Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

masterpieces! The Sacrament of Knox is indeed, even in its unfinished state, one of the most precious of all his legacies. That he had begun to have some hankerings after his first ground itself, too, is obvious from The School--a composition left still less finished, but of much greater compass and complexity, and full everywhere of life, ease, and strength. This seems to have been the last thing he laboured on before he once more left England. *

Wilkie's motives for undertaking this expedition are explained by himself in his Journal, and in perhaps a dozen letters now printed; all telling clearly and precisely the same very simple story. But that simple story will not satisfy our amiable biographer : so we have, as usual, a page or two of mysterious hints and wise conjectures, the upshot of which seems to be that Allan Cunningham guesses him to have been dissatisfied and disappointed somehow or other with his treatment here; and is inclined to believe, on his own part, that Sir David had sufficient reason for thinking himself ill-used by the upper world. Not the slightest shadow of any such feeling can be traced in anything written, or distinctly recorded as said, by Wilkie; if he had entertained any such feeling, he must have been one of the silliest, in place of what he was, one of the most sensible of mankind. Three sovereigns had successively showered their favours upon him; none of them more liberally than the young queen whose reign had recently commenced, to whom he had been personally known as a Kensington neighbour all her days—who received him, he tells his brother, when first presented as an officer of her household, as if glad to recognise an old friend'-and whose own taste and talent for the art of the pencil, and lively appreciation of Wilkie's merits, were not state secrets. Mr. Cunningham's words, words, words,' about the neglect of the sons of genius' in our time, are on a par with his groanings over the oppression' suffered by the children of the clouted shoe,' as he Miltonically expresses himself, at the hands of the aristocracy.' The nobility and political leaders of all parties had struggled against each other, for more than thirty years, to obtain specimens of Sir David's work—the prices, from a very early period, being left wholly to his own discretion; nor had the cotton-lords been in this, any more than in other departments of costly indulgence, a whit behind the corn-lords. Far above the childish folly of hunting after what is called gaiety, he was well received, as often as suited his leisure and inclination, in highly elegant and intellectual circles of society. And, finally, having been by the accidents of commerce stripped, in 1825, of almost all the hard-w

* At the sale of Wilkie’s relics last year the Sacrament of Knox brought 841. :—the School 7561. 2 h 2

earnings

-won

earnings of his youth, the result of his career between his resumption of painting and the autumn of 1840, was, that-living in a handsome house, in which he latterly exercised, we believe, a suitable measure of hospitality—what with the prices of new works, and (far more important) the proceeds that came in steadily, year after year, from engravings of his early domestic pictures, Sir David Wilkie had found means to accumulate a fortune of 30,0001. In short, he was now, for a bachelor with his ideas, rich; if he ever had thought of marrying, which we much doubt, such dreams must have been over with a bachelor of his quiet turn' Ann. Ætat. 55; nor can we think it at all surprising that, with his notions of the stride consequent on his visit to Spain and Italy, he should, now that his independence was secured, have felt disposed, and in every way entitled, to another change of scene, such as might prove not less serviceable to the advancement of his art.

Sir David had received in youth religious impressions which, happily for him, appear never to have been obliterated : his desire was to devote the closing years of his life to paintings illustrative of the sacred history; and it occurred to him, as it might naturally occur to any one who had so well studied men and Englishmen, that if anything could make scriptural paintings popular among us, it would be the investing of them with something of that aspect of actual truth, that regard for the literal reality and matter of fact, which has been found to command our broadest sympathies in arts and in letters—a legitimate manifestation of the pre-eminently practical character of the people. We shall have to quote his letters from Palestine by and by. For the present hear a brother Academician:

(“When I went,” says his friend Collins, “to bid Sir David Wilkie farewell, a day or two before he left home for his last journey, I found him in high spirits, enlarging with all his early enthusiasm on the immense advantage he might derive from painting upon holy land, on the very ground on which the event he was to embody had actually occurred. To make a study at Bethlehem from some young female and child seemed to me one great incentive to his journey. I asked him if he had any guide-book: he said, 'Yes, and the very best ;' and then unlocking his travelling-box, he showed me a pocket Bible. I never saw him again; but the Bible throughout Judea was, I am assured, his best and only hand-book." '-vol. iii. p. 393.

Leaving home in August, 1840, and travelling over old ground to Vienna, he embarked on the Danube, and reached Constantinople early in October. As soon as he had satiated himself with the novelties of architecture, and the outward aspects of Mussulman life, he prepared his easel, and was readily honoured with

sittings

sittings by the young Sultan for a portrait requested by the Queen of England. While at Stamboul he executed some other portraits on a small scale, and various sketches of what would probably have been very striking pictures, suggested commonly by scenes that met his eye in the streets or bazaars; but by far the best we take to be chiefly from imagination - the reception of the news of the fall of Acre, before the fleet of the infidels, among the motley company of a Turkish coffee-house. This is an exceedingly clever thing, and it is very well

represented in the publication of Mr. Joseph Nash, which indeed forms the liveliest and most interesting Journal of these Eastern travels.*

Wilkie's letters from Constantinople are few. In one of them he adapts his description, with some tact, to his countryman and kind friend—the zealous upholder of granite and Macadam against wooden-pavement innovation—Sir Peter Laurie :

* To you this capital would recal in many things, particularly its vast size, London; but in how many things what a contrast! What you, as a civilian, would think indispensable to keep together so large a community, has never been known. The houses are not numbered; the streets have no names; the coaches are very few, many of them dragged by oxen, and can only pass through a few of the streets. There is no post-office; the town is not lighted by night; many of the streets are unpaved, and those that are, so ill, that by the mud with which they are encumbered it is quite an adventure to get along. Sweeping or cleaning the streets is never thought of. So uncouth, unexpected, and strange was every object, in the first week of our arrival, that I could not help exclaiming to my English companions, what Dandie Dinmont said on his first view of Pleydell in the chair of High Jinks,“ Deil the like o' this I ever saw.”

On the 12th of January, 1841, Wilkie embarked for Syria ; and in his account of the brief voyage there are two interesting passages :

Smyrna, Jan. 30th.- Observed about the bureau of the steamer a number of persons of remarkable appearance. These were grave and elderly individuals in robes and long beards, belonging to the scattered remnant of Israel, come from the distant parts of Germany and Poland on their way to the land of their forefathers. This is the first symptom that our journey is more than a mere travelling excursion; but, though made with a different aim, is yet made with those who, from age, pursuit

, and family descent, give to this wayfaring progress the most sacred character. They have but a part of the interest that we have, but have reason to feel it more intensely: they return from a land of strangers to

[ocr errors]

* Sir David Wilkie's Sketches in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt: drawn on stone hy Joseph Nash.' Imperial folio; London, Feb., 1843. These engravings, in number twenty-six, are so well coloured that they really all but amount to fac-similes of the originals.

their ancient home; and, like their ancestors, from bondage and captivity, return to the same land of promise which, in happier times, was the possession and portion of the chosen race. We again, who make the same pilgrimage, do not attach so much importance to the time and place, except in their power of fixing the attention upon higher objects, yet we cannot help being struck with the feeling of attachment which, under many circumstances of privation, makes so distant a country, and a glory departed, so eager an object of contemplation. The question then is, whether an interest, both with Jew and Gentile, so deep-rooted and so universal, may not be helped by the faculties of art being pressed into the service; and while the pursuits of learning and of war have, in former times, been so familiar with the sacred land, it seems but reasonable that the powers of art should try, from the localities now existing, to revive indeed the impression of those events that have, in so lively a manner, been handed down to us from former ages.

Feb. 8th.-Was called by the mate to come on deck at half-past six o'clock: dressed in haste, and, on mounting the cabin stairs, found the Holy Land in sight, extended right and left, far and wide, with Mount Lebanon and its extended range right ahead.

• On deck all was stir and preparation : various aged persons of the chosen people were decorating themselves with the sacerdotal robes of the sacred office, and though tranquil, were yet apparently deeply moved. Some with the Bible in hand, with a black strap twisted round their naked left arm, and with a small ark or tabernacle tied round their brow, were, with an oscillating movement of the head, repeating some appropriate prayers or thanksgiving upon the near accomplishment of the object of their voyage. Their appearance, though they were meanly dressed, was imposing in the extreme.'

On the 26th of February the party travelled from Jaffa to Ramla (Arimathea). On the 27th Wilkie writes to his brother:

With hue and cry, and noise, we were all in movement by six o'clock, before sunrise, recalling to me strongly the preparations for the journey we used to make in early life, to be in time for the tide at Petticur, on our way to Edinburgh.'

The diary says

“We travelled some hours through wide wastes, with some patches of cultivation and village, till we reached the defiles of the hills of Judea, where the close valleys we entered to ascend the highlands were most beautiful, though savage and wild. We were, however, armed; so that the chance of interruption was greatly diminished. In this way we proceeded up hill and down dale, through places verifying the expression in Scripture of a land that was a splendid possession and an inheritance. After stopping at a well, we descended through valleys, when, to our surprise, we had to ascend again to a height, which, on reaching, was a kind of table-land, from which we yet saw nothing; and it was not till after we had travelled a minute or two that, on turning a corner, we saw --and, oh, what a sight!—the splendid walled city of Jerusalem. This struck me as unlike all other cities : it recalled the imaginations of

Nicolas

Nicolas Poussinma city not for a day, not for the present, but for all time, as if built for an eternal Sabbath: the buildings, the walls, the gates, so strong, and so solid, as if made to survive all other cities.'

His last and best letter from Jerusalem is to Sir Robert Peel (March 18th) :-

It is a fancy or belief that the art of our time and of our British people may reap some benefit that has induced me to undertake this journey. It is to see, to inquire, and to judge, not whether I

can,

but whether those who are younger, or with far higher attainments and powers, may not in future be required, in the advance and spread of our knowledge, to refer at once to the localities of Scripture events, when the great work is to be essayed of representing Scripture history. Great as the assistance, I might say the inspiration, which the art of painting has derived from the illustration of Christianity, and great as the talent and genius have been this high walk of art has called into being, yet it is remarkable that none of the great painters to whom the world has hitherto looked for the visible appearance of Scripture scenes and feelings have ever visited the Holy Land.

• What we therefore so much admire in the great masters must be taken from their own idea, or from secondary information. In this, though Paul Veronese, Titian, Giorgione, and Sebastian del Piombo, all Venetians, have by commerce, and immediate intercourse with the Levant, succeeded in giving in their work a nearer verisimilitude to an Eastern people; * yet who is there who cannot imagine that such minds as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, great as they are, might have derived a help had they dwelt and studied in the same land which Moses and the prophets, the evangelists and apostles, have so powerfully and graphically described, and which they would have described in vain to the conviction of their readers, but as witnesses and participators in the events which form the subjects of their sacred writings?

• In my journey hither, desirous of taking a review of some of the great works in Germany of Rubens and Rembrandt, I was deeply interested at Munich by the great and meritorious efforts now making by the native painters of that city. These I believe

you have seen, and I doubt not with high admiration of the genius of the artists, and munificence of the sovereign who has called them forth. To you, therefore, I speak with deference, and under correction; but as they profess to revive a style of art that has formerly existed, whether Byzantine or early Italian, I have doubts if such a style would either suit the disposition of the English painters or awaken the attention of the English public, to whom it would be like bringing forward the Talmud and the fathers of the Church instead of the Pentateuch and the New Testament.

• The time is now come when our supply in this walk of art must be drawn from the fountain head. The facility of travelling, as well as

* Sir David says again : “ The back-ground of the Heliodorus of Raphael is a Syrian building ; the figures in the Lazarus of Sebastian del Piombo are a Syrian people; and the indescribable tone of Rembrandt is brought to mind at every turn, whether in the street, the synagogue, or the holy sepulchre.'

recent

« PředchozíPokračovat »