“…but what were they actually like?” 2. David Hume

David Hume by Allan Ramsay

From Eminent Scotsmen: “Lord Charlemont, who at this period met with Mr. Hume at Turin, has given the following account of his habits and appearance, penned apparently with a greater aim at effect than at truth, yet somewhat characteristic of the philosopher: ‘Nature, I believe, never formed any man more unlike his real character than David Hume. The powers of physiognomy were baffled by his countenance; neither could the most skilful in the science pretend to discover the smallest trace of the faculties of his mind in the unmeaning features of his visage. His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless; and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher. His speech in English was rendered ridiculous by the broadest Scotch accent, and his French was, if possible, still more laughable, so that wisdom most certainly never disguised herself before in so uncouth a garb.’”

David Hume on himself: “To conclude historically with my own character. I am, or rather was (for that is the style which I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiment); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame—my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary; and as I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”

From Lockhart, Peter’s Letters. “The prints of David Hume are, most of them, I believe, taken from the very portrait I have seen; but of course the style and effect of the features are much more thoroughly to be understood when one has an opportunity of observing them expanded in their natural proportions. The face is far from being in any respect a classical one. The forehead is chiefly remarkable for its prominence from the ear, and not so much for its height. This gives him a lowering sort of look forwards, expressive of great inquisitiveness into matters of fact and the consequences to be deduced from them. His eyes are singularly prominent, which, according to the Gallic system, would indicate an extraordinary development of the organ of language behind them. His nose is too low between the eyes, and not well or boldly formed in any other respect. The lips, although not handsome, have in their fleshy and massy outlines abundant marks of habitual reflection and intellectual occupation. The whole had a fine expression of intellectual dignity, candour, and serenity. The want of elevation, however, which I have already noticed, injures very much the effect even of the structure of the lower part of the head…. It is to be regretted that he wore powder, for this prevents us from having the advantage of seeing what was the natural style of his hair—or, indeed, of ascertaining the form of any part of his head beyond the forehead.”

These excerpts, and the ones that will follow in future “…but what were they actually like?” blog posts, are from Word Portraits of Famous Writers by Mabel E. Wotton (London: Bentley, 1887), It was a clever anthology, well reviewed, incidentally, by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette. Mabel Wotton (1863-1927) was an interesting writer, best known for her feminist novels, that found their place in the “New Woman” school – a term coined by the Irish writer, Sarah Grand, to embrace novels written by women of independent and radical outlook. Wotton was a close friend of Israel Zangwill, who introduced her to the publisher John Lane.

“…but what were they actually like?” 1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“She is little, hard featured, with long dark ringlets, a pale face, and plaintive voice, something very impressive in her dark eyes and her brow. Her general aspect puts me in mind of Mignon,—what Mignon might be in maturity and maternity.”—Sara Coleridge, Letters, 1851.

“Dined at home, and at eight dressed to go to Kenyon. With him I found an interesting person I had never seen before, Mrs. Browning, late Miss Barrett—not the invalid I expected; she has a handsome oval face, a fine eye, and altogether a pleasing person. She had no opportunity for display, and apparently no desire. Her husband has a very amiable expression. There is a singular sweetness about him.”—Crab Robinson, Diaries, 1852.

“My first acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett commenced about fifteen years ago. She was certainly one of the most interesting persons that I had ever seen. Everybody who then saw her said the same; so that it is not merely the impression of my partiality, or my enthusiasm. Of a slight delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed with dark eyelashes, a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend, in whose carriage we went together to Chiswick, that the translatress of the Prometheus of Æschylus, the authoress of the Essay on Mind, was old enough to be introduced into company, in technical language, was out.”—M. R. Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life. 1835.

These excerpts, and the ones that will follow in future “…but what were they actually like?” blog posts, are from Word Portraits of Famous Writers by Mabel E. Wotton (London: Bentley, 1887), It was a clever anthology, well reviewed, incidentally, by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette. Mabel Wotton (1863-1927) was an interesting writer, best known for her feminist novels, that found their place in the “New Woman” school – a term coined by the Irish writer, Sarah Grand, to embrace novels written by women of independent and radical outlook. Wotton was a close friend of Israel Zangwill, who introduced her to the publisher John Lane.

Wilhelmine, Margravine of Baireuth

Oscar Wilde reviews the Memoirs of WilhelmineMargravine of Baireuth. He quotes extensively from the book, highlighting some rather alarming episodes featuring Wilhelmine’s father, Frederick I of Prussia.

The Princess Christian’s translation of the Memoirs of WilhelmineMargravine of Baireuth, is a most fascinating and delightful book.  The Margravine and her brother, Frederick the Great, were, as the Princess herself points out in an admirably written introduction, ‘among the first of those questioning minds that strove after spiritual freedom’ in the last century.  ‘They had studied,’ says the Princess, ‘the English philosophers, Newton, Locke, and Shaftesbury, and were roused to enthusiasm by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau.  Their whole lives bore the impress of the influence of French thought on the burning questions of the day.  In the eighteenth century began that great struggle of philosophy against tyranny and worn-out abuses which culminated in the French Revolution.  The noblest minds were engaged in the struggle, and, like most reformers, they pushed their conclusions to extremes, and too often lost sight of the need of a due proportion in things.  The Margravine’s influence on the intellectual development of her country is untold.  She formed at Baireuth a centre of culture and learning which had before been undreamt of in Germany.’

The historical value of these Memoirs is, of course, well known.  Carlyle speaks of them as being ‘by far the best authority’ on the early life of Frederick the Great.  But considered merely as the autobiography of a clever and charming woman, they are no less interesting, and even those who care nothing for eighteenth-century politics, and look upon history itself as an unattractive form of fiction, cannot fail to be fascinated by the Margravine’s wit, vivacity and humour, by her keen powers of observation, and by her brilliant and assertive egotism.  Not that her life was by any means a happy one.  Her father, to quote the Princess Christian, ‘ruled his family with the same harsh despotism with which he ruled his country, taking pleasure in making his power felt by all in the most galling manner,’ and the Margravine and her brother ‘had much to suffer, not only from his ungovernable temper, but also from the real privations to which they were subjected.’  Indeed, the picture the Margravine gives of the King is quite extraordinary.  ‘He despised all learning,’ she writes, ‘and wished me to occupy myself with nothing but needlework and household duties or details.  Had he found me writing or reading, he would probably have whipped me.’  He ‘considered music a capital offence, and maintained that every one should devote himself to one object: men to the military service, and women to their household duties.  Science and the arts he counted among the “seven deadly sins.”’  Sometimes he took to religion, ‘and then,’ says the Margravine, ‘we lived like Trappists, to the great grief of my brother and myself.  Every afternoon the King preached a sermon, to which we had to listen as attentively as if it proceeded from an Apostle.  My brother and I were often seized with such an intense sense of the ridiculous that we burst out laughing, upon which an apostolic curse was poured out on our heads, which we had to accept with a show of humility and penitence.’  Economy and soldiers were his only topics of conversation; his chief social amusement was to make his guests intoxicated; and as for his temper, the accounts the Margravine gives of it would be almost incredible if they were not amply corroborated from other sources.  Suetonius has written of the strange madness that comes on kings, but even in his melodramatic chronicles there is hardly anything that rivals what the Margravine has to tell us.  Here is one of her pictures of family life at a Royal Court in the last century, and it is not by any means the worst scene she describes:

On one occasion, when his temper was more than usually bad, he told the Queen that he had received letters from Anspach, in which the Margrave announced his arrival at Berlin for the beginning of May.  He was coming there for the purpose of marrying my sister, and one of his ministers would arrive previously with the betrothal ring.  My father asked my sister whether she were pleased at this prospect, and how she would arrange her household.  Now my sister had always made a point of telling him whatever came into her head, even the greatest home-truths, and he had never taken her outspokenness amiss.  On this occasion, therefore, relying on former experience, she answered him as follows: ‘When I have a house of my own, I shall take care to have a well-appointed dinner-table, better than yours is, and if I have children of my own, I shall not plague them as you do yours, and force them to eat things they thoroughly dislike!’

‘What is amiss with my dinner-table?’ the King enquired, getting very red in the face.

‘You ask what is the matter with it,’ my sister replied; ‘there is not enough on it for us to eat, and what there is is cabbage and carrots, which we detest.’  Her first answer had already angered my father, but now he gave vent to his fury.  But instead of punishing my sister he poured it all on my mother, my brother, and myself.  To begin with he threw his plate at my brother’s head, who would have been struck had he not got out of the way; a second one he threw at me, which I also happily escaped; then torrents of abuse followed these first signs of hostility.  He reproached the Queen with having brought up her children so badly.  ‘You will curse your mother,’ he said to my brother, ‘for having made you such a good-for-nothing creature.’ . . . As my brother and I passed near him to leave the room, he hit out at us with his crutch.  Happily we escaped the blow; for it would certainly have struck us down, and we at last escaped without harm.

Yet, as the Princess Christian remarks, ‘despite the almost cruel treatment Wilhelmine received from her father, it is noticeable that throughout her memoirs she speaks of him with the greatest affection.  She makes constant reference to his “good heart”’; and says that his faults ‘were more those of temper than of nature.’  Nor could all the misery and wretchedness of her home life dull the brightness of her intellect.  What would have made others morbid, made her satirical.  Instead of weeping over her own personal tragedies, she laughs at the general comedy of life.  Here, for instance, is her description of Peter the Great and his wife, who arrived at Berlin in 1718:

The Czarina was small, broad, and brown-looking, without the slightest dignity or appearance.  You had only to look at her to detect her low origin.  She might have passed for a German actress, she had decked herself out in such a manner.  Her dress had been bought second-hand, and was trimmed with some dirty looking silver embroidery; the bodice was trimmed with precious stones, arranged in such a manner as to represent the double eagle.  She wore a dozen orders; and round the bottom of her dress hung quantities of relics and pictures of saints, which rattled when she walked, and reminded one of a smartly harnessed mule.  The orders too made a great noise, knocking against each other.

The Czar, on the other hand, was tall and well grown, with a handsome face, but his expression was coarse, and impressed one with fear.  He wore a simple sailor’s dress.  His wife, who spoke German very badly, called her court jester to her aid, and spoke Russian with her.  This poor creature was a Princess Gallizin, who had been obliged to undertake this sorry office to save her life, as she had been mixed up in a conspiracy against the Czar, and had twice been flogged with the knout!

The following day [the Czar] visited all the sights of Berlin, amongst others the very curious collection of coins and antiques.  Amongst these last named was a statue, representing a heathen god.  It was anything but attractive, but was the most valuable in the collection.  The Czar admired it very much, and insisted on the Czarina kissing it.  On her refusing, he said to her in bad German that she should lose her head if she did not at once obey him.  Being terrified at the Czar’s anger she immediately complied with his orders without the least hesitation.  The Czar asked the King to give him this and other statues, a request which he could not refuse.  The same thing happened about a cupboard, inlaid with amber.  It was the only one of its kind, and had cost King Frederick I. an enormous sum, and the consternation was general on its having to be sent to Petersburg.

This barbarous Court happily left after two days.  The Queen rushed at once to Monbijou, which she found in a state resembling that of the fall of Jerusalem.  I never saw such a sight.  Everything was destroyed, so that the Queen was obliged to rebuild the whole house.

Nor are the Margravine’s descriptions of her reception as a bride in the principality of Baireuth less amusing.  Hof was the first town she came to, and a deputation of nobles was waiting there to welcome her.  This is her account of them:

Their faces would have frightened little children, and, to add to their beauty, they had arranged their hair to resemble the wigs that were then in fashion.  Their dresses clearly denoted the antiquity of their families, as they were composed of heirlooms, and were cut accordingly, so that most of them did not fit.  In spite of their costumes being the ‘Court Dresses,’ the gold and silver trimmings were so black that you had a difficulty in making out of what they were made.  The manners of these nobles suited their faces and their clothes.  They might have passed for peasants.  I could scarcely restrain my laughter when I first beheld these strange figures.  I spoke to each in turn, but none of them understood what I said, and their replies sounded to me like Hebrew, because the dialect of the Empire is quite different from that spoken in Brandenburg.

The clergy also presented themselves.  These were totally different creatures.  Round their necks they wore great ruffs, which resembled washing baskets.  They spoke very slowly, so that I might be able to understand them better.  They said the most foolish things, and it was only with much difficulty that I was able to prevent myself from laughing.  At last I got rid of all these people, and we sat down to dinner.  I tried my best to converse with those at table, but it was useless.  At last I touched on agricultural topics, and then they began to thaw.  I was at once informed of all their different farmsteads and herds of cattle.  An almost interesting discussion took place as to whether the oxen in the upper part of the country were fatter than those in the lowlands.

I was told that as the next day was Sunday, I must spend it at Hof, and listen to a sermon.  Never before had I heard such a sermon!  The clergyman began by giving us an account of all the marriages that had taken place from Adam’s time to that of Noah.  We were spared no detail, so that the gentlemen all laughed and the poor ladies blushed.  The dinner went off as on the previous day.  In the afternoon all the ladies came to pay me their respects.  Gracious heavens!  What ladies, too!  They were all as ugly as the gentlemen, and their head-dresses were so curious that swallows might have built their nests in them.

As for Baireuth itself, and its petty Court, the picture she gives of it is exceedingly curious.  Her father-in-law, the reigning Margrave, was a narrow-minded mediocrity, whose conversation ‘resembled that of a sermon read aloud for the purpose of sending the listener to sleep,’ and he had only two topics, Telemachus, and Amelot de la Houssaye’s Roman History.  The Ministers, from Baron von Stein, who always said ‘yes’ to everything, to Baron von Voit, who always said ‘no,’ were not by any means an intellectual set of men.  ‘Their chief amusement,’ says the Margravine, ‘was drinking from morning till night,’ and horses and cattle were all they talked about.  The palace itself was shabby, decayed and dirty.  ‘I was like a lamb among wolves,’ cries the poor Margravine; ‘I was settled in a strange country, at a Court which more resembled a peasant’s farm, surrounded by coarse, bad, dangerous, and tiresome people.’

Yet her esprit never deserted her.  She is always clever, witty, and entertaining.  Her stories about the endless squabbles over precedence are extremely amusing.  The society of her day cared very little for good manners, knew, indeed, very little about them, but all questions of etiquette were of vital importance, and the Margravine herself, though she saw the shallowness of the whole system, was far too proud not to assert her rights when circumstances demanded it, as the description she gives of her visit to the Empress of Germany shows very clearly.  When this meeting was first proposed, the Margravine declined positively to entertain the idea.  ‘There was no precedent,’ she writes, ‘of a King’s daughter and the Empress having met, and I did not know to what rights I ought to lay claim.’  Finally, however, she is induced to consent, but she lays down three conditions for her reception:

I desired first of all that the Empress’s Court should receive me at the foot of the stairs, secondly, that she should meet me at the door of her bedroom, and, thirdly, that she should offer me an armchair to sit on.

They disputed all day over the conditions I had made.  The two first were granted me, but all that could be obtained with respect to the third was, that the Empress would use quite a small armchair, whilst she gave me a chair.

Next day I saw this Royal personage.  I own that had I been in her place I would have made all the rules of etiquette and ceremony the excuse for not being obliged to appear.  The Empress was small and stout, round as a ball, very ugly, and without dignity or manner.  Her mind corresponded to her body.  She was terribly bigoted, and spent her whole day praying.  The old and ugly are generally the Almighty’s portion.  She received me trembling all over, and was so upset that she could not say a word.

After some silence I began the conversation in French.  She answered me in her Austrian dialect that she could not speak in that language, and begged I would speak in German.  The conversation did not last long, for the Austrian and low Saxon tongues are so different from each other that to those acquainted with only one the other is unintelligible.  This is what happened to us.  A third person would have laughed at our misunderstandings, for we caught only a word here and there, and had to guess the rest.  The poor Empress was such a slave to etiquette that she would have thought it high treason had she spoken to me in a foreign language, though she understood French quite well.

Many other extracts might be given from this delightful book, but from the few that have been selected some idea can be formed of the vivacity and picturesqueness of the Margravine’s style.  As for her character, it is very well summed up by the Princess Christian, who, while admitting that she often appears almost heartless and inconsiderate, yet claims that, ‘taken as a whole, she stands out in marked prominence among the most gifted women of the eighteenth century, not only by her mental powers, but by her goodness of heart, her self-sacrificing devotion, and true friendship.’  An interesting sequel to her Memoirs would be her correspondence with Voltaire, and it is to be hoped that we may shortly see a translation of these letters from the same accomplished pen to which we owe the present volume.

William Lyon Phelps on Russian literature

Here is an illuminating excerpt from an essay on Russian literature by William Lyon Phelps (1865 – 1943). Given the somewhat disparaging remark he makes about early American literature, it should be remembered that Phelps was himself an American. Indeed, he has the distinction of being the first professor at an American university to teach a course on the modern novel. This was during his tenure at the Yale, where his conservative colleagues were hugely disapproving of such a ‘lightweight’ initiative. He felt obliged to discontinue the course in the wake of unwelcome media attention, though his adoring pupils persuaded him to teach it privately on an extra-curricular basis. Phelps lived on his wife’s family estate near Lake Huron – he renamed the mansion The House of the Seven Gables, after a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Phelps was clearly quite a character. He built an 18-hole golf course on the estate. He also played baseball, and had a radio show.  

At the start, we notice a rather curious fact, which sharply differentiates Russian literature from the literature of England, France, Spain, Italy, and even from that of Germany. Russia is old; her literature is new. Russian history goes back to the ninth century; Russian literature, so far as it interests the world, begins in the nineteenth. Russian literature and American literature are twins. But there is this strong contrast, caused partly by the difference in the age of the two nations. In the early years of the nineteenth century, American literature sounds like a child learning to talk, and then aping its elders; Russian literature is the voice of a giant, waking from a long sleep, and becoming articulate. It is as though the world had watched this giant’s deep slumber for a long time, wondering what he would say when he awakened. And what he has said has been well worth the thousand years of waiting.

To an educated native Slav, or to a professor of the Russian language, twenty or thirty Russian authors would no doubt seem important; but the general foreign reading public is quite properly mainly interested in only five standard writers, although contemporary novelists like Gorki, Artsybashev, Andreev, and others are at this moment deservedly attracting wide attention. The great five, whose place in the world’s literature seems absolutely secure, are Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi. The man who killed Pushkin in a duel survived till 1895, and Tolstoi died in 1910. These figures show in how short a time Russian literature has had its origin, development, and full fruition.

Pushkin, who was born in 1799 and died in 1838, is the founder of Russian literature, and it is difficult to overestimate his influence. He is the first, and still the most generally beloved, of all their national poets. The wild enthusiasm that greeted his verse has never passed away, and he has generally been regarded in Russia as one of the great poets of the world. Yet Matthew Arnold announced in his Olympian manner, “The Russians have not yet had a great poet.” It is always difficult fully to appreciate poetry in a foreign language, especially when the language is so strange as Russian. It is certain that no modern European tongue has been able fairly to represent the beauty of Pushkin’s verse, to make foreigners feel him as Russians feel him, in any such measure as the Germans succeeded with Shakespeare, as Bayard Taylor with Goethe, as Ludwig Fulda with Rostand. The translations of Pushkin and of Lermontov have never impressed foreign readers in the superlative degree. The glory of English literature is its poetry; the glory of Russian literature is its prose fiction.

Pushkin was, for a time at any rate, a Romantic, largely influenced, as all the world was then, by Byron. He is full of sentiment, smiles and tears, and passionate enthusiasms. He therefore struck out in a path in which he has had no great followers; for the big men in Russian literature are all Realists. Romanticism is as foreign to the spirit of Russian Realism as it is to French Classicism. What is peculiarly Slavonic about Pushkin is his simplicity, his naïveté. Though affected by foreign models, he was close to the soil. This is shown particularly in his prose tales, and it is here that his title as Founder of Russian Literature is most clearly demonstrated. He took Russia away from the artificiality of the eighteenth century, and exhibited the possibilities of native material in the native tongue.

The founder of the mighty school of Russian Realism was Gogol. Filled with enthusiasm for Pushkin, he nevertheless took a different course, and became Russia’s first great novelist. Furthermore, although a melancholy man, he is the only Russian humorist who has made the world laugh out loud. Humour is not a salient quality in Russian fiction. Then came the brilliant follower of Gogol, Ivan Turgenev. In him Russian literary art reached its climax, and the art of the modern novel as well. He is not only the greatest master of prose style that Russia has ever produced; he is the only Russian who has shown genius in Construction. Perhaps no novels in any language have shown the impeccable beauty of form attained in the works of Turgenev. George Moore queries, “Is not Turgenev the greatest artist that has existed since antiquity?”

Dostoevski, seven years older than Tolstoi, and three years younger than Turgenev, was not so much a Realist as a Naturalist; his chief interest was in the psychological processes of the unclassed. His foreign fame is constantly growing brighter, for his works have an extraordinary vitality. Finally appeared Leo Tolstoi, whose literary career extended nearly sixty years. During the last twenty years of his life, he was generally regarded as the world’s greatest living author; his books enjoyed an enormous circulation, and he probably influenced more individuals by his pen than any other man of his time.

In the novels of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi we ought to find all the prominent traits in the Russian character.

It is a rather curious thing, that Russia, which has never had a parliamentary government, and where political history has been very little influenced by the spoken word, should have so much finer an instrument of expression than England, where matters of the greatest importance have been settled by open and public speech for nearly three hundred years. One would think that the constant use of the language in the national forum for purposes of argument and persuasion would help to make it flexible and subtle; and that the almost total absence of such employment would tend toward narrowness and rigidity. In this instance exactly the contrary is the case. If we may trust the testimony of those who know, we are forced to the conclusion that the English language, compared with the Russian, is nothing but an awkward dialect. Compared with Russian, the English language is decidedly weak in synonyms, and in the various shades of meaning that make for precision. Indeed, with the exception of Polish, Russian is probably the greatest language in the world, in richness, variety, definiteness, and elegance. It is also capable of saying much in little, and saying it with tremendous force. In Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring, where the reader hears constantly phrases in Italian, French, and German, it will be remembered that the ladies ask Sanin to sing something in his mother tongue. “The ladies praised his voice and the music, but were more struck with the softness and sonorousness of the Russian language.” I remember being similarly affected years ago when I heard King Lear read aloud in Russian. Baron von der Bruggen says, “there is the wonderful wealth of the language, which, as a popular tongue, is more flexible, more expressive of thought than any other living tongue I know of.” No one has paid a better tribute than Gogol:–

“The Russian people express themselves forcibly; and if they once bestow an epithet upon a person, it will descend to his race and posterity; he will bear it about with him, in service, in retreat, in Petersburg, and to the ends of the earth; and use what cunning he will, ennoble his career as he will thereafter, nothing is of the slightest use; that nickname will caw of itself at the top of its crow’s voice, and will show clearly whence the bird has flown. A pointed epithet once uttered is the same as though it were written down, and an axe will not cut it out.”

Oscar Wilde on Common-Sense in Art

Oscar Wilde’s journalism is tremendously entertaining and deserves to be more widely read than it currently is. Here is his review, in the Pall Mall Gazette of January 1887, of John Collier’s A Manual of Oil Painting. I have inserted a reasonably indicative example of Collier’s painting (he was a leading artist of the day) halfway through the review.

At this critical moment in the artistic development of England Mr. John Collier has come forward as the champion of common-sense in art.  It will be remembered that Mr. Quilter, in one of his most vivid and picturesque metaphors, compared Mr. Collier’s method as a painter to that of a shampooer in a Turkish bath. As a writer Mr. Collier is no less interesting.  It is true that he is not eloquent, but then he censures with just severity ‘the meaningless eloquence of the writers on æsthetics’; we admit that he is not subtle, but then he is careful to remind us that Leonardo da Vinci’s views on painting are nonsensical; Collier’s qualities are of a solid, indeed we may say of a stolid order; he is thoroughly honest, sturdy and downright, and he advises us, if we want to know anything about art, to study the works of ‘Helmholtz, Stokes, or Tyndall,’ [* see note below] to which we hope we may be allowed to add Mr. Collier’s own Manual of Oil Painting.


Circe. John Collier (1850-1934). Oil on canvas. 1885. 132.7 x 220cm.

For this art of painting is a very simple thing indeed, according to Mr. Collier.  It consists merely in the ‘representation of natural objects by means of pigments on a flat surface.’  There is nothing, he tells us, ‘so very mysterious’ in it after all.  ‘Every natural object appears to us as a sort of pattern of different shades and colours,’ and ‘the task of the artist is so to arrange his shades and colours on his canvas that a similar pattern is produced.’  This is obviously pure common-sense, and it is clear that art-definitions of this character can be comprehended by the very meanest capacity and, indeed, may be said to appeal to it.  For the perfect development, however, of this pattern-producing faculty a severe training is necessary.  The art student must begin by painting china, crockery, and ‘still life’ generally.  He should rule his straight lines and employ actual measurements wherever it is possible.  He will also find that a plumb-line comes in very useful.  Then he should proceed to Greek sculpture, for from pottery to Phidias is only one step.  Ultimately he will arrive at the living model, and as soon as he can ‘faithfully represent any object that he has before him’ he is a painter.  After this there is, of course, only one thing to be considered, the important question of subject.  Subjects, Mr. Collier tells us, are of two kinds, ancient and modern.  Modern subjects are more healthy than ancient subjects, but the real difficulty of modernity in art is that the artist passes his life with respectable people, and that respectable people are unpictorial.  ‘For picturesqueness,’ consequently, he should go to ‘the rural poor,’ and for pathos to the London slums.  Ancient subjects offer the artist a very much wider field.  If he is fond of ‘rich stuffs and costly accessories’ he should study the Middle Ages; if he wishes to paint beautiful people, ‘untrammelled by any considerations of historical accuracy,’ he should turn to the Greek and Roman mythology; and if he is a ‘mediocre painter,’ he should choose his ‘subject from the Old and New Testament,’ a recommendation, by the way, that many of our Royal Academicians seem already to have carried out.  To paint a real historical picture one requires the assistance of a theatrical costumier and a photographer.  From the former one hires the dresses and the latter supplies one with the true background.  Besides subject-pictures there are also portraits and landscapes.  Portrait painting, Mr. Collier tells us, ‘makes no demands on the imagination.’  As is the sitter, so is the work of art.  If the sitter be commonplace, for instance, it would be ‘contrary to the fundamental principles of portraiture to make the picture other than commonplace.’  There are, however, certain rules that should be followed.  One of the most important of these is that the artist should always consult his sitter’s relations before he begins the picture.  If they want a profile he must do them a profile; if they require a full face he must give them a full face; and he should be careful also to get their opinion as to the costume the sitter should wear and ‘the sort of expression he should put on.’  ‘After all,’ says Mr. Collier pathetically, ‘it is they who have to live with the picture.’

Besides the difficulty of pleasing the victim’s family, however, there is the difficulty of pleasing the victim.  According to Mr. Collier, and he is, of course, a high authority on the matter, portrait painters bore their sitters very much.  The true artist consequently should encourage his sitter to converse, or get some one to read to him; for if the sitter is bored the portrait will look sad.  Still, if the sitter has not got an amiable expression naturally the artist is not bound to give him one, nor ‘if he is essentially ungraceful’ should the artist ever ‘put him in a graceful attitude.’  As regards landscape painting, Mr. Collier tells us that ‘a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the impossibility of reproducing nature,’ but that there is nothing really to prevent a picture giving to the eye exactly the same impression that an actual scene gives, for that when he visited ‘the celebrated panorama of the Siege of Paris’ he could hardly distinguish the painted from the real cannons!  The whole passage is extremely interesting, and is really one out of many examples we might give of the swift and simple manner in which the common-sense method solves the great problems of art.  The book concludes with a detailed exposition of the undulatory theory of light according to the most ancient scientific discoveries.  Mr. Collier points out how important it is for an artist to hold sound views on the subject of ether waves, and his own thorough appreciation of Science may be estimated by the definition he gives of it as being ‘neither more nor less than knowledge.’

Mr. Collier has done his work with much industry and earnestness.  Indeed, nothing but the most conscientious seriousness, combined with real labour, could have produced such a book, and the exact value of common-sense in art has never before been so clearly demonstrated.

Note: Hermann von Helmholtz. George Stokes and John Tyndall were all physicists and all had a special interest in light – colour theory, particles vs. wave theories, refraction, spectroscopy and so on. Collier was keen to use science underpin his no-nonsense approach to the demystification of art, hence the preoccupation with ‘ether waves’ and much else.

Evelyn March Phillipps on Giorgione

Here is an excellent meditation on Giorgione, from The Venetian School of Painting by Evelyn March Phillipps (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1912). The excerpt seems to me to be an excellent example of how to write about art; direct, passionate and utterly free from jargon or pretension. March Phillipps is little read today, and long overdue a revival. In addition to her art historical works, she wrote extensively on women’s emancipation in the Fortnightly Review, and was active in the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Institute of Women Journalists.  

Giorgione no longer described “in drawing’s learned tongue”; he carried all before him by giving his direct impression in colour. He conceives in colour. The Florentines cared little if their finely drawn draperies were blue or red, but Giorgione images purple clouds, their dark velvet glowing towards a rose and orange horizon. He hardly knows what attitudes his characters take, but their chestnut hair, their deep-hued draperies, their amber flesh, make a moving harmony in which the importance of exact modelling is lost sight of. His scenes are not composed methodically and according to the old rules, but are the direct impress of the painter’s joy in life. It was a new and audacious style in painting, and its keynote, and absolutely inevitable consequence, was to substitute for form and for gay, simple tints laid upon it, the quality of chiaroscuro. We all know how the shades of evening are able to transform the most commonplace scene; the dull road becomes a mysterious avenue, the colourless foliage develops luscious depths, the drab and arid plain glows with mellow light, purple shadows clothe and soften every harsh and ugly object, all detail dies, and our apprehension of it dies also. Our mood changes; instead of observing and criticising, we become soothed, contemplative, dreamy. It is the carrying of this profound feeling into a colour-scheme by means of chiaroscuro, so that it is no longer learned and explanatory, but deeply sensuous and emotional, that is the gift to art which found full voice with Giorgione, and which in one moment was recognised and welcomed to the exclusion of the older manner, because it touched the chord which vibrated through the whole Venetian temperament.

And the immediate result was the picture of no subject. Giorgione creates for us idle figures with radiant flesh, or robed in rich costumes, surrounded by lovely country, and we do not ask or care why they are gathered together. We have all had dreams of Elysian fields, “where falls not any rain, nor ever wind blows loudly,” where all is rest and freedom, where music blends with the plash of fountains, and fruits ripen, and lovers dream away the days, and no one asks what went before or what follows after. The Golden Age, the haunt of fauns and nymphs: there never has been such a day, or such a land: it is a mood, a vision: it has danced before the eyes of poets, from David to Keats and Tennyson: it has rocked the tired hearts of men in all ages: the vision of a resting-place which makes no demands and where the dwellers are exempt from the cares and weakness of mortality. Needless to say, it is an ideal born of the East; it is the Eastern dream of Paradise, and it speaks to that strain in the temperament which recognises that life cannot be all thought, but also needs feeling and emotion. And for the first time in all the world the painter of Castelfranco sets that vague dream before men’s eyes. The world, with its wistful yearnings and questionings, such as Leonardo or Botticelli embodied, said little to his audience. Here was their natural atmosphere, though they had never known it before. These deep, solemn tones, these fused and golden lights are what Giorgione grasps from the material world, and as he steeps his senses in them the subject counts but little in the deep enjoyment they communicate. We, who have seen his manner repeated and developed through thousands of pictures, find it difficult to realise that there had been nothing like it before, that it was a unique departure, that when Bellini and Titian looked at his first creations they must have experienced a shock of revelation. The old definite style must have seemed suddenly hard and meagre, and every time they looked on the glorious world, the deep glow of sunset, the mysterious shades of falling night, they must have felt they were endowed with a sense to which they had hitherto been strangers, but which, it was at once apparent, was their true heritage. They had found themselves, and in them Venice found her real expression, and with Giorgione and those who felt his impetus began the true Venetian School, set apart from all other forms of art by its way of using and diffusing and intensifying colour.

Live Streaming in 1911

In 1911, Marcel Proust listened to the Third Act of Die Meistersinger on Théâtrophone, an intriguing early version of live streaming whereby subscribers could listen to performances by telephone from home, via a bank of receivers placed directly in front of the stage. It is a pleasing vignette. Proust was an enthusiastic Théâtrophone subscriber, as was King Luis I of Portugal, who enjoyed the service so much that he elevated its franchisee, the director of the Edison Gower Bell Company, to the Military Order of Christ. While Die Meistersinger is mentioned in passing in À la recherche du temps perdu, a line in the Third Act plays a central role in an absorbing short story by Proust, published in 1893, Mélancolique villégiature de Mme de Breyves (The Melancholy Summer of Madame de Breyves). In the story, Juliette de Breyves is a shy, lonely and attractive young widow of 24, drifting aimlessly from party to concert. One evening at a soirée, she notices a Monsieur Jacques de Laléande. He seems neither interesting nor particularly attractive, until he quite unexpectedly makes an explicit pass at her towards the end of the evening. She spends the next fortnight trying decorously to engineer a meeting with him with the help of her friend, Anne. Unfortunately, Monsieur de Laléande leaves Paris for Biarritz, albeit only for “a few months”, but for an eternity so far as she is concerned. Juliette is plunged into frenzied obsession. It is darkened and intensified when, unluckily, she hears Hans Sach’s aria, Was duftet doch der Flieder. This becomes her leitmotiv (Proust uses the Wagnerian term) for Monsieur de Laléande. She spends hours in her music room picking out the melody on the piano. She can think of nothing else. The melody is continually with her, evoking bittersweet thoughts of that brief moment of hope and the promise of happiness she came to believe it held.