Page images
PDF
EPUB

ESSAYS AT ODD TIMES.

IV. OF A WHITE UMBRELLA. At this season of frost and snow, it is pleasant to me to look upon an old white umbrella which stands in a corner of my study. Not that there is aught very attractive in the thing per se. It is merely one of those contrivances which sketchers use for warding off the glare of the sun from the paper they are drawing on. Having a jointed stick some five or six feet long, it can be stuck in the ground over the artist's camp stool, and thus form a sort of small moveable tent under which he can pursue his work throughout the long summer's day on Welsh mountain or by Devonshire trout-stream. I dare say the reader has often seen the thing I am describing at Lynmouth or about Snowdonia. In the neighbourhood of Bettws-y-Coed they are as plentiful as blackberries. But some of the happiest days of my life have been spent under that white umbrella ; and the sight of it brings them back to me in all their freshness. I seem to hear the murmur of the sea, and the lapse of the brook over its pebbly bed. I see once more the wild, desolate moorland stretched before me, strewn with blocks of mosspatched slate-rock, such as Harding only could draw. I am afloat on the still lake again, fly-fishing from a leaky boat, in the dewy morning, or at the calm twilight hour when the red light dies out of the west, and the cold shadows deepen upon the mountains. That white umbrella brings all these things clearly before me. The scent of the heather still lingers in its calico; and, to parody Mr. Kingsley's verse, “ The wind rattles hoarse through its whalebones.”

And herein chiefly lies the value of his sketches to the amateur artist. It is not that as works of art they have any intrinsic worth of their own. Indeed, how seldom satisfactory are the works

of the professional artist to a critical
eye! But the relative value of the
amateur's sketches is very great to him.
From the mere fact of having sat down
for three or four hours of successive
days to study a certain bit of nature,
that scene is impressed upon his memory
for ever. He can summon it at will
before “the mind's eye." He has made
himself acquainted with all its pecu-
liarities. He has seen it probably under
its different aspects of calm and storm.
His art has taught him to see and to
recollect. So that, if the contents of his
portfolios are feeble, —
“ Yet doth Remembrance, like a sovereign

_ prince,
For him a stately gallery maintain
Of pleasant pictures."

You do not know, in fact, what a mountain is till you have sketched it. You do not know what a tree is till you have copied its branches one by one, as they spring from the parent trunk, and have noticed how, like living things (as indeed they are), they push forward to the blessed light, yet not hurtfully to each other, as men and women would under like circumstances, but each one using his own little modicum of free space to extend himself prudently and unaggressively to the light and air which are to feed him, and how marvellously the gap made by the dying of one limb is filled up immediately by a dozen others, who accommodate themselves, I fear, as pleasantly and selfishly as human creatures do, to the vacant promotion which a death has caused. In fact, my friendly reader, you know nothing about the life of a tree, its struggles, its successes, and its failures, till you have tried to sketch it upon paper-it matters not how clumsily, if only with something of reflection, and of sympathy with its nature.

Sketching from nature then is to the amateur of art what the study of Greek is to the scholar. There is no such method for mastering the meaning of a book, for getting at its heart, if I may so say, as to have read it in a language with which we are not thoroughly familiar, which obliges us to dwell more or less on every word it contains. And none but those who have patiently studied Nature under her varying moods, as the sketcher must, can know the deep signification of those many voices through which she speaks to

man.

For “ the use of art,” as Bacon tells us,“ hath been to give some shadow of 6 satisfaction to the mind of man in “ those points wherein the nature of “ things doth deny it :-a more ample “ greatness, a more exact goodness, a “ more absolute variety, than can be “found in the nature of things.” Hence it is that the interest of a picture depends mainly upon the human element interfused in it, upon the human senti. ment which created it. When we stand before the landscape painting of a master, we say : That scene under a certain aspect and at a certain time looked 80 to this man, so and no otherwise Being a poet, he saw in it what the peasant who accompanied him and carried his white umbrella, did not see“ A presence that disturbed bim with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.”

And, seeing these things, he has noted them down for us, as a krîua es dei, a joy for ever. In truth, his picture—it is himself! Whatever of nobleness, whatever of reverence for fact, whatever of originality, whatever of beauty we see there, we may look for in the man himself. In him these qualities live, and move, and have their being. And from him they have come forth to be embodied in the work of his hand.

“Where,” said a tiro to one of the old painters, “where do you get the model from whom your Madonnas are painted? For I, too, would gladly look upon so much majesty, humility, and grace,"

“Here!” said the master, calling his old colour-grinder to him; and, placing the man, an aged cripple, in a certain posture before him, the outlines of a face and form so postured soon grew upon his canvas; but it was the beautiful form of a woman, and the face of the virgin-mother. And I myself once received a lesson of a similar kind, which I have not forgotten. Living in a country essentially destitute of the features which artists love, being flat, treeless, and agricultural, a country once characterised by a witty, worthless king as only fit to be cut up into roads by which its inhabitants might get away from it, I had often bemoaned myself on account of the dearth of the beautiful about me, and looked in vain for subjects for my sketch-book. I naturally expected, therefore, much sympathy from an artist, an old friend of mine, who came to spend a few days with me one summer. The morning after his arrival, however, I found him under the white umbrella in a bit of waste ground at the back of my house, where a few straggling beeches and elms surround an old barn and some outhouses. In the midst of faggots, and hen-coops, and dust-heaps, and other rubbish which collects in such places, he had taken up his position, and had begun a large drawing in water-colour of two or three of these trees, which he said were most picturesquely grouped. And so indeed it seemed. At any rate, with trees and sky, and some felled timber lying amidst docks and mallow leaves, he produced a charming picture, full of light and colour and beauty. “My dear fellow," he said to me, on taking leave, “I have been through the best part of the Highlands this year; yet I rather think that I shall send this,” touching the portfolio with his sketch made at my barn-door, “as my contribution to the gallery in the spring."

Herein it is that the photograph, wonderful mirror as it is of nature, fails signally ; because it is but a mirror. It has no choice. It shows no thought or feeling in its reflection of fact. The mind of the artist seizing upon a certain

aspect of nature whose beauty has stirred its depths, the feeling of the moment passes into the work of his hands, and stamps it with a sentiment which the scene itself might not have suggested to others, but which, as interpreted by him, comes home to us at once. Photography does well enough perhaps for foreground bits, the waifs and strays of landscape ; a few wayside stones, a group of ferns upon a crumbling wall, the rugged bole of a tree, with its little forests of moss and patches of lichens,--these things it renders to us with fidelity; and we are thankful for what it can give. But in landscape proper I think it utterly fails. Take up a photograph-the best and see. You have mountains indeed, trees, the winding river, nay, the very play of light and shadow; but the spirit of the scene is not there. You look upon it as you would look upon a beautiful face, which lies hushed and still in death. There fore, even as a remembrance of a place we have seen, it seems to me that a photograph is most unsuggestive; and, as a remembrance of a person we have known, most unsatisfactory. When you, sir, call up the image of the woman you love, is it the mere shape of the face you remember, the curve of the eyebrow, or the colour of the cheek? Nay, these are but the outward manifestations of an earthly beauty, which all are privi. leged to note, which is destined to be the prey of the worm, and to mingle with the common dust. But there has been a moment-perhaps it was but a moment-when the eye beamed with a soft and yet most brilliant light, the light of a love that was unfathomable, which absence could never dull, and which death could not destroy : there was a moment when the lip spoke with an unwonted eloquence, though no sound came forth from it ; when all the fair face blazed forth into an unearthly paradise-beauty, of which you, and you alone, were the witness; and as you saw her then-at that moment most truly herself--you see her now, and will see her in your dreams for ever!

At any rate, from the visit of my

artist friend I have learnt one wholesome lesson, which has stood me in good stead ever since. If I could not find much beauty in the homely scenes around me, it was because I had not enough cultivated “ the beautiful" within me. For the poet's dictum is perhaps wiser than he knew, and deeper than he meant :

“ We receive but what we give, And in ourselves alone doth nature live.”

If my lot was cast in an ugly and uninteresting country, why, it was true wisdom to make the best of it. If I had no forests from which to sketch, I could at all events take a single tree, and find out as much as I could about that; if I had no mountains to draw from, the elements of which mountains are made lie everywhere beneath my feet. The informing spirit of Nature works as carefully on a small scale as on a large ; for she has no journeymen in her employ to “scamp” a little job merely because it is little. There is colour enough in a thatched cottageroof, with its golden stone-crop and emerald mosses, to kill the brightest tints of Tintoret or Titian ; and, as the German poet said of his little gardenwalk, “it may be narrow, indeed, but it is everlastingly high, you see.”

The study of Art, then, will teach the amateur to observe and to appreciate. And this, believe me, is no small gain. He may never attain much practical skill in the art which he loves ; a lifetime of labour is all too little for that. But if it teaches him in some small measure to appreciate that in which he himself has failed, it will have done for him a good and kindly office. Much of the master-work of the world is only to be understood by patient study and reverent attention. But, giving these, his art will, Columbus-like, open a new world before him.

V. OF THE PROFESSIONS. Having lately returned home after a short absence, on going into my study I found to my dismay that the busy hand of womankind had been at work

there in a laudable endeavour to put things to rights. I need scarcely say that this bad resulted in putting every thing out of its place. My papers (amongst which were sundry jottings for these “Essays ") having been left on the table in apparent disorder, though in reality they were arranged after a certain scientific method of my own, by which I can at once lay my hand upon whatever I want, had borne the brunt of the attack. Some had been crumpled up and thrust into the waste-paper basket; others, more for tunate, had simply been shufiled into neatness and inextricable confusion. So that I inwardly determined that for the future I would write all memoranda upon pieces of paper cut into such patterns as dressmakers use, which are, I believe, regarded by the feminine mind as things sacred and mystical. But, if my papers were disordered, my books had equally suffered at the neat hands of Phillis. No author was in his right place. Dr. Pusey and Dr. Close, whom I had left divided by a long array of Apostolic Fathers, were now elbowing each other for room on the shelf; and Colenso's “Pentateuch and Book of Job” occupied the place which had hitherto been filled by “Pearson on the Creed.”

Whilst I looked with a smile at these incongruities, I could not help being reminded of something akin to this which I see in every-day life-I mean the incongruity between many men of my acquaintance and the profession they have adopted. In looking round about me in the world, it often seems as if some bustling hand had been at work on a large scale in putting men out of their proper places. Here are the men and the professions. But they seem in many cases to have been joined together upon the principle which somebody recommends for marriages :—“ Write the names of the candidates on slips of paper, put them in a bag, shake well together, and then draw them out by two and two." To be sure this haphazard way of doing things would occasionally produce a good result ; and we

sometimes see a man who has adopted a profession for which he had no particular liking, settle down to it manfully, determined to make the best of things, and succeeding admirably in his endeavours. There are, of course, also cases in which a boy discovers a strong bent for a particular pursuit, which years only strengthen, so that the man and his profession have grown up together after the manner of that boy-and-girl love which poets sing of.

But for the most part it seems to me that men choose their professions as they get their opinions—at second hand. It will be found, I think, that our main opinions, those which are matter of party debate and strife, which make us Whig or Tory, Churchman or Dissenter, are generally the result of early influence and education; matters of feeling rather than of logical deduction; whilst on the many minor opinions afloat in the world we probably seldom come to any definite conclusion at all, but are always open to conviction. And I fancy that education and family influence have very much to do with the choice of a profession. As a general rule, a man is espoused to his calling as of old a prince was espoused to his wife, before he is of an age to have much voice or choice in the matter. Brought up to look upon a certain course of events as settled, and being a man of placid and easy temper (as most men are), I daresay the prince did not struggle much against the inevitable, but yielded patiently to his fate, and settled down at last into & married life, which was neither very irksome to him nor very delightful. And I think this is often very much the case with men and the professions they have wedded. At any rate, if it be, we can scarcely wonder that a man's business is so seldom his pleasure. I am afraid that the prince often took to himself a mistress. And under such circumstances the professional man generally takes up a hobby.

J., an intimate friend of mine, is a country clergyman, a man of spotless character, and whose life I believe to

be a very happy one. He reads prayers makes whatever bears the aspect of and preaches, and talks to his old men necessary work to be distasteful and and women, and gets through all his repulsive to us. I fancy that I ought appointed duties in a thoroughly blame- to finish this Essay to-day; not a hard less and monotonous manner; but he is or unpleasant task surely, being but a a most energetic man in the farming of commonplace chat about the choice of his glebe. He was married in early life, a profession with a kindly reader. But, you see, to a calling he had not fallen in simply because the thing wears the love with. And the wife thus thrust aspect of duty it has become irksome upon him, being, fortunately for him, to me, and I am anxious to turn away of an easy temper, does not punish him from it, and to devote myself to-well, for any petits soins he may pay to the let us say “the history of the sect of the mistress of his choice. But it might be Essenes.” a very different thing if he had to After all, the men who seem to me depend upon his professional labours for to be the happiest in their callings his bread.

are those whose profession unites handIn truth there are many men so work with brain-work—the painter, the constituted that all necessary work is sculptor; shall I add the man of science, distasteful to them. It is not that they the surgeon, the author ? There is, I have not the power of working in suppose, a certain amount of satisfaction them. They will actually give the time in any work which produces a definite and labour to unproductive work which, and tangible result after a due amount if concentrated on their profession, of labour, and of course this is quite would insure them advancement and apart from the money value of that success in life. But this would be alto- labour; I am speaking only of work gether discordant with their principles for the work's sake. Holbein amuses Work, to be pleasant to them, must be himself in the evening, after his day's wholly unproductive. The minute it toil at the easel, with a broad-nibbed becomes useful or profitable, it also pen and a sheet of paper, whereon he becomes distasteful. I have lately sketches any quaint groups which have been reading the life of Gray; and met his view in the market-place or at his was essentially a case in point. the street corner-dashing in the shadows Gray, we are told, spent years of hard broadly and effectively with a swash of labour in the study of heraldry and sepia. John Leech illustrates his notes architecture, as illustrative of the to intimate friends just as he illustrated history of his country. And, at a time Punch. And the biography of artists has when archæology as a science was not, many another story to the same effect. he had made many happy discoveries What I will call" directly productive therein, by the comparison of the labour has in fact more resting-places buildings he visited with the coats of by the roadside of life than any others. arms which he found sculptured upon When the artist has finished his picture, them ; but, as soon as the time came or the author his book, he can stop for for him to put his employment to some a while, pour se délasser, and take in practical use, and give the results to fresh fuel. And that path, even if it the world, he straightway abandoned be an uphill one, by which we find a it. He reads through the classics with seat here and there where we can rest care, and annotates them skilfully; for a little, and look back or look forbut no sooner does a friend suggest to ward, is not so wearisome to us as the him to edit the authors he has so level road which we are forced to tread anxiously studied for the benefit of without a pause to take breath in. It scholars, than he shuts up his books, is in this respect that the profession of and enters upon another field of self- a clergyman, which common opinion deimposed toil. And there is something, clares to be of all others the pleasantest, I suppose, in human nature which fails. The clergyman's work is never No. 66.- VOL. XI.

HI

« PreviousContinue »