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An essay by George Augustus Moore

The Alderman In Art

Title:     The Alderman In Art
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

Manchester and Liverpool are rival cities. They have matched themselves one against the other, and the prize they are striving for is--Which shall be the great art-centre of the North of England. The artistic rivalry of the two cities has become obvious of late years. Manchester bids against Liverpool, Liverpool bids against Manchester; the results of the bidding are discussed, and so an interest in art is created. It was Manchester that first threw her strength into this artistic rivalry. It began with the decorations which Manchester commissioned Mr. Madox Brown to paint for the town hall. Manchester's choice of an artist was an excellent and an original one. Mr. Madox Brown was not an Academician; he was not known to the general public; he merely commanded the respect of his brother-artists.

The painting of these pictures was the work of years; the placing of every one was duly chronicled in the press, and it was understood in London that Manchester was entirely satisfied. But lo! on the placing in position of the last picture but one of the series an unseemly dispute was raised by some members of the Corporation, and it was seriously debated in committee whether the best course to pursue would not be to pass a coat of whitewash over the offending picture. It is impossible to comment adequately on such barbarous conduct; perhaps at no distant date it will be proposed to burn some part of Mrs. Ryland's perfect gift--the Althorp Library. There may be some books in that library which do not meet with some councillor's entire approval. Barbarism on one side, and princely generosity on the other, combined to fix attention upon Manchester, and, in common with a hundred others, I found myself thinking on the relation of Manchester and Liverpool to art, and speculating on the direction that these new influences were taking.

There are two exhibitions now open in Manchester and Liverpool--the permanent and the annual. The permanent collections must first occupy our attention, for it is through them that we shall learn what sort and kind of artistic taste obtains in the North. At first sight these collections present no trace of any distinct influence. They seem to be simply miscellaneous purchases, made from every artist whose name happens to be the fashion; and considered as permanent illustrations of the various fashions that have prevailed in Bond Street during the last ten years, these collections are curious and perhaps valuable documents in the history of art. But is there any real analogy between a dressmaker's shop and a picture gallery? Plumes are bought because they are "very much worn just now", but then plumes are not so expensive as pictures, and it seems to be hardly worth while to buy pictures for the sake of the momentary fashion in painting which they represent.

Manchester and Liverpool have not, however, grasped the essential fact that it is impossible to form an art gallery by sending to London for the latest fashions. Now and then the advice of some gentleman knowing more about art than his colleagues has found expression in the purchase of a work of art; but the picture that hangs next to the fortuitous purchase tells how the taste of the cultured individual was overruled by the taste of the uncultured mass at the next meeting. I could give many, but two instances must suffice to explain and to prove my point. Two years ago Mr. Albert Moore exhibited a very beautiful picture in the Academy--three women, one sleeping and two sitting on a yellow couch, in front of a starlit and moonlit sea. In the same Academy there was exhibited a picture by Mr. Bartlett--a picture of some gondoliers rowing or punting or sculling (I am ignorant of the aquatic habits of the Venetians) for a prize. The Liverpool Gallery has bought and hung these pictures side by side. Such divagations of taste make the visitor smile, and he thinks perforce of the accounts of the stormy meetings of councillors that find their way into the papers. Artistic appreciation of these two pictures in the same individual is not possible. What should we think of a man who said that he did not know which he preferred-a poem by Tennyson, or a story out of the _London Journal_? Catholicity of taste does not mean an absolute abandonment of all discrimination; and some thread of intellectual kinship must run through the many various manifestations of artistic temperament which go to form a collection of pictures. Things may be various without being discrepant.

The Manchester Gallery has purchased Lawson's beautiful picture, "The Deserted Garden"; likewise Mr. Fildes' picture of a group of Venetian girls sitting on steps, the principal figure in a blue dress with an orange handkerchief round her neck, the simple--I may say child-like--scheme of colour beyond which Mr. Fildes never seems to stray. The Lawson and the Fildes agree no better than do the Moore and the Bartlett; and the only thing that occurs to me is that the cities should toss up which should go for Fildes and Bartlett, and which for Lawson and Moore. By such division harmony would be attained, and one city would be going the wrong road, the other the right road; at present both are going zigzag.

But notwithstanding the multifarious tastes displayed in these collections, and the artistic chaos they represent, we can, when we examine them closely, detect an influence which abides though it fluctuates, and this influence is that of our discredited Academy. The Manchester and Liverpool collection are merely weak reflections of the Chantrey Fund collection. Now, if the object of these cities be to adopt the standard of taste that obtains in Burlington House, to abdicate their own taste--if they have any--and to fortify themselves against all chance of acquiring a taste in art, it would clearly be better for the two corporations to hand over the task of acquiring pictures to the Academicians. The responsibility will be gladly accepted, and the trust will be administered with the same honesty and straightforwardness as has been displayed in the administration of the moneys which the unfortunate Chantrey entrusted to the care of the Academicians.

The sowing of evil seed is an irreparable evil; none can tell where the wind will carry it, and unexpected crops are found far and wide. I had thought that the harm occasioned to art by the Academy and its corollary, the Chantrey Fund, began and ended in London. But in Manchester and Liverpool I was speedily convinced of my mistake. Art in the provinces is little more than a reflection of the Academy. The majority of the pictures represent the taste of men who have no knowledge of art, and who, to disguise their ignorance, follow the advice which the Academy gives to provincial England in the pictures it purchases under the terms--or, rather, under its own reading of the terms--of the Chantrey Bequest Fund. One of the first things I heard in Manchester was that the committee had been fortunate enough to secure the nude figure which Mr. Hacker exhibited this year in the Academy. And on my failing to express unbounded admiration for the purchase, I was asked if I was aware that the Academy had purchased "The Annunciation" for the Chantrey Bequest Fund. "Surely," said a member of the committee, "you agree that our picture is the better of the two." I answered: "Poor Mr. Chantrey's money always goes to buy the worst, or as nearly as possible the worst, picture the artist ever painted--the picture for which the artist would never be likely to find a purchaser."

Last month the Liverpool County Council assembled to discuss the purchase of two pictures recommended by the art committee--"Summer", by Mr. Hornel; and "The Higher Alps", by Mr. Stott, of Oldham. The discussion that ensued is described by the _Liverpool Daily Post_ as "amusing". It was ludicrous, and those who do not care a snap of the fingers about art might think it amusing. The joke was started by Mr. Lynskey, who declared that the two pictures in question were mere daubs. Mr. Lynskey did not think that the Glasgow school of painting had yet been recognised by the public, and until it had he did not see why the corporation should pay L500 for these two productions, merely for the sake of experimenting. Thereby we are to understand that in forming a collection of pictures it is the taste of the public that must be considered. "Of course," cry the aldermen; "we are here to supply the public with what it wants." I repeat, the corporations of Manchester and Liverpool do not seem to have yet grasped the fact that there is no real analogy between a picture gallery and a dressmaker's shop.

The next speaker was Mr. Burgess. He could not imagine how any one could recommend the purchase of such pictures. The Mr. Burgesses of twenty-five years ago could not understand how any one could buy Corots. Mr. Smith asked if it were really a fact that the committee had bought the pictures. He was assured that they would be bought only if the council approved of them; whereupon Alderman Samuelson declared that if that were so they would not be bought. Dr. Cummins compared the pictures to cattle in the parish pound, and it is reported that the remark caused much laughter. Then some one said--I think it was Mr. Smith--that the pictures had horrified him; whereupon there was more laughter. Then a member proposed that they should have the pictures brought in, to which proposition a member objected, amid much laughter. Then Mr. Daughan suggested that the chairman and vice-chairman should explain the meaning of the pictures to the council. More laughter and more County Council humour. The meeting was a typical meeting, and it furnishes us with the typical councillor.

In the report of the meeting before me a certain alderman seems to have been as garrulous as he was irrepressible. He not only spoke at greater length than the rest of the councillors put together, but did not hesitate to frequently interrupt the members of the committee with remarks. Speaking of pictures by Millais, Holman Hunt, and Rossetti, he said:--"We have had exhibitions, and the works of these great artists were at various times closely scrutinised, and they had borne the most careful scrutiny that could be directed to them. Now I defy you to take a number of pictures such as those in dispute, and do the same with them." No one could have spoken the words I have quoted who was not absolutely ignorant of the art of painting. Imagine the poor alderman going round, magnifying-glass in hand, subjecting Millais and Holman Hunt to the closest scrutiny. And how easy it is to determine what was passing in his mind during the examination of the Glasgow school! "I can't see where this foot finishes; the painter was not able to draw it, so he covered it up with a shadow. In the pictures of that fellow Guthrie the grass is merely a tint of green, whereas in the 'Shadow of the Cross' I can count all the shavings."

But we will not seek to penetrate further into this very alderman-like mind. He declared that the Glasgow school of painting was "no more in comparison to what they recognised as a school of painting than a charity school was to the University of Oxford." I am sorry our alderman did not say what was the school of painting that he and his fellow-aldermen admired. In the absence of any precise information on the point I will venture to suggest that the school they recognise is the school of Bartlett and Solomon. The gallery possesses two large works by these masters--the Gondoliers, and the great picture of Samson, which fills an entire end of one room. But what would be of still greater interest would be to hear our alderman explain what he meant by this astonishing sentence:--"The only motive of Mr. Hornel's picture is a mode of art or rather artifice, in introducing a number of colours with the idea of making them harmonise; and this could be done, and had been done, by means of the palette-knife."

I have not the least idea what this means, but I am none the less interested. For, although void of sense, the alderman's words allow me to look down a long line of illustrious ancestry--Prud'homme, Chadband, Stiggins, Phillion, the apothecary Homais in "Madame Bovary". After passing through numerous transformations, an eternal idea at last incarnates itself in a final form. How splendid our alderman is! Never did a corporation produce so fine a flower. He is sententious, he is artistic. And how he lets fall from his thick lips those scraps of art-jargon which he picked up in the studio where he sat for his portrait! He is moral; he thinks that nude figures should not be sanctioned by the corporation; he believes in the Bank, and proposes the Queen's health as if he were fulfilling an important duty; he goes to the Academy, and dictates the aestheticism of his native town. There he is, his hand in his white waistcoat, in the pose chosen for the presentation portrait, at the moment when he delivered himself of his famous apophthegm, "When the nude comes into art, art flies out of the window."

The alderman is the reef which for the last five-and-twenty years has done so much to ruin and to wreck every artistic movement which the enthusiasm and intelligence of individuals have set on foot. The mere checking of the obstruction of the individual will not suffice; other aldermen will arise--equally ignorant, equally talkative, equally obstructive. And until the race is relegated to its proper function, bimetallism and sewage, the incidents I have described will happen again and again.

* * * * *

A marvellous accident that it should have come to be believed that a corporation could edit a picture gallery! Whence did the belief originate? whence did it spring? and in what fancied substance of fact did it catch root? A tapeworm-like notion--come we know not whence, nor how. And it has thriven unobserved, though signs of its presence stare plainly enough in the pallid face of the wretched gallery. Curious it is that it should have remained undetected so long; curious, indeed, it is that straying thought should have led no one to remember that every great art collection of the world has grown out of an individual intelligence. Collections have been worthily continued, but each successive growth has risen in obedience to the will of one supreme authority; and that it should have ever come to be believed that twenty aldermen, whose lives are mainly spent in considering bank-rates, bimetallism, and sewage, could collect pictures of permanent value is on the face of it as wild a folly as ever tried the strength of the strait waistcoats of Hanwell or Bedlam. But as Manchester and Liverpool enjoy as fair a measure of sanity as the rest of the kingdom, we perforce must admit the theory of unconscious acceptation of a chance idea.

But I take it that what is essential in my argument is not to prove that aldermen know little about art, but that twenty men, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, cannot edit a picture gallery. Proving the obvious is not an amusing task, but it is sometimes a necessary task. It may be thought, too, that I might be more brief; the elderly maxim about brevity being the soul of wit may be flung in my teeth. But lengthy discourse gives time for reflection, and I am seriously anxious that my readers should consider the question which these articles introduce. I believe it to be one of vital interest, reaching down a long range of consequences; and should these articles induce Manchester and Liverpool to place their galleries in the care of competent art-directors, I shall have rendered an incalculable service to English art. I say "competent art-directors", and I mean by "competent art-directors" men who will deem their mission to be a repudiation of the Anglo-French art fostered by the Academy--a return to a truer English tradition, and the giving to Manchester and Liverpool individual artistic aspiration and tendency.

Is the ambition of Manchester and Liverpool limited to paltry imitations of the Chantrey Fund collection? If they desire no more, it would serve no purpose to disturb the corporations in their management of the galleries. The corporations can do this better than any director. But if Manchester and Liverpool desire individual artistic life, if they wish to collect art that will attract visitors and contribute to their renown, they can only do this by the appointment of competent directors. For assurance on this point we have only to think what Sir Frederick Burton has done for the National Gallery, or what the late Mr. Doyle did for Dublin on the meagre grant of one thousand a year. It is the man and not the amount of money spent that counts. A born collector like the late Mr. Doyle can do more with a thousand a year than a corporation could do with a hundred thousand a year.

Nothing is of worth except individual passion; it is the one thing that achieves. And I know of no more intense passion--and, I will add, no more beautiful passion--than the passion for collecting works of art. Of all passions it is the purest. It matters little to the man possessed of it whether he collects for the State or for himself. The gallery is his child, and all his time and energy are given to the enrichment and service of _his_ gallery. The gallery is his one thought. He will lie awake at night to better think out his plans for the capture of some treasure on which he has set his heart. He will get up in the middle of the night, and walk about the gallery, considering some project for improved arrangements. To realise the meaning of the passion for collecting, it is necessary to have known a real collector, and intimately, for collectors do not wear their hearts on their sleeve. With the indifferent they are indifferent; but they are quick to detect the one man or woman who sympathises, who understands; and they select with eagerness this one from the crowd. But perhaps the collector never really reveals himself except to a fellow-collector, and to appreciate the strength and humanity of the passion it is necessary to have seen Duret and Goncourt explaining a new Japanesery which one of them has just acquired.

The partial love which a corporation may feel for its collection is very different from the undivided strength of the collector's love of his gallery. And even if we were to admit the possibility of an ideal corporation consisting of men perfectly conversant with art, and animated with passion equal to the collector's passion, the history of its labour would still be written in the words "vexatious discussion and lost chances". The rule that no picture is to be purchased until it has been seen and approved of by the corporation forbids all extraordinary chances, and the unique and only moment is lost in foolish formulae. The machinery is too cumbersome; and chances of sale-rooms cannot be seized; it is instinct and not reason that decides the collector, and no dozen or twenty men can ever be got to immediately agree.

Not long after my article on Manet was published in the columns of the _Speaker_, a member of the Manchester art committee wrote asking where could the pictures be seen, and if the owners would lend them for exhibition in the annual exhibition soon to open. If they did, perhaps the corporation might be induced to buy them for the permanent collection. Now I will ask my readers to imagine my bringing the pictures "Le Linge" and "L'Enfant a l'Epee" over from France, and submitting them to the judgment of the Manchester Corporation. As well might I submit to them a Velasquez or a Gainsborough signed Smith and Jones! It is the authority of the signature that induces acquiescence in the beauty of a portrait by Gainsborough or Velasquez; without the signature the ordinary or drawing-room lady would prefer a portrait by Mr. Shannon. Mr. Shannon is the fashion, and the fashion, being the essence and soul of the crowd, is naturally popular with the crowd.

In my article on Manet I referred to a beautiful picture of his--"Boulogne Pier". It was then on exhibition in Bond Street. I asked a friend to buy it. "You will not like the picture now," I said; "but if you have any latent aesthetic feeling in you it will bring it out, and you will like it in six months' time." My friend would not buy the picture, and the reason he gave was that he did not like it. It did not seem to occur to him that his taste might advance, and that the picture he was ignorant enough to like to-day he might be wise enough to loathe six years hence.

An early customer of Sir John Millais said, "Millais, I'll give you five hundred pounds to paint me a picture, and you shall paint me the picture you are minded to paint." Sir John painted him one of the most beautiful pictures of modern times, "St. Agnes' Eve". But the wisdom of the purchaser was only temporary. When the picture came home he did not like it, his wife did not like it; there was no colour in it; it was all blue and green. Briefly, it was not a pleasant picture to live with; and after trying the experiment for a few months this excellent gentleman decided to exchange the picture for a picture by--by whom?--by Mr. Sidney Cooper. I wonder what he thinks of himself to-day. And his fate is the fate of the aldermen who buy pictures because they like them.

The administration of art, as it was pointed out in the _Manchester Guardian_, is one of extreme difficulty, and it is not easy to find a competent director; but it seems to me to be easy to name many men who would do better in art-management than a corporation, and embarrassingly difficult to name one who would do worse. Any one man can thread a needle better than twenty men. Should the needle prove brittle and the thread rotten, the threader must resign. Though a task may be accomplished only by one man, and though all differ as to how it should be accomplished, yet, when the task is well accomplished, an appreciative unanimity seems to prevail regarding the result. We all agree in praising Sir Frederick Burton's administration; and yet how easy it would be to cavil! Why has he not bought an Ingres, a Corot, a Courbet, a Troyon? Why has he showed such excessive partiality for squint-eyed Italian saints? Sir Frederick Burton would answer: "In collecting, like in everything else, you must choose a line. I chose to consider the National Gallery as a museum. The question is whether I have collected well or badly from this point of view." But a corporation cannot choose a line on which to collect; it can do no more than indulge in miscellaneous purchases.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Alderman In Art