Strange, Robert (DNB00)
|←Strange, Richard||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55
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STRANGE, Sir ROBERT (1721–1792), engraver, eldest son of David Strang of Kirkwall in the Orkneys, by his second wife, Jean, daughter of Malcolm Scollay of Hunton, was born at Kirkwall on 14 July 1721. He was the lineal representative of the ancient family of Strang of Balcaskie in Fife, which property was alienated in 1615, the family migrating to Orkney, where two members of it, George and Magnus, had held clerical office in the previous century. Robert entered the office of an elder brother, a lawyer in Edinburgh; but his heart was not in the work, and he was constantly occupied in secret in drawing and copying anything which came in his way. His brother one day, when looking for some missing papers, found a batch of these drawings and submitted them privately to the engraver, Richard Cooper the elder [q. v.], who had settled in Edinburgh, and was almost the sole judge and teacher of art in Scotland. Cooper estimated Strange's sketches very highly, and Strange was bound as apprentice to him for six years.
Shortly before the Jacobite rising of 1745 Strange fell in love with Isabella, daughter of William Lumisden (son of the bishop of Edinburgh and a descendant of the Lumisdens of Cushnie in Aberdeenshire), and sister of Andrew Lumisden [q. v.], a fervent Jacobite. The lady, sharing her brother's predilections, made it a condition of her favour that Strange should fight for her prince. Already of some repute as an engraver, he published a portrait of Charles Edward, which was not without merit, and made the artist very popular. While with the army at Inverness he also contrived, amid the confusion, to engrave a plate for the bank-notes of the coming dynasty. This plate, in eight compartments, for notes of different value from a penny upwards, was found about 1835 in Loch Laggan, and is now in the possession of Cluny Macpherson. Strange fought at Prestonpans and Falkirk in the prince's lifeguards, and, finally, took part in the abortive night march and doubtful strategy which led to the disaster of Culloden, of all which he left a graphic account.
While in hiding for some months afterwards he found a ready sale for pencil portraits of the proscribed leaders and small engravings of the prince. It is recorded that at this time, while he was at the house of his lady-love, Isabella Lumisden, soldiers came in to search for him, whereupon Isabella lifted up her hooped skirt, and he took refuge under it, the lady steadily carolling a Jacobite song over her needlework while the baffled soldiers searched the room. In 1747 they were married clandestinely; and after the amnesty Strange proceeded to London and thence—carrying with him the prince's seal, which had been left behind in Scotland—to Rouen, a centre of the exiled Jacobites. Here he studied anatomy under Lecat, and drawing under Descamps; and, after carrying away the highest prize in Descamps's academy, went in 1749 to Paris and placed himself under the engraver Le Bas. There he made rapid strides, and learned especially the use of the dry-point, much employed by that master (who introduced it in France) in the preparatory parts of his work. Le Bas would gladly have engaged his pupil's services, but Strange's face was already set towards the great Italian masters. Having therefore first executed (along with Vanloo's ‘Cupid,’ for he always brought out his prints in pairs) Wouverman's ‘Return from Market,’ the only genre picture among his principal works (they were issued at 2s. 6d. each), he returned in 1750 to London, an artist of the first rank.
Here for ten years, besides producing several of his best-known works, as the ‘Magdalen’ and ‘Cleopatra’ of Guido (issued at 4s. each) and the ‘Apollo and Marsyas’ of Andrea Sacchi (at 7s. 6d.), he continued to import collections of the best classical prints from Italy in the hope of gradually educating the popular taste. He issued them at a cost hardly greater than that of the commonest prints of the day.
But in 1759 events occurred which for many years tended to embitter his life. Allan Ramsay had painted portraits of the Prince of Wales and of the favourite, Lord Bute, and wished Strange to engrave them. The pictures were not in his line of work. He represented to Ramsay that his arrangements were already made for going to Italy, and he had work unfinished which would occupy all his remaining time. The prince, however, sent a request to him to undertake the work, offering a remuneration (100l.) so inadequate that he clearly did not know the amount of time such engraving would take. Strange again declined, but his explanations were distrusted. Subsequent intrigues against him in Italy, in which Dalton, the king's librarian, and Bartolozzi, the engraver, were concerned, were attributed by Strange to royal resentment at his refusal.
In 1760 he left England. The cordiality of his reception in France and Italy contrasted with his treatment at home. At Rome his portrait was painted by Toffanelli on a ceiling in the print-room of the Vatican. No other British artist was similarly honoured.
During four years in Italy he was engaged in making careful copies of pictures to be engraved on his return, for he would never engrave from any drawings but his own. Of these drawings most of the water-colours belong to Lord Zetland, and the chalks to Lord Wemyss. Many of the engravings were executed and published at Paris.
Strange returned to England in 1765. Subsequently he publicly exhibited pictures which he had collected, and prepared critical and descriptive catalogues. Such ventures, which involved him in pecuniary risk, were undertaken with a view to improving public taste. In 1769 appeared a descriptive catalogue of pictures, &c., collected and engraved by Robert Strange (London, 8vo). In 1768, dissensions arose in the Incorporated Society of Artists, of which Strange was a member. Several of the directors were dismissed and the rest resigned, and, adroitly gaining the king's ear, obtained his sanction to the establishment of the Royal Academy. Strange had opposed the directors, and he believed that the exclusion from the newly formed academy's ranks of all engravers was levelled against himself. The election soon afterwards of his rival, Bartolozzi, ostensibly as a painter, lent some colour to his suspicions. The inferior degree of ‘associate’ was soon after thrown open to engravers; but the leading men in the profession, Sharp, Hall, and Woollett, with Strange, declined it. His own conception of an academy was a much less exclusive body, with a widely extended artist membership, capable of mutual help and support, and exhibiting their own work only.
In 1775 he published a formal statement of his grievances against the Royal Academy in ‘An Inquiry into the Rise and Establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts,’ prefaced by a letter to Lord Bute. But the gauntlet was not taken up, and Strange, apparently in dudgeon, carried his family over to Paris, where they remained (in the Rue d'Enfer, the house looking on the Luxembourg gardens) till 1780.
At last the tide of royal favour began to turn. Strange desired to engrave Vandyck's Queen Henrietta Maria, which belonged to George III. Free access to the picture was given to Strange on the introduction of Benjamin West, then president of the Royal Academy, who had long been his friend, and who had strongly opposed the exclusion of the engravers from the academy. The engraving was published in Paris in 1784, along with the great Vandyck of Charles I on his horse. On this occasion he had a very flattering reception by the French king and queen, and in a lively letter to his son he describes their admiration of his works, and the excitement of the crowds besieging his hotel to obtain the earliest copies; while the printing press was working from morn till night. The attention and courtesy which, owing to West's interposition, Strange had met with from the English royal family led him to offer to engrave West's picture of ‘The Apotheosis of the Royal Children’—a unique compliment from Strange to a living artist. The plate was finished in 1786, and on 5 Jan. 1787 the artist was knighted. The king, in announcing his intention to confer the honour, slyly added, ‘Unless, Mr. Strange, you object to be knighted by the Elector of Hanover!’ His last work was on his own portrait by Greuze, which was finished in 1791. It was considered a good though not a striking likeness. Sir Robert died at his house, No. 52 Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, on 5 July 1792, and was buried at St. Paul's, Covent Garden. Besides Strange's portrait by Greuze, there is a fine portrait by Romney and one by Raeburn in the possession of the family.
Strange's devotion to his art was carried out at the cost both of domestic happiness and of fortune. It involved long absences from his family, and he declined to undertake really remunerative work of a commonplace character, such as book-plates and book illustrations. These he rarely executed except to serve a friend. From some very interesting correspondence between Strange and his friend Bruce of Kinnaird, the African traveller, we learn that he engraved the illustrations for Bruce's work on ‘Pæstum,’ but this was never published. Probably only three book-plates and half a dozen small portrait illustrations, of an early date, are genuine. The classical portraits in Blackwell's ‘History of the Court of Augustus,’ assumed to be his, are unsigned and not otherwise authenticated. His title to fame rests as much on the large share he had in the amelioration of the national taste as on the works which testify to his genius. Advanced modern taste may regret that his choice fell so frequently on paintings of the eclectic school—on Carlo Dolci, Carlo Maratti, or even on Guercino and Guido. His chief achievements are the two splendid series of the Vandycks, ‘Charles I with the Horse’ (issued at 31s. 6d.) and in his robes (issued at 13s., and sold fifty-five years later for 51l. 9s.), and the portraits of the royal children; and of the Titians, e.g. the ‘Venus’ of the Florence Tribune, the ‘Danae,’ and the ‘Venus blinding Cupid’ (issued at 13s.). In the reproduction of Titian he is probably unequalled. Raffaelle, too, is well represented by his ‘St. Cecilia’ and by his ‘Justice’ and ‘Meekness.’ His ‘Madonna della Seggiola,’ of which a careful drawing was made, was never engraved. Correggio is represented by his ‘Day,’ which Strange describes as ‘the first picture in Italy, if not in the world,’ and in which the dazzling lights are probably represented as effectually as could be done by those processes to which Strange always strictly confined himself. Guercino, a favourite painter with Strange, is represented by his ‘Death of Dido,’ and by his ‘Christ appearing to the Madonna,’ where the draperies are thought by some to be Strange's chef d'œuvre.
His own portrait by Greuze fitly prefaces the series of fifty of his principal works on which he desired his fame to rest, and which he had very early in his career begun to set aside for the purpose. Eighty sets of selected impressions of these were accordingly bound in atlas folio, with a dedication to the king (composed mainly by Blair), and were published in 1790. An introduction treats shortly of the progress of engraving and of the author's share in its promotion, with notes on the character of the paintings engraved. He concludes, with characteristic conviction of the merits of his work: ‘Nor can he fear to be charged with vanity, if, in the eve of a life consumed in the study of the arts, he indulges the pride to think that he may, by this monument of his works, secure to his name, while engraving shall last, the praise of having contributed to its credit and advancement.’
Strange, it seems, was the first who habitually employed the dry-point in continuation of his preparation by etching, and in certain modifications of the process he was followed by Morghen, Woollett, and Sharp. He condemns, as having retarded the progress of engraving in England, the process of ‘stippling’ or ‘dotting’ introduced into England by Bartolozzi. He had an equal command of all the methods he practised. His own chief distinguishing characteristics as an engraver are perhaps a certain distinction of style and a pervading harmony of treatment. His lines, pure, firm, and definite, but essentially flowing, lend themselves to the most delicate and rounded contours, from which all outline disappears, and the richness and transparency of his flesh tints, produced without any special appearance of effort, are well shown in his treatment of Guido, and more signally of Titian. On the other hand, he does not perhaps always differentiate the special characteristics of the masters he reproduces. His treatment of skies and clouds—a relic of Le Bas's influence—and of the textures of his draperies is often faulty. He is accused by some critics of inaccurate drawing. His early education in this department was probably defective and unsystematic, but he worked hard at it in later years, and prepared his drawings for engraving with the greatest care. He was a perfect master of the burin, while the extent to which he carried his etched preparation gave great freedom to his style and aided in rendering colour.
As a pure historical line engraver, Strange stands in the very first European rank. Critics so different as Horace Walpole, Smith (Nollekens's biographer), and Leigh Hunt consider him the foremost of his day in England. Some foreign critics, as Longhi, Ferrerio, and Duplessis, are almost equally emphatic; though others, as Le Blanc and still more Beraldi, find much less to admire. His works are to-day more popular in France than in England. Strange's wife had much originality and strength of character. Her letters, printed by Dennistoun, are rich in humour and pathos. During Strange's prolonged absences she managed the family, sold his prints, fought his battles, and read poetry, philosophy, and ‘physico-theology.’ Faithful to the Stuart cause, even in its later and discredited days, her open sympathy for it may have sometimes prejudiced her husband's interests in high places. She died in 1806.
Of Strange's children, his eldest daughter Mary Bruce Strange (1748–1784) alone inherited somewhat of her father's gift, and he was very proud of her. His eldest son, James Charles Stuart Strange (1753–1840), a godson of the titular king James III, rose high in the Madras civil service. When the news reached India of Captain Cook's discoveries on the north-west coast of America, he fitted out an expedition to Nootka Sound. The expected trade in furs was a failure, but he left a curious account of his voyage and of the natives. Strange's second son, Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange, is separately noticed. A third son, Robert Montagu, was major-general in the Madras army.[Memoirs of Sir Robert Strange, Knight, and of Andrew Lumisden, ed. James Dennistoun of Dennistoun; Chalmers's General Biographical Dictionary; Le Blanc's Le Graveur en taille douce in Catalogue Raisonné, Leipzig, 1848; Nägler's Künstler-Lexikon; Dodd's manuscript History of English Engravers, Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 33405; Pye's Patronage of British Art, 1845; Magasin Encyclopédique, tom. i. 1795, art. signed ‘St. L..’ (probably Mercier, Abbé de St. Léger); Bryan; Redgrave.]