Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Samuel Prout

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SAMUEL PROUT

HAS full justice been done to Samuel Prout, the artist? I doubt it. True that Ruskin recognized his great merits, but the public generally has not acknowledged, indeed, has not realized, the revolution in taste due mainly to this shy, unassertive man.

What man in his century had dreamed, before Prout issued his sketches, that there was exquisite beauty in old English cottages? He arose at a time when attention was being drawn to Gothic architecture, and there was a growing recognition of its merits in cathedral, church, and mansion. Architects with tape and foot-rule measured and planned, with lead-tape took mouldings. They learned the principles of Gothic and Tudor architecture. They gathered and studied details. But the soul, the spirit escaped them. When they undertook to design and build new churches and mansions, they turned out very poor, uninteresting stuff. Rickman erected the new courts of St. John's College, Cambridge, a monstrous pile of ugliness, bad even in its details. Blore built the chapel of Marlborough College, a horror, now happily transformed. Sir Gilbert Scott designed numerous churches, all of borrowed detail, and all utterly uninteresting. It was the same on the Continent. In France, Viollet le Due studied throughout France, knew the purest French styles intimately, but could produce nothing good
Samuel Prout - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg

SAMUEL PROUT
From a drawing in the possession of Samuel Gillespie Prout, Esq.

himself. It was the same with Heideloff in Germany. The inspiration of the Gothic or medieval soul escaped them. It was not to be caught with tape and rule. Their buildings proved correct in many cases, but all cold, unimpressive, and uninteresting. But Prout caught the spirit. He did not measure and scale, but he drew with the breath of the genius of olden time fanning his heart.

And the cottage! Churches and mansions were erected by the new Gothic school throughout the land; they were accepted, but did not please. But no one thought of the cottage, unless it was to be a lodge at a gate. Rows of hideous dwellings for the artisan and the labourer continued to be erected, with tall, lanky doors, a fanlight over them, lean windows, no gables, nothing picturesque about them.

Jerrybuilders covered the suburbs of our towns with their repulsive dwellings, their only idea of decoration being elaborate hip-knobs and ridge tiles. Retired tradesmen and farmers built their residences, disfiguring the countryside with square blocks, a door in the face, a window on each side, and three windows in the upper story, the roof pinched together from all four sides, and two chimneys standing up like donkey's ears, one on each side of the face. Not till this century, with the creation of the garden city, has Prout's idea of the dwelling for artisan and labourer, as a thing of beauty, been carried out.

Samuel Prout was born at Plymouth 17 September, 1783. The Prouts were a respectable Cornish family of St. Stephen's by Launceston, and an heiress of Grenville had married a Prout, and the sister and coheiress a Cary. The family has laid claim to the arms of Prouse of Gidleigh, but can prove no connexion.

Samuel was educated at the Plymouth Grammar School, under the eccentric, worthy Dr. Bidlake, who had an eye for the picturesque, and delighted in taking out his young pupils, Prout and Benjamin Haydon, on holidays for long walks into the country, and pointing out to them scenes of beauty. Dr. Bidlake was, moreover, a bit of a poet, as poets went in those days. He was a good and kindly man, and endeared himself to his pupils.

Prout's mother was a daughter of a Mr. Cater, an enterprising Plymouth shipping venturer.

Samuel was a delicate boy. One hot autumn day he was out nutting when he was discovered by a farmer lying moaning under a hedge, with his hands to his head. He had been prostrated by sunstroke, and he was carried home in a state of insensibility. From that day forward he was subject to violent attacks of headache, returning at short intervals, and preventing him from sticking to business. Indeed, a week seldom passed without his being confined to his room for a day or two, unable to raise his head from the pillow, and refusing all food. Speaking in later years of his life-long infirmity, he says: "Up to this hour I have to endure a great fight of afflictions; can I therefore be sufficiently thankful for the merciful gift of a buoyant spirit?"

His father, finding him unsuited for any other profession, allowed him to follow his artistic bent, but he was chiefly self-taught. He made friends with young Opie, who painted his portrait. Another was Ambrose Bowden Johns, born in Plymouth in 1776. He had been a bookseller, but his passion was for landscape art, and he gave up his business to become a painter. Johns had the advantage of age and experience, and he was able to give Prout much good advice. Noticing that his young friend loved chiefly to draw old houses and architectural scraps, he urged him to devote himself especially to that line, and not to cultivate landscape and figure drawing. Boats Samuel ever delighted in, and sketched them excellently.

"Thenceforth," to quote Ruskin, "Prout devoted himself to ivy-mantled bridges, mossy water-mills, and rock-built cottages."

But he knew nothing of perspective, and his drawings were sadly inaccurate in this respect. He himself wrote in after years, as the result of his own experience: "Perspective is generally considered a dry and distasteful study, and a prejudice exists with many against everything like geometrical drawings; but without a knowledge of its rules no object can be properly delineated, and their application alone prevents absurdities and secures symmetry and truth."

The Earl of Mount Edgcumbe took notice of the intelligent, sensitive boy, and detected that there was talent in him. He invited him to Mount Edgcumbe House to see and examine for himself the paintings and pictures there; and the Earl became so interested in the young artist, and would have him so frequently with him, that Samuel at last acquired the nickname of "the Earl's puppy dog."

Samuel Prout was also passionately fond of music, and learned to play on the organ, the piano, and the flute. In early days, when not out sketching by himself or with Dr. Bidlake or Haydon, he would steal to St. Andrew's to play the organ, at that time the only organ in the town.

Meanwhile, on every sunny day, when the soft south wind breathed, Samuel, pencil and sketch-book in hand, strayed about the villages round Plymouth, and made his sketches, not of bold architectural structures, but of cottages and little bits of street scenery. He loved the old wall where the granite blocks were irregularly jointed, and saxifrage, sedum, and wallflower had rooted themselves in the interstices. He loved to stray by the seashore or to wander about Sutton Pool and the Barbican and draw the ships and fishing smacks he saw there. At the time when he was young, Plymouth abounded in quaint old houses that had been inhabited by its great merchants, with overhanging gables and mullioned windows. These are now almost all gone.

On returning from one of his wanderings, he called on Mr. Johns with his portfolio in his hand. Johns asked him how many sketches he had made and what success he had met with. Prout, bursting into tears and wringing his hands with grief, replied: "Oh, Mr. Johns, I shall never make a painter as long as I live."

Johns then turned over his collection of sketches, and noticing the power shown in the drawing of old cottages and mills, said, "If you won't make a landscape painter, you will make a painter of architecture, and I recommend you to stick to that." Encouraged by this, he went away rejoicing that there was still a field open to him in Art.

Whilst still quite a lad, accident made him acquainted with John Britton, who was passing through Plymouth on his way into Cornwall, collecting materials for his Beauties of England and Wales, begun in 1801, and carried on to 1818. Immediately after Prout's death, Britton published an account of his first acquaintance with him in the Art Journal for 1852. He says that he first saw Samuel Prout, "a pretty, timid boy," at Dr. Bidlake's school, and that Prout occasionally accompanied his drawing master, S. Williams, to Bickleigh Vale, and made sketches of the rude cottages and bits of rock scenery he found there.

These Britton saw and liked, and proposed to Prout to take him with himself into Cornwall, paying all his expenses, that the lad might make for him the drawings he required. Samuel gladly consented, and the two started for St. Germans through a heavy fall of snow, and put up at a wretched inn there. "The object of visiting the place," says Britton, "was to draw and describe the old parish church, which is within the grounds of the seat of Port Eliot, belonging to Lord Eliot. Prout's first task was to make a sketch of the west end of this building, which is of early Norman architecture, with two towers, one of which is square, the other octagonal. Between these is a large semicircular doorway, with several receding arches, but there is very little of other detail. My young artist was, however, sadly embarrassed, not knowing where to begin, how to settle the perspective or determine the relative proportions of the heights and widths of parts. He continued before the building for four or five hours, and at last his sketch was so inaccurate in proportion and detail that it was unfit for engraving." In fact, Britton had set the poor lad a task for which he was wholly incompetent. Next morning Prout began another sketch, and persevered in it in spite of the cold and discouragement nearly all the day, but the result was again a failure.

Then Britton travelled on with him to Probus, and set him to draw the wonderful sculptured tower of that church, the richest piece of work of the kind in the west of England. It is built of elvan and is not merely sculptured throughout, but has pinnacled buttresses with crockets and finials. Prout worked hard at this all day, and though Britton accepted the drawing, it was bad. "The poor fellow cried, and was really distressed, and I felt as acutely as he possibly could, for I had calculated on having a pleasing companion upon a dreary journey, and also to obtain some correct and satisfactory sketches. On proceeding further, we had occasion to visit certain druidical monuments, vast rocks, monastic wells, and stone crosses on the moors north of Liskeard. Some of these objects my young friend delineated with smartness and tolerable accuracy. We proceeded on to St. Austell, and thence to Ruan-Lanyhorne, where we found comfortable quarters in the house of the Rev. John Whitaker, the historian of Manchester, and author of several other literary works. Prout, during his stay at Ruan, made five or six pleasing and truly picturesque sketches, one of which included the church, the parsonage, some cottages mixing with trees, the water of the river Fal, the moors in the distance, and a fisherman's ragged cot in the foreground, raised against and mixing with a mass of rocks; also a broken boat, with net, sails, etc., in the foreground." The next halting place was Truro, and there Prout made a sketch of the church and the houses about it. But here again he was embarrassed with the mullioned windows and the general perspective, and was particularly troubled with the iron railings that surrounded the church. Here they parted; Britton went forward on his way to Penzance and the Land's End, and Prout was sent back, a poor disheartened lad, who felt that he had missed his vocation, by coach to Plymouth. But the disappointment did Samuel good. He had learned in what his weakness lay, and he resolved to labour hard to acquire the rudiments of perspective.

In May, 1802, he sent Britton several sketches of Launceston, Tavistock, Okehampton Castle, and other places, showing a considerable advance in his powers, and some of these were engraved. Britton saw enough to convince himself that Prout had exceptional genius for catching the spirit of architectural work, and that all he required was technical training, and he sent for him to London, kindly undertaking to give him a room and food in his house in Wilderness Row, Camberwell, whilst prosecuting his studies in Town. Here he remained for about two years, and was introduced to Northcote and Benjamin West, the latter of whom gave him valuable hints on the management of chiaroscuro, and Prout often recurred to his meeting with West and to the utility his advice had been to him. In 1803 and 1804 Britton sent Prout into Cambridge, Essex, and Wiltshire to make sketches and studies of buildings. Some of these were engraved in his Beauties, and others in Architectural Antiquities, 1835.

In the year 1805, Prout returned to Plymouth mainly on account of his health and his headaches, which unfitted him for prosecuting his studies with ease and energy.

He had in the previous year sent his first picture to the Royal Academy, and he was for the next ten years an occasional exhibitor, his subjects being mainly views in Devonshire and coast scenes. His simple drawings, says Mr. Ruskin, were made for the middle classes, even for the second order of the middle classes.

"The great people always bought Canaletti, not Prout. There was no quality in the bright little watercolours which could look other than pert in ghostly corridors and petty in halls of state; but they gave an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to a suburban villa, and were the cheerfullest possible decoration for a moderate-sized breakfast parlour opening on a nicely-mown lawn. Their liveliness even rose, on occasion, to the charity of beautifying the narrow chambers of those whom business or fixed habit retained in the obscurity of London itself."

After about six years of earnest work in Devon, he returned to London and took up his abode in Brixton, and three years after he married (1810) Elizabeth Gillespie. There were pleasant meetings in town with his fellow Plymothians. Haydon was there full of enthusiasm and enormous self-confidence, and Eastlake, who had already made his mark and was rapidly rising into fame; an occasional visit was made to the surly Northcote, but from him little encouragement was to be obtained. To maintain himself, Prout gave lessons in drawing, and sent pictures to the Watercolour Society, and succeeded in selling them. In 1816, Ackermann published his Studies in parts, executed in the then new art of lithography. This was followed by Progressive Fragments, Rudiments of Landscape, and other collections of instructive drawings. How perfectly Prout mastered the technicalities of lithography may be seen by some of his late works on tinted paper, with introduction of white, as, for instance, his Hints on Light and Shade, etc., published in 1838. In the introduction to that he tells his own experience.

"Want of talent and want of taste are common lamentations and common excuses, but wonders will be achieved by the lowest ability if assisted by unremitted diligence. Nothing is denied to well-directed labour; nothing is to be obtained without it. There must be an assiduous, ardent devotedness, with a firmness of purpose, absorbing the whole mind; never rambling, but pursuing one determined object. It is the persevering who leave their competitors behind; and those who work the hardest always gain the most."

Prout's love was for marine subjects—this can be noticed in all his publications—but the influence of Britton and the advice of Johns prevailed to make him cleave to architecture; and indeed from the first this had ever attracted him, though not so much the great achievements of the art, as its humbler yet lovely creations, the labourer's cottage, built of moor-stone, and thatched with reed or heather.

His health, always bad at the best of times, grew worse; he became so feeble that a trip to the Continent was recommended to him. "The route by Havre and Rouen," writes Ruskin, "was chosen, and Prout found himself for the first time in the grotesque labyrinths of the Norman streets. There are few minds so apathetic as to receive no impulse of new delight from their first acquaintance with continental scenery and architecture; and Rouen was, of all the cities of France, the richest in those objects with which the painter's mind had the profoundest sympathy." Now all is changed. The great churches stand up by themselves in the midst of modern houses destitute of beauty, islands of loveliness in a sea of vulgarity. Great streets have been driven through the town, picturesque houses have been swept away; that which is old has been barbarously renovated. The cathedral has been furnished with a ridiculous spire. Then "all was at unity with itself, and the city lay under its guarding hills one labyrinth of delight—its grey and fretted towers, misty in their magnificence of height, letting the sky like blue enamel through the foiled spaces of their crowns of open work; the walls and gates of its countless churches wardered by saintly groups of solemn statuary, clasped about by wandering stems of sculptured leafage, and crowned by fretted niche and fairy pediment, meshed, like gossamer, with inextricable tracery, many a quaint monument of past times standing to tell its far-off tale in the place from which it has since perished—in the midst of the throng and murmur of those shadowy streets—all grim with jutting props of ebon woodwork, lightened only here and there by a sunbeam glancing down from the scaly backs and points of pyramids of the Norman roofs, or carried out of its narrow range by the gay progress of some snowy cap or scarlet camisole. The painter's vocation was fixed from that hour; the first effect upon his mind was irrepressible enthusiasm, with a strong feeling of new-born attachment to art, in a new world of exceeding interest."

This was the first of many excursions made through France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. How he enjoyed these trips is beyond power of words to describe. He drank in the beauties as he would nectar; they inspired new life into him; it filled his happy soul with delights that made him forget his bodily infirmities. His books of studies sold well—they did more than anything else to form the taste of the public. The fashion set in for sketches of ruins, of old buildings, of cottages. He had many imitators, but no equals. For his water-colour paintings he asked but modest prices, six guineas each.

How Gothic architecture was viewed only seventeen years before Samuel Prout was born may be judged by Matthew Bramble's account of York Minster in Humphrey Clinker. He writes: "As for the minster, I know not how to distinguish it, except by its great size and the height of its spire, from those other ancient churches in different parts of the kingdom which used to be called monuments of Gothic architecture; but it is now agreed that the style is Saracen—and I suppose it was first imported into England from Spain, greater part of which was under the domination of the Moors. Those British architects who adopted this style don't seem to have considered the propriety of their adoption. Nothing could be more preposterous than to imitate such a mode of architecture in a country like England, where the climate is cold and the air eternally loaded with vapours. For my part, I never entered the abbey church at Bath but once, and the moment I stepped over the threshold I found myself chilled to the very marrow of my bones. I should be glad to know what offence it would give to tender consciences if the House of God were made more comfortable; and whether it would not be an encouragement to piety, as well as the salvation of many lives, if the place of worship were well floored, wainscotted, warmed, and ventilated.

"The external [appearance of an old cathedral cannot but be displeasing to the eye of every man who has any idea of propriety and proportion, even though he may be ignorant of architecture as a science. There is nothing of the Arabic architecture in the Assembly Rooms, which seems to me to have been built upon a design of Palladio, and might be converted into an elegant place of worship."

In little more than a generation popular taste was completely changed. Augustus Pugin and Le Keux published their Specimens of Architectural Antiquities in Normandy in 1827; Parker his Glossary of Architecture in 1836, which rapidly went through several editions. A. Welby Pugin poured forth the vials of scorn on the taste of his day in his Contrasts, 1841; Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture laid down first principles in 1849; Rickman, the Quaker, had issued his Attempt to Distinguish the Styles of English Architecture as early as 1817, and this also rapidly passed through several editions. But it was not enough to instruct the public: its heart must be touched, its eyes unsealed to the beauties of the so-called Gothic style; and this is what Prout did with his exquisite drawings. There was no technical skill obtruded, no attempt made to distinguish styles: he simply with his pencil brought its charms before the public eye in an engaging form. And the public saw and believed.

Mr. S. C. Hall, writing of Prout's personal qualities, says: "No member of the profession has ever lived to be more thoroughly respected, we may add beloved, by his fellow artists; no man has ever given more unquestionable evidence of a gentle and generous spirit, or more truly deserved the esteem in which he is so universally held. His always delicate health, instead of souring the temper, made him more thoughtful of the trials of others. Ever ready to assist the young by the counsels of experience, he is a fine example of perseverance and industry combined with suavity of manner and those endearing attributes which invariably blend with admiration of the artist, affection for the man. During the last six or seven years we have sometimes found our way into his quiet studio, where, like a delicate exotic requiring the most careful treatment to retain life within it, he could keep himself warm and snug, as he expressed it. There he might be seen at his easel, throwing his rich and beautiful colouring over a sketch of some old palace in Venice or time-worn cathedral of Flanders; and though suffering much from pain and weakness, ever cheerful, ever thankful that he had still strength enough to carry on his work. He rose late, and could seldom begin his labours before the middle of the day, when, if tolerably free from pain, he would paint till the night was advanced. No man ever bore suffering more meekly. Essentially religious, he submitted with patience and resignation to the Divine will. All the home affections were warm and strong in him. He was of a tender, loving, and truly upright nature."

He spent some time at Hastings for his health, and when there his parish church was S. Mary's. He attended this church regularly, and the vicar, the Rev. Mr. Vines, used to say: "I always wait for Prout to come and light up my church." Indeed, his temper was always sunny, and he was eminently devout. What touched him profoundly was the piety he noticed among the peasantry abroad—how they uncovered for a brief prayer at the sound of the Angelus, and how they made of their churches a veritable home, where they could pour out their hearts in prayer in all sorrows, and in thanksgiving in all joys. But abroad or at home, in his hotel or his studio, his constant companions were his English Bible and Book of Common Prayer, and with them he said that he was satisfied.

As Mr. Hine says beautifully in his Memoirs of Prout: "All the subjects of his pictures point upwards, the lovely street scenes terminating in the tall tower or the divine spire. The doves hover about the highest ridges of his roofs and the loftiest pinnacles of his towers. He had the most implicit faith in the final article of the Nicene Creed—'I believe in the life of the world to come'—and his own pictures are the faint but beautiful symbols of that celestial city which he saw as through a glass, darkly."

He had been invited with many literary and artistic celebrities to dine with Mr. Ruskin, the elder, on Tuesday, 9 February, 1852, to keep the birthday of John Ruskin, and hear a letter from Venice, from the younger Ruskin, who was then in that city.

Samuel Prout had not been well of late, but he went to the dinner, and returned between ten and eleven, and said to his wife, "I've had such a happy evening! The Venice letter was capital." Then he retired to his studio. Shortly after a tapping sound, often made by him as a summons, was heard. One of his daughters running upstairs found her father lying on the hearth-rug in a fit of apoplexy. His open Bible, in which he had been reading one of the Psalms, lay on the table. He was carried to bed, but never spoke again. He died in the sixty-ninth year of his age. "There will never be any more Prout drawings," said Ruskin sorrowfully.

In the north aisle of St. Andrew's Church, Plymouth, is a marble tablet to his memory.

"There is one point," says Ruskin, "in which Turner, Bewick, Hunt, and Prout, all four agree—that they can draw the poor, but not the rich. They acknowledge with affection, whether for principal or accessory subjects of their art, the British farmer, the British sailor, the British market-woman, and the British workman. They agree unanimously in ignoring the British gentleman. Let the British gentleman lay it to heart, and ask himself why.

"The general answer is long and manifold. But, with respect to the separate work of Prout, there is a very precious piece of instruction in it respecting national prosperity and policy, which may be gathered in a few glances.

"You see how all his best pictures depend on figures either crowded in market-places or pausing (lounging, it may be) in quiet streets. You will not find, in the entire series of subjects from his hand, a single figure in a hurry. He ignores not only the British gentleman, but every necessary condition, nowadays, of British business.

"Look again and see if you can find a single figure exerting all its strength. A couple of men rolling a single cask perhaps; here and there a woman with a rather large bundle on her head—any more athletic display than these you seek in vain. His figures are all as quiet as the Cathedral of Chartres. Some of them you can scarcely think are standing still, but they all move quietly. The real reason is that he understood, and we do not, the meaning of the word ’quiet.'

"He understood it, personally, and for himself; practically, and for others. Take this one fact—of his quiet dealings with men—and think it over.

"The modern fashionable interest in what we suppose to be art had just begun to show itself a few years before Prout's death, and he was frequently advised to raise his prices. But he never raised them a shilling to his old customers, nor greatly to his new ones. They were supplied with all the drawings they wanted at six guineas each—to the end. A very peaceful method of dealing, and under the true ancient laws ordained by Athena of the Agora, and St. James of the Rialto.

"And learn from your poor wandering painter this lesson—for some of the best he had to give you (it is the Alpha of the laws of true human life)—that no city is prosperous in the sight of Heaven unless the peasant sells in its market; that no city is ever righteous in the sight of Heaven unless the noble walks in its street."

Prout's work is divided into two clearly defined periods. In the first he drew only English scenes. In 1819 he made his first tour on the Continent, and thenceforth devoted himself almost entirely to foreign subjects. In this devotion Ruskin lamented the "loss of his first love." His grand wrecks of Indiamen were instinct with that subtle sense of vastness that the Art Teacher felt.

AUTHORITIES

The authorities for the life of Samuel Prout are:—

"Samuel Prout, Artist," by J. Hine, in the Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, 1879-80.

Art in Devonshire, by Geo. Pycroft, Exeter, 1883, pp. 106-17.

Royet, History of the Old Water-Colour Society, London, 1891.

Ruskin's "Notes on Samuel Prout and William Hunt," new edition in Ruskin on Pictures, London, 1902.


Note.—The publisher of this work will esteem it a favour if the possessors of pictures or drawings by Prout will place themselves in communication with him. He is particularly anxious to obtain copies of letters by, or documents about, the artist in short, any material which may be of use in the preparation of the exhaustive Life which is in progress. All communications should be addressed to Mr. John Lane, The Bodley Head, Vigo Street, London, W.