TC TO DAVID LAING; 2 May 1854; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18540502-TC-DL-01; CL 29: 75-83
TC TO DAVID LAING
Chelsea, 2 May 1854—
My dear Sir,
The new volume of Knox,1 an especially welcome Gift, came to me about a week ago; and I do expect to be well interested in examining it, one day before long: to see it fairly out before the world in this clean-dressed form, and fitted for the inspection of mankind, is itself a real pleasure to me. In fact if the Wodrow &c Society, before expiring,2 had never done anything else, I should think this a tolerable good apology for its existence, that it set a faithful and qualified Scotch man was concerned originated the Edition of Knox's Works, that by its means a accomplishg that truly worthy patriotic and useful enterprise. I hope there is no danger of its now sticking fast by the way! If Subscribers for the 3 remaining volumes fall short, and my name can be of any use to you, please put it down; it will count for one at any rate, and I shall for once in my life have the satisfaction of subscribing to a Book whh I do think worth printing and publishing, and reckon it a sin and disgrace not to have properly published. Meanwhile many thanks for your Gift of this 3d vol; and all good speed to you in getting forward with the others. We cannot expect indeed that they will be of such eminent value as the History volumes3 which indeed are intrinsically I reckon quite a superior work: nevertheless I am not afraid, if fit elucidations by well-managed (sparing) annotation you make the others legible to modern man, the others either will want readers: no word really uttered by John Knox but is a word distinguished by coming from the heart of a brave and true man, and must be worth listening to by here and there a man.
The Raeburn-Exhibn Catalogue4 again did not turn up at all nor can I find the least trace of it anywhere; and so conclude it still be with yr London agent or must have fallen aside by the way. If you have another spare copy or can recover this for me, I shall be glad: have liked to know, and heard for myself in some way, what Portraits R. actually painted of notable men: if there survive another Copy of the Catalogue and any other opportunity, I will request you again to favour me with it.
As to the Genl Exhibn of Scottish Historical Portraits, which project I am glad to find you still thinking,—I wish much I could give you some vivifying idea or say some vivifying word!5 but, alas, the matter never got beyond the stage of an aspiration with me; and it must be for others, if far other qualities and opportunities to get it successfully on foot as a project. Under that latter aspect, it has never seriously before me. What my rude notions are / I will with great frankness not grudge to throw down before you / you shall hear, with great frankness on my part.
First of all I have to record as an experimental fact that in all my Historic investigations, it has been and is one of the most primary wants to procure a Likeness of the personage inquired after; a good portrait if such exists; failing that, an indifft if sincere one; in short any representation made by a faithful human creature of that Face and Figure which he saw with his eyes, and whh I can never see with mine, is now valuable to me, and much better than none at all. This whh is my own deep experience I believe to be in a deeper or less deep degree a universal one; and that every student and reader of History who longs and strives to conceive for himself what manner of man this vague Historical Name (and distracting summary of incoherent rumours) can have been will as the first & directest indication of all search eagerly for a Portrait, for all the reasonable Portraits there are, & never rest till he have made out if possible what the man's natural face was like. Often I have found a Portrait far superior in information to half a dozen written Biographies, as Biographies are written;—or rather that the Portrait was a small lighted candle by whh the Biographies cd first of all be read, and some human interpretatn made of them,—the Biographic hero no longer an empty impossible Phantasm or distracting aggregate of incoherent rumours (in whh state it is worth nothing to anybody; but yielding at last some features whh one cd find to be human. Next to a Portrait of the Person are perhaps autograph genuine and with Autograph Letters whh are a stamp or impress of the: the directest impressions one can hope to get of the man: the actions he did tho' symbolical in a still deeper degree are so involved complex and undecipherable stamp or im[press] in doubt by their complex nature and by the distractions and stupidities of other men, as to be nearly indecipherable witht these helps.
This I may take as the highest pitch of interest there is in Historical Portraits, this that the zealous and studious Historian feels in them; (but the interest to other classes of men, tho' less in degree, is also real) and all men just in proportion as they are “Historians” (which every mortal is who has a memory and uses it in a human manner), will feel something of the same, so that I suppose there is absolutely nobody so dark and dull and narrow that a Series of Historical Portraits, especially of his native Country, wd not be of real interest,—and a thing he wd wish to see, tho' no newspaper admonished him abt it.
And all this is quite apart from the Artistic value (also a real one, at heart, tho' frightfully exagted in general) whh there may be in the Portraits: all this is a quantity to be added to the Artistic value whatever it may be; and appeals to a far deeper and more universal element in human nature; a dimmer form of whh we may see everywhere active, and in your Antiquarn Museum for example giving conspicuous proofs of itself. If one wd buy an authentic Old shoe of Wm Wallace6 for hundreds of pounds, and run to look at it from all ends of Scotland, what would one give for an authentic shadow of his face, could such by art natural or art magic now be had!
It has always struck me that Historic Portrait Galleries far transcend in worth all other kinds of National Collections of Pictures whatsoever; and that in fact they ought in every country to exist as the most cherished National Possessn;—and it is not a joyful reflexion but an extremely mournful one that in no Country is there at prest such a thing to be found. What Ls Philippe may have collected at Versailles I did not see7 In England Historical Portraits abound; but where they are, or where any individl of them is, no man knows except by painful groping and hunting (like that of the mole hunting underground): even among the intelligt and learned of your acquaintance you inquire, till near desperate, to no purpose. It is so in all Countries. nay I know not that the English Nl Gallery8 may be among the least exceptble in that. In the world-famous Dresden Gallery, you find flayings of Bartholomew, flayings of Marsyas, rapes of the Sabines,9 but if you ask for a Portrait of Martin Luther, Fk the Steadfast, even August the Big, Marshall Saxe or Count Brühl, the answer is no.10 In Berlin not long ago I found Picture Galleries, Private and Public, with ancient & modern virtù in abundance, whole acres of mythological smearing (Tower of Babel and I know not what) by Kaulbach and others:11 but a genuine Portrait of Fk the Great was a thing I could nowhere hear of. That is strange, but true. I roamed thro' endless lines of Pictures; inquired far and wide; even Rauch after his sculpture could tell me nothing;12—and only by my own industry and chiefly good luck discovered what I was in quest of. This I find to be one of the saddest defects easily capable of remedy: I hope in the new Natl Museum13 whh we hear of you will have a good eye to this (the Portraits that exist in such places are often as good as buried: some utterly ignorant domestic hurries you thro' the place, answering your natural questions worse than the idle wind wd (for that wd not pretend to know anything), and you have to depart re infecta [with the business unaccomplished]. in a very) Scotland is not worse than other countries in this respect; but neither is it at all better; and as Scotland has a History readable to mankind, and has never published even any series of Engraved Natl Portraits, the the evil is perhaps worse felt than elsewhere. It is an evil whh shd be everywhere remedied: and if Scotland be the first to set an Example in this respect, Scotland will do honourably by herself and well.
From this long prologue if you have patience to consider it over, you will see sufftly what my notion of the main rules for executing the project would be. Two things will be essential to success: 1° zeal, unwearied industry in hunting up what Portraits there are, scattered wide over County mansions in all parts of Scotland, skill in negotiating for them and getting them together; and 2° (what will indeed be still more importt in the long run) knowledge and good jugt in (The grand interest in view is that whh I have defined as for the Historian; the only real interest for the general body of mankind may be well considered as only a more and more diluted form of that. Walk straight towards that therefore,—not refusing to look to the right and left; but with your face continually towards that. What wd the best-informed ingenuous Scottish soul most like to see for illuminating and vivifying Scottish History to himself? That is what concerns us; and on the whole, the only; for all other men will by and by follow this best-informed & most ingenuous one; and at the end of the account, I believe if you have served him well you will have served everybody well. Two things essential——— / good judgt in selecting, exhibiting and elucidating these. But Beyond all things fidelity of mind will be vital to it; I mean a real and serious human aim faithfully endeavoured after, instead of a vague chaos of mostly showman and charlatan aims as is far commonest in such cases! For tho' the thing must in good measure depend on popular support, it must by no means be done by Bn methods of the nature of a Barnum business;14 if it cannot be done witht divorce from these, clear subordinn of these, it had better not be done (at all). To winnow out the chaff of the business, and present in a clean state what of wheat (little or much) may be in it: on this, as I compute, it will stand or fall. If faithfully done (the chaff faithfully well suppressed the wheat honestly given), I cannot doubt but it might succeed,—or honourable help be got for it among the wealthier and wiser classes of Scotchmen.
On these principles (to come now to yr specific questions) I shd be inclined to judge 1° That no living Historical Scotchman however shd be admitted; and even I wd counsel that you shd be extremely chary abt such as have died within the last 25 years,—it requires always the space of a generation to let popular dusts allay themselves; and the really great to be discriminated from the merely big and noisy. But from that point, especially from the beginning of this Century and backwards, you have free scope, and ever freer to the very beginning of things,—which alas in this pictorial respect I fear will only be some poor 3 centuries back or little more. But you will do your utmost for the earlier figures, as for all; authentic engravings, coins, casts of sepulchral monuments; any genuine help to conceive the likeness of the man will be welcome there as in all cases. The one question is, that they be genuine, and that they be helps. As to the number of portraits admissible for each, in cases where you have a plurality, I should be inclined to admit, for the earlier and more uncertain species, all that could be had that were genuine, that were “helps” as above said. Nay such even as were half genuine if there were no others:—marking well that they were but hf genn. As you come lower down, the selection will be stricter; and unless the man is extremely important, and the duplicate portraits extremely excellt you will not care for above one or a couple, especially if they do not differ materially, or agree in some interesting way;—your true aim always is, to let us see the man's natural face; that once done, more wd be surplusage & chaff. For example, during the reformation period, in reference to Knox and his Consorts and Adversaries (Lethington, Kirkcaldy, Regents Murray, Morton Mar,15 to say nothing of Buchannan, Bothwell, Rizio)16 any picture and all attainable Pictures clearly genuine wd be welcome: while again in reference to the Forty-five17 (where pictures naturally abound, and where the characts & the affair are infinitely insignift in comparison), I should judge one Picture, & that only of the very topmost men, wd amply suffice. Of Montrose (in the intermediate Period)18 I wd still take as many as I cd get; item of the Glee'd Marquis Argyle19 and some others &c; of Chr Loudon20 and an analogs class, not above 2; of Baillie, of Carstares21 &c hardly above 1, unless special causes, as above hinted. The decision must always be settled on special considerations; the one genl rule lies in the principles above indicated.
The question, who is an “Historical Character?” is of course vitally importt; and will in many cases come up as a question which the Law Books (“Principles” Prinles or Whatever we call them) cannot decide, but which the judges must, accord'g to the Lawbooks. In genel whoever lives in the memory of Scotchmen, whoever is yet practically recogniseable as a conspicuous sufferer or worker in the Past Time of Scotland, he is a Hist. Char and we shall be glad of his Portrait. George Buchann in a high and importt degree; David Rizio even, in a low and insignt one,—I wd admit a Print of Rizio (if such existed) there has been such talk abt the poor devil. Ld Hailes,22 what studt of History but wd like to see the face of him? Not to speak of Burns, of Gavin Douglas, Dunbar, Jamie Thomson; Ld Kames, Monboddo, Bozzy.23 Consider who said, did, or suffered anything truly memorable, even anything still greatly remembered if it is 50 years back: his face, if you can get it shall be welcome to us. With regard to a good many figures especially in the earlier times you will have no difficulty: from James IV (at Taymouth) or the plaster-cast of Bruce's scull24 if there can nothing more be had him down in a miscellan' stream to David Dale of the Cotton Manufr Dundas the Suffrage and Sir Rt Abercomby25 a great company of personages have as it were declared themselves historical, truly & falsely but in a way not to be questioned in a Picture gallery at least. Others must be decided on a compromise of circs, & with the faithfullest insight that can be had.
As to Pictl representatns of Events,
3° My vote wd clearly be to make the rule absolute not to admit any one of those,—at least till I saw one that was not an infatuation of insincere Ignorance and a mere distress to an earnest and well-instructed eye. Wilkie's John Kn26 No that I ever saw Manner of veracity is in such Pictre, is more offensive to me, totally useless for earnest purposes, and more unlike what ever could have been the reality, than that gross boxing butcher, whom he has set into a pulpit, surrounded with Avarices with fatshouldered women playactor men in mail and labelled Knox. I know it only by Engravings; always hasten on when I see it in a window; and would not for much have the original hung on the wall beside me. Since the days of Hollar27 there is not the least veracity even of intention in such things; and for most part an ignorance altogether abject. What is the use of them, except to persons who have turned their back on real interests and gone woolgathering in search of imaginary. I have often seen a Battle of Wor'ster28 (by some famed Academician), which consists of an angry man and horse (man intended for Cromwell, with flowing29 Spanish cloaks and draperies, and no hat to his head) firing his a pistol over his shoulder into some confused object a dreadful shower of rain.30 What can be the use of such things? Except if they make children smile to make bearded men weep? All that, as indisputable chaff, ought to be severely purged away.
Lastly as to the Catalogue,—I am accustomed to conceive the Catalogue, well done, as one of the best parts of the whole. Brevity, knowledge, exactitude, honesty, sincerity ought to be the characteristics of it even feature of it. Within not more than half a page to by far the majority of figures; hardly more than a page to any; historical, lucid, above all things exact. I wd give the dates,—birth death and main transactions of each character,—brief all, and condensed to the uttermost very marrow in fact the condensed essence of his history; then add references (carefully distinguishg the indubitable from the doubtful) to the Books (Chapter & verse, and year of edition) where his History and character can be learned farther, by such as wish to study it. Afterwards in a line or two indicate the actual Habitat of the Picture here exhibited, its History if it have one, that it is known to be by such and such a master (and on what authority) or that it is only guessed.— What excellence and value might lie in such a Catalogue, if rightly done, I need not say to D. Laing; nor what labour knowledge and fidelity wd be needed to do it well. But it would be worth doing; and useful in a far more permanent way than any Exhibition. When once well done, I wd have it printed in some bound form, still very cheap, and shd expect it might have an immense sale at railway stations and elsewhere, and be long treasured by students as an invalble help in their pursuits. A modern Nicholson (Histl Library),31 & much more directly applicable than Nn ever was.
But enough now: your patience must not be ridden quite to death. There in a crude enough rough & ready form are my no[tions] about that small Natl Project, which has again grown to seem extremely promising to me, and a thing really capable of being done, as surely it is most desirable. Desirable for all manner of reasons; and many perhaps deeper than any I have not mentioned here. By your kind I have written in great haste: but perhaps by good reading you will make out what I mean. You perceive I have stuck by the ideal: I am well aware no ideal can ever be executed; the world shd be well satisfied with an honest aim towards perfection & some tolerable approxtion thereto in result. If I can have helped to awaken such an effort for poor auld Scotland's sake among the faithful sons she yet has, and anything whatever shd be realized in the kind here specified, I shall not grudge the hours spent on this long letter. Which forgive at any rate; and believe me &c.