Art and Vulgarity

Tim Hilton

  • William Mulready by Kathryn Heleniak
    Yale, 287 pp, £25.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 300 02311 1

Kathryn Moore Heleniak has written quite an interesting book about minor art and vulgarity in the earlier part of the 19th century. She has a good subject in Mulready, whose paintings are the very alphabet and epitome of these art-historical problems, and whose career she has faithfully but not fully recorded. She is fond of him, as we ought to be: he had a determined, kind character. But she is at fault with Mulready’s art. Her overvaluation is ingenuous and persistent. The result is not only an inflation of his merits: she cannot feel his artistic nature.

Mulready was Irish. The family came from Ennis, County Clare. They settled in London when he was a boy. Mulready was an early reader, and learnt Latin and French: later in life he taught himself Greek and German. He could draw, and was probably in the Royal Academy schools by the age of 13. This would be in 1799 or 1800. While still at the schools he came across William Godwin, then running his ill-starred children’s books business. For Godwin he made a number of illustrations: the cuts for the first edition of the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare are his Godwin wrote a little book about his illustrator’s childhood, The Looking Glass / a True History of the Early Years of an Artist; Calculated to awaken the Emulation of Young Persons. Like most of Godwin’s calculations, this turned out wrong. Mulready seemed set for a distinguished career, but he never attained his goals. Granted, he came to fame as a painter. He was socially successful. He frequented the interesting Godwin circle for years. Later on, we find him all over London, not only in the company of artists but at lectures with Faraday, the theatre with Kemble and Macready, at dinner with the Ruskins, fishing with Thackeray. But his art was often scratchy and muddied, and either too high-flown in its Classical references or dispiritingly repetitious; full of gravel pits, cottagers and dogs. Perhaps the early experience of being made an exemplum virtutis caused a reaction in him. His marriage broke up in violence and homosexual scandal; he was known to be a brawler, and for some years he settled for being what nowadays we call a trademark artist. His diploma picture was ‘Boys Digging for a Rat’, and a large part of his production was thenceforward of ill-behaved children: fighting, twisting arms, hanging around alehouse doors, being punished. The want of taste in these paintings is not noticed in Mrs Heleniak’s book. The author calls them ‘amusing’ or the like.

At the time, there were many who felt that Mulready was painting below his capacities. He struck a spark of annoyance in Constable, who called his quasi-picturesque country scenes ‘privys’. Mrs Heleniak stays with the standard art-historical interpretation, and expands it with numerous examples and parallels. This version calls for precedents on Dutch painting (and let me add Adriaen Brouwer to her list) and on Wilkie. It argues that Mulready, following Wilkie, made an art of significance from genre, from subject-matter that was neither elevated nor historical. There is truth in this, but it is hardly the whole story. It does not explain why Mulready was capable of such wild variations in sophistication and intention between one picture and the next. But on the whole he improved, after his mud-pie phase. He could not find the right poise for his ambitious pictures, ever, but on occasion, as in ‘Choosing the Wedding Gown’, one of his numerous illustrations to The Vicar of Wakefield, came to a kind of charm. As Mrs Heleniak often points out, there is a lot of neat work in these cabinet pictures. More significant, though, is the disjunction between his modest stance as a genre artist and the great themes of his pattern book. Everyone knows ‘The Sonnet’, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The subject (a girl reading a poem given her by some youth who awaits her response) unmistakably follows the design of the prophetic figures on Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling – in particular, Jeremiah. Such inapposite quotations should be considered neither the mark of Mulready’s ambition nor the measure of his failure. As genre, this is a kind illustration of the importunate self-advertisement found in young poets. As something more than genre, it reminds us of the long-lived idea that a studious application to high art was always a reliable inspiration.

This Mulready learned in the Royal Academy, which he joined early and served loyally until his death in 1863. All in all, these were the Academy’s best years. Perhaps a future volume of the Yale Studies in British Art (to which Mrs Heleniak’s book belongs) will help to revalue the three or four decades of its supremacy. This will assist the great task of downgrading the beloved English water-colour school. Most of those washy topographers would have been better off in their studios. They should have been living on their nerves, reading French encyclopedias and meditating greatness. Mulready may have painted privies, but he had more than an inkling of such matters. He shows the variety of the old guard of the Royal Academy. Burlington House was more flexible and welcoming than the myths would have it, as the rapid success of Pre-Raphaelitism proves. No wonder that Mulready’s first biographer was one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, F.G. Stephens, who said quite candidly that he invented the new style before they did. Mrs Heleniak could have looked harder at these relationships. In particular, it is revealing to consider what Millais found in Mulready. He rejected his Classical side but looked hard at the older artist’s genre painting with a view to making it sharper, more poetic and outré. Mulready’s ‘The Widow’ is an example. It is of 1823 but was reexhibited at the Academy in 1848, the year before Millais’s ‘Isabella’ was shown there. This first Pre-Raphaelite picture is obviously in some competitive indebtedness to Mulready’s. Millais also developed Mulready’s interest in adolescent sexuality, and usually made pictorial improvements to his suggestions. Mulready’s ‘Crossing the Ford’, in which two youths carry a girl across water, anticipates the Pre-Raphaelite concern with death and virginity. It is not a better painting for that: nor are ‘First Love’, ‘Brother and Sister’, nor the indelicate ‘Open your mouth and shut your eyes’.

Mulready’s nudes are more demure. They also make quite gripping pictures. He came to them in old age and probably was proud of them. They follow the Antique even more than the Titian ‘Venus Anadyomene’ on which one of them is obviously based. Mrs Heleniak wants to place them in a Classical tradition: but it is their anomalous character that makes them interesting. Such nudes, over-large in relation to the rest of the painting, are placed in an improbable landscape. It is a strange country, where (it seems to me) falcons float and the wild goats play: Ireland perhaps, but stonier. Mid-Victorian nude painting was likely enough to be marmoreal and homeless, in any case bound to be odd. There is the paradox, perhaps not a paradox, that such a socially unorthodox art was made under the most conservative auspices of the Royal Academy life class. Not only there, it appears, but also in the ‘Kensington Life Academy’, which was probably more like a club than a strict art school. I wish to know more about this organisation than Mrs Heleniak tells us, so am sorry to know something she does not know. To Kensington came young Emilia Francis Strong, later Mrs Pattison, later Lady Dilke, to draw the nude under Mulready’s instruction. It was good to see, my source relates, ‘the old man’s handsome but satirical face ripple all over with a welcoming smile as he saw the little figure come trotting in with a portfolio of drawings on her arm, attired in extremely unconventional, but often very picturesque, garments floating behind her’. This remarkable girl was to be the model for Middlemarch’s Dorothea. She became a scholar as well as an artist; the hostess in Mallock’s New Republic; an organiser of the womens’ trade-union movement, a swordswoman, a detective and much besides. She lacks a biographer. God be praised for His mercy, the George Eliot admirers (they are also the admirers of English water-colours) have so far left her alone. She needs a rarer and more modern spirit, for her real distinction was to be on the intellectual side of English aestheticism. My point is that she had transferred her allegiances from Ruskin, who discovered her, to the septuagenarian Mulready. His example, powerful still in the early Sixties, had kept alive some classic spirit during the years of sententious Ruskinian Realism. From him she caught, early in her life, a whiff of taste, a style, an aloofness from didacticism, a feeling for art rather than for art’s lessons.

This spirit Mrs Heleniak does not recognise. She is inclined to emphasise the evidence of Mulready’s contribution to political debate. She makes much of the social disadvantages of the Irish in Britain, but without demonstrating that Mulready was disadvantaged; an election painting must prove that Mulready was a democrat; the appearance of a Rubens-derived black toy-seller in one picture prompts reflections on (her word) blacks in 19th-century England. This is overstrained. Mrs Heleniak would rather force a social conscience on her subject than consider the mixed integrity of his aesthetic conscience. I am glad to praise her work on the detailed catalogue, which occupies a sizable portion of this volume. It is scholarly, and will be valuable to students of the period.