J. E. (John Evan) Hodgson.

The Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 online

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he went to India with his nephew, William Daniell, then a boy
of fourteen who himself afterwards became a member of the
Academy and the two, for ten years, travelled over and sketched
the country from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas. Soon after
his return, in 1796, Thomas Daniell was elected an Associate,
and in 1799 an Academician. The results of the uncle's and
nephew's labours were published in 1807 in a work of six


volumes, called Oriental Scenery. Daniell, who, after his visit
to India, seldom painted anything but Indian subjects, lived to
the great age of ninety-one, dying on iQth March 1840.

Here ends the roll of Academicians in the eighteenth
century. With the nineteenth there began an entirely new
phase of British Art. The portraitists still clung to the tradi-
tions inherited from Reynolds and Gainsborough, but illustrated
them with less depth and richness, and also, it must be con-
fessed, with less invention and spontaneity. In every other
department, in lieu of the severe restraint imposed upon them-
selves by the earlier school, we find a widespread tentativeness,
a diffuseness, and a tendency to explore new fields, which
eventually brought about what modern French critics recognise
as the peculiar characteristic of the English school that is, its
personal character, and its entire independence of all schools
and traditions.

Surveying British Art from the imaginary standpoint of the
year 1800, we see little splendour or attractiveness in what is
known as history, genre, or figure painting, in our immediate
foreground. There is a long dreary interval on which no light
is shed save by luminaries of a low order of magnitude, but, on
the other hand, we see landscape painting attaining a splendour
and brilliancy such as was never seen before. In this depart-
ment, and out of grimy, smoky London, there arose an epoch-
making artist, who set his seal on the art for ever as the master
of space, light, and atmosphere. With his name and that of
Flaxman the roll of Academicians in the nineteenth century
made no unworthy beginning.


The annalist of Art is perforce occupied for the most of
his time with the uninteresting degrees of talent and accomplish-
ment which have been exhibited by masters of a school. The


geniuses, when he comes to them, are like plums, and he has
often to complain that they are so few compared to an intolerable
amount of pudding. But he finds the short history of British
Art perhaps more thickly studded than any other ; native-born
geniuses are neither few nor far between ; and among them,
as far as gifts of nature are concerned, must be placed John

The birth into the world of an artistic genius is so rare
and momentous an event that it would seem becoming and
grateful to take him as we find him, and not to criticise
overmuch. But there is a disturbing reflection connected with
British Art which will slide in and mar our self-satisfaction.
At the christening of every great British artist there seems to
have been a crabbed old fairy godmother, or a crabbed old fairy
who was not asked to be a godmother, who threw in a gift
which undid the benefit of all the rest; she seems to have
muttered to herself, " Yes, you are a genius of the first order,
but because you have offended me, I will see to it that you
don't make the most of that genius."

Hogarth was a born painter, with a wonderfully dramatic
imagination, but he wilfully and perversely refused to see the
merit of the great painters of the past, and starved his genius
in consequence. Reynolds had supreme gifts and a mighty
hand, he cited Michael Angelo as the ultimate culmination of
artistic greatness, and so did others of his contemporaries.
Gainsborough, inspired as perhaps none other ever was by
nature, spoke of Van Dyck as having attained to apotheosis.
In quite recent times, again, we have had Alfred Stevens,
the sculptor of the Wellington Memorial, who also placed
the great Florentine sculptor, painter, and architect on
the highest pinnacle of fame. These men all had genius,
and yet neither national prejudice nor vanity can tempt
a reasonable critic to credit them with supreme achieve-
ment. Their allusion to Michael Angelo is especially unfor-
tunate, as it seems to point out the weak point in our national


genius. Everybody must be impressed by the grandeur of his
style and the sublime transports of his imagination ; but these
alone would not have sufficed to make the Michael Angelo we
know and recognise. He was the man, of all others, that ever
lived, who took his art most seriously, who was most untiring
in his observation and investigation, who penetrated the most
profoundly into all the capabilities of his art, who understood
and could discriminate the individual and the typical, and who
could imitate nature with the greatest knowledge and subtlety.
To arrive at this he paid a price which no British artist unfor-
tunately seems to have been willing to pay, and the excellencies
of our school, though striking and brilliant, are not free from
the reproach of falling short of attainable perfection : in other
words, of the taint of superficiality.

We have been led into these discomforting reflections by
finding ourselves immediately face to face with the task of
tracing the career of John Flaxman, who was both one of the
most gifted and the most superficial of British artists. Mr
Sidney Colvin has justly said of him that he was a natural
classicist ; he loved in his heart, and was truly inspired by the
severity, simplicity, and grace of Grecian Art ; though it would
be more precise to say, of the art of Praxiteles and his followers,
for with Phidias, the greatest of the Greeks, he seems to have
had little or no spiritual kinship. This may have been partly the
fault of his time : for though Flaxman was an original genius
he was strictly of his time. In his age, or at all events in the
age immediately preceding him, though there had been infinite
talk on the sublime, there had been little evidence of it in Art,
which seldom got beyond the graceful and elegant. One is
tempted to think that the virtuosi and cognoscenti of that period,
the Beaumonts, Walpoles, and others, who talked so volubly,
did not really understand what was grand and impressive in
Art ; it is difficult on any other supposition to account for their
toleration of the gingerbread Gothic of Arlington Street and
Strawberry Hill. Many of the mannerisms, such as the attenu-


ated grace, the long ogival curves, which are so wearisome in
the works of Cipriani, Angelica Kauffman, and West, reappear
in Flaxman, but they are so beautifully balanced and harmon-
ised that they do not offend ; the worst that can be said of
them is that they somewhat emasculate his art, and that in the
midst of graceful and voluptuous curvature we are made
occasionally to sigh for a little ruggedness and angularity.

But the personality of the artist had no doubt more to do
with this than the influence of his time. Flaxman's was not
a strong, vigorous nature; he was a gentle, loving, and pious
creature, who had been rickety and sickly in his childhood, and
had remained delicate and frail all his life. We are quite aware
that we are treading on dangerous ground, and that there may
be no natural connection between physical vigour and a
masculine intellect. We have seen the spectacle of Pope, as
someone somewhere said of him, quivering in every nerve,
and yet penning the savage and scathing sarcasms of the
Dunciad ; but for all that, it is hardly possible to imagine a
Mirabeau writing the poems of Maurice de Guerin. Be that
as it may, Flaxman was most successful, and touched nearer
to greatness, when his theme naturally called forth a pensive
and peaceful frame of mind ; as, for instance, in his monumental
effigies, where he represented the grief of parents and orphans,
and the pious resignation of Christians, or in his drawings in
such scenes as the "Sleep and Death," and "Thetis and the
Nereids " ; and he failed when he attempted the heroic vein,
most signally in his drawings where he depicted the righting
heroes of Grecian mythology, straddling and frowning feroci-
ously at each other over the rims of their monstrous shields.
In the drawing of " Prometheus bound to the Rock," there is
more of melodramatic exaggeration than of real grandeur
and impressiveness ; his Prometheus struggles violently with
his captors, as the unfortunate king of France struggled with
his executioners. Flaxman was a long way from raising him-
self to the sublimity of Shelley's Titan, who when taunted by


the messenger of Jove with the length of years he would have
to suffer torments, answered proudly, " Perchance no thought
can count them, yet they pass."

The estimation in which he is held, both in his own country
and abroad, rests entirely on his merits as a designer, on the
beauty and novelty of his compositions, and on the graceful
combination of his lines and masses. As a sculptor, that is, as
one who practised the art of representing the human form,
he falls immeasurably below the completeness which is
attained by perhaps half-a-dozen men in every exhibition of
the Paris Salon. He skimmed the mere surface of the sculptor's
art. His form, his anatomy, his proportion, although all right
so far as they go, stop short at a certain point, beyond which
he could not step for want of closer study. It is vexatious to
see a powerful genius failing to attain to the highest excellence
for want of what mediocrity has at its command.

Much of Flaxman's work has been lost to the world. He
was as one who wrote his tablets on the sea sand, and the tides
have effaced them. For many years he was engaged in fashioning
the beautiful cameo-like reliefs which adorn Wedgwood's pottery.
To admire that ware heartily, with a whole mind, is not
altogether possible. There is something spurious about its
undoubted charm. Its interest is like that of the scrap-book,
which is not admired for its text, its type, or its binding, but
for the little pictures which have been collected together from
all sorts of sources. It is too artificial, finicking, and minute
for application to the purposes of pottery. It was at one time
in fashion, and, like many other things, went out of it again.
The careless housemaid has been in all ages responsible for
much destruction of crockery, and the specimens of Henry II.
pottery extant may have dwindled into the column of units
they now occupy by passing through generations of housemaids'
hands, but in the case of Wedgwood, it is said, that it was at
one time and of malice prepense cast into the Philistine dust-
bins of a former generation, and with it no doubt perished many


beautiful memorials of Flaxman's genius. But luckily the rage
of the collector has come to the rescue, and like posthumous
fame, " penna metuente solvi," it will save what is left for the
admiration of future generations.

John Flaxman was born in York in 1755, but only six
months after his birth his father removed to London, and
opened a shop as a figure-moulder in New Street, Covent
Garden. The plaster-cast man is the lineal descendant of the
image maker of the Middle Ages, whose workshop was the
nursery of so many artists, and frail, rickety little John Flax-
man, propped up in a chair in his father's workshop, a chair
from which he could only toddle away with the help of crutches,
sat there drinking in Art impressions when other children of
his age were only playing with marbles which were not of the
classical sort. There is a strong air of the marvellous in what
we read of his early history. A certain Mr Matthew finding
him drawing and modelling in the intervals of reading Homer,
and his notice being attracted, as it well might be, by such a
phenomenon, takes him into his house, where there is a talented
and accomplished Mrs Matthew. We must presume that the
boy's first acquaintance with Homer was through a crib, but
Mr and Mrs Matthew, we are informed, did succeed by their
united encouragement and assistance in enabling him to read
with facility Virgil, Homer, and even ^Eschylus in the

At the age of fifteen he was admitted as a student into the
schools of the Royal Academy, and his connection with Wedg-
wood appears to have begun soon after. He gained the silver
medal for a design in sculpture, but, quite contrary to his
expectations, was defeated by Thomas Engleheart in the com-
petition for the gold medal, the subject of which was Ulysses
and Nausicaa.

In 1782 Flaxman was married to Ann Denman, and removed
from his father's house to 27 Wardour Street. On this occasion
Reynolds, like the confirmed old bachelor that he was, told him


that he was ruined as an artist, a mere delusion which has been
shared by others. On the question of matrimony or celibacy
as best for the artist, the balance of reasoning pro et con should
be in favour of the blessed state, seeing that it is conducive to
a quiet domestic life, and we have it on the authority of Goethe,

" Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
Ein charakter in dem Strom der Welt."

The experiment in the case of Flaxman, at all events, was
eminently successful, as Ann Denman proved herself a sympa-
thising and helpful partner of his life, though the determined
misogynist might object that the experiment in his case was
not carried to its usual disastrous consequences, for no children
were born to them.

In 1787 the Flaxmans migrated to Rome, where they so-
journed till 1794. The peaceful annals of an artist's life draw
the mind away from wars and strife ; we think of Flaxman in
Rome drawing his designs from Homer, Dante, and jEschylus,
and executing his groups of Athamas and Cephalus and Aurora ;
and it does not occur to us to think that the world was all
ablaze behind him the while, that kings, principalities, and
powers were being piled as on a huge holocaust, and going up
into the skies in smoke and shrieking and lamentation. When
the earnest, pious little sculptor left his home in England, the
kingdom of France was in its death throes, and when he
returned, it was dead ; and there was to be seen daily one of
the most gruesome spectacles of history, the famous Tricoteuses
seated at the foot of the scaffold, and counting the heads as they
were shorn off. ^

On his return to London, Flaxman settled himself in No. 7
Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square, where he seems to have
lived to the end of his life. In 1797 he was elected an Asso-
ciate, and in 1800 a full Academician. This was the monu-
mental period of his art life, and as we have said before, it


was in memorial effigies to the dead that he showed his
greatest originality, and attained to his highest excellence as a
sculptor. In this department he set the type ; such monuments
as those to Lady Baring in Micheldever Church, and to Mary
Lushington, in Lewisham Church, would seem to be the ideal
application of sculpture as introduced into a Christian temple.
The ages of innocence, of iron, of heroes, all had passed away,
the mythology of Greece lingered only amongst the learned as
an artificial cultus ; Flaxman succeeded as no sculptor before
him or after him ever succeeded, in drawing a noble inspiration
from a living faith which still held possession of the hearts of
men. He showed this especially in the lectures which he
delivered at the Academy as Professor of Sculpture, a post to
which he was elected in 1810.

In 1818 he returned to his classical love, and sought for
inspiration once more in Helicon. The shield of Achilles which
he modelled, faithfully following the description in the eighteenth
book of the Iliad, is truly a colossal monument of industry,
genius, and taste. Its circumference is nine feet ; the circular
boss in the centre represents Apollo in his chariot, the " sol curru
nitido," who is the central type of the ancient conception of the
universe ; around him concentrically are arranged all the scenes
described by Homer as illustrating the polity of a state and the
occupations of men.

In 1820, the peaceful days of industry, bringing with them
their silent satisfaction and the uninterrupted flow of accustomed
comforts, came to an end for him. His wife died, and after that
event he is described as living more retired ; though, perhaps,
owing to deafness, he had never sought society eagerly. His
industry continued unabated for six years, when the call came
to him also. He caught a cold on 3rd December 1826, and died
on the 9th in his seventy-third year.

In passing, as we are now about to do, from John Flaxman
to J. M. W. Turner, we seem to be making a prodigious leap
which touches the two extreme points of difference by which



the arts of sculpture and painting are separated ; as they each
of them illustrate in a somewhat exaggerated degree the
qualities which are especially characteristic of those two
branches of art

Turner, the painter, loved to record the aerial, evanescent,
and intangible features in nature, which no science can demon-
strate and no art but that of painting pourtray. He pursued
this, his favourite theme, even beyond the boundaries of the
vague and unintelligible. If it be permissible to judge the
direction of prevailing tendencies by the evidence of excesses
occasionally committed, we must infer that, in Turner's mind,
form, which represents the concrete element of his art, gradually
lost its importance ; and that his attention was concentrated,
more and more, on that drapery of light and colour with which
Nature clothes her form, and which corresponds with the

In the work of John Flaxman, on the opposite hand, we find
the rigidity and solidity which are peculiar to sculpture equally
carried to excess ; his forms are large and simple, but they are
generalised even to meagreness, and he persistently neglected
to render those delicate undulations of surface by which the
sculptor suggests colour and texture.

Between his art and that of Turner can be traced an infinite
number of gradations by which sculpture and painting have
approached each other, and as instances of such approximation
may be mentioned the statues of Canova and the pictures of
Andrea Mantegna.




A very momentous event in the history of Art, and one pro-
bably enacted in a corner, took place in the year 1790, when an
unpretentious and somewhat puerile water-colour drawing of
Lambeth Palace was exhibited on the walls of the Royal
Academy. It was signed W. Turner. From that small
beginning uninterruptedly for sixty years there followed a series
of pictures and drawings ; and for fifty years, we may say with
certainty, they increased in splendour and imaginativeness,
transcending the limits which previous conceptions could have
assigned to human versatility and invention.

Of this painter, it is perhaps more true than of most others
that his life is best studied in his works. Walter Thornbury
wrote two bulky octavo volumes of Life, into which he
crammed every anecdote and saying of the great man which he
could collect, at a time when many of Turner's friends and
acquaintances were still alive, and the result as a biography is
not convincing. It fails to supply the mind with the visual pre-
sentment of an individual. We learn from these volumes that
he was short and thick-set, with large eyebrows and piercing
grey eyes, that his nose was hooked, his mouth compressed, and
that in middle life he was tanned and weather-beaten like a
sailor, but very little else that we care to know ; with his



niggardly ways and with whatever other sins of omission or com-
mission are imputed to him, we have no concern. We must be
satisfied with a vague and enigmatical conception of one of the
world's greatest painters. He was evidently a self-contained,
taciturn, and even inarticulate man. His industry was prodi-
gious, his mind extraordinarily active, and controlled by intense
earnestness of purpose and loftiness of aim, while it was also
kept in motion by the pressure of a thousand horse-power of
will. He shunned society to live entirely in and for his art.

His father was a hairdresser, who kept a small shop in
Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, and there Turner was born on
23rd April 1775. It is said that the painter of the "Garden of
the Hesperides " and " Ulysses deriding Polyphemus " received
a very rudimentary education, and his art training has also been
made the subject of some severe strictures by Mr Ruskin.
According to him Turner's bad architecture, in other words,
his preference for the classical and Palladian, and his want
of sympathy with Gothic, are attributed to his studies under
Mr Hardwick ; whilst his " meaningless classical compositions,"
such as his " Carthage," " Bay of Baiae," etc., are traced to the
false teaching he received in the schools of the Royal Academy,
with its casts from the antique and its classical traditions. Mr
Ruskin is sometimes very hard to please, especially when his
text seems to require a little smart satirical flavouring ; but con-
sidering that he has published five bulky volumes in which he
proves to demonstration that Turner's art was based on Nature
more completely than that of any painter who ever lived, that
he had more profoundly studied her and penetrated more
deeply into her mysteries, it does seem a little captious, to say
the least of it, that he should cavil at a slight amount of instruc-
tion having been given him in conventional ideas, which have
been universally accepted for centuries.

It is our opinion that in the case of Turner the accidents of
fate and fortune, acting on a peculiar temperament and turn of
mind, produced as perfect a form of art education, and one as


consistently practical and progressive as that enjoyed by Raphael
who was the favoured nursling of fortune in that respect.

Just think of it. As a child almost, in a small back room in
a dark slum of this great city, we find him engaged in copying
drawings by Paul Sandby and others which had been lent to
him. Then he is sent to an architect's office, where he is taught
perspective and the precise drawing which is essential to that
branch of Art. Then in 1789 he is admitted to the schools of
the Royal Academy, drawing from the antique and the life,
and picking up advice and encouragement from the different
visitors. Between whiles, to earn bread, he tints architectural
drawings and washes in skies and foregrounds ; he is commis-
sioned to make drawings of gentlemen's country seats ; he
draws assiduously on the Thames, Lambeth, Chelsea, and
Greenwich, training his hand to precision. Besides which a
certain Mr Munro, who possessed a fine collection of drawings,
allows him, with his friend Girtin, to copy them as they please.
What can be more perfect ? He is brought face to face with
Nature and with Art, and even the necessity of earning is
salutary ; it teaches him not to be dilatory, to be prompt and
decided, to seize what is important, and to produce something
which shall look completed.

Later in his life Turner was described by a countryman as
" that short thick-set man with a pencil in his hand," a descrip-
tion which brings him before us as vividly, physically, and
mentally, as anything that has been written about him. He
wandered over Europe with that untiring pencil in his hand, up
and down the great rivers, over the Alps into Switzerland
amongst the snows and avalanches, through Italy with its rivers
to his loved Venice, where sky and water meet. He tossed
about in the Channel and North Sea on board nameless smacks
and colliers to learn the trick of the waves, he was in turns in
almost every part of England, Wales, and Scotland. Wherever
he went that pencil, with a deftness and certainty bred of con-
stant practice, was tracing the forms of Nature, eliminating as


by instinct what was accidental and unimportant, whilst it
recorded all that was characteristic and essential. This was
certainly fine training, but we must bear in mind that it was not
the training that made the Turner. What distinguishes him
from every other painter is that in all his constant intercourse

Online LibraryJ. E. (John Evan) HodgsonThe Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 → online text (page 18 of 35)