ORNAMENTAL PAINTING OF THE NEW HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT.
THR art of painting has advanced as far in this country as it can advance so long as its productions are merely called for as an article of domestic luxury. The scale of pictures calculated to ornament the apartments of a dwelling-house—the selection of subjects fitted for the walls of a saloon—the subdued tone of the artist working to the taste of a patron or of the purchasers who frequent exhibitions—all combine to prevent painting from rising above its present level. The art speaks in a polite whisper, suited to the conventional tastes of the drawing-room or the boudoir. Our painters possess taste and knowledge of their art ; colourists of the first rank are found among them; they can catch the senti- ment of a landscape or the pathos of a domestic scene : but when they attempt to grapple with history, their works remind us more of representations of theatrical canvass, pasteboard, and common- place actors dressed in the robes of kings and senators, than of the living reality. The first-mentioned classes of subjects they catch from life, and express through a medium fitted to do justice to them : with the last they want not only the inspiration of actual experience, but of an audience and instrument which stimulate into activity the powers requisite for their adequate expression. Not only the unteachable portion of the art—the poetical spirit, which employs its resources to embody masterly conceptions and in- tense passion—even the higher capabilities of the mechanical department of the art remain undeveloped. Notwithstanding the pains taken to train artists in the school of ancient statuary and living models, the drawing of English artists is still of a very low cast. The class of pictures most in demand scarcely requires or admits of the display of high skill in drawing, and the painter who paints for immediate reputation and bread is too apt to dispense with it. Pleasing effects and a specious neatness of execution are found to be most profitable. Painters and purchasers conspire to flatter each other into a love of pretty commonplace. In con- noisseurship of delicate pieces of colouring and graceful outlines of figures and groupes, the ideas which they might be made the means of expressing are forgotten. The expression is more regarded than the matter expressed. An assemblage of dogs or a groupe of children, at most a sportsman or a family-party—the still.life of animated nature—become the highest subjects of the art. Pretty cabinet-paintings, and engravings for Annuals, are at once the highest aim of the artist and most in demand with the public. Men judge of paintings like critics who should decide on the respective merits of Mumort, POPE, SHAKSPERE, or Ga.v, by the neatness of the manuscript.
The proposal to adorn the interior of the new Houses of Par- liament with painting may be made the first start in a fresh ad- vance of the art. It will not create the necessary genius if it is not already there, but it will furnish it, if in existence, with an op- portunity of developing its powers by exercise, that has hitherto been wanting. The power of imitating in colours the forms and hues of external nature, is, in painting, no more than what a knowledge of grammar and a tolerably copious vocabulary is in writing. Practice may give that neatness and point which are sufficient for a success- ful magazine-essayist or compiler of fashionable novels ; but to make a dramatist like SHAKSPERE, or an epic poet like MILTON', or an orator like BURKE, there must be events to awaken their dormant energies, and intellectual powers to apprehend the spirit of these events, and reproduce them in burning and eternal words. The stirring periods in which they lived, their own inborn powers, and the wide publicity of the dramatic or political stage, or the elevating certainty of an audience "fit though few," were all neces- sary to the production of their great works, in addition to their mastery of the mother-tongue. There are English painters who pos- sess at this moment more complete mastery over the high technical branches of their art than is to be found in any country in Europe : at times, indications of a living and creative spirit, animating and directing their technical skill, break forth. Give them an opportunity to speak out, if they have any thing to tell us worth hearing : give them such a stage and audience as are calculated to stimulate their latent talents : so long as they are shut up among the elegant circles of the drawing-room, their works will be cha- racterized by the littleness and effeminacy of the scene of their in- spiration. We have had orators and poets who have made their instruments of expression sway the souls of men as they pleased : why shoukl this country not be able to produce men capable of turning the painter's medium to the same account, now that they have reached such a degree of skill in its technical use? The pro- gress of the art in this country has been the reverse of its progress in every other. From the churches, town-halls, and palaces of Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, painting found its way to the cabinets of the nobleman and private citizen, and carried with it something of strength and masculine grace which it had acquired from its public exercise : in England its cultivation has been es- sentially domestic, and in the few irresolute attempts that have been made to apply it to public purposes, it has betrayed the timidity and feebleness of its recluse origin. Bring it out boldly into the bracing atmosphere of publicity. The plunge must be taken at once ; aid though the first attempt may be only in part successful, that partial success will encourage to other attempts, and establish the habit.
But let the British artist have fair play. His energies must not be cramped by prescribing to him an implement over which, being only imperfectly acquainted with it, he has only an imperfect com- mand. If fresco-painting be characterized by some beauties which seem unattainable by oil-painting, the latter has also charms which are beyond the reach of the other. A perfect relish and high esti- mate of the severe beauty and terrific power of Roman and Flo- rentine frescoes is quite compatible with an admiration of the gor- geous beauties of the oil-paintings of Venice. It is not the che- mical vehicle of his colours, but the soul of the painter, that bestows sublimity and beauty on his pictures. Pedants have in turn main- tained that this or the other language of Europe was most fitted for the high efforts of poetry ; but it has invariably been found, that when the master-spirit came, he made his own language, what- ever it was, subservient to his purposes. It is the poet that makes the language, not the language the poet ; and in like manner it is the real painter who gives value to the materials with and upon which he works. The British artist is master of the materials he has been accustomed to employ; for colour, and arrangement, and sentiment, the British school of oil-painting stands at this moment at the head of European art ; and its inferiority in drawing is less than is generally assumed. To give the British painter fair play, they must be allowed to speak their own language. If any of them are ambitious of attempting fresco, and can produce such specimens of their mastery over its technical execution, and of their inventive powers, as to warrant the adoption of their proposals, by all means let them have a trial ; but do not let oil-painting be excluded from competition, or fresco, in consequence of a previous resolution, be exclusively employed in ornamenting the walls of the Houses of Parliament.
-It is a narrow and theoretical view that would give an exclusive preference to fresco ; and a very brief review of the question will show that this is the case. The first object of painting, as an element of architectural ornament, is to break up the blank mono- tony of an extensive uniform surface—to give variety, and remove the sense of confinement. The higher but secondary object of appealing to the sentiment and imagination of' the beholder, by what may be called the narrative of painting, is the luxury of art superinduced upon the first mere simple design. The requisites, therefore, of paintings as forming a part of ornamental architec- ture, are—that they should harmonize, be in strict keeping with the whole of the structure ; that their subjects should be appropriate, and powerfully expressed. To the former requisite is conducive the taste which selects the most appropriate place for each paint- ing, decides upon the size and forms of the circumscribing out- line of all, and their relative positions, and the general tone of colouring. The latter depends entirely upon the genius of the painter-poet to whom the task is confided. That general tone of colour which harmonizes best with the architectural materials of an apartment, and with the quantity and direction of the light admitted into it, can be produced by oil-painting quite as well as by fresco—better, perhaps, for some effects. The conceptions of the great master painters of Italy have been expressed as success- fully in oil as in fresco. Nay, the subordination of painting to architectural adornment has been effected as successfully by the
instrumentality of oil-painting as by that of fresco. 'viewed as a part of the architecture, the oil-paintings in the churches and
halls of Venice, though different in kind, are equal in beauty and effect to the frescoes of Rome. This is no reason why fresco should be excluded from the walls of the new Houses of Parlia- ment, but it is a reason against its exclusive use. Not to speak it
profanely, in that house there are many mansions ; and a variety of ornament is desirable, while there is a greater chance of our
artists doing full justice to their own genius if allowed to work with those implements which have become a second nature to them, instead of being obliged to stammer in a language of which they are at the same time learning the rudiments.
There is every reason to be anxious for the success of the expe- riment. Its beneficial results will not be confined to the art of painting. It will teach architects and the admirers of architecture a lesson they seem much to stand in need of. An English school of architecture for the nineteenth century is wanted. Inappro-
priate, or half-appropriate repetitions of the forms of Grecian and
Gothic structures, do not constitute architecture. The Grecian temples are beautiful because they are appropriate : they were the outward casework of a narrow shrine to which the priest only ap- proached—something for a people seeking its enjoyment in the open air of a beautiful climate to take pleasure in beholding. The Gothic cathedrals are beautiful because they are appropriate : their long-drawn aisles are calculated to enable music, painting, and perfumes, to add their intoxicating charms to sacred processions, which a rough climate rendered it inexpedient to hold out of doors. The public architecture of our age and nation, to be worth any thing, must be appropriate too. The ornament must be suggested by the use, and must be in keeping with it. The public struc- tures required by the wants of society in this age and country, are places of assemblage in which a doctrinal religion may be
inculcated, or debates regarding public affairs carried on, or
social meetings held. The form and dimensions of our public buildings ought to be determined with a view to these requisites ; and their ornaments, external and internal, be such as, instead of interfering with, rather promote their use. In this country, the inside of the building is the prime object, to which the outside
ought to be kept subordinate. The process of ornamenting the
new Houses of Parliament with paintings will afford ample oppor- tunities of fixing the attention of artists upon this principle, and studying the best combinations of architecture and the other arts for producing impressive and pleasing effects. An impulse will be given to national taste in every branch of art.
The undertaking will also be found working for good in another direction. Much has been said of the inferiority of British me- chanics to those of the Continent in the taste of their patterns ; and efforts are made by instruction in drawing to raise the former to an equality with the latter. There is reason to believe that all such attempts have hitherto been productive of more indifferent
artists than good artisans. A competent master may teach any person to draw, (though even that has hitherto been set about in a
bungling, unscientific manner;) but to give him taste is a different matter, and taste is what is required. Ability to imitate external forms with the pencil, no more implies taste than the ability to com- pose a business-letter. Taste cannot be taught; it must be im- bibed by a naturally susceptible mind from the objects and the tone of that society by which it is habitually surrounded. Exhibitions of paintings—the fashion of knowing something about art—have already done as much for the general public in this respect as they have for the artist. Nothing more can be hoped till the introduc- tion of a high public art gives a new stimulus to both. It is not mere mechanical instruction in drawing, but the diffusion of a taste for high art, which characterizes in a superior degree the whole society of Southern Europe, and especially Italy, that has given to some Continental artisans the finer taste they display when com- pared with those of England. Instruction in the art of drawing has its uses—it prepares men to understand works of art more easily when presented to them ; but unless they have familiar access to high-class works of art, the instruction is in a great plea- sure wasted—it is like teaching men to read, and keeping them from reading any thing but the spelling-book.
The experiment about to be tried on the new Houses of Parlia- ment must, to give it a fair chance, be tried in no timid or nig- gardly spirit. There must neither be too little attempted nor too much expected. In a country which, like ours, has cultivated painting as a sort of exotic—which began to try its infant powers
in emulation of the full-grown art of other countries—much harm is done by the mingled conceit and bashfulness of knowledge ad. vanced before skill. Men wish to run before they have done creep- ing; they test the apprentices of their own by the works of the masters of foreign nations. At the risk of the existing artists of
Great Britain making but an indifferent job of the Houses of Par- liament, the attempt ought to be made and their services secured by remuneration adequate to the time ;hey have spent in educating themselves and the exertions they make. The worth of what they produce is not to be estimated by its artistical value alone, but by the importance of the effort as introducing a new element into the public life of the nation, which will call new powers into play, and diffuse new graces and enjoyments through every ramification of society.