Honors at the Royal Academy — Letter to His Brother Maurice — Family Fortunes — Jane Contarine and the Miniature — Portraits and Engravings — School Associations — Johnson and Goldsmith in Westminster Abbey
The latter part of the year 1768 had been made memorable in the world of taste by the institution of the Royal Academy of Arts, under the patronage of the king, and the direction of forty of the most distinguished artist. Reynolds, who had been mainly instrumental in founding it, had been unanimously elected president, and had thereupon received the honor of knighthood.* Johnson was so delighted with his friend’s elevation that he broke through a rule of total abstinence with respect to wine, which he had maintained for several years, and drank bumpers on the occasion. Sir Joshua eagerly sought to associate his old and valued friends with him in his new honors, and it is supposed to be through his suggestions that, on the first establishment of professorships, which took place in December, 1769, Johnson was nominated to that of Ancient Literature, and Goldsmith to that of History. They were mere honorary titles, without emolument, but gave distinction, from the noble institution to which they appertained. They also gave the possessors honorable places at the annual banquet, at which were assembled many of the most distinguished persons of rank and talent, all proud to be classed among the patrons of the arts.
* We must apologize for the anachronism we have permitted ourselves, in the course of this memoir, in speaking of Reynolds as Sir Joshua, when treating of circumstances which occurred prior to his being dubbed; but it is so customary to speak of him by that title that we found it difficult to dispense with it.
The following letter of Goldsmith to his brother alludes to the foregoing appointment, and to a small legacy bequeathed to him by his uncle Contarine.
“To Mr. Maurice Goldsmith, at James Lawders, Esq., at Kilmore, near Carrick-on-Shannon.
“DEAR BROTHER— I should have answered your letter sooner, but, in truth, I am not fond of thinking of the necessities of those I love, when it is so very little in my power to help them. I am sorry to find you are every way unprovided for; and what adds to my uneasiness is, that I have received a letter from my sister Johnson, by which I learn that she is pretty much in the same circumstances. As to myself, I believe I think I could get both you and my poor brother-inlaw something like that which you desire, but I am determined never to ask for little things, nor exhaust any little interest I may have, until I can serve you, him, and myself more effectually. As yet, no opportunity has offered; but I believe you are pretty well convinced that I will not be remiss when it arrives.
“The king has lately been pleased to make me Professor of Ancient History in the Royal Academy of Painting which he has just established, but there is no salary annexed; and I took it rather as a compliment to the institution than any benefit to myself. Honors to one in my situation are something like ruffles to one that wants a shirt.
“You tell me that there are fourteen or fifteen pounds left me in the hands of my cousin Lawder, and you ask me what I would have done with them. My dear brother, I would by no means give any directions to my dear worthy relations at Kilmore how to dispose of money which is, properly speaking, more theirs than mine. All that I can say is, that I entirely, and this letter will serve to witness, give up any right and title to it; and I am sure they will dispose of it to the best advantage. To them I entirely leave it; whether they or you may think the whole necessary to fit you out, or whether our poor sister Johnson may not want the half, I leave entirely to their and your discretion. The kindness of that good couple to our shattered family demands our sincerest gratitude; and though they have almost forgotten me, yet, if good things at last arrive, I hope one day to return and increase their good-humor, by adding to my own.
“I have sent my cousin Jenny a miniature picture of myself, as I believe it is the most acceptable present I can offer. I have ordered it to be left for her at George Faulkner’s, folded in a letter. The face, you well know, is ugly enough, but it is finely painted. I will shortly also send my friends over the Shannon some mezzotinto prints of myself, and some more of my friends here, such as Burke, Johnson, Reynolds, and Colman. I believe I have written a hundred letters to different friends in your country, and never received an answer to any of them. I do not know how to account for this, or why they are unwilling to keep up for me those regards which I must ever retain for them.
“If, then, you have a mind to oblige me, you will write often, whether I answer you or not. Let me particularly have the news of our family and old acquaintances. For instance, you may begin by telling me about the family where you reside, how they spend their time, and whether they ever make mention of me. Tell me about my mother, my brother Hodson, and his son, my brother Harry’s son and daughter, my sister Johnson, the family of Ballyoughter, what is become of them, where they live, and how they do. You talked of being my only brother: I don’t understand you. Where is Charles? A sheet of paper occasionally filled with the news of this kind would make me very happy, and would keep you nearer my mind. As it is, my dear brother, believe me to be
“Yours, most affectionately,
By this letter we find the Goldsmiths the same shifting, shiftless race as formerly; a “shattered family,” scrambling on each other’s back as soon as any rise above the surface. Maurice is “every way unprovided for”; living upon Cousin Jane and her husband, and, perhaps, amusing himself by hunting otter in the river Inny. Sister Johnson and her husband are as poorly off as Maurice, with, perhaps, no one at hand to quarter themselves upon; as to the rest, “what is become of them; where do they live; how do they do; what is become of Charles?” What forlorn, haphazard life is implied by these questions! Can we wonder that, with all the love for his native place, which is shown throughout Goldsmith’s writings, he had not the heart to return there? Yet his affections are still there. He wishes to know whether the Lawders (which means his cousin Jane, his early Valentine) ever make mention of him; he sends Jane his miniature; he believes “it is the most acceptable present he can offer”; he evidently, therefore, does not believe she has almost forgotten him, although he intimates that he does: in his memory she is still Jane Contarine, as he last saw her, when he accompanied her harpsichord with his flute. Absence, like death, sets a seal on the image of those we have loved; we cannot realize the intervening changes which time may have effected.
As to the rest of Goldsmith’s relatives, he abandons his legacy of fifteen pounds, to be shared among them. It is all he has to give. His heedless improvidence is eating up the pay of the booksellers in advance. With all his literary success, he has neither money nor influence; but he has empty fame, and he is ready to participate with them; he is honorary professor, without pay; his portrait is to be engraved in mezzotint, in company with those of his friends, Burke, Reynolds, Johnson, Colman, and others, and he will send prints of them to his friends over the Shannon, though they may not have a house to hang them up in. What a motley letter! How indicative of the motley character of the writer! By the bye, the publication of a splendid mezzotinto engraving of his likeness by Reynolds, was a great matter of glorification to Goldsmith, especially as it appeared in such illustrious company. As he was one day walking the streets in a state of high elation, from having just seen it figuring in the print-shop windows, he met a young gentleman with a newly married wife hanging on his arm, whom he immediately recognized for Master Bishop, one of the boys he had petted and treated with sweetmeats when a humble usher at Milner’s school. The kindly feelings of old times revived, and he accosted him with cordial familiarity, though the youth may have found some difficulty in recognizing in the personage, arrayed, perhaps, in garments of Tyrian dye, the dingy pedagogue of the Milners. “Come, my boy,” cried Goldsmith, as if still speaking to a schoolboy, “Come, Sam, I am delighted to see you. I must treat you to something — what shall it be? Will you have some apples?” glancing at an old woman’s stall; then, recollecting the print-shop window: “Sam,” said he, “have you seen my picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds? Have you seen it, Sam? Have you got an engraving?” Bishop was caught; he equivocated; he had not yet bought it; but he was furnishing his house, and had fixed upon the place where it was to be hung. “Ah, Sam!” rejoined Goldsmith reproachfully, “if your picture had been published, I should not have waited an hour without having it.”
After all, it was honest pride, not vanity, in Goldsmith, that was gratified at seeing his portrait deemed worthy of being perpetuated by the classic pencil of Reynolds, and “hung up in history,” beside that of his revered friend, Johnson. Even the great moralist himself was not insensible to a feeling of this kind. Walking one day with Goldsmith, in Westminster Abbey, among the tombs of monarchs, warriors, and statesmen, they came to the sculptured mementos of literary worthies in Poets’ Corner. Casting his eye round upon these memorials of genius, Johnson muttered in a low tone to his companion,
“Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.”
Goldsmith treasured up the intimated hope, and shortly afterward, as they were passing by Temple bar, where the heads of Jacobite rebels, executed for treason, were mouldering aloft on spikes, pointed up to the grizzly mementos, and echoed the intimation,
“Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10