MR. GLADSTONE AND THE OLD WATER-COLOUlt. SOCIETY.
AT a certain Royal Academy dinner, if we recollect rightly, when Mr. Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer was the hero and marvel of the day, Lord John Russell suggested that there was no field left for Mr. Disraeli's cleverness to conquer, unless he took up palette and brushes, and astonished the world by exhibiting a pic- ture upon those walls. After all, it is Mr. Gladstone who, if he has not painted any pictures as yet, has first made some approach to it, inasmuch as he has been elected a member of one of our Art Societies, and has acquired the right of exhibiting two if he pleases. The Society of Painters in Water Colours has just invented a new- order of Members, and Mr. Gladstone has been elected one of that Order ; and after him Mr. Prescott Hewett, the eminent surgeon and amateur ; Sir Richard Wallace ; M. Madon, President of the Belgian Society of Water-Colour Painters; and last, not least, Mr. Ruskin. The cause of Mr. Gladstone's election is not far to seek. He is the first Minister of the Crown who has officially recognised. the existence of a school of art which flourishes in England as it flourishes nowhere else by conferring the honour of knighthood on the President of the society which for nearly seventy years has been its mainstay. Few even of those who are acquainted with- matters of art are aware of the long and successful struggle which' that Society has maintained, and of the splendid names of which it is worthily proud. The date of its foundation was 1805. The preface of the first catalogue consists of a few lines, in which the- belief is modestly expressed that water-colour paiutings would look better when arranged by water-colour painters, and without the proximity of oil colour, than under any other conditions. G. Barrett, W. Havell, and J. Varley are the most noteworthy names in the first list of members. The names of Copley Fielding' and of P. Dewint first appear in 1810, that of G. F. Robson in 1813, that of S. Prout in the year following. In 1811 Mr. N. Pocock exhibits a drawing of which the subject is " Captaitt Horatio Nelson in his Majesty's Ship Agamemnon engaging four French frigates and a corvette off Sardinia, 22nd October, 1793." It must be owned that in those early days the Society was neither so settled in its abode, nor so distinct in its shape, nor so single in its aim as it afterwards became. During its stay in Spring Gardens from 1813 until 1821, both oil and water-colour paintings were exhibited together in its room, and the name of J. Linnell appears in the roll of its members. During this time it seems not to have been above dealing with old masters as well as with oil-colours at a pinch, for the catalogue of 1814 contains an, apologetic note at the commencement which runs thus :—" The space over the door being too elevated for a subject in water- colour, a painting of the old school has been selected from the collection of a gentleman to occupy that position." As the- note goes on to speak of the gentleman's acknowledged taste and judgment, it is evident that no disrespect to the painting or the- school is intended ; but we can imagine not a few of our younger artists, now-a-days, thinking regretfully as they read this of the exquisite sense of fitness which was brought to bear upon spaces. over doors, and possibly upon corners high aloft, in those days. The old school must have borne hard upon the new, for, another catalogue about this time is prefaced by a very- pithy defence of the new art against objections on the score of its flimsiness and the perishable nature of its materials, and there is sonic indignation expressed at the exclusion of water- colour paintings from the Gallery of the British Institution Oa those grounds. David Cox and William Hunt rise into view together in 1819. We have omitted to give the names of a number of minor artists, without whose works no exhibition of the works of deceased masters of water-colour could be deemed complete. In 1823 the Society took possession of its present rooms at 5 Pall Mall. In that year an exhibition comprising works of " outaiders " was held, and Turner's " Tivoli " was naturally assigned the place of honour; and Turner alone is the magnificent exception to what would other- wise be an exhaustive list of the great landscape artists of England.
Then, as now, the Society did its own work at its own risk. Success certainly gave it a semi-public character, and admission to its ranks was the highest honour obtainable by a water-colour painter,—and practically for reasons which we can only glance at, by a landscape painter also. The first recognition by the State of a dignity which had been long accorded to it by public esteem was Mr. Gladstone's act, and the honour which he has accepted' from the Society in becoming an honorary member is a fitting acknowledgment on their part. With respect to Mr. Ruskin,
we are not quite sure whether we are right in saying that with the doubtful exception of a commission from an Australian colony to help to spend a sum of money yearly in pictures on their behalf, it is the first downright bit of honour which has come to him in gratitudo for his services to the cause of Art from a picture- buying or picture-producing body. The compliment in this case will be all the more gratifying to Mr. Ruskin, from the fact that not a few of his early impressions about art and his earliest train- ing in the practice of it are due to the works and to the teaching of members of the Old Water-Colour Society.
It will be seen that, with the exception of w. Hunt, the greatest men of the Society in its early days were all landscape painters. It would hardly be too much to say that the history of Landscape painting, as we understand it now for the most part, runs side by side with that of the rise and development of the art of Water-colour painting ; and our belief that this will continue to be the case is our ground for considering that any accession of strength to the leading Water-colour Society, which will enable it to exer- cise a wholesome influence over the progress of landscape art and to preserve its old traditions, is a matter of some public interest. To the landscape painter the sun is the great fact of the universe, and the life and colour which are due to the solar force are the objects of his life-long study ; and a water-colour drawing, make whatever drawbacks we please on the score of weakness of tone, smallness of size, and so forth, can, simply by the greater purity of the base of its light, namely, white paper, be brought many degrees nearer truth of light and colour than an oil colour ever can be. There is another side to this question, no doubt, but unless power of effect at a sacrifice of local colour is sought for, the water- colour process is, on the whole, more valuable to the landscape painter, and as a means of study infinitely more so. Now, the Royal Academy is hardly to be blamed, if, as we think, its tradi- tions and leanings are not on the side of modern landscape. Its members, we believe, desire to be liberal in their views. They have shown many signs of a disposition to modify the some- what unfairly conservative character of some of their rules, and they are credited with a fair amount of zeal to do their duty as they see it ; but, on the other hand, there are signs which make us doubt whether there is not a large field of art over which they are not so well qualified to preside as their undecorated brethren. The art which Turner and David Cox discovered for the world is still in its infancy, and years of toilsome labour must be gone through before any student can truly discern how much they have done, or how much they have left to do. A life spent in the study of the figure does not always qualify an artist to perceive that the art of the landscape painter is essentially different from his own. Such a man as a judge may, without any derogation from his powers as a critic, be in want of that sympathy with honest failure and insight into partial success which are requisite for a right judgment upon the works of those who attempt to perform the mighty achievement of a good landscape.
But the figure painters who practise water-colour painting must not be forgotten. From W. Hunt's day to the present there has been no lack of men whose power in the higher branch is beyond dispute. Of late years the Society has rather tended to give preference in its elections to figure over landscape men. But artists of either kind work all the better for receiving a certain amount of honour and encouragement. The Society of Painters in Water Colours has done good work hitherto without the sunshine of State favour. May not something now be looked for in the way of expansion—something in the way of direct teaching, by lectures or otherwise—and may we not look for fresh names as worthy of honour as those who have gone before ?