Basire, Isaac (1704-1768) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 03
Basire, Isaac (1704-1768)

by Frederick Wedmore
Also contains: Basire, James (1730-1802), Basire, James (1769-1822), Basire, James (1796-1869).

BASIRE, ISAAC (1704–1768); BASIRE, JAMES (1730–1802); BASIRE, JAMES (1769–1822); BASIRE, JAMES (1796–1809), represent four generations of a family more or less known as engravers; but as three of the four men who practised their art bore the same Christian name, and as longevity allowed the life and work of one to overlap that of another or of the rest in a remarkable manner, it is with the utmost difficulty that the student traces their careers, and it is better to recognise frankly the impossibility of assigning with assurance to each member of the family his proper share in labour or reputation. Besides, there can be no doubt that more than once, in the long toil upon the copper-plate, a son was of assistance to a father, while his assistance was unrecognised and unacknowledged. But, broadly speaking, it may be said that the only Basire with whom the world of art will in the future much concern itself is that James Basire who was born on 6 Oct. 1730, and round his name and our imperfect record of his work the other members of his family who practised engraving may conveniently group themselves. For the James Basire of whom we speak the son of Isaac, the father of a second James, and the grandfather of a third James was the substantial master of his craft; he can hardly be assumed to have acquired from his father that measure of excellence with which he practised it, nor did he pass on to either his son or his grandson the fulness of his talent. He assisted their fortunes: it was to him that the reputation of their family was chiefly due. From his father he must have learnt something; he is likely to have studied the more publicly known work of Vertue, who preceded him in the office of engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, but we cannot resist the impression that the character of his draughtsmanship was strengthened, that its correctness was more assured, even if it did not become at the same time more picturesque, when Richard Dalton, an artist and an influential person, librarian to the Prince of Wales, and keeper of the royal drawings under George III, made him his companion in a long sojourn in Italy, which dates from 1763. It was certainly after that year that there were executed both the greater number and the more important of James Basire's plates. It was at about that time that in succession to Vertue he was himself appointed engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. In 1766 he engraved 'Lord Camden,' after Sir Joshua Reynolds, a picture that had been painted only two years before; in 1771 he engraved 'Pylades and Orestes,' after Benjamin West, who declared his own preference for the softer and more persuasive art of Woollett. The 'Lord Camden' is unquestionably the work of a master, yet not, we think, of a master who was wholly indifferent to the lighter charm of the imitative reproduction of texture. Fine as is Basire's modelling of the more essential portions of the design, nothing can be better expressed than the furs and chain, or than that lace which recalls the famous French engraver's portrait of Bossuet. And nine years earlier a free wild scribble on the plate, after Salvator Rosa's drawn portrait of 'Berninus, pictor, sculptor, et architectus,' shows at all events something of the flexibility of his talent. Mr. Samuel Redgrave reports of him, undoubtedly with justice, that he was noted for 'the correctness of his drawing and the fidelity of his burin' (Dictionary of Artists of the English School). It was in the year in which James Basire engraved the 'Pylades and Orestes' that there came to him at his house in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he was then established as prosperous and busy, the youth William Blake, whom he accepted as his pupil, and who remained with him as his apprentice for seven years. Something of the good disposition of Basire may be gathered from the record of his frequently considerate behaviour to Blake, and of Blake's opinion with regard to him. This would have had less importance than it has if Blake had worked for very long in Basire's own fashion; but what temperaments can have been more different, what ways of labour at last more inevitably apart, than those of the patient and plodding Basire and of Blake, who ceased to be impulsive only to become dreamful? Yet Blake more than once paid a fiery tribute to his master, praising him to the depreciation of Woollett, whose study was 'clean strokes and mossy tints,' and in whose works 'the etching was all,' though 'Woollett could not etch.' 'All that are called Woollett's,' continues Blake, 'were etched by Jack Brown,' and then he adds, 'Strange's prints were, when I knew him, all done by Aliamet and his French journeymen, whose names I forget.' We need not take Blake's utterance for gospel, but it is instructive, even à propos of Basire, to get this glimpse of the fashion in which, as it is suggested, the workroom of the line engraver in the eighteenth century was no more the studio of an original and single artist than is now the workshop of the engraver on wood. An art in which so much might be mechanical ceased to be due to the inspiration of individual taste, and in Basire's own case the skilled apprentice at this time—and later the son—had, it is fair to presume, an unacknowledged share in the labour. The late Mr. Gilchrist in his 'Life of William Blake' refers to a particular print, a 'Portrait of Queen Philippa from her Monument,' in Gough's 'Sepulchral Monuments,' whose publication was delayed until long after Blake had left Basire, and he tells us that Stothard often spoke of this as Blake's work, and he surmises that for the inscription 'Basire delineavit et sculpsit,' we may read, 'as in many other cases, W. Blake.' Redgrave says that the best specimens of his works are 'the beautiful plates in the "Vetusta Monumenta," published by the Society of Antiquaries;' but certainly among the most remarkable instances of a sterling skill in line engraving are the large 'Distribution of his Majesty's Maundy by the Sub-Almoner in the Ante-chapel at Whitehall,' published in 1789, and a similar subject published in 1777. Both are after drawings by Grimm, which were made, it seems, in 1773. But in the interpretation of the designs for the now famous 'Oxford Almanacks' Basire had to deal with a greater art, for here Turner, a giant even in his youth, had often been the draughtsman. It would be impossible to render Turner's work at that period better than in the print of the 'East End of Merton' and in that of the 'South View of Christ Church from the Meadows.' This last is dated 1799, and, unless the second James Basire was much engaged upon it, which we do not seriously believe, it shows that the most important of the members of this family retained full powers of hand and eye until he was close upon his seventieth year. He died on 6 Sept. 1802, at the house where Blake had found him thirty years before, and he was buried in a vault under Pentonville Chapel. He was twice married—to Anne Beaupuy and Isabella Turner, by the second of whom he was the father of James. A portrait of him by his son is prefixed to the eighth volume of Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes.’

The other members of his family who worked in the same profession may now be briefly mentioned. His father, Isaac, was born in 1704 and died in 1768. He has been styled a map engraver. He engraved the frontispiece to an edition of Bailey's dictionary (1755). Of the son—the first James—we have already spoken. James Basire the second, a Londoner like his forerunner, was born on 12 Nov. 1769, and died at Chigwell Wells on 13 May 1822. The appointment which his father received from the Society of Antiquaries was extended and continued to him, and there is enough to show that he was a good draughtsman, a capable and accomplished engraver. Inspired doubtless by his father, he seems to have worked upon the old lines, and when he is at his best the differences between his method and that of the most eminent member of his house are generally imperceptible. Much of his most careful work was published by the Society of Antiquaries in 1808; for instance, the series of plates engraved after an original drawing on a roll of vellum, representing ‘the death, funeral, etc. of John Islip, Abbot of Westminster, who died anno Domini 1532.’ With regard to more than one of the Oxford engravings the question may arise whether they are not by his hand. The ‘Worcester College,’ for instance, is stated to have been drawn by ‘W. Turner, R.A.,’ the ‘Inside View of the Hall of Christ Church’ by ‘J. M. W. Turner, R.A.;’ yet it was only after the death of the elder and greater Basire in 1802 that Turner could have rightly employed the initials of a full academician, though he had been an associate since 1799. Who then was the engraver of these things? The last Basire whose name has appeared in any dictionary was James, the fourth ‘Basire’ and the third ‘James.’ He was born in 1796, and died in London on 17 May 1869. He did some good work: amongst other pieces some pretty, yet in character rather petty, plates of Sussex country-houses, including Glynde Place and Glyndebourne House. Like his forefathers, he was a busy man, but much of his life fell upon a time when antiquarian record and research were less generously encouraged than in the older days, and he seems to have been personally disposed to wield a less severe burin than that whose employment had made the fame and secured the competence of the earlier members of his house. In his time the engraver's art had already experienced the temptation to be popular, while the popular taste was wholly uninstructed and childish. The eldest of the three Jameses—the first of the name—had worked steadily on through what was really nearly all the great period of English engraving. Hogarth was still living while he was but a young man; Robert Strange was but a few years his senior; Woollett, the most fashionable artist in line, and Earlom, an acknowledged master in mezzotint, were but a few years his juniors. Nor, of course, had the youngest of the three Jameses—the one with whom, as far as artistic matters are concerned, the family dies out—either the good or evil fortune to be without contemporaries of conspicuous talent. He must have known both the impulse and the depression that may come from rivalry. In the very middle of his uneventful and unillustrious career, the best of the line engravers after Turner—the engravers of his landscape—were doing, for the applause of a later generation, their most exquisite work. They were a goodly company, but the youngest of the Basires was not invited to join them. The particular order of skill of which they had given evidence was not, it is true, that for which the name of Basire had ever been celebrated, but—more than this—the accomplishments and sterling artistic virtues of the Basire family were represented but feebly in the person of its youngest member.

[Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School; Gilchrist's Life of Blake; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iii. 717–18.]

F. W.