MR. FRITH'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY.* ALTHOUGH Mr. Frith states that he is
ignorant of all literary art, he has managed to write two highly amusing volumes. The story of an artist's life is as interesting as that of a poet or a statesman, if the author knows how to tell it; and the great frankness of the writer, and the variety of incidents he has met with in his prosperous career, make this autobiography pecu- liarly attractive.
If popularity and the comfortable fame that puts money in the purse be the test of success, then has Mr. Frith few rivals among contemporary artiste. But his good sense and modesty prevent his taking too high an estimate of his position. "I know very well," he writes, " that I never was, nor under any circumstances could have become, a great artist." He states that he knows little of perspective or of anatomy, and that his ignorance of architecture, of animal life, and of landscape has
• My Autobiography and Reminiscences. By W. P. Frith, LA. 2 vols. London: Bentley.
on several occasions forced him to seek the assistance of his friends. " I have always done so," he adds, " with great regret, and a sense of humiliation." On the other hand, it must not be supposed that Mr. Frith was ever an indifferent or careless artist. No one can read these volumes without being struck again and again with the painter's exhaustless energy and patience. His work, we read, has never been inter- rupted by illness or anything else. He has never trusted to imagination, but drawn everything from the life. " I have never forgotten," Mr. Frith writes, " a conversation between two students who were drawing behind me in the Antique School of the Academy. Said one to the other, Who did you get to sit for Nell Gwynne in your picture of Charles II. and that lady ?" Miss Truman,' said his friend. You know her P sits in the Life. A doosid good model.' Yes, I know her,' said the questioner ; thought you'd had her. More like her than Nell Gwynne, ain't it ? And the King, who sat for him P' Oh !'
was the reply, in a rather conceited tone ; did him from nothing.' And you've made him very like,' said the candid friend."
The difficulties Mr. Frith had frequently to encounter are strikingly illustrated in connection with the picture painted by order of the Queen, "The Marriage of the Prince of Wales." " So you are going to do the marriage picture P" said Landseer to him. " Well, for all the money in this world, and all in the next, I wouldn't undertake such a thing." Before the Royal request reached him, Mr. Frith had arranged with Mr. Gambert to paint three pictures of London street scenes for ten thousand pounds, and this agreement had to be put aside. For the marriage picture he was to receive three thousand. Of course, he was present on the occasion, and made a first sketch of the scene, with which the Queen was pleased. Then the difficulties began. The artist wanted sittings and dresses, and from many of the foreigners present it was impossible to obtain them. The Princess's bridesmaids, too, proved refractory at first. " Though I lost not a moment," Mr. Frith says, " in impressing on all who were present at the wedding that I must have their dresses to paint from, I was told by several that the gowns were already taken to pieces, given away, or cat up into mementoes of the interesting event, &c. In reply, I threatened them with the Queen if the dresses were not produced ; and, strange to say, the destroyed ones became miraculously whole again, and were sent to me." The brides- maids were very kind in sitting, and one of them, Lady Diana Beauclerk," a most sweet creature, sat divinely for three hours."
The Bishop of Oxford and Lord Chancellor Westbury, who had recently been at , loggerheads in the House of Lords, sat for their portraits. " When the Lord Chancellor sat for me, his eye caught the form of the Bishop of Oxford, and he said : Ah ! Sam of Oxford ! I should have thought it impossible to produce a tolerably agreeable face, and yet preserve any resem- blance to the Bishop of Oxford.' And when the Bishop saw my portrait of Westbury, he said : Like him ? Yes ; but not wicked enough.' " The Princess of Wales proved a difficult sitter. The illustrious young lady did not know that it was necessary to keep her face in one position, for a few minutes even, to enable an artist to paint it. Mr. Frith was in despair, and opened his heart to the Prince of Wales. " You should scold her," said the Prince. One day the artist was sent for to Marlborough, and met there Gibson, the sculptor, waiting for a sitting from the Princess. He did not think it like, and in reply to Gibson, said so. " Well, you see," he replied, " the Princess is a delightful lady, bat she can't sit a bit :"—
" Just at this moment I was summoned to the Prince, whom I found with the Princess, and I saw, or thought 1 saw, a sort of pretty smiling pout, eloquent of reproof and of half-anger with me. The Prince had something to show me, and then he led the way to Gibson, the Princess and I following. No sooner did we find ourselves in the sculptor's presence than—after some remarks upon the bust—the Prince said : ' How do you find the Princess sit, Mr. Gibson P' Now, thought I, if ever man was in an awkward fix, you are, Mr. Gibson, for after what you said to me a few minutes ago, you cannot in my presence compliment the beautiful model on her sitting. The Prince looked at Gibson, and Gibson looked in dead silence at the Prince, and then at the Princess ; he then looked again at the Prince, smiled, and shook his head. There, you see, you neither sit properly to Mr. Gibson or to Mr. Frith.'—' I do, I do,' said the lady;' you are two bad men !' And then we all smiled ; and Gibson went on with his work, the Princess sitting admirably for the short time that I remained. This was a good omen, as I afterwards found."
Mr. Frith loves a good story, even when it is at his own expense. Taking a lady down to dinner who had not caught the artist's name, she began to talk about his picture, "The Derby Day," calling it vulgar, ill-drawn, and poor in the painting of it. " I am sorry you don't like it," I replied, for I painted it.' Never shall I forget that poor lady's distress. I tried to help her, I forget how, but I know I tried. Then she was unfortunate, for she fled from her colours. Of course,' she stuttered, I really had no idea—but, then, of course, it's a very clever picture ;
but I confess I don't like the subject.' No more do I,' I declared ; but then, you must not quarrel with copper because it is not gold. If I attempted history, or what you call high art, I should make a greater fool of myself than I am generally considered to be.' Of course you would.' " Of living artists the writer says little or nothing. Of those who are dead and whom he knew in past years, he writes in a generous and appreciative spirit. The death of Turner made a vacancy in the Academy ranks which Mr. Frith was called to fill. Of that great artist he has many anecdotes to tell. The volumes are so fall of good stories, that selection becomes difficult; but the following, for which Mr. Frith can vouch, with regard to the greatest of landscape-painters, are worth giving : —" Strange as it may seem, I have heard Turner ridicule some of his own later works quite as skilfully as the newspapers did. For example, at a dinner where I was present, a salad was offered to Turner, who called the attention of his neighbour at the table to it in the following words,—' Nice cool green, that lettuce, isn't it ? and the beetroot, pretty red—not quite strong enough ; and the mixture, delicate tint of yellow, that. Add some mustard, and then you have one of my pictures.' " On another occasion, Tamer entered a print-shop and rated the owner soundly for injuring, as he fancied, one of his engravings. When he told his name,—" Bless my soul!' exclaimed the printseller ; is it possible that you are the great Turner ? Well, Sir, I have long desired to see you ; and now that I have seen you, I hope I shall never see you again, for a more disagreeable person I have seldom met.' " About the constitution of the Royal Academy, and the trials of the Hanging Committee, Mr. Frith has a good deal to say. A newly elected RA., as most readers know, becomes a teacher in the schools, and the writer observes, what we can well believe, that some of the best painters are the worst teachers. "Landseer used to say,—' There is nothing to teach.' I heard one of the most eminent Academicians say, in answer to reproaches for his neglect in not attending at the Painting School,—' What would be the good ? I don't know anything ; and if I did, I couldn't communicate it.' " Old artists, we are told, seldom know when their powers are failing, and the infirmities of ancient Academicians are a trial to the hangmen. Once they came upon the portrait of a clergy- man whose glaring eyes were like those of an•owl ; the eye-balls were intensely black, with a circle of light, bright blue encom- passing them round about. It was felt useless to ask the old man to withdraw the picture ; so a brother-hangman proposed taking some of the enthusiasm out of the clergyman's eyes. "No sooner said than done. A finger • was wetted, a little blacking taken from my friend's shoe ; the bright-blue circle received a glaze of blacking, and the glare of terror-inspiring fury was changed into a softened, appealing expression." Truly does Mr. Frith say that quality, not quantity, should be the guide of the Academic contributors to the exhibition, as well as of the Hanging Committee, and he hopes that before long an R.A. will no longer be able to claim the right of sending eight pictures to one exhibition. Once only did the author make use of this privilege, and then he confesses that those worth seeing might have been counted on the fingers of one hand. "Indeed," he adds, "I am not sure that there would not have been a finger to spare even then." He thinks it also a mistake that outsiders should be allowed to send in a number of pictures, in the hope of one or two being selected, since so great a number inevitably causes confusion and unintentional injustice.
Some painters invariably distrust dealers, and prefer selling their pictures privately. Mr. Frith holds an opposite opinion, possibly because almost from the outset of his career he has been a popular artist. He is also singular, perhaps, in his absolute disregard of art-critics. "Nothing," he says, "is to be learnt from them, and if a young artist wants advice, let him go to a brother-painter." "If we could be judged by our peers," he observes, " as literary men are, we should be profited in all probability. What would writers say if a body of artists were employed to direct public taste in literary matters ? Surely the two positions are equally absurd." We venture to think Mr. Frith does not write upon this subject with his usual good sense. There is no reason in the world why artists should not direct public taste in literary matters, if their knowledge enabled them to do so. If they are incapacitated for literary criticism, it is not because they can paint, but because Art is the hardest of taskmasters, and demands their time and thoughts. The art-critic is not in this position. The pictures of the world are open to him ; he can study every school, and in doing so may possibly gain experience denied in some cases to the overtasked artist. Does the writer seriously think that there can be no competent criticism nnallied with creative power ? Must a man be a poet to criticise poetry, a novelist to criticise romances, a sculptor before he is able to pass a judgment on the Elgin Marbles and the Venus of Milo Mr. Frith's opinion is refuted by facts. Charles Lamb, we may be sure, never held a brush in his life, but what artist can match his criticism of Hogarth ? Hazlitt failed as a painter, but it is universally admitted that he is a brilliant critic of pictures. Mr. Ruskin, although a masterly draughtsman, does not aspire to a place among English artists ; but who has done so much to explain and to exalt the genius of Turner ? Indeed, Mr. Frith admits that " until Mr. Ruskin opened the eyes of the public to Turner's merits, his pictures rarely sold, and when they did sell they only fetched small prices." Art criticism, therefore, according to Mr. Frith's own showing, is not the vain employment he would fain make it; and if, as he acknowledges, the best painters may be the worst teachers, it is possible that they may be also the worst critics.
Mr. Frith's experiences are manifold. One day he had a visit from the well-known tradesman of Westbourne Grove, who suggested as a subject for a picture, " Whiteley's at Four o'clock in the Afternoon." Seeing a portrait of himself, painted forty- five years before, in a shop, he went in, and was asked £20 for it. It was valuable, the woman said, because Frith, the artist, was dead. He had died of drink, and her husband attended his funeral. His anecdotes are often extraordinary, and sometimes, as he observes of the following, almost incredible :—" A lady took a small picture to Burlington House on the day named for receiving pictures, and showed it to one of the porters, telling him it was for exhibition. All right, madam,' said the man, offering to receive the picture. ` No, no,' said the lady, ' I must hang it myself. It has been painted for a particular light, and I wish to select the proper place and light myself.' " The writer, who must have heard many good witticisms, knows how to relate them in the fewest words possible. On the private-view day, he met Mr. Bernal Osborne, and congratulated him on a brilliant speech he had lately made in the House. "I will tell you what," said he, "I will exchange my tongue for your palette." Among Mr. Frith's acquaintances was a young man with a " tip-tilted " nose, which was sometimes the jest of his associates. Once he said, gravely,—" I say, look here ! I object to your making my nose a subject of conversation." " That is unfortunate," replied his friend ; " we wanted a subject, and we took the first that turned up." Mr. Frith observes, by-the-way, that the story told of Sydney Smith, who on being asked by Land seer to sit to him, replied, " Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing ?" is not true ; but be vouches for the following :—" At one of the Court balls, Landseer attended, and when the King of Portugal, who was also a guest, was made aware of the presence of the great animal-painter, he expressed his desire for an introduction. Landseer was presented accord- ingly, when the King, in his imperfect English, said,' Oh, Mr. Landseer, I am delighted to make your acquaintance. I am so fond of beads.' "
With this story we must close two volumes fall of the liveliest chit-chat, and wholly free from harsh and uncharitable state- ments. The world has treated Mr. Frith very well, and he seems disposed to regard it with the utmost good-humour.