The Present Condition Of British Art
( Originally Published 1869 )
Having traced as accurately as I can the origin and growth of each of the arts in this country, I come now to consider the present state in which we find them existent.
We may conclude on the whole that the condition in our day of each of these different branches of the arts, more especially painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, to which I have more particularly alluded, is precisely such as might be calculated upon as the result of that high condition of refinement and luxury to which we have attained. Among the ancients, painting was made the vehicle for expressing the noblest ideas of which the mind is capable, and for calling forth the loftiest emotions of the soul; and to this great end was manual dexterity ever made subservient, and regarded only as a means to its attainment. Among the moderns manual dexterity is the very end itself which is aimed at, and nothing higher than or beyond this appears to enter into the mind of many an artist; or if it does, the ideas are so poor that they are utterly lost sight of in the care and attention bestowed on the manual excellence aimed at in the performance.
Hence, the main and leading characteristic of the condition of art in our day, more especially as regards painting and sculpturc in this country, may be strictly said to be that of insipid correctness. Productions in these arts are in every respect faultless and free from defects. The drawing is most accurate, the colouring is sober and exempt from exaggeration, the perspective true, and due attention to rule is ever paid. This is the case, indeed, more or less, in a corresponding manner, with efforts in each of the arts. Hence mediocrity is the prevailing state of art at the present period. It attains correctness, but it never proceeds beyond that point.. As an almost inevitable consequence of this condition of artistical poverty and deficiency in genius, it is that we not only are unable to conceive, and to represent in a manner worthy of them, heroic scenes and enterprises ; but that when we do attempt them, we bring them down to the level of those common every-day transactions which alone are now successfully portrayed. Even in the case of those artists who have been to a certain, though only limited extent, successful in epic comeposition, it is not, as in the case of Raphael or Michael Angelo, the grand and leading ideas which the transaction is calculated to call forth, that the painting is qualified to excite ; but by dextrous mechanical effort, the absence of all this is sought to be atoned for. A. glare is created by which it is hoped that all the grosser deficiencies may be either forgotten or obscured. That which is really and so entirely wanting is a genius who can represent in a manner worthy of the subject, any of those great events which the pencil of Raphael and Michael Angelo so successfully and so sublimely portrayed. That which is actually and alone successfully accomplished, is a mode of representing commonplace scenes and persons in an effective and striking manner, so as for the time to surprise, and it must be admitted also considerably to gratify the beholder. Thus, simple nature as she is seen in her every-day aspect, more particularly as regards the production of accurate portraits, the agreeable portrayal of the forms and faces of our peasantry, and the aspect which the country presents in her ordinary landscapes, is depicted with great force and considerable truth; and very pleasing and pretty are the productions of this kind which grace the walls of our artistical institutions. In quiet landscape especially, English artists peculiarly excel, particularly in representing these scenes in water-colours. While we fail entirely in epic composition, here at least we appear fitted to succeed.
Or to illustrate my meaning by reference to the theory which I have endeavoured to propound, I would contend that with respect to works of art in general, with a few striking exceptions, the principles of delineation are fully carried out and rigidly observed, and that so far as regards correctness and strict accordance with these principles, these efforts of each kind are perfect; while with respect to the principles of the picturesque, they are but little regarded, and have only a very limited influence in the composition of artistical performances, which are also deficient in all the qualities of a high intellectual order. Efforts in the nobler walk of art, in epic composition, are but seldom attempted, and when they are ventured upon, they serve only to demonstrate our present inability to soar in these exalted regions.
But it may be perhaps urged that correctness and mediocrity, to which a due observance of the principles of delineation is sufficient to bring us, are the ordinary condition of mankind, and of things in general ; and that, indeed, with their attainment, the world in general is fully satisfied, and even deems itself fortunate to have secured them. To this, however, I reply that art is an exception to the ordinary vulgar rule as regards the relative degree of excellence at which efforts in it ought to arrive; inasmuch as its end is not only to represent nature, but to represent its characteristic features, and in the most perfect manner. Its aim, indeed, is to afford not a mere sample of, but a selection from objects in nature. Moreover, as we see in human nature that men of great virtues have often great vices also, and those of great vices great virtues, while men of merely correct life and habits are endowed with neither ; so may it be observed with respect to works of art, that those which possess the greatest merit have also great defects, while those which are most faultless are insipid and barren.
As regards efforts in poetry and in eloquence, as well as in painting and sculpture, with some few brilliant exceptions, the same characteristics will be found to distinguish them. The style is eminently faultless, but it is nothing more. There is but little grandeur or sublimity in any contemporary productions, and even the beauty is very limited. To supply the place of noble ideas, an ingenious effort is made to contrive new modes of versification. Invention is in fact resorted to to compensate for the absence of imagination. Mechanical skill is used, not to set off but to atone for the want of mental power. So also in eloquence, rhetorical dexterity and artifice are availed of to make up for the destitution of noble sentiment and grand ideas.
With regard also to our productions in music and in architecture, to what single grand original performance of a first-rate class, either as regards the public buildings that have been upraised, or the musical performances which have been composed, can we appeal as calculated to confer real lustre on the period in which they were brought forth ?
Dramatic acting, like the other arts in England, does not appear to have made any great advances of late in the highest department of the art,—the epic or grand style, while in the common and correct representation of vulgar or everyday life, and in effecting the humorous, extraordinary skill has been displayed. In some of the performances of Garrick, of John Kemble, and of Mrs. Siddons, during the age preceding the present, the noblest attainments of this art in its loftiest style, have however been reached. As these great personages have disappeared from the stage,—at any rate since the withdrawal of our illustrious tragedian Macready,—it- has happened with their art, as with the other corresponding arts, that this too has declined into an insipid mediocrity. Here, as in painting and poetry, we excel only in the representation of domestic every-day life. The grand and the sublime, and even the tragic, appear to be quite beyond our sphere.
The present condition of costume in this country is also very similar to that of certain other arts. It possesses neither the grandeur nor the dignity of the martial habit of the ruder middle ages, nor the splendid magnificence and real beauty exhibited during some earlier periods in our history. Like efforts in painting, those in costume are too refined to be grand, too highly finished to be sublime. Corresponding with attempts in pictorial art, they are also of excellent mechanical workman-ship. Originality is lost in neatness. Genius is directed only to the promotion of tinsel and tawdry. All the qualities possessed by the art are those which characterize an age of a high degree of civilization, or rather luxury. As in painting sculpture and architecture, science has here lent its aid, and has contributed much to the manual dexterity of the artist.
In one art indeed, that of gardening, England does at length appear to have not only reached a high degree of perfection, but to excel all other countries, not merely in Europe but throughout the world, as regards the tasteful manner in which her ornamental grounds are disposed and laid out, including not gardens alone, but parks and pleasure-grounds of every description, where art and nature seem harmoniously and simultaneously to combine in aiding and correcting and giving effect to each other. Great, moreover, has been the advancement during late years of this enchanting art, the true principles of which consist not in perverting, or even altering the course of nature, but in directing her to the full development of her charms with the utmost effect. These principles are now beginning to be fully understood; and as this is the case, we may hope to see them yet more perfectly carried out, and more extensively applied.
But although real beauty in full perfection has here been attained, yet in grandeur of scenery,—the epic style in gardening,—in producing the effect of gigantic rocks and precipices corresponding with the sublime in the other arts, this art must, like them, notwithstanding even the bold and successful efforts alluded to in the last chapter,* be said to have failed in England; if, indeed, any attainment of this character has ever been fully effected in gardening. This, however, is necessarily owing to the natural disposition and formation of the landscape of the country, which as in Switzerland does not admit of these grand attempts; and partly to the limited space of land allotted to mere ornamental grounds.
Gardening, nevertheless, like the other arts is fully capable of representing nature, and in all her scenes and features alike ; in her sublime and terrible, as well as in her soft and smiling aspects. And it only requires. for the principles of art to be fully applied here, in order to render its. success in this its highest department, as complete as it has been in its humbler walks, where the imitation of nature has been so fully attained. Indeed, the examples cited * prove the entire capability of this art for the noblest efforts at which it can aim.