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History of English art since 1851 page 4


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It is impossible to consider the revival of architecture during the last generation without feeling that domestic architecture has progressed far less satisfactorily than ecclesiastical.

There are several reasons for this. The revival of architecture was owing, in the first instance, to the religious movement which was taking place in the country thirty years ago, and proceeded from a desire to beautify the Houses of God in a style and degree of excellence more in accordance with the spirit of our forefathers. Architects made themselves acquainted with the true principles of their art, and began to admire, to imitate, and finally to adapt, with more or less originality, the many beautiful specimens of the church architecture of the country in all periods. A praiseworthy spirit of emulation began to inspire many of the donors of new or restored churches; and in spite of innumerable failures, blunders, and half-successes, our architectural revival has shown in its achievements what is possible to a set of men, surrounded by difficulties, but actuated in the main by one definite idea of what they wanted to do. Domestic architecture laboured under greater disadvantages. People did not know what they wanted, and what they did want they wished to have as cheap as possible. There were no models of mediaeval houses suited to modern Requirements which could be guides to architects; modern refinement had wholly altered the conditions of life; and that fact, and the value of space in our crowded towns, made the adaptation of Gothic to dwelling-houses a difficult thing. Architects who were constantly employed in building churches, in which the comfort of the interior arrangements was often only compatible with a rugged outline and many-gabled exterior, and whose arrangements for ventilation did not depend on windows, became possessed with the idea that the one thing to do in building a Gothic house was to have as many gables as possible to it; the rooms being lighted with debased Gothic windows fitted with casements, which in this climate never were and never will be satisfactory. The old solid square red brick dwelling-houses of the Georgian period combined all the requirements of the day with a good deal of consideration for taste in internal arrangements; whereas our modern Gothic has very often failed to answer any requirements, besides having the singular disadvantage, in a dark, dull climate, of being exceeding gloomy and cheerless inside. No wonder, therefore, that the idea of Gothic houses is somewhat uninviting to the practical English mind, and that it has failed to take root.

There are doubtless other reasons, lying deep within the character and conditions of the age, which have impressed our domestic architecture with littleness and inadequacy. The diminution of space by railway, and consequently enormous increase of travelling; the unlimited competition in all ranks of business; the continual effort to "get on," and insatiable desire among all classes to rise a grade higher; have all contributed to make our houses, as Mr. Ruskin says, "temporary lodgings." And to build on leasehold land which passes from our descendants in less than a century is scarcely more satisfactory than to live in a hired dwelling built by contract. Both are evils, if partially inevitable, yet fatal to a true system of architecture. And thus when it becomes a necessity to build a town-hall, or an ornamental city or collegiate building, we are at a loss to know how to set to work; and in most of our modern architecture there is the same wearisome repetition of square windows and shallow mechanical ornament, which might be seen in the first work of the revival thirty years ago.

Mr. Woodward claims special notice as having adapted, with remarkable success, the style of the Italian Gothic to English necessities. The Oxford Museum of Physical Science, in which he was associated with Sir Thomas Deane, must be considered his chef d'œuvre, and being a central point in the period of the architectural revival, we propose to describe it here. A large two-storied block, lighted by Italian windows, with high-capped centre tower, and high-pitched roof with dormer windows, forms the character of the exterior. The great failure in the external aspect of the building is the lack of a central porch, without which so long a façade could hardly be satisfactory; this, we believe, was a matter of economy - mistimed, we must think. The interior is a large quadrangle roofed with glass, and supported by iron pillars with foliated capitals; a cloister running round it with two stories of galleries, from which open the rooms belonging to the various departments of the Museum. On the admirable efforts made to educate and interest the staff of workmen in their sphere of intelligent labour; the care bestowed on their physical and moral welfare in the library, dining-room, and other temporary provisions made for their comfort, we cannot here dwell. Two great principles were carried out in the work of the Museum, in a degree hitherto unknown; both as nearly affecting the life of the workmen as the character of Gothic architecture. First, all the sculpture employed conveyed statements of natural facts, those facts being placed in such systematised order as to contain a good deal of instruction. Secondly, all the ornament was designed by the men who executed it. On the vital importance of this last principle, it is not our place to dwell here. Those who watched the gradual progress of the Oxford Museum will not soon forget the bright intelligence of the men who stood carving their capitals of lily or fern, the flower or the leaf standing beside them as they worked; or the interest they took in their work, and in the general progress of the building. It is a matter for deep regret that so noble an example, made now fifteen years ago, should have produced such small results, and met with so little imitation.

We have no space to describe the internal arrangements or the character of the sculpture; but we must briefly refer to the successful effort of Mr. Skidmore in solving the new and difficult problem of utilising iron in the construction of buildings. The beautiful wrought work of the capitals and spandrils represents the natural foliage of British and other trees. It cannot be too much regretted that Mr. Skidmore was not allowed to superintend the colouring of his own work, the beauty of which, in its present coat of yellow, is entirely lost. His system of colouring iron with its own oxides has been one of the great discoveries or re-discoveries of the day, and no one can look at one of the many beautiful works executed by him in England, without feeling that it is not only the best, but the only right system.

One more modern building requires a short notice here. The Albert Memorial was, after ten years' preparation, opened in 1872. It is built, as our readers know, near the place on which Prince Albert's chief efforts for the art-progress of the nation were centred in the latter years of his life. It is, in fact, a gorgeous shrine, made to contain a statue of the Prince. The upper part is rich with gold and enamel and polished stones, terminating in a spire and cross, 180 feet in height: the basement story, built on a pyramid of granite, is covered with sculpture illustrating art and science. Four emblematic groups at the corners represent Agriculture, Commerce, Manufacture, and Engineering. The basement sculpture is of white marble, brought there in the rough, and carved on the four sides of the building with portrait figures of all the great artists in painting, architecture, poetry, and music.

Before glancing over the pictorial art of the last few years, we must not omit to record the important influence which the Manchester Exhibition of 1857 exercised, in educating public taste in pictures, and giving an impetus to modern painting. It was the first effort made in England at a complete illustration of art history, by a collection of the works of the great masters of all the European schools of painting. A certain Duke who was requested to lend some pictures for the Exhibition, answered, contemptuously, " What has Manchester to do with art P " One is glad to reflect that selfish narrowness could scarcely find expression in such a sentiment now; but it is a significant fact, that of late years it is not from the aristocracy, but from the wealthy middle class, that English artists meet with the truest appreciation and the most generous patronage. There was indeed little left to desire in this singularly perfect series of pictures. There were representatives of the early Byzantine Italian schools; there were the succeeding masters of the early and gradually perfecting schools of Italy; the then almost unknown painters of mediaeval Germany, and the later ones of the seventeenth century; and, finally, a series of portraits from the fifteenth century downwards. Prince Albert expressed a strong wish that no modern art should be admitted, looking at the collection from an educational point of view. The committee did not accede to this proposition; as we think, very wisely; and so the works of Lawrence, Wilkie, Turner, and the other great artists of our age and country, were placed before the public as they never had been before.

The year 1851 was marked in England by another event than that of the Kensington Exhibition - the death of Turner. One of England's greatest sons, one of the world's great painters, passed away that year beyond the reach of the ignorant criticism, and vulgar insult, and cold neglect, which had darkened his life and paralysed his heart; passed " where beyond their voices there is peace." " We miss those works of inspiration," wrote the Times in its notice of the Royal Academy that May; girding itself the while for another crusade against all that was truest and noblest and most earnest in the coming art of England, in the work of the young Pre-Raphaelites. In 1849, the works of three unknown young men had appeared before the public on the walls of the Royal Academy. Millais' " Isabella," Hunt's " Rienzi," Rossetti's "Girlhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary," were the first accepted works of the trio who were destined to effect a revolution in English painting. In the next year a periodical called the " Gem " appeared; a short-lived literary production, edited by a small band of young men known thereafter by the name of their own choice, of "Pre-Raphaelite brethren," of whom the leaders were the three above- mentioned painters. They had other work to do, however, than that of writing the aesthetic papers of a literary coterie; and their challenge to the artistic world was thrown down that same year in Millais' "House of Nazareth" and Hunt's " Missionaries sheltered by British Converts," and followed in the next year by that exquisite gem of the early promise of Millais' genius, "The Return of the Dove," and other now well-known pictures. The reception which these pictures gained from the public may be gathered from the Times' article on the Exhibition for May, 1851. " We cannot censure at present," it said, " as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes, which continues to rage with unabated absurdity, among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves P. R. B., which, being interpreted, means Pre-Raphaelite brethren. Their faith seems to consist in an absolute contempt for perspective and the known laws of light and shade, an aversion to beauty in every shape, and a singular devotion to the minute accidents of these subjects, including, or rather seeking, probably, excess of sharpness and deformity.... The council of the Academy, acting in a spirit of toleration and indulgence to young artists, have now allowed these extravagances to disgrace their walls for the last three years; and though we cannot prevent men who are capable of better things from wasting their talents on ugliness and conceit, the public may fairly require that such offensive jests should not continue to be exposed as specimens of the waywardness of those artists who have relapsed into the infancy of their profession." Such were the auspices under which the Pre-Raphaelites began their career. But in the same year Mr. Ruskin came forward as their champion in his pamphlet on " Pre-Raphaelitism," which the Times, three years afterwards, in a less ruffled frame of mind, acknowledged to have been both fair and calm in its defence, and gravely impartial in its criticism, and to have been fully justified by the results of the movement. The attacks on their works became less violent with each succeeding year; and they were allowed gradually to fight their way through neglect and scorn and biting criticism, to be at last acknowledged, by virtue of their own inherent genius and the truth of the principles they advocated, as the leaders of English painting. They chose the period of Raphael for their starting-point, as that which clearly divides mediaeval from modern art; the name of Raphael being inseparably connected with that division, through his own renunciation of the principles which had hitherto guided art. The one idea which possessed the new school was that of representing nature and natural facts as literally and as truthfully as it was possible to do; every figure, and face, and landscape, and detail being as accurately copied as possible under the circumstances.

Pre-Raphaelitism was a strong reaction against the inane prettinesses, the slovenly drawing, and the false statements of modern art; and, being reactionary, it was characterised by an aggressiveness, and an insistance on truth with or without beauty, which impeded its progress. But it has effected a revolution which has gathered up into itself all the artistic genius and power of the age, and formed a new era, as it has inspired a new life into art. The movement was also a part of the great intellectual crisis which was at that time extending its transforming influence over all branches of thought. Their early efforts were aspirations after higher motives than had hitherto actuated art; and the realisation of sacred or secular history, the portraying of the great deeds of other ages, or the instilling of high moral truth, became among their chief aims. It is obvious to any one who has studied the movement, that their genius and their intellectual stand-point alike called them to found a school of historical painting which should appeal to the higher instincts of their generation; and had their lot fallen in an age which knew its great men, genius such as has rarely so lavishly been bestowed on any generation might not have been frittered on genre subjects and ignoble motives.

The next few years of the Academy Exhibitions proved that the future of painting was no longer in the hands of those well-known Academicians who had reigned supreme there for so long, but with the young Associates who were winning their way in spite of all obstacles into fame and success.

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Pictures for History of English art since 1851 page 4

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

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