Victorian Art Critics
A Century of British Painters. By Samuel and Richard Redgrave. (Phaidon Press. 10s. 6d.)
Tuns book is a classic, and there is every reason why it should be, since it is highly readable today and was a landmark in 1866. The sense is sound, the history well founded, the. prose is sturdy without being heavy and the serious matter is nicely relieved with sympathetic anecdote and relevant irony. But what is perhaps unexpected about this popular history of English painting is not the several differences between the tastes of that period and the fashions of our own, but the much more considerable grounds for agreement to be found after a lapse of eighty-two years. One somehow does not expect from the supposed darkness of the mid-Victorian era so luminous a statement about Gainsborough as : -
" It would puzzle a critic to say what his trees really are . . . the weeds too in his foregrounds have neither form nor species, his rocks are not geologically correct. . . The truth is however that he gave us more of Nature than any merely imitative rendering could do."
A remark which must surely have been unwelcome in its day, to the Leightons and Poynters as well as to the Pre-Raphaelites. But then one of the authors of the book was a painter who had learnt much at first hand from Turner, and the especial virtue of books about painting by painters need not be dilated upon here. A leit-motiv of techniques, pigments, penmanship and all the shop dear to the practitioner runs through, and is as interesting as any part of the book. We learn the disposition of Richard Wilson's palette, the technical faults of Reynolds, the water-colour practice of Turner and details of the methods of almost all the artists included in the history.
Where we in 1948 differ from the Redgraves in 1866 is no less Interesting. The Redgraves thought little of Allan Ramsay, were dubious about Hogarth's portraits and even more so about his Analysis of Beauty ; they respectfully soft-pedalled both Blake and Bonington, and, though they wrote at length on the water-colourists and draughtsmen from Faithorne to Samuel Palmer, they failed to make any mention of Rowlandson. J. R. Cozens they considered more important than his father Alexander, and whilst they praised Constable highly he was not, like Wilkie, given a chapter to himself. Nevertheless, the points of divergence are fewer, on the whole, than the points of agreement between that day and this, and the informa- tion contained in this new edition is so diverse and important that no student of the subject should fail to acqIire it. Many nineteenth- century painters not at present in favour aft treated in detail here as nowhere else.
Mr. Ruthven Todd has edited with care and modesty, and my only quarrel with him is that the choice of the one hundred plates reflects present taste to too great an extent, rather than that of the authors. The Redgraves describe Ramsay's portraits as "honest and manly ... if wanting in grace." It does not seem to me relevant
therefore to reproduce his famous portrait of his wife which is as delicate as a Fragonard. The two Shoreham drawings by Palmer reproduced do not illustrate the author's curious contention that Palmer's early work is more conventional than his late water-colours, and a Landseer pen scribble is not adequate in a book which takes that now unfashionable artist seriously. An even larger proportion of plates after painters less known today but highly considered by the Redgraves, such as Calcott, would have been welcome, though on the credit side are reproductions of Chalon, Barret, Webster, Leslie and Dyce, together with Benjamin West's once famous history picture of The Death of General Wolfe. It is well known that when General Wolfe was about to scale the Heights of Abraham he expressed a preference for having written Gray's celebrated Elegy, and it has been remarked elsewhere that when it was pointed out to him that the poet Gray had already committed the elegy to paper, he scaled the heights and took Quebec. In the face of the Redgraves having written their book, now reissued in a beautifully printed pocket edition, I imagine a number of the potential authors of popular art history are regretting that Quebec is no longer