The reaction against effete formalism–The reformers rush into two extremes, the one intellectual, the other sensuousLiteralism v. DecorationRossetti–Madox BrownHoughton Burne – Jones Fred WalkerPinwellCaldecott.
By about 1840, people were beginning to tire of the imitative and mechanical art which simply reproduces in a plausible way the external characteristics of recognised master-pieces. The systematisers had done their work too well ; and the intelligent public turned away surfeited from the sham Reynoldses, sham Claudes, and sham Turners, whose manufacture had become so easy.
The only satisfactory remedy for effete formalism is an effort to bring back form and significance into a more intimate connection. But to find the proper remedy for an unsatisfactory condition of things requires insight and deliberation. And the popular love of precipitate and violent action does not often leave room for an accurate diagnosis of the symptoms.
This was the fate of the movement of reform which began to set in about the middle of last century. Because an empty and unintelligent repetition of artistic processes was found unsatisfactory, it was hurriedly assumed that art was the enemy, and that the only salvation for the artist was to rush to the opposite of art. So the cult of what was called ‘Nature ‘ and Truth ‘ sprang up. Nature was understood to mean the abstract scientific formula of reality, and Truth the mere sensation of actuality. These doctrines found an impassioned exponent in Mr Ruskin, and the search for ” optical correctness ” produced pictures like those of Thomas Seddon and John Brett.
The shallow intellectualism of such art soon provoked a reaction, and the ‘ Decorative ‘ school arose, with William Morris and Burne-Jones as its leaders. As the literalists had aimed at effacing the creative function of the artist, so the decorators sought the utmost licence in the employment of the merely formal elements of shape and colour.
The artists whose works possess permanent valuein contrast with those of merely historical interestavoided both these doctrinaire extremes. In the company of men like G. F. Watts and Rossetti we can realise that the essential aim of art is neither scientific, i.e. one-sidedly intellectual, nor merely sensuous. Art must appeal to the imagination, the faculty where thought, sense, and desire all have free play.
With the noble art of Watts we have not to deal, as he seems to have seldomif everworked in water colour. Enamoured as he was of universality, he naturally preferred weapons of wider scope and greater force. But DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI (1828-1882) worked largely in water colour. He never really mastered the craftsmanship of oil painting, and he must have been glad to turn at times to the less exacting medium. Unfortunately most of his beautiful water colours are in private collections.
The Print Room possesses only one of these drawings, Writing on the Sand, dated 1859. Facing us, with her hat blown off and dress disordered by the wind, is a young woman whose companion hurriedly sketches her pxofile in the sand with his stick. The colour, though violent, has been used rather for its emotional than for its purely decorative value. The conception of the design suggests the pungent influence of Madox Brown.
At South Kensington, Rossetti is represented by The Borgia Family, painted in 1863, which shows the beauteous Lucrezia surrounded by the members of her respectable family. Our reproduction will enable the reader to form some conception of the dramatic power of the drawing, but much of the effectiveness of the original depends upon the suggestiveness of its turgid colour scheme.
Among the more powerful of Rossetti’s drawings in private collections may be mentioned the picture of Launcelot crouching over Arthur’s Tomb ; The Laboratory, a subject taken from Browning of a lady in eighteenth century costume watching a chemist prepare a drug with which she proposes to poison a rival beauty ; the Saluto de Beatrice and the Beatrice at the Wedding Feast denying her Salutation to Dante ; Giotto painting the Portrait of Dante, the Fra Pace and St Katherine; and what have been aptly called those four sweet symphonies, The Blue Closet, The Wedding of St George, the Christmas Carol, and The Tune of Seven Towers, all works in which a purely decorative intention has played a larger part than is usual with Rossetti. Several of these drawings have been reproduced in Mr Hueffer’s thoughtful study of Rossetti’s art.
Rossetti worked for a short time under FORD MADOX BROWN (1821-1893), and there is no doubt that the painter of Work, Leaving England, and a number of other intense and passionate works, must be ranked very high among the creative artists of his time. His only drawing at South Kensington, Elijah restoring the Widow’s Son, is splendidly in-spired, but the execution is out of harmony with its intention, being singularly tame, and “finished ” in the conventional Academical way.
The chilling effect of an external standard of executionof ” real painting, as such “is seen also in another drawing which hangs not far from Madox Brown’s Elijah, viz. The Transformation of King Bedar by A. BOYD HOUGHTON (1836-1875). No one who knows Houghton’s illustrations to the Arabian Nights would deny the artist’s originality and powers of imagination. But they are not apparent in this drawing. He seems to have tried to be as tame and conventional as possible, doubtless with the object of conciliating the jury of the exhibition for which it was intended ; unfortunately he has succeeded only too well.
The only picture in this collection by Sir E. BURNE-JONES (1833-1898) is the Merlin and Nimue. It is a work of rich and sumptuous colour in which the decorative intention perhaps counts for most.
Turning now to the art of FREDERICK WALKER (1840-1875), we can see from his early drawing of The Blackberry Gatherers (dated 1861) the kind of influences that went to the shaping of his work. The drawing is one of merely conventional prettiness and sentiment. However, as his powers developed he was able to infuse a slight tincture of reality into these sophistications. A Rainy Day at Bispham, Berkshire shows more observation, although truthfulness of effect is largely sacrificed to prettiness of colour. Some half-dozen drawings loaned to the Museum give a better idea of Walker’s powers than either of these two drawings. The Harbour of’ Refuge, a replica of the oil painting in the Tate Gallery, is perhaps some-what marred by the painter’s conscious efforts to make his English peasants look like young Greek gods ; but The Bee-Hive and The Violet Field are two drawings of great charm. In the latter picture the violets are growing in rows ; a peasant woman stoops to gather the flowers, while a very pretty youth stands by holding a basket ; beyond is seen a delightfully painted landscape of fields with cottages in the distance. This picture is one of Walker’s most unaffected and enjoyable works.
G. J. PINWELL (1842-1875 was closely associated with Walker, both in his art and in his life. When at his best his illustrations are often to be preferred to Walker’s brilliant but somewhat insincere drawings. The beautiful little drawing of The Gossips contains much of that intimate charm which makes his work so highly prized. But the drawing that hangs beside it, called Lovers, is ridiculously sentimental and affected.
As one more example of the baneful influence of narrow-minded professional juries’ ideas of ” finish,” we must point to the tame drawing of Fox-Hunting in Surrey, by that delightful humourist RANDOLPH CALDECOTT (1846-1886).
How fresh and invigorating Caldecott could be when he was not oppressed by this bugbear of ” real painting, as such,” is proved by the two sketches of Diana Wood’s Wedding. When working freely from himself this artist has something of Rowlandson’s joie de vivre. The Fox-Hunting : going into Cover, being unfinished, remains vigorous and alert.