of The Tablet's first edition
In England for the last three centuries, the Fine Arts have been struggling to escape from that false position into which the great moral convulsion that marked the commencement of the designated period had thrown them. Fanaticism and ignorance struck sculpture down from the pedestal on which her dedication to the service of religion had exalted her. Painting, no longer inspired by that divine afflatus which breathed out in her copies of the countenances of saints and martyrs, fled affrighted from the land, or remained to assist a corrupt court in polluting a licentious people. She, who had ministered to religion, was degraded to the service of flattery, her highest office the transmission of a foolish face. Architecture, whose triumphs are still the glory of this country, became at one degraded from the aesthetic rank to be classed among the merely useful arts. The Iconoclasts had broken down the graces she borrowed from sculpture, and blotted out the charms that painting lent her; she had been too long naturalized to the soil and air of England to take her flight at once, but her foe-friends continued to corrupt and degrade her, until her highest effort became a mockery and a bye-word; error was in all her paths, and ignorance and ugliness were on her right hand and on her left. The love of Charles I. towards the Fine Arts was imputed to him as a crime, and Cromwell was compelled to conceal the pictures he contrived to save. There are more statues in one building, the chapel of Henry VII, at Westminster, than have been produced in all England since that period, up to our day; and even now, the claims of architecture as an art destined to the highest purposes and worthy of the deepest cultivation, is only beginning to be acknowledged. They who fanatically talk of a "revival," as characteristic of our day, little suspect the deep truth of their own phrase; there is a revival, in arts, in literature, and in religion, that links together the 15th and the 19th centuries, leaving between them every species of gradual degradation to the very depth of worthlessness, and traces of the struggle upward to the height of excellence, which is now full before them.
It was from a foreign writer that the English learned what treasures of art remained to them - the wrecks of that period when architecture, sculpture, and painting had attained the summit of their excellence in this country. An artist of our day has painted with unsuspecting and unsuspected bitterness and force the contrast, between that period of art and the days of desolation which ensured. The Scottish Presbyterian, Wilkie, in a picture now exhibiting at the National Gallery, has shown how art was honoured in the ages which modern arrogance calls "dark." Sir David Wilkie represents Pope Paul the Third receiving from the hands of Benvenuto Cellini, a silver censer of his own workmanship. The artist, alive to the honour of art, expresses in the countenance of Alexander Farnese (the Pope) that love of the beautiful, which distinguished him and his family, that liberality and culture, which made him at once the patron and the friend of the artist. The Pope appears honoured as well as delighted at being asked his opinion of a work, the perfection of human genius, and dedicated to the service of him from whom that genius was directly derived. In the portrait of Cellini, the Presbyterian of to-day has paid a pupil's homage to his mater. We can read in that modestly confident attitude, and that composed but inquiring glance, a soul at ease as to its own place, but deeply conscious of the critical acuteness of its judge. In his Cellini, Wilkie has imagined such a man as Julius de Medici (Pope Clement VII.) might choose as his chief artist, and appoint as the commander of his Castle of St. Angelo; a man in whom military skill and courage unite with the softer and more glorious attributes of the artist. And why did Wilkie choose Pope Paul rather than Pope Clement for the patron of Benvenuto? Because, perhaps, the artist's purpose would have otherwise been too strongly marked; for it was Clement's election to St. Peter's chair, and the consequent disappointment of Wolsey, that - more than any other circumstance - laid the foundation for that reform of the church which most gratuitously caused the destruction of the noblest works of art that ever glorified a country. Wilkie felt this, and so also would some at least of his admirers. It was with no less judgement that Cellini's great lay patron, Francis the First of France, was excepted; for that would have localized the fact and limited the force of the lesson that Wilkie meant to teach his countrymen. Benvenuto Cellini is the embodied idea of the painting, sculpture, carving, embossing, and orfevry or gold work of the 15th century. The armour of kings and the ornaments of damsels alike bore the impress of his skilful hand; but it was to the church, to offices of piety, to the purposes of religion, that his greatest works were dedicated, and Wilkie, has, in the person of Pope Paul the Third, figured the Catholic encouragement, the universal patronage which prevailed in that golden period. Many of the works of Cellini are still in England. Such censers as the one here represented have been preserved by Catholic piety from that cupidity and violence, which, under the pretence of purification, made war on the glories of art, and left their ruins to this day to tell, in language too clear for contradiction, that, up to the Reformation, the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting, found in England a happy home; which during the later Tudor period they long laboured to maintain; which in the Stuart time they still struggled for with convulsive effort; from which they were violently driven during the great rebellion, and suffered to revisit, merely by glimpses, from the Restoration to the close of the last century, when they had sunk into an almost hopeless despair; from which, as we have before said, it is to be hoped that they are now reviving gradually and faintly indeed, but, we believe, surely. The arts must revive with the church that was their nursing mother, and bigotry itself will not deny that in England, and in our day, the revival of the Catholic church is marked and manifest. Let the sceptical on this point compare the zealot fury and intemperate rage with which Wilkie has endowed his John Knox preaching to the Lords of the Congregation , how he cries "havoc and lets loose the dogs of war," urging on the destruction of shrines and sanctuaries, the defacing of harmless statues, and the pillage of churches, in the name of purity and reformation; - let him compare this and the trembling artists flying from such a scene, with the repose and riches, the dignities and honours, that surround Cellini in the presence of Pope Paul the Third, and he will feel that the artist of to-day dare venture an appeal to a feeling in the public mind, in the existence of which, until within a comparatively brief space, he would not have believed, - the absence of that taste for the great in art which inspired the Farnese and Medici families, and the preferences in the few persons in England who have patronised art, for portraiture, landscape, and familiar scenes, have prevented in Wilkie himself the attainment of that distinction which his just ambition set before him. What might not Flaxman have produced if taught to know that his works would be dedicated to the sublimest purpose, and be sure of his reward? Wilkie's ever-shifting style shows the restless ambition of his mind; dissatisfied with the inferior position into which he is pressed by patronage, he attempts every year some such object as his better hopes inspire and his desires set before him; but the conviction that the literal will prevail over the ideal in the minds of his purchasers, depresses his spirit, and he produces startling pictures, which satisfy the critic, by their very failure, that under happier circumstances Wilkie would have aspired, and not in vain, to the highest rank in his profession. While carving was held in honour, while garlands and girandoler were required for Hampton Court and Windsor, and the city churches, Grinling Gibbons flourished, and attained, like Flaxman, an European fame. What now would be Eastlake's fortune if his exquisite pictures of Christ blessing little Children, in the last year's exhibition, and his Salutation of the aged Friar , in that of the present season, were - we will not say appreciated - for that they are by the few whose judgments Eastlake values, but supposing his high calling to have been the painting of these and similar works, in quolibet Templo oratorio seu sacello publicae Christi fidelium venerationi exponendi, suppose that he were certain in the first instance of due reward, and in the second of high honour; superadd the conviction that his labour was beneficial to men and agreeable to the Deity, and that it would be devoted to the instruction of ignorance and the excitement of piety; with such feelings, and under such circumstances, what would not Eastlake have performed?
"Encourage the arts of design," say the Utilitarians; how, let us inquire, may this public service be most easily and successfully performed? Look at the tapestries of Gobelin and Aubusson; there are specimens now exhibiting at the Egyptian Hall, of design the most graceful, in execution the most felicitous, in effect the most superb. From the dark gold-brown velvet ground, masses of fruit and flowers start in form and colour with a truth which defies painting and embroidery, and challenges comparison with nature. These superb carpets, and hangings, and porte-convres, may be purchased by emperors or kings to decorate palaces, but patrons of this rank are limited in number, and the object is too low to reward and inspire the artist. It is the great corporation, the church alone, that can duly encourage the arts of design to such extent, and spread their blessed influence from so great a height into the details of domestic accommodation. Vases, censers, candelabra, fald stools, pries-dieu, shrines, tabernacles, and canopied niches, - these were the parents of the arts of design: groined and fretted roofs, with corbeilles of fruit, or pendants of single flowers, flying buttresses with light crockets and finials of cinquefoil or quatrefoil, the many mullioned oriel with its tasteful tracery, the screen of the choir, the arras of the nave, the statues, pictures, and altars in the chapels, the Calvary behind the high altar, and the shrines of the holy relics, - these, with the draperies, and robes, and vestments, and the altar-cloths, the reliquiaries, the pixes, the chalices, patens and salvers, in constant, daily demand, in every parish and section of the country, - these were the fostering parents of the arts of design. These crowded the sculptor, the painter, the weaver, the embroiderer, the worker in gold and silver, the carver in brass and wood, and the whole host of artists, round our churches. Thus was art encouraged, thus were the poor employed, before union workhouses took the place of cathedrals, and the naked severity of sectarian worship enticed the church of England from her high place as patroness of art and artists, which before the Reformation, and even at the period of the restoration of churches after the great fire of London, she had held with such effect and honour.
Under such circumstances, Collins would have been encouraged to paint heads like that of the incumbent and watchful doctor in his imperfect picture of Christ in the Temple , now at the Royal Academy. Etta would have been taught that pure taste which alone is wanting in his admirable figures, and his subjects would have been elevated by the glorious thought of their ulterior appropriation, until all that is base and gross in him would have been purified, and the great English colourist have held his true place among artists; then Martin would not have been forced into mannerism, and a seeking after foreign effect, which deteriorate from his often valuable illustrations of Christian history; then Charles Landseer, following the spirit that led him to Basingstoke House, would have painted religious fortitude sustaining yet severer trials, and with a more triumphant end; then Severn would have been recalled from his conceit, and purified from his muddiness of tone, and taught to apply his real acquirements to that great object to which his secret inclinations draw him. Herbert has caught a spark of the true fire, which time and the patronage of the church will blow into a flame. Roberts might adorn new as he has depicted old shrines; Ward might be saved from that species of insanity which besets his pictures; Uwins and Mulready might lend their glowing lights to the illustration of Scripture; and had Howard's mind been tuned to the contemplation of a heavenly Agency, as comprehended in the Christian dispensation, his cold and feeble muthoi might have been warmed into parables of instruction and delight. The talent is not wanting, but the inspiration is; art is not deserted by her children, but discouraged by a generation who seek from her only amusement, or cold facts, or imitations of outward nature. When we are told of a "poor exhibition," we look at it not only as it is, but as what under happier circumstances it might have been. An account of the Exhibition as it is will be given at our first opportunity.