The Arts Not Yet Engrafted In This Country
( Originally Published 1869 )
After a full investigation of the subject discussed in the present chapter, it must be concluded, indeed the fact is too obvious to admit of any doubt, that the arts, especially those of painting sculpture and architecture, have not as yet been engrafted in England. The works, even the best of them, that we have produced, and, above all, the efforts some time ago made to acertain the degree of original talent for design in the epic style existent among our artists by the prizes offered in Westminster Hall for the cartoons, serve but to testify to the incontrovertibility of this assertion. Although in poetry and eloquence, and also in acting, and in the practice at least of music, such high efforts have been achieved, nothing which yet can be termed an English school as regards painting and sculpture and architecture has hitherto been established among us ; for, although the production of several clever artists can be appealed to, yet no works possessing in themselves sufficient character and independent feeling, have as yet sprung forth to war-rant our boasting of such a distinction. Our only original, and, as it were, natural style, which appears engrafted here, is that of producing portraits in the art of painting, and in effecting busts and statues, the representation of real individuals, in the art of sculpture. But efforts of this class will hardly be allowed of sufficient importance of themselves to entitle us to claim the establishment of a school of art. In works of a high intellectual order, by which alone the character and genius of such a school is to be decided, it is that we are unfortunately so deficient. In landscape painting, for which but a limited portion of original and inventive genius is required, especially in water-colours, and which, as a mechanical branch, is a discovery originated in this country, we have attained a considerable degree of excellence. In engraving also, which is, however, but a very inferior branch with regard to intellectuality, requires no inventive power, and is, indeed, strictly rather a science than an art, we have rivalled if not exceeded all our predecessors of bygone days. In sculpture no truly great or original work has as yet been completed worthy of being placed in competition with the mighty performances of Phidias or Michael Angelo; although some few productions of considerable beauty have been achieved, and certain of the designs which have been made for epic compositions in this branch of the arts, would have done honour to the greatest artists of the ancient schools.
In the style of our modern architecture there is hardly any-thing, if anything at all, that is actually original. Our ideas of the gothic we derive from an age which we regard as barbarous. Indeed, with respect to architecture, if that alone were to be taken as a test of the advancement or decline of art in this country,—and it is the one which, of those in which mechanical skill is required, has received the largest share of attention,—it would seem that our progress has retrograded in-stead of advanced, if we compare our modern with our ancient edifices. How few cathedrals or churches erected in our own age, can vie or even bear comparison with those which were upraised by our ancestors ! Although no castles or abbeys are now required, yet in the erection of churches and halls, and various public buildings, the fullest opportunities for the patronage and exercise of this art are afforded, beyond even what in days of old were presented, and so largely availed of, to say nothing of the restoration and preservation of those now existing. The mode, however, in which our venerable and beautiful edifices have been mutilated or suffered to fall into decay, and the unsightly and uncouth fashion in which modern buildings of all kinds have been upraised, afford at once sad and sure proofs how trifling is the influence which art has hitherto exercised on the national mind.
Perhaps as regards architecture, in which art we have so many noble specimens in this country, which derive sublimity and even value from their age as well as their excellence of design, the mere restoration of them in a suitable and tasteful manner, may serve amply to employ all the little skill and genius of this degenerate and parsimonious age. Indeed, the reparation of decayed ancient works of art, particularly those of architecture, is that to which our efforts may at the present day be advantageously and successfully directed, even though the age be condemned as too degenerate to produce new works that may rival those of a period superciliously pronounced inferior to it in intellectual power and enterprise, as well as in invention. It may be, however, that the preservation of what our ancestors have upraised, is the utmost that we can effect. In many cases, even this appears to be a task too great for modern degeneracy; and too often, both in this country and on the Continent, modern cupidity demands the destruction of these venerable relics, merely to make room for replacing them by buildings for gain or commerce.
Restoration appears, indeed, not only to be the special avocation of the present age, but that for which its capacities are peculiarly adapted. Lacking the particular intellectual qualifications requisite for designing original works, we do possess all the mechanical skill and knowledge of the past which are essential to render perfect any performances in the restorative process. In architecture not only all our restorations, but all our original efforts, are but attempts to copy, with very slight and trivial variations, the models produced in periods preceding our own. And in painting and sculpture, too, this is more or less the case with most of our artists. Copying and restoration seem, moreover, to go very suitably hand-in-hand together, and are both especially adapted to the present age. Possibly therefore, as regards. works of art, these humble efforts are the utmost and the best which we of this age are likely to effect. If so, we must be content to live upon the past, and to preserve to our posterity what has been transmitted to us from preceding periods, instead of aiming at the more ambitious task of creating anew for those who are to come after us.
In the case of sculptural and architectural works, the copies made of them through the aid of photography are the most perfect that can be produced, colour here not being requisite, and far exceeding in accuracy the most exquisite casts, as I have particularly remarked with regard to the photographs of the 'Apollo' and 'Laocoon' which I have seen at Rome. In the case of photographs, however, as in that of paintings, the representation affords a view of the object from one point only, and is so far allied rather to painting than either to sculpture or architecture, being, in fact, a sort of hybrid production between the two.
In the original construction of architectural edifices of an important character, we should always bear in mind that we are labouring not only for our contemporaries, but for our posterity also. Those who have gone before us have bequeathed to us liberally costly treasures of art, and we reap all the benefit of their experience. Whatever we give to posterity is but an instalment of the debt we owe to those whose posterity we are.
Poetry and eloquence may, in certain respects, be deemed to be more engrafted in this country than are painting sculpture and architecture, inasmuch as, in the first place, these arts sprang up here as indigenous to the soil, without any aid from other countries; and in the next place, they have been from time immemorial constantly followed, although nothing in the shape of a distinct school has ever been established; while the isolated productions of eminent merit which have occasionally appeared, have served to characterize the efforts of these arts among us.
The drama and the art of music have, to the extent already mentioned, been long established in England, although in the latter of these arts we can hardly boast of a distinct school, so few original compositions of leading merit having been originated in this country, and such extensive resort having been made to the artists of other lands for their compositions.
Costume as a separate art has never been engrafted, nor even recognized here. Nor have we in this country, as in several of those on the Continent, and as was extensively the case in the Middle Ages, anything that may be called a national costume, the picturesque development of which among some people, is of itself sufficient to exalt it to the rank of an art, and evinces how capable it is of having applied to it all the principles of artistical regulation.
Gardening, as an art, may be said to be thoroughly engrafted among us ; and although we can boast of no distinct school of this art, yet the style of English gardening and pleasure-grounds is peculiarly distinctive in itself, is borrowed from no other people, and is superior to any other in accomplishing the fullest development of nature, with the smallest degree of restraint on her own efforts.