A seasonal, avant-garde periodical
The Present Low State of the Arts in England,
and More Particularly, Architecture
From the 1815 Publications
Appearing in The Champion
By Alexander J. Ford
The following sequence of texts appeared in one of London's premiere publications in the fall of 1815. The first two were published anonymously. Although, it quickly became clear who was responsible--both to the target of the author's criticism, and to the inner circles of architects at the time, who were in a position to surmise. The author was a struggling playwright and actor, who also happened to be the son of one of London's most highly respected architects, historians, classicists, and collectors of antiquities--the venerable John Soane.
George, his youngest son, penned the following assault against the quality, and character of his father's work for a variety of reasons, which we will leave to the reader to suss out, if they like. Suffice it to say, history hardly remembers this exchange of embattled prose, and when on rare occasion his name is brought up, George is often presented as a drunken failure, who harbored a great bitterness for his estimable father; as an essential example of the King and his spoiled princeling. However, upon locating (at last) and transcribing these pieces, what emerges to the eyes of the editors, here, is a rather cogent criticism of the neoclassical willingness to reduce the symbolic character of the classics to mere concerns of style. Regardless of his personal character, regardless of the evident intent to wound contained within these writings, it is nevertheless true as well, that the fundamental spirit of the criticism is just, and ought to be heard. The mind that produced these polemical arguments ought not to simply be waved away on account of his apparently caustic disposition, or on account of the familial discord which fomented them.
When the first article appeared, John Soane quickly discovered it--an avid reader of the papers himself--and was distraught. He knew immediately that it could only have been the work of George, despite the anonymous byline. When his wife, Eliza--who was in poor health at the time--read the paper she proclaimed, "Those are George's doing. He has given me my death blow. I shall never be able to hold up my head again." Eliza Soane passed away in November of 1815. John, grieved by the loss of his beloved wife, blamed George and this specific article for her death. He clipped the full article from the paper, and affixed it to a board, in its entirety, scrawling "Death Blows Given by George, 10th and 24th Sept. 1815," on a placard that swung beneath. This, he nailed to the wall of his drawing room.
That board is contained now within the Soane Museum Archives, and is not often exhibited. Therefore, it is our pleasure to present not only the full text of the initial piece (split into two portions published 10th and 24th September, 1815), but also, a letter of apology addressed to John Soane, composed and printed frantically by the Champion's presiding editor, in the hopes of allaying Mr. Soane's ire that they ran the piece in the first place. Following the editor's word, there was also appended a curt, but moving final letter of apology written by George Soane, though still anonymously, in vain attempt to repair what damage his criticism had caused.
They never reconciled.
A mercantile spirit is perhaps least of all calculated for the production of any thing great or lasting. The mind, that has for years been employed in the minutiae of traffic, in weighing sugar against plumbs, and reckoning up the yearly interest of accumulated farthings, cannot easily expand itself to the perception of what is really grand; it will measure every thing by its saleable value, or in other words, by its value in exchange for the common necessities of life. It must be quite clear that minds acting upon this principle will have no love either for art or science, for the value of the first as an article of exchange depends entirely upon the variable caprice of fashion, and the influence of the latter in producing the comforts of life is not sufficiently direct for the understanding of men whose conceptions are narrowed by habitat and education. Thus it happens that this country can boast of so few painters, architects, or sculptors to vie with the records of Italy or of remoter times; the people at large neither admire nor understand such occupations, and it naturally follows that genius opens for itself other channels, richer both in fame and profit, leaving these ill-requited pursuits to men of weaker intellect and greater industry. It is indeed true that genius sometimes has so strong a bias to art, that it overlooks these obstacles, and to this we owe the paintings of a LAWRENCE, and an OWEN, the sculpture of a BANKS, and the architecture of a SMIRKE; but these names are by no means sufficient to justify the reproaches cast upon the nation by every foreigner who has visited us—they laugh at the heavy, lumbering extravagance of the bank and the fooleries of NASH, over Chinese pagodas and our drawing-rooms built after the fashion of Grecian architecture, it yet does not follow that our parlors and bed-rooms are to be modeled after the plan of a heathen temple—because the taste of Athens designed the figures called Caryatides, it surely is not requisite that ladies of stone are to be grinning at full length in the front of a substantial, brick-built modern house—it is like decorating a harlequin with a Roman helmet. Yet all these, and greater incongruities, are to be found in the capital of England; and indeed there are scarcely six buildings in the whole town that merit the attention of a moment. In the greater part of the streets every building is at variance in fashion from his neighbors; one gigantic house erects his tall head to the fifth story, while his more modest neighbor shrinks into a third. Sometimes the buildings in a street are seen by twos and threes, leaving vacant open spaces like the straggling teeth in an old woman’s head; and sometimes they look of all sorts, colors, and sizes like [illegible] at the first muster.
The minds of the titled and opulent English families seem progressively to have withered into dwarfishness, superficial in their acquirements, without any firmness of character or expansion of intellect, they live only for frivolity; it is true they pretend to admire painting, but it is only pretence; they do not understand, and therefore can feel no real admiration. They stare at pictures with the same sort of intelligence that children gaze at highly-coloured prints; they are pleased with the blaze of colours, and having picked up a few terms of art, which they do not comprehend, and if they did, could not rightly apply, they ogle with their glasses and prattle away with all the ease of understanding, and all the impudence of ignorance.
Neglected by the higher orders, and which is of far more importance, by the middling class of people, in whom almost all the intelligence of the nation is to be found, it is by no means surprising that the Arts have sunk in this country to so low an ebb. Indulgence and neglect are as powerful agents in corrupting the vigour of the mind, as luxury and indulgence, and unless it were possible to change the general feelings of the nation it is useless to expect any pre-eminence in Art. This low state of Art is more particularly disgraceful, when we reflect upon the enormous sums lavished in the extravagance and dissipation of our Court. The price of one night’s luxury would be a year’s maintenance to an artist, the thousands squandered in the trumperies of a sham fight, and the more laughable trumperies of a pagoda, would suffer to build a noble monument of the genius of the British people. This would be an honour to the present race and ensure them the grateful admiration of posterity; while the festival, before alluded to, only opened an occasion for the most profligate debauchery, which brought with it disgrace at the time, and has left behind it a canker of dissipation, which no after-remedies will be able to destroy. It was no better than an invitation to idleness and debauchery; it rendered the people familiar with a profligacy of every kind; drunkenness and open prostitution were the order of the day. The courtly defenders had the sagacity to find all this deserving of the highest praise; they, who upon other occasions declared the people were mere ciphers in the general account, now thought proper to consider them deserving of every attention; “they ought to be amused, poor souls”—as if debauchery was the only amusement their fancies could invent; as if an idle [illegible]-show, erected at a most enormous expense, was the proper mode of rewarding people for the privations of a long and cruel warfare. How does it happen that the defenders of courtly prerogative, should almost always be its bitterest enemies? Without wasting more time in vain regret for the past which cannot well be recalled, let us consider the expensive works lately erected in this metropolis, and some at the public expense. To begin with the Chelsea Hospital. Within the last two years, a new Infirmary, new stables, and a new house for the use of the clerk of the works, have been erected. Without pretending to any very great skill in architecture, it must be quite clear, that buildings so different of construction; the case is precisely the reverse;—not that we mean to say there is a manger in the architect’s house, or a drawing room in the stables, but the style of architecture is the same in all, the house being rather the most awkward of the three; on the top at the back are two large raisin jars, fresh, to all appearance, from the grocer’s shop. Fronting them, ranged in military array, appears a little regiment of chimney-pots with white heads, like so many well-grown cauliflowers; the house has two wings, one of which has windows, and the other a door, which might almost induce the belief, that after the whole was just completed, it was found that the very essential article—a door, had been forgotten; though after all it might as well have been omitted; one of those numerous cauliflower chimneys might have been spared by way of entrance, and a ladder, after the manner of Robinson Crusoe, might have been used for the purpose of gaining admission.
If the house appropriated to the Clerk of the works is a monster in the art of building, the Infirmary belonging to the same Hospital is not a jot behind it in absurdity. Heaviness and frivolity are there most delightfully blended, the mass of the building is dull and cumbersome, while all the ornaments are of the most light and trifling kind. There is something exquisitely ludicrous in this unison of contrarieties, the effect of which is hardly to be conveyed in writing. Disproportion is the most striking feature in the works of this artist; he plunders from the records of antiquity things in themselves absolutely good, but which never were intended to meet in the same place. Thus in the Bank of England, the greatest part of which is built by Mr. SOANE, we meet with remnants of mausoleums, caryatides, pillars from temples, ornaments from the Pantheon, and all heaped together with a perversion of taste that is truly admirable. He steals a bit here, and a bit there, and in piling up these collected thefts, he imagines he has done the duty and earned the honours of an artist.
Depraved as is the present taste, such follies will not pass for wisdom, the public laugh at those extravagancies, which are too dull for madness, and too mad for the soberness of reason. The most extraordinary instance of this perversity of taste and dullness of invention is to be found in this artist’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The exterior, from exceeding heaviness and monumental gloom, seems as if it were intended to convey a satire upon himself; it looks like a mound of the departed, and can only mean, that considering himself as defunct in that better part of humanity—the mind and its affections—he has reared this mausoleum for the enshrinement of his body.
The interior of this building forms a ludicrous contrast with its external appearance. The passages glow with the deepest red: the lower room, which occupies the whole length of the building, is converted into a library, a second satire upon the possessor, who must stand in the midst of these hoarded volumes like a eunuch in a seraglio; the envious and impining guardian of that which he cannot enjoy. On the left is a small room intended for a study, and beyond is a narrow lofty cave, [illegible] the museum; it is lighted at the top by a lantern of stained glass, forming a strange medley of Gothic and Grecian taste. Its contents, in a moral point of view, are truly valuable; here are urns that once contained the ashes of the great, the wise, and the good; here are relics broken from the holy temples of Greece and Italy; here is the image of Ephesian Diana, once the object of human adoration, but now only valued as to rarity, that by its prior may feel the groveling pride of its possessor. We are not architects, nor do we pretend to more knowledge in the art than common observation can supply, but we aspire, however unworthily, to that higher character which unites moral feeling with those inanimate objects, and does not basely admire a column because its proportions may be just or its marble may be pure. Somerset House and St. Paul’s are too well known to need discussion; but the merits of Convent-Garden Theatre have not yet been fully appreciated. The entire appearance of this building is grand and imposing; there is a unity, a harmony about the whole, which adds a considerable weight to its magnificence. Nothing can excel the effect of the Pit entrance by lamp-light; it is an illusion that borders on fairy-land; the play of light and shadow upon the arches produces a feeling of mystery and extent, that must be felt to be rightly understood. Beautiful as this building is in its external relations, we certainly object to that part allotted to the audience. The contraction of the sides, near the proscenium, of course contracts the view of the stage, and compels the actor either to advance to the middle, or remain unseen by those that are nearest to him. On this account the circular form seems preferable; the actor is then distinctly seen from all parts of the house; the apparent size of the stage is considerably increased, thus in a great degree uniting the opposite advantages of a small and extended Theatre. It is true that the form of this pile is best calculated to hold a multitude of people, and therefore is most agreeable to managerial taste, but with this we have no concern; it is a situation altogether foreign to our purpose; we only consider it in that shape, which shall be most agreeable to they of taste, and at the same time most adequate to the purpose of the drama. With this reservation it is a noble building, creditable to the architect, and his country that enjoys it.
From, THE FINE ARTS, section 12th November, 1815 issue:
In giving publicity to the following very requisite apology for an attack made on Mr. Soane in this Paper, the Editor of the Champion deems it necessary to mention, that he has seen, with equal dissatisfaction and regret, several other attacks on individuals, couched in objectionable language, which found their way into his Journal during his late absence. To the individuals so improperly treated, an apology is not the less due because they have not thought it necessary to complain. As we are the determined maintainers of the right of criticism, we are proportionably sorry when we see it confounded with mere abuse. When we use this word we are of course aware of its misconstructions and perversions—but we give fair notice that we surrender nothing to the claims of a sensitive selfishness, or a consciousness of impropriety. Ridicule or serious remonstrance, as the case may require, must still be applied, and sharply applied, to the follies or the vices that come in contact with the public interests;—and we use the latter word in its most extensive sense, as including every thing correct in taste as well as sound in morals, every thing elegant, as well as every thing useful, in enjoyment and possession. We make no concession whatever to the bouncings of irritated pride,—we cannot ever stop our hand in the view of the writhings of agonised vanity. We are at times, it is true, out of humour with our vocations,—for it is not quite the fact that “no creature smarts so little as a fool,”—but we would rather drop it than its integrity.
This much it was necessary to say, that we might not be mistaken, and that it might not get abroad that the Champion for the future meant to deal only in the style of dedications;— but attacks evidently leveled against those points of an individual’s character with which the public have little or no concern, or originating solely in private resentment, of the justice of which the public can be no judge,—although they may find a [illegible] in the semblance of criticism on professional merits, are always dishonorable, and therefore recoil injuriously on those by whom they are made. It is in this conviction that we deemed an apology due to Mr. Soane, and to others; and the gentleman who committed the error, has, on reflection, felt the propriety of offering a public apology to Mr. Soane. Under the circumstances which we have stated, and dissenting also from several of the points of opinion broached in some late Numbers of the Champion, the Editor thinks it necessary to announce, that he withdrew from superintendence of this Journal some days before No. 138 was published, and returned to edit No. 146. In regard to the Nos. from 138 to 145, inclusive, therefore, his readers will have the goodness to consider him responsible only for those articles in them which may be signed, as this,
TO THE EDITOR OF THE CHAMPION
Sir,—In some observations on the Present state of the Fine Arts, and particularly of Architecture, published in your paper a few weeks ago, I expressed some criticisms on the buildings at the Chelsea Hospital, and on the works of Mr. Soane, which, as being the result of misconception, I deeply regret to have written. There are moments in the lives of most men, when excited feelings take erroneous views of surrounding circumstances; and, finding myself in error, I am anxious to acknowledge that error. To say more would be offensive to his delicacy,—to have said less, would be unsatisfactory to myself. But having unjustly wounded the feelings of a distinguished artist, I consider myself bound in honour, to heal, as far as lies in my power the wounds inflicted by the intemperance of resentment.—All that I regret is, that, though I have the inclination, I have not the power to offer this gentleman that reparation which his merits are entitled to.
-The Writer of the Essays on Fine Arts, contained
in the Champion of the 10th and 24th of September, 1815.