You're here: » Articles Home » Charles Kingsley » True Words for Brave Men, 27 - PICTURE GALLERIES

True Words for Brave Men, 27 - PICTURE GALLERIES

By Charles Kingsley

      Picture-galleries should be the working-man's paradise, {230} a garden of pleasure, to which he goes to refresh his eyes and heart with beautiful shapes and sweet colouring, when they are wearied with dull bricks and mortar, and the ugly colourless things which fill the town, the workshop and the factory. For, believe me, there is many a road into our hearts besides our ears and brains; many a sight, and sound, and scent, even, of which we have never thought at all, sinks into our memory, and helps to shape our characters; and thus children brought up among beautiful sights and sweet sounds will most likely show the fruits of their nursing, by thoughtfulness and affection, and nobleness of mind, even by the expression of the countenance. The poet Wordsworth, talking of training up a beautiful country girl, says:--

      "The floating clouds their state shall lend
      To her--for her the willow bend;
      Nor shall she fail to see,
      Even in the motions of the storm,
      Grace which shall mould the maiden's form,
      By silent sympathy.

      And she shall bend her ear
      In many a secret place
      Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
      And beauty, born of murmuring sound,
      Shall pass into her face."

      Those who live in towns should carefully remember this, for their own sakes, for their wives' sakes, for their children's sakes. Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful. Beauty is God's handwriting--a wayside sacrament; welcome it in every fair face, every fair sky, every fair flower, and thank Him for it, who is the fountain of all loveliness, and drink it in, simply and earnestly, with all your eyes; it is a charmed draught, a cup of blessing.

      Therefore I said that picture-galleries should be the townsman's paradise of refreshment. Of course, if he can get the real air, the real trees, even for an hour, let him take it, in God's name; but how many a man who cannot spare time for a daily country walk, may well slip into the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (or the South Kensington Museum), or any other collection of pictures, for ten minutes. That garden, at least, flowers as gaily in winter as in summer. Those noble faces on the wall are never disfigured by grief or passion. There, in the space of a single room, the townsman may take his country walk--a walk beneath mountain peaks, blushing sunsets, with broad woodlands spreading out below it; a walk through green meadows, under cool mellow shades, and overhanging rocks, by rushing brooks, where he watches and watches till he seems to hear the foam whisper, and to see the fishes leap; and his hard worn heart wanders out free, beyond the grim city-world of stone and iron, smoky chimneys, and roaring wheels, into the world of beautiful things--the world which shall be hereafter--ay, which shall be! Believe it, toil-worn worker, in spite of thy foul alley, thy crowded lodging, thy grimed clothing, thy ill-fed children, thy thin, pale wife--believe it, thou too and thine, will some day have your share of beauty. God made you love beautiful things only because He intends hereafter to give you your fill of them. That pictured face on the wall is lovely, but lovelier still may the wife of thy bosom be when she meets thee on the resurrection morn! Those baby cherubs in the old Italian painting--how gracefully they flutter and sport among the soft clouds, full of rich young life and baby joy! Yes, beautiful indeed, but just such a one at this very moment is that once pining, deformed child of thine, over whose death-cradle thou wast weeping a month ago; now a child-angel, whom thou shalt meet again never to part! Those landscapes, too, painted by loving, wise old Claude, two hundred years ago, are still as fresh as ever. How still the meadows are! how pure and free that vault of deep blue sky! No wonder that thy worn heart, as thou lookest, sighs aloud, "Oh that I had wings as a dove, then would I flee away and be at rest." Ah, but gayer meadows and bluer skies await thee in the world to come--that fairy-land made real--"the new heavens and the new earth," which God has prepared for the pure and the loving, the just and the brave, who have conquered in this sore fight of life!

      These thoughts may seem all too far-fetched to spring up in a man's head from merely looking at pictures; but it is not so in practice. See, now, such thoughts have sprung up in my head; how else did I write them down here? And why should not they, and better ones, too, spring up in your heads, friends? It is delightful to watch in a picture-gallery some street-boy enjoying himself; how first wonder creeps over his rough face, and then a sweeter, more earnest, awestruck look, till his countenance seems to grow handsomer and nobler on the spot, and drink in and reflect unknowingly, the beauty of the picture he is studying. See how some soldier's face will light up before the painting which tells him a noble story of bye-gone days. And why? Because he feels as if he himself had a share in the story at which he looks. They may be noble and glorious men who are painted there; but they are still men of like passions with himself, and his man's heart understands them and glories in them; and he begins, and rightly, to respect himself the more when he finds that he, too, has a fellow-feeling with noble men and noble deeds.

      I say, pictures raise blessed thoughts in me--why not in you, my brothers? Your hearts are fresh, thoughtful, kindly; you only want to have these pictures explained to you, that you may know why and how they are beautiful, and what feelings they ought to stir in your minds. Look at the portraits on the walls, and let me explain one or two. Often the portraits are simpler than large pictures, and they speak of real men and women who once lived on this earth of ours--generally of remarkable and noble men--and man should be always interesting to man.


      "Any one who goes to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, may see two large and beautiful pictures--the nearer of the two labelled 'Titian,' representing Bacchus leaping from a car drawn by leopards. The other, labelled 'Francia,' representing the Holy Family seated on a sort of throne, with several figures arranged below--one of them a man pierced with arrows. Between these two, low down, hangs a small picture, about two feet square, containing only the portrait of an old man, in a white cap and robe, and labelled on the picture itself, 'Joannes Bellinus.' Now this old man is a very ancient friend of mine, and has comforted my heart, and preached me a sharp sermon, too, many a time. I never enter that gallery without having five minutes' converse with him; and yet he has been dead at least three hundred years, and, what is more, I don't even know his name. But what more do I know of a man by knowing his name? Whether the man's name be Brown, or whether he has as many names and titles as a Spanish grandee, what does that tell me about the man?--the spirit and character of the man--what the man will say when he is asked--what the man will do when he is stirred up to action? The man's name is part of his clothes; his shell; his husk. Change his name and all his titles, you don't change him--'a man's a man for a' that,' as Burns says; and a goose a goose. Other men gave him his name; but his heart and his spirit--his love and his hatred--his wisdom and his folly--his power to do well and ill; those God and himself gave him. I must know those, and then I know the man. Let us see what we can make out from the picture itself about the man whom it represents. In the first place, we may see by his dress that he was in his day the Doge (or chief magistrate) of Venice--the island city, the queen of the seas. So we may guess that he had many a stirring time of it, and many a delicate game to play among those tyrannous and covetous old merchant-princes who had elected him; who were keeping up their own power at the expense of everyone's liberty, by spies and nameless accusers, and secret councils, tortures, and prisons, whose horrors no one ever returned to describe. Nay, we may guess just the very men with whom he had to deal--the very battles he may have seen fought.

      "But all these are circumstances--things which stand round the man (as the word means), and not the whole man himself--not the character and heart of the man: that we must get from the portrait; and if the portrait is a truly noble portrait we shall get it. If it is a merely vulgar picture, we shall get the man's dress and shape of his face, but little or no expression: if it is a pathetic portrait, or picture of passion, we shall get one particular temporary expression of his face--perhaps joy, sorrow, anger, disgust--but still one which may have passed any moment, and left his face quite different; but if the picture is one of the noblest kind, we shall read the man's whole character there; just all his strength and weakness, his kindliness or his sternness, his thoughtfulness or his carelessness, written there once and for ever;--what he would be, though all the world passed away; what his immortal and eternal soul will be, unless God or the devil changed his heart, to all eternity.

      "We may see at once that this man has been very handsome; but it is a peculiar sort of beauty. How delicate and graceful all the lines in his face are!--he is a gentleman of God's own making, and not of the tailor's making. He is such a gentleman as I have seen among working men and nine- shilling-a-week labourers, often and often; his nobleness is in his heart--it is God's gift, therefore it shows in his noble looking face. No matter whether he were poor or rich; all the rags in the world, all the finery in the world, could not have made him look like a snob or a swell. He was a thoughtful man, too; no one with such a forehead could have been a trifler: a kindly man, too, and honest--one that may have played merrily enough with his grandchildren, and put his hand in his purse for many a widow and orphan. Look what a bright, clear, straightforward, gentle look he has, almost a smile; but he has gone through too many sad hours to smile much: he is a man of many sorrows, like all true and noble rulers; and, like a high mountain-side, his face bears the furrows of many storms. He has had a stern life of it, with the cares of a great nation on his shoulders. He has seen that in this world there is no rest for those who live like true men: you may see it by the wrinkles in his brow, and the sharp-cut furrows in his cheeks, and those firm-set, determined lips. His eyes almost show the marks of many noble tears,--tears such as good men shed over their nation's sins; but that, too, is past now. He has found out his path, and he will keep it; and he has no misgiving now about what God would have him do, or about the reward which God has laid up for the brave and just; and that is what makes his forehead so clear and bright, while his very teeth are clenched with calm determination. And by the look of those high cheek bones, and that large square jaw, he is a strong-willed man enough, and not one to be easily turned aside from his purpose by any man alive, or by any woman either, or by his own passions and tempers. One fault of character, I think, he may perhaps have had much trouble with--I mean bitterness and contemptuousness. His lips are very thin; he may have sneered many a time, when he was younger, at the follies of the world which that great, lofty, thoughtful brain and clear eye of his told him were follies; but he seems to have got past that too. Such is the man's character: a noble, simple, commanding old man, who has conquered many hard things, and, hardest of all, has conquered himself, and now is waiting calm for his everlasting rest. God send us all the same.

      "Now consider the deep insight of old John Bellini, who could see all this, and put it down there for us with pencil and paint. No doubt there was something in Bellini's own character which made him especially best able to paint such a man; for we always understand those who are most like ourselves; and therefore you may tell pretty nearly a painter's own character by seeing what sort of subjects he paints, and what his style of painting is. And a noble, simple, brave, godly man was old John Bellini, who never lost his head, though princes were flattering him and snobs following him with shouts and blessings for his noble pictures of the Venetian victories, as if he had been a man sent from God Himself, as indeed he was--all great painters are; for who but God makes beauty? Who gives the loving heart, and the clear eye, and the graceful taste to see beauty and to copy it, and to set forth on canvas, or in stone, the noble deeds of patriots dying for their country? To paint truly patriotic pictures well, a man must have his heart in his work--he must be a true patriot himself, as John Bellini was (if I mistake not, he had fought for his country himself in more than one shrewd fight). And what makes men patriots, or artists, or anything noble at all, but the spirit of the living God? Those great pictures of Bellini's are no more; they were burnt a few years afterwards, with the magnificent national hall in which they hung; but the spirit of them is not passed away. Even now, Venice, Bellini's beloved mother-land, is rising, new-born, from long weary years of Austrian slavery, and trying to be free and great once more; and young Italian hearts are lighting up with the thoughts of her old fleets and her old victories, her merchants and her statesmen, whom John Bellini drew. Venice sinned, and fell; and sorely has she paid for her sins, through two hundred years of shame, and profligacy, and slavery. And she has broken the oppressor's yoke. God send her a new life! May she learn by her ancient sins! May she learn by her ancient glories!

      "You will forgive me for forgetting my picture to talk of such things. But we must return. Look back at what I said about the old portrait--the clear, calm, victorious character of the old man's face, and see how all the rest of the picture agrees with it, in a complete harmony. The dress, the scenery, the light and shade, the general 'tone' of colour should all agree with the character of the face--all help to bring our minds into that state in which we may best feel and sympathise with the human beings painted. Now here, because the face is calm and grand, the colour and the outlines are quiet and grand likewise. How different these colours are from that glorious 'Holy Family' of Francia's, next to it on the right; or from that equally glorious 'Bacchus and Ariadne' of Titian's, on the left! Yet all three are right, each for its own subject. Here you have no brilliant reds, no rich warm browns; no luscious greens. The white robe and cap give us the thought of purity and simplicity; the very golden embroidery on them, which marks his rank, is carefully kept back from being too gaudy. Everything is sober here; and the lines of the dress, how simple they all are--no rich curves, no fluttering drapery. They would be quite stiff if it were not for that waving line of round tassels in front, which break the extreme straightness and heaviness of the splendid robe; and all pointing upwards towards that solemn, thin, calm face, with its high white cap, rising like the peak of a snow mountain against the dark, deep, boundless blue sky beyond. That is a grand thought of Bellini's. You do not see the man's hands; he does not want them now, his work is done. You see no landscape behind--no buildings. All earth's ways and sights are nothing to him now; there is nothing but the old man and the sky--nothing between him and the heaven now, and he knows it and is glad. A few months more, and those way-worn features shall have crumbled to their dust, and that strong, meek spirit shall be in the abyss of eternity, before the God from whence it came.

      "So says John Bellini, with art more cunning than words. And if this paper shall make one of you look at that little picture with fresh interest, and raise one strong and solemn longing in you to die the death of the righteous, and let your last end be like his who is painted there--then I shall rejoice in the only payment I desire to get, for this my afternoon's writing."


      Nature is infinitely more wonderful than the highest art; and in the commonest hedgeside leaf lies a mystery and beauty greater than that of the greatest picture, the noblest statue--as infinitely greater as God's work is infinitely greater than man's. But to those who have no leisure to study nature in the green fields (and there are now-a-days too many such, though the time may come when all will have that blessing), to such I say, go to the British Museum, Bloomsbury Square; there at least, if you cannot go to nature's wonders, some of nature's wonders are brought to you.

      The British Museum is my glory and joy; because it is one of the only places which is free to English citizens as such--where the poor and the rich may meet together, and before those works of God's Spirit, "who is no respecter of persons," feel that "the Lord is the maker of them all." In the British Museum and the National Gallery, the Englishman may say, "Whatever my coat or my purse, I am an Englishman, and therefore I have a right here. I can glory in these noble halls, as if they were my own house."

      English commerce, the joint enterprise and industry of the poor sailor as well as the rich merchant, brought home these treasures from foreign lands; and those glorious statues--though it was the wealth and taste of English noblemen and gentlemen (who in that proved themselves truly noble and gentle) who placed them here, yet it was the genius of English artists--men at once above and below all ranks--men who have worked their way up, not by money or birth, but by worth and genius, which taught the noble and wealthy the value of those antiques, and which proclaimed their beauty to the world. The British Museum is a truly equalising place, in the deepest and most spiritual sense. And it gives the lie, too, to that common slander, "that the English are not worthy of free admission to valuable and curious collections, because they have such a trick of seeing with their fingers; such a trick of scribbling their names, of defiling and disfiguring works of art. On the Continent it may do, but you cannot trust the English."

      This has been, like many other untruths, so often repeated, that people now take it for granted; but I believe that it is utterly groundless, and I say so on the experience of the British Museum and the National Gallery. In the only two cases, I believe, in which injury has been done to anything in either place, the destroyers were neither working-men, nor even poor reckless heathen street-boys, but persons who had received what is too often miscalled "a liberal education." But national property will always be respected, because all will be content, while they feel that they have their rights, and all will be careful while they feel that they have a share in the treasure.

      Go to the British Museum in Easter week, and see there hundreds of thousands, of every rank and age, wandering past sculptures and paintings, which would be ruined by a blow--past jewels and curiosities, any one of which would buy many a poor soul there a month's food and lodging--only protected by a pane of glass, if by that; and then see not a thing disfigured--much less stolen. Everywhere order, care, attention, honest pride in their country's wealth and science; earnest reverence for the mighty works of God, and of the God-inspired. I say, the people of England prove themselves worthy of free admission to all works of art, and it is therefore the duty of those who can to help them to that free admission.

      What a noble, and righteous, and truly brotherly plan it would be, if all classes would join to form a free National Gallery of Art and Science, which might combine the advantages of the present Polytechnic, Society of Arts, and British Institution, gratis. {243} Manufacturers and men of science might send thither specimens of their new inventions. The rich might send, for a few months in the year--as they do now to the British Institution--ancient and modern pictures, and not only pictures, but all sorts of curious works of art and nature, which are now hidden in their drawing-rooms and libraries. There might be free liberty to copy any object, on the copyist's name and residence being registered. And surely artists and men of science might be found, with enough of the spirit of patriotism and love, to explain gratuitously to all comers, whatever their rank or class, the wonders of the Museum. I really believe that if once the spirit of brotherhood got abroad among us; if men once saw that here was a vast means of educating, and softening and uniting those who have no leisure for study, and few means of enjoyment, except the gin- shop and Cremorne Gardens; if they could but once feel that here was a project, equally blessed for rich and poor, the money for it would be at once forthcoming from many a rich man, who is longing to do good, if he could only be shown the way; and from many a poor journeyman, who would gladly contribute his mite to a truly national museum. All that is wanted is the spirit of self-sacrifice, patriotism and brotherly love--which God alone can give--which I believe He is giving more and more in these very days.

      I never felt this more strongly than one day, as I was looking in at the windows of a splendid curiosity-shop in Oxford Street, at a case of humming-birds. I was gloating over the beauty of those feathered jewels, and then wondering what was the meaning, what was the use of it all? why those exquisite little creatures should have been hidden for ages, in all their splendours of ruby, and emerald, and gold in the South American forests, breeding and fluttering and dying, that some dozen out of all those millions might be brought over here to astonish the eyes of men. And as I asked myself, why were all these boundless varieties, these treasures of unseen beauty, created? my brain grew dizzy between pleasure and thought; and, as always happens when one is most innocently delighted, "I turned to share the joy," as Wordsworth says; and next to me stood a huge, brawny coal-heaver, in his shovel hat, and white stockings and high-lows, gazing at the humming-birds as earnestly as myself. As I turned he turned, and I saw a bright manly face, with a broad, soot-grimmed forehead, from under which a pair of keen flashing eyes gleamed wondering, smiling sympathy into mine. In that moment we felt ourselves friends. If we had been Frenchmen, we should, I suppose, have rushed into each other's arms and "fraternised" upon the spot. As we were a pair of dumb, awkward Englishmen, we only gazed a half-minute, staring into each other's eyes, with a delightful feeling of understanding each other, and then burst out both at once with, "Isn't that beautiful?" "Well, that is!" And then both turned back again, to stare at our humming-birds.

      I never felt more thoroughly than at that minute (though, thank God, I had often felt it before) that all men were brothers; that this was not a mere political doctrine, but a blessed God-ordained fact; that the party-walls of rank and fashion and money were but a paper prison of our own making, which we might break through any moment by a single hearty and kindly feeling; that the one spirit of God was given without respect of persons; that the beautiful things were beautiful alike to the coal- heaver and the parson; and that before the wondrous works of God and of God's inspired genius, the rich and the poor might meet together, and feel that whatever the coat or the creed may be, "A man's a man for a' that," and one Lord the maker of them all.

      For, believe me, my friends, rich and poor--and I beseech you to think deeply over this great truth--that men will never be joined in true brotherhood by mere plans to give them a self-interest in common, as the Socialists have tried to do. No: to feel for each other, they must first feel with each other. To have their sympathies in common, they must have not one object of gain, but an object of admiration in common; to know that they are brothers, they must feel that they have one Father; and one way to feel that they have one common Father, is to see each other wondering, side by side, at His glorious works!


      {222} Prescott's "History of the Conquest of Mexico." See Book v., ch. 1.

      {230} Mr. Kingsley wrote these papers for London working-men, but his words apply just as much to soldiers in London barracks, as to artizans. He thought much of the good of pictures, and all beautiful things for hard-worked men who could see such things in public galleries, though they could not afford to have them in their own homes.

      {243} Since this paper was written in 1848 many such institutions have been opened, at South Kensington, and in several great towns.

Back to Charles Kingsley index.


Like This Page?

© 1999-2019, All rights reserved.