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History of English art since 1851


Revival of an Appreciation of Gothic Art. - Welby Pugin: His Merits and Defects: His Work and Failures - Mr. Cockerell: His Theories on Architecture: His Design of the University Galleries at Oxford. - The Church Movement towards a Revival of Art - The Ecclesiological Society. - Foundation of Government Schools of Design - Building of the Houses of Parliament - Choice of an Architect - Style of the Building, and Conditions under which it was Built - The Tone of Thought about Art then prevailing. - Mr. Ruskin: His Writings: His Influence on Modern Art: The Opposition of the Press: His Public Lectures. - The Arundel Society- Its Origin, Objects, and Effect on Public Taste - The Exhibition of 1851 - The Expectations and Hopes which it excited - The Origin and Development of the Idea - The Plan of the Building; its Character and Ornamentation - The Contents of the Exhibition- Bad Effects of a Competition unaffected by Cost - Inferiority of - -English Art - Sculpture - Goldsmiths' Work - The Mediaeval Court - Glass-painting - 'State of the latter Art at the Time - Pugin's Revival of it - M. Henri Gérente - Mr. Morris' Improvements in Glass-painting and other Branches of Art - Mr. Skidmore: His Metal-work - Report of the Juries on the Exhibition. - The Defects of Modern Ornament. - Formation of a Museum of Manufacture. - Failure of former Schools of Design, and the Causes. - Department of Practical Art formed - The South Kensington Museum Built - The System of Teaching. - Revival of Domestic Architecture: Difficulties surrounding it. - Defects of Modern Building: Reasons of Failure. - The Oxford Museum: Description of Building - Mr. Skidmore's Iron-work, and Principles of Colouring. - The Albert Memorial. - Ecclesiastical Architecture - Revival of Mural Painting - Materials for Building. - Mr. Butterfield and Brick Architecture - All Saints, Margaret Street. - Basilica Churches - St. Barnabas, Oxford. - Merits of the Basilica Exhibition of 1862 - Improvement in Art Produce since 1851 - Ladies' Embroidery Society - The Medieval Court - Household Furniture - English Glass- cutting. - The Manchester Exhibition - Collection of Pictures there. - Death of Turner. - Appearance of the pre-Raphaelite Paintings in the Academy - Criticisms of the day on them - Mr. Ruskin's Championship - The Principles which guided their Work - Their eventual Success. - Mr. Millais: "The Return of the Dove:" " Peace Concluded: " " Autumn Leaves:" "A Dream of the Past:" "Sir Ysumbras." - Holman Hunt: "Rienzi:" "Claudio and Isabella.-" "The Hireling Shepherd:" " Light of the World: " " The Awakening Conscience: " " Saviour in the Temple:" " Scape- Goat." - Mr. Watts: His Painting in Westminster and Lincoln's Inn, and other Works. - Mr. Armitage: His Wall-paintings, and other Pictures. - The St. John's Wood School - Messrs. S. Solomon, A. Moore, Burne Jones, Poynter, Frith, Landseer, and Lewis. - Landscape Art - William Turner, and Others. - The Functions of Art. - Two Classes of Art Patrons.
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Turning aside from the main current of history, we shall now proceed to consider the conditions and progress of Art during the last generation. In doing so, we must ask our readers to look back with us, briefly, a few years beyond the limits of these pages, and to the state of art previous to the time of its revival in England. As in the history of civilisation we find the first art developed and cultivated by man to have been architecture, and the rise or decline of the fine arts throughout the Middle Ages to have been heralded by some leading changes in the buildings of the period, so in the modern revival the first efforts after a truer ideal were made in the architecture of England some years previously to the reformation of painting and sculpture. And though these beginnings of a better state of things were at best but failures, and the leaders were themselves groping blindly after principles which had been overlaid by every conceivable form of falsehood; yet there was inherent life in the movement, because it was begun with integrity of purpose, and carried on through difficulties and failures with conscientious earnestness. The first name which claims our attention at the period to which we are referring is that of Welby Pugin, whose influence on modern art, overrated as it was by his friends and depreciated by his enemies, has been, at any rate, sufficiently real for his name to command some notice in the history of the revival. At the time when Pugin began his career, architecture had fallen to its lowest level. All the plain solidity of the Georgian style of building had disappeared, and its good stone and brick construction given place to rubble walls faced with cement in imitation of stone, plaster ornaments, and all those dishonest shams with which our streets had now become chiefly composed. Indifference to beauty, manifested in the unpretentious brick houses, square-built, gloomy, and ugly, of the last century, had been superseded by an age of more insolent ignorance. The monuments of past ages were being gradually destroyed by surer blows than those struck by the Puritan hands of former days - neglect and indifference; and wanton sacrilege, unexcused by fanaticism, completed the ravages of time. At Salisbury Cathedral, the Hungerfield and Beauchamp Chapels were totally destroyed, the screen of the Lady Chapel demolished, the chapels of the west transept and the Rood-loft pulled down, and its monuments removed. At Worcester, the west front had been "restored" with cement, the ornaments, crockets, &c., being carved with a trowel out of wet plaster; the choir pewed up, and the aisles walled in. These are merely specimens of the work of demolition. Such was the state of things when Pugin began his protest against the ignorance of modern restoration, the falseness of modern constructive principles, and the shams of modern ornament. It is but fair to say that he inaugurated the beginning of a new era, though unequal himself to the task of guiding aright its instincts, or of fulfilling its requirements. He first ridiculed the vulgarity of modern street architecture, where " linen-drapers' shops ape the palace of the Caesars, and the cigar divan is a vile burlesque of Eastern decoration;" and condemned as unflinchingly the niggardliness which converted churches into rooms "barren and bare as barns, as hideous to look at as the shambles of the market-place." Unfortunately he did not himself understand the principles which he advocated, and his own examples of Gothic buildings were more or less unsatisfactory, while he himself attributed his failures to inadequate supplies of money. It was Pugin's misfortune that he was thought and talked of by his friends as a man of genius, when he was only a man of considerable and versatile talent, lacking mental and moral ballast. He was clever, but he stultified his cleverness by neglecting to increase his knowledge and expand his mind. He allowed tricks of draughtsmanship to take the place of good design, and pretty details to supersede good construction; and the result was the inevitable fate which pursues all those who trade on their own powers of invention, that he perpetually reproduced himself with increasing feebleness. His illustrations of the " Lives of the English Saints " are a proof of this. Beginning with some grace of design, they gradually deteriorated into mechanical repetition, varied only by the vestment of the figure or other trifling attribute. Had he listened to the advice of his critics instead of railing at them, and searched into the causes of his own failures instead of commenting so sharply on his opponents, he might have learned to better purpose the practical lessons which he was so anxious to impress on others. He was possessed by the mistaken notion that there was no room for art outside the Roman Church, nor any inspiration to be received outside her religion; and his sphere of usefulness was narrowed and his mind warped by this idea. He lived to see the English Church awake from her long sleep to appreciate and foster the true principles of art, while still the Roman Church in England was contented with the fallacies of the basest Renaissance; and to behold the first successes of that young school of painters who could paint Christian tradition, when they chose, as none had painted it since Raffaelle.

Mr. Cockerell was one of the last champions of the old classical school; and his lectures in the Royal Academy showed the weaknesses of the system he advocated. He admitted that the architecture of the Middle Ages was unapproachably sublime, while he protested against a study of its principles. He asserted that ecclesiastical architecture was founded wholly on superstitious associations, at the same time that he professed himself sanguine of the results to art of the ascendency of the High Church party; reminding us of Mr. Curzon's tirade in his " Monasteries of the Levant." " Gothic is not Christian architecture; it is Roman Catholic architecture," wrote Mr. Curzon, with an air of decision which left no room for appeal in the writer's mind. Mr. Cockerell's own practical efforts were as futile as his arguments. One of his principal works, the University Galleries at Oxford, was in every way unfitted for its purpose. The picture rooms are so lighted that it is impossible to hang any picture so that it will not have cross lights resting on it; and they are neither ventilated nor water-tight. The ample space is wasted and cut up; and the exterior struck into hopeless insignificance by the diminutive size of the central part in proportion to the wings. One might have thought that the Renaissance front of St. John's College, with its central tower frowning on Mr. Cockerell's pile, might have taught him better things.

In 1838, the Ecclesiological movement began in the foundation of the Oxford and Cambridge Architectural Societies, the success of which surpassed the most sanguine expectations of their members. The Oxford Society procured a room in which they held periodical meetings for discussion, and gave lectures on various subjects within the range of ecclesiastical art, for the purpose of interesting the outer world in the movement. The Ecclesiological Society, more important than either, and comprehending indeed these and other smaller societies within itself, was founded about 1843. It would be difficult to overrate the good effects of this society on the art of the present day. The isolated efforts of Pugin towards a Gothic revival met with little support and left no visible results, because founded on mistaken principles which could never have laid the foundation of a school. But the society of which we are speaking was the expression of an organised effort, on the part of a large number of the most cultivated men of the time, to reform the ecclesiastical and secular art of England; and it numbered among its members some of the most distinguished architects and artists of the day. It proposed to itself to raise the tone of thought as regards art, by united and concentrated efforts, and, watching carefully for the outward expression of each new artistic demand, to foster its growth and place the supply of it in competent hands. Under its care the first revival of the study of old music was led by the Motett Society, which, by frequent meetings for the purpose of singing glees, madrigals, and such music, laid the foundation for a more correct taste than had prevailed for many generations. A small number of ladies formed, also under the auspices of this society, the first school of embroidery, - an art which, now so flourishing, was then almost forgotten. They worked from designs furnished for them, and gave with great generosity their work to poor churches. The revival of goldsmiths' art is due also to the exertions of this society. No goldsmith in London, at that time, could furnish any but the most vulgar and wearisome repetition of bad design; their '•plain Grecian" and "rich Gothic" patterns being equally regardless of the considerations of utility and beauty. Attention was at length called by the Ecclesiological Society to the great beauty of various specimens of old church plate, and after several consultations it was resolved to have some of them copied experimentally. Many difficulties and disappointments befell the enterprise, arising from the low state to which the trade had sunk; such as the inexperience of workmen, lack of proper tools, &c. But they succeeded at last in producing some fair specimens of hand-wrought work, after which the superintendence of the manufacture was placed in the hands of Mr. Butterfield; and the trade gradually prospered, as increasing knowledge and skill were brought to bear on it.

The movement which had begun in the country was taken up to some extent by the Government, and the gradual spread of its principles had served the purpose of throwing some light on the state of individual art in our great manufacturing towns. In 1835, a select committee was appointed to enquire the best means of extending the knowledge of art, and of the principles of design, among manufacturers; and it was at length recommended that schools of design should be placed in all the great centres of manufacture. These schools were necessarily only tentative, and eventually proved to be failures. They became mere drawing schools, filled by boys and girls who had not had the slightest education in first principles; and who passed through them, often under very incompetent teachers, gaining no knowledge whatever of the connection of design with drawing, or of the application of either to manufacture. They were, however, an effort in a right direction, though, with the usual ponderousness of English public movement, they were allowed to remain for about sixteen years without amendment, and a dead weight of expense on the country. The first national effort in applying the principles of Gothic to modern requirements was made in the building of the Houses of Parliament. Until this time, the mode of selecting an architect for public buildings had been to place the choice in the hands of the Treasury of the Board of Trade, who decided at random, either from promising estimates, popular opinion, or private interest. Seeing the miserable effects of this system, Sir Edward Cust recommended the Government to advertise a free competition, the result of which was that Sir Charles Barry was appointed, amidst the vociferous abuse of the rejected seventy-nine candidates. Public competition not being so common a thing then as now, they might perhaps be excused for inundating the world with pamphlets to show the incapacity of the judges and the folly of the choice, though it seems to us, at this distance of time, somewhat undignified. We are apt, in criticising this, the first modern Gothic building of the country, to forget the difficult circumstances under which it was built. The architects of that day were but just emerging from the prejudices and habits of the last generation, with little knowledge of the real principles of Gothic, and with neither experience nor precedent to assist them. They were ordered by Government to prepare designs for a Tudor building (not Gothic as has been generally supposed) of great size and magnificence, and fitted in every way for the grandeur of its purpose. It may very likely be that Barry might have done no better had he been quite unfettered; but a Tudor building he had to design, and a Tudor building he erected, with all the faults and not many of the virtues of the genuine Tudor style. There is, however, in spite of all its faults, a grandeur in the impression produced by its long line skirting the river, and its pinnacles glittering in the sunlight, which no modern London building had ever yet achieved. The eye may be wearied by perpetual repetition of vertical lines and monotonous ornament, of lifeless carving, and shallow groinings; but cornice and architrave, and imitation Doric columns are gone for ever, though Gothic ornament was adapted to a pile which might as well have been Italian, and Pugin's criticism was fairly provoked, as passing down the river one day he exclaimed to his companion, "All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body! " But the general ignorance on the subject may be gathered from contemporary writing. An article in one of the leading Reviews of the day, about this time, deprecated the growing prevalence of the foolish opinion that Gothic architecture was a style peculiarly suited to northern climates, and opined that sculptors might as well take for their models the " wiredrawn figures " of the saints and martyrs of the mediaeval cathedrals, as modern architects make practical study of mediaeval buildings. The suggestion was unfortunate. It might have been well for the designers of monumental sculpture, had they studied the still grace and dignity of one of those shadowy grey forms, and the lines of some sweet unearthly face smiling down from its dark niche. For if there was small science in the carving of flesh and muscle, there was beauty in every line and fold, and the sculptor had bid the soul look forth from the earthly veil as he lingered with his chisel over the last few touches on the quiet mouth. The same writer expressed his opinion, that London had become so completely Italianised, that Gothic architecture must excite repugnance by its discrepancy; and seemed to think it a flagrant piece of impertinence for a modern Gothic church to intrude itself into the precincts, and break the lines of rows of Italianised houses, giving the leading character to a scene which it was the function, said the author, of an ecclesiastical building to follow. There was more excuse for the criticism that modern Gothic buildings were infelicitous results of the arguments in favour of Gothic, and " as unlike the buildings they professed to imitate as the specimens in a liortus siccus are to the real flowers." They were so; but the dry branches might yet bud, and the leaves shake into life, under more genial influences than those of the Quarterly Review.

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Pictures for History of English art since 1851

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