AN IMPRESSION OF THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT EXHIBITION.
THE first impression made upon the ordinary visitor by the National Portrait Exhibition, now open iu South Kensington, is not a favourable one. Up to far too great a height, in endless wooden lobbies of endless wooden galleries, stretch a multitude of portraits, arranged apparently without any principle beyond an exceedingly vague chronological idea. All the pictures in one, or two, or three recesses are supposed to belong to one particular period, but that does not prevent the portraits of the same indi- vidual from being on half-a-dozen walls. He might imagine that comparison had been considered dangerous, many portraits of the same celebrity being so unlike that one of them is obviously fictitious, or one is bad, or both are unreal, but that some of the worst cases of all have been hung with intention side by side. There are two, for instance, of George Buchanan, a man chiefly known by his translation of the Psalms, hung side by side, one of which is palpably an absurdity. We do not care in such a case one straw for documentary proof. If the old man's spirit were to rap decisively for a week that both were accurate por- traits of him in the flesh, it would not make the faintest differ- ence in the judgment of any man possessed of common sense and not utterly blind. If drawn from the same face, the painter of one was so utterly incompetent that the picture has no locus standi
as a portrait ; but great as is the power of misrepresentation possessed by portrait painters, even this explanation is inadmis- sible. The portraits are not of the same man, the bones are different, the root-colour is different, the expression of the face is different, the very colour of the eyes, which do not change with age, is different. George Buchanan was very possibly like one of the two, preferentially the one on the left, but he was not like both. Portraits of Henry VIII., again, which are all alike, and all, with one remarkable exception, represent a heavy-jowled, light-haired, sensual man, of the jovially heartless type, are hung about over wall after wall, while of Queen Elizabeth there is also no end. The truth is that Mr. Cole, in his eagerness to make the collection " national," and " great," and "vast," and magnificent, and worthy of South Kensington, and of the wretched art-camp of iron, and wood, and glass he and his employers are squatting down there, and for which they are constantly assailing the Treasury, and which would all burn like so much touchwood, has neglected to authenticate the portraits altogether. What is the use of an old portrait, particularly of the tea-tray kind, without a pedigree? Nobody wants to see the majority of these pictures as specimens of art, but as historic testimonies, the credibility of which must be proved by evidence, exactly like the credibility of documents or a counsel's speech. It is said in the preface to the catalogue, obviously written after the pictures had arrived, that the "illusion," where there is one, is " harmless," and that it has " not been thought right towards those who have graciously lent their portraits" to disabuse them, but . surely where truth is the sole object " illusions" are never " harmless." Nobody is hurt if John Hodge believes in the sea serpent, but one does not expect a picture of that reptile in a museum of natural history. As to politeness to owners, is none whatever due to the public asked to believe such rubbish ? Mr. Cole seems to have thought of portraits as some theologians think about the Fathers, and some historians used to think about the people they called authorities. If the book were only old enough it was to be trusted. The father of the third century, however stupid, or ignorant, or prejudiced, must know more about Christ's teaching than the cool critic of the nineteenth, because he only lived two hundred and fifty years after his subject, as if a judge should accept the evidence of a man of to-day about Elizabeth's death as contemporaneous testimony. A portrait is not necessarily taken from John Smith because known to have been in existence when John Smith died, and accepted by Smith's great grand- son, who never saw his ancestor, and has every possible interest in believing the truth of his " memorial." What is the use, for example, of hanging that little portrait of the Princess Mary, No. 208, in a historic gallery ? It is no more Queen Mary than it is Mr. Cole, and not so much. It is not a Tudor at all; but a portrait of an ugly young woman,with a complexion radically dark instead of clear, long pulpy nose,•and deep sensual under lip, the very feature so conspicuously wanting in Mary Tudor. Never mind the pedigree of the picture. Any number of lies are told about the ownership of pictures, and horses, and jewels, and everything else to which pedigree gives value, but just compare that face with the true Mary (No. 212), the bad Mary, with the wonderful Tudor brow, pinched lips, long drawn either with cruelty or pain, hard and merciless as only such lips can be, and the look out of the eyes as of a keen but not penetrating mind. Why is that the true Mary ? Just because it is, because any schoolboy who had read history would pick it out of a hundred pictures, and say that that was Queen Mary, or ought to be ; because no forger would venture to put that brow and that under lip into the same picture ; because, above all, there is in that pained and rigid face a distinct likeness both to the bluff ruffian who begot her, the heavy but ladylike woman who bore her, and the queenly though vain woman who succeeded her. No forger could give that. Who wants to be told that No. 132 is Anne of Cleves? Of course it is Anne of Cleves, with the face of a stupid, heavy, Flemish servant of to-day, eyes innocent enough, but heavy cheeks, and lower lip which drops with its own fat, and look as if she could delight in eating a sausage be- fore your very eyes. We do not know that we ever saw a face with- out vice in it so utterly disgusting, or one which realized so pre- cisely Henry's contemptuously truthful epithet, the " Flemish mare." Edward IV. might have borne with her, at least if that white-breasted doll Jane Shore be anything like his famous mistress—and she may be, for she has just the meaningless pretti- ness of akin, and colour, and sleepy eyes which attract kings and voluptuaries of king-like stupidity—but not Henry VIII. He bad loved Anne Boleyn, who does not look much in her portraits here, but who had been loved by others than kings, and who lived in tradition till Shakespeare drew a portrait of her which will live when every canvass likeness has rotted into dust, perhaps when her name has been forgotten, except as one of the women on whom he has conferred immortality. Helen has survived Greek, why should not fair Mistress Anne survive English ?
As a rule—we are stating simply the first impressions of a visitor who is no art critic—the portraits leave the impression that tradi- tionary history has been strangely correct. The popular impres- sion coincides almost exactly with the painted face, a result probably due at least as much to the fact that tradition has been formed on the portraits as to any genuine truthfulness in the painters. Look at the Kingmaker, for instance, the great Neville ; that face, with its look of pure blood, thin, worn, and sinewy, but with the square brow and tiger jaw, is just the face one expects in the last great Norman noble. It is the face of a high-born Lord Clyde on a greater scale, and with the flush Lord Clyde lacked, Or Richard III., with the pinched lips, chin so full and broad as to seem inconsistent with the face, long upper lip, pulled as by volition down over the teeth, and serene eyes that look, like an Italian noble's eyes, outwards, seeing things you do not see. That is Shakspeare's Richard to the life, Richard the lawgiver as well as tyrant, Richard whose crimes would have been forgotten but that he was the enemy of the aristo- cracy, which in raising the Tudors to his place raised uncon- sciously still mightier foes. Or that exquisite portrait of Henry VII., wisest and narrowest of his House, with his face of calm intelligence, and broad brow flanked by grey silken hair, and look as if God had somehow made a miserly archbishop King. There is priestliness in those deep lines, or say Italian wile, and that compressed mouth, but something more in the steady, thoughtful regard. You begin to think as you gaze that the wonder of one unpopular and comparatively low-born man beat- ing the aristocracy of England, and shaking every noble house by his inquiry into titles—iuquiry for which Empson and Dudley died—is less than you had imagined, that the effort to defraud or frighten the man with that face was rather a silly one. Only how came his son like that, whence the ruffianly richness of blood, the " bluffness " in every portrait and in tradition? Was that really, as history indicates, the primary character of the House of York, though shaven in Edward IV. (No. 24) into effeminacy, and refined in Richard III. into Italian wile ? Take, again, Wolsey. The popu- lar idea of Wolsey's face, if we mistake not, is that of a monk, slightly ascetic and worn ; but there is a picture here, No. 148, which is liker the man, the face of an overfed Italian noble, the features cut like those of a Roman Emperor on a gem—brow, nose, lips, chin all full, all clean, all cut as if by a diamond on a Bard, but overfat and flushed, as if he had sat for it after his wine. Not a pleasant man for a great noble to fight at the council-board—there is a possible laugh in that face not soothing to pride—nor one to whom he would send his daughters to confess. It is a grand head, but that of a priest, and a priest in high position. Or take that exquisite portrait, which looks like a photograph of Thomas Cromwell, the blue-bearded, close- shaven man, with intent but not calm eyes, and chiselled mouth, and long mobile upper lip, which is rigid but can tremble, and the deep dimple in its curve. That man lacks only force, a back to his head, a jaw to his face, to be a master ; and as it is, he is the best of servants, a kindly, but over-watchful, and it may be over- obedient, man. The only two we remember utterly unlike their popular characters are Sir Thomas More and Lord Bacon, and both would seem plausible to many. Sir Thomas More has a low-bred Spanish face, with high bones, broad yellow cheeks, and mouth cut after birth with a knife to let him breathe, a bad kind of Dissenting preacher ; and Lord Bacon is a mean man, a realistic Shylock, with no element of greatness about him except a possibly high brow, wanting in every characteristic of beauty as well as wisdom. Macaulay would have said that was natural, and un- doubtedly, if this portrait be correct, it is difficult not to side with Macaulay and those who believe it was possible for a man to be the "greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind."
We have no intention of writing a catalogue raisonne of the Exhibition, but merely of recording an unlearned impression of its contents, which is briefly this :—The collection is worth a visit, or many visits, but it is far too large, it needs weeding and arrangement, and wants a catalogue with a history of each picture, as well as of the subject of each. If Mr. Cole would employ competent persons to select some 300 portraits, all of them authentic, obtain permission to photograph them, and sell the collections in unbroken set% he would confer a real and great benefit upon students of history, and probably obtain as large a revenue as visitors will yield, revenue which he may devote if he likes to putting up some more ugly sheds as homes for art upon the most sterile, treeless, dusty, and inherently vulgar site in Western London. They will at any rate be worthy of the nar- row, mud coloured houses, with pretentious porticoes, staring windows, and look of leaving outgrown their strength, which builders are running up all round, and for which the hangers-on of fashion are beginning to desert comfortable homes.