30 OCTOBER 1880, Page 15



A FINE.A.RT publisher has hit upon an excessively clever kind of advertisement, as novel as it is bold; He announced that he would give 2500 in prizes to the fourteen best designs suitable for Christmas and New-Year's cards, and sent round a pro- spectus to that effect to the various studios throughout London ; he then procured well-known men to act as judges, and the loan of the Dudley Gallery, and the services of its well-known Secre- tary, and the exhibition we are about to notice is the result of his endeavours.

But, first, a word must be said as to the judges themselves, all of whom are men well known in the Art world. These are Sir Coutts Lindsay, Mr. H. S. Marks, R.A., and Mr. G. H. Boughton, A.R.A. The selection of these three gentlemen was a little unfortunate, or at least was felt to be so by many designers. Sir Courts Lindsay, an amateur of decided taste, and, as we have seen in the Grosvenor Gallery, of decided enterprise, is, nevertheless, scarcely likely to be accepted by any artist as a technical judge of design,—nay, if we may judge of his powers in this direction by his own exhibited work, he must be confessed to have nothing but the most elementary knowledge on the subject. This, however, would have mattered little, had the two other judges been carefully chosen to represent fully the two great and most diverging schools of decoration, which may be called here roughly the School of Grotesqueness and the School of Beauty. The "gulf is straight and deep enough" between them, and wide as is the difference between a burgess of Nuremberg and a nymph of Hellas. Who does not know by this time the art of Mr. H. S. Marks ? —his birds, living or stuffed, his old priests, or older savans, the broad backs and broader smiles of his well-fed citizens, the quaint humour, which is not mirth, which pene- trates his pictures. But when all is said that can be said in their praise—and it is very much, let us remember—one thing perfectly indispensable to design is always lacking,—and this artist's panels or friezes have never yet even attempted to give us any beauty of line whatsoever. This is beyond his province, and it is the lack of this which should have rendered it so necessary to select as his coadjutor in judgment, an artist who had a keen seuse of linear beauty, as applied to decorative design. Unfortunately, the very reverse has been done. Mr. G. H. Boughton, A.R.A., is a clever American artist, who has become a favourite with a certain section of our picture-loving public, from the fact of his possessing a power which is peculiarly rare in English Art. This is the power of getting his work into "tone,"—i.e., that peculiar harmoniousness of effect which is so rare in English, so nearly universal in French painting. This power is probably due to his Parisian schooling, partly under, if we remember rightly, M. Edouard Frere. This is a great and indisputable merit, but it is not one which enables its possessor to understand or to judge of design, and as a matter of fact, this artist's work has never shown the slightest hint of any faculty of the purely decorative kind, that is, of making any given space beautiful by disposition of line and colour, apart from sentimental or humorous interest. His art is essentially an art of costume, whether costume of nature or of man, and most frequently in his pictures both are combined. A cultivated landscape, fenced a little here and. there with coloured palings, and dotted with red-tiled houses, suitable for an aristocratic peasantry ; a group of prettily. costumed girls, or picturesquely-ragged labourers, a touch of sentiment, generally of the comedy-drama kind,—such as these are the materials of Mr. Boughton's pictures, exactly analogous in painting to Mr. Anthony Trollope's novels, in so far as they are always received with pleasure, interpreted without emotion, and left without any deep regret.

It thus comes about that the two professional artists on the Judging Committee are practically men to whom design is thoroughly alien ; that is, if design be taken in the above strict sense, having its chief reference to beauty of form. We should not have dwelt upon this subject, had it not been that it is likely, nay, almost inevitable, that the fiat of the judges, should be considerably influenced by their own personal predilections for a style of art which derives its interest mainly from costume and incident, and that it is, therefore, desirable that visitors to the gallery, should make allowance for this indi- vidual bias, before accepting the verdict.

Since writing the above words, we have learnt the Judges' award of the fourteen prizes which were offered for the best designs, and we must confess that, despite our misgivings, the final result has utterly astonished us. Many of the best works in the gallery have been passed over entirely, or, at best, ticketed with "honourable mention," and the prizes have been bestowed upon designs which are remarkable for nothing except very elaborate execution of the most common-place and trivial kind. One astonishing result of this judgment is, that out of fourteen prizes, eleven have been gained by young ladies, most of whose names are utterly unknown to us, and many of whom we should judge by their work to be amateurs. This is in itself rather a curious result of a competition which was specially designed for artists, but its details are still more wonderful. We find, for instance, that Mr. George Clausen, the well-known exhibitor at the Academy and Water-colour Galleries, has no less than ten successful female rivals above his head ; that Mr. Alfred Coke, whose design is (we thought indisputably) the best in the exhibition, and who is known to be one of the beet professional decorative artiste in England, gets—not the first prize—but none whatever ; and that Mr. Rooke, painter of the "Story of Ruth" (which was thought so good by the Royal Academy that it was purchased by them with part of the Chantrey Bequest), is, if possible, worse off still, for his designs were rejected altogether.

It is always an ungracious task to question the decisions of an "unpaid magistracy," and still more ungracious, we fear, will it seem to the successful young ladies, to hint at possible error. But it must be remembered that it is no small humilia- tion to men of ability and repute who have done good work to be ignored and rejected in a competition like the present one, and it shows one of two thiugs,—either the judges do not know good work from indifferent and bad work, when it is un- signed ; or that their prejudices are so strong as to cause them to reject good work of certain kinds, in favour of any work in the style they approve.

Whichever of these is the case, or whether the objectionable result is due to a combination of both, is of little consequence now, and is beyond our province to consider. We should, how- ever, be wanting in common honesty towards the unsuccessful artists, if we did not record a deliberate opinion that the best works, both as pictures and as decorative designs, have not been fortunate in securing the judges' favour.

Take, as an example, the work above referred to (No. 116), by Mr. Alfred Coke, representing "Peace and Prosperity," and compare it with that which has obtained the first prize,—with, that is, the four small designs by Miss Alice Squire, represent- ing the seasons (No. 168). Without entering upon any disput- able criticisms as to the technique of the work, or in any way disparaging the lady's very carefully executed and pretty con- tribution, one thing is perfectly plain at first-sight, which is that Mr. Coke's work is a design, and that Miss Squire's is not. The composition of the former artist, though by no means faultless, is good as a composition of line, and very good as de- coration in the disposition of its masses and its colour. Look, for instance, at the care with which the subject is treated, at the drawing of the egg-and-tongue moulding of the marble panel. The three figures which occupy each of the two panels into which the work is divided have a distinct and necessary relation to each other, the whole composition is thoroughly well balanced, the space which it occupies is easily and completely filled. Now look at Miss Squire's very delicate work. Here we have four little people, each standing or sitttin,g in the middle of a little, highly-stippled landscape appropriate to the season. They are nice little pictures enough, and one of them, a boy in a red comforter, standing in a snowy landscape, is suitable for a Christmas card, but they are no more designs than they are frescoes. No qualities of design exist in them ; their merits, which areconsiderable, are wholly outsidedecorative work. But even not judging them from the point of view of design, it is difficult to understand judges assigning to pictures so restricted, both in aim and method, a superiority over much freer and more artistic work, many instances of which could be found in this gallery for instance, Mr. George Clausen's, which, though scarcely to be called decorative, in the strict sense of the word, is, nevertheless, easy and interesting in its landscape and figure grouping, and is, besides, marked with that stamp of individuality of artistic handiwork to which the judges in this competition seem to have been so curiously blind. The difference is exactly similar, on a small scale, to that between a Delhi miniature and a Venetian fresco ; 'and though it is natural enough that Mr. Boughton should prefer the miniature, we should have thought that Sir Coutts Lindsay and Mr. Marks would have given in their adherence to the fresco.

Look, for another example, at the work which has got the second prize, which is by Mr. Herbert Allehin (No. 227). These designs are of flowers on a greenish ground, very carefully executed, in one of them a little bird is watching to catch a butterfly. Here, again, minuteness of execution seems to have been the sole merit in the eyes of the judges, the work being of the dullest flower-painting kind, not attempting design or meaning of any sort. The 'third prize has fallen to Miss Harriet Bennett, and is num- bered nine in the catalogue. It represents four girls in fancy- dress costumes, suitable for the various seasons, standing against a golden background. The figures are largish, and are painted in coarse body-colour, giving the impression of chalk- and-water. They are graceful and pretty enough, but are wholly out of the pale as works of art, and are simply fashion. plates. As designs, we will take any of these, which are, we must remember, single figures in the middle of a blank space of gold, and compare it with one of the set of four seasons (153), by — (name of artist not given). Take " Winter" as the example. In the first-mentioned (the prize design) the season is represented by a girl with cloak and muff, half covered with enormous snow-flakes ; no background, except the gold. Look at the second. A symbolical border, rich in quaint device, Time's hour-glass and open scythe, in the lower portion, the legend of the picture being enclosed in the angle formed by the handle and open blade of the scythe, appropriate flowers pointing upwards to the old-fashioned clock, which is on the stroke of midnight ; and the picture enclosed in this border is a winter moorland, snowy and bare, across which, muffled to the chin, comes an old watchman, his lantern making a yellow- circle of light in the snow. For in- genuity, fancifulness, and directness of artistic execution, the latter picture is perhaps the best in the gallery ; in point of artistic work and design, we must consider it to be immeasur- ably superior to the third prize, above spoken of.

One or two other instances of good work which has been unre- warded must be given briefly, for our space grows short: The artist whose work is numbered 60 sends four designs, as prettily decora- tive as anything here, and well painted in body-colour, though in a rather fiddling and lady-like way. The harmony of the colours, the quaint drollery of the little figures, and the appropriate- ness of the borders, are all notable in this instance, and so is the suitability of the designs for reproduction. Three designs, num- bered 323, in pale red, blue, and silver, are perhaps the most graceful single figures here ; a comparison of these with those of the third prize-winner will be instructive. The flowers of No. 9.5, with their background of turquoise, deserve notice ; as do the fruit and flowers of No. 430, remarkable for very brilliant execution, the cherries being especially finely worked. The de- signs representing youth, manhood, and age (No. 223) are notice- able for imaginative power of the lower kind, and for the grace o/ their figures. The device of putting the characters into the same landscape under varying lights, is a happy one. There are many other designs of interest and merit, but we must leave them to our readers' discovery. That the exhibition is disappointing in the matter of the prize rewards must be distinctly acknow- ledged, but the fault is no doubt due, as .we have suggested, to a mistaken choice of the judges, not to any conscious bias on their part.