Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Mural Painting

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Arts and Crafts Essays
Of Mural Painting
by F. Madox Brown


OF MURAL PAINTING


There seems no precise reason why the subject of this note should differ much from that of Mr. Crane’s article on "Decorative Painting". "Mural Painting" need not, as such, consist of any one sort of painting more than another. "Decorative Painting" does seem, on the other hand, to indicate a certain desire or undertaking to render the object painted more pleasant to the beholder’s eye.

From long habit, however, chiefly induced by the constant practice of the Italians of modern times, "Mural Painting" has come to be looked upon as figure painting (in fact, the human figure exclusively) on walls — and no other sort of objects can sufficiently impart that dignity to a building which it seems to crave for. I can think of no valid reason why a set of rooms, or walls, should not be decorated with animals in lieu of "humans," as the late Mr. Trelawney used to call us: one wall to be devoted to monkeys, a second to be filled in with tigers, a third to be given up to horses, etc. etc. I know men in England, and, I believe, some artists, who would be delighted with the substitution. But I hope the general sense of the public would be set against such subjects, and the lowering effects of them on every one, and the kind of humiliation we should feel at knowing them to exist.

I have been informed that in Berlin the walls of the rooms where the antique statues are kept have been painted with mixed subjects representing antique buildings with antique Greek views and landscapes, to back up, as it were, the statues. I must own it, that without having seen the decoration in question, I feel filled with extreme aversion for the plan. The more so when one considers the extreme unlikelihood of the same being made tolerable in colour at Berlin. I have also been told that some painters in the North of England, bitten with a desire to decorate buildings, have painted one set of rooms with landscapes. This, without the least knowledge of the works in question, as landscapes, I must allow I regret. There is, it seems to me, an unbridgeable chasm, not to be passed, between landscape art and the decoration of walls; for the very essence of the landscape art is distance, whereas the very essence of the wall-picture is its solidity, or, at least, its not appearing to be a hole in the wall. On the matter of subjects fit for painting on walls I may have a few words to say farther on in this paper, but first I had better set down what little I have to advise with regard to the material and mode of executing.

The old-fashioned Italian or "Buon Fresco" I look upon as practically given up in this country, and every other European country that has not a climate to equal Italy. If the climate of Paris will not admit of this process, how much less is our damp, foggy, changeable atmosphere likely to put up with it for many years! It is true that the frescoes of William Dyce have lasted for some thirty years without apparent damage; but also it is the case that the Queen’s Robing Rooms in the House of Lords have been specially guarded against atmospheric changes of temperature. Next to real fresco, there has been in repute for a time the waterglass process, in which Daniel Maclise’s great paintings have been executed. I see no precise reason why these noble works should not last, and defy climate for many, many long years yet; though from want of experience he very much endangered this durability through the too lavish application of the medium. But in Germany, the country of waterglass, the process is already in bad repute. The third alternative, "spirit fresco," or what we in England claim as the Gambier-Parry process, has, I understand, superseded it. I have myself painted in this system seven works on the walls of the Manchester Town Hall, and have had no reason to complain of their behaviour. Since beginning the series, however, a fresh change has come over the fortunes of mural art in the fact that, in France (what most strongly recommends itself to common sense), the mural painters have now taken to painting on canvas, which is afterwards cemented, or what the French call "maronflée," on to the wall. White-lead and oil, with a very small admixture of rosin melted in oil, are the ingredients used. It is laid on cold and plentifully on the wall and on the back of the picture, and the painting pressed down with a cloth or handkerchief: nothing further being required, saving to guard the edges of the canvas from curling up before the white-lead has had time to harden. The advantage of this process of cementing lies in the fact that with each succeeding year it must become harder and more like stone in its consistency. The canvases may be prepared as if for oil painting, and painted with common oil-colours flatted (or matted) afterwards by gum-elemi and spike-oil. Or the canvas may be prepared with the Gambier- Parry colour and painted in that very mat medium. The canvases should if possible be fine in texture, as better adapted for adhering to the wall. The advantage of this process is that, should at any time, through neglect, damp invade the wall, and the canvas show a tendency to get loose, it would be easy to replace it; or the canvas might be altogether detached from the wall and strained as a picture.

I must now return to the choice of subject, a matter of much importance, but on which it is difficult to give advice. One thing, however, may be urged as a rule, and that is, that very dark or Rembrandtesque subjects are particularly unsuited for mural paintings. I cannot go into the reasons for this, but a slight experiment ought to satisfy the painter, having once heard the principle enunciated: that is, if he belong to the class likely to succeed at such work.

Another sine qua non as to subject is that the painter himself must be allowed to select it. It is true that certain limitations may be accorded — for instance, the artist may be required to select a subject with certain tendencies in it — but the actual invention of the subject and working out of it must be his. In fact, the painter himself is the only judge of what he is likely to carry out well and of the subjects that are paintable. Then much depends on whom the works are for; if for the general public, and carried out with their money, care (it seems to me but fair) should be taken that the subjects are such as they can understand and take interest in. If, on the contrary, you are painting for highly-cultured people with a turn for Greek myths, it is quite another thing; then, such a subject as "Eros reproaching his brother Anteros for his coldness" might be one offering opportunities for shades of sentiment suited to the givers of the commissions concerned. But for such as have not been trained to entertain these refinements, downright facts, either in history or in sociology, are calculated most to excite the imagination. It is not always necessary for the spectator to be exact in his conclusions. I remember once at Manchester, the members of a Young Men’s Christian Association had come to a meeting in the great hall. Some of them were there too soon, and so were looking round the room. One observed: "What’s this about?" His friend answered: "Fallen off a ladder, the police are running him in!" Well, this was not quite correct. A wounded young Damsh chieftain was being hurried out of Manchester on his comrades’ shoulders, with a view to save his life. The Phrygian helmets of the Danes indicated neither firemen nor policemen; but the idea was one of misfortune, and care bestowed on it — and did as well, and showed sympathy in a somewhat uncultivated, though well-intentioned, class of Lancastrians. On the other hand, I have noticed that subjects that interest infallibly all classes, educated or illiterate, are religious subjects. It is not a question of piety — but comes from the simple breadth of poetry and humanity usually involved in this class of subject. That the amount of religiosity in either spectator or producer has nothing to do with the feeling is clear if we consider.

The Spaniards are one of the most religious peoples ever known, and yet their art is singularly deficient in this quality. Were there ever two great painters as wanting in the sacred feeling as Velasquez and Murillo? and yet, in all probability, they were more religious than ourselves.

It only remains for me to point to the fact that mural painting, when it has been practised jointly by those who were at the same time easel-painters, has invariably raised those painters to far higher flights and instances of style than they seem capable of in the smaller path. Take the examples left us, say by Raphael and Michel Angelo, or some of the earlier masters, such as the "Fulminati" of Signorelli, compared with his specimens in our National Gallery; or the works left on walls by even less favoured artists, such as Domenichino and Andrea del Sarto, or the French de la Roche’s "Hémicycle," or our own great painters Dyce and Maclise’s frescoes; the same rise in style, the same improvement, is everywhere to be noticed, both in drawing, in colour, and in flesh-painting.

F. MADOX BROWN.