THE NATIONAL GALLERY AND THE OLD MASTERS.
IN a recent number of this journal, we endeavoured, in an article called " To Think, or Be Thought For?"* to induce our readers to form their own opinions on pictures—especially in the case of pictures by Old Masters, which might come under their observation. And we ventured, at the same time, to own that we doubted the sense and usefulness of the principle upon which the national picture-money is at present expended in stocking the National Gallery with works of Art. Our heretical opinions on this latter point, have lately received a curious and unexpected confirmation in the shape of a letter from Mr. WILLIAM STIRLING (a recognised authority in matters of Art), which has been published in the columns of a weekly contemporary, and which we beg permission briefly to refer to in this place.
The subject of the letter is a well-known picture in the National Gallery, which is described as a Boar Hunt, by Velasquez, and the object of the writer is to settle how much of this picture has been done by the dead Spaniard, Velasquez, and how much by the living Englishman (and skilled artist), Mr. Lance. On this point, Mr. Stirling, the constituted authority, and Mr. Lance, the skilled artist, are at issue. Mr. Lance states before a Committee of the House of Commons, that he had made many extensive repairs in the picture, and instances, as one of the chief of these, the painting of a group of mules in the foreground, "out of his own head." To this startling statement he afterwards adheres publicly, in a printed letter; adding that, when he was before the picture in the National Gallery, several of the committee (apparently quite incapable of distinguishing for themselves, which was old painter’s work, and which was new), asked him, by two or three at a time (so eager was their thirst for knowledge), and pointing all over the picture (so bewildered were they as to the real extent of the repairs), "Did you do this, Mr. Lance? Did you do that, Mr. Lance?"—and so on. Mr. Lance, an interval of twenty years having elapsed since he made the canvas presentable to the public eye, is naturally unable to identify every touch of his modern brush on the ancient picture. One thing, however, he can tell the committee with certainty—that he did six weeks’ work upon it. What does the paying British public think of its bargain?—a work by an old master which requires to be painted on for six weeks by a modern artist before it can be presented to the popular gaze. What a lucky people we are, and how well our constituted authorities employ the national resources!
But we must not forget Mr. Stirling. Mr. Stirling’s point is—not at all that the picture was originally purchased in such a decently genuine condition, as to need only the ordinary cleansing from dirt, and the after coating of varnish, to which its age might fairly entitle it—but how much did Mr. Lance do of it? For this purpose, he sends to Madrid for a tracing of a copy of the picture, executed by Goza—that tracing only extending to the portion of the work on which Mr. Lance alleged that the most important of his many "repairs" had been made. By the evidence I thus obtained, Mr. Stirling finds out that Mr. Lance has greatly exaggerated the extent of bare canvas which he says he covered, that the group in the restored picture agrees with that in Goza’s copy, but that variations occur in the details. Where Velasquez (on the evidence of the copy) painted horses, Mr. Lance has painted mules (a slight variation, this!); where Velasquez painted a man showing a hand out of a cloak, Mr. Lance has painted a man showing a hand and a leg; where Velasquez painted a man on foot turning his back on the spectator, Mr. Lance has painted a man on horseback prancing towards the spectator. Thus, the only question between Mr. Stirling and Mr. Lance is a question of quantity. Mr. Stirling disputes (on the evidence of the tracing from the copy), that so much has been done to the picture "out of Mr. Lance’s own head," as Mr. Lance himself alleges. Of the extent to which Mr. Stirling himself admits that Mr. Lance has distinctly, with his own modern brush, worked upon and changed the old picture, we have enabled the reader to judge. To an unlearned apprehension, the admitted transformation which the picture has undergone, at the hands of Mr. Lance, appears something simply astounding. Astounding in every point of view. Astounding, when we remember that this picture—in which old horses have been turned into modern mules, in which a man on horseback does duty vice a man on foot, resigned—was purchased with the national money as a genuine article by constituted authorities who profess to be judges of the genuineness of pictures. Astounding, also, as showing the shameless dishonesty of the man, or men, who sold this piece of patchwork for a work of Velasquez. Were we so very hasty and wrong, a few weeks back, when we said that the national-picture money was occasionally spent for the confusion of the nation?
We have waited, before writing these lines, to ascertain if Mr. Lance would make any rejoinder to Mr. Stirling’s letter. He has been silent, and Mr. Stirling enjoys the privilege of having said the triumphant last word. He speaks it in a perfectly moderate and gentlemanlike manner—but his evident incapability of perceiving the conclusions to which his own admissions lead, is, to say the least of it, not a little amazing.
* See page one hundred and ninety-three of the present volume.
First published Household Words 25 October 1856 XIV 347-348.
Text taken from that source.
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