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A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland [...] (Author: Thomas Campbell)

Letter 43


The imitative arts are, at best, plants of a slow growth; they require not only a genial soil, but the careful cultivation of opulence and peace. The causes, which I have shewn to be inimical to letters, are hostile to them. Poetry and Music may arrive at a certain degree of perfection amidst tumult and commotion, but Painting requires security and fixed establishment. The implements of poetry are few, and always at hand, and the exercise of them is not altogether incompatible with any state of a mind disposed that way. Public calamity, and private misery, whilst they furnish the fitted poetical subjects, kindle, at the same time, indignation, revenge, anguish, despair, and other passions, which sometimes prove the strongest incentives to the poetic furor.

It is far otherwise with the arts of design. Those pictures which exist in the mind of a man of genius, and which may


be soon sketched and coloured in words, require a very laborious, extensive, and uninterrupted practice of imitation, before they can be embodied on the canvass. It should not therefore be wondered at, that those efforts of ingenuity which we, perhaps, too highly prize in other countries, have but lately discovered themselves in Ireland. Yet I have seen some very good portraits here. Those of Latham are admirable, far superior to those of Mr. Jervaise; who was of this country, and whose celebrity he principally owes to the partiality of Mr. Pope. There is a good picture by Bindon in the Poor-house. The present Hunter has done some capital portraits, and Mr. and Mrs. Trotter have both great merit in that way.

But Landskip is the line in which all the painters of Ireland set out, and in which some of them have arrived at the greatest eminence. You know the works of Barret. There is a Roberts at present, a very young man, whose works are fine. Mr. Fisher too, Ashford, Coy, and others, deserve great praise. I have seen a picture by Butts; whose fame here is above that of all others, though his death was premature. If I were to assign a reason for this general excellence of Irish


artists in Landskip, I should ascribe it to the beautiful face of the country, which abounds with scenery the most picturesque.

The highest branches of painting can never flourish, except where the patronage of the opulent concurs with other favourable circumstances. This country is too indigent for sufficient encouragement. Till within a very few years, England herself could not boast of many eminent artists. Her progress, however, within the last twenty years has been rapid, beyond the example of other places, and former times. She has already evinced the futility of their speculations, who attribute to climate an omnifick influence upon the fine arts. What would the Abbé du Bos now say, if he heard his own countrymen admit, that London has at this day more capital painters than Paris. Though the latter had no less than 6100 artists and students in design, A. D. 1771.

L'Academie Royale, Eleves200
L' Academie de S. Luc150
Ecole aux Gobelins50
Ecole gratuite sous l'inspection du Lieutenant de Police1500
Ecole gratuite des freres dans les paroisses1200
Il y a outre cela 600 artistes donnant leçon pour
de l' argent, conter a chacun 4 eleves
[nbsp ]6100


Public establishments for cultivating the polite arts in the different nations of Europe, are not very antient: the oldest of the kind being that by the Duke of Milan, under the guidance of Leonardo da' Vinci; which was dissolved, on the duke's being made prisoner, long before the academy of Florence was founded in the year 1562. St. Luke's at Rome was established by Gregory XIII. and, nearly at the same time, the celebrated school of the Carraches was opened at Bologna. The royal academy of Paris was founded in 1648. Junius, in his book de pictura veterum, published ten years before this period, occasionally mentions an academy at Arundel-house in London, in which were exposed to public view, a capital collection of drawings, &c. belonging to the noblemen of that title. The royal academy in London was not founded until 1768. So that the earliest public establishment in England is that of the Society for the encouragement of arts, manufactures, and commerce, instituted in 1753; which was posterior by some years, to a similar institution in Ireland, under the name of the Dublin Society.


This truly patriotic body, with a view of advancing the polite arts, erected an academy, furnished with living models, and calls from the antique statues, under the direction of Mr. West, who was not only the best draftsman of his time in this country, but perhaps in Europe. In this school a considerable number of painters have been bred, some of whom have obtained a considerable degree of reputation both in Rome and London. But, whether it was that Mr. West, though superlatively qualified as far as he went, being neither a painter nor a sculptor, but a mere draftsman, and consequently limited in his views, drawing and the clear-obscure were cultivated as an end, and not as the means to something still greater, and far beyond such narrow boundaries — Or, whether it was that the Dublin Society wanted either the knowledge, or ability, to strike out ways of employing those they had formed, and thereby of advancing the arts to that perfection they are capable of — I say, from which ever of these, or from what other cause soever, it has so happened, that most of those bred here have gone over to England; where, from want of patrons or friends interested in their success, many of them have been


unavoidably driven into the inferior walks of art; in which, however, they are outdone by none. Dixon has brought mezzotintos to a degree of perfection, unexpected in that species of engraving. And there have been many others eminent in the same line; Brooke, Burke, Chambers, Fisher, Frye, Gwynn, Houston, M'Ardell, Purcell, Spooner, Watson, &c.

The genius of Ireland then has not been dormant of late, and if the Dublin Society has been unsuccessful in forming, or rather finishing, the most eminent characters in this art, she has, however, multiplied inferior artists, and refined the taste of those employed in manufactures; both which tend vastly to soften manners, and humanize society.

Notwithstanding such institutions, if properly managed, might, as I conceive, be converted to the most exalted purposes; yet if we examine the effects produced by those of a similar kind, we shall find, that, if that of Dublin has failed, it has failed in common with those on the continent, where a concurrence of more favourable circumstances, than could possibly meet in a dependent country, might


have afforded a better prospect of success. Out of that multitude of artists instructed by the munificence of the grand monarch, not one has yet arisen comparable to Le Brun, Le Soeur, or Poussin. And, as if in mockery of human wisdom, all the great masters of Italy were formed, either before, or independent of, the several academies in that country; so that the highest attainments in the arts are not to be expected from a multitude of novices.

This very country furnishes a striking example of this assertion. Mr. Barry never had a master, as I am informed. Nay, he obtained a first premium from the Dublin Society for history painting, when a boy, before he had ever seen a picture of the kind. His Inquiry into the obstruction of the arts, &c. first led me to his name. There it was easily seen that his penetration had founded the very bottom of his art. I was surprised that an artist of such learning had not arrested the attention of the Public; and still more so, when, on examining his works, I found them conceived in the grandest style, and executed in the best manner; his drawings of the nud being correct to the utmost truth of nature. However


imprudently this rising genius may have invited the attacks of criticism, by his strictures on established characters, he must be allowed a place among the first artists of the present age; and perhaps the next will wonder how this could have been so long blind to his merit.

The history of the arts furnishes abundance of other examples of masters being formed almost magistra natura, in countries where there was not a deficiency of models for imitation. When we consider this, together with the natural propensity of all children to drawing, and besides, the almost innumerable difficulties that are to be surmounted before perfection can be attained, and that nothing can carry the artist successfully on, but a peculiar cast of thought, and60 uncommon vigour of mind,


the energy of which nothing can baffle, it is easily seen how preferable it would be to fix the prize at the end, rather than at the beginning of the race. The public patronage would, in England at least, be more advantageously, and less expensively employed, in contriving means for calling out the abilities, for great exertion, of those characters which are already formed. Might not the age and nation derive credit from employing the first artists of England in painting St. Paul's, and other churches which want decoration? This enlightened age is far enough removed from fanaticism, to charge such ornaments with the weakness of superstition. But lest you should say to me ‘ne sutor ultra crepidam’

I shall bid you good night.