DECORATION OF THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT.
THE "Report of the Select Committee on Fine Arts" is a document of lively interest to all who regard the advancement of the arts of
design not merely as a source of national wealth and glory, but as a means of benefiting the people in a moral sense ; and it ought to rouse the artists from their selfish apathy, and awaken them to a feeling of their high vocation as agents in promoting the civilization of their countrymen. It is, moreover, important as a formal intimation by Parliament that the direct encouragement of fine art is a duty of the Legislature ; and that the occasion of erecting a great public building should be made available to this object. It may be long before such another grand opportunity will occur for giving a powerful impulse to the genius and taste of the country in this direction ; and on the spirit in which the artists respond to the animating appeal, will greatly depend the success of this noble effort to promote the comae in which they have a vital interest. The instructions to the Committee were, "to take into consideration the promotion of the fine arts of this country, in connexion with the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament "; and the Committee recom- mend, "that measures should be taken, without delay, to encourage not only the higher but every subordinate branch of fine art, by em- ploying them in the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament." The inquiry was prematurely concluded in consequence of the approach- ing dissolution ; but it will probably be resumed next session, when the "many witnesses of high reputation and authority" who were not examined may have an opportunity of delivering their testimony. The points to which the Committee directed their inquiries are these—the expediency of decorating the building internally, the nature of the decorations required, the ability of English artists to furnish them, and the plan by which the best talent might be secured : the first two may be considered as settled ; the last two yet remain to be deter- mined.
First, as regards the nature of the decorations. These are to consist of fresco paintings of historical subjects on the walls ; stone statues of eminent persons ; bronze ornaments for the metal fittings; wood carvings to adorn the pannellings, seats, &c.; colours and gilding to en- liven the mouldings and bosses of the ceilings ; heraldic blazonry to en- rich the windows with painted glass ; and porcelain tiles of various patterns to inlay the floors. The ornamental details are to be sub- servient to the general effect of the entire building, as parts of one grand design ; so that, as Mr. W. J. Basilica well expressed it, "nothing should seem as if it were brought from elsewhere, or could be taken away." To produce this result, the pictures, to use Mr. BARRY'S words, "should have a similar effect to tapestry " ; the statues partaking of the architectonic character, and forming component parts of the building, like the figures in Henry the Seventh's Chapel : the decorations throughout should be in the severe style of art, where all is simplicity, dignity, and repose ; the object being to avoid distracting the attention from the whole to individual parts, and to impress the tense and elevate the mind by a magnificent and harmonious ensemble. With regard to the ability of English artists to furnish the required decorations, the only doubt is in relation to the painters. We have native sculptors, carvers in wood, casters of bronze, stainers of glass, and other decorative artists, proficient in their respective crafts, and both able and willing to cooperate together with the architect ; acting under the direction of a controlling power, which should only guide, not fetter the efforts of individual genius. With reference also to the selection of artists in these branches of art, the way is clear; sketches on paper and models in clay, made with comparatively little expense of labour and time, would suffice to show the character of the designs; and small specimens of workmanship would attest the execu- tive skill of the craftsman : thus the entire result might be calculated upon with certainty before the works were commenced, as far as con- cerns all the artists employed, save and except the historical painters.
The grand difficulty relates to the introduction of pictures; and that this point should be rightly arranged, is of great importance both to the splendour of the building and the promotion of art generally ; putting out of consideration the interest of the present generation of painters. This difficulty arises from the little encouragement there has hitherto been in this country for works of high art on a grand scale, and the imperfect education of our painters; the consequence of which is, that a great occasion finds them unprepared with the knowledge and skill requisite to make their mental resources available. With- out pictures adorning the walls, the buiding, however richly deco- rated in other respects, would be imperfect : coloured decorations are essential to every style of architecture ; as is shown by the examples of Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine, Roman, and Moorish structures ; and to the completeness of Gothic interiors especially. Mr. GALLY KNIGHT, one of the Committee, in the course of the inquiry referred to a fresco painting of the time of HENRY the Third, in St. Stephen's Chapel ; to another of great antiquity, discovered in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, in good preservation; and a third in the vestibule of St. Blase, in Westminster Abbey, which is still bright and clear : these are all religious edifices, it is true; but the custom of ornament- ing baronial halls with paintings or tapestries, which are pictures in needlework, prevailed in England up to the time of the Reforma- tion. Indeed, no one can look at the cold and vacant interiors of St. Paul's, Westminster Hall, or any large building with a great space of wall, without feeling the want of something to relieve the dreary blank and satisfy the eye ; but having been accustomed to the absence of colour, people generally are less sensible of the privation, than those who have experienced the enlivening and cheering influence of colour in Continental cathedrals and palaces. The point to be determined is not whether the Houses of Parliament should be adorned with pic- tures, but in what manner, and by whom the paintings shall be executed.
First, as to the mode of execution. The Committee prefer fresco, which is painting with water-colours on fresh or wet plaster, as being most durable, and best-adapted to the purpose ; because, the pictures having no gloss, can be seen from any point of view, and by artificial light as well as by day : the colours are also more permanent, and do not absorb the light. The objections made to fresco paintings are, that being on the wall, they are liable to crack in case of a "settlement" of the building; that they would be destroyed in case of fire ; and that they are liable to injury from a damp atmosphere, and from smoke. These objections are more specious than real : the cracking of walls from settlement, in a structure with such foundations as the new lamas
of Parliament, is not very likely ; the danger from fire would be almost equal in the case of paintings on canvass fastened to the walls; there is not much to fear from damp in a building with such good drainage, and so well warmed and ventilated as this will be, even though it is on the river-side; the London smoke equally affects oil-paintings, and frescoes can be cleaned without being injured. Instances are men- tioned where the frescoes of the great Italian masters have become damaged by damp : but this has been mostly in open places where, as in the Campo Santo of Pisa, they have been exposed to the rain and all the vicissitudes of the atmosphere : the Last Supper of LcoNanno DA \ricer, which is nearly obliterated, was painted in oil, not in fresco. The frescoes of RAPHAEL, in the Vatican, which have been painted two hundred years, are yet in good preservation : those in the Farnesina Palace have suffered from the damp of a low marshy spot near the Tiber ; but Italian palaces are neither drained nor warmed. The disuse of fresco in Venice is accounted for by the characteristics of the Venetian school of painters, who preferred oil, as better suited to their style of colouring. No method is so well adapted to painting on a grand scale, and in a severe style of design, as fresco ; it requires thorough knowledge of drawing, power and dexterity of hand, and is susceptible of fine effects of colour. Mr. DYCE characterized a fresco by TITIAN, in the church of St. Antonio at Padua, as "one of the most beautiful pieces of colouring Ise had ever seen."
The most valid objection to fresco is the incompetency of English painters, and the difficulty of getting them to work in combination with each other: it is feared that they would prove intractable as well as incapable ; for ignorance and conceit ever go together. They must learn the practice of fresco,. and that is easiest acquired from the Germans, who have taught themselves ; but it is apprehended that the pride of our painters would revolt at being tutored by a foreign professor : moreover, all the great works in fresco were done by a number of subordinate hands of practised skill, working under the direction of one master-mind. We do not think so poorly of our artists, especially of the younger ones who are rising to distinction, as to suppose they would refuse to cooperate in this way ; or that the English school would not furnish a few master-spirits whose designs Mould be worthy of being executed : if it should unhappily prove so, there is no other resource but to employ foreign artists. To substitute oil for fresco, in deference to the prejudices and in- capacity of English painters to work in the nobler, fitter, and more enduring medium, would be too great a sacrifice : it would be fore- going a fine opportunity of invigorating and elevating the character of the English school of design. Fresco not admitting of retouching, must be done at once, minute details being sacrificed to broad, striking effect : the artist has to rely on the highest qualities of painting; grandeur of de- sign, drawing, and expression. The composition and colouring being previously arranged in a cartoon, the outline is traced on the wet plaster, and painted in bit by bit, with a bold and sure hand : the colours dry of a different tint ; and consequently, perfect knowledge as well as manual dexterity are required—the touch once applied is indelible, and cannot be repeated, except by removing the plaster. Oil-painting has no single advantage over fresco for the purpose of ornamenting the walls of a building, and it has many disadvantages : the gloss of the varnish prevents a picture placed flat against the wall from being properly seen, and to make the canvass project forward would destroy architectural symmetry ; the action of the atmosphere on the oil and white-lead which compose the vehicle of the pigments causes them to turn black ; and the oil colour, by absorbing the light, tends to darken the room : it is also subject to injury from smoke, and can only be cleaned by losing a portion of its chief beauty, the glazing- tints ; when applied to the wall it peels off, even without the operation of damp. In what, then, consists its recommendation ?—Solely in the facilities that the portable canvass and the niggling with little brushes—the painting out and painting in—afford for the petty style and uncertain handling of English painters. We can well understand MICHAEL ANGELO, after designing the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel with his giant hand, exclaiming, that " was only fit for women and children." Nor is it surprising to find Sir MARTIN SHEE opposed to fresco ; particularly as he confesses that he knows nothing about it, and can give no better reason why it should not be adopted than that it is not "consistent with the taste of the country ": his opinion that it is not so durable as oil, so far from being founded on facts, is contradicted by them : indeed, the amount of information in the evidence of the President of the Royal Academy is nil. A more ludicrous exhibition of pompous inanity and opinionated self-importance could scarcely be conceived than that made by Sir • MARTIN SEER: having no reasons to offer in support of his dogmatical opinions, he took refuge from the home-thrusts of Mr. BLAKE and Mr. EWART, in a cloud of words, or some platitude heralded by a supercilious "of course," or an egotistical "1 should think so." The gist of his argument was directed against the system of competition as a means of eliciting the best talent ; artists of established reputation, he contended, would not compete, because they would have no con- fidence in the judges : he admitted that if a competent tribunal could be formed, it would be the best plan, but he could not conceive the possibility. As a specimen of his yea-nay testimony, we will give a single instance : Sir ROBERT Drams asked, (Question 194,) "Does it not follow that competition cannot be applied to painting in fresco? " to which Sir MARTIN SHEE responded, "I should think so ": but when Mr. Ewartz, in the next question but one, (196,) pressed him home by saying, "You think competition cannot take place in the case of fresco painting ?" the pert and inconsequent answer was, " That does not follow." It is impossible to resist quoting his ingenious evasion of a home-thrust from Mr. BLAKE; who asked, (Question 253,) "Do you not state it as an objection to the plan of competition, that it would be difficult to obtain a tribunal that could judge competently ? and would not that objection apply equally if the tribunal is appointed to select one artist, or a few artists out of the whole number?" Answer- " If any work is to be executed, it follows that some one must be appointed for that purpose ; and if somebody is to be appointed, some one must choose : the difficulty is unavoidable." This reminds us of the equally profound inference of the Gotham jury, who having to hold an inquest on a head, sagely concluded "Of course there must have been some body to this head." With similar sa-
gacity, Sir MARTIN Su= observes, (Question 263,) "You may not get great works by any process you may adopt ; but you certainly will not get great works if you do not adopt some process ": a parallel dis- covery to that of an acute commentator on MILTON, who remarks on the passage in Paradise Lost, where the poet says, "Satan lay floating many a rood," "By this we may judge the dimensions of Satan to have been immense."
To return to the subject of fresco. It is proposed to appropriate Westminster Hall to experiments of the effect of fresco by some artists competent to attempt this style of painting. Mr. DYCE mentioned the names of two others besides himself, Messrs. SCOTT and BELL ; Mr. EASTLAKE instanced Mr. O'NErm. among other young artists who were anxious to try their hands at fresco ; and we remember having seen a piece of fresco painting by a Mr. LANE, who studied in Rome several years. There cannot be a doubt but that the announcement of some plan for affording artists an opportunity of giving proof of their ability in designing and painting in fresco, would develop talent that lies dormant for want of encouragement. It may not be out of place to call the attention of artists to a new vehicle, called halsomine, invented by Miss FANNY Conneux, in con- junction with her partner, Mr. SPILSBCRY of Pall Mall ; which is said to be as indestructible as it is pure, and works with great facility. Its effect is brilliant in the extreme ; the colours reflect the light, and give a lively appearance to the room. This vehicle is soluble, and may be wiped off clean if required ; it is rendered permanent by a che- mical process of fixing, when the work is complete. The Balsomine offers an alternative that artists who prefer easel-painting on canvass at home may find serviceable. It has been employed both in this country and America for house-painting, in lieu of white lead : the house of Mr. SPILSBURY, opposite the Reform Club, is painted with it, and stands out in the whiteness of marble from the mass of dingy brick and stucco on either side.
The superficies of the Houses of Parliament available for painting are estimated by Mr. BARRY as follows—
Wesminster Ball 6,160 St. Stephen's Hall 3,000 The Royal Gallery 2,140 The Queen's Robing-room 1,168 Lower Corridors towards the river 5,072 House of Lords 1,800 House of Commons 1,260 Corridors from the central saloon 1,325 Conference Hall 1,340 Lobbies of House of Lords 1,036 Lobbies of House of Commons 1,260 Committee- rooms 25,350 Upper Corridors towards the river 5,072 55,983 In addition there will be the Speaker's house, and numerous other less important portions of the edifice : here is "ample room and verge enough" for the exercise of the genius of our artists for years to come. It will be three or four years before any of the walls can be in a fit state for painting, and as many more before the whole will be avail- able ; there is therefore plenty of time for artists to prepare themselves by study and practice to enter the lists for this grand trial of skill, and for the suggestion and consideration of some plan of competition that may insure fair play to the competitors, and the selection of the best talent for the execution of the great work. In an undertaking of such magnitude and importance, the completion of which will occupy a length of time, require a large outlay, and involve the interests of so many individuals, as well as the prosperity of art in this country, the appointment of a Commission composed of enlightened, upright, and active men, competent by knowledge and experience to exercise a sound judgment and to command the respect and confidence of the artists, appears to be the first step necessary. We commend the subject to the consideration of the whole body of artists, and suggest the formation of a committee or association to discusi, the matter. Without waiting for the tardy cooperation of their brethren, zealous individuals may be qualifying themselves to take a part in the pro- jected works.
The main point yet remains untouched upon, the cost. This it is impossible to calculate; but the Committee are of opinion, that "by the adoption in the outset of a well-considered plan, a moderate annual expenditure would accomplish very important results, if not all that can be desired."