30 DECEMBER 1882, Page 8


FOR the public, the true trial of the Belt case will be the FOR

appeal against Baron Huddleston's charge. That charge can be compared only to another and much shorter one, which is said to have been delivered in these words, " Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner at the bar stole the boots. You will find a verdict in accordance with your opinion of the evidence." Nevertheless, it is quite impossible for any one who reads that charge carefully and dispassionately—that is, without the pre- judice which the intense conviction of the Judge naturally creates—to doubt that if it can be sustained upon appeal, if, that is, it is reasonably accurate and fair, the verdict was cor- rect, and only the damages possibly excessive. And we con- fess that, from the point of view of a Court of Justice, we believe the charge, notwithstanding its special tone, is not in- defensible. Originally, we imagine the case to have sprung up in this way. Mr. Belt, a clever and ingenious, though possibly not a very original sculptor, not only employed assistants, like every other sculptor, but in his anxiety to get on tried to get out of his assistants more than is usual, picked out men who were more than masons, and paid them special rates to do their beet. They naturally exaggerated their own value, as men in all professions when so employed are apt to do. There is not a " devil " at the Bar who does not think he " makes " his chief, or a contributor to a journal who does not half believe that he is the source of its success. No persons are quite so sensitive in this way as artists who possess, or think they possess, more in them than the world sees ; and hence a crop of hatreds and malignities, gradually concentrat- ing into a steadily diffused report that Mr. Belt was an utter impostor, " a statue-jobber," who did and could do no artistic work. This report became so strong and Mr. Belt's enemies so bitter, that the statement at last found air in a Society journal, and was sent to the Lord Mayor, to impede Mr. Belt's obtaining a commission then pending. Hence the trial, to which an accident called an excessive and, as we still think, a preposterous amount of public attention.

The accident was this. From the first it was quite certain that the jury would go with Mr. Belt. He was not accused of getting help, for that is the practice—the very dangerous and occasionally the dishonourable practice—of his profession, but of getting help inexcusably too good. He had a right to help, but not to help so artistically excellent as he got. That was the essence of the libel, and to expect a common-place Eng- lish jury to see that was almost absurd. Their instinctive impression was the tradesman's impression,—that if the cus- tomer finds the work good, the place it came from does not matter. If a friend has given the seller a design, or an em- ploye has put a trace of genius into mechanical work, so much the better for the buyer ; but that is all. It was necessary for the defendants, therefore, to show, that Mr. Belt was more of an impostor than on any reasonable view of facts he could possibly have been, and to support their conten- tion by the opinion of a host of experts. Both things were done. Witness after witness testified that Mr. Belt was a total impostor, and could not even model a decent bust or make a trustworthy drawing ; and sculptor after sculptor gave an opinion that the work he claimed could not, on internal evidence of style, be his. It is not for us to ques- tion, as Baron Huddleston does, the good-faith of the wit- nesses for the defendant, but we suppose we may say that they showed marked bitterness, amounting, in the matter of the cheque, to unreasoning prejudice, and that they were opposed by testimony so direct that it is hardly possible— we do not say quite impossible to reject it without supposing either perjury or the crassest stupidity. Several of these witnesses, however—Canon Wilkinson, for example— were men utterly beyond either charge ; and the jury, believing them, threw over the defendants' witnesses alto- gether. There remained the body of experts, headed by Sir Frederick Leighton, and they certainly testified, with rare consistency, that Mr. Belt's work was not his own, that, in fact, one man could not have had all those styles, or have stood at different times on such different steps of the great ladder of Art. On the public, their evidence, obviously sin- cere, though possibly prejudiced, will, we imagine, produce the impression that Mr. Belt did use much more assistance than he chose to allow, or possibly—for artists aro vain—acknow- ledged even to himself ' • but in a Court of Justice such testi- mony, when confronted as it was with the direct and positive counter-testimony of eye-witnesses, could not be expected to weigh heavily. Nor ought it. We should be prepared, we do not doubt, to swear in a court of justice that a poem obviously Mr. Tennyson's or Mr. Arnold's was not by Poet Close. But if half a dozen decent witnesses swore that they saw Mr. Close sketch the poem out, discuss particular lines, alter the lines on their advice—for that was sworn as to Mr. Belt's work—and take the poem to the printer, the

jury would be bound to believe them, and not us. It would be uncontradicted fact against peremptory opinion, and if opinion is not rejected under such circumstances, there is an end to the utility of evidence. The jury were told this by the Judge, they believed it, and an accident made their belief conviction. Mr. Belt had done a bust of Mr. Pagliatti, a man with a very pronounced expression. Ile was called on to do a second bust of Mr. Pagliatti in Court, and did it, pro- ducing an admirable, though exaggerated, and, it may be, inartistic likeness. The experts swore that the second bust, though like, was so wanting in artistic qualities, that it could not have been done by the hand that did the -first bust, which is good work. But unhappily the evidence that Mr. Belt did do the first bust was irresistible, and artistic criticism was, in the jurymen's eyes, woefully discredited. The defendants' witnesses having broken down, the great ex- perts having been discredited, and the plaintiff's witnesses being undestroyed, only one verdict was possible,—that given by the Jury. The amount of damages is a separate question. It is unprecedently heavy, but the Judge accepted it ; the charge if not disproved would have deprived Mr. Belt of his whole income, and there may have been evidence as to the amount of that income which we missed.

Let us not be mistaken. We have no knowledge either of Mr. Belt or his opponent, who very likely believed all he published, and have no intention of giving an opinion on a matter in which we have no sufficient data. For any- thing we know, there may be a story behind the case, or evidence may exist that Mr. Belt brought the second bust in his pocket into court, or all his witnesses may be wilful

perjurers, but this much we hold ourselves justified in believ- ing. On the case as presented in Court, a verdict for the plain- tiff was unavoidable, even if the Judge had made as much of the evidence against Mr. Belt as he did of the evidence for him, and the only serious question is as to the amount of damages. That is mainly one for lawyers, but we may be permitted to remark in the public interest that while fines for libel are often justifiable, fines settled in proportion to earnings give an almost intolerable advantage to the rich. We see no justice in defending Messrs. Anyone's Bank by a fine of one year's profits, say, £10,000, and Messrs. Rothschild's business by a fine, say, of a million sterling. Each is equally hurt, and in each case there may be an equal amount of malice and injury to the public. A man can only be ruined even by a libel, and the system of estimating extent of ruin by positive damage may be pushed to positive cruelty.