[This is taken from Samuel Smiles' Self-Help.]
“If what shone afar so grand,
Turn to nothing in thy hand,
On again; the virtue lies
In struggle, not the prize.”—R. M. Milnes.
“Excelle, et tu vivras.”—Joubert.
Excellence in art, as in everything else, can only be achieved by dint of painstaking labour.
There is nothing less accidental than the painting of a fine picture or the chiselling of a noble statue. Every skilled touch of the artist’s brush or chisel, though guided by genius, is the product of unremitting study.
Sir Joshua Reynolds was such a believer in the force of industry, that he held that artistic excellence, “however expressed by genius, taste, or the gift of heaven, may be acquired.” Writing to Barry he said, “Whoever is resolved to excel in painting, or indeed any other art, must bring all his mind to bear upon that one object from the moment that he rises till he goes to bed.” And on another occasion he said, “Those who are resolved to excel must go to their work, willing or unwilling, morning, noon, and night: they will find it no play, but very hard labour.” But although diligent application is no doubt absolutely necessary for the achievement of the highest distinction in art, it is equally true that without the inborn genius, no amount of mere industry, however well applied, will make an artist. The gift comes by nature, but is perfected by self-culture, which is of more avail than all the imparted education of the schools.
Some of the greatest artists have had to force their way upward in the face of poverty and manifold obstructions. Illustrious instances will at once flash upon the reader’s mind. Claude Lorraine, the pastrycook; Tintoretto, the dyer; the two Caravaggios, the one a colour-grinder, the other a mortar-carrier at the Vatican; Salvator Rosa, the associate of bandits; Giotto, the peasant boy; Zingaro, the gipsy; Cavedone, turned out of doors to beg by his father; Canova, the stone-cutter; these, and many other well-known artists, succeeded in achieving distinction by severe study and labour, under circumstances the most adverse.
Nor have the most distinguished artists of our own country been born in a position of life more than ordinarily favourable to the culture of artistic genius. Gainsborough and Bacon were the sons of cloth-workers; Barry was an Irish sailor boy, and Maclise a banker’s apprentice at Cork; Opie and Romney, like Inigo Jones, were carpenters; West was the son of a small Quaker farmer in Pennsylvania; Northcote was a watchmaker, Jackson a tailor, and Etty a printer; Reynolds, Wilson, and Wilkie, were the sons of clergymen; Lawrence was the son of a publican, and Turner of a barber. Several of our painters, it is true, originally had some connection with art, though in a very humble way,--such as Flaxman, whose father sold plaster casts; Bird, who ornamented tea-trays;
Martin, who was a coach-painter; Wright and Gilpin, who were ship-painters; Chantrey, who was a carver and gilder; and David Cox, Stanfield, and Roberts, who were scene-painters.
It was not by luck or accident that these men achieved distinction, but by sheer industry and hard work. Though some achieved wealth, yet this was rarely, if ever, the ruling motive. Indeed, no mere love of money could sustain the efforts of the artist in his early career of self-denial and application. The pleasure of the pursuit has always been its best reward; the wealth which followed but an accident. Many noble-minded artists have preferred following the bent of their genius, to chaffering with the public for terms. Spagnoletto verified in his life the beautiful fiction of Xenophon, and after he had acquired the means of luxury, preferred withdrawing himself from their influence, and voluntarily returned to poverty and labour. When Michael Angelo was asked his opinion respecting a work which a painter had taken great pains to exhibit for profit, he said, “I think that he will be a poor fellow so long as he shows such an extreme eagerness to become rich.”
Like Sir Joshua Reynolds, Michael Angelo was a great believer in the force of labour; and he held that there was nothing which the imagination conceived, that could not be embodied in marble, if the hand were made vigorously to obey the mind. He was himself one of the most indefatigable of workers; and he attributed his power of studying for a greater number of hours than most of his contemporaries, to his spare habits of living. A little bread and wine was all he required for the chief part of the day when employed at his work; and very frequently he rose in the middle of the night to resume his labours. On these occasions, it was his practice to fix the candle, by the light of which he chiselled, on the summit of a paste-board cap which he wore. Sometimes he was too wearied to undress, and he slept in his clothes, ready to spring to his work so soon as refreshed by sleep. He had a favourite device of an old man in a go-cart, with an hour-glass upon it bearing the inscription, Ancora imparo! Still I am learning.
Titian, also, was an indefatigable worker. His celebrated “Pietro Martire” was eight years in hand, and his “Last Supper” seven. In his letter to Charles V. he said, “I send your Majesty the ‘Last Supper’ after working at it almost daily for seven years—dopo sette anni lavorandovi quasi continuamente.” Few think of the patient labour and long training involved in the greatest works of the artist. They seem easy and quickly accomplished, yet with how great difficulty has this ease been acquired. “You charge me fifty sequins,” said the Venetian nobleman to the sculptor, “for a bust that cost you only ten days’ labour.” “You forget,” said the artist, “that I have been thirty years learning to make that bust in ten days.” Once when Domenichino was blamed for his slowness in finishing a picture which was bespoken, he made answer, “I am continually painting it within myself.” It was eminently characteristic of the industry of the late Sir Augustus Callcott, that he made not fewer than forty separate sketches in the composition of his famous picture of “Rochester.” This constant repetition is one of the main conditions of success in art, as in life itself.
No matter how generous nature has been in bestowing the gift of genius, the pursuit of art is nevertheless a long and continuous labour. Many artists have been precocious, but without diligence their precocity would have come to nothing. The anecdote related of West is well known. When only seven years old, struck with the beauty of the sleeping infant of his eldest sister whilst watching by its cradle, he ran to seek some paper and forthwith drew its portrait in red and black ink. The little incident revealed the artist in him, and it was found impossible to draw him from his bent. West might have been a greater painter, had he not been injured by too early success: his fame, though great, was not purchased by study, trials, and difficulties, and it has not been enduring.
Richard Wilson, when a mere child, indulged himself with tracing figures of men and animals on the walls of his father’s house, with a burnt stick. He first directed his attention to portrait painting; but when in Italy, calling one day at the house of Zucarelli, and growing weary with waiting, he began painting the scene on which his friend’s chamber window looked. When Zucarelli arrived, he was so charmed with the picture, that he asked if Wilson had not studied landscape, to which he replied that he had not. “Then, I advise you,” said the other, “to try; for you are sure of great success.” Wilson adopted the advice, studied and worked hard, and became our first great English landscape painter.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, when a boy, forgot his lessons, and took pleasure only in drawing, for which his father was accustomed to rebuke him. The boy was destined for the profession of physic, but his strong instinct for art could not be repressed, and he became a painter. Gainsborough went sketching, when a schoolboy, in the woods of Sudbury; and at twelve he was a confirmed artist: he was a keen observer and a hard worker,--no picturesque feature of any scene he had once looked upon, escaping his diligent pencil. William Blake, a hosier’s son, employed himself in drawing designs on the backs of his father’s shop-bills, and making sketches on the counter. Edward Bird, when a child only three or four years old, would mount a chair and draw figures on the walls, which he called French and English soldiers. A box of colours was purchased for him, and his father, desirous of turning his love of art to account, put him apprentice to a maker of tea-trays! Out of this trade he gradually raised himself, by study and labour, to the rank of a Royal Academician.
Hogarth, though a very dull boy at his lessons, took pleasure in making drawings of the letters of the alphabet, and his school exercises were more remarkable for the ornaments with which he embellished them, than for the matter of the exercises themselves. In the latter respect he was beaten by all the blockheads of the school, but in his adornments he stood alone. His father put him apprentice to a silversmith, where he learnt to draw, and also to engrave spoons and forks with crests and ciphers. From silver-chasing, he went on to teach himself engraving on copper, principally griffins and monsters of heraldry, in the course of which practice he became ambitious to delineate the varieties of human character. The singular excellence which he reached in this art, was mainly the result of careful observation and study. He had the gift, which he sedulously cultivated, of committing to memory the precise features of any remarkable face, and afterwards reproducing them on paper; but if any singularly fantastic form or outre face came in his way, he would make a sketch of it on the spot, upon his thumb-nail, and carry it home to expand at his leisure. Everything fantastical and original had a powerful attraction for him, and he wandered into many out-of-the-way places for the purpose of meeting with character. By this careful storing of his mind, he was afterwards enabled to crowd an immense amount of thought and treasured observation into his works. Hence it is that Hogarth’s pictures are so truthful a memorial of the character, the manners, and even the very thoughts of the times in which he lived. True painting, he himself observed, can only be learnt in one school, and that is kept by Nature. But he was not a highly cultivated man, except in his own walk. His school education had been of the slenderest kind, scarcely even perfecting him in the art of spelling; his self-culture did the rest. For a long time he was in very straitened circumstances, but nevertheless worked on with a cheerful heart. Poor though he was, he contrived to live within his small means, and he boasted, with becoming pride, that he was “a punctual paymaster.” When he had conquered all his difficulties and become a famous and thriving man, he loved to dwell upon his early labours and privations, and to fight over again the battle which ended so honourably to him as a man and so gloriously as an artist. “I remember the time,” said he on one occasion, “when I have gone moping into the city with scarce a shilling, but as soon as I have received ten guineas there for a plate, I have returned home, put on my sword, and sallied out with all the confidence of a man who had thousands in his pockets.”
“Industry and perseverance” was the motto of the sculptor Banks, which he acted on himself, and strongly recommended to others. His well-known kindness induced many aspiring youths to call upon him and ask for his advice and assistance; and it is related that one day a boy called at his door to see him with this object, but the servant, angry at the loud knock he had given, scolded him, and was about sending him away, when Banks overhearing her, himself went out. The little boy stood at the door with some drawings in his hand. “What do you want with me?” asked the sculptor. “I want, sir, if you please, to be admitted to draw at the Academy.” Banks explained that he himself could not procure his admission, but he asked to look at the boy’s drawings. Examining them, he said, “Time enough for the Academy, my little man! go home—mind your schooling—try to make a better drawing of the Apollo—and in a month come again and let me see it.” The boy went home—sketched and worked with redoubled diligence—and, at the end of the month, called again on the sculptor. The drawing was better; but again Banks sent him back, with good advice, to work and study. In a week the boy was again at his door, his drawing much improved; and Banks bid him be of good cheer, for if spared he would distinguish himself. The boy was Mulready; and the sculptor’s augury was amply fulfilled.
The fame of Claude Lorraine is partly explained by his indefatigable industry. Born at Champagne, in Lorraine, of poor parents, he was first apprenticed to a pastrycook. His brother, who was a wood-carver, afterwards took him into his shop to learn that trade. Having there shown indications of artistic skill, a travelling dealer persuaded the brother to allow Claude to accompany him to Italy. He assented, and the young man reached Rome, where he was shortly after engaged by Agostino Tassi, the landscape painter, as his house-servant. In that capacity Claude first learnt landscape painting, and in course of time he began to produce pictures. We next find him making the tour of Italy, France, and Germany, occasionally resting by the way to paint landscapes, and thereby replenish his purse. On returning to Rome he found an increasing demand for his works, and his reputation at length became European. He was unwearied in the study of nature in her various aspects. It was his practice to spend a great part of his time in closely copying buildings, bits of ground, trees, leaves, and such like, which he finished in detail, keeping the drawings by him in store for the purpose of introducing them in his studied landscapes. He also gave close attention to the sky, watching it for whole days from morning till night, and noting the various changes occasioned by the passing clouds and the increasing and waning light. By this constant practice he acquired, although it is said very slowly, such a mastery of hand and eye as eventually secured for him the first rank among landscape painters.
Turner, who has been styled “the English Claude,” pursued a career of like laborious industry. He was destined by his father for his own trade of a barber, which he carried on in London, until one day the sketch which the boy had made of a coat of arms on a silver salver having attracted the notice of a customer whom his father was shaving, the latter was urged to allow his son to follow his bias, and he was eventually permitted to follow art as a profession. Like all young artists, Turner had many difficulties to encounter, and they were all the greater that his circumstances were so straitened. But he was always willing to work, and to take pains with his work, no matter how humble it might be. He was glad to hire himself out at half-a-crown a night to wash in skies in Indian ink upon other people’s drawings, getting his supper into the bargain. Thus he earned money and acquired expertness. Then he took to illustrating guide-books, almanacs, and any sort of books that wanted cheap frontispieces. “What could I have done better?” said he afterwards; “it was first-rate practice.” He did everything carefully and conscientiously, never slurring over his work because he was ill-remunerated for it. He aimed at learning as well as living; always doing his best, and never leaving a drawing without having made a step in advance upon his previous work. A man who thus laboured was sure to do much; and his growth in power and grasp of thought was, to use Ruskin’s words, “as steady as the increasing light of sunrise.” But Turner’s genius needs no panegyric; his best monument is the noble gallery of pictures bequeathed by him to the nation, which will ever be the most lasting memorial of his fame.
To reach Rome, the capital of the fine arts, is usually the highest ambition of the art student. But the journey to Rome is costly, and the student is often poor. With a will resolute to overcome difficulties, Rome may however at last be reached. Thus Francois Perrier, an early French painter, in his eager desire to visit the Eternal City, consented to act as guide to a blind vagrant. After long wanderings he reached the Vatican, studied and became famous. Not less enthusiasm was displayed by Jacques Callot in his determination to visit Rome. Though opposed by his father in his wish to be an artist, the boy would not be baulked, but fled from home to make his way to Italy. Having set out without means, he was soon reduced to great straits; but falling in with a band of gipsies, he joined their company, and wandered about with them from one fair to another, sharing in their numerous adventures. During this remarkable journey Callot picked up much of that extraordinary knowledge of figure, feature, and character which he afterwards reproduced, sometimes in such exaggerated forms, in his wonderful engravings.
When Callot at length reached Florence, a gentleman, pleased with his ingenious ardour, placed him with an artist to study; but he was not satisfied to stop short of Rome, and we find him shortly on his way thither. At Rome he made the acquaintance of Porigi and Thomassin, who, on seeing his crayon sketches, predicted for him a brilliant career as an artist. But a friend of Callot’s family having accidentally encountered him, took steps to compel the fugitive to return home. By this time he had acquired such a love of wandering that he could not rest; so he ran away a second time, and a second time he was brought back by his elder brother, who caught him at Turin. At last the father, seeing resistance was in vain, gave his reluctant consent to Callot’s prosecuting his studies at Rome. Thither he went accordingly; and this time he remained, diligently studying design and engraving for several years, under competent masters. On his way back to France, he was encouraged by Cosmo II. to remain at Florence, where he studied and worked for several years more. On the death of his patron he returned to his family at Nancy, where, by the use of his burin and needle, he shortly acquired both wealth and fame. When Nancy was taken by siege during the civil wars, Callot was requested by Richelieu to make a design and engraving of the event, but the artist would not commemorate the disaster which had befallen his native place, and he refused point-blank. Richelieu could not shake his resolution, and threw him into prison. There Callot met with some of his old friends the gipsies, who had relieved his wants on his first journey to Rome. When Louis XIII. heard of his imprisonment, he not only released him, but offered to grant him any favour he might ask. Callot immediately requested that his old companions, the gipsies, might be set free and permitted to beg in Paris without molestation. This odd request was granted on condition that Callot should engrave their portraits, and hence his curious book of engravings entitled “The Beggars.” Louis is said to have offered Callot a pension of 3000 livres provided he would not leave Paris; but the artist was now too much of a Bohemian, and prized his liberty too highly to permit him to accept it; and he returned to Nancy, where he worked till his death. His industry may be inferred from the number of his engravings and etchings, of which he left not fewer than 1600. He was especially fond of grotesque subjects, which he treated with great skill; his free etchings, touched with the graver, being executed with especial delicacy and wonderful minuteness.
Still more romantic and adventurous was the career of Benvenuto Cellini, the marvellous gold worker, painter, sculptor, engraver, engineer, and author. His life, as told by himself, is one of the most extraordinary autobiographies ever written. Giovanni Cellini, his father, was one of the Court musicians to Lorenzo de Medici at Florence; and his highest ambition concerning his son Benvenuto was that he should become an expert player on the flute. But Giovanni having lost his appointment, found it necessary to send his son to learn some trade, and he was apprenticed to a goldsmith. The boy had already displayed a love of drawing and of art; and, applying himself to his business, he soon became a dexterous workman. Having got mixed up in a quarrel with some of the townspeople, he was banished for six months, during which period he worked with a goldsmith at Sienna, gaining further experience in jewellery and gold-working.
His father still insisting on his becoming a flute-player, Benvenuto continued to practise on the instrument, though he detested it. His chief pleasure was in art, which he pursued with enthusiasm. Returning to Florence, he carefully studied the designs of Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo; and, still further to improve himself in gold-working, he went on foot to Rome, where he met with a variety of adventures. He returned to Florence with the reputation of being a most expert worker in the precious metals, and his skill was soon in great request. But being of an irascible temper, he was constantly getting into scrapes, and was frequently under the necessity of flying for his life. Thus he fled from Florence in the disguise of a friar, again taking refuge at Sienna, and afterwards at Rome.
During his second residence in Rome, Cellini met with extensive patronage, and he was taken into the Pope’s service in the double capacity of goldsmith and musician. He was constantly studying and improving himself by acquaintance with the works of the best masters. He mounted jewels, finished enamels, engraved seals, and designed and executed works in gold, silver, and bronze, in such a style as to excel all other artists. Whenever he heard of a goldsmith who was famous in any particular branch, he immediately determined to surpass him. Thus it was that he rivalled the medals of one, the enamels of another, and the jewellery of a third; in fact, there was not a branch of his business that he did not feel impelled to excel in.
Working in this spirit, it is not so wonderful that Cellini should have been able to accomplish so much. He was a man of indefatigable activity, and was constantly on the move. At one time we find him at Florence, at another at Rome; then he is at Mantua, at Rome, at Naples, and back to Florence again; then at Venice, and in Paris, making all his long journeys on horseback. He could not carry much luggage with him; so, wherever he went, he usually began by making his own tools. He not only designed his works, but executed them himself,--hammered and carved, and cast and shaped them with his own hands. Indeed, his works have the impress of genius so clearly stamped upon them, that they could never have been designed by one person, and executed by another. The humblest article—a buckle for a lady’s girdle, a seal, a locket, a brooch, a ring, or a button—became in his hands a beautiful work of art.
Cellini was remarkable for his readiness and dexterity in handicraft. One day a surgeon entered the shop of Raffaello del Moro, the goldsmith, to perform an operation on his daughter’s hand. On looking at the surgeon’s instruments, Cellini, who was present, found them rude and clumsy, as they usually were in those days, and he asked the surgeon to proceed no further with the operation for a quarter of an hour. He then ran to his shop, and taking a piece of the finest steel, wrought out of it a beautifully finished knife, with which the operation was successfully performed.
Among the statues executed by Cellini, the most important are the silver figure of Jupiter, executed at Paris for Francis I., and the Perseus, executed in bronze for the Grand Duke Cosmo of Florence. He also executed statues in marble of Apollo, Hyacinthus, Narcissus, and Neptune. The extraordinary incidents connected with the casting of the Perseus were peculiarly illustrative of the remarkable character of the man.
The Grand Duke having expressed a decided opinion that the model, when shown to him in wax, could not possibly be cast in bronze, Cellini was immediately stimulated by the predicted impossibility, not only to attempt, but to do it. He first made the clay model, baked it, and covered it with wax, which he shaped into the perfect form of a statue. Then coating the wax with a sort of earth, he baked the second covering, during which the wax dissolved and escaped, leaving the space between the two layers for the reception of the metal. To avoid disturbance, the latter process was conducted in a pit dug immediately under the furnace, from which the liquid metal was to be introduced by pipes and apertures into the mould prepared for it.
Cellini had purchased and laid in several loads of pine-wood, in anticipation of the process of casting, which now began. The furnace was filled with pieces of brass and bronze, and the fire was lit. The resinous pine-wood was soon in such a furious blaze, that the shop took fire, and part of the roof was burnt; while at the same time the wind blowing and the rain filling on the furnace, kept down the heat, and prevented the metals from melting. For hours Cellini struggled to keep up the heat, continually throwing in more wood, until at length he became so exhausted and ill, that he feared he should die before the statue could be cast. He was forced to leave to his assistants the pouring in of the metal when melted, and betook himself to his bed. While those about him were condoling with him in his distress, a workman suddenly entered the room, lamenting that “Poor Benvenuto’s work was irretrievably spoiled!” On hearing this, Cellini immediately sprang from his bed and rushed to the workshop, where he found the fire so much gone down that the metal had again become hard.
Sending across to a neighbour for a load of young oak which had been more than a year in drying, he soon had the fire blazing again and the metal melting and glittering. The wind was, however, still blowing with fury, and the rain falling heavily; so, to protect himself, Cellini had some tables with pieces of tapestry and old clothes brought to him, behind which he went on hurling the wood into the furnace. A mass of pewter was thrown in upon the other metal, and by stirring, sometimes with iron and sometimes with long poles, the whole soon became completely melted. At this juncture, when the trying moment was close at hand, a terrible noise as of a thunderbolt was heard, and a glittering of fire flashed before Cellini’s eyes. The cover of the furnace had burst, and the metal began to flow! Finding that it did not run with the proper velocity, Cellini rushed into the kitchen, bore away every piece of copper and pewter that it contained—some two hundred porringers, dishes, and kettles of different kinds—and threw them into the furnace. Then at length the metal flowed freely, and thus the splendid statue of Perseus was cast.
The divine fury of genius in which Cellini rushed to his kitchen and stripped it of its utensils for the purposes of his furnace, will remind the reader of the like act of Pallissy in breaking up his furniture for the purpose of baking his earthenware. Excepting, however, in their enthusiasm, no two men could be less alike in character. Cellini was an Ishmael against whom, according to his own account, every man’s hand was turned. But about his extraordinary skill as a workman, and his genius as an artist, there cannot be two opinions.
Much less turbulent was the career of Nicolas Poussin, a man as pure and elevated in his ideas of art as he was in his daily life, and distinguished alike for his vigour of intellect, his rectitude of character, and his noble simplicity. He was born in a very humble station, at Andeleys, near Rouen, where his father kept a small school. The boy had the benefit of his parent’s instruction, such as it was, but of that he is said to have been somewhat negligent, preferring to spend his time in covering his lesson-books and his slate with drawings. A country painter, much pleased with his sketches, besought his parents not to thwart him in his tastes. The painter agreed to give Poussin lessons, and he soon made such progress that his master had nothing more to teach him. Becoming restless, and desirous of further improving himself, Poussin, at the age of 18, set out for Paris, painting signboards on his way for a maintenance.
At Paris a new world of art opened before him, exciting his wonder and stimulating his emulation. He worked diligently in many studios, drawing, copying, and painting pictures. After a time, he resolved, if possible, to visit Rome, and set out on his journey; but he only succeeded in getting as far as Florence, and again returned to Paris. A second attempt which he made to reach Rome was even less successful; for this time he only got as far as Lyons. He was, nevertheless, careful to take advantage of all opportunities for improvement which came in his way, and continued as sedulous as before in studying and working.
Thus twelve years passed, years of obscurity and toil, of failures and disappointments, and probably of privations. At length Poussin succeeded in reaching Rome. There he diligently studied the old masters, and especially the ancient statues, with whose perfection he was greatly impressed. For some time he lived with the sculptor Duquesnoi, as poor as himself, and assisted him in modelling figures after the antique. With him he carefully measured some of the most celebrated statues in Rome, more particularly the ‘Antinous:’ and it is supposed that this practice exercised considerable influence on the formation of his future style. At the same time he studied anatomy, practised drawing from the life, and made a great store of sketches of postures and attitudes of people whom he met, carefully reading at his leisure such standard books on art as he could borrow from his friends.
During all this time he remained very poor, satisfied to be continually improving himself. He was glad to sell his pictures for whatever they would bring. One, of a prophet, he sold for eight livres; and another, the ‘Plague of the Philistines,’ he sold for 60 crowns—a picture afterwards bought by Cardinal de Richelieu for a thousand. To add to his troubles, he was stricken by a cruel malady, during the helplessness occasioned by which the Chevalier del Posso assisted him with money. For this gentleman Poussin afterwards painted the ‘Rest in the Desert,’ a fine picture, which far more than repaid the advances made during his illness.
The brave man went on toiling and learning through suffering. Still aiming at higher things, he went to Florence and Venice, enlarging the range of his studies. The fruits of his conscientious labour at length appeared in the series of great pictures which he now began to produce,--his ‘Death of Germanicus,’ followed by ‘Extreme Unction,’ the ‘Testament of Eudamidas,’ the ‘Manna,’ and the ‘Abduction of the Sabines.’
The reputation of Poussin, however, grew but slowly. He was of a retiring disposition and shunned society. People gave him credit for being a thinker much more than a painter. When not actually employed in painting, he took long solitary walks in the country, meditating the designs of future pictures. One of his few friends while at Rome was Claude Lorraine, with whom he spent many hours at a time on the terrace of La Trinite-du-Mont, conversing about art and antiquarianism. The monotony and the quiet of Rome were suited to his taste, and, provided he could earn a moderate living by his brush, he had no wish to leave it.
But his fame now extended beyond Rome, and repeated invitations were sent him to return to Paris. He was offered the appointment of principal painter to the King. At first he hesitated; quoted the Italian proverb, Chi sta bene non si muove; said he had lived fifteen years in Rome, married a wife there, and looked forward to dying and being buried there. Urged again, he consented, and returned to Paris. But his appearance there awakened much professional jealousy, and he soon wished himself back in Rome again. While in Paris he painted some of his greatest works—his ‘Saint Xavier,’ the ‘Baptism,’ and the ‘Last Supper.’ He was kept constantly at work. At first he did whatever he was asked to do, such as designing frontispieces for the royal books, more particularly a Bible and a Virgil, cartoons for the Louvre, and designs for tapestry; but at length he expostulated:- “It is impossible for me,” he said to M. de Chanteloup, “to work at the same time at frontispieces for books, at a Virgin, at a picture of the Congregation of St. Louis, at the various designs for the gallery, and, finally, at designs for the royal tapestry. I have only one pair of hands and a feeble head, and can neither be helped nor can my labours be lightened by another.”
Annoyed by the enemies his success had provoked and whom he was unable to conciliate, he determined, at the end of less than two years’ labour in Paris, to return to Rome. Again settled there in his humble dwelling on Mont Pincio, he employed himself diligently in the practice of his art during the remaining years of his life, living in great simplicity and privacy. Though suffering much from the disease which afflicted him, he solaced himself by study, always striving after excellence. “In growing old,” he said, “I feel myself becoming more and more inflamed with the desire of surpassing myself and reaching the highest degree of perfection.” Thus toiling, struggling, and suffering, Poussin spent his later years. He had no children; his wife died before him; all his friends were gone: so that in his old age he was left absolutely alone in Rome, so full of tombs, and died there in 1665, bequeathing to his relatives at Andeleys the savings of his life, amounting to about 1000 crowns; and leaving behind him, as a legacy to his race, the great works of his genius.
The career of Ary Scheffer furnishes one of the best examples in modern times of a like high-minded devotion to art. Born at Dordrecht, the son of a German artist, he early manifested an aptitude for drawing and painting, which his parents encouraged. His father dying while he was still young, his mother resolved, though her means were but small, to remove the family to Paris, in order that her son might obtain the best opportunities for instruction. There young Scheffer was placed with Guerin the painter. But his mother’s means were too limited to permit him to devote himself exclusively to study. She had sold the few jewels she possessed, and refused herself every indulgence, in order to forward the instruction of her other children. Under such circumstances, it was natural that Ary should wish to help her; and by the time he was eighteen years of age he began to paint small pictures of simple subjects, which met with a ready sale at moderate prices. He also practised portrait painting, at the same time gathering experience and earning honest money. He gradually improved in drawing, colouring, and composition. The ‘Baptism’ marked a new epoch in his career, and from that point he went on advancing, until his fame culminated in his pictures illustrative of ‘Faust,’ his ‘Francisca de Rimini,’ ‘Christ the Consoler,’ the ‘Holy Women,’ ‘St. Monica and St. Augustin,’ and many other noble works.
“The amount of labour, thought, and attention,” says Mrs. Grote, “which Scheffer brought to the production of the ‘Francisca,’ must have been enormous. In truth, his technical education having been so imperfect, he was forced to climb the steep of art by drawing upon his own resources, and thus, whilst his hand was at work, his mind was engaged in meditation. He had to try various processes of handling, and experiments in colouring; to paint and repaint, with tedious and unremitting assiduity. But Nature had endowed him with that which proved in some sort an equivalent for shortcomings of a professional kind. His own elevation of character, and his profound sensibility, aided him in acting upon the feelings of others through the medium of the pencil.”
One of the artists whom Scheffer most admired was Flaxman; and he once said to a friend, “If I have unconsciously borrowed from any one in the design of the ‘Francisca,’ it must have been from something I had seen among Flaxman’s drawings.” John Flaxman was the son of a humble seller of plaster casts in New Street, Covent Garden. When a child, he was such an invalid that it was his custom to sit behind his father’s shop counter propped by pillows, amusing himself with drawing and reading. A benevolent clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Matthews, calling at the shop one day, saw the boy trying to read a book, and on inquiring what it was, found it to be a Cornelius Nepos, which his father had picked up for a few pence at a bookstall. The gentleman, after some conversation with the boy, said that was not the proper book for him to read, but that he would bring him one. The next day he called with translations of Homer and ‘Don Quixote,’ which the boy proceeded to read with great avidity. His mind was soon filled with the heroism which breathed through the pages of the former, and, with the stucco Ajaxes and Achilleses about him, ranged along the shop shelves, the ambition took possession of him, that he too would design and embody in poetic forms those majestic heroes.
Like all youthful efforts, his first designs were crude. The proud father one day showed some of them to Roubilliac the sculptor, who turned from them with a contemptuous “pshaw!” But the boy had the right stuff in him; he had industry and patience; and he continued to labour incessantly at his books and drawings. He then tried his young powers in modelling figures in plaster of Paris, wax, and clay. Some of these early works are still preserved, not because of their merit, but because they are curious as the first healthy efforts of patient genius. It was long before the boy could walk, and he only learnt to do so by hobbling along upon crutches. At length he became strong enough to walk without them.
The kind Mr. Matthews invited him to his house, where his wife explained Homer and Milton to him. They helped him also in his self-culture—giving him lessons in Greek and Latin, the study of which he prosecuted at home. By dint of patience and perseverance, his drawing improved so much that he obtained a commission from a lady, to execute six original drawings in black chalk of subjects in Homer. His first commission! What an event in the artist’s life! A surgeon’s first fee, a lawyer’s first retainer, a legislator’s first speech, a singer’s first appearance behind the foot-lights, an author’s first book, are not any of them more full of interest to the aspirant for fame than the artist’s first commission. The boy at once proceeded to execute the order, and he was both well praised and well paid for his work.
At fifteen Flaxman entered a pupil at the Royal Academy. Notwithstanding his retiring disposition, he soon became known among the students, and great things were expected of him. Nor were their expectations disappointed: in his fifteenth year he gained the silver prize, and next year he became a candidate for the gold one. Everybody prophesied that he would carry off the medal, for there was none who surpassed him in ability and industry. Yet he lost it, and the gold medal was adjudged to a pupil who was not afterwards heard of. This failure on the part of the youth was really of service to him; for defeats do not long cast down the resolute-hearted, but only serve to call forth their real powers. “Give me time,” said he to his father, “and I will yet produce works that the Academy will be proud to recognise.” He redoubled his efforts, spared no pains, designed and modelled incessantly, and made steady if not rapid progress. But meanwhile poverty threatened his father’s household; the plaster-cast trade yielded a very bare living; and young Flaxman, with resolute self-denial, curtailed his hours of study, and devoted himself to helping his father in the humble details of his business. He laid aside his Homer to take up the plaster-trowel. He was willing to work in the humblest department of the trade so that his father’s family might be supported, and the wolf kept from the door. To this drudgery of his art he served a long apprenticeship; but it did him good. It familiarised him with steady work, and cultivated in him the spirit of patience. The discipline may have been hard, but it was wholesome.
Happily, young Flaxman’s skill in design had reached the knowledge of Josiah Wedgwood, who sought him out for the purpose of employing him to design improved patterns of china and earthenware. It may seem a humble department of art for such a genius as Flaxman to work in; but it really was not so. An artist may be labouring truly in his vocation while designing a common teapot or water-jug. Articles in daily use amongst the people, which are before their eyes at every meal, may be made the vehicles of education to all, and minister to their highest culture. The most ambitious artist way thus confer a greater practical benefit on his countrymen than by executing an elaborate work which he may sell for thousands of pounds to be placed in some wealthy man’s gallery where it is hidden away from public sight. Before Wedgwood’s time the designs which figured upon our china and stoneware were hideous both in drawing and execution, and he determined to improve both. Flaxman did his best to carry out the manufacturer’s views. He supplied him from time to time with models and designs of various pieces of earthenware, the subjects of which were principally from ancient verse and history. Many of them are still in existence, and some are equal in beauty and simplicity to his after designs for marble. The celebrated Etruscan vases, specimens of which were to be found in public museums and in the cabinets of the curious, furnished him with the best examples of form, and these he embellished with his own elegant devices. Stuart’s ‘Athens,’ then recently published, furnished him with specimens of the purest-shaped Greek utensils; of these he adopted the best, and worked them into new shapes of elegance and beauty. Flaxman then saw that he was labouring in a great work—no less than the promotion of popular education; and he was proud, in after life, to allude to his early labours in this walk, by which he was enabled at the same time to cultivate his love of the beautiful, to diffuse a taste for art among the people, and to replenish his own purse, while he promoted the prosperity of his friend and benefactor.
At length, in the year 1782, when twenty-seven years of age, he quitted his father’s roof and rented a small house and studio in Wardour Street, Soho; and what was more, he married—Ann Denman was the name of his wife—and a cheerful, bright-souled, noble woman she was. He believed that in marrying her he should be able to work with an intenser spirit; for, like him, she had a taste for poetry and art; and besides was an enthusiastic admirer of her husband’s genius. Yet when Sir Joshua Reynolds—himself a bachelor—met Flaxman shortly after his marriage, he said to him, “So, Flaxman, I am told you are married; if so, sir, I tell you you are ruined for an artist.” Flaxman went straight home, sat down beside his wife, took her hand in his, and said, “Ann, I am ruined for an artist.” “How so, John? How has it happened? and who has done it?” “It happened,” he replied, “in the church, and Ann Denman has done it.” He then told her of Sir Joshua’s remark— whose opinion was well known, and had often been expressed, that if students would excel they must bring the whole powers of their mind to bear upon their art, from the moment they rose until they went to bed; and also, that no man could be a GREAT artist unless he studied the grand works of Raffaelle, Michael Angelo, and others, at Rome and Florence. “And I,” said Flaxman, drawing up his little figure to its full height, “_I_ would be a great artist.” “And a great artist you shall be,” said his wife, “and visit Rome too, if that be really necessary to make you great.” “But how?” asked Flaxman. “WORK AND ECONOMISE,” rejoined the brave wife; “I will never have it said that Ann Denman ruined John Flaxman for an artist.” And so it was determined by the pair that the journey to Rome was to be made when their means would admit. “I will go to Rome,” said Flaxman, “and show the President that wedlock is for a man’s good rather than his harm; and you, Ann, shall accompany me.”
Patiently and happily the affectionate couple plodded on during five years in their humble little home in Wardour Street, always with the long journey to Rome before them. It was never lost sight of for a moment, and not a penny was uselessly spent that could be saved towards the necessary expenses. They said no word to any one about their project; solicited no aid from the Academy; but trusted only to their own patient labour and love to pursue and achieve their object. During this time Flaxman exhibited very few works. He could not afford marble to experiment in original designs; but he obtained frequent commissions for monuments, by the profits of which he maintained himself. He still worked for Wedgwood, who was a prompt paymaster; and, on the whole, he was thriving, happy, and hopeful. His local respectability was even such as to bring local honours and local work upon him; for he was elected by the ratepayers to collect the watch-rate for the Parish of St. Anne, when he might be seen going about with an ink-bottle suspended from his button-hole, collecting the money.
At length Flaxman and his wife having accumulated a sufficient store of savings, set out for Rome. Arrived there, he applied himself diligently to study, maintaining himself, like other poor artists, by making copies from the antique. English visitors sought his studio, and gave him commissions; and it was then that he composed his beautiful designs illustrative of Homer, AEschylus, and Dante. The price paid for them was moderate—only fifteen shillings a-piece; but Flaxman worked for art as well as money; and the beauty of the designs brought him other friends and patrons. He executed Cupid and Aurora for the munificent Thomas Hope, and the Fury of Athamas for the Earl of Bristol. He then prepared to return to England, his taste improved and cultivated by careful study; but before he left Italy, the Academies of Florence and Carrara recognised his merit by electing him a member.
His fame had preceded him to London, where he soon found abundant employment. While at Rome he had been commissioned to execute his famous monument in memory of Lord Mansfield, and it was erected in the north transept of Westminster Abbey shortly after his return. It stands there in majestic grandeur, a monument to the genius of Flaxman himself—calm, simple, and severe. No wonder that Banks, the sculptor, then in the heyday of his fame, exclaimed when he saw it, “This little man cuts us all out!”
When the members of the Royal Academy heard of Flaxman’s return, and especially when they had an opportunity of seeing and admiring his portrait-statue of Mansfield, they were eager to have him enrolled among their number. He allowed his name to be proposed in the candidates’ list of associates, and was immediately elected. Shortly after, he appeared in an entirely new character. The little boy who had begun his studies behind the plaster-cast-seller’s shop-counter in New Street, Covent Garden, was now a man of high intellect and recognised supremacy in art, to instruct students, in the character of Professor of Sculpture to the Royal Academy! And no man better deserved to fill that distinguished office; for none is so able to instruct others as he who, for himself and by his own efforts, has learnt to grapple with and overcome difficulties.
After a long, peaceful, and happy life, Flaxman found himself growing old. The loss which he sustained by the death of his affectionate wife Ann, was a severe shock to him; but he survived her several years, during which he executed his celebrated “Shield of Achilles,” and his noble “Archangel Michael vanquishing Satan,”--perhaps his two greatest works.
Chantrey was a more robust man;--somewhat rough, but hearty in his demeanour; proud of his successful struggle with the difficulties which beset him in early life; and, above all, proud of his independence. He was born a poor man’s child, at Norton, near Sheffield. His father dying when he was a mere boy, his mother married again. Young Chantrey used to drive an ass laden with milk-cans across its back into the neighbouring town of Sheffield, and there serve his mother’s customers with milk. Such was the humble beginning of his industrial career; and it was by his own strength that he rose from that position, and achieved the highest eminence as an artist. Not taking kindly to his step-father, the boy was sent to trade, and was first placed with a grocer in Sheffield. The business was very distasteful to him; but, passing a carver’s shop window one day, his eye was attracted by the glittering articles it contained, and, charmed with the idea of being a carver, he begged to be released from the grocery business with that object. His friends consented, and he was bound apprentice to the carver and gilder for seven years. His new master, besides being a carver in wood, was also a dealer in prints and plaster models; and Chantrey at once set about imitating both, studying with great industry and energy. All his spare hours were devoted to drawing, modelling, and self-improvement, and he often carried his labours far into the night. Before his apprenticeship was out—at the ace of twenty-one—he paid over to his master the whole wealth which he was able to muster—a sum of 50l.—to cancel his indentures, determined to devote himself to the career of an artist. He then made the best of his way to London, and with characteristic good sense, sought employment as an assistant carver, studying painting and modelling at his bye-hours. Among the jobs on which he was first employed as a journeyman carver, was the decoration of the dining-room of Mr. Rogers, the poet—a room in which he was in after years a welcome visitor; and he usually took pleasure in pointing out his early handywork to the guests whom he met at his friend’s table.
Returning to Sheffield on a professional visit, he advertised himself in the local papers as a painter of portraits in crayons and miniatures, and also in oil. For his first crayon portrait he was paid a guinea by a cutler; and for a portrait in oil, a confectioner paid him as much as 5l. and a pair of top boots! Chantrey was soon in London again to study at the Royal Academy; and next time he returned to Sheffield he advertised himself as ready to model plaster busts of his townsmen, as well as paint portraits of them. He was even selected to design a monument to a deceased vicar of the town, and executed it to the general satisfaction. When in London he used a room over a stable as a studio, and there he modelled his first original work for exhibition. It was a gigantic head of Satan. Towards the close of Chantrey’s life, a friend passing through his studio was struck by this model lying in a corner. “That head,” said the sculptor, “was the first thing that I did after I came to London. I worked at it in a garret with a paper cap on my head; and as I could then afford only one candle, I stuck that one in my cap that it might move along with me, and give me light whichever way I turned.” Flaxman saw and admired this head at the Academy Exhibition, and recommended Chantrey for the execution of the busts of four admirals, required for the Naval Asylum at Greenwich. This commission led to others, and painting was given up. But for eight years before, he had not earned 5l. by his modelling. His famous head of Horne Tooke was such a success that, according to his own account, it brought him commissions amounting to 12,000l.
Chantrey had now succeeded, but he had worked hard, and fairly earned his good fortune. He was selected from amongst sixteen competitors to execute the statue of George III. for the city of London. A few years later, he produced the exquisite monument of the Sleeping Children, now in Lichfield Cathedral,--a work of great tenderness and beauty; and thenceforward his career was one of increasing honour, fame, and prosperity. His patience, industry, and steady perseverance were the means by which he achieved his greatness. Nature endowed him with genius, and his sound sense enabled him to employ the precious gift as a blessing. He was prudent and shrewd, like the men amongst whom he was born; the pocket-book which accompanied him on his Italian tour containing mingled notes on art, records of daily expenses, and the current prices of marble. His tastes were simple, and he made his finest subjects great by the mere force of simplicity. His statue of Watt, in Handsworth church, seems to us the very consummation of art; yet it is perfectly artless and simple. His generosity to brother artists in need was splendid, but quiet and unostentatious. He left the principal part of his fortune to the Royal Academy for the promotion of British art.
The same honest and persistent industry was throughout distinctive of the career of David Wilkie. The son of a Scotch minister, he gave early indications of an artistic turn; and though he was a negligent and inapt scholar, he was a sedulous drawer of faces and figures. A silent boy, he already displayed that quiet concentrated energy of character which distinguished him through life. He was always on the look-out for an opportunity to draw,-- and the walls of the manse, or the smooth sand by the river side, were alike convenient for his purpose. Any sort of tool would serve him; like Giotto, he found a pencil in a burnt stick, a prepared canvas in any smooth stone, and the subject for a picture in every ragged mendicant he met. When he visited a house, he generally left his mark on the walls as an indication of his presence, sometimes to the disgust of cleanly housewives. In short, notwithstanding the aversion of his father, the minister, to the “sinful” profession of painting, Wilkie’s strong propensity was not to be thwarted, and he became an artist, working his way manfully up the steep of difficulty. Though rejected on his first application as a candidate for admission to the Scottish Academy, at Edinburgh, on account of the rudeness and inaccuracy of his introductory specimens, he persevered in producing better, until he was admitted. But his progress was slow. He applied himself diligently to the drawing of the human figure, and held on with the determination to succeed, as if with a resolute confidence in the result. He displayed none of the eccentric humour and fitful application of many youths who conceive themselves geniuses, but kept up the routine of steady application to such an extent that he himself was afterwards accustomed to attribute his success to his dogged perseverance rather than to any higher innate power. “The single element,” he said, “in all the progressive movements of my pencil was persevering industry.” At Edinburgh he gained a few premiums, thought of turning his attention to portrait painting, with a view to its higher and more certain remuneration, but eventually went boldly into the line in which he earned his fame,-- and painted his Pitlessie Fair. What was bolder still, he determined to proceed to London, on account of its presenting so much wider a field for study and work; and the poor Scotch lad arrived in town, and painted his Village Politicians while living in a humble lodging on eighteen shillings a week.
Notwithstanding the success of this picture, and the commissions which followed it, Wilkie long continued poor. The prices which his works realized were not great, for he bestowed upon them so much time and labour, that his earnings continued comparatively small for many years. Every picture was carefully studied and elaborated beforehand; nothing was struck off at a heat; many occupied him for years—touching, retouching, and improving them until they finally passed out of his hands. As with Reynolds, his motto was “Work! work! work!” and, like him, he expressed great dislike for talking artists. Talkers may sow, but the silent reap. “Let us be DOING something,” was his oblique mode of rebuking the loquacious and admonishing the idle. He once related to his friend Constable that when he studied at the Scottish Academy, Graham, the master of it, was accustomed to say to the students, in the words of Reynolds, “If you have genius, industry will improve it; if you have none, industry will supply its place.” “So,” said Wilkie, “I was determined to be very industrious, for I knew I had no genius.” He also told Constable that when Linnell and Burnett, his fellow-students in London, were talking about art, he always contrived to get as close to them as he could to hear all they said, “for,” said he, “they know a great deal, and I know very little.” This was said with perfect sincerity, for Wilkie was habitually modest. One of the first things that he did with the sum of thirty pounds which he obtained from Lord Mansfield for his Village Politicians, was to buy a present—of bonnets, shawls, and dresses—for his mother and sister at home, though but little able to afford it at the time. Wilkie’s early poverty had trained him in habits of strict economy, which were, however, consistent with a noble liberality, as appears from sundry passages in the Autobiography of Abraham Raimbach the engraver.
William Etty was another notable instance of unflagging industry and indomitable perseverance in art. His father was a ginger-bread and spicemaker at York, and his mother—a woman of considerable force and originality of character—was the daughter of a ropemaker. The boy early displayed a love of drawing, covering walls, floors, and tables with specimens of his skill; his first crayon being a farthing’s worth of chalk, and this giving place to a piece of coal or a bit of charred stick. His mother, knowing nothing of art, put the boy apprentice to a trade—that of a printer. But in his leisure hours he went on with the practice of drawing; and when his time was out he determined to follow his bent—he would be a painter and nothing else. Fortunately his uncle and elder brother were able and willing to help him on in his new career, and they provided him with the means of entering as pupil at the Royal Academy. We observe, from Leslie’s Autobiography, that Etty was looked upon by his fellow students as a worthy but dull, plodding person, who would never distinguish himself. But he had in him the divine faculty of work, and diligently plodded his way upward to eminence in the highest walks of art.
Many artists have had to encounter privations which have tried their courage and endurance to the utmost before they succeeded. What number may have sunk under them we can never know. Martin encountered difficulties in the course of his career such as perhaps fall to the lot of few. More than once he found himself on the verge of starvation while engaged on his first great picture. It is related of him that on one occasion he found himself reduced to his last shilling—a BRIGHT shilling—which he had kept because of its very brightness, but at length he found it necessary to exchange it for bread. He went to a baker’s shop, bought a loaf, and was taking it away, when the baker snatched it from him, and tossed back the shilling to the starving painter. The bright shilling had failed him in his hour of need—it was a bad one! Returning to his lodgings, he rummaged his trunk for some remaining crust to satisfy his hunger. Upheld throughout by the victorious power of enthusiasm, he pursued his design with unsubdued energy.
He had the courage to work on and to wait; and when, a few days after, he found an opportunity to exhibit his picture, he was from that time famous. Like many other great artists, his life proves that, in despite of outward circumstances, genius, aided by industry, will be its own protector, and that fame, though she comes late, will never ultimately refuse her favours to real merit.
The most careful discipline and training after academic methods will fail in making an artist, unless he himself take an active part in the work. Like every highly cultivated man, he must be mainly self-educated. When Pugin, who was brought up in his father’s office, had learnt all that he could learn of architecture according to the usual formulas, he still found that he had learned but little; and that he must begin at the beginning, and pass through the discipline of labour. Young Pugin accordingly hired himself out as a common carpenter at Covent Garden Theatre—first working under the stage, then behind the flys, then upon the stage itself. He thus acquired a familiarity with work, and cultivated an architectural taste, to which the diversity of the mechanical employment about a large operatic establishment is peculiarly favourable. When the theatre closed for the season, he worked a sailing-ship between London and some of the French ports, carrying on at the same time a profitable trade. At every opportunity he would land and make drawings of any old building, and especially of any ecclesiastical structure which fell in his way. Afterwards he would make special journeys to the Continent for the same purpose, and returned home laden with drawings. Thus he plodded and laboured on, making sure of the excellence and distinction which he eventually achieved.
A similar illustration of plodding industry in the same walk is presented in the career of George Kemp, the architect of the beautiful Scott Monument at Edinburgh. He was the son of a poor shepherd, who pursued his calling on the southern slope of the Pentland Hills. Amidst that pastoral solitude the boy had no opportunity of enjoying the contemplation of works of art. It happened, however, that in his tenth year he was sent on a message to Roslin, by the farmer for whom his father herded sheep, and the sight of the beautiful castle and chapel there seems to have made a vivid and enduring impression on his mind. Probably to enable him to indulge his love of architectural construction, the boy besought his father to let him be a joiner; and he was accordingly put apprentice to a neighbouring village carpenter. Having served his time, he went to Galashiels to seek work. As he was plodding along the valley of the Tweed with his tools upon his back, a carriage overtook him near Elibank Tower; and the coachman, doubtless at the suggestion of his master, who was seated inside, having asked the youth how far he had to walk, and learning that he was on his way to Galashiels, invited him to mount the box beside him, and thus to ride thither. It turned out that the kindly gentleman inside was no other than Sir Walter Scott, then travelling on his official duty as Sheriff of Selkirkshire. Whilst working at Galashiels, Kemp had frequent opportunities of visiting Melrose, Dryburgh, and Jedburgh Abbeys, which he studied carefully. Inspired by his love of architecture, he worked his way as a carpenter over the greater part of the north of England, never omitting an opportunity of inspecting and making sketches of any fine Gothic building. On one occasion, when working in Lancashire, he walked fifty miles to York, spent a week in carefully examining the Minster, and returned in like manner on foot. We next find him in Glasgow, where he remained four years, studying the fine cathedral there during his spare time. He returned to England again, this time working his way further south; studying Canterbury, Winchester, Tintern, and other well-known structures. In 1824 he formed the design of travelling over Europe with the same object, supporting himself by his trade. Reaching Boulogne, he proceeded by Abbeville and Beauvais to Paris, spending a few weeks making drawings and studies at each place. His skill as a mechanic, and especially his knowledge of mill-work, readily secured him employment wherever he went; and he usually chose the site of his employment in the neighbourhood of some fine old Gothic structure, in studying which he occupied his leisure. After a year’s working, travel, and study abroad, he returned to Scotland. He continued his studies, and became a proficient in drawing and perspective: Melrose was his favourite ruin; and he produced several elaborate drawings of the building, one of which, exhibiting it in a “restored” state, was afterwards engraved. He also obtained employment as a modeller of architectural designs; and made drawings for a work begun by an Edinburgh engraver, after the plan of Britton’s ‘Cathedral Antiquities.’ This was a task congenial to his tastes, and he laboured at it with an enthusiasm which ensured its rapid advance; walking on foot for the purpose over half Scotland, and living as an ordinary mechanic, whilst executing drawings which would have done credit to the best masters in the art. The projector of the work having died suddenly, the publication was however stopped, and Kemp sought other employment. Few knew of the genius of this man— for he was exceedingly taciturn and habitually modest—when the Committee of the Scott Monument offered a prize for the best design. The competitors were numerous—including some of the greatest names in classical architecture; but the design unanimously selected was that of George Kemp, who was working at Kilwinning Abbey in Ayrshire, many miles off, when the letter reached him intimating the decision of the committee. Poor Kemp! Shortly after this event he met an untimely death, and did not live to see the first result of his indefatigable industry and self-culture embodied in stone,--one of the most beautiful and appropriate memorials ever erected to literary genius.
John Gibson was another artist full of a genuine enthusiasm and love for his art, which placed him high above those sordid temptations which urge meaner natures to make time the measure of profit. He was born at Gyffn, near Conway, in North Wales—the son of a gardener. He early showed indications of his talent by the carvings in wood which he made by means of a common pocket knife; and his father, noting the direction of his talent, sent him to Liverpool and bound him apprentice to a cabinet-maker and wood-carver. He rapidly improved at his trade, and some of his carvings were much admired. He was thus naturally led to sculpture, and when eighteen years old he modelled a small figure of Time in wax, which attracted considerable notice. The Messrs. Franceys, sculptors, of Liverpool, having purchased the boy’s indentures, took him as their apprentice for six years, during which his genius displayed itself in many original works. From thence he proceeded to London, and afterwards to Rome; and his fame became European.
Robert Thorburn, the Royal Academician, like John Gibson, was born of poor parents. His father was a shoe-maker at Dumfries. Besides Robert there were two other sons; one of whom is a skilful carver in wood. One day a lady called at the shoemaker’s and found Robert, then a mere boy, engaged in drawing upon a stool which served him for a table. She examined his work, and observing his abilities, interested herself in obtaining for him some employment in drawing, and enlisted in his behalf the services of others who could assist him in prosecuting the study of art. The boy was diligent, pains-taking, staid, and silent, mixing little with his companions, and forming but few intimacies. About the year 1830, some gentlemen of the town provided him with the means of proceeding to Edinburgh, where he was admitted a student at the Scottish Academy. There he had the advantage of studying under competent masters, and the progress which he made was rapid. From Edinburgh he removed to London, where, we understand, he had the advantage of being introduced to notice under the patronage of the Duke of Buccleuch. We need scarcely say, however, that of whatever use patronage may have been to Thorburn in giving him an introduction to the best circles, patronage of no kind could have made him the great artist that he unquestionably is, without native genius and diligent application.
Noel Paton, the well-known painter, began his artistic career at Dunfermline and Paisley, as a drawer of patterns for table-cloths and muslin embroidered by hand; meanwhile working diligently at higher subjects, including the drawing of the human figure. He was, like Turner, ready to turn his hand to any kind of work, and in 1840, when a mere youth, we find him engaged, among his other labours, in illustrating the ‘Renfrewshire Annual.’ He worked his way step by step, slowly yet surely; but he remained unknown until the exhibition of the prize cartoons painted for the houses of Parliament, when his picture of the Spirit of Religion (for which he obtained one of the first prizes) revealed him to the world as a genuine artist; and the works which he has since exhibited—such as the ‘Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania,’ ‘Home,’ and ‘The bluidy Tryste’—have shown a steady advance in artistic power and culture.
Another striking exemplification of perseverance and industry in the cultivation of art in humble life is presented in the career of James Sharples, a working blacksmith at Blackburn. He was born at Wakefield in Yorkshire, in 1825, one of a family of thirteen children. His father was a working ironfounder, and removed to Bury to follow his business. The boys received no school education, but were all sent to work as soon as they were able; and at about ten James was placed in a foundry, where he was employed for about two years as smithy-boy. After that he was sent into the engine-shop where his father worked as engine-smith. The boy’s employment was to heat and carry rivets for the boiler-makers. Though his hours of labour were very long—often from six in the morning until eight at night—his father contrived to give him some little teaching after working hours; and it was thus that he partially learned his letters. An incident occurred in the course of his employment among the boiler-makers, which first awakened in him the desire to learn drawing. He had occasionally been employed by the foreman to hold the chalked line with which he made the designs of boilers upon the floor of the workshop; and on such occasions the foreman was accustomed to hold the line, and direct the boy to make the necessary dimensions. James soon became so expert at this as to be of considerable service to the foreman; and at his leisure hours at home his great delight was to practise drawing designs of boilers upon his mother’s floor. On one occasion, when a female relative was expected from Manchester to pay the family a visit, and the house had been made as decent as possible for her reception, the boy, on coming in from the foundry in the evening, began his usual operations upon the floor. He had proceeded some way with his design of a large boiler in chalk, when his mother arrived with the visitor, and to her dismay found the boy unwashed and the floor chalked all over. The relative, however, professed to be pleased with the boy’s industry, praised his design, and recommended his mother to provide “the little sweep,” as she called him, with paper and pencils.
Encouraged by his elder brother, he began to practise figure and landscape drawing, making copies of lithographs, but as yet without any knowledge of the rules of perspective and the principles of light and shade. He worked on, however, and gradually acquired expertness in copying. At sixteen, he entered the Bury Mechanic’s Institution in order to attend the drawing class, taught by an amateur who followed the trade of a barber. There he had a lesson a week during three months. The teacher recommended him to obtain from the library Burnet’s ‘Practical Treatise on Painting;’ but as he could not yet read with ease, he was under the necessity of getting his mother, and sometimes his elder brother, to read passages from the book for him while he sat by and listened. Feeling hampered by his ignorance of the art of reading, and eager to master the contents of Burnet’s book, he ceased attending the drawing class at the Institute after the first quarter, and devoted himself to learning reading and writing at home. In this he soon succeeded; and when he again entered the Institute and took out ‘Burnet’ a second time, he was not only able to read it, but to make written extracts for further use. So ardently did he study the volume, that he used to rise at four o’clock in the morning to read it and copy out passages; after which he went to the foundry at six, worked until six and sometimes eight in the evening; and returned home to enter with fresh zest upon the study of Burnet, which he continued often until a late hour. Parts of his nights were also occupied in drawing and making copies of drawings. On one of these—a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”—he spent an entire night. He went to bed indeed, but his mind was so engrossed with the subject that he could not sleep, and rose again to resume his pencil.
He next proceeded to try his hand at painting in oil, for which purpose he procured some canvas from a draper, stretched it on a frame, coated it over with white lead, and began painting on it with colours bought from a house-painter. But his work proved a total failure; for the canvas was rough and knotty, and the paint would not dry. In his extremity he applied to his old teacher, the barber, from whom he first learnt that prepared canvas was to be had, and that there were colours and varnishes made for the special purpose of oil-painting. As soon therefore, as his means would allow, he bought a small stock of the necessary articles and began afresh,--his amateur master showing him how to paint; and the pupil succeeded so well that he excelled the master’s copy. His first picture was a copy from an engraving called “Sheep-shearing,” and was afterwards sold by him for half- - crown. Aided by a shilling Guide to Oil-painting, he went on working at his leisure hours, and gradually acquired a better knowledge of his materials. He made his own easel and palette, palette-knife, and paint-chest; he bought his paint, brushes, and canvas, as he could raise the money by working over-time. This was the slender fund which his parents consented to allow him for the purpose; the burden of supporting a very large family precluding them from doing more. Often he would walk to Manchester and back in the evenings to buy two or three shillings’ worth of paint and canvas, returning almost at midnight, after his eighteen miles’ walk, sometimes wet through and completely exhausted, but borne up throughout by his inexhaustible hope and invincible determination. The further progress of the self-taught artist is best narrated in his own words, as communicated by him in a letter to the author:-
“The next pictures I painted,” he says, “were a Landscape by Moonlight, a Fruitpiece, and one or two others; after which I conceived the idea of painting ‘The Forge.’ I had for some time thought about it, but had not attempted to embody the conception in a drawing. I now, however, made a sketch of the subject upon paper, and then proceeded to paint it on canvas. The picture simply represents the interior of a large workshop such as I have been accustomed to work in, although not of any particular shop. It is, therefore, to this extent, an original conception. Having made an outline of the subject, I found that, before I could proceed with it successfully, a knowledge of anatomy was indispensable to enable me accurately to delineate the muscles of the figures. My brother Peter came to my assistance at this juncture, and kindly purchased for me Flaxman’s ‘Anatomical studies,’—a work altogether beyond my means at the time, for it cost twenty-four shillings. This book I looked upon as a great treasure, and I studied it laboriously, rising at three o’clock in the morning to draw after it, and occasionally getting my brother Peter to stand for me as a model at that untimely hour. Although I gradually improved myself by this practice, it was some time before I felt sufficient confidence to go on with my picture. I also felt hampered by my want of knowledge of perspective, which I endeavoured to remedy by carefully studying Brook Taylor’s ‘Principles;’ and shortly after I resumed my painting. While engaged in the study of perspective at home, I used to apply for and obtain leave to work at the heavier kinds of smith work at the foundry, and for this reason—the time required for heating the heaviest iron work is so much longer than that required for heating the lighter, that it enabled me to secure a number of spare minutes in the course of the day, which I carefully employed in making diagrams in perspective upon the sheet iron casing in front of the hearth at which I worked.”
Thus assiduously working and studying, James Sharples steadily advanced in his knowledge of the principles of art, and acquired greater facility in its practice. Some eighteen months after the expiry of his apprenticeship he painted a portrait of his father, which attracted considerable notice in the town; as also did the picture of “The Forge,” which he finished soon after. His success in portrait-painting obtained for him a commission from the foreman of the shop to paint a family group, and Sharples executed it so well that the foreman not only paid him the agreed price of eighteen pounds, but thirty shillings to boot. While engaged on this group he ceased to work at the foundry, and he had thoughts of giving up his trade altogether and devoting himself exclusively to painting. He proceeded to paint several pictures, amongst others a head of Christ, an original conception, life-size, and a view of Bury; but not obtaining sufficient employment at portraits to occupy his time, or give him the prospect of a steady income, he had the good sense to resume his leather apron, and go on working at his honest trade of a blacksmith; employing his leisure hours in engraving his picture of “The Forge,” since published. He was induced to commence the engraving by the following circumstance. A Manchester picture-dealer, to whom he showed the painting, let drop the observation, that in the hands of a skilful engraver it would make a very good print. Sharples immediately conceived the idea of engraving it himself, though altogether ignorant of the art. The difficulties which he encountered and successfully overcame in carrying out his project are thus described by himself:-
“I had seen an advertisement of a Sheffield steel-plate maker, giving a list of the prices at which he supplied plates of various sizes, and, fixing upon one of suitable dimensions, I remitted the amount, together with a small additional sum for which I requested him to send me a few engraving tools. I could not specify the articles wanted, for I did not then know anything about the process of engraving. However, there duly arrived with the plate three or four gravers and an etching needle; the latter I spoiled before I knew its use. While working at the plate, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers offered a premium for the best design for an emblematical picture, for which I determined to compete, and I was so fortunate as to win the prize. Shortly after this I removed to Blackburn, where I obtained employment at Messrs. Yates’, engineers, as an engine-smith; and continued to employ my leisure time in drawing, painting, and engraving, as before. With the engraving I made but very slow progress, owing to the difficulties I experienced from not possessing proper tools. I then determined to try to make some that would suit my purpose, and after several failures I succeeded in making many that I have used in the course of my engraving. I was also greatly at a loss for want of a proper magnifying glass, and part of the plate was executed with no other assistance of this sort than what my father’s spectacles afforded, though I afterwards succeeded in obtaining a proper magnifier, which was of the utmost use to me. An incident occurred while I was engraving the plate, which had almost caused me to abandon it altogether. It sometimes happened that I was obliged to lay it aside for a considerable time, when other work pressed; and in order to guard it against rust, I was accustomed to rub over the graven parts with oil. But on examining the plate after one of such intervals, I found that the oil had become a dark sticky substance extremely difficult to get out. I tried to pick it out with a needle, but found that it would almost take as much time as to engrave the parts afresh. I was in great despair at this, but at length hit upon the expedient of boiling it in water containing soda, and afterwards rubbing the engraved parts with a tooth-brush; and to my delight found the plan succeeded perfectly. My greatest difficulties now over, patience and perseverance were all that were needed to bring my labours to a successful issue. I had neither advice nor assistance from any one in finishing the plate. If, therefore, the work possess any merit, I can claim it as my own; and if in its accomplishment I have contributed to show what can be done by persevering industry and determination, it is all the honour I wish to lay claim to.”
It would be beside our purpose to enter upon any criticism of “The Forge” as an engraving; its merits having been already fully recognised by the art journals. The execution of the work occupied Sharples’s leisure evening hours during a period of five years; and it was only when he took the plate to the printer that he for the first time saw an engraved plate produced by any other man. To this unvarnished picture of industry and genius, we add one other trait, and it is a domestic one. “I have been married seven years,” says he, “and during that time my greatest pleasure, after I have finished my daily labour at the foundry, has been to resume my pencil or graver, frequently until a late hour of the evening, my wife meanwhile sitting by my side and reading to me from some interesting book,”—a simple but beautiful testimony to the thorough common sense as well as the genuine right-heartedness of this most interesting and deserving workman.
The same industry and application which we have found to be necessary in order to acquire excellence in painting and sculpture, are equally required in the sister art of music—the one being the poetry of form and colour, the other of the sounds of nature. Handel was an indefatigable and constant worker; he was never cast down by defeat, but his energy seemed to increase the more that adversity struck him. When a prey to his mortifications as an insolvent debtor, he did not give way for a moment, but in one year produced his ‘Saul,’ ‘Israel,’ the music for Dryden’s ‘Ode,’ his ‘Twelve Grand Concertos,’ and the opera of ‘Jupiter in Argos,’ among the finest of his works. As his biographer says of him, “He braved everything, and, by his unaided self, accomplished the work of twelve men.”
Haydn, speaking of his art, said, “It consists in taking up a subject and pursuing it.” “Work,” said Mozart, “is my chief pleasure.” Beethoven’s favourite maxim was, “The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, ‘Thus far and no farther.’” When Moscheles submitted his score of ‘Fidelio’ for the pianoforte to Beethoven, the latter found written at the bottom of the last page, “Finis, with God’s help.” Beethoven immediately wrote underneath, “O man! help thyself!” This was the motto of his artistic life. John Sebastian Bach said of himself, “I was industrious; whoever is equally sedulous, will be equally successful.” But there is no doubt that Bach was born with a passion for music, which formed the mainspring of his industry, and was the true secret of his success. When a mere youth, his elder brother, wishing to turn his abilities in another direction, destroyed a collection of studies which the young Sebastian, being denied candles, had copied by moonlight; proving the strong natural bent of the boy’s genius. Of Meyerbeer, Bayle thus wrote from Milan in 1820:- “He is a man of some talent, but no genius; he lives solitary, working fifteen hours a day at music.” Years passed, and Meyerbeer’s hard work fully brought out his genius, as displayed in his ‘Roberto,’ ‘Huguenots,’ ‘Prophete,’ and other works, confessedly amongst the greatest operas which have been produced in modern times.
Although musical composition is not an art in which Englishmen have as yet greatly distinguished themselves, their energies having for the most part taken other and more practical directions, we are not without native illustrations of the power of perseverance in this special pursuit. Arne was an upholsterer’s son, intended by his father for the legal profession; but his love of music was so great, that he could not be withheld from pursuing it. While engaged in an attorney’s office, his means were very limited, but, to gratify his tastes, he was accustomed to borrow a livery and go into the gallery of the Opera, then appropriated to domestics. Unknown to his father he made great progress with the violin, and the first knowledge his father had of the circumstance was when accidentally calling at the house of a neighbouring gentleman, to his surprise and consternation he found his son playing the leading instrument with a party of musicians. This incident decided the fate of Arne. His father offered no further opposition to his wishes; and the world thereby lost a lawyer, but gained a musician of much taste and delicacy of feeling, who added many valuable works to our stores of English music.
The career of the late William Jackson, author of ‘The Deliverance of Israel,’ an oratorio which has been successfully performed in the principal towns of his native county of York, furnishes an interesting illustration of the triumph of perseverance over difficulties in the pursuit of musical science. He was the son of a miller at Masham, a little town situated in the valley of the Yore, in the north-west corner of Yorkshire. Musical taste seems to have been hereditary in the family, for his father played the fife in the band of the Masham Volunteers, and was a singer in the parish choir. His grandfather also was leading singer and ringer at Masham Church; and one of the boy’s earliest musical treats was to be present at the bell pealing on Sunday mornings. During the service, his wonder was still more excited by the organist’s performance on the barrel-organ, the doors of which were thrown open behind to let the sound fully into the church, by which the stops, pipes, barrels, staples, keyboard, and jacks, were fully exposed, to the wonderment of the little boys sitting in the gallery behind, and to none more than our young musician. At eight years of age he began to play upon his father’s old fife, which, however, would not sound D; but his mother remedied the difficulty by buying for him a one-keyed flute; and shortly after, a gentleman of the neighbourhood presented him with a flute with four silver keys. As the boy made no progress with his “book learning,” being fonder of cricket, fives, and boxing, than of his school lessons— the village schoolmaster giving him up as “a bad job”—his parents sent him off to a school at Pateley Bridge. While there he found congenial society in a club of village choral singers at Brighouse Gate, and with them he learnt the sol-fa-ing gamut on the old English plan. He was thus well drilled in the reading of music, in which he soon became a proficient. His progress astonished the club, and he returned home full of musical ambition. He now learnt to play upon his father’s old piano, but with little melodious result; and he became eager to possess a finger-organ, but had no means of procuring one. About this time, a neighbouring parish clerk had purchased, for an insignificant sum, a small disabled barrel-organ, which had gone the circuit of the northern counties with a show. The clerk tried to revive the tones of the instrument, but failed; at last he bethought him that he would try the skill of young Jackson, who had succeeded in making some alterations and improvements in the hand-organ of the parish church. He accordingly brought it to the lad’s house in a donkey cart, and in a short time the instrument was repaired, and played over its old tunes again, greatly to the owner’s satisfaction.
The thought now haunted the youth that he could make a barrel-organ, and he determined to do so. His father and he set to work, and though without practice in carpentering, yet, by dint of hard labour and after many failures, they at last succeeded; and an organ was constructed which played ten tunes very decently, and the instrument was generally regarded as a marvel in the neighbourhood. Young Jackson was now frequently sent for to repair old church organs, and to put new music upon the barrels which he added to them. All this he accomplished to the satisfaction of his employers, after which he proceeded with the construction of a four-stop finger-organ, adapting to it the keys of an old harpsichord. This he learnt to play upon,--studying ‘Callcott’s Thorough Bass’ in the evening, and working at his trade of a miller during the day; occasionally also tramping about the country as a “cadger,” with an ass and a cart. During summer he worked in the fields, at turnip-time, hay-time, and harvest, but was never without the solace of music in his leisure evening hours. He next tried his hand at musical composition, and twelve of his anthems were shown to the late Mr. Camidge, of York, as “the production of a miller’s lad of fourteen.” Mr. Camidge was pleased with them, marked the objectionable passages, and returned them with the encouraging remark, that they did the youth great credit, and that he must “go on writing.”
A village band having been set on foot at Masham, young Jackson joined it, and was ultimately appointed leader. He played all the instruments by turns, and thus acquired a considerable practical knowledge of his art: he also composed numerous tunes for the band. A new finger-organ having been presented to the parish church, he was appointed the organist. He now gave up his employment as a journeyman miller, and commenced tallow-chandling, still employing his spare hours in the study of music. In 1839 he published his first anthem—‘For joy let fertile valleys sing;’ and in the following year he gained the first prize from the Huddersfield Glee Club, for his ‘Sisters of the Lea.’ His other anthem ‘God be merciful to us,’ and the 103rd Psalm, written for a double chorus and orchestra, are well known. In the midst of these minor works, Jackson proceeded with the composition of his oratorio,--‘The Deliverance of Israel from Babylon.’ His practice was, to jot down a sketch of the ideas as they presented themselves to his mind, and to write them out in score in the evenings, after he had left his work in the candle-shop. His oratorio was published in parts, in the course of 1844-5, and he published the last chorus on his twenty-ninth birthday. The work was exceedingly well received, and has been frequently performed with much success in the northern towns. Mr. Jackson eventually settled as a professor of music at Bradford, where he contributed in no small degree to the cultivation of the musical taste of that town and its neighbourhood. Some years since he had the honour of leading his fine company of Bradford choral singers before Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace; on which occasion, as well as at the Crystal Palace, some choral pieces of his composition, were performed with great effect.
Such is a brief outline of the career of a self-taught musician, whose life affords but another illustration of the power of self-help, and the force of courage and industry in enabling a man to surmount and overcome early difficulties and obstructions of no ordinary kind.
Original text by Samuel Smiles, edited and revised by D J McAdam © 2006. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.
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