THE ROYAL ACADEMY IN BED.
The opening of The Royal Academy Exhibition of eighteen hundred and fifty-nine is the first opening that I have missed for something like a score of years past. Illness, which confines me to my bed, has been the sole cause of my absence when the rooms in Trafalgar-square were thrown open to an immense shilling public, for the present season. My admiration for modern Art almost amounts to fanaticism; and my disappointment at missing the first week of the Exhibition is not to be described in words or depicted on canvas.
My doctor informs me that I may hope to get out again before the doors of the elegant and commodious Palace of Art, which occupies the north side of Trafalgar-square, are closed at the end of July. While I am waiting for the happy period of my emancipation, I have been finding consolation and occupying the weary hours by a careful perusal of the Royal Academy Catalogue for the present year. Thanks to this invaluable document, I have found myself in a condition to plan out my future visit to the Exhibition, in its minutest details, beforehand. I have decided what pictures I shall see and what pictures I shall miss; I know where I shall want to look up and where I shall want to look down; I have even settled in my own mind when I shall tread on the toes of other people, and when other people will return the compliment by treading on mine—in short, I have excited my imagination to such a pitch of preternatural lucidity, that I have all but got the whole picture-show at my fingers’ ends already, though I have not the slightest chance of paying a visit to it for at least six weeks to come.
Allow me to present my Private View of The Royal Academy Exhibition, taken from my bedroom at Peckham Rye, by the telescopic help of the Catalogue for the present year.
To begin (as the critics do) with general characteristics. I find the Exhibition to be, in two respects, negatively unlike its predecessors. The Vicar of Wakefield is, unless I mistake, at last used up; and there is no statue of Musidora (“at the doubtful breeze alarmed”) in the Sculpture Room. In regard to positive changes, I observe a remarkable tendency in the artists, this year, to take each others’ likenesses; and (judging by certain quotations) to plunge into abstruse classical reading, through the medium of some highly unintelligible English translations. In other respects, the Catalogue affords cheering evidences of strictly Conservative policy on the part of the Academy in particular, and of the Artists in general. There is still a strong infusion of the recently-imported Spanish element. Certain painters still stagger and drop under the weight of the English grammar, in composing their titles, or offering their necessary explanations in small type. Certain subjects which have been perpetually repeated in countless numbers, are reiterated once again for the benefit of a public faithful to its darling conventionalities. Poor old Venice continues to be trotted out, and has no present prospect of retiring into private life. Our more juvenile, but still well-known old friend, the transparent pool, with the wonderful reflexions, the pretty sky, and the unpronounceable Welsh name to distinguish it in the Catalogue, still courts the general admiration. So do the Campagna of Rome, the Festa Day at Naples, the Contadina, Rebecca, the Bride of Lammermoor, the portrait of a gentleman, and the portrait of a lady. As for Cordelia, Othello, Macbeth, Falstaff, and Ophelia, they all cry “Here we are again!” from their places on the walls, as regular to their time as so many Harlequins, Clowns, Pantaloons, and Columbines, in so many Christmas Pantomimes. Thus much for the general character of the Exhibition. Descending next to details, I beg to communicate the following classification of the thirteen hundred and odd works of art, exhibited this year, as adapted to the necessities of my own Private View. I divide the Catalogue, then, for my own purposes, into—
1. The pictures that are vouched for by their artists’ names.
2. The pictures that are sure to be hung scandalously high, or scandalously low.
3. The pictures that I don’t think I shall look for.
4. The pictures that I shall be obliged to see, whether I like it or not.
5. The pictures that puzzle me.
6. The pictures that I am quite certain to come away without seeing.
Past experience, close study of titles, and a vivid imagination, enable me to distribute the whole of this year’s collection of works of art quite easily under the foregoing six heads. The first head, embracing the pictures that are vouched for by their artists’ names, naturally gives me no trouble whatever, beyond the exertion involved in a moderate exercise of memory. Here in my bed, I know what main features the new works of the famous painters will present, as well as if I was looking at them in the Academy Rooms. Mr. Creswick again gives me his delicate, clear-toned, cheerful transcripts of English scenery. Mr. Leslie still stands alone, the one painter of ladies—as distinguished from many excellent painters of women—whom England has produced, since Gainsborough and Sir Joshua dropped their brushes for ever.* Sir Edwin Landseer may be as eccentric in his titles as he pleases: I know very well that there are deer and dogs on the new canvases such as no other master, living or dead, native or foreign, has ever painted. Mr. Stanfield may travel where he will; but I am glad to think that he cannot escape from that wonderful breezy dash of sea-water which it will refresh me to look at the moment I can get to Trafalgar-square. Mr. Ward has only to inform me (which he does by his title) that he has happily stripped off his late misfitting Court suit, and I see his old mastery of dramatic effect and his old force of expression on this year’s canvas as plainly as I see my own miserable bed-curtains. Mr. Roberts finds the most formidable intricacies of architecture as easy to master this season as at any former period of his life. Mr. Danby is still writing poetry with his brush, as he alone can write it. Mr. Stone has not lost that sense of beauty which is an artist’s most precious inheritance. Mr. Egg is as manfully true to nature, as simply powerful in expression, and as admirably above all artifice and trickery of execution as ever. And Mr. Millais—who must only come last to pay the enviable penalty due from the youngest man—has got pictures, this year, which will probably appeal to all spectators to empty their minds of conventionalities, and to remember that the new thing in Art is not necessarily the wrong thing because it is new.
It is time now to get to the second head‑to the pictures that are sure to be hung scandalously high or scandalously low. How can I—in bed at Peckham Rye at this very moment—presume to say what pictures are under the ceiling, or what pictures are down on the floor, in Trafalgar-square? There is no presumption in the matter. I consult the Catalogue by the light of past experience, and certain disastrous titles immediately supply me with all the information of which I stand in need.
“Dead Game,” “A View near Dorking,” “A Brig signalising for a Pilot,” “A Madonna,” “An Autumnal Evening,” “A Roman Peasant,” “The Caprices of Cupid,” “Fugitives escaped from the Massacre of Glencoe,” and “Preparing the Ark for the Infant Moses”—are nine specimens of pictures which, I am positively certain, before I see them, are all hung scandalously high or scandalously low. In the interests of these works, and of others too numerous to mention, I shall take with me, when I get to the Academy, at the end of July, a telescope for the high latitudes, and a soft kneeling-mat for the humble regions of the wainscot. In the mean time, I would privately suggest to the painters of this uniformly ill-treated class of works the propriety of changing their titles, in such a manner as to administer a few dexterous compliments, next time, to the Academy authorities. If the “Caprices of Cupid” had been called “Ideal View of a Member of the Hanging Committee;” or if “Preparing the Ark for the Infant Moses” had been altered to “Preparing a nice Place for a meritorious Outsider,” the destiny of these two pictures might have been happier. “Dead Game,” again, might have done better if the artist had added to the title, “not higher than you would like it at your own hospitable table, and not low, out of consideration for the landed aristocrat who once preserved it.” I throw out these slight hints on the assumption that even an Academician is a man, and that, as such, he is not inaccessible to flattery.
Head Number Three: The pictures that I don’t think I shall look for. Here, once more, I trust myself implicitly to the titles. They warn me, when I go to the Exhibition, to be on my guard (without intending any personal disrespect towards the artists) against the following works, among many others:
“Pœonian Woman. ‘When she came to the river, she watered her horse, filled her vase, and returned by the road, bearing the water on her head, leading the horse, and spinning from her distaff.—Herod. Terps. 12.’ “ No, no, madam; I know you, and your extract from “Herod. Terps. 12” has no effect upon me. I know your long leg that shows through your diaphanous robe, and your straight line from the top of your forehead to the tip of your nose, and your short upper lip and your fleshy chin, and your total want of all those embraceable qualities which form the most precious attribute of your sex in modern times. Unfascinating Pœonian woman, you can do three things at once, as I gather from your extract; but there is a fourth thing you can’t do—you can’t get me to look at you!
“Warrior -Poets of Europe contending in Song? Well? I think not. What can Painting do with such a subject as this? It can open the warrior-poets’ mouths; but it cannot inform me of what I want to know next—which is, what they are singing? Will the artist kindly stand under his work (towards the end of July); and, when he sees a sickly -looking gentleman approach, with a white handkerchief in his left hand, will he complete his picture by humming a few of the warrior-poets’ songs? In that case, I will gladly look at it in—any other, No.
“So sleepy!” Dear, dear me’! This is surely a chubby child, with swollen cheeks, and dropsical legs. I dislike cherubs in Nature (as my married friends know), because I object to corpulence on any scale, no matter how small, and I will not willingly approach a cherub, even when presented to me under the comparatively quiet form of Art. “Preparing for the Masquerade”? No; that is Costume, and I can see it on a larger scale in Mr. Nathan’s shop. “Felice Ballarin reciting Tasso to the people of Chioggia”? No; I never heard of Felice Ballarin; and it does not reconcile me to his being painted, to know that he is reciting at Chioggia. “The Monk Felix”? Bah! a snuffy man with a beard; let him move on, with the Pœonian woman to keep him company. “Ideal Bust of a Warrior”? I fear the temptation to look at this will be too much for me; although I know, by experience, that ideal busts of warriors always over-excite my system even when I am in perfect health. It will be best, perhaps, not to venture into the sculpture-room at all. “ Unrequited Love”? “The Monastery of Smolnoi”? “Allsopp’s new Brewery”? No, no, no; I must even resist these, I must resist dozens more on my list—time and space fail me—let me abandon the fertile third head in my classification, and get on to my fourth: The pictures that I shall be obliged to see, whether I like it or not.
“Equestrian Portrait of His Grace the Duke of Bedford.” The horse will run me down here, to a dead certainty, the moment I get into the room. “Cordelia receives Intelligence how her Father had been ill-treated by her Sisters.” Cordelia had better have received intelligence first on the subject of English grammar—but, no matter; right or wrong in her construction, she has been from time immemorial the most forward young woman on the Academy walls, and she will insist, as usual, on my looking at her, whether I like it or not. “ General Sir George Brown.” This case involves a scarlet coat and decorations—and who ever escaped them at an exhibition, I should like to know? “Dalilah asking Forgiveness of Samson.” When I venture to acknowledge that I am more unspeakably tired of these two characters (on canvas) than of any other two that ever entered a painter’s studio, all intelligent persons are sure to understand that Dalilah and Samson will be the very first picture I see when I look about me in the Academy. For much the same reason, “Portrait of a Lady,” and “Portrait of a Gentleman,” will of course lay hold of me in all directions. Are not pictures of this sort always numerous, always exactly alike, always a great deal too large, and always void of the slightest interest for any one, excepting the “ladies” and “gentlemen” themselves? And, granted this, what is the necessary and natural result? I must see them, whether I like it or not—and so must you.
Head Number Five: The pictures that puzzle me. These are so numerous, as judged by their titles, that I hardly know which to pick out, by way of example, first. Suppose I select the shortest—“Happy!” Not a word of quotation or explanation follows this. Who (I ask myself, tossing on my weary pillow)—who, or what is happy? Does this mysterious picture represent one of the Prime Minister’s recently made peers, or a publican at election time, or a gentleman who has just paid conscience-money to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a group of enraptured ladies at the period when watch-spring petticoats were first introduced, or boys at a Pantomime, or girls at a dance, or dogs in a cover, or cats in a dairy? Impossible to say: there are ten thousand things the picture might represent, and it probably depicts the ten thousand and first, of which I have no suspicion. Hardly less puzzling is “ A Lesson on Infant Treatment.” What is infant treatment? In some families it means a smack on the head; in others, it means perpetual cuddling; in all it implies (for such is the lot of mortality) occasional rhubarb and magnesia. Is the lesson painted here a lesson on the administration of nauseous draughts, fond kisses, or corrective smacks? Do we read in this mysterious picture a warning against the general nursery error of pinning up a baby’s skin and a baby’s clothes both together? Or is the scene treated from a heartlessly-comic point of view; and does it represent a bedchamber by night—papa promenading forlorn with his screeching offspring in his arms, and mamma looking on sympathetically from her pillow? Who can say? It is a picture to give up in despair.
“Gretna Green.—A runaway match; the postboy announcing pursuit; one of the last marriages previous to the alteration of the Scottish law, with portraits painted on the spot.” More and more puzzling! Portraits painted on the spot, when the bride and bridegroom are running away, and the postboy is announcing pursuit! Why, photography itself would be too slow for the purpose! Besides, how did the painter come there? Was he sent for on purpose beforehand, or did he take up his position on speculation? Or is the artist himself the bridegroom, and was the taking of his own likeness and his wife’s the first idea that occurred to him when he was married? Curious, if it was so. I am a single man myself, and have no right to an opinion; but I think, if I ran away with my young woman, that I should give up my profession for the day, at any rate.
No. 835—No title; nothing but this quotation:
A guid New-year I wish thee, Maggie!
Hae, there’s a ripp to thy auld baggie, &c.
What can this be? a sonsie lass takes a walk on a New-year’s morning, with an old bag over her shoulder; a mischievous Scotchman rips it open most improperly; exclaims, “Hae!” for which he is little better than a brute; and abandons the poor girl in a situation which it rings the heart to think of. Is that the picture? I object to it as “painful” if it is.
“Death-bed of Lorenzo de Medici. Father-Confessor Girolamo Savonarola demands, as the condition of absolving Lorenzo de Medici of his sins, that he should restore liberty to Florence, refusing which, he abandons him to his fate.” How, in the name of wonder, can this be painted? Which of the two things is the father-confessor doing? Is he making his demand, or abandoning the unfortunate victim to his fate? If he is making the demand, he must be painted saying something, and how can that be done? If, on the other hand, he is abandoning the patient, the question arises whether he ought not to abandon the picture also, or at least be three parts out of it, so as to convey the two necessary ideas of rapidity of action and of personal absence from the bedroom. I don’t see my way to this work of art at all. Still less do I understand “Harvest,” the pervading sentiment of which is supposed to be expressed in this one alarming line of quotation:
When labour drinks, his boiling sweat to thrive.
Incredulous readers must be informed that the above is copied from the catalogue of the present year, at page twenty-seven. What on earth does the line mean, taken by itself? And how in the world do the resources of Art contrive to turn it to graphic account in a picture of a Harvest? Say that “When labour drinks” is personified, in the foreground of the scene, by Hodge, with a great mug in his hand, how, in that case, does the illustrative faculty of the artist grapple next with “his boiling sweat to thrive?” Is Hodge presented bubbling all over with beer, at a temperature of I don’t know how many hundred degrees Fahrenheit? And if he is, how does he “thrive” under those heated circumstances? Or is he hissing and steaming out of his own large bodily resources; and is he trying to condense his own vapour with successive jets of cold small beer? Nay, is he even one Hodge only, boiling, sweating, and thriving? May he not be possibly multiplied into all the Hodges in the neighbourhood, collected together in the harvest-field, and obscuring the whole fertile prospect by scalding agricultural exudations? I protest I am almost in the condition of Hodge myself, only with thinking of this boiling perplexity—except, indeed, that I see no chance of thriving, unless I drop the subject forthwith to cool my heated fancy. When I have done this, all succeeding titles and quotations become mirrors of truth, that reflect the pictures unmistakably by comparison with such an inscrutable puzzle as a harvest-field, painted through the medium of Chapman’s Hesiod. With that work my bewilderment ends, through my own sheer inability to become confused under any other circumstances whatever; and here, therefore, the list of the pictures that puzzle me may necessarily and appropriately come to an end also.
As to my final head, under which are grouped The pictures that I am quite certain to come away without seeing, every reader, who has been to the Royal Academy Exhibition, can enlarge on this branch of the subject from his own experience, without help from me. Every reader knows that when he gets home again, and wearily reviews his well-thumbed Catalogue, the first picture that attracts his attention is sure to be one among many other pictures which he especially wanted to see, and which he has accurately contrived to miss without suspecting it in the crowd. In the same way, the one favourite work which our enthusiastic friends will infallibly ask us if we admire is, in the vast majority of cases, provokingly certain to be also the one work which we have unconsciously omitted to notice. My own experience inclines me to predict, therefore, that when I come back from my first visit to the Academy, I shall find I have passed over in a general sense one full half of the whole exhibition, and in a particular sense, something not far short of one-third of the pictures that I expressly intended to see. I shall go again and again and diminish these arrears, if the doors only keep open long enough; but I shall still have missed some especially interesting things when the show has closed and there is no further chance for me. The Academy is not to blame for that; it is only our mortal lot. In the greater Exhibition-room of Human Life, how often, in spite of all our care and trouble, we miss the one precious picture that we most wanted to see! Excuse a sick man’s moral. When he has closed his Catalogue, what has he left to do but to turn round in bed, and take his mental composing-draught in the form of sober reflection?
* The ink was hardly dry on these lines, when the writer received the news of this admirable painter’s death. Insufficient though it be, let the little tribute in the text to one only of Mr. Leslie’s many great qualities as an artist, remain unaltered; and let a word of sincere sorrow for the loss of him be added to it here. No man better deserved the affectionate regard which all his friends felt for him. He was unaffectedly kind and approachable to his younger brethren, and delightfully genial and simple-minded in his intercourse with friends of maturer years. As a painter, he had no rival within his own range of subjects; and he will probably find no successor now that he is lost to us. In the exact knowledge of the means by which his art could illustrate and complete the sister-art of the great humorists—in the instinctive grace, delicacy, and refinement which always guided his brush—in his exquisite feeling for ease, harmony, and beauty, as applied to grouping and composition—he walked on a road of his own finding and making, following no man himself, and only imitated at an immeasurable distance by those who walked after him. Another of the genuinely original painters of the English School has gone, and has made the opening for the new generation wider and harder to fill than ever.
First published: All The Year Round 28 May 1859 vol. I, pp. 105-109.
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