26 MARCH 1853, Page 18


MR. CURRIE'S LECTURE ON THE NATIONAL GALLERY.* WE are indebted for this lecture to a requisition made by the Northamp- ton Mechanics' Institute to Mr. Raikes Currie, one of the Members for the borough. The lecturer has selected a subject for which he evidently came fully prepared. He has looked abroad on matters of art ; seen a good deal, and thought of what he has seen ; and he delivers his views with method, frankness, and geniality. For tone and insight, this is a more than favourable specimen of Mechanics' Institute literature. But, in addition to these qualities, it possesses the special excellence of being peculiarly adapted to its audience and the circumstances of its delivery. Mr. Currie has to address a miscellaneous assemblage on a subject apart from the ordinary range. In doing this, he adopts a conversational style, which rises with his theme. He does not "lower himself to his hearers"; neither does he dwell upon those technicalities which it requires a decided bent towards art to care about, and an advanced acquaintance with its monuments to understand. He points out those generally elevating in- fluences which, under conditions peculiar to itself, art exercises ; the in- terest it possesses for inquiring and studious minds-; and the culture which it ministers.

After glancing at his Parliamentary connexion with Northampton, and expressing, as having conduced to his selection of the subject, "a desire, above and apart from political considerations, to be associated with some thoughts calmer, purer, and less exclusive," Mr. Currie proceeds to open the question of a National Gallery.

"You have probably, heard that among the projects of our Government is one for the removal of our national pictures from their present miserable lodgment to one more worthy of them and of us. You will hear this project discussed in public and in private ; almost every newspaper will have some- thing to say on the subject. The plan proposed will certainly be costly- it may prove in some respects hazardous or objectionable. Now, I should like to enable you, as Englishmen, to judge yourselves of the fitness of this pro- ject. It will not be throwing away our time to take a review of what our possessions in this especial department of the fine arts are at present ; what they might be and ought to be; to consider their use as a means of delight and improvement to the people • their beauty as an adornment of our capi- tal city ; their value, even in the vulgarest sense of the word, in hard cash, as the nation's property. "The National Ciallery is one of the great sights of London.. . . Now, the degree of pleasure it can afford to a visitor depends on-his-being pre- pared to understand its purpose, to appreciate its contents. All guides on the spot are in vain, unless the visitor take with him a light within his own mind to direct him to some general ideas respecting the value and the beauty of that which he contemplates. Of what use would the best library of books be to that man who would merely, as he looks round, read their titles or the names of the authors on the backs, or admire the gilt binding, while he is shut out from the stores of knowledge and delight contained within ; or if he were permitted to turn over the leaves of some rare treasures of wisdom, and wonder at the antiquity of the printing, at the clearness of the type, and the whiteness of the paper, while unable to understand the language in which they are written ? Such a sort of ignorant admiration is, indeed, far' better than ignorant contempt of what is out of the sphere of our compre- hension, but it is still ignorance. Precisely the same is the position of one who stands in forlorn wonder in the midst of a gallery of fine pictures, which some one has compared to a ' room hung round with thoughts.' He sees something which delights his eye; colours, forms which attract his attention ; but what are the thoughts ? those thoughts which neither reach his understanding nor touch his heart, yet, centuries ago,perhaps, awaken- ed the feelings and appealed to the convictions of men far more ignorant than himself. Now, how is this ? He turns over the pages of his cata- logue ; it informs him that of the pictures exhibited before him, many have cost sums of money that must appear astounding to the uninitiated A plain man would fain understand what it is he is called upon to prize so highly ; for merely to prize an object because of its cost in pounds, shillings,. and pence, is but a vulgar kind of appreciation. It may sound definite and common. sensible as a calculation ; but, after all, it is a very blind, blunder- ing way of estimating the productions of mind by their material rather than their spiritual value."

In introducing a review of our possessions in art—or, in other words; a summary list of our deficiencies—the lecturer affords plain, sensible data, for ascertaining what would be the most appropriate arrangement of the Gallery in its present stage.

The following passage brings out clearly and forcibly those facts in the early ages of Christian art which fall within the scope of the dis- • The National Gallery : a Lecture delivered at the Northampton ancbNorthanip. tonahire Mechanics' Institute, 224 March 1853.

course. Mr. Currie dates the revival of art from Giotto—with some injustice, as we think, to his predecessor and master, Cimabue. "The first use made of pictures was for the instruction of the people in matters of religion. You will remember that the art of printing was not invented for nearly fifteen hundred years after the coming of our Saviour. All the copies of the Scriptures were written out painfully and industriously by the hands of men ; a complete copy of the Bible then cost half an estate. A copy of the four Gospels was gladly purchased by the exchange of a. herd of oattle or a flock of five hundred sheep. The pictures on the walls of churches were the Bibles of the laity, in which they read the wonderful and glorious ways of God to man. The earliest of these church pictures, of which speci- mens remain to us, were of a very simple and solemn character, and formed a part of the architecture of the building. When one entered in to wor- ship, the first object which he beheld directly opposite to him, was perhaps the colossal figure of our Saviour, with one hand uplifted and blessing the people, in the other holding the open Gospel, with a text inscribed on the leaves relating to his character as Messiah and Redeemer, such as, I am the light of the world,' or am the way, the truth, and the life,' or ' They who have seen me have seen the Father also.'

"A century or two later, about the seventh or eighth century, it was per- haps the figure of the Virgin Mary, with her divine Son in her arms ; then and long afterwards the visible representation of the advent of the Divinity on earth, first as an innocent child, then as teacher of men, the Light of the World.' In later times were added subjects from Holy Writ; the prin- cipal events of Hebrew history and from the Gospels being placed round the church, and often accompanied by illustrative texts, that those who could read might interpret to those who could not. Such were the com- mencements of Christian art in the East and in Italy. Now these figures and groups being mostly painted according to a pattern devised by ecelesias- ties—the first painters were apparently all of that profession—and imitated from generation to generation by the Greek painters, who supplied Western Europe with pictures and painters for several ages, the art of painting had become by the twelfth century a mere formal conventional manner of repre- senting certain sacred themes. The science of perspective was unknown ; and all variety, all resemblance to life, to nature, to reality, were as much out of the question as in the mandarins fishing in a river a mile off, or the little ladies sipping tea in the clouds, on one of the blue china plates we can all remember. Ae to any impress of the individual mind of the artist, you might as well seek it on a Birmingham button. "Yet have these ancient Greek religious pictures a singularity and a sig- nificance which impart to them, chronologically, a certain value. Every national collection of pictures, aiming to give instruction in the progress of art, ought to possess a few of them as comparative data : we have not one ; and when some most curious and valuable specimens were brought to Eng- land in the collection of Prince Walkrstein, I rather think that we declined the purchase."

The enormous gaps as to date, and the absence of some whole schools, point out, as Mr. Currie observes, that we are not in a position to make a chronological arrangement of the pictures. This should be, of course, only an incentive for so remedying the deficiencies as to make it possible : but, in dealing with the facts as they are, the suggestion here made of an arrangement according to subject is certainly entitled to consideration. We may remark, that this, judiciously carried out, might to some extent be made to include the classification of schools ; just as that—imply- ing, as it does in a very great degree, the classification of subjert, date, and national character—appears, by virtue of this very comprehensive- ness, to be the best and most instructive. For purposes of art it is self- evidently supreme. Mr. Currie passes in review the relative advantages of the three methods, and adverts to the increased interest they all derive from the evidence in each picture of the artist's individual character. We would say that this interest, while less instructive for the general visitor, is truly the highest for the student of art ; just as the reader of Demos- thenes cares more for the orator and his influence on the Athenians he harangued than for the mob and their reaction upon him. The arrange- ment by schools is the one which subserves this interest by far the most completely; and we find here another argument for its advocacy.

Mr. Currie forms one of the increasing and now considerable number who have come to recognize the intrinsic superiority of the earlier over liclater art in the higher requisites of thought and feeling ; and lie bears witness to the power which these can exercise not over the select few only. " It may be said that the most cultivated minds alone are capable of understanding the highest subjects—what has been emphatically termed high art' : yet this let me answer, that I have observed, in watching the visitors to our National Gallery, how often the very young and the very un- educated show themselves most keenly alive to the manifestation of the highest beauty, just as they keenly enjoy one of Shakspere's plays. In both cases, the profound wisdom and the profound skill may be hidden from the inexperienced and the uninitiated, but in both cases, what is finest and truest and best comes out of the depths of our common nature."

The abuses of the present management of the National Gallery are touched on in the concluding sentences. Like Mr. Dyce and most other persons who think upon the subject, Mr. Currie finds want of responsibility a pregnant source of the evil; though he does not bring the question home to the " Trusteeship of noblemen and gentlemen " so closely as Mr. Dyce.

"When we consider what a National Gallery of Pictures ought to be, and might be, we cannot but feel some surprise at the apparent uncertainty and confusion, the caprice, the ignorant parsimony and as ignorant profusion, which at different times have characterized the Board of Management. What shall we think of the extraordinary want of foresight which, in the first nista]] ce, crowded our very limited treasures of art into precincts too limited to con- tain them ; making absolutely no provision either for the extension or arrangement of our collection, which from the first was not only probable but inevitable ? For you will observe, that I have made no reference here to those English pictures, between two and three hundred in number, which through the generosity of Mr. Vernon and others, form part of our National Gallery We have a right also to feel some indignant surprise at the strange difference of opinion which has prevailed among the Trustees and official managers, at the supineness when a famous gallery was to be disposed of, and the inconceivable mistakes in some of the pictures bought. It is not generally known with whom rests the responsibility of selecting pictures for Purchase, and settling the price to be paid for them ; but this we do know, that the management of these matters has been in too many instances dele- gated, through carelessness or cowardice, to persons quite inefficient, for whose mistakes we suffer in pocket, which is bad enough, and in reputation, which is worse."