Establishment Of A British School Of Art
( Originally Published 1869 )
If, therefore, as I contend that we are entitled to do, we may judge from the eminence which in the arts of poetry and eloquence we have attained, that we are not deficient in intellectual power to enable us to rival the most celebrated performances of the ancients in either art; and if, as I have lately observed, in mechanical execution of works of art we are not even now deficient ; there is in reality no reason to sup-pose that when the obstacles which at present retard our proegress are removed, we may in every respect, and in the highest and most noble of their characteristics, rival the schools of old, and produce artists whose compositions in the epic style shall be deemed worthy, not only of being placed beside those of Phidias and Raphael and Michael Angelo, but which, in many respects, shall be deemed superior to them; as although we doubtless labour under disadvantages by which they were not incumbered, we have also advantages of the highest order of which they were destitute.
The Greeks at one period of the progress of art among them, were as wanting in the principles, in knowledge of, and in genius for art, as any of the modern nations have ever been ; and the influences which affected and elevated them, are equally capable of operation among us.
Not only have the productions of our poets and eloquent writers afforded evidence that there is no national incompetency for works of art, but occasionally, even in painting, efforts have been put forth which yield incontrovertible proof that there is in reality no lack of artistical talent among us, and that we need only proper opportunities to bring it out. The gold is genuine, but it requires to be raised from the mine. Genius may exist, but it will not develope itself unless a favourable period arrives for doing so. The ground may be full of seeds, but they will fail to spring up until the winter has passed over, and the genial rays of summer have given them vitality.
The causes which I have pointed out, are, I think, quite sufficient to account for our present deficiency, as I am also convinced that the possibility of our being able to afford an entire and all-sufficient remedy for this deficiency is beyond a doubt.
In poetry and eloquence we have, moreover, had the great disadvantages to contend with of a language far less harmonious and melodious than that of either Greece or Rome ; and yet with materials so unfavourable, we have rivalled the poets and orators of both these nations, and in those very qualities, too, for which our native tongue seemed least adapted. As regards painting and sculpture, we possess not only all the mechanical skill and knowledge with which the ancients were endowed; but the numerous modern scientific discoveries which have been achieved since their day, afford us very great ad-vantages over them in every particular as regards the manual operations connected with art.
The English language, although uncouth and inharmonious, and apparently ill adapted as a medium for poetical or oratorical use, is yet of vast fertility for the purpose of conveying, with philosophical accuracy and effect ideas of different subjects into the mind, especially those of a scientific or philosophical nature. Like the commerce of the world that enriches our ports, and which is poured into them from every corner of the globe, each language of each age has helped to add to it by its contribution of some phrase or expression of importance,—retained possibly on account of their peculiar value,—and it has gleaned from each the choicest gems.
In its force, freedom, and philosophical accuracy, it reflects well the mind of the nation which has produced the most renowned philosophers and poets, whose productions have been peculiarly of this cast, and have been deeply imbued with this feeling ;who, moreover, have both largely influenced, and been largely influenced by, its character and adaptation.
Although we have not the advantage of the ancients in studying the naked form, and in viewing daily the folds of rich drapery; yet, as I have before observed, we have the higher capabilities of the art in expression, and character, and passion, still to exert ; and we have also the full benefit of the experience of our predecessors, with far greater mechanical skill than they possessed. If some temples have been destroyed, the venerable age and hoary ruin of those that remain add immensely to their effect; while the grandest objects of all, those of nature, in her mountains and seas, and rivers and plains, and the glories of the heavens, still continue unchanged.
One grand principle to be kept in view as regards modern art, is to adapt and accommodate it to the spirit and genius of the times, instead of following only the fashions of an age by-gone. Poetry and music have done this, as have also costume and gardening. Why should not painting and sculpture and architecture do so too? In each age genius is the same; but nothing is so liable to fetter genius, as trying to force it to move in an element for which it is not fitted. Greek and Latin are still refining and ennobling, if used in the study of the great works of antiquity; but it would be absurd to apply them as media of communication in the ordinary affairs of business.
Probably each nation, and indeed each individual have their own particular capacity for excelling in certain branches of art ; as one has a taste for beauty, another for grandeur, an-other for pathos or humour; and it is doubtless desirable to cultivate this peculiar talent, wherever it is developed. In the establishment of an English school of art, our main object should be to carry out to the utmost, and to afford the fullest development of the national genius, and with respect to each of the arts alike. Both those peculiar arts, and those peculiar departments of them, as also those peculiar tastes should especially be encouraged and cultivated, for which a particular national genius is exhibited. On the other hand, every opportunity ought to be availed of by means of a school of art, to correct those faults and deficiencies which appertain to the chaeracter of the nation. And in addition to this, every art that is cultivated among us should, by the aid of such an institution, be carried to the utmost perfection consistent with the nature and bent of the national genius and capacities, and with the existence also of the various national artistical deficiencies, which equally require to be taken into account.
The resuscitation of the art of using painted and stained glass, and the extent to which windows so formed are now introduced into churches and other public buildings, afford a very eligible and ample opportunity for the cultivation of the grand style of composition in painting; and this, I maintain, on several distinct grounds. Grandeur of outline is completely attainable in compositions of this kind, even supposing that attention to minute detail is not so easily or so successfully carried out ; consequently works of this description ought especially to be distinguished by, and indeed to owe their chief excellence to, their possession of many of the highest qualities of art. For moonlight scenes, and for representing the appearance of fire-light, and the peculiar glow which that casts, this branch of art is fitted beyond all other kinds of painting.
Painting on glass appears indeed to present a grand opportunity for the resuscitation of epic painting. Efforts of this class, which are suitable for the adornment of our churches and public buildings, are all of an important character. And in consequence of the improvements effected in later times in the making of glass, by means of which the painting might now be contained in one large pane instead of being divided into portions on account of the smallness of the different panes, either first-rate works of art may be copied on glass, and re-produced with all the beauty dignity and effect, and even more than the vividness of hues and tints and light and shade, of the original works ; or original productions of this character may make their appearance upon glass instead of canvas, rivalling if not excelling those of the old masters. The colours in several of the ancient windows are remarkably rich in tone, and evince how much might be effected in this style of art, in which nothing has as yet been accomplished in the way of genuine epic composition, and no attempt has been made to delineate expression or character, or even to produce either grandeur or beauty as regards form. On the other hand, the complete success with which several exquisite works of art have been copied on glass in the china manufactory at Sévres, suffices to prove what might be accomplished here, and the exquisite manner in which the tints and chiaro-oscuro may be brought out in efforts of this kind. For grand compositions painted on glass, ample patronage might be found in the extensive demand for them to adorn the windows of our churches and public buildings, whether they are resorted to for the purposes of illustration, to commemorate great events, or as memorials of departed worth.
As in the case of sculpture, the importance and costly nature of these undertakings—as also the public character which they possess—particularly demand that they should be works of high intellectual merit, and such as are calculated to pro-duce ennobling and elevating effects upon the people, to whose constant gaze they are ever exposed. The strong contrasts in colours, and light and shade, the clear outline, and the vigour with which forms of every kind can be depicted, peculiarly adapt designs in painted or stained glass for compositions of an epic character. Single figures or compositions, in which only a few persons are represented, are moreover well fitted both for works in stained glass and for epic paintings, and they especially admit of being endowed with that nobleness of form and expression, which is characteristic of the epic. As regards expression more particularly, and the delineation of character and emotion, these are fully attainable in glass compositions, as they are also especially suited for compositions of an epic class. According as the art of painting on glass rises out of its present very imperfect condition, will its capabilities and its adaptation for the noble purposes here proposed become more apparent, and its application to this end will no doubt be ultimately and completely recognized.
The manufacture at the present day of glass in large panes, so different to those in former times, of itself suggests a different mode of painting on glass, and affords an opportunity for producing works far more graceful grand and important, than what have hitherto been attempted upon that material. It seems, moreover, almost puerile, as we are now freed from the tramemels which the ancient mode of glazing our windows with small panes imposed, that we should still adhere to the same cramped and confined style in which those manacles compelled us to limp. It is no doubt proper to have ancient rather than moedern subjects represented in the windows of buildings the arechitecture of which belongs to ages past. But it does not from this by any means follow that the mode of depicting those ancient scenes should be rude and barbarous, quite out of character with the taste and refinement exhibited in the style of the building itself, even supposing that at the age in which the style of architecture prevailed in which the building is erected, the art of painting was at a very low ebb in this country ; but which can form no reasonable excuse for reviving, or seeking to resuscitate, that barbarity.
In some of the modern painted glass, as may be seen, for instance, in the Cathedral of Cologne, the design is natural and graceful, such as is observed in compositions in painting of the present age, free from the quaint and stiff manner of the ordinary antique representations where this material is employed, but which is by no means necessary in such efforts.
On the whole, there appears to be no reason, either intellectual moral or physical, why works of art in our day should not merely rival those of Raphael and Rembrandt and Michael Angelo, but why they should not also excel them. The only limits to the perfection of art are placed by the capacity of the mind, and mechanical skill. In the latter we far exceed the times passed by. In the former, too, we are in no respect behind them as regards the actual development of intellectual power, but only in its application to the arts of painting and sculpture ; and we have the advantage of their experience to guide us in our career. The only real limit to the progress of the arts, is the conception of the mind ; as far as the latter is able to imagine grand scenes, the hand may be taught to delineate them on the canvas.
Nor ought we to feel surprised that striking geniuses are so rare in our day among the producers of works of art of each kind, when we consider that among the nations of old they were but few, and in each case far between. Greece produced but one Phidias, but one Homer, and but one Demosthenes ; Rome, only one Virgil and one Cicero. And in more modern times, Raphael and Michael Angelo and Dante in Italy, Rubens in Flanders, Rembrandt in Holland, and Shakespeare and Milton in England, have been as isolated as any of the great artists of old.
Indeed, in poetry as well as in painting, may we not hope for a revival of art ? And I cannot but think that some very sublime and noble topics for composition of this kind m q be 'afforded by many subjects both in history and in Scripture, which are as yet unavailed of in this respect, as also by several martial events of modern days, which have been as heroic as any in the ages gone by. Although the armour of these times is far less picturesque than was that of the middle ages; yet, on the other hand, the mode of conducting war, more especially as regards the majesty of our ships of battle, and the use of artillery in warfare, afford far more scope for grand poetical description than did the comparatively puny engagements of old. In truth, there was nothing among the ancients so sublime and al-most celestial, as a great naval encounter in the present century.
As regards historical topics, events which are distant, like distant objects in landscape scenery, generally present a more artistic aspect than those which are close at hand. Nevertheless, passion and feeling, and all the elements of romance, are the same in every age, and in every transaction, whether near or remote. And although in our day castles and cathedrals are no longer upraised, yet the mouldering and venerable forms of those which have been transmitted to us, are more picturesque than if they were built by our own hands.
Certain of the apocryphal writings of the New Testament, which formed the foundation of the miracle plays, might advantageously be availed of ; and some of these latter may be rewritten with considerable effect, as several old plays served for the foundation of Shakespeare's, as did the `Adamus Exul' of Grotius for Milton's ` Paradise Lost.' On the Continent these performances are being revived with great spirit, and may, possibly, ere long, be resuscitated in this country. The topics which they embrace have supplied the noblest themes for compositions in painting. Why should they not in poetry also prove equally inspiring ? Sacred tragedy has as yet been unattempted, although on many accounts it seems to afford at once the fittest and the widest field on which the Muse might exert her powers. The life of Abraham, the career of David, and many other events of a corresponding character in sacred history, contain a mine of poetical wealth which has only to be worked up in order to render a due return. More especially, the history of Joseph forms in many respects an admirable basis for a tragic representation, and is well adapted for a miracle-play, alike as regards the variety and romantic nature of its incidents, the touching quality of its scenes, the characters that figure in its narrative, the many extraordinary and striking features with which it abounds, the strange mutations of fortune which are recorded, and, not least, the tragic issue of the narrative itself. The primitive pastoral scenes which it contains, contrasted with the mode of life in early Egypt, would furnish a background to the picture of great interest, admitting of very graphic description.