The Collected Letters, Volume 25


TC TO JOHN CHILDS ; 18 February 1850; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18500218-TC-JCHI-01; CL 25: 27-29


Chelsea, 18 feby, 1850—

My dear Sir,

The Bryan1 came pretty punctually, and all right and safe, according to the time you had last set. Many thanks to you for it: a substantial massive Book, both in figure and contents; carefully got up; from which I intend to get a great deal of pictorial information, as the calls into that field of inquiry shall from time to time turn up for me.— I observe, as a patriotic Scotchman, some neglect of that department by your last Editor: it does not contain much, but it does a little, and part of that is all he gives. There is one Engraver, Deuchar, an Engraver or Etcher (died about the beginning of this Century I think) whose works are in high request;2 his name is not given at all. Item Kay, a noted Edinburgh Caricaturist, whose works have been published with commentaries lately,3—a queer old body that lived in Parliament Square, and scraped copper; used to go about and scratch down on his thumbnail, if he had no better tablet, any oddity he saw on the streets; in this way all the dwarfs, giants, and other superlatives and singularities that had appeared in Edinr for fifty years were gathered into Kay's garner,—and are now very interesting to look at. His power of drawing is extremely insignificant; but he generally catches a very recogniseable Likeness, and he overflows with a kind of plebeian and quietly Scotch-backguard fun: not a high man, yet a kind of real one! Thirdly there was an old hooknosed genius of the name of Skirving,4 whom I have seen in Edinburgh: he died about twenty years ago, leaving no adequate memorial of himself in the way of painting, tho' some of his Portraits that I have seen seem to me the very best I ever saw of these generations:—in fact, the poor old fellow had been imprisoned by Buonaparte in Italy, almost shot as a spy &c; was moreover of a fiery indignant nature, the implacable foe of every kind of cant; and had, in his rage against the ways of the world, very much withdrawn himself from it, and passed for having a kind of crack,—tho' his only crack, I rather fancy, was what I describe, immeasurable indignation against the genus Humbug, and a kind of imperial pride-and-poverty, and divine defiance, to which this had reduced him. He chose faces himself; could not be hired to paint faces he disliked; to a Lady of rank who pressed him and again pressed him with questions, “Why won't you paint me?” he answers, “Good God, Madam, is it nothing to raise the price of yellow-ochre, think you?”— Poor old fellow, I remember him well, tho' I only once saw him, and that on the street, one summer morning early: lean as wood, brown as a berry, with the cleanest skin and linen, the sharpest eagle-face and the fiercest eye. He was an original, and came of such. His Father did the old Ballad on Preston-Pans Fight,5 which I dare say you do not know, but which is full of broad rustic insight, energy and humour; he had the offer of a duel in consequence (of whh I will tell you some day), and did and said many things still remembered in East-Lothian his native region: “one of the most athletic and best-natured of men,” says his Epitaph.6

Adieu, my dear Sir: accept again many thanks for so much kindness to me. Yours always truly

T. Carlyle