1854-June 1855

The Collected Letters, Volume 29


TC TO DAVID LAING; 3 May 1854; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18540503-TC-DL-01; CL 29: 84-90


CHELSEA, 3d May, 1854.


With regard to that General Exhibition of Scottish Historical Portraits, it is certain there are many people more qualified to speak than I. In fact, it has never been with me more than an aspiration—an ardent wish, rather without much hope: to make it into an executable project, there are needed far other capacities and opportunities than mine. However, you shall at once hear what my crude notions on the subject are or have been, since you wish it.

First of all, then, I have to tell you, as a fact of personal experience, that in all my poor Historical investigations it has been, and always is, one of the most primary wants to procure a bodily likeness of the personage inquired after; a good Portrait if such exists; failing that, even an indifferent 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 which I can never see with mine, is now valuable to me, and much better than none at all. This, which is my own deep experience, I believe to be, in a deeper or less deep degree, the universal one; and that every student and reader of History who strives earnestly to conceive for himself what manner of Fact and Man this or the other vague Historical Name can have been, will, as the first and directest indication of all, search eagerly for a Portrait, for all the reasonable Portraits there are; and never rest till he have made out, if possible, what the man's natural face was like. Often I have found a Portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written ‘Biographies,’ as Biographies are written;—or rather, let me say, I have found that the Portrait was as a small lighted candle by which the Biographies could for the first time be read, and some human interpretation be made of them; the Biographied Personage no longer an empty impossible Phantasm, or distracting Aggregate of inconsistent rumours—(in which state, alas his usual one, he is worth nothing to anybody, except it be as a dried thistle for Pedants to thrash, and for men to fly out of the way of),—but yielding at last some features which one could admit to be human. Next in directness are a man's genuine Letters, if he have left any, and you can get to read them to the bottom: of course, a man's actions are the most complete and indubitable stamp of him; but without these aids, of Portraits and Letters, they are in themselves so infinitely abstruse a stamp, and so confused by foreign rumour and false tradition of them, as to be oftenest undecipherable with certainty.

This kind of value and interest I may take as the highest pitch of interest there is in Historical Portraits; this, which the zealous and studious Historian feels in them: and one may say, all men, just in proportion as they are ‘Historians’ (which every mortal is, who has a memory, and attachments and possessions in the Past) will feel something of the same,—every human creature, something. So that I suppose there is absolutely nobody so dark and dull, and every way sunk and stupified, that a Series of Historical Portraits, especially of his native country, would not be of real interest to him;—real I mean, as coming from himself and his own heart, not imaginary, and preached in upon him by the Newspapers; which is an important distinction.

And all this is quite apart from the artistic value of the Portraits (which also is a real value, of its sort, especially for some classes, however exaggerated it may sometimes be): 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 principle in human nature than the love of Pictures is. Of which principle some dimmer or clearer form may be seen continually active wherever men are;—in your Antiquarian Museum, for example, may be seen, giving very conspicuous proofs of itself, sanctioned more or less by all the world! If one would buy an indisputably authentic old shoe of William Wallace for hundreds of pounds and run to look at it from all ends of Scotland, what would one give for an authentic visible shadow of his face, could such by art natural or art magic, now be had!

It has always struck me that Historical Portrait Galleries far transcend in worth all other kinds of National Collections of Pictures whatever; that in fact they ought to exist (for many reasons, of all degrees of weight) in every country, as among the most popular and cherished National Possessions:—and it is not a joyful reflection, but an extremely mournful one, that in no country is there at present such a thing to be found. What Louis-Philippe may have collected, in the way of French Historical Portrait, at Versailles, I did not see: if worth much (which I hear it is not) it might have been the best memorial left by him, one day. Chancellor Clarendon made a brave attempt in that kind for England;1 but his House and ‘Gallery’ fell all asunder, in a sad way; and as yet there has been no second attempt that I can hear of. As matters stand, Historical Portraits abound in England; but where they are, or where any individual of them is, no man knows, or can discover except by groping and hunting (underground, as it were, and like the mole!) in an almost desperate manner: even among the intelligent and learned of your acquaintance, you inquire to no purpose. Nor is the English National Gallery poorer in this respect than others,—perhaps even much the reverse. The sad rule holds in all countries. In the Dresden Gallery, for instance, you find Flayings of Bartholomew, Flayings of Marsyas, Rapes of the Sabines: but if you ask for a Portrait of Martin Luther, of Friedrich the Wise, nay even of August the Big, of Marshal Saxe or poor Count Brühl, you will find no satisfactory answer. In Berlin itself, which affects to be a wiser city, I found, not long ago, Picture Galleries not a few, with ancient and modern virtù in abundance and superabundance,—whole acres of mythological smearing (Tower of Babel, and I know not what), by Kaulbach and others, still going on: but a genuine Portrait of Frederic the Great was a thing I could nowhere hear of. That is strange, but that is true. I roamed thro' endless lines of Pictures; inquired far and wide, even Sculptor Rauch could tell me nothing: at last it was chiefly by good luck that the thing I was in quest of turned up.— This I find to be one of the saddest of those few defects in the world which are easily capable of remedy: I hope you in Scotland, in the “new National Museum” we hear talk of, will have a good eye to this, and remedy it in your own case! Scotland at present is not worse than other countries in the point in question: but neither is it at all better; and as Scotland, unlike some other countries, has a History of a very readable nature, and has never published even an engraved series of National Portraits, perhaps the evil is more sensible and patent there than elsewhere. It is an evil which should be everywhere remedied: and if Scotland be the first to set an example in that respect, Scotland will do honourably by herself, and achieve a benefit to all the world.

From this long Prologue, if you have patience to consider it over, you will see sufficiently what my notion of the main rules for executing the Project would be. The grand interest to be held in view is that which I have defined as the Historian's, the ingenuous sincere Student of History's. Ingenuous and sincere student; not pedantic, fantastic and imaginary! It seems to me all real interest for the other classes of mankind, down to the most ignorant class, may well be considered as only a more and more diluted form of that interest. The rule therefore is, Walk straight towards that; not refusing to look to the right and left, but keeping your face steadily on that: if you can manage to secure that well, all else will follow from it, or attend it. Ask always, What would the best-informed and most ingenuous Scottish soul like most to see, for illuminating and verifying of Scottish History to himself? This is what it concerns us to try if we can get for him and for the world;—and on the whole this only; for it is certain, all other men will by and by follow this best-informed and most ingenuous one; and at the end of the account, if you have served him well, you will turn out to have served everybody well.

Great zeal, great industry will of course be needed in hunting up what Portraits there are, scattered wide over country mansions in all parts of Scotland;—in gathering in your raw-material, so to speak. Next, not less, but even more important, will be skill,—knowledge, judgment, and above all, fidelity,—in selecting, exhibiting and elucidating these. That indeed, I reckon, will be the vitallest condition of all; the cardinal point, on which success or failure will turn. You will need the best Pictorial judgment (some faithful critic who really knows the Schools and Epochs of Art a little, and can help towards the solution of so many things that will depend on that); especially all the Historical knowledge and good sense that can be combined upon the business will be indispensable! For the rest, I would sedulously avoid all concern with the vulgar Showman or Charlatan line of action in this matter. For though the thing must depend, a good deal, at least, on popular support, the real way to get that (especially in such a matter) is, to deserve it: the thing can by no means be done by Yankee-Barnum methods; nor should it, if it could.— In a word, here as everywhere, to winnow out the chaff of the business, and present in a clear and pure state what of wheat (little or much) may be in it; on this, as I compute, the Project will stand or fall. If faithfully executed,—the chaff actually well suppressed, the wheat honestly given,—I cannot doubt but it might succeed. Let it but promise to deserve success, I suppose honourable help might be got for it among the wealthier and wiser classes of Scotchmen.

But to come now to your more specific questions, I should be inclined, on the above principles, to judge—

1st, That no living Scotchman's portrait should be admitted, however “Historical” it promised to be. And I would farther counsel that you should be extremely chary about such “Historical men” as have died within the last twenty-five or thirty years; it requires always the space of a generation to discriminate between popular monstrosities and Historical realities in the matter of Man,—to let mere dust-clouds settle into their natural place and bulk. But from that point, especially from the beginning of this century, you have free scope, and ever freer, backwards to the very beginning of things,—which alas! in the Pictorial respect, I fear will only be some two or three centuries or little more! The oldest Scottish portrait I can recollect to have seen, of any worth, is that of James IV. (and only as an engraving, the original at Taymouth), though probably enough you may know of older. But for the earlier figures—I would go back to Colm and Adamnan,2—if I could, by any old illuminated missal or otherwise? You will have engravings, coins, casts of sepulchral monuments—I have seen Bruce's skull, at least, cast in plaster!—; and remember always that any genuine help to conceive the actual likeness of the man will be welcome, in these as indeed in all cases. The one question is, that they be genuine (or, if not, well marked as doubtful, and in what degree doubtful); that they be ‘helps’ instead of hindrances and criminal misguidances!

2d, In regard to modern pictures representing historical events, my vote would clearly be, To make the rule absolute not to admit any one of these; at least not till I saw one that was other than an infatuated blotch of insincere ignorance, and a mere distress to an earnest and well-instructed eye! Since the time of Hollar, there is not the least veracity, even of intention, in such things; and, for most part, there is an ignorance altogether abject. Wilkie's John Knox, for example: no picture that I ever saw by a man of genius can well be, in regard to all earnest purposes, a more perfect failure! Can anything, in fact, be more entirely useless for earnest purposes, more unlike what ever could have been the reality, than that gross Energumen, more like a boxing butcher, whom he has set into a pulpit surrounded with draperies, with fat-shouldered women, and play-actor men in mail, and labelled KNOX? I know the picture only by engravings, always hasten on when I see it in a window, and would not for much have it hung on the wall beside me! So, too, I have often seen a Battle of Worcester, by some famed Academician or other, which consists of an angry man and horse (man presumably intended for Cromwell, but not like him),—man, with heavy flapping Spanish cloak, &c., and no hat to his head, firing a pistol over his shoulder into what seems a dreadful shower of rain in the distance! What can be the use of such things, except to persons who have turned their back on real interests, and gone wool-gathering in search of imaginary? All that kind of matter, as indisputable ‘chaff,’ ought to be severely purged away.

3d, With respect to plurality of portraits, when you have the offer of more than one? The answer to that, on the principles already stated, will come out different in different cases, and be an affair of consideration and compromise. For the earlier (and more uncertain) figures, I should incline to admit all that could be got; certainly all that could be found genuine, that were ‘helps,’ as above said. Nay, such even as were only half genuine, if there were no others, marking well their doubtful character. As you come lower down, the selection will be stricter; and in quite modern times when pictures are plentiful, I should think one portrait would in general be the rule. But of course respect must be had to the importance of the man, the excellence of the portraits offered (or their peculiar worth for your objects), the quantity of house-room you are like to have, &c., &c., and the decision will be the summary and adjustment of all these considerations.

For example, during the Reformation period I would take of John Knox, and his consorts and adversaries (Lethington, Kirkcaldy, Regents Murray, Morton, Mar, Buchanan, Bothwell, even Rizzio, and the like), any picture I could get; all attainable pictures, engravings, &c., or almost all, unless they be more numerous than I suppose,—might promise to be ‘helps,’ in that great scarcity, and great desire to be helped. While, again, in reference to The Forty-five, where pictures abound, and where the personages and their affair are so infinitely insignificant in comparison, I should expect that one portrait, and that only of the very topmost men, would well suffice. Yet there is a real interest, too, in that poor Forty-five—for, in fine, we lie very near it still, and that is always a great point; and I should somehow like to have a Hawley, Sir John Cope, Wade, and Duke of Cumberland smuggled in,3 by way of ‘illustrative Notes,’ if that were possible. Nay, I really think it should be done; and, on the whole, perceive that the Forty-five will be one of your more opulent fields.

The question ‘Who is a Historical Character?’ is, in many cases, already settled, and, in most cases, will be capable of easy settlement. In general, whoever lives in the memory of Scotchmen, whoever is yet practically recognisable as a conspicuous worker, speaker, singer, or sufferer in the past time of Scotland, he is a ‘Historical character,’ and we shall be glad to see the veritable likeness of him. For examples, given at random,—George Buchanan, David Rizzio, Lord Hailes, Lord Kames, Monboddo, Bozzy, Burns, Gawin Douglas, Barbour,4 Jamie Thomson. I would take in, and eagerly, David Dale (of the cotton manufacture), less eagerly Dundas (of the suffrage ditto), and, in general, ask myself, Who said, did, or suffered anything truly memorable, or even anything still much remembered? From Bruce down to Heathfield and Abercromby,5 the common History books will direct you plentifully as to one class; and for the others, knowledge and good judgment will be the methods.

4th, Lastly, as to the Catalogue. I am accustomed to conceive the Catalogue, if well done, as one of the best parts of the whole. Brevity, sound knowledge, exactitude, fidelity, ought to be the characteristic of every feature of it. Say you allow, on the average, not more than half a page to each, in by far the majority of cases; hardly more than a page to any: historical, lucid, above all things exact. I would give the essence of the men's history, condensed to the very utmost; the dates, his birth, death, main transactions—in short, the bones of his history; then add reference to books and sources (carefully distinguishing the good from the less good), 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 value and excellence might lie in such a Catalogue, if rightly done, I need not say to David Laing; nor what labour, knowledge, and resources would be needed to do it well! Perhaps divided among several men (with some head to preside over all), according to the several periods and classes of subject;—I can perceive work enough for you, among others, there! But, on the whole, it could be done, and it would be well worth doing, and a permanently useful thing. I would have it printed in some bound form, not as a pamphlet, but still very cheap; I should expect a wide immediate sale for it at railway stations and elsewhere while the Exhibition went on, and a steady and permanent sale for it afterwards for a long time indeed. A modern Nicolson, done according to the real want of the present day, and far beyond what any ‘Historical Library,’ with its dusty pedantries, ever was before!

But enough now. Your patience must not be quite ridden to death, and the very paper admonishes me to have done. Accept in good part what hasty stuff I have written; forgive it at least. I must say this small National Project has again grown to look quite beautiful to me,—possible surely in some form, and full of uses. Probably the real ‘Crystal Palace’ that would beseem poor old Scotland in these days of Exhibitions,—a country rather eminently rich in men perhaps, which is the pearl and soul of all other ‘riches.’— Believe me yours ever truly,