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It will probably be allowed to be of some national importance, that the British National Picture-gallery should be well understood, and its beauties and merits be thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed, by the British public; since whatever may be the stock, or quantum, and kind, of taste and information derived, or derivable, from it, that stock is expected, by those who have projected and provided the Gallery, if not to become the future basis, at least to form a solid and permanent portion of the foundation, of our future public or national taste in works of Art. Will
my readers do me the honour to regard the statement of this simple postulate, as a satisfactory reason for my attempting and here submitting, the first volume of a Catalogue of the contents of that National Gallery; which Catalogue I have ventured to call descriptive, explanatory, and critical? It would not become me to anticipate what the answer to this question will be. I am content to wait for it with due resignation and respect; and meanwhile shall take on myself the hazard of proceeding with the second volume.
Not that by the above assertion of the solidity of these materials of national taste, I mean that the Gallery YET consists of, or abounds with, pictures of quite first rate pretension (though it certainly contains some of that preeminent description); or, that if it did, it would be thoroughly philosophical to regard even pictures of the highest class, as absolute standards of perfection. Young as the world is, it is getting too old for the prevalence
of such doctrine. But they are the best-indeed the only standards we have, or can have; and are therefore to be regarded as works, which, like those of the great poets and historians of antiquity, have been consecrated by long-continued admiration. The principal pictures in our National Collection are hallowed by the homage of centuries; and have consequently a similar claim with the classics, to influence our judgment, and conduce to the formation of our taste, in all that is within the boundaries of their province; while, by their charming influence, they enable us to look beyond those boundaries at the beauties of Nature herself, through a serene and blessed medium, derived, or resulting, from the accumulated judgment and experience of the best artists and critics of past ages, practically and permanently displayed. By which I do not mean to imply, that the works of the best artists of the present age, are not equally instructive, or worthy of attention, if the public had equal opportunity of profiting by them ; which it has not, for of modern pictures (unless for those who can afford to purchase such) we get only a glance, and they are gone.' They “ come like shadows so depart;" while the National Gallery is intended to be permanent and perennial, so that the public mind may there luxuriate, and dwell, and reflect upon; or at its pleasure, revisit, what is there reposited. The National Gallery thus becomes the nursery of the Public Taste. But would it not be far more effectively so, if at least a few more of the best pictures of our own school and our own age, found places there ? And would not the leading spirits of the present age, as well as of posterity, rejoice in a favourable opportunity of instituting such comparisons as, while they operated as a perpetual stimulus to professional exertion, might satisfactorily show the advancement or retrogradation, and the occasional aberrations, both of Taste and of practical Art.
But a more unfortunate predicament, if not for our present enjoyment and the existing state of Art, yet for the progress of Public Taste, has proceeded from our innate love, or the habits into which our fellow countrymen have allowed themselves to be insensibly seduced, of submitting to the arbitrary influence of transient novelty, in all that concerns Fine Art; as if attention, even to such matters, took its ostensible tone from fashionable frivolity; as if a glance, or a five minutes gaze, at a picture which has, perhaps, taken a first rate artist more than as many months to paint, were quite sufficient for us to derive from it all the enjoyment or edification that such a work is capable of imparting.
Since the works contained in the National Gallery are of a character to deserve, they should receive, more than such transicnt attention. The production of my Catalogue
rests entirely on this belief, and the reliance we ought to have on principle. Concerning a certain book which I once sent to De Loutherbourg, he wrote me as follows, “I see by the first sentence, it is not a work for pastime or temporary regard, I will therefore not only peruse, but read it attentively.” Now this is precisely what I think due to the pictures in the National Gallery (with a few exceptions). They are not works for mere cursory amusement. There is ample opportunity-and it should not be lost-of dwelling upon whatever picture, or pictures, may tone with the visiter's present taste or mood, and of re-inspecting the collection, without stint or limit. They are worthy of such revisitation; and many of them of being perused or read with that degree of mental application which we term study. And it is with the view of inciting my readers to the pleasure of dwelling thus, for their own enjoyment, upon the beauties and merits of these pictures, that I have adventured this volume.
Being not altogether conventional, I do not go exactly with the stream of fashion, and shall therefore, I suppose, at least on some points, be liable to reprehension from the stream-goers, particularly if I should declare my fears that posterity will regard the present, as rather too much of an amused and amusing age.--Too much of an age which acquiesces in the idea that those who have the means, possess the right, of wasting life in idle pastime. Without invoking Adversity, I am apt to think that
Self-pleasing folly's idle brood,
are precisely the description of people that enjoy the least, not only of pictures, but of all pleasurable things. However, if we can arouse slumbering Taste, and so bridle Attention as to restrain its vapid ramblings, it will probably be the best repression of dissipation and ennui; and for the present, I will endeavour to restrict my consideration to the National Gallery-and not to be too didactic.
The governor of the disloyal island of Barataria was, not without reason, dissatisfied that his delicious viands flew away at the magical touch of his medical philosopher: but Governor Bull-unlike his amicable and discerning brother Sancho-has permitted himself to be wheedled into acquiescence in the vapid and tasteless custom, and
seems in some danger of settling into habitual satisfaction with his transient glances at works of Art, provided his eyes are feasted with a novel succession or shifting of the scenery, sufficiently rapid to amuse him, and that he beholds No. 2 approaching, or present, before No. 1 is out of sight.
It is, presumptively, this hasty changing of the scenes, in consequence of the mercenary root of estimation, and even of existence, to which everything in our Mammonisland is doomed, -unless we shall be enabled to except the National Gallery and the British Museum–It is—at least in some measure, this haste, where pecuniary and mental profit stand opposed to each other, that has given such a careless, flippant, superficial, temporary, touch-andgo, air and character, to the printed notices—sometimes with temerarious and unblushing stolidity or effrontery called “Critical Dissertations” on works of Art, (including the National Gallery,) which abound in the periodical publications, and which have reduced and degraded the art or science of picture-criticism to a state so discreditably low, at the very time when sound and accurate criticism is most especially wanted. “ Doctor Aguero* Tirteafuera, who (as we are informed by Cervantes) has a salary for taking care of the governor's health, and is consequently more careful of it than of his own,” has been as successful in persuading his English patient of the propriety and wisdom of his appointment and his ministration, as in the potent touch of his whalebone wand; and who is to countervail his proceedings, if the lord governor is satisfied to allow his most exquisite dishes to fly from before him, and “ that he is to feast no otherwise than according to the use and custom of other islands where there are governors.”
What is meant to be seriously asserted here, is, that the mercenary basis, propped, and buttressed, and shored up, as it is by, and combined as it is with, the delusive persuasion which seems to possess so many of those who can hold a pen and can reach down a dictionary or vocabulary-that they may leap on almost the loftiest of literary pedestals, and stand forth as critics in pictures,-ought not to be longer tolerated. As Sir Martin Shee has long since observed, these obtrusive Magni Apollines, having thus
According to the learned Cid Hamet Benengeli, or his thricelearned commentators, Aguero, means positive of the omen, and Tirteafuera, take yourself away.
leaped and presented themselves, may not complain if their attitudes and proportions should be examined and criticised in their turn; or if, on being found glaringly defective, they should be hooted down from a station which they have so unnecessarily and injudiciously assumed.
They have indeed ensconced themselves--but it is behind a fortification of wood : and we must allow that their literary scaffolding is syllogistically constructed, and exceedingly self-convincing. "As Art reflects Nature, through Nature it must be judged: we can all of us see Nature: a dignitary of the church, even before he has hurt his sight by crooked Greek and small Hebrew, cannot see more of her than a carman or a coal-porter; nor is an illiterate mechanic less sensible of her charms." Ergo, we are all qualified-all critics in beauty · which is certainly very flattering and acceptable information to all who have pence to purchase, or pens to proclaim, the penny wisdom. If further, some of us are pre-eminently qualified, because we can cut jokes, and put money in our purses by dismissing a picture with a pun—but let us keep that matter to ourselves.
Now, who is to undertake the invidious office, or task, of showing how false and hollow is the Belial eloquence of these specious pretenders, and that behind their woodwork there is no solid masonry ? Luckily the least exceptionable refutation of the theory of these picture-critics, and their tribe of puffers, is to be found in their own practice. You have but to draw aside a flimsy veil, and they themselves exhibit the unsoundness of their pretensions: the utter worthlessness; the worse than nothingness, of their own contemptible literary babble,
In a few instances out of many that would have tempted me, had the exposure of obtrusive effrontery been more than a collateral purpose, I have ventured on this unveiling, as the reader will find in those pages wherein I have endeavoured to vindicate Poussin, Titian, and some other distinguished artists, from the misinterpretations of purblind presumption: and I would have proceeded further with this wholesome exposure (as I trust it will prove), had I not been somewhat apprehensive that too many flickering agitations, might disturb the repose of my picture of the NationAL GALLERY—which is our proper subject. Whether such exposure will prove sufficient, or insufficient, remains to be seen.
To lead, cherish, exalt, and refine, that public Taste