And now, in the outset, it will be well to face that objection which we put aside a little while ago; namely, that perhaps it is not well to have a great deal of good art; and that at should not be made too cheap.
As Cheap As Possible
" Nay," I can imagine some of the more generous among you, exclaiming, "we will not trouble you to disprove that objection; of course it is a selfish and base one: good art, as well as other good things, ought to be made as cheap as possible, and put as far as we can within the reach of everybody".
Pardon me, I am not prepared to admit that. I rather side with the selfish objectors, and believe that art ought not to be made cheap, beyond a certain point; for the amount of pleasure that you can receive from any great work, depends wholly on the quantity of attention and energy of mind you can bring to bear upon it. Now, that attention and energy depend much more on the freshness of the thing than you would at all suppose; unless you very carefully studied the movements of your own minds. If you see things of the same kind and of equal value very frequently, your reverence for them is infallibly diminished, your powers of attention get gradually wearied, and your interest and enthusiasm worn out; and you cannot in that state bring to any given work the energy necessary to enjoy it. If, indeed, the question were only between enjoying a, great many pictures each a little, or one picture very much, the sum of enjoyment being in each case the same, you might rationally desire to possess rather the larger quantity, than the small; both because one work of art always in some sort illustrates another, and because quantity diminishes the chances of destruction. But the question is not a merely arithmetical one of this kind. Your fragments of broken admirations will not, when they are put together, make up one whole admiration; two and two, in this case, do not make four, nor anything like four. Your good picture, or book, or work of art of any kind, is always in some degree fenced and closed about with difficulty. You may think of it as of a kind of cocoa-nut, with very often rather an unseemly shell, but good milk and kernel inside. Now, if you possess twenty cocoa-nuts, and being thirsty, go impatiently from one to the other, giving only a single scratch with the point of your knife to the shell of each, you will get no milk From all the twenty. But If you leave nineteen of them alone, and give twenty cuts to the shell of one, you will get through it, and at the milk of it. And the tendency of the human mind is always to get tired before it has made its twenty cuts; and to try another nut; and moreover, even if it has perseverance enough to crack its nuts, it is sure to try to eat too many, and so choke itself. Hence, it is wisely appointed for us that few of the things we desire can be had without considerable labour, and at considerable intervals of time. We cannot generally get our dinner without working for it, and that gives us appetite for it; we cannot get our holiday without waiting for it, and that gives us zest for it; and we ought not to get our picture without paying for it, and that gives us a mind to look at it. Nay, I will even go so far as to say, that we ought not to get books too cheaply. No book, I believe, is ever worth half so much to its reader as one that has been coveted for a year at a bookstall, and bought out of saved half-pence; and perhaps a, day or two's fasting. That's the way to get at the cream of a book. And I should say more on this matter, and protest as energetically as I could against the plague of cheap literature, with which we are just now afflicted, but that I fear your calling me to order, as being unpractical, because I don't quite see my way at present to making everybody fast for their books. But one may see that a thing is desirable and possible, even though one may not at once know the best way to it — and in my island of Barataria, when I get it well into order, I assure you no book shall be sold for less than a pound sterling; if it can be published cheaper than that, the surplus shall all go into my treasury, and save my subjects taxation in other directions; only people really poor, who cannot pay the pound, shall be supplied with the books they want for nothing, in a certain limited quantity. I haven't made up my mind about the number yet, and there are several other points in the system yet unsettled; when they are all determined, if you will allow me, I will come and give you another lecture, on the political economy of literature.
Meantime, returning to our immediate subject, I say to my generous hearers, who want to shower Titians and Turners upon us, like falling leaves, "Pictures ought not to be too cheap"; but in much stronger tone I would say to those who want to keep up the prices of pictorial property, that pictures ought not to be too dear, that is to say, not as dear as they are. For, as matters at present stand, it is wholly impossible for any man in the ordinary circumstances of English life to possess himself of a piece of great art. A modern drawing of average merit, or a first-class engraving, may perhaps, not without some self-reproach, be purchased out of his savings by a man of narrow income; but a satisfactory example of first-rate art — masterhands' work — is wholly out of his reach. And we are so accustomed to look upon this as the natural course and necessity of things, that we never set ourselves in any wise to diminish the evil; and yet it is an evil perfectly capable of diminution. It is an evil precisely similar in kind to that which existed in the middle-ages, respecting good books, and which everybody then, I suppose, thought as natural as we do now our small supply of good pictures. You could not then study the work of a great historian, or great poet, any more than you can now study that of a great painter, but at heavy cost. If you wanted a book, you had to get it written out for you, or to write it out for yourself. But printing came, and the poor man may read his Dante and his Homer; and Dante and Homer are none the worse for that. But it is only in literature that private persons of moderate fortune can possess and study greatness; they can study at home no greatness in art; and the object of that accumulation which we are at present aiming at, as our third object in political economy, is to bring great art in some degree within the reach of the multitude; and, both in larger and more numerous galleries than we now possess, and by distribution, according to his wealth and wish, in each man's home, to render the influence of art somewhat correspondent in extent to that of literature. Here, then, is the subtle balance which your economist has to strike: to accumulate so much art as to be able to give the whole nation a supply of it, according to its need, and yet to regulate its distribution so that there shall be no glut of it, nor contempt.
A difficult balance, indeed, for us to hold, if it were left merely to our skill to poise; but the just point between poverty and profusion has been fixed for us accurately by the wise laws of Providence. If you carefully watch for all the genius you can detect, apply it to good service, and then reverently preserve what it produces, you will never have too little art; and if, on the other hand, you never force an artist to work hurriedly, for daily bread, nor imperfectly, because you would rather have showy works than complete ones, you will never have too much. Do not force the multiplication of art, and you will not have it too cheap; do not wantonly destroy it, and you will not have it too dear.
"But who wantonly destroys it?" you will ask. Why, we all do. Perhaps you thought, when I came to this part of our subject, corresponding to that set forth in our housewife's economy by the "keeping her embroidery from the moth", that I was going to tell you only how to take better care of pictures, how to clean them, and varnish them, and where to put them away safely when you went out of town. Ah, not at all. The utmost I have to ask of you is, that you will not pull them to pieces, and trample them under your feet. "What!" you will say, "when do we do such things? Haven't we built a perfectly beautiful gallery for all the pictures we have to take care of?" Yes, you have, for the pictures which are definitely sent to Manchester to be taken care of. But there are quantities of pictures out of Manchester which it is your business, and mine too, to take care of no less than of these, and which we are at this moment employing ourselves in pulling to pieces by deputy. I will tell you what they are, and where they are, in a minute; only first let me state one more of those main principles of political economy on which the matter hinges.
I must begin a little apparently wide of the mark, and ask you to reflect if there is any way in which we waste money more in England, than in building fine tombs? Our respect for the dead, when they are just dead, is something wonderful, and the way we show it more wonderful still. We show it with black feathers and black horses; we show it with black dresses and bright heraldries; we show it with costly obelisks and sculptures of sorrow, which spoil half of our most beautiful cathedrals. We show it with frightful gratings and vaults, and lids of dismal stone, in the midst of the quiet grass; and last, and not least, we show it by permitting ourselves to tell any number of lies we think amiable or credible, in the epitaph. This feeling is common to the poor as well as the rich, and we all know how many a poor family will nearly ruin themselves, to testify their respect for some member of it in his coffin, whom they never much cared for when he was out of it; and how often it happens that a poor old woman will starve herself to death, in order that she may be respectably buried.
Now, this being one of the most complete and special ways of wasting money; — no money being less productive of good, or of any percentage whatever, than that which we shake away from the ends of undertakers' plumes — it is of course the duty of all good economists, and kind persons, to prove and proclaim continually, to the poor as well as the rich, that respect for the dead is not really shown by laying great stones on them to tell us where they are laid; but by remembering where they are laid, without a stone to help us; trusting them to the sacred grass and saddened flowers; and still more, that respect and love are shown to them, not by great monuments to them which we build with our hands, but by letting the monuments stand, which they built with their own. And this is the point now in question.
Observe, there are two great reciprocal duties concerning industry, constantly to be exchanged between the living and the dead. We, as we live and work, are to be always thinking of those who are to come after us; that what we do may be serviceable, as far as we can make it so, to them as well as to us. Then, when we die, it is the duty of those who come after us to accept this work of ours with thanks and remembrance, not thrusting it aside or tearing it down the moment they think they have no use for it. And each generation will only be happy or powerful to the pitch that it ought to be, in fulfilling these two duties to the Past and the Future. Its own work will never be rightly done, even for itself—never good, or noble, or pleasurable to its own eyes—if it does not prepare it also for the eyes of generations yet to come. And its own possessions will never be enough for it, and its own wisdom never enough for it, unless it avails itself gratefully and tenderly of the treasures and the wisdom bequeathed to it by its ancestors.
For, be assured, that all the best things and treasures of this world are not to be produced by each generation for itself; but we are all intended, not to carve our work in snow that will melt, but each and all of us to be continually rolling a great white gathering snowball, higher and higher—larger and larger—along the Alps of human power. Thus the science of nations is to be accumulative from father to son: each learning a little more and a little more; each receiving all that was known, and adding its own gain: the history and poetry of nations are to be accumulative; each generation treasuring the history and the songs of its ancestors, adding its own history and its own songs: and the art of nations is to be accumulative, just as science and history are; the work of living men not superseding, but building itself upon the work of the past. Nearly every great and intellectual race of the world has produced, at every period of its career, an art with some peculiar and precious character about it, wholly unattainable by any other race, and at any other time; and the intention of Providence concerning that art, is evidently that it should all grow together into one mighty temple; the rough stones and the smooth all finding their place, and rising, day by day, in richer and higher pinnacles to heaven.
Now, just fancy what a position the world, considered as one great workroom—one great factory in the form of a globe—would have been in by this time, if it had in the least understood this duty, or been capable of it. Fancy what we should have had around us now, if, instead of quarrelling and fighting over their work, the nations had aided each other in their work, or if even in their conquests, instead of effacing the memorials of those they succeeded and subdued, they had guarded the spoils of their victories. Fancy what Europe would be now, if the delicate statues and temples of the Greeks, —if the broad roads and massy walls of the Romans, —if the noble and pathetic architecture of the middle ages, had not been ground to dust by mere human rage. You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm—we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish—ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame, and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth, that frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illumine. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years as well in the polished statue as in the Parian cliff; but we men have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes. The walls and the ways would have stood—it is we who have left not one stone upon another, and restored its pathlessness to the desert; the great cathedrals of old religion would have stood—it is we who have dashed down the carved work with axes and hammers, and bid the mountain-grass bloom upon the pavement, and the sea-winds chaunt in the galleries.
You will perhaps think all this was somehow necessary for the development of the human race. I cannot stay now to dispute that, though I would willingly; but do you think it is still necessary for that development? Do you think that in this nineteenth century it is still necessary for the European nations to turn all the places where their principal art-treasures are into battle-fields? For that is what they are doing even while I speak; the great firm of the world is managing its business at this moment, just as it has done in past time. Imagine what would be the thriving circumstances of a manufacturer of some delicate produce—suppose glass, or china—in whose workshop and exhibition rooms all the workmen and clerks began fighting at least once a day, first blowing off the steam, and breaking all the machinery they could reach; and then making fortresses of all the cupboards, and attacking and defending the show-tables, the victorious party finally throwing everything they could get hold of out of the window, by way of showing their triumph, and the poor manufacturer picking-up and putting away at last a cup here and a handle there. A fine prosperous business that would be, would it not? and yet that is precisely the way the great manufacturing firm of the world carries on its business.
It has so arranged its political squabbles for the last six or seven hundred years, that not one of them could be fought out but in the midst of its most precious art; and it so arranges them to this day. For example, if I were asked to lay my finger, in a map of the world, on the spot of the world's surface which contained at this moment the most singular concentration of art-teaching and art-treasure, I should lay it on the name of the town of Verona. Other cities, indeed, contain more works of carriageable art, but none contain so much of the glorious local art, and of the springs and sources of art, which can by no means be made subjects of package or porterage, nor, I grieve to say, of salvage. Verona possesses, in the first place, not the largest, but the most perfect and intelligible Roman amphitheatre that exists, still unbroken in circle of step, and strong in succession of vault and arch: it contains minor Roman monuments, gateways, theatres, baths, wrecks of temples, which give the streets of its suburbs a character of antiquity unexampled elsewhere, except in Rome itself. But it contains, in the next place, what Rome does not contain —perfect examples of the great twelfth-century Lambardic architecture, which was the root of all the mediaeval art of Italy, without which no Giottos, no Angelicos, no Raphaels would have been possible: it contains that architecture, not in rude forms, but in the most perfect and loveliest types it ever attained—contains those, not in ruins, nor in altered and hardly decipherable fragments, but in churches perfect from porch to apse, with all their carving fresh, their pillars firm, their joints unloosened. Besides these, it includes examples of the great thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Gothic of Italy, not merely perfect, but elsewhere unrivalled. At Rome, the Roman—at Pisa, the Lombard, architecture may be seen in greater or in equal nobleness; but not at Rome, nor Pisa, nor Florence, nor in any city of the world, is there a great medieval Gothic like the Gothic of Verona. Elsewhere, it is either less pure in type or less lovely in completion: only at Verona may you see it in the simplicity of its youthful power, and the tenderness of its accomplished beauty. And Verona possesses, in the last place, the loveliest Renaissance architecture of Italy, not disturbed by pride, nor defiled by luxury, but rising in fair fulfilment of domestic service, serenity of effortless grace, and modesty of home seclusion; its richest work given to the windows that open on the narrowest streets and most silent gardens. All this she possesses, in the midst of natural scenery such as assuredly exists nowhere else in the habitable globe—a wild Alpine river foaming at her feet, from whose shore the rocks rise in a great crescent, dark with cypress, and misty with olive: illimitably, from before her southern gates, the tufted plains of Italy sweep and fade in golden light; around her, north and west, the Alps crowd in crested troops, and the winds of Benacus bear to her the coolness of their snows.
And this is the city—such, and possessing such things as these—at whose gates the decisive battles of Italy are fought continually: three days her towers trembled with the echo of the cannon of Arcola; heaped pebbles of the Mincio divide her fields to this hour with lines of broken rampart, whence the tide of war rolled back to Novara; and now on that crescent of her eastern cliffs, whence the full moon used to rise through the bars of the cypresses in her burning summer twilights, touching with soft increase of silver light the rosy marbles of her balconies—along the ridge of that encompassing rock, other circles are increasing now, white and pale; walled towers of cruel strength, sable-spotted with cannon-courses. I tell you, I have seen, when the thunderclouds came down on those Italian hills, and all their crags were dipped in the dark, terrible purple, as if the winepress of the wrath of God had stained their mountain-raiment—I have seen the hail fall in Italy till the forest branches stood stripped and bare as if blasted by the locust; but the white hail never fell from those clouds of heaven as the black hail will fall from the clouds of hell, if ever one breath of Italian life stirs again in the streets of Verona.
Sad as you will feel this to be, I do not say that you can directly prevent it; you cannot drive the Austrians out of Italy, nor prevent them from building forts where they choose. But I do say, that you, and I, and all of us, ought to be both acting and feeling with a full knowledge and understanding of these things, and that, without trying to excite revolutions or weaken governments, we may give our own thoughts and help, so as in a measure to prevent needless destruction. We should do this, if we only realized the thing thoroughly. You drive out day by day through your own pretty suburbs, and you think only of making, with what money you have to spare, your gateways handsomer, and your carriage-drives wider—and your drawing-rooms more splendid, having a vague notion that you are all the while patronizing and advancing art, and you make no effort to conceal the fact, that within a few hours' journey of you, there are gateways and drawing-rooms which might just as well be yours as these, all built already; gateways built by the greatest masters of sculpture that ever struck marble; drawing-rooms, painted by Titian and Veronese; and you won't accept, nor save these as they are, but you will rather fetch the house-painter from over the way, and let Titian and Veronese house the rats. "Yes", of course, you answer; "we want nice houses here, not houses in Verona. What should we do with houses in Verona?" And I answer, do precisely what you do with the most expensive part of your possessions here: take pride in them—only a noble pride. You know well, when you examine your own hearts, that the greater part of the sums you spend on possessions are spent for pride. Why are your carriages nicely painted and finished outside? You don't see the outsides as you sit in them—the outsides are for other people to see. Why are your exteriors of houses so well finished, your furniture so polished and costly, but for other people to see? You are just as comfortable yourselves, writing on your old friend of a desk, with the white cloudings in his leather, and using the light of a window which is nothing but a hole in the brick wall. And all that is desirable to be done in this matter, is merely to take pride in preserving great art, instead of in producing mean art; pride in the possession of precious and enduring things, a little way off, instead of slight and perishing things near at hand. You know, in old English times, our kings liked to have lordships and dukedoms abroad, and why should not you merchant princes like to have lordships and estates abroad? Believe me, rightly understood, it would be a prouder, and in the full sense of our English word, more "respectable" thing to be lord of a palace at Verona, or of a cloister full of frescos at Florence, than to have a file of servants dressed in the finest liveries that ever tailor stitched, as long as would reach from here to Bolton: —yes, and a prouder thing to send people to travel in Italy, who would have to say every now and then, of some fair piece of art, "Ah! this was kept here for us by the good people of Manchester", than to bring them travelling all the way here, exclaiming of your various art treasures, "These were brought here for us, (not altogether without harm) by the good people of Manchester". "Ah!" but you say, "the Art Treasures Exhibition will pay; but Veronese palaces won't". Pardon me. They would pay, less directly, but far more richly. Do you suppose it is in the long run good for Manchester, or good for England, that the Continent should be in the state it is? Do you think the perpetual fear of revolution, or the perpetual repression of thought and energy that clouds and encumbers the nations of Europe, is eventually profitable for us? Were we any the better of the course of affairs in '48; or has the stabling of the dragoon horses in the great houses of Italy, any distinct effect in the promotion of the cotton-trade? Not so. But every stake that you could hold in the stability of the Continent, and every effort that you could make to give example of English habits and principles on the Continent, and every kind deed that you could do in relieving distress and preventing despair on the Continent, would have tenfold reaction on the prosperity of England, and open and urge, in a thousand unforeseen directions, the sluices of commerce and the springs of industry.
I could press, if I chose, both these motives upon you, of pride and self-interest, with more force, but these are not motives which ought to be urged upon you at all. The only motive that I ought to put before you is simply that it would be right to do this; that the holding of property abroad, and the personal efforts of Englishmen to redeem the condition of foreign nations, are among the most direct pieces of duty which our wealth renders incumbent upon us. I do not and in all truth and deliberateness I say this—I do not know anything more ludicrous among the self-deceptions of well-meaning people than their notion of patriotism, as requiring them to limit their efforts to the good of their own country; — the notion that charity is a geographical virtue, and that what it is holy and righteous to do for people on one bank of a river, it is quite improper and unnatural to do for people on the other. It will be a wonderful thing, some day or other, for the Christian world to remember, that it went on thinking for two thousand years that neighbours were neighbours at Jerusalem, but not at Jericho; a wonderful thing for us English to reflect, in after-years, how long it was before we could shake hands with anybody across that shallow salt wash, which the very chalk-dust of its two shores whitens from Folkestone to Ambleteuse.
Nor ought the motive of gratitude, as well as that of mercy, to be without its influence on you, who have been the first to ask to see, and the first to show to us, the treasures which this poor lost Italy has given to England. Remember all these things that delight you here were hers-hers either in fact or in teaching; hers, in fact, are all the most powerful and most touching paintings of old time that now glow upon your walls; hers in teaching are all the best and greatest of descendant souls—your Reynolds and your Gainsborough never could have painted but for Venice; and the energies which have given the only true life to your existing art were first stirred by voices of the dead, that haunted the Sacred Field of Pisa.
Well, all these motives for some definite course of action on our part towards foreign countries rest upon very serious facts; too serious, perhaps you will think, to be interfered with; for we are all of us in the habit of leaving great things alone, as if Providence would mind them, and attending ourselves only to little things which we know, practically, Providence doesn't mind unless we do. We are ready enough to give care to the growing of pines and lettuces, knowing that they don't grow Providentially sweet or large unless we look after them; but we don't give any care to the good of Italy or Germany, because we think that they will grow Providentially happy without any of our meddling.
Monkeys At Work
Let us leave the great things, then, and think of little things; not of the destruction of whole provinces in war, which it may not be any business of ours to prevent; but of the destruction of poor little pictures in peace, from which it surely would not be much out of our way to save them. You know I said, just now, we were all of us engaged in pulling pictures to pieces by deputy, and you did not believe me. Consider, then, this similitude of ourselves. Suppose you saw (as I doubt not you often do see) a prudent and kind young lady sitting at work, in the corner of a quiet room, knitting comforters for her cousins, and that just outside, in the hall, you saw a cat and her kittens at play among the family pictures; amusing themselves especially with the best Vandykes, by getting on the tops of the frames, and then scrambling down the canvasses by their claws; and on someone's informing the young lady of these proceedings of the cat and kittens, suppose she answered that it wasn't her cat, but her sister's, and the pictures weren't hers, but her uncle's, and she couldn't leave her work, for she had to make so many pairs of comforters before dinner. Would you not say that the prudent and kind young lady was, on the whole, answerable for the additional touches of claw on the Vandykes? Now, that is precisely what we prudent and kind English are doing, only on a larger scale. Here we sit in Manchester, hard at work, very properly, making comforters for our cousins all over the world. Just outside there in the hall—that beautiful marble hall of Italy —the cats and kittens and monkeys are at play among the pictures: I assure you, in the course of the fifteen years in which I have been working in those places in which the most precious remnants of European art exist, a sensation, whether I would or no, was gradually made distinct and deep in my mind, that I was living and working in the midst of a den of monkeys; —sometimes amiable and affectionate monkeys, with all manner of winning ways and kind intentions; —more frequently selfish and malicious monkeys, but, whatever their disposition, squabbling continually about nuts, and the best places on the barren sticks of trees; and that all this monkeys' den was filled, by mischance, with precious pictures, and the witty and wilful beasts were always wrapping themselves up and going to sleep in pictures, or tearing holes in them to grin through; or tasting them and spitting them out again, or twisting them up into ropes and making swings of them; and that sometimes only, by watching one's opportunity, and bearing a scratch or a bite, one could rescue the corner of a Tintoret, or Paul Veronese, and push it through the bars into a place of safety. Literally, I assure you, this was, and this is, the fixed impression on my mind of the state of matters in Italy. And see how. The professors of art in Italy, having long followed a method of study peculiar to themselves, have at last arrived at a form of art peculiar to themselves; very different from that which was arrived at by Correggio and Titian. Naturally, the professors like their own form the best; and, as the old pictures are generally not so startling to the eye as the modern ones, the dukes and counts who possess them, and who like to see their galleries look new and fine (and are persuaded also that a celebrated chef-d'oeuvre ought always to catch the eye at a quarter of a mile off), believe the professors who tell them their sober pictures are quite faded, and good for nothing, and should all be brought bright again; and, accordingly, give the sober pictures to the professors, to be put right by rules of art. Then, the professors repaint the old pictures in all the principal places, leaving perhaps only a bit of background to set off their own work. And thus the professors come to be generally figured in my mind, as the monkeys who tear holes in the pictures, to grin through. Then the picture-dealers, who live by the pictures, cannot sell them to the English in their old and pure state; all the good work must be covered with new paint, and varnished so as to look like one of the professorial pictures in the great gallery, before it is saleable. And thus the dealers come to be imaged, in my mind, as the monkeys who make ropes of the pictures, to swing by. Then, every now and then, in some old stable or wine-cellar, or timber-shed, behind some forgotten vats or faggots, somebody finds a fresco of Perugino's or Giotto's, but doesn't think much of it, and has no idea of having people coming into his cellar, or being obliged to move his faggots; and so he whitewashes the fresco, and puts the faggots back again; and these kind of persons, therefore, come generally to be imaged in my mind, as the monkeys who taste the pictures, and spit them out, not finding them nice. While, finally, the squabbling for nuts and apples (called in Italy " bella libertà") goes on all day long.
Now, all this might soon be put an end to, if we English, who are so fond of travelling in the body, would also travel a little in soul. We think it a great triumph to get our packages and our persons carried at a fast pace, but we never take the slightest trouble to put any pace into our perceptions; we stay usually at home in thought, or if we ever mentally see the world, it is at the old stage-coach or waggon rate. Do but consider what an odd sight it would be, if it were only quite clear to you how things are really going on—how, here in England, we are making enormous and expensive efforts to produce new art of all kinds, knowing and confessing all the while that the greater part of it is bad, but struggling still to produce new patterns of wall-papers, and new shapes of tea-pots, and new pictures, and statues, and architecture; and pluming and cackling if ever a tea-pot or a picture has the least good in it; all the while taking no thought whatever of the best possible pictures, and statues, and wall-patterns already in existence, which require nothing but to be taken common care of, and kept from damp and dust: but we let the walls fall that Giotto patterned, and the canvasses rot that Tintoret painted, and the architecture be dashed to pieces that St. Louis built, while we are furnishing our drawing-rooms with prize upholstery, and writing accounts of our handsome warehouses to the country papers. Don't think I use my words vaguely or generally: I speak of literal facts. Giotto's frescos at Assisi are perishing at this moment for want of decent care; Tintoret's pictures in San Sebastian at Venice, are at this instant rotting piecemeal into grey rags; St. Louis's Chapel, at Carcassonne, is at this moment lying in shattered fragments in the market-place. And here we are all cawing and crowing, poor little half-fledged daws as we are, about the pretty sticks and wool in our own nests. There's hardly a day passes, when I am at home, but I get a letter from some well-meaning country clergyman, deeply anxious about the state of his parish church, and breaking his heart to get money together that he may hold up some wretched remnant of Tudor tracery, with one niche in the corner and no statue—when all the while the mightiest piles of religious architecture and sculpture that ever the world saw are being blasted and withered away, without one glance of pity or regret. The country clergyman does not care for them—he has a sea-sick imagination that cannot cross Channel. What is it to him, if the angels of Assisi fade from its vaults, or the queens and kings of Chartres fall from their pedestals? They are not in his parish.
"What!" you will say, "are we not to produce any new art, nor take care of our parish churches?" No, certainly not, until you have taken proper care of the art you have got already, and of the best churches out of the parish. Your first and proper standing is not as church-wardens and parish overseers in an English county, but as members of the great Christian community of Europe. And as members of that community (in which alone, observe, pure and precious ancient art exists, for there is none in America, none in Asia, none in Africa), you conduct yourselves precisely as a manufacturer would, who attended to his looms, but left his warehouse without a roof. The rain floods your warehouse, the rats frolic in it, the spiders spin in it, the choughs build in it, the wall-plague frets and festers in it, and still you keep weave, weave, weaving at your wretched webs, and thinking you are growing rich, while more is gnawed out of your warehouse in an hour than you can weave in a twelvemonth.
What We Want
Even this similitude is not absurd enough to set us rightly forth. The weaver would, or might, at least, hope that his new woof was as stout as the old ones, and that, therefore, in spite of rain and ravage, he would have something to wrap himself in when he needed it. But our webs rot as we spin. The very fact that we despise the great art of the past shows that we cannot produce great art now. If we could do it, we should love it when we saw it done—if we really cared for it, we should recognise it and keep it; but we don't care for it. It is not art that we want; it is amusement, gratification of pride, present gain—anything in the world but art: let it rot, we shall always have enough to talk about and hang over our sideboards.
You will (I hope) finally ask me what is the outcome of all this, practicable to-morrow morning by us who are sitting here? These are the main practical outcomes of it: In the first place, don't grumble when you hear of a new picture being bought by Government at a large price. There are many pictures in Europe now in danger of destruction which are, in the true sense of the word, priceless; the proper price is simply that which it is necessary to give to get and to save them. If you can get them for fifty pounds, do; if not for less than a hundred, do; if not for less than five thousand, do; if not for less than twenty thousand, do; never mind being imposed upon: there is nothing disgraceful in being imposed upon; the only disgrace is in imposing; and you can't in general get anything much worth having, in the way of Continental art, but it must be with the help or connivance of numbers of people who, indeed, ought to have nothing to do with the matter, but who practically have, and always will have, everything to do with it; and if you don't choose to submit to be cheated by them out of a ducat here and a zecchin there, you will be cheated by them out of your picture; and whether you are most imposed upon in losing that, or the zecchins, I think I may leave you to judge; though I know there are many political economists, who would rather leave a bag of gold on a garret-table, than give a porter sixpence extra to carry it downstairs.
That, then, is the first practical outcome of the matter. Never grumble, but be glad when you hear of a new picture being bought at a large price. In the long run, the dearest pictures are always the best bargains; and, I repeat (for else you might think I said it in mere hurry of talk, and not deliberately), there are some pictures which are without price. You should stand, nationally, at the edge of Dover cliffs—Shakespeare's and wave blank cheques in the eyes of the nations on the other side of the sea, freely offered, for such and such canvasses of theirs
Buying And Promoting Mistakes
Then the next practical outcome of it is: Never buy a copy of a picture, under any circumstances whatever. All copies are bad; because no painter who is worth a straw ever will copy. He will make a study of a picture he likes, for his own use, in his own way; but he won't and can't copy; whenever you buy a copy, you buy so much misunderstanding of the original, and encourage a dull person in following a business he is not fit for, besides increasing ultimately chances of mistake and imposture, and farthering, as directly as money can farther, the cause of ignorance in all directions. You may, in fact, consider yourself as having purchased a certain quantity of mistakes; and, according to your power, being engaged in disseminating them.
I do not mean, however, that copies should never be made. A certain number of dull persons should always be employed by a Government in making the most accurate copies possible of all good pictures; these copies, though artistically valueless, would be historically and documentarily valuable, in the event of the destruction of the original picture. The studies also made by great artists far their own use, should be sought after with the greatest eagerness; they are often to be bought cheap; and in connection with the mechanical copies, would become very precious: tracings from frescos and other large works are also of great value; for though a tracing is liable to just as many mistakes as a copy, the mistakes in a tracing are of one kind only, which may be allowed for, but the mistakes of a common copyist are of all conceivable kinds: finally, engravings, in so far as they convey certain facts about the pictures, without pretending adequately to represent or give an idea of the pictures, are often serviceable and valuable. I can't, of course, enter into details in these matters just now; only this main piece of advice I can safely give you—never to buy copies of pictures (for your private possession) which pretend to give a facsimile that shall be in anywise representative of, or equal to, the original. Whenever you do so, you are only lowering your taste, and wasting your money. And if you are generous and wise, you will be ready rather to subscribe as much as you would have given for a copy of a great picture, towards its purchase, or the purchase of some other like it, by the nation. There ought to be a great National Society instituted for the purchase of pictures; presenting them to the various galleries in our great cities, and watching there over their safety: but in the meantime, you can always act safely and beneficially by merely allowing your artist friends to buy pictures for you, when they see good ones. Never buy for yourselves, nor go to the foreign dealers; but let any painter whom you know be entrusted, when he finds a neglected old picture in an old house, to try if he cannot get it for you; then, if you like it, keep it; if not, send it to the hammer, and you will find that you do not lose money on pictures so purchased.
And the third and chief practical outcome of the matter is this general one: Wherever you go, whatever you do, act more for preservation and less for production. I assure you, the world is, generally speaking, in calamitous disorder, and just because you have managed to thrust some of the lumber aside, and get an available corner for yourselves, you think you should do nothing but sit spinning in it all day long—while, as householders and economists, your first thought and effort should be, to set things more square all about you. Try to set the ground floors in order, and get the rottenness out of your granaries. Then sit and spin, but not till then.
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