ivry.
When you think of him in all the splendour of war, you will remember that he was once discovered playing bears with his children, and then he will seem much more human.
Bonington was fascinated by the contrast between the king in his grandeur and the king at his ease. Look at ` Henri III of France receiving the English ambassador' (323). The weary, foolish monarch does not even glance up from the monkey which he is hugging as the Englishman is ushered in. The ape has more intelligence than his master. He looks up questioningly as does a fine parrot which is perched on the king's hand. They seem to be saying ` we are having such a fine time, don't trouble us with affairs of state.'
I want you to look, too, at the picture of `Anne Page and Slender '—from Shakespeare's ` Merry Wives of Windsor' (333) . Anne is standing at the top of a flight of steps and is just going to pass through the narrow door. I think she must be asking the foolish fellow to come in to dinner.
Some of the artists I am speaking about now I shall refer to again when we go to the Tate Gallery, but I shall leave you to turn back to the ` Wallace Collection ' for an account of them. One of these is Landseer—who is a typically English painter—our great animal painter, whose dogs of all sorts and conditions are well known to you. Landseer could not have painted animals as he did if he had not loved them. People say that he gave them too human an expression--it may be so. But some of us, who have loved dogs dearly, have grown to see in them, as Landseer did in all animals, a great deal that is akin to the human. They live so much with human beings that they cannot help growing like them. ` Landseer is,' says Ruskin, ` more a natural historian than a painter ; and the power of his works depends more on his knowledge and love of animals, on his understanding of their minds and ways, on his unerring notice and memory of their gestures and expressions, than on artistic or technical excellence.' Landseer was born in 18o2, he was the son of an artist, and came of a family of painters. He began drawing, and drawing well, when he was five years old. At thirteen he exhibited in the Royal Academy. I want you to look at his picture here, `Looking for the Crumbs' (257)—it is a delightful example of his humorous painting of dogs. A splendid St. Bernard has evidently just enjoyed a good meal, he lies dosing, his head out of his kennel, his paw on a tempting bone. Near by stands a shabby little puppy, very wistful and hungry-looking,—he is hoping for a chance of a scrap or two,—' looking for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table.'
When Landseer died in 1873 he was given a public funeral, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.
David Wilkie was a Scotchman, and found in bonnie Scotland the scenes that he paints. It was said of him that he could draw before he could read, and paint before he could spell. He was the most celebrated of the British genre painters—genre painting is the painting of subject pictures with figures usually on a small scale. In this art Wilkie particularly excelled. He very much admired the Dutch painters who were such supreme masters in this form of art, and would set to work on his own canvas with a picture of Teniers on an easel beside him. Genre painters should have the gift of humour—you will have laughed over many a quaint Dutch scene. This gift Wilkie had undoubtedly. There are two little pictures of his here that we will notice. The first is called ` Scotch Lassies Dressing' (352). Two girls are standing bare-footed, doing their hair and mending their clothes, in what seems to be the only room of the cottage. By the fire is a Highlander peacefully smoking his pipe and feeling very glad he is a man and hasn't long hair which wants twisting up and brushing. The other picture ` A Sportsman Refreshing ' (357) shows us the parlour of an inn—a hospitable rest where there is cut and come again for all hungry travellers. The sportsman is going to have a good meal of that ready-cooked ham on the table when he has finished his beer, and if he can wait long enough, there is the hare which he has just presented to the landlady.
There is an amusing story of Wilkie's delight when his picture ` Village Politicians ' was praised in the papers. It tells how he and two artist friends read the notice and huzzaed, taking hands, and all three danced round the table till they were tired. That must have been one of the happiest moments of his life, one to which he would say ` ah, still delay, thou art so fair.' Wilkie died at sea, and when you go to the National Gallery you will see how the subject of the artist's burial, his body being cast into the waves, inspired one of Turner's most beautiful pictures.
We must not leave the English school without looking at ` The Visit ' (574), by George Morland, a very gifted painter of rustic scenes. He painted the country with a simplicity which has a great charm, subtly conveyed by the freshness of his colouring. He lived a wild Bohemian life, and his end was sad. He was arrested for debt and died in a sponging house in Coldbath Fields.