THE DINNER OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY.
are an odd people. It is the custom of Englishmen, and
has been from time immemorial, to commence and conclude every undertaking with a feast, to which the notabilities procur- able, and especially the talking notabilities, are invited, and coerced into making speeches for the delectation of the company. The custom is in itself not by any means a bad one. Undertakings must be commenced and ended with some sort of ceremonial, and a dinner is on the whole the pleasantest, and to a shy people who are afraid of talking to one another unless introduced, and who are afflicted with the idea that to be prominent is bad taste, is perhaps on the whole the least burdensome. People know what to do with their hands and eyes and tongues at dinner, and some-
times get almost sociable, and as for the speeches, a free country likes to hear its rulers talk sometimes upon other things than politics, and in a way which, if the listeners make believe very much, they can take to be unpremeditated. But the conventional mode of extracting the speeches is nevertheless not a little odd. Instead of letting the guests speak when called on by the general voice, as they would in America, or when they choose, as they nearly contrive to do in Germany, or by arrangement among them- selves or with the chairman, as they often do in France, or even when their healths are drunk, as they do everywhere, the system is .to drink solemnly the health of some great institution which nobody is thinking about just then, and " couple " with it the name of the biggest grandee present associated with that institu- tion. The person so named has then to rise and speak a speech which shall in some way or other, natural or unnatural, link toge- ther the person, or undertaking or subject celebrated by the banquet and the institution which has been toasted, thus giving his audi- ence instead of a speech that is of clear thoughts in forcible words only a specimen of intellectual agility quite melancholy to listen to. A man may be the most perfect dancer in the world and still unable to dance on the tight-rope, but every speaker in England is expected at public dinners to perform the part of an intellectual Blondin. No matter what the subject or how odd the connection, he must still bring in both his topics, or submit to have his speech pro- nounced "very clever, but somewhat inappropriate." Suppose the toast is the Army, and the dinner one given by the Sons of the Clergy, the unlucky general called upon must remember every clergyman's son he ever knew in regimentals, and if he is up to it, make pathetic allusions to the Church being like the Army, a body "militant here on earth." Of course, with such a clog to the fancy, the speeches are either spoilt or degraded into mere intel- lectual tours de force, or are carefully prepared in order to evade an otherwise insuperable difficulty. The dinner of the Royal Academy on Saturday last furnished a curious instance of the effect of the custom, speakers who understand Art and their own business equally well being completely foiled and, as it were, soured by the necessity of showing some connection between one and the other. The Academicians had, as usual, caught rather a promising set of guests, an Archbishop of scholarship and an Archbishop of piety, an ex-Premier who had translated Homer and written a little book on the Parables, and a Minister who had published a tragedy, a Peer who is at the head of the Navy, and a Peer who stands in the front rank of living historians. They were all men competent to utter thoughts worth hearing on Art, and had they spoken what they thought the public would pro- bably have been the gainers. Each, however, as his name was called, was bound in the conventional fetter called a toast.
The Archbishop of York, for example, answered to the toast of the Church—the Primate, who was also present, replying to that of the guests—and might, if he had been let alone, have found something to say. But the toast was the Church and the subject Art, and the Prelate had in some way or other to link the Church and Art together. Had he been a Catholic he might have said that the highest use of Art was to decorate the shrines devoted to the worship of God, but having the fear of The Record before his eyes, he could not attempt that topic, and went off into a most laboured comparison between the artist as an educa- tor and the priest, making in fact the subject of Art more important than Art itself. "How," he said, "can we who are teachers of morality and religion, help being interested in another form of teaching, such as your artists exhibit here to-night?" which is all very well in a British academy, but in an exhibition full of Ledas and Antiopes, like the one just opened in Paris, would not have been perhaps quite so much of a truism. The Archbishop's task, however, was manageable, and the Duke of Cambridge, as he sat waiting his inevitable turn, must have envied him not a little. His Royal Highness, though not eloquent, can say what he thinks very clearly, and sometimes with much more than sufficient em- phasis, but his task on Saturday would have staggered Mr. Gladstone. He had to "return thanks for the Army," i. e., to show, somehow or other, either that the Army benefited Art, or that Art benefited the Army, or that Art and Army were some- how linked together after the true Siamese-twins style. Poor man! it was too much for him, so after one remark about the deficiency of "battle-pieces," which a peaceful public will not buy, deeming acres of canvass covered with a sloppy mixture of red coats, and smoke, and chargers very uninteresting, he was obliged to fall back on the fact that the" Artists' Corps of Volunteers have been in no respect reduced either in number or efficiency," -which wonderful imbecility is said by the reporters to have elicited cheers. If it did, the explanation must be that men.always love to be praised for something they do only occasionally, and therefore indifferently well. His Royal Highness, however, really deserved them, for getting over so high a fence with only a little lameness ; it might have spiked a faster horse altogether. The next turn was that of the Admiralty, and at first it seemed as if the Duke of Somerset were as usual going to take his own way in defiance of all etiquette, and return thanks for the Navy in a speech of the non-conventional kind. But no, the custom was too strong even for a Duke who can
snub a Sea Lord into silence, and his Grace was reduced to saying that he feared the new iron-clads would not grace the walls of the Academy, and people's eyes must be educated before they saw the beauty of them, which is true, but would not have been said but for public-dinner compulsion. The Archbishop of Canterbury showed more courage than the secular dignitaries. Perhaps he felt it a little odd to have to answer for the guests instead of the Church, so he simply shirked the toast, pointed in the best pulpit
style to the religious or sentimental among the pictures around, and hoped the "mission of Art " might be "to touch and teach the heart while it charmed the eye, to subserve the cause of morality and religion by awakening through the creations of genius on the canvass such pure emotions and such elevating thoughts as may delight while they improve the beholder !" Earl Russell, on the other hand, broke loose from one conventionality of public dinners to fall into another. He dodged the toast of "Her Majesty's Ministers," and did not promise the Academy a new residence, but he still remembered there was a toast, and in his perplexity tried to be humorous. Now Earl Russell has great and varied powers, but a capacity for humorous speech does not happen to be among them. There is a picture, it seems, in the Academy of "Queen Elizabeth's Toothache," the Archbishop Aylmer stepping forward in a spirit of sublime flunkeyism to have his tooth taken out in order to re-assure Her Majesty, who was afraid of the operation. The Foreign Secretary looked at the picture and looked at the Archbishop opposite, and evi-
dently felt that there was a" funny point somewhere, and a point connected with Art and Bishops, and therefore appropriate, but he could not catch it quickly enough, and uttered, if The
Times may be trusted, the following wonderful balderdash :— " Among the pictures I have seen to-day there is one that could not fail to strike me, particularly as you have drunk the health of the most rev, and the right rev, prelates who are now present—I mean the picture described in the catalogue as 'Queen Elizabeth's Toothache.' (A laugh.) I compared that with tanother picture I see before me, named in the catalogue as 'The Connoisseurs.'
One would have expected to see under such a title two or three very shrewd-looking gentlemen disposed to tell the artist, accord- ing to Goldsmith's well-known story, that the picture might have been very much better if he had taken more pains, or making some remarks of tat kind. But instead of that I was much surprised to see two dts looking over Sir Edwin Landseer's shoulders, as if crticizing the picture he is drawing. (A laugh.) From the obser- vation of these two pictures a gentleman was led to remark that it was much better to be one of Sir Edwin Ltindseer's dogs than one of Queen Elizabeth's Bishops. (Much laughter.)" "Much laughter," so there must be a joke, and it was unkind of his Lord- ship not to tell the public wherein it lay. Earl Burrell surely was not thinking of the face Dr. Thomson would make if the Queen pulled his teeth out—that would have been too disrespectful, and yet where else is the fan? Or was it that the old statesman was chuckling over the Appropriation Clause, and thinking how much more comfortable it was to be a dog than a bishop; or did it strike him, perhaps,—we suggest it with hesitation,—that a critical dog is on the whole a manlier object than a flunkey bishop? The problem is insoluble, and we must pass on to the chief of Her Majesty's Opposition.
Lord Derby of course did not make a poor speech. No fetter of conventionalism however carefully forged ever can quite restrain the exuberant strength of that oratorical Samson, but still one could hear clearly its clink as he moved. He had faced the difficulty by preparing his speech, and every sentence smelt, and smelt strongly, of the oil. True, his Lordship descended to the rhetorical artifice of being taken by surprise, but when really called on in haste Lord Derby doss not talk leading articles after this Macaulayish fashion. He had got hold of a striking idea, the connection between poetry and painting as mediums of pictorial effect, and of a singularly appropriate illustration in the pictorialness of the Homer he knows and loves so well. In a burst of eloquence, which makes us regret for the hundredth time that his Lord- ship exerts his powers so seldom on anything outside the region of politics, he claimed Homer as an unrivalled artist in historical painting, in landscape, even in portraiture. And
then he continued, "If he desires to bring before you an ex- tended group of gods, or warriors, or chieftains in debate, he pre- sents a variety and individuality among them that would create the envy of a MacRae, a Herbert, or a Frith. If he desires to represent the ocean in its milder or stormier characters by a few rapid touches, he produces a sketch a Stanfield might look on with envy. If he paints the vineyard or harvest home, he bathes the landscape in a flood of light which a Linnell would hardly venture to emulate. And, passing to the wilder features of rural life, the representation of the passions and contests of the brute creation, if he attempts to describe a lion springing at and striking down a bull in the midst of the herd, or a wounded boar turning on his pursuers, or a pack of wolves with blood-stained jaws lapping with their lean tongues the cool surface of some dark-watered fountain, or a wounded panther writhing itself up the spear that has transfixed her in order to reach her assailant, the few touches which Homer gives bring before the-mental eye the whole scene with a life and vigour which could hardly be equalled by an Ansdell or surpassed by a Landseer." (Cheers.) That is eloquence indeed, but it is the eloquence of Lord Macaulay, not of Lord Derby,— the perfect newspaper style, not perfect oratory. That minute antithesis, those carefully-balanced cadences bear no trace of the spontaneity which the speaker to heighten their effect nevertheless seemed to claim for them. If they were spontaneous, then indeed a public dinner has a worse effect even than we imagined, for it can give to pure gold the disagreeable brightness and cross-light effect of highly-burnished brass. The truth is, the fetter of a subject fixed for him, of having to speak on Art to a toast affected even Lord Derby, and either made him use long-prepared sentences—prepared probably not for this occasion—or compelled him to defend himself from the temptation of his own powers by keeping within the limits of glittering but brassy antithesis. Perhaps, however, the oddest example of the conventional absurdity was the speech of Earl Stanhope. Wit and scholar by right at once of blood and nature, the Earl has a knowledge of Art only surpassed by his still wider knowledge of literature, and unfet- tered would to a certainty have charmed and instructed his audience. He was, however, called on to answer for the Society of Antiquaries, and in his despair tried to escape through the fol- towing story :—" Whenever indeed it was required to pourtray a scene of former days, there could be no approach to fidelity of representation without some study of the attire, the buildings, and the customs of the period. On one occasion he remembered that one of the most gifted artists whom this country had ever produced—his friend the late Sir David Wilkie—had shown him and some other persons the first sketch of a picture which he was designing—namely, the passage of Mont St. Bernard by the First Napoleon. But in this sketch, excellent as it was in all other respects, Wilkie had represented the First Consul, as he stood with some monks before the hospice fire, with the star of the Legion of Honour, while in fact that order of merit was not -founded till more than three years from that time. No blame could attach to Wilkie for that little oversight, since, instead of studying dates or poring over chronologies, he had been better "employed in achieving works of immortal genius." Is not that itch? When one has to paint antiquity one should study antiquity, consequently Wilkie ought to have known the date of the Legion of Honour, only he was much better occupied than in "studying dates or poring over chronologies," and therefore the story shows the value of Antiquarianism to Art. Let any reader imagine what the speech of any one of these men on Art would have been, and com- pare it with what it was, and he will, we think, agree with us that the sooner the etiquette which links such incongruous subjects together As abolished the better it will be for the art of speaking at pub- lic dinners. A formula which reduces Earl Rumen to jokes, and Lord Derby to forced antithesis, and Lord Stanhope to anecdotes of which the point tells the other way, stands condemned by experience.