A Chain Criticism of the Royal Academy–Link III

The Art Weekly, 24 May 1890: 165-67,  111-112

[Note: Mathlde Blind contributed two essays to the “Chain Criticism” of Royal Academy paintings–this one and “Link II” in the 17 May issue. The Art Weekly was co-edited at this time by Blind’s friend and fellow poet Rosamund Marriott Watson]

Coming from the large gallery with its “places of honour” into the next one, Number Four, might be regarded in a way as descending from the very throne room into the outer circles of the court, into good society, of course, but not into the best. And yet, as  the higher intellect may very possibly be found among those lower ranks, so in a corner of the smaller gallery, opposite the door, and on the line be it said, for once to the credit of the hanging committee, who are as a rule far from impeccable, hangs a little picture, which I mention here, out of its proper place, because it is to my mind one of the best pieces, if not altogether the best, of pure painting in the whole exhibition. This is “Linda—a study” (No. 383) by Cecil L. Burns, a simple portrait of a child with a tangle of red hair, holding a jug of chrysanthemums in her hands. A study—nothing more—but one from which many a member of the Academy might take a lesson. The drawing and colouring of the hands are particularly exquisite, and it is instructive to contrast the workmanship of the face and hair with that in “Lady Betty,” by Philip H. Calderon, R.A. (No 444) whose common-place “look-of-beauty” prettiness is displayed upon the opposite wall.

I have not infrequently wondered whether the use of a pair of stilts would be forbidden by the Academy regulations. They might, to be sure, prove inconvenient, even dangerous to other visitors, but if the authorities will hang pictures at a height of twelve feet from the ground they should at least provide some accommodation for those who have paid their money to see them. Wanting this aid, I was compelled, after straining vainly both neck and eyesight, to conclude that both “The Apple” (No. 341) by Miss Harriet Halhed, an apparently bright and clever study of a child, and “A Flower in Spring” (No. 416) by Emma Black, would repay closer inspection were that obtainable. There is no such difficulty with respect to Mr. Val Prinsep’s “Diva Theodora Imperatrix” (No. 346), who, though described in a sub-title as “Empress and Comedian,” looks neither one nor the other.

Mr. John Brett’s “A Summer Shower” (No. 345) is another of his minutely finished seascapes, which, thou far from faultless, always attract by their fresh airiness and brilliancy. I strove in vain to connect Miss Emma Harrison’s long question, quoted from Rossetti, with her curiously affected and unpleasing portrait of a child, and failing to do so, could only reply, “I do not know,” and pass on.

Sir John Millais, when he starts in to paint a portrait by the square yard, has long been past praying for, but his present portrait of Mr. Gladstone and his grandson (No. 361) seems to touch the bottom note of the gamut in careless haste.

Sir John Millais, when he starts in to paint a portrait by the square yard, has long been past praying for, but his present portrait of Mr. Gladstone and his grandson (No. 361) seems to touch the bottom note of the gamut in careless haste. Both Mr. Frederick Goodall’s “Sir Moses Montefiore” (No. 359), and Mr. Orchardson’s “J. C. Stevenson, M. P.” (No. 367) loook almost lifelike beside it.

“The Acre of the Poor” (No. 365) by Mr. Burns, though not without much truthfulness and skill, is more ambitious and less happy than his smaller work already mentioned, but it is a mistake to stamp it with a large and glaring monogram, which would be more in place upon the oar-blades of a private boat. He might take a hint in this from Mr. Henry T. Wells, R.A., whose signature on his portrait of “Miss Curzon Wyllie” (No. 389) is a masterpiece of artistic reserve.

In “Solitude” (No. 356) Mr. Frederick Everett has got nearer to the colour and texture of fresh snow than is customary, and the same may be said of the stretch of seasand in Mr.  Julius Olsson’s “Seabreezes” (No. 360), though this latter picture is marred by the solidity of the cloud-masses. Mr. Goodall, R.A., has missed the peculiar charm of the Thames valley, as seen from Windsor Castle (No. 366), and has furthermore placed upon the placid river’s “silver bosom” a pair of eight oars, each of which might rival in length a first-rate man-of-war, and could certainly never have negotiated the complicated curves above Clewer. Mr. J. Buxton Knight’s “Hemp Agrimony” (No. 372) is a fine piece of work, and makes a strong bid for the first place among this year’s paintings. It is pleasant to be able to welcome here the productions of a Transatlantic “cousin,” and both “Maine Woods” (No. 373), and “Drear December” (407), by Mr. Eaton, afford me good excuse.

Alpine pictures are seldom satisfactory, but Mr. Robinson’s “Engadine” (No. 380) is a more than usually successful failure. The sea in Mr. Colin Hunters’ “The Hills of Morven” (No. 384) is sparkling as ever, but the hills themselves are over dark in tone, and the nearer island would not look right in spite of all my efforts. “When you ask for it see that you get it,” is a superfluous caution to the intending purchaser of Mr. Boughton’s work, for the trade mark is stamped plainly on all goods, and any man who had once seen a sample could tell precisely beforehand what his picture (No. 396) is like.

There is a singular efflorescence of “moon” pictures in this gallery, of which Mr. Eaton’s “Autumnal Moon” (No. 412) is the nearest to nature, and that is not saying much. The drawing of the Gondola in the little picture by V. Cabianca (No. 415), is correct beyond the wont of such attempts, and the tone of the boat with the lamp alight within the felge is remarkably true.

            Mr. John S. Sargent exhibits much of his accustomed audacious skill in his “portrait of a lady” (No. 421), but it is to be hoped that he will not permit his consciousness of power to tempt him into negligence, of which the arms particularly in this work show unmistakeable traces.

If Mr. Watts, as has been reported, really wishes his brethren to judge now of his work as of that of the merest outsider, it is almost a pity that their [112] natural diffidence and good taste should thwart his purpose, for I cannot think that the toneless and tapestry-like detail of “A Patient Life of Unrewarded Toil” (No. 437) can serve to enhance the reputation of England’s greatest artist.

Mr. Gwilt Jolley’s “Jeune fille d’Amalfi” (No. 443) is a clever piece of handling, but is not his native language rich enough to provide him with a title that he must needs fall back on French?

Imagination is scarce enough in the Academy, but need not be regretted if Mr. Louis Falew’s “Prospero” (No. 446) is all that it can do for us. Not thus, moist certainly, can the glamour of the potent wizard and “dainty Ariel” be caught and crystallized.

Once again, in clenching my link, must I repeat, even at the risk of “damnable iteration,” that neither artist nor public can gain anything from a picture hurled on high like Mr. Bishop’s “Burnham Beeches” (No. 447), and that it were surely wiser to reject it altogether than to place it where it is—but perchance the painter does not think so.

M.B.