Miscellaneous Papers, by Charles Dickens

THE SPIRIT OF CHIVALRY IN WESTMINSTER HALL

“Of all the cants that are canted in this canting world,” wrote Sterne, “kind Heaven defend me from the cant of Art!” We have no intention of tapping our little cask of cant, soured by the thunder of great men’s fame, for the refreshment of our readers: its freest draught would be unreasonably dear at a shilling, when the same small liquor may be had for nothing, at innumerable ready pipes and conduits.

But it is a main part of the design of this Magazine to sympathise with what is truly great and good; to scout the miserable discouragements that beset, especially in England, the upward path of men of high desert; and gladly to give honour where it is due, in right of Something achieved, tending to elevate the tastes and thoughts of all who contemplate it, and prove a lasting credit to the country of its birth.

Upon the walls of Westminster Hall, there hangs, at this time, such a Something. A composition of such marvellous beauty, of such infinite variety, of such masterly design, of such vigorous and skilful drawing, of such thought and fancy, of such surprising and delicate accuracy of detail, subserving one grand harmony, and one plain purpose, that it may be questioned whether the Fine Arts in any period of their history have known a more remarkable performance.

It is the cartoon of Daniel Maclise, “executed by order of the Commissioners”, and called The Spirit of Chivalry. It may be left an open question, whether or no this allegorical order on the part of the Commissioners, displays any uncommon felicity of idea. We rather think not; and are free to confess that we should like to have seen the Commissioners’ notion of the Spirit of Chivalry stated by themselves, in the first instance, on a sheet of foolscap, as the ground-plan of a model cartoon, with all the commissioned proportions of height and breadth. That the treatment of such an abstraction, for the purposes of Art, involves great and peculiar difficulties, no one who considers the subject for a moment can doubt. That nothing is easier to render it absurd and monstrous, is a position as little capable of dispute by anybody who has beheld another cartoon on the same subject in the same Hall, representing a Ghoule in a state of raving madness, dancing on a Body in a very high wind, to the great astonishment of John the Baptist’s head, which is looking on from a corner.

Mr. Maclise’s handling of the subject has by this time sunk into the hearts of thousands upon thousands of people. It is familiar knowledge among all classes and conditions of men. It is the great feature within the Hall, and the constant topic of discourse elsewhere. It has awakened in the great body of society a new interest in, and a new perception and a new love of, Art. Students of Art have sat before it, hour by hour, perusing in its many forms of Beauty, lessons to delight the world, and raise themselves, its future teachers, in its better estimation. Eyes well accustomed to the glories of the Vatican, the galleries of Florence, all the mightiest works of art in Europe, have grown dim before it with the strong emotions it inspires; ignorant, unlettered, drudging men, mere hewers and drawers, have gathered in a knot about it (as at our back a week ago), and read it, in their homely language, as it were a Book. In minds, the roughest and the most refined, it has alike found quick response; and will, and must, so long as it shall hold together.

For how can it be otherwise? Look up, upon the pressing throng who strive to win distinction from the Guardian Genius of all noble deeds and honourable renown — a gentle Spirit, holding her fair state for their reward and recognition (do not be alarmed, my Lord Chamberlain; this is only in a picture); and say what young and ardent heart may not find one to beat in unison with it — beat high with generous aspiration like its own — in following their onward course, as it is traced by this great pencil! Is it the Love of Woman, in its truth and deep devotion, that inspires you? See it here! Is it Glory, as the world has learned to call the pomp and circumstance of arms? Behold it at the summit of its exaltation, with its mailed hand resting on the altar where the Spirit ministers. The Poet’s laurel-crown, which they who sit on thrones can neither twine or wither — is that the aim of thy ambition? It is there, upon his brow; it wreathes his stately forehead, as he walks apart and holds communion with himself. The Palmer and the Bard are there; no solitary wayfarers, now; but two of a great company of pilgrims, climbing up to honour by the different paths that lead to the great end. And sure, amidst the gravity and beauty of them all — unseen in his own form, but shining in his spirit, out of every gallant shape and earnest thought — the Painter goes triumphant!

Or say that you who look upon this work, be old, and bring to it grey hairs, a head bowed down, a mind on which the day of life has spent itself, and the calm evening closes gently in. Is its appeal to you confined to its presentment of the Past? Have you no share in this, but while the grace of youth and the strong resolve of maturity are yours to aid you? Look up again. Look up where the spirit is enthroned, and see about her, reverend men, whose task is done; whose struggle is no more; who cluster round her as her train and council; who have lost no share or interest in that great rising up and progress, which bears upward with it every means of human happiness, but, true in Autumn to the purposes of Spring, are there to stimulate the race who follow in their steps; to contemplate, with hearts grown serious, not cold or sad, the striving in which they once had part; to die in that great Presence, which is Truth and Bravery, and Mercy to the Weak, beyond all power of separation.

It would be idle to observe of this last group that, both in execution and idea, they are of the very highest order of Art, and wonderfully serve the purpose of the picture. There is not one among its three-and-twenty heads of which the same remark might not be made. Neither will we treat of great effects produced by means quite powerless in other hands for such an end, or of the prodigious force and colour which so separate this work from all the rest exhibited, that it would scarcely appear to be produced upon the same kind of surface by the same description of instrument. The bricks and stones and timbers of the Hall itself are not facts more indisputable than these.

It has been objected to this extraordinary work that it is too elaborately finished; too complete in its several parts. And Heaven knows, if it be judged in this respect by any standard in the Hall about it, it will find no parallel, nor anything approaching to it. But it is a design, intended to be afterwards copied and painted in fresco; and certain finish must be had at last, if not at first. It is very well to take it for granted in a Cartoon that a series of cross-lines, almost as rough and apart as the lattice-work of a garden summerhouse, represents the texture of a human face; but the face cannot be painted so. A smear upon the paper may be understood, by virtue of the context gained from what surrounds it, to stand for a limb, or a body, or a cuirass, or a hat and feathers, or a flag, or a boot, or an angel. But when the time arrives for rendering these things in colours on a wall, they must be grappled with, and cannot be slurred over in this wise. Great misapprehension on this head seems to have been engendered in the minds of some observers by the famous cartoons of Raphael; but they forget that these were never intended as designs for fresco painting. They were designs for tapestry-work, which is susceptible of only certain broad and general effects, as no one better knew than the Great Master. Utterly detestable and vile as the tapestry is, compared with the immortal Cartoons from which it was worked, it is impossible for any man who casts his eyes upon it where it hangs at Rome, not to see immediately the special adaptation of the drawings to that end, and for that purpose. The aim of these Cartoons being wholly different, Mr. Maclise’s object, if we understand it, was to show precisely what he meant to do, and knew he could perform, in fresco, on a wall. And here his meaning is; worked out; without a compromise of any difficulty; without the avoidance of any disconcerting truth; expressed in all its beauty, strength, and power.

To what end? To be perpetuated hereafter in the high place of the chief Senate-House of England? To be wrought, as it were, into the very elements of which that Temple is composed; to co-endure with it, and still present, perhaps, some lingering traces of its ancient Beauty, when London shall have sunk into a grave of grass-grown ruin — and the whole circle of the Arts, another revolution of the mighty wheel completed, shall be wrecked and broken?

Let us hope so. We will contemplate no other possibility — at present.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30