A Joy For Ever/Art School Notes
TO THE MANSFIELD ART NIGHT CLASS
Oct. 14th, 1873.
166. It is to be remembered that the giving of prizes can only be justified on the ground of their being the reward of superior diligence and more obedient attention to the directions of the teacher. They must never be supposed, because practically they never can become, indications of superior genius; unless in so far as genius is likely to be diligent and obedient, beyond the strength and temper of the dull.
But it so frequently happens that the stimulus of vanity, acting on minds of inferior calibre, produces for a time an industry surpassing the tranquil and self-possessed exertion of real power, that it may be questioned whether the custom of bestowing prizes at all may not ultimately cease in our higher Schools of Art, unless in the form of substantial assistance given to deserving students who stand in need of it: a kind of prize, the claim to which, in its nature, would depend more on accidental circumstances, and generally good conduct, than on genius.
167. But, without any reference to the opinion of others, and without any chance of partiality in your own, there is one test by which you can all determine the rate of your real progress.
Examine, after every period of renewed industry, how far you have enlarged your faculty of admiration.
Consider how much more you can see, to reverence, in the work of masters; and how much more to love, in the work of nature.
This is the only constant and infallible test of progress. That you wonder more at the work of great men, and that you care more for natural objects.
You have often been told by your teachers to expect this last result: but I fear that the tendency of modern thought is to reject the idea of that essential difference in rank between one intellect and another, of which increasing reverence is the wise acknowledgment.
You may, at least in early years, test accurately your power of doing anything in the least rightly, by your increasing conviction that you never will be able to do it as well as it has been done by others.
168. That is a lesson, I repeat, which differs much, I fear, from the one you are commonly taught. The vulgar and incomparably false saying of Macaulay's, that the intellectual giants of one age become the intellectual pigmies of the next, has been the text of too many sermons lately preached to you.
You think you are going to do better things—each of you—than Titian and Phidias—write better than Virgil—think more wisely than Solomon.
My good young people, this is the foolishest, quite pre-eminently—perhaps almost the harmfullest—notion that could possibly be put into your empty little eggshells of heads. There is not one in a million of you who can ever be great in any thing. To be greater than the greatest that have been, is permitted perhaps to one man in Europe in the course of two or three centuries. But because you cannot be Handel and Mozart—is it any reason why you should not learn to sing "God save the Queen" properly, when you have a mind to? Because a girl cannot be prima donna in the Italian Opera, is it any reason that she should not learn to play a jig for her brothers and sisters in good time, or a soft little tune for her tired mother, or that she should not sing to please herself, among the dew, on a May morning? Believe me, joy, humility, and usefulness, always go together: as insolence with misery, and these both with destructiveness. You may learn with proud teachers how to throw down the Vendôme Column, and burn the Louvre, but never how to lay so much as one touch of safe colour, or one layer of steady stone: and if indeed there be among you a youth of true genius, be assured that he will distinguish himself first, not by petulance or by disdain, but by discerning firmly what to admire, and whom to obey.
169. It will, I hope, be the result of the interest lately awakened in art through our provinces, to enable each town of importance to obtain, in permanent possession, a few—and it is desirable there should be no more than a few—examples of consummate and masterful art: an engraving or two by Dürer—a single portrait by Reynolds—a fifteenth century Florentine drawing—a thirteenth century French piece of painted glass, and the like; and that, in every town occupied in a given manufacture, examples of unquestionable excellence in that manufacture should be made easily accessible in its civic museum.
I must ask you, however, to observe very carefully that I use the word manufacture in its literal and proper sense. It means the making of things by the hand. It does not mean the making them by machinery. And, while I plead with you for a true humility in rivalship with the works of others, I plead with you also for a just pride in what you really can honestly do yourself.
You must neither think your work the best ever done by man:—nor, on the other hand, think that the tongs and poker can do better—and that, although you are wiser than Solomon, all this wisdom of yours can be outshone by a shovelful of coke.
170. Let me take, for instance, the manufacture of lace, for which, I believe, your neighbouring town of Nottingham enjoys renown. There is still some distinction between machine-made and hand-made lace. I will suppose that distinction so far done away with, that, a pattern once invented, you can spin lace as fast as you now do thread. Everybody then might wear, not only lace collars, but lace gowns. Do you think they would be more comfortable in them than they are now in plain stuff—or that, when everybody could wear them, anybody would be proud of wearing them? A spider may perhaps be rationally proud of his own cobweb, even though all the fields in the morning are covered with the like, for he made it himself—but suppose a machine spun it for him?
Suppose all the gossamer were Nottingham-made, would a sensible spider be either prouder, or happier, think you?
A sensible spider! You cannot perhaps imagine such a creature. Yet surely a spider is clever enough for his own ends?
You think him an insensible spider, only because he cannot understand yours—and is apt to impede yours. Well, be assured of this, sense in human creatures is shown also, not by cleverness in promoting their own ends and interests, but by quickness in understanding other people's ends and interests, and by putting our own work and keeping our own wishes in harmony with theirs.
171. But I return to my point, of cheapness. You don't think that it would be convenient, or even creditable, for women to wash the doorsteps or dish the dinners in lace gowns? Nay, even for the most ladylike occupations—reading, or writing, or playing with her children—do you think a lace gown, or even a lace collar, so great an advantage or dignity to a woman? If you think of it, you will find the whole value of lace, as a possession, depends on the fact of its having a beauty which has been the reward of industry and attention.
That the thing itself is a prize—a thing which everybody cannot have. That it proves, by the look of it, the ability of its maker; that it proves, by the rarity of it, the dignity of its wearer—either that she has been so industrious as to save money, which can buy, say, a piece of jewellery, of gold tissue, or of fine lace—or else, that she is a noble person, to whom her neighbours concede, as an honour, the privilege of wearing finer dresses than they.
If they all choose to have lace too—if it ceases to be a prize—it becomes, does it not, only a cobweb?
The real good of a piece of lace, then, you will find, is that it should show, first, that the designer of it had a pretty fancy; next, that the maker of it had fine fingers; lastly, that the wearer of it has worthiness or dignity enough to obtain what is difficult to obtain, and common sense enough not to wear it on all occasions. I limit myself, in what farther I have to say, to the question of the manufacture—nay, of one requisite in the manufacture: that which I have just called a pretty fancy.
172. What do you suppose I mean by a pretty fancy? Do you think that, by learning to draw, and looking at flowers, you will ever get the ability to design a piece of lace beautifully? By no means. If that were so, everybody would soon learn to draw—everybody would design lace prettily—and then,—nobody would be paid for designing it. To some extent, that will indeed be the result of modern endeavour to teach design. But against all such endeavours, mother-wit, in the end, will hold her own.
But anybody who has this mother-wit, may make the exercise of it more pleasant to themselves, and more useful to other people, by learning to draw.
An Indian worker in gold, or a Scandinavian worker in iron, or an old French worker in thread, could produce indeed beautiful design out of nothing but groups of knots and spirals: but you, when you are rightly educated, may render your knots and spirals infinitely more interesting by making them suggestive of natural forms, and rich in elements of true knowledge.
173. You know, for instance, the pattern which for centuries has been the basis of ornament in Indian shawls—the bulging leaf ending in a spiral. The Indian produces beautiful designs with nothing but that spiral. You cannot better his powers of design, but you may make them more civil and useful by adding knowledge of nature to invention.
Suppose you learn to draw rightly, and, therefore, to know correctly the spirals of springing ferns—not that you may give ugly names to all the species of them—but that you may understand the grace and vitality of every hour of their existence. Suppose you have sense and cleverness enough to translate the essential character of this beauty into forms expressible by simple lines—therefore expressible by thread—you might then have a series of fern-patterns which would each contain points of distinctive interest and beauty, and of scientific truth, and yet be variable by fancy, with quite as much ease as the meaningless Indian one. Similarly, there is no form of leaf, of flower, or of insect, which might not become suggestive to you, and expressible in terms of manufacture, so as to be interesting, and useful to others.
174. Only don't think that this kind of study will ever "pay" in the vulgar sense.
It will make you wiser and happier. But do you suppose that it is the law of God, or nature, that people shall be paid in money for becoming wiser and happier? They are so, by that law, for honest work; and as all honest work makes people wiser and happier, they are indeed, in some sort, paid in money for becoming wise.
But if you seek wisdom only that you may get money, believe me, you are exactly on the foolishest of all fools' errands. "She is more precious than rubies"—but do you think that is only because she will help you to buy rubies?
"All the things thou canst desire are not to be compared to her." Do you think that is only because she will enable you to get all the things you desire? She is offered to you as a blessing in herself. She is the reward of kindness, of modesty, of industry. She is the prize of Prizes—and alike in poverty or in riches—the strength of your Life now, the earnest of whatever Life is to come.
- This address was written for the Art Night Class, Mansfield, but not delivered by me. In my absence—I forget from what cause, but inevitable—the Duke of St. Albans honoured me by reading it to the meeting.