Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Maclise, Daniel
MACLISE, DANIEL (1806–1870), historical painter, was the son of Alexander McLeish, McLish, McClisse, or McLise, a Scottish highlander, once a private soldier in the Elgin fencibles, but at the time of the artist's birth engaged in tanning or shoemaking at Cork, where his regiment had been quartered in 1797. On 24 Dec. in that year Alexander McLish married Rebecca Buchanan, ‘daughter of Mrs. Buchanan, Almshouse,’ as she is described in the register of the presbyterian (now unitarian) church, Princes Street, Cork, where she was subsequently employed as pew-opener for twenty-two years. The records of the same church have entries of the baptism of seven children, issue of this marriage. The first is of a daughter, baptised in 1803, the second of a son, Daniel, baptised on 2 Feb. 1806, the subject of this article. Of the date of his birth there is no record yet discovered. He appears to have always stated that he was born on 25 Jan. 1811, and this date is given in O'Driscoll's life, and has been frequently repeated since (for an account of the controversy on this point see the Irish Daily Telegraph, 16 Feb. 1872). Although we can no longer credit the account given by his friend O'Driscoll, nor that of Samuel Carter Hall (Art Union, 1844, p. 214), with regard to his parentage, the family were of no ordinary type, as Maclise and his sisters were remarkably handsome, and one of his brothers (John) rose to eminence in his profession as surgeon.
Maclise, as he afterwards spelt his name, was sent to an English day-school in Cork, and soon attracted attention by his drawings of soldiers, horses, artillery, &c., on small pieces of cardboard, which he sold to his schoolfellows and playmates. In 1820 he obtained a situation in Messrs. Newenham's bank, but soon left it, and devoted himself to art. He studied the collection of casts from the antique sculpture in the Vatican which had been presented by Pope Pius VII to George IV, and by George IV to the city of Cork, and was so engaged in 1820 when he was seen and encouraged by Samuel Carter Hall. He subsequently became a student at the Cork Academy, which was opened in 1822.
In 1825 he made his first success through a sketch of Sir Walter Scott, drawn by him unobserved while the great novelist was visiting the shop of Mr. Bolster, a bookseller in Cork. Of this he made an elaborate pen-and-ink drawing, which was shown to Sir Walter, who wrote his name at the foot, and prophesied the future eminence of the young artist. The drawing was lithographed and became popular, five hundred copies being sold as soon as struck off. He now opened a studio in Patrick Street, which was soon crowded with sitters, and Mr. Sainthill, a lover of art and an antiquary, gave him access to his library, full of legendary and antiquarian lore, which encouraged his natural taste in those directions. Mr. Sainthill introduced him to Crofton Croker, who had just (1825) published the first edition of ‘Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.’ The second edition contained a number of spirited illustrations by Maclise (included in Murray's ‘Family Library’).
Refusing the assistance of these friends, who offered to send him to London, he went on taking pencil portraits (at sums rising at last to five guineas a head) until he had saved enough to start himself. He arrived in London on 18 July 1827, with letters of introduction to Charles Robert Leslie, Mr. Bagley of the ‘Sun,’ and others, and took lodgings at the house of a carver and gilder in Newman Street, Oxford Street. Before he left Ireland he had (1826) taken a walking tour in Wicklow with a friend, filling his sketch-book on his way, and had sent (March 1826) a highly finished drawing to Somerset House to support his application for admission into the Academy schools. Mr. Sainthill consigned him to the care of Croker, and he soon had the opportunity of meeting Thomas Moore, Samuel Rogers, Barham, Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, Miss Landon (‘L.E.L.’), Theodore Hook, Planché, Samuel Lover, and other persons distinguished in literature and art. He attracted every one he met, for he was very handsome, with fine eyes and forehead, dark, curling hair, and strong, athletic figure; his manners had charm, but were modest and frank, and, according to Mr. J. C. Horsley, R.A., then a lad of fourteen, ‘his generous, rollicking humour shone like sunlight on all around him.’ Soon after his arrival in London he made a sketch of the young Charles Kean, as Norval in ‘Douglas,’ bowing his acknowledgments after his début at Drury Lane on 1 Oct. 1827. This was lithographed, and did much the same service for him in London as his portrait of Sir Walter Scott had done in Cork. He made a good deal of money by it also, but his mind was bent on going through a regular training as a painter, and he entered the Academy schools on 20 April 1828. He gave his age as twenty, which seems to show that he was always careless or ignorant about the year of his birth, for this statement must have been wrong, whether he was born in 1811, as he used to say, or in 1806, as was probably the fact. Three of his pencil portraits of this time, finely finished and of much character, are in the British Museum. One of them represents the Rev. R. H. Ryland, and another his little daughter, Olympia Maria. The latter is signed and dated December 1827. The third is of Edmund Lodge [q. v.], F.S.A., Norroy king at arms, in his seventy-second year. It is dated January 1828. Maclise drew him again for ‘Fraser's Magazine’ some years later. He carried off all the prizes for which he competed at the Academy, the medals for the ‘antique,’ and for a copy of a picture (by Guido), and finally in 1829 the gold medal for historical composition (‘The Choice of Hercules’), but he would not accept the travelling studentship which was attached to it. He now began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending in 1829 a picture from Shakespeare, ‘Malvolio affecting the Count.’ In the catalogue of that year his name is given as D. M'Clise, and his address as 14 Chandos Street, Middlesex Hospital. The position which he now held in literary circles is testified by the celebrated series of ‘character portraits’ which, under the nom de plume of Alfred Croquis, he began in 1830 to contribute to ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ They commenced in June with the portrait of William Jerdan, and went on till 1838, when he had fairly exhausted his material. To the eighty drawings reproduced in ‘Fraser’ another (Henry Hallam) was added in the ‘Maclise Portrait Gallery,’ edited by William Bates in 1871. Although a few insignificant persons are included in the series, the omissions of importance are still fewer, and the ‘Gallery’ may be said to reflect the genius of that brilliant literary time. There will be found Sir Walter Scott and Lockhart, Sydney Smith and Theodore Hook, Coleridge and Thackeray, Wordsworth and Campbell, Charles Lamb and Carlyle, Leigh Hunt and Lytton, Maginn and Hogg, the Disraelis, father and son, Mrs. Norton and the Countess of Blessington, Miss Martineau and ‘L. E. L.’
All these and many more are characterised with great spirit and truth, with wonderful technical skill, and great variety of idea. Some verge on good-humoured caricature, like Sydney Smith and Sir Walter Scott; others are simply elegant and familiar likenesses, like those of the ladies and Leigh Hunt. Some, like Benjamin Disraeli and Count D'Orsay, idealise the dandyism of the day; others are almost cruel in their truth, like Samuel Rogers, which frightened Goethe, and one at least is a satire tragic in its intensity, that of Talleyrand asleep in his chair. The original sketches for many of these, with a number of others by the same dexterous hand, now form part of the Forster collection at South Kensington Museum.
In 1830 he exhibited seven works, including portraits of Miss Landon, Mrs. S. C. Hall, and Thomas Campbell, and after the exhibition went to Paris, where Louis-Philippe had just been placed on the throne after the terrible ‘three days.’ After seeing the Louvre and other galleries he set off with a friend for a walking tour in the south, meaning to cross the Pyrenees into Spain; but illness forced him to return to England. In 1831 he exhibited five portraits, including one of Lord Castlereagh. In 1832 (his address was now 63 Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square) he exhibited his first oil-picture, ‘Puck disenchanting Bottom, &c.,’ and four portraits. In this year he revisited Cork with Croker, and was presented with a gold medal by the Society of Arts at Cork. A merry-making, given by the Rev. Matthew Horgan at Blarney, furnished him with the subject of an important picture exhibited in 1833, called ‘Snap-apple Night, or All-Hallow Eve in Ireland.’ This was a large work, full of spirit, but somewhat forced and extravagant in expression. He introduced into it his two handsome sisters, Sir Walter Scott, Croker, and his host. This was the only work he exhibited this year at the Royal Academy; but he sent to the British Institution a picture from ‘Lalla Rookh,’ which though smaller attracted more attention—‘Mokanna unveiling his features to Zelica,’ a picture of much power, but necessarily repulsive, as he dared to present the frightful face.
Maclise showed his natural gifts more fully in the finer picture of next year, ‘The Installation of Captain Rock,’ a scene from the ‘Tipperary Tales,’ and ‘The Chivalric Vow of the Ladies and the Peacock,’ which followed in 1835 (a splendid mediæval banquet scene, suggested by a note to Scott's ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’), secured his election as an associate of the Royal Academy. Now he altered the spelling of his name to Maclise. It is spelt thus in the catalogue of 1836, when he exhibited ‘Macbeth and the Weird Sisters, Macready as Macbeth,’ and ‘An Interview between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.’ In this year he presented to the Royal Literary Fund the portrait of Sir John Soane, which, by its fidelity, so annoyed the wrinkled old architect that he threatened to withdraw his subscription to the Fund if it was not delivered up to him. Hence arose a grave difficulty, which was solved by Jerdan (a friend of both artist and architect), who cut the offending likeness to pieces. In 1837 his address is given as 14 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square. The most important of his seven pictures of this year was ‘The Bohemian Gypsies’ (sold at the Gillott sale, 1872, for 934l. 10s.) In 1838, besides two studies of figures and game, he exhibited ‘Olivia and Sophia fitting out Moses for the Fair,’ well known by the engraving by Lumb Stocks, ‘Salvator Rosa painting his friend Masaniello,’ and ‘Merry Christmas in the Baron's Hall.’ The last was a very elaborate composition, and its name in the catalogue was accompanied by a reference to a spirited poem by the artist (called ‘Christmas Revels; an Epic Rhapsody in twelve Duans’), which appeared in ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for May, under the signature of Alfred Croquis. The picture is now in the Dublin National Gallery. It was about this time that he was introduced to Charles Dickens by John Forster, who had made his acquaintance in 1830. A warm friendship sprang up immediately between the two. Maclise, or ‘Mac’ as he was called in Dickens's circle, was thenceforth for many years a necessary element in the social gatherings of which Dickens was so fond. The charms of Maclise's society are vividly painted by Forster in his ‘Life of Dickens.’ They seem to have consisted partly in a ‘grand enjoyment of idleness,’ in keen observation under a mask of indifference, in a varied knowledge of literature, and complete unconsciousness of his own genius and good looks.
In 1839 he exhibited a ‘Scene from the Burletta of Midas,’ ‘The second Adventure of Gil Blas,’ and ‘Robin Hood’ (sold in 1859 for 1,370l. 5s.) In 1840 he was elected R.A., and exhibited the ‘Banquet Scene in Macbeth,’ with Macready again. Another illustration of ‘Gil Blas,’ the admirable scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (Malvolio and the Countess, now in the National Gallery), and the still more famous portrait of Charles Dickens (painted 1839), which was engraved as a frontispiece for an edition of ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ and also for Forster's ‘Life of Dickens.’ It is now also in the National Gallery. ‘We have here,’ said Thackeray, ‘the real identical man, Dickens, the inward as well as the outward of him.’ In this year he went to Paris. In 1841 he exhibited ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Hunt the Slipper at Neighbour Flamborough's—unexpected Visit of the fine Ladies,’ from ‘The Vicar of Wakefield.’ In 1842, the ‘Origin of the Harp’ (one of several illustrations to Moore's ‘Irish Melodies’) and ‘The Play Scene in Hamlet,’ the most powerful of all his scenes from Shakespeare, but like most of them too theatrical. In this year he took a memorable trip to Cornwall with his friends Forster, Dickens, and Stanfield, one result of which was a landscape exhibited in 1843, ‘Waterfall at St. Wighton's Keive, near Tintagel, Cornwall,’ which, after belonging to both Dickens and Forster, is now in the South Kensington Museum (Forster's bequest). The girl at the waterfall is a portrait of a member of the Dickens family. With this was exhibited a scene from ‘Gil Blas,’ ‘The Actor's Reception of the Author.’ In 1844 he exhibited a portrait of Harrison Ainsworth, a ‘Scene from Comus—Sabrina releasing the Lady from the Enchanted Chair,’ which was repeated on the walls of the summer-house in Buckingham Palace Gardens, and a ‘Scene from Undine.’ In this year he sent a fresco-painting of ‘The Knight’ to the competition in Westminster Hall for the decoration of the houses of parliament; and though this received no reward, the commissioners are said to have selected, at this or some other time, a design by Maclise of ‘Alfred the Great in the Danish Camp,’ of which he made a picture, exhibited 1852. He paid a visit this year to Paris, where he was greatly struck with the superiority of the French artists; in comparison with whom, he wrote to Forster, ‘we in London are the smallest and most wretched set of snivellers that ever took pencil in hand.’ No doubt he had in mind his possible employment in mural decoration, and he paid so many visits to Delaroche's famous painting in the ‘École des Beaux-arts,’ that the custodian at last refused to take a fee. It was perhaps from the disturbance of his previous aims in art, caused by this visit to Paris, that in 1845—for the first time since 1829—he did not contribute to the exhibition of the Royal Academy, and from this time a larger and more serious spirit pervades his art. In June 1845 he met Dickens and his wife at Brussels on their return from Italy, and spent a week with them in company with Douglas Jerrold and Forster. In 1846 he sent only one picture, ‘The Ordeal by Touch;’ but in this year he received a commission to paint in fresco his noble design of ‘The Spirit of Chivalry,’ in an arch behind the strangers' gallery in the throne room of the House of Lords, where it still remains unseen. This was finished in 1847, and was afterwards joined in its obscurity by ‘The Spirit of Justice,’ which had been previously allotted to W. C. Thomas. A sketch for this design is in the British Museum. In 1847 appeared the well-known ‘Noah's Sacrifice’ (engraved by Simmons), two illustrations to Moore's ‘Irish Melodies,’ and in 1848 a portrait of John Forster as Kitely in ‘Every Man in his Humour,’ as acted by Charles Dickens and his friends; and another of Mrs. Charles Dickens, which the artist presented to her husband.
Between this year and 1859 his contributions to the Academy were somewhat irregular, and he sent nothing in 1849, 1853, 1856, and 1858; but to this period belong some of his most celebrated pictures: ‘Caxton's Printing Office in the Almonry at Westminster’ (1851); ‘Alfred the Great in the Tent of Guthrun’ (1852); ‘Marriage of Strongbow’ (1854)—this picture was bought by Lord Northwich for 4,000l., and sold in 1879 for 800l.; ‘Scene from “As you like it,” Orlando about to engage with the Duke's Wrestler’ (1855); ‘Peter the Great in Deptford Dockyard’ (1857), now at Holloway College; and the fine series of forty-one drawings of ‘The Story of the Norman Conquest,’ which had occupied his leisure for twelve years.
In 1855 Maclise acted as a juror of the Paris Exhibition, and afterwards took a tour in Italy with his brother Joseph, and during all or the greater part of the period (1848–59) intermittent negotiations seem to have been going on between him and the Fine Arts Commissioners. A proposal was made for a fresco of the ‘Marriage of Strongbow,’ but the price proposed (1,500l.) was inadequate and he declined it. In July 1857 he proposed to decorate the royal gallery in the House of Lords, and stated that he was prepared to devote himself to the work until the whole of it was completed. His proposal included the two great wall spaces now occupied by ‘Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo’ and ‘The Death of Nelson,’ and sixteen other smaller panels, for which he subsequently completed three designs in oil, ‘Elizabeth at Tilbury,’ ‘Blake at Tunis,’ and ‘Marlborough at Blenheim.’ His proposal was accepted, and he commenced at once the ‘Wellington and Blücher’ in fresco. After a month's work, discouraged by the great disadvantages in lighting and in other respects under which he had to labour, and convinced that fresco could not stand the conditions to which the painting would be exposed, he resigned his commission. This determination, however, he reconsidered on the understanding (never, it appears, realised) that the defects of lighting, &c., should be remedied. By July 1859 he had completed the great cartoon of ‘Wellington and Blücher,’ and received a testimony of admiration from forty-three of his brother-artists, in and out of the Academy, in the shape of a gold portecrayon and a round-robin. The cartoon was bought by the Royal Academy for 315l. at the ‘Maclise executors’ sale, 1870, and now hangs in their picture gallery. The process of stereochrome, or water-glass, was at this time considered to be the best for mural painting in England, and Maclise was sent to Berlin to study it and report upon it to the commissioners. The first part of his report was made in December 1859, and the second in 1861, ‘after the practice of stereochrome painting of a year and a half.’ By the end of that year the ‘Wellington and Blücher’ (forty-five feet eight inches in length) was quite finished. Considering the size of this work, the care which the artist took to make every detail accurate, and the fineness of the finish, the rapidity of the achievement was extraordinary.
The death of the prince consort (14 Dec. 1861), just as he was bringing this great work to completion, greatly depressed Maclise, whose strength must have been sorely tried by anxiety and closeness of application. Determined to fulfil his promise to devote himself to the decoration of the royal gallery, he undertook no other employment, and completed his design for the great companion to the ‘Wellington and Blücher.’ The ‘Death of Nelson on board the Victory’ was approved 24 Feb. 1863, and the picture was completed by the end of 1864, a performance perhaps still more extraordinary than that which preceded it. The price agreed upon for these, the two largest and finest of all English historical pictures, was 3,500l. each, or 7,000l. They, and the study necessary for them, had absorbed more than seven of the best years of his life. The conscientious energy with which he had completed these works, no less than the price paid for them, contrasted strongly with the action of artist and government in respect of other decorations of the houses of parliament, and more than justified his modest application for further remuneration. The commissioners recommended that an additional sum of 1,500l. should be granted to him in respect of each of the pictures, but it was only on condition of cancelling the agreement with regard to the other panels; and for his designs for these no allowance was made.
In 1865 he sustained a grievous loss in the death of his elder sister Isabella, who had devoted her life to him. He had never married, but had lived with and supported his father and mother and unmarried sister. Now they were all dead, his cordial intercourse with Dickens was at an end, and the long years in the ‘gloomy hall’ had impaired the vigour of his once robust frame. His great pictures brought him little fame. It was not till 1866 that they were uncovered, and then they were received without anything approaching the appreciation they deserved. His correspondence at this period shows great depression of spirit, and he said to William Bell Scott, ‘Nobody cares for the pictures after they are done, or wants them as far as I can see.’ He contracted habits of seclusion and solitude, and when the presidency of the Royal Academy was offered to him after Eastlake's death, he had not the heart to accept it. He is also said to have refused knighthood.
He did not, however, cease to work, and began to exhibit again at the Royal Academy after an interval of seven years. In 1866 he exhibited ‘Here Nelson fell,’ a small version in oil of the wall painting at Westminster, and a portrait of Dr. Quain, showing all his own power of seizing character. In 1867 came a scene from ‘Othello’ and ‘A Winter Night's Tale;’ in 1868 ‘The Sleep of Duncan’ and ‘Madeline after Prayer,’ an illustration of Keats's ‘Eve of St. Agnes;’ in 1869 ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,’ in which the maid was painted from his niece and favourite companion, Rhoda Banks. She was the daughter of his younger sister, Ann (then a widow), who had married Perceval Weldon Banks, a barrister, and one of the ‘Fraser’ staff. He was introduced by Maclise between Southey and Thackeray in the famous banquet scene of the Fraser Gallery. In 1870 he exhibited his last picture, ‘The Lords of Desmond and Ormond.’
Before this was seen on the walls of the Academy he himself was no more. He died on 25 April 1870, at his house, 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, after a short attack of acute pneumonia, and was buried at Kensal Green on the day of the Academy dinner. His old friend Dickens, who felt the shock greatly, and was soon to follow him to the grave, was present at the dinner, and made a speech, in which he paid a warm and eloquent tribute to the talents and the worth of Maclise. ‘Of his genius,’ he said, ‘in his chosen art, I will venture to say nothing here; but of his prodigious fertility of mind, and wonderful wealth of intellect, I may confidently assert that they would have made him, if he had so minded, at least as great a writer as a painter. The gentlest and most modest of men, the freest as to his generous appreciation of young aspirants, and the frankest and largest-hearted as to his peers, incapable of a sordid or ignoble thought, gallantly sustaining the true dignity of his vocation, without a grain of self-assertion, wholesomely natural at the last as at the first, “in wit a man, simplicity a child,” no artist of whatsoever denomination, I make bold to say, ever went to his rest having a golden memory more free from dross, or having devoted himself with a truer chivalry to the art-goddess he served.’
Though the reputation of his genre and dramatic pictures has declined from the height which it reached in his lifetime, this is not the case with his portraits or his great epical compositions. As a draughtsman, in the clear and definite expression of form, he was a master, scarcely rivalled by any British artist. His line was somewhat cold and strict, but full of spirit and expression, as elastic and as firm as steel. It was rather that of a sculptor or an engraver, than a painter, preserving precision and completeness of outline at all costs. His painting, though very dexterous, was hard, his colour crude, and his pictures are deficient in atmosphere and in the rendering of texture; his leaves are like malachite, his hair like silk ribbon, and his blood like sealing-wax. His composition was generally admirable, if too obvious. In such works as his great mural paintings, his finer qualities were indispensable, and his defects of minor importance, so that whether they are regarded technically or intellectually, they are the finest of his works, the most complete expression of the best of the artist and the man. They are now widely acknowledged to be the greatest historical paintings of the English school, and D. G. Rossetti went even further when he wrote, ‘These are such “historical” pictures as the world perhaps had never seen before’ (see a very interesting paper by this artist in Academy, 15 April 1871). Engravings of these paintings and lithographs of Maclise's, and also drawings of ‘The Norman Conquest,’ were issued by the Art Union of London.
Among his book illustrations were those to Tennyson (1860), to Bürger's ‘Leonore,’ to Moore's ‘Irish Melodies,’ Lytton's ‘Pilgrims of the Rhine,’ and frontispieces to some of Dickens's Christmas books.
Maclise designed the Swiney Cup for the Society of Arts, the medal for the International Exhibition of 1862, and the Turner medal for the Royal Academy. For this he refused payment, and was presented by the Academy with a piece of plate (1860). His diploma picture at the Royal Academy is ‘The Wild Huntsman.’
A portrait of Maclise aged 35, by E. M. Ward, R.A., is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
[O'Driscoll's Memoir of Daniel Maclise; English Cyclopædia; Art Journal, 1870, p. 181; Art Union, 1844, p. 214; Cunningham's Lives (Heaton); Redford's Art Sales; Cat. of Dublin National Gallery; Royal Academy Cat.; Forster's Life of Dickens; Autobiography of William Bell Scott; Redgrave's Dictionary; Bryan's Dictionary; Maclise Portrait Gallery, ed. Bates.]