British Art In The Retrospect.
( Originally Published 1869 )
I. THE origin of art in any nation is coeval with the commencement of civilization ; and in the case of every individual with the first dawn of intelligence, he begins to exert his mind in artistical effort. Wherever taste, or even passion or emotion are stimulated, there art at once developes itself. Earlier than the foundation of cities, and long ere temples of any kind were up-raised, the principles of art were felt and acknowledged and acted upon. In this country, indeed, long before London was founded, painting sculpture and architecture were practically followed. While this great city, which is now the metropolis of the world, was nothing more than a group of savage huts, when the wolf roamed where in future ages the Tower was to be raised, and the eagle hovered over the spot which was destined to be the site of St. Paul's, poetry and eloquence had established their dominion in England. The majestic Thames in its crystal stream reflected on its bosom the rude temples and uncouth edifices standing amid dense forests which clothed its banks, around which rustic enclosures were formed for the protection and preservation of such choice plants and flowers as their simple requirements or tastes urged the fierce inhabitants to cultivate. In spots where at present stately edifices are raised, and where the hum only of human voices is now heard, once the bittern screamed, or the heron fluttered, in almost unbroken solitude. Before a line of England's proud history was recorded, lofty rhapsodies of poetry were composed by its rude warriors ; and amidst its dense forests, wild strains of music were sung by its rustic bards.
In every country, as already stated, the progress of art affords the truest picture of the intellectual growth of the nation. Among each people these arts germinated and sprang up ; and before castles were erected or cathedrals were founded, solemn groves and august temples of rock were formed. Ere the Roman had planted his foot on British shores, painting in an uncouth fashion had been resorted to to decorate the per-sons of the natives, for whose rude, but not unpicturesque costume, the objects in nature most readily to be met with afforded the simple materials. And thus early did their woods and caverns echo afar the unstudied notes of melody. Imposing monumental trophies served to exhibit their savage ingenuity, and stimulated the first efforts in sculpture and architecture. Their wild eloquence too was often exerted in full fervour; and in their fierce games the foundations of dramatic art were laid. Their very barbarism gave force and vigour to their artistic efforts, passion added to their effect, and the savage and unholy rites which were exercised, midst the dire conflagrations that illumined the gloomy recesses of their dense oaken forests, called forth and exhibited to the full the contortions of each terrible emotion.
Thus, far more ancient than civilization, art first established itself, and by degrees expanded and grew up. Older than learning, it aided the progress of knowledge ; the mother of refinement, it first gave polish to the rude efforts of science.
In this, as in every other country,t the arts were dependent for their progress on two main causes -1. The peculiar character and genius of the people. 2. Their intercourse with other civilized nations. Art in England was materially affected by both these circumstances. The arts originally invented here were modified by the influence of foreign taste. And those arts which were imported here from foreign lands, were modified by the influence of the national taste. This is perhaps the case alike with regard to the nation itself, and the individuals of whom it is composed.