9 FEBRUARY 1895, Page 22

NOLLEKENS AND HIS TIMES.* Ma. GOSSE, in his brief account

of John Thomas Smith, Keeper of the Prints and Drawings at the British Museum in the early part of this century, says that he wrote the most

• (1.) Noltskeas and hi, Times. By J. T. Smith. Edits by Edmund GOINkts Loud-n: Bentley and Bon.—(2.) James Holmes and John Varlet,. By iltred T. Story. London : Bentley and Son. candid biography ever published in the English language. This biography of the sculptor, Joseph Nollekens, Smith's early patron and life-long friend, seems to have been partly the outcome of an inveterate love of gossip, and partly the spite of a disappointed legatee. Mr. Gosse has substituted a short account of English sculpture from Roubiliac to Flax- man, for Smith's slight sketches of contemporary artists, has added an index, and made one handy book out of the original two volumes of biographical rambles. It is the glimpse he gives of the artistic and literary world of London in the reign of George III. that makes Smith's garrulity tolerable; we are not so much interested in the details of Nolleken's miserly habits as we are impressed by the idea of Sir Joshua Reynold h's coach being kept waiting at the sculptor's door in Mortimer Street, to the intense annoyance of an occupant of the coach, who at length roared out in his great voice, "Come, Nolly ! Nolly ! " and we can picture to ourselves Nollekens in his turn being kept waiting by Dr. Samuel Johnson, and complaining, "Now, Doctor, you did say you would give my bust° half-an-hour before dinner, and the dinner has been waiting this long time;" to which the Doctor's only reply was "Bow-wow-wow."

The "candid biographer" paints Nollekens in the coarsest colours. We are assured that he cared nothing for the study of bygone art, that his highest flights of fancy never soared above a somewhat clumsy Venus, that he only frequented the theatre for the sake of the ballet, and was never heard to mention Shakespeare. He was an illiterate man with unrefined tastes and manners, and his wife seems to have been even more miserly and eccentric than her husband. Mrs. Nollekens was daughter to Saunders Welch, who called Dr. Johnson "steadfast friend ; " and Mr. Smith records that the Doctor had serious thoughts of marrying the beautiful Mary Welch himself, and that he is reported by Nollekens to have said : "Yes, I think Mary would have been mine, if little Joe had not stepped in." Mr. Smith charitably remarks :—"It is not because it has been stated that Mr. Nollekens was little more than one remove from an idiot that I should omit mentioning an act of charity bestowed on him by a fellow-creature." Though he filched nutmegs from the Royal Academy Club dinner, underpaid his assistants, and looked on soap and clean linen as superfluous extrava- gances, be had occasional fits of generosity. We hear of his sending on sitters to Chantrey, and giving Turner thirty times as much as be asked of him for the Artists' Fund. He would no doubt have done more to help his brother artists by buying their pictures had he not been checked by his wife's meanness. After her death he indulged in various unheard-of luxuries, "sported two mould candles instead of one, took wine oftener, sat up later, laid in bed longer, and would, though he made no change whatever in his coarse manner of feeding, frequently ask his morning visitors to dine with him." Nollekens took his unrefined manners to Court with him, and roared at the King as he would have done at any pf his models. The fine ladies who sat to him were rather pleased than otherwise at his candid remarks. "Don't look so seerny," he said to one of them ; and to a great personage who ventured to laugh at him, be exclaimed, "If you laugh, 111 make a fool of ye !" In spite of his singularity, he seems to have known every one worth knowing. Caleb Whitefoord, the wit, was a constant visitor. Smith, of course, puts his attentions down to legacy-hunting. Nollekens hated Romney, and the dislike was cordially returned by the painter who loved Flaxman ; but we hear of a staunch friendship with Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Miss Moser and Angelica Kauffmann were very intimate with Mrs. Nollekens. Smith records a visit to Gainsborough :- "Upon our arrival at Mr. Gainsborongh's, the third west division of Schomberg House, Pall Mall, the artist was listening to a violin, and held up his finger to Mr. Nollekens as a request of silence. Colonel Hamilton was playing to him in so exquisite a style that Gainsborough exclaimed, 'Now, my dear Colonel, if you will but go on, I will give you that picture of the boy at the stile, which you have so often wished to purchase of me.' Mr. Gains- borough, not knowing how long Nollekens would hold his tongue. gave him a book of sketches to choose two from, which he had

promised him Mr. Gainsborough, after he had given Mr. Nollekens the two drawings he had selected, requested him to look at the model of an ass's head which he had just made. Nullekens : 'You should model more with your thumbs ; thumb it about till you get it into shape.'—' What,' said Gainsborough, in this manner ? ' having taken up a bit of clay, and looking at a picture of Abel's Pomeranian Deg which bung over the chimney-piece--- 'this way ? '--‘ Yes,' said Nollekens ; you'll do a great deal more with your thumbs.' "

Among Nollekens's first sitters were Garrick and Sterne. Later he became the fashion, and all the great people in London sat to him for their " bustos." Mr. Charles Town- ley, whose collection of antique sculpture is now in the British Museum, considered him the first sculptor of his day. Smith allows that, "defective as he was in many particulars, Nollekene's fame for bust-making will never be diminished," and he quotes Fuseli's opinion,—" If Mr.

Coutts had required a group of figures, I should have recom- mended Flaxman, but for a bust, give me Nollekena." Hazlitt speaks of his style as "comparatively hard and edgy," and lacking the polished grace and transparent softness of Chantrey, and he has given us a Rembrandt-like portrait of the rough old sculptor, when Time had darkened his eyes and stolen the cunning from his immense hands :—

" I saw this eminent and singular person one morning in Mr. Northcote's painting-room. He had then been for some time nearly blind, and had been obliged to lay aside the exercise of his profession ; but he still took a pleasure in designing groups, and in giving directions to others for executing them. He and Northcote made a remarkable pair. He sat down on a low stool (from being rather fatigued), rested with both bands on a stick, as if he clung to the solid and tangible ; had an habitual twitch in his limbs and motions, as if catching himself in the act of going too far in chiselling a lip or a dimple in a chin ; was bolt upright, with features hard and square, but finely cut, a hooked nose, thin lips, an indented forehead ; and the defect in his sight completed his resemblance to one of his own masterly busts. He seemed, by time and labour, to 'have wrought himself to stone.'" We can hardly imagine a greater contrast than could be drawn between the boorish sculptor, grasping with miserly hands at the hoards of wealth he had accumulated during

his long life, and the courtly painter James Holmes, the favourite of George IV., the friend of Brummel and Byron, who spent his substance freely, and, with an income of £2,000 a year, was always in need of money. His good-humour and high spirits were unvarying. As a "somewhat gloomy Cabinet Minister once said to him, " Ah, it is always fine weather with you, Mr Holmes." There is a great contrast also in the respective biographers of Nollekens, and Holmes and Varley. Mr. J T. Smith noted down his ill-natured gossip and drew his Hogarth-like scenes from life, and

rambled in a desultory manner among a host of irrelevant details ; Mr. Alfred Story has gone to work in the orthodox following-generation style, and has had to rely for his materials on hearsay and the writings of others. His memoirs are more compact, but the portraits he draws are less lifelike. Of the two painters, Varley, the friend of William Blake, is the better-known and the more interest-

ing character. Though he was junior to Nollekens, he is mentioned characteristically in J. T. Smith's book (p. 325) :—" A lady, with her three daughters, once visited

Mr. Nollekens to show him the drawings of her youngest, who was a natural genius. -Upon his looking at them he advised her to have a regular drawing-master. And I can

recommend you one,' added he ; 'he only lives over the way, and his name is John Varley.' The lady asked him if he were a man of mind. Oh yes!' said Nollekens, he's a clever fellow; one of our best. I'll ring the bell and send my maid for him ; he'll soon tell you his mind.' So ignorant was our sculptor of the lady's meaning." Varley was one of the best water-colourists of his day. He founded the Society of Painters in Water-Colours ; and among his pupils were Mulready, William Henry Hunt, John Linnell, Francis

Oliver Finch, Samuel Palmer, and William Turner of Oxford. He was an indefatigable worker. We read of his working fourteen hours a day, and completing forty-two drawings for the Water-Colour Society in five or six weeks. In conse- quence of this excessive production, Varley's compositions were often unequal and mechanical ; but Ruskin says he was "frequently deep in his feeling," and that Turner and Varley were the only men who could draw mountains. A cunons side of Varley's character was his practice of astrology ; and he shared his friend Blake's belief in the supernatural. It was at Varley's request that Blake drew his visionary portraits, from the materialised figures that the poet saw with some strange mental vision. We can picture the two as Linnell sketched them : "Varley alert, eager, inquisitive;

Blake calm, thoughtful, contemplative." Varley called for the portraits of "Persons one would wish to have seen" (how it recalls Lamb's whimsical invocations of Sir Thomas Browne and the Duchess of Newcastle, or Guy Faux and Judas Iscariot), and Blake drew with the utmost composure Moses or Julius -exam., the devil or Harold after the Battle of Hastings, and the most fantastic conceit of all, "The Ghost of a Flea." "Tar- ley's chief characteristic was credulity, and anything must be possible to a man who stayed indoors because his horoscope threatened him with a disaster at mid-day, and welcomed the news that his house was on fire as establishing the astrological effect of Uranus :—" Although he lost everything in the fire, he regarded that as a small matter compared with his discovery of the new planet's potentiality."

Both volumes are good reading, Mr. Gosse's new edition of Smith's rambling Life of Nollekens, for the pictures he gives of the end of the last century, and Mr. Story, though a mere matter-of-fact historian, for his pleasantly coloured sketch of two of the early masters of English water-colour painting.