Nicholas Penny on Dickens and anti-art
The earliest published image of the Greek Revival building by William Wilkins which stretches across the north side of Trafalgar Square is an engraving that shows it under construction in 1836, with the dignity of its architecture masked (as it so often is today) by hoardings covered with noisy advertising. In front of them some violent encounters of the sort familiar to Mr Jingle and Oliver Twist are being enacted. The print implies that cultural institutions, especially the new National Gallery, are detached from the sordid realities of urban life.
The Royal Academy moved into the east wing of Wilkins’s building in 1837 while the National Gallery occupied the west, opening to the public on 5 April 1838. In the same month the first instalment of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens’s third novel, was published. Together with most of London’s fashionable society, Dickens visited the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions in order to see ‘those beautiful shiny portraits of gentlemen in black velvet waistcoats, with their fists doubled up on round tables, or marble slabs … and all the ladies who are playing with little parasols, or little dogs, or little children’, in the words of Miss La Creevy in his novel. In 1839 he was able to admire his own glamorous portrait by Daniel Maclise, which was engraved for use as the frontispiece of Nicholas Nickleby when it appeared as a book in October that year. But there is no evidence that Dickens ever turned left on entering the portico and strolled around the National Gallery.
He would have known that as wall furniture in fashionable houses Old Master paintings were almost as popular as silk hangings and looking-glasses. The parody of high society romance that Kate Nickleby is obliged to read to the languid Mrs Witterly mentions Lady Flabella’s ‘mouchoir of finest cambric, edged with richest lace, and emblazoned at the four corners with the Flabella crest’, the ‘golden salver’ on which she receives a billet-doux and the ‘silken damask, the hue of Italy’s firmament’ concealing the door of her ladyship’s boudoir – but no pictures. Thackeray’s hyperbolic list in ‘Codlingsby’, his deadly parody of Disraeli’s Coningsby, would have been quite appropriate here: ‘Giorgione the gorgeous, Titian the golden, Rubens the ruddy and pulpy (the Pan of painting), some of Murillo’s beautiful shepherdesses, who smile on you out of darkness like a star, a few score first-class Leonardos.’
By 1847, when Thackeray’s parody appeared in Punch, Dickens had been to Italy and knew something of these artists. Pictures from Italy, which appeared in 1846, is impatient with the pretensions of connoisseurship and the mindless reverence of guidebooks but Dickens was impressed by certain masterpieces – notably Titian’s Assunta, then in the Accademia in Venice, and Tintoretto’s Paradiso, in the Doge’s Palace – and expressed conventional dismay before Correggio’s ‘heaps of foreshortened limbs, entangled and involved and jumbled together’ in the ceiling paintings in Parma. But no mention is made of the paintings by these artists that could be seen in Trafalgar Square, not even Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Correggio’s Madonna of the Basket or Tintoretto’s St George and the Dragon, which were among the National Gallery’s most remarkable recent acquisitions.
Dickens was certainly familiar with the paintings of Charles Eastlake, the keeper of the National Gallery between 1843 and 1847. Eastlake was the leading British painter of fierce brigands and distressed contadine – the latter more convincing than the former – and had sent many examples to London during his long residence in Rome. Dickens recognised the artist’s models loitering on the Spanish Steps: ‘The man in a brown cloak, who leans against a wall, with his arms folded in his mantle, and looks out of the corners of his eyes: which are just visible beneath his broad slouched hat. This is the assassin model.’
In August 1845, soon after his return to London, Dickens was persuaded to publish in the Shilling Magazine a puff for the Spirit of Chivalry, a cartoon for a fresco to be painted in the House of Lords that his friend Maclise was exhibiting. The subject was congenial to Maclise, who had been seduced by the medievalising of his friends and patrons in the Young England movement. As the creator of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht, not to mention the Lady Flabella, Dickens must have had to swallow hard before praising this hymn to nobility. The next time Dickens tried his hand at art criticism was nearly five years later, on 15 June 1850, when he published a violent invective against the Pre-Raphaelites in his new twopenny weekly, Household Words. These two deplorable efforts, the former forgotten, the latter cited by everyone who writes about British art in this period, make it clear that Dickens had no knowledge of the growing appreciation of medieval or early Renaissance art across Europe, a precondition both for Maclise’s fresco and for the innovations of Millais and his friends. Dickens had failed to notice the exponents of Purismo in Italy or the work of the Nazarenes in Rome. More significantly, he had no idea of the influence exercised by two notable National Gallery acquisitions: Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, purchased in 1842 (displayed 1843), and the outer panels of Lorenzo Monaco’s Coronation of the Virgin, donated (as by Taddeo Gaddi) in 1848. The Van Eyck inspired the exhausting detail of Pre-Raphaelite painting and the Monaco the archaic stiffness which so offended the bland ideal of beauty and the decorous sentiment to which Dickens was attached.
Art reviews weren’t a major feature of Household Words, but on 13 September 1856 the leading contribution was an anonymous article written by Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins and entitled ‘To think, or be thought for’. The pretext for the piece was a controversy in the correspondence columns of the Times concerning a picture by ‘the old Venetian painter Bellini’ recently acquired for the National Gallery. The collector and connoisseur William Coningham (the donor of the panels by Lorenzo Monaco) claimed that the picture had been so ‘daubed over’ as to be worthless, whereas Gustav Waagen, director of the Berlin picture gallery and a friend of Eastlake (now the National Gallery’s director), defended it as an excellent example of Bellini’s work.
‘Surely the bewildered visitor,’ Collins wrote, ‘standing opposite the Bellini with Doctor Waagen on his right hand begging him to admire it, and Mr Coningham on his left entreating him to despise it, must end, in mere self-defence, in shaking both the critical gentlemen off, and judging for himself, not of the Bellini only, but of every other picture in the collection as well.’ There is a deliberate confusion between the assessment of the condition and authorship of a picture, which are obviously a matter for experts, and the assessment of its artistic success, which is reduced here to knowing what one likes. The common man, having thrown off the English connoisseur and the German doctor, is then invited to Rome in order to join the author in questioning the merits of the ‘confusion of naked knotty-bodied figures, sprawling up or tumbling down’ the walls of the Sistine Chapel.