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History of English art since 1851 page 2


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It is impossible to consider the influences which have affected and the powers which have regulated the art of the last twenty years, without referring to the name of Mr. Ruskin, and to the appearance of "Modern Painters." Writing, as he did, at a time when architecture and painting had sunk so low that no living man could build a convenient church or habitable house in the old national Gothic, and when the greatest landscape painter the world has seen passed from among his generation scarcely heeded, it would not be too much to say that the appearance of this book has formed an era in art. The laws which Mr. Ruskin laid down, and the principles which he advocated, regarding art, in the first three volumes of " Modern Painters," were the everlasting laws of beauty and harmony, and the unchanging principles of true art; and the world awoke to the knowledge that there was not one of them which had not been disregarded or forgotten in England for many generations; and that most of the well-wishers of real art would have to go to school again to learn those primary principles without which no good results could be expected. His sympathies could have been shared by few at the time he wrote; for he had been, to a degree then very rare, familiarised from childhood with the matchless Gothic of Italy, and had grown into manhood with such forms before his eyes as Sta. Maria del Fiore, and its perfect bell tower, with the- exquisite carving of the Venetian palaces, and the glorious colouring of St. Mark's. His eye had been trained to know the beauties of those churches left in the Val d'Arno by the great Lombard race, compared to which our Norman piles are grim and cold indeed; at a time when it was scarcely realised in England that there was any wider range in architecture than that of our own insular Gothic, of which the best specimens were all either destroyed or mutilated. He met, so far as we can gather, with little else in the higher ranks of criticism but abuse and invective; but if his own generation refused to recognise his teachings, he became the chosen leader of all that was best and most hopeful in the art of its coming years. In one of his later books he observed, that though his statements had been met by every form of denial, not one of them had been controverted by fair argument; and it is curious, in glancing over the Reviews of the period, to see how emphatically true this remark was. One writer, in a periodical of high literary character, after exhausting all the vocabulary of personal and literary abuse, ended loftily with the remark, that as life is short he did not intend to waste it by doing battle with Mr. Ruskin's theories; and pronounced the ominous-sounding prophecy in conclusion, that the just penalty of evil-doers would overtake him - to wit, that his evil deeds would remain. We will put that sentiment in another form, and say, that we think his works have followed and will follow him to the end of his life, in the thousands whom lie has educated to a truer knowledge of the principles of noble art, and a higher appreciation of the immortal works of other ages; we might add, in the many for whom his kindness and liberality have smoothed, and his ready sympathy softened, the hard path of art toil.

In 1849, the "Seven Lamps of Architecture" was published, and this work, intended though it was for general readers, and by no means claiming to be a handbook for architects, yet aroused a storm of indignation from the professional men of the day. One well-known architect was reported to have said, that Mr. Ruskin wished to make the profession work in chains; another, that he was nearly mad; though whether considered in the light of a madman or only a wild enthusiast, most people prudently agreed to abstain from too much controversy with him. The fancifulness of the title and division of subject in this book, however, combined with less reticence of language on religious and other matters than had characterised his first work, laid it open to criticisms which tended to embarrass and hinder the noble teaching with which this, Mr. Ruskin's first essay on architecture, is full. That there is much to be regretted in the book there is no doubt; and Mr. Ruskin has intimated his own hesitation to endorse all the conclusions of his early work by a refusal to republish it. But the stern sense of truth and unflinching condemnation of all that was false, ignoble, and contemptible in modern architecture, which were the chief characteristics of the book, must infallibly have done their work in the minds of thoughtful people, and opened out a vista of new and nobler possibilities, as they carried conviction with them. There is a somewhat sad tone pervading the book, as of a man who had no real hope of his words producing any effect, while yet trying to so take heart for the future as to do his share of the world's work. It is now more than twenty years since he wrote, and his prophecy, that the architectural movement then begun would progress but little farther, has been well-nigh fulfilled. Closely following this work, and in some sense connected with it, came the " Stones of Venice." Moro valuable still, in their effect on the popular mind, were public lectures given at different places on domestic architecture, such as those published under the name of " Lectures on Architecture and Painting," delivered at Edinburgh, in 1854. Written in a popular form, these lectures probably did more towards demonstrating the errors and follies of the street architecture of the day than his great work of the " Stones of Venice." The Army and Navy Club had that year been completed in London, at the cost of £40,000; and a large proportion of that sum had been expended in placing a quantity of most elaborate sculpture at the top of the building, under the cornice, and consequently in an invisible position, - a blunder which gave Mr. Ruskin an opportunity of explaining the fallacies of modern Greek architecture, and its chief characteristic of top-story decoration. " The whole system of Greek architecture," he concluded, " as practised in the present day, must be annihilated; but it will be annihilated, and that speedily. For truth and judgment are its declared opposites, and against these nothing has finally prevailed, or shall prevail."

The Arundel Society has been, during its existence of nearly five and twenty years, a powerful means of extending a knowledge and appreciation of the works of the early masters of painting. It was founded by a small number of gentlemen, most of whose names are well known as munificent patrons of English art. Lord Lindsay, the Marquis of Lansdowne, and Mr. Ruskin were of the number; and it was named after Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, - a name which should be well remembered in the annals of English art. Its avowed object was to raise the standard of public taste by the publication of the well-nigh forgotten works of the Pre-Raffaellite masters, engraved or otherwise reproduced. The wish of its founders was also to preserve the records of some of the most valuable monuments of mediaeval art, which were fading from the walls of Italy as year after year of neglect passed over them, and darkened the walls whence the spirit of Giotto and Fra Angelico once looked forth. In 1857, they had been sufficiently successful to enlarge their original plan, and publish those coloured copies of Italian frescoes which are so well known to all lovers of early religious art. At the time of which we are speaking, however, the art of mediaeval Italy was a dead letter in England, and the effect which these efforts of the Arundel Society have had over the educated classes of England is almost incalculable; and is an evidence of the amount of influence which may be exercised over the public mind by the earnest united action of a handful of men believing in their own principles. Their rooms in Old Bond Street, open free of charge, placed before the public a series of drawings such as had never been seen before in England; and so great was the success of the society that, in 1863, they were able to establish a special fund for the purpose of copying the decaying works of the old Italian masters. The influence of the society on the general public was also immensely increased by the fact that it was independent of criticism and disapprobation to an extent which no private publisher could afford to be; and that it was able to command attention, and outlive unpopularity.

The Exhibition of 1851 may be considered in the light, either of a great international commercial enterprise, or as the embodiment of those aesthetic tendencies which had been gradually developed, more especially in England, during the past twenty years. It would be idle to deny that the wild and enthusiastic expectations which centred round this inauguration of the triumph of modern industrial art have been in a great measure disappointed, or that too much stress was laid on the value of the international competition which was thenceforth, it was thought, to give an impetus to all branches of art. It was thought to be the first step towards a veritable Utopia, perhaps towards the Millennium itself. It was compared with the Pyramids, the Rhodes Colossus; it was, in itš way, to surpass all the "wonders" of the ancient world. A new era was predicted for Europe, in which universal peace was £o reign, as the result of this first act of co-operation; and the benign influences of universal civilisation, education, and refinement were to pervade society, and to extend themselves over the coming half-century in ever-increasing triumphs over human evil. " Nobody," said Prince Albert, embodying the popular feeling in his opening speech, " who has paid any attention to the particular features of our present era, will doubt for a moment that we are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great event - to which all history points - the realisation of the unity of mankind." Of the fallacy of this hope, so strongly impressed in our century, of regenerating mankind by the effects of civilisation, refinement, or philanthropy, we are now learning somewhat. An able writer at the time pointed out the dangers of this theory, with the warning that refinement is not all, not even chiefest, among the causes of a nation's welfare; and forcibly impressed the never-to-be-forgotten truth, that art, directed exclusively to the gratification of sense, causes religion and humanity to be forgotten.

The idea of the Exhibition of 1851 was first conceived by the council of the Society of Arts about 1845. Gradually the idea matured into a definite purpose, and, the royal patronage having been obtained, the chief difficulty which remained, that of a suitable erection for the purpose, was overcome by the talent and indefatigable energies of Mr. Paxton, resulting in his admirable plan of a temporary glass and iron building. The general outline is briefly described. A vast glass church, banded together by iron, with nave, transept, and aisles; the transept surmounted by an arched roof, as it was originally intended that the whole building should be. We cannot wonder at the admiration and delight with which this new and original idea was received, nor even at the prophecies that it would inaugurate a new era in architecture. It was indeed a " splendid phantasm," and, glittering as it did with colour and light, it was a novel and attracting spectacle for English eyes. The execution of the colouring, of course necessitated by the tendency of iron to rust, was given to Mr. Owen Jones, and modified by the commission. The colours used were more positive than had ever been tried on iron before; the relative proportions being about eight of blue, five of red, and three of yellow. This was, however, necessary to some extent, from the size of the building and the distance at which it was seen. The roof was chiefly of blue, so as to harmonise with the sky. Eventually Mr. Jones was allowed to have his own way, though meeting with great opposition in carrying out his designs, chiefly from the popular dislike to bright colour. " Our ideas on this subject," wrote some one during the controversy, " are very peculiar, and savour of coal smoke with a dash of puritanism. We, in this nineteenth century, and in this small island, are so attached to grey, slate colour, and drab, that could we get at the gaudy blue sky or the glowing sunset, we should paint them out, of a soothing bronze tone." The Crystal Palace was not architecture, nor could it ever materially affect or influence the region of architecture. It was, as was said by the eminent German ecclesiologist, Herr Reichensperger, " a tent, not a building; a work of contriving reason, not of creative genius:" it was a great undertaking, conceived and carried out with the most praiseworthy energy and adaptation to circumstances. It was also a new discovery that glass and iron could assist and supplement the efforts of architecture. An immense space had to be covered in a very short time. Arrangements had to be made for the various kinds of exhibitions, and ample light provided. All these problems, with the many and great difficulties involved in so unprecedented a work, were satisfactorily worked out by the great engineering triumph of the Exhibition building. And it was a great point in its favour that the construction was evident and real, and that shams and concealments were not resorted to for effects of beauty.

With the contents of this great museum of the world's products we have nothing to do beyond the English manufactures. Utilitarian art formed the staple of our exhibitions. All that is necessary for the comfort and luxury of a civilised nation was there to be seen in the most useful forms; the supply regulated, as ever, accurately to the demand. Thus, all forms of useful pottery were there, both in a better and cheaper form than any other country could have produced them; but, with all the resources of an immense trade, little that was praiseworthy of an ornamental kind.

One great evil attended the art products of the Great Exhibition, arising from the very nature of a competitive scheme which was not affected by the question of cost. An enormous amount of valuable labour and exquisite skill were thrown away by efforts on the part of exhibitors to produce some one article which might attract the admiration or curiosity of the visitors, at the same time being quite unsaleable. The wholesome tendencies of ornamental trade were rather checked than forwarded by this kind of display; for it was easy to load a work of art with splendour of material and delicacy of workmanship which were only to serve the purpose of an advertisement, like the crystal jelly in a pastry-cook's shop. As a specimen of this, we may mention that a bouquet of jewels was exhibited in which the flowers were modelled from nature; each sprig was made separate, and fitted afterwards by mechanical contrivance; and the number of diamonds used was 6,000.

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Pictures for History of English art since 1851 page 2

Mr. Ruskin
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Front of the army and navy club
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The Albert memorial
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Hereford cathedral
Hereford cathedral >>>>
Mr. W.P. Frith
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Sir Edwin Landseer
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