Tag Archives: history painting

Campbell on Painting

Among the many trades and professions Campbell covers in his London Tradesman is that of painting. He begins with a general disquisition on painting, and the state of the art in England, and then moves on to various subcategories. In his judgments, I think he is reflective of his times, but he offers his opinions with his characteristic robustness. Here are some extracts from his much lengthier chapter.

The Painter must be born, not made; that is, if he has not a natural Genius, all the Learning and Art on Earth cannot make him eminent or tolerable in his Profession. It may be discovered n Children in their Infancy, by their Inclination to be scrawling upon the Wall, or Paper, with whatever they can get: If a Boy is observed to amuse himself in this Manner, without an accidental Impression, such as I mentioned in the first Chapter, it is a plain Indication of a Genius disposed for this Art; which must be early improved; for the Joints and Fingers, if soon used to the Pencil, become pliable, and naturally answer the Dictates of the Mind: whereas, when a Child grows old, before he is taught to handle these delicate Instruments, the Muscles are not easily moved, and he may still retain his Liking and Taste for Painting, but prove a bungling Performer.

“Pencil”, of course, at this time, includes brushes. “Bungler” seems to be one of Campbell’s favorite words. Next we have the hierarchy of painting.

The History Painter is by far the noblest Branch of this useful Art; though we have very few in England that excel or have been eminent in the Part: Sir Godfery Kneller and Sir James Thornhill are most revered by Connoisieurs of our Nation; but these come far short of the Italian Masters.

He goes into a long rant about how much the English have spent on Italian painting over the past decades, including this choice passage:

Nothing goes down but the Works of Foreigners; let our own Hands excel ever so much, their Works do not bring them one Tenth of the Price that is afforded the meanest Italian Bungler. That this Country might produce as good Painters as any other on Earth, if they were equally encouraged, is what no Man in his Wits will deny.

Bunglers again. However, Campbell does acknowledge that the British are good at portrait painting, although even at that, talent is not enough.

Our present Excellence in Painting, consists in the Portrait Way; and in this, all our Neighbours justly yield us the Preheminence. There are as good Prices give, and Pieces as well executed in this Branch as any where on Earth; yet even to prosper in this Business depends oftener upon Chance, or Caprice than real Merit. The good Face-Painter must have the Name of having travelled to Rome; and when he comes Home, he must be so happy as to please some great Personage, who is reputed a Connoisieur, or he remains in continual Obscurity. If he should paint a Cobler, with all the Beauties of Art, and the most glaring Likeness, he must paint only Coblers, and be satisfied with their Price; but if he draws a Duke, or some dignified Person, though his Features should prove so strong that the mere Signpost Dauber could not fail to hit the Likeness, he becomes immediately famous and fixes what Price he pleases on his Work. This undiscerning Foible is a great Discouragement to modest Merit, and must check the Growth of the Art in every Country where it prevails. It is strange that a Nobleman would not pique himself, and take a Pride in searching for and encouraging concealed Worth; since none could remember a Horace but must hear of a Mecaenas, who received more Fame by the Countenance he gave that Poet, than by the high Honours he received from the Emperor of the World.

He goes on to Landskips, and the education required of the painter, before getting to advice to the parents.

By this general View of the liberal Part of this Art, it may be observed, that the true Genius for Painting is rarely to be met with; that the Education equired to compleat the young Student in this Profession, is expensive; and that, after he has attained all the Perfection which Art and his natural Endowments are capable of affording him, his Employment depends upon a happy Introduction to Business by some eminent Patron, and the Continuance of it be a large Acquaintance; therefore Parents ought to be cautious how they plunge a Child into this Business, to depend on it for his Livelihood, wiothout being previously assured that they can go through the Expense, and procure him those Friends to usher his Merit into the Knowledge of the Public. They ought likewise to be satisfied, that the Youth has a healthy Constitution: It does not require a robust Person; but he ought to have no Indication of a Consumption or a pthisicky Disposition, or any nervous Disorder: Persons of this Habit of Body have seldom a steady Hand; and they are apt to be affected by the Smel of the Oyls with which they are daily conversant. A sober Disposition, free from all Excess in the Use of Women of Wine, is absolutely necessary, not only to preserve the Hand from Tremors (the constant Attendant of Debauches of these Kinds) but to keep the Understanding clear and the Judgment unclouded.

I’m sure all London artists heeded these proscriptions, and if your “young student” wants to be an Art major, you have been warned. It’s expensive and uncertain. Some things haven’t changed that much.

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