Of Hunt, Copley Fielding, And Others – English Water Colour Painters

THERE was a way of looking at art which found great favour towards the middle and end of the last century, and which is still far from obsolete. Individual works of art were clubbed together into a sort of mental synthesis ; this general idea was then called an organism, and all liberal-minded and well-meaning persons were called upon to believe that this organism had to go on perfecting itself in obedience to the immutable laws of evolution. This was taken to mean, so far as it had any bearing upon the concrete world of reality, that those works of art which had been produced latest in point of time must be regarded as the perfecting of what had been done before. The artists who were happy enough to be born later superseded those who had been born earlier. The theory, with its flattering implications, was so delightful to the artists who happened—just at the moment—to be on the crest of the time-wave, it harmonised so nicely with the widespread enthusiasm among the people for what is vaguely called ‘ progress,’ and it looked so philosophical and learned that we cannot be surprised that it obtained wide currency.

It was no doubt under the influence of some such grand and vague conceptions that Mr Ruskin wrote of the work of William Henry Hunt :—” Girtin, Consens, Robson, Copley Fielding, Cox, Prout, and De Wint . . . formed a true and progressive school, till Hunt, the greatest of all, perfected his art.” Hunt was supposed to have superseded Girtin, Cozens, and the others, in much the same way that one scientific theory or scientific historian supersedes another ; so that as the student is advised to get the latest text-books, so the artists were advised that they must ” take William Hunt for their only master.”

In Mr Ruskin’s “Notes on Samuel Prout and William Hunt,” he explains that Hunt’s supreme merit depends upon his perfect way of painting : Hunt’s work, he says, shows us “what real painting is, as such,” that is to say, it is the one right and proper way to paint, wholly apart from the matter which it is designed to express. Now it cannot be too often repeated that “real painting, as such ” is merely a pedagogical abstraction, and as such is unreal and chimerical ; and that the attempt to treat the achievements of individual artists as ” a true and progressive school” working together in some vague and inexplicable way to build up the perfection of painting, as such, leads only to the focussing of attention upon the accidents and most insignificant elements of their work.

There is no perfect way of painting, as such, any more than there is a perfect way of be-having, as such, or of talking, as such. It is no doubt convenient at times to distinguish between what is said or done and the manner in which it has been said or done, but so soon as we forget that ” what is said ” is merely one aspect of “how it is said,” and that the ” what ” and the ” how “—the matter and the form—are really inseparable, so soon as we forget this we inevitably plunge ourselves into a world of unreality and of theoretical misconceptions.

Let us, then, hold fast to this—that an artist’s manner is as essential a part of his work as his matter, that the form of a work of art is as important and as individual as its idea. Then, when we come to study, say, Hunt’s work, we shall find ourselves considering what relation exists between his manner of painting and the idea his works express, and we shall refrain at all costs from even suggesting that Girtin’s or Cozens’s work would have been more perfect if the ideas they express had been expressed in Hunt’s manner ; I am not sure that such a suggestion is even thinkable, but if it be thinkable and possible, the result would assuredly not satisfy our expectations.

WILLIAM HENRY HUNT (1790-1864) was born in what is now Endell Street, Long Acre. He was a small, sickly child, crippled from weakness in the legs, and unfit for ordinary work. As a man he possessed little culture and no intellectual power, and his infirmity and the state of his health debarred him from taking active exercise, and from drawing in the open air. Success as a landscape painter was therefore impossible, as well as in any branch of art which involved some understanding of the actions and sympathies of active men. Still-life painting was thus the only field open to him, and even in this limited field his lack of imagination and slow execution prevented him from painting flowers with much success. He was thus reduced to the painting of fruit and vegetables, which do not wither so soon as flowers, and to inanimate objects like mugs, jars, and birds’ nests. But to this restricted range of objects he brought a patience and a delicacy of observation which amazes those whose activities are spread over a wider range of objects. His love of pretty colour enabled him to give a pretty and sentimentalised look to his groups of birds’ nests and fruits, and drawings like Grapes, Melon and Plums (1032-73), Primroses and Birds’ Nests (1525-1869), Plums, and Pineapple with other Fruit, all of which are at South Kensington, are always sure to please and astonish a wide public.

Hunt also painted single figure subjects of a humorous or sentimental description, when it was possible for him to find a motive involving an attitude which a model could retain for a long time, and which could be constantly repeated. His chief success in this kind of work was obtained with a pair of drawings of a boy with a huge pie, entitled The Attack and The Defeat. A Brown Study (526), now at South Kensington, showing a nigger boy sitting still with a puzzled expression on his face, is a very good example of his application of still-life methods to humorous genre ; while Love’s Missive (1761-1900), a girl in a pink dress looking out of a window, may stand as an example of his sentimental genre. His landscapes in the same collection are spoilt by want of knowledge of the character of trees, but in an early drawing of the Interior of an Old Church (318—1891) one finds a breadth of vision and rich sobriety of colour which are as rare among Hunt’s works as they are enjoyable. In the Print Room are to be found a remarkable portrait of himself, and a wonderfully direct and dexterous sketch of a boy in blouse and fur cap who holds a puppy in his arms and smiles at the spectator. Such a delightful drawing makes one regret that the state of his health did not often permit the artist to attempt works which made more than the most moderate demands upon his vitality.

Something of Hunt’s extraordinary popularity was no doubt due to the weariness which the public were beginning to feel with the systematic and mechanical repetitions of the works of the few creative artists with which the exhibitions of that time abounded. The systematic and deliberate parasitism which Prout and Cox practised, produced the most depressing effects in the hands of men with less individuality or capacity. One of the most prolific and successful and shameless of these imitators was ANTHONY VANDYKE COPLEY FIELDING (1787-1855), who became President of the Water Colour Society in 1847, and who contributed, it is said, no fewer than 1748 drawings to its exhibitions. Fielding, like Hunt and Mulready, Linnell and Samuel Palmer, had been a pupil of John Varley (1779-1842), a facile systematiser who attracted a large number of pupils by his astrological pretensions and feats of strength. A number of his paintings at South Kensington bear witness to his deficiencies as a teacher. Fielding, who cultivated a remarkable courtesy of manner, became in his turn one of the most fashionable drawing-masters of his day. His Ship in Distress (1027—1873) is a bald and unconvincing re-petition of a popular motive. His large South Downs, Sussex (519) is as unreal and arbitrary as any of Turner’s latest work, while it lacks all those artistic qualities which lend them fascination. His Sunset off Hastings (1935—1900), dated 1819, is a dreadful example of what the inordinate love of bright colours may lead to ; the effect is unreal and ridiculous to a degree. The sole attractiveness of Fielding’s works seems to depend upon a certain clean and pretty look which they all possess. Perhaps the least exasperating of his works at South Kensington is a weak imitation of an early Turner called Castle and Shipping (2973—1876). The Print Room is fortunate in possessing few or none of his drawings.

Compared with Fielding, CLARKSON STANFIELD (1793-1867) is virile and original. Stanfield had entered the merchant service in 1808, but was afterwards pressed into the navy. In 1818 he retired from the sea and obtained employment as a scene-painter at the sailors’ theatre in the East of London. Going to Edinburgh in 1821, in a similar capacity, he made the acquaintance of David Roberts (1796-1864), who was also at work at a theatre there.

Stanfield first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1820, and by 1834 he had achieved such a reputation as painter of easel pictures that he could give up scene-painting as a profession. His life henceforth was one of continual prosperity.

Stanfield’s work shows knowledge of ships and sea, but it has somewhat too much regard to spectacular requirements, and his execution is mechanical and monotonous. His drawing of Innsbruck in the Tyrol (181—1889), engraved in Heath’s ” Picturesque Annual,” 1832, is forced and unreal in colour. The vignette which we reproduce—Old Parham Hall, Suffolk—is, how-ever, very pleasing. Stanfield was, in Mr Ruskin’s opinion, “the leader of the English realists,” and his friend Dickens spoke of him as “the soul of frankness, generosity, and simplicity, the most loving and most lovable of men.”

As RICHARD PARKES BONINGTON (1801-1828) died at the early age of twenty-seven, his memory will ever remain fresh with the bloom of youth and generous endeavour upon it. In spite of his early death his achievement was by no means inconsiderable, and the circumstances of his life and his personal influence counted for much in the initiation of the French Romantic movement in painting.

He was born near Nottingham, but his family removing to Calais when he was still young, he was able to study for a while under F. L. T. Francia (1772-1839), an artist settled in that city who had belonged to Girtin’s sketching club, and whose fine drawing of Transports returning from Spain, February 1809, beating into St Helen’s Road (now in the Print Room) evidently owes much of its beauty to Girtin’s example. At the age of fifteen, Bonington went to Paris, and it was whilst copying in the Louvre in water colours that Delacroix, then also a student, made his acquaintance. At that time painting in water colour was little practised in France, and Bonington’s drawings, both copies and originals, attracted considerable attention and sold rapidly when exhibited in the shop windows of M. Schroth and Madame Halin. Becoming a pupil at the Institute, he worked in the . atelier of Baron Gros. In 1824 he exhibited for the first time at the Salon, when the Société des Amis des Arts bought one of his pictures and gave him a premium of 430 francs for two of his drawings. Constable and Copley Fielding were also among the exhibitors and the three English artists were medalled. Their work in this year’s Salon is said to have revolutionised the landscape art of France. In 1825, Bonington came to England in the company of Delacroix, and the two worked together in the same studio on their return to Paris.

Two fine examples of Bonington’s landscape work are to be found at South Kensington. The Dordrecht (1808 1900), though unfinished, is a delightfully fresh and transparent drawing ; the Seascape (1807—1900) reminds one slightly of Cotman’s work. The Print Room contains one of his sketch-books, and a large number of his paintings both in oil and water colour are to be found in the Wallace Collection. Several of the costume pieces are little more than mere pastiches of Dutch and Venetian paintings, but there are some brilliant sketches of scenes in Venice.

The Print Room contains a large number of sketches of Eastern and Welsh subjects by WILLIAM JAMES MULLER (1812-1845), a bold and facile sketcher whose early death has been much lamented. His view of Nature is rather melodramatic than genuinely poetical. His slightly superficial treatment is better suited to subjects with which we have only a superficial acquaintance. Hence his Eastern sketches have generally been more admired than his drawings and paintings of English subjects.

JAMES DUFFIELD HARDING (1797-1863), another bold and facile worker, is represented at South Kensington by several drawings like Bergamo, Italy, and The Fish Market, Naples.

These works are by no means lacking in accomplishment, but they show a tendency towards the superficial and mechanical. The artist seems to lack a sense of what constitutes a fine picture, so he forces his colour, multiplies objects and incidents, and heaps them all together without any particular bond of connection. His drawings often look like a collection of the dry bones of pictures lying about without organic unity.

An early work in the same collection by JOHN FREDERICK LEWIS (1805-1876), The Peasants of the Black Forest, shows the influence of Harding’s mannerisms. But this artist developed a more personal style in his Eastern studies : his School at Cairo displays an abundance of detail, and great skill has been employed in the attempt to give it proper subordination.