"Oxford and Wall Painting." Building News 1 Jan. 1858, 2.

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The Saturday Review–which has had some spirited articles on architecture–is enthusiastic about the wall paintings in distemper which Mr. Woodward has provided for the new debating-room of the Union. The painters are of course orthodox, and from them Raffaele Sanzio, were he alive, might learn, as their style dates from before his time. Chief in a band which numbers Mr. Arthur Hughes, Mr. J. H. Pollen, Mr. W. Morris, Mr. E. Jones, and Mr. V. Prinsep, is Mr. D. G. Rossetti, whose works are as well known as those of Millais and Holman Hunt, if his name be not, as a leader of the Pre-Raffaelites.

First, while applauding the intention, we must, nevertheless, say a few words as to the subject of the decoration. The Union, at Oxford, is a debating society, in which have been trained many of our senators and advocates, so that it well merits the name of a school of political oratory. Having grown in fame, a chance room was thought no longer a suitable arena, and a subscription having been raised, Mr. Woodward was appointed the architect to build a special hall. The style he chose–and we do not blame him for it, for it is the style for Oxford–is Gothic, and he considered it suited his purpose to adopt a Venetian modification of the style, as giving him more wall space than in the Northern varieties of Gothic;–so, at least, says the Saturday Review.

The plan of the room is there described as an elongated octagon, two of the sides being double the size of the other six. We should judge that this is not an inconvenient form for such a room, where the members rise to speak from their seats in the body of the hall. The wall affords ten equal bays, each of which is pierced a little below the springing of the roof by two circular cusped windows, and including which there is a band of some ten or twelve feet in breadth available for decoration, but the windows cut through the paintings, as it seems to us, rather a strange distribution.

Now, as we have said, the hall is a debating-room for the undergraduates of the University belonging to the Union Society, where they receive a very important part of their political training. It is a school of practical rhetoric and politics,–for though party politics are nominally excluded, in spirit the stirring events and feelings of the day animate and inspire the speakers. We should not have been much surprised if the subjects of the wall decorations had been classical–the eloquence of Nestor, Demosthenes practising on the sea-shore, the contest of Demosthenes and Eschines, Cicero arraigning Cataline, Marc Antony delivering the funeral oration of Cæsar, and so forth–for there would have been some keeping in mind of Oxford studies, though the modern would have been sacrificed to the antique. We might have expected a series of illustrations of distinguished rhetorical contests, from the earliest dates to those of modern events. Nay, we might have been prepared for illustrations of medieval incidents, in which saints and archbishops exercise their holy tongues against kings in their might and people in their multitude; but Puseyites and Pre-Raffaelites have other freaks. Unfortunately born in the nineteenth century, by no fault of their own, instead of the fourteenth, they have a holy horror of the practical turn of this epoch of the march of intellect, which to them savours of the materialistic, while their minds soar in the empyrean of the mystical. Jack-'o-Lantern has therefore dictated to them for their subjects the Arthurian romances! The paintings already in progress are King Arthur receiving the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, Sir Palomides' jealousy of Sir Tristram and Iseult, Merlin being lured into the pit by the Lady of the Lake, the bringing of Sir Peleas to Ettarde, Sir Lancelot asleep before the shrine of the Sancgrael, and Arthur conveyed by Weeping Queens to Avalon. The recommendation of these subjects to the worthy confraternity is that the Mort Arthur is a medieval romance; that it shows no fittingness for the Union room matters not to them, nor do they care more that Arthur is represented as an enemy of the English race leading the Welsh against us and triumphing over us,–not a very seemly myth for a national school like Oxford, which feels pride in its patriotism. The Mort Arthur is a Norman romance, and although its incidents have received illustrations in the national literature, it cannot be considered a subject so acclimated as to be popularly accepted, but as exotic even among scholars.

Mr. Woodward is a man of mind with a burning to excel, and we should have thought he would have so dealt with the task offered to him by the Oxford Union as to have lost no vantage ground. Thus he adopts a novel treatment of style; the plan of his room shows some fancy, he introduces mural decoration, he countenances the artists in novel effects, he restores distemper painting, and adopts coloring for a carving in stone. There is no doubt the Union hall is so striking in its appearance as to gain great applause for its author, yet having done all this, he has perversely gone out of his way to miss the very purpose and object of the building. The room having a purpose the architect was not driven to adopt a chance decoration, as he might have been in room having no such settled subjects for decoration. Had this been a hall in a mansion or palace, the Arthur Room, with the romance so displayed, would have been a distinguishing feature. Thus Prince Albert in the Pavilion in Buckingham Palace Gardens gave it a poetical character, by selecting the paintings from Spenser's Faërie Queen. The Mort Arthur might have given poetry to some structure which had neither poetry nor other intellectual association; but would betoken poverty of thought to lug it into the Union Room, did we not know that it comes here by a quip and crank of the mysticists, arising, as we have said, from their utter want of sympathy with the practical character of the age and the genius of their countrymen. By foreign importation and influence we had the incident of monkery sustained during the dark ages, and dark they were so far as they countenanced monkery, notwithstanding all we know about monkish schools of learning, science, and art; and it is a great mistake to practise monkery among the English in this day, when there is no longer the living power of the Pope, Dunstan, à Beckett, and the Dominicans to uphold it.

The Union is a school of oratory, and no mean one. The funds for this building were given by old and renowned members; and if wall paintings were to be given to the Union hall, as well they might be, the subjects which offer themselves are many, good, and great; for either the fame of Oxford as a nursery of statesmen should be commemorated in paintings of its great orators, or there should have been paintings of some of those great oratorical exercises at Oxford–controversies, disputations, and parliaments, for which Oxford is famous; or, perhaps still more fittingly, incidents could have been treated in reference to the parliamentary or forensic career of those who have been members of the Union. True, black coats give less scope to the painter than medieval armour, the bravery of dames and damsels, and the fantastic resources of enchantment and romance; but the hands of intellectual men give a greater scope for the power of the truly great painter than any mastery of costume. How is it that a half-length of Vandyke, Velasquez, or Rembrandt, will force its way into a gallery of art on even terms with a gigantic Titian or a Rubens, and in mastery over the Caracci and their contemporaries? It is because the expression of a positive human countenance overcomes the ideal, that the work of the Great Master of all is mightier than that of the maker of paintings. Thus, too, the Low Country schools send their cabinet pictures into great galleries alongside of life studies, because their figures, if puppets in size, are not puppets in expression. There is a life in a Flemish fair, or in a drunken bout, too often wanting in efforts at representation on a larger scale. It may be, and indeed is, in the greatest works of art, that a life-like rendering of an imaginary subject constitutes a masterpiece; but too often subjects of imagination fail in execution because there are not models of reality for them. Such will be, to a great extent, the result in the Arthurian illustrations, notwithstanding the painstaking efforts of the emulous men who are engaged in their portrayal. Had these same men been entrusted with historical renderings of events connected with the Union, they might have shown their mannerism, but undoubtedly they would have produced works of more lasting interest than those now growing under their hands. Some may think it would have been a low class of subject to have selected some early meeting of the Union, with a young orator of note and companions of debate since illustrious; but the artist would, in such lineaments, have had ample room for his exertions, and the features would have out-mastered the tailor's work of the garments. So, too, one scene we might have had in the Lords, one in the Commons, one in a law court.

The visitor to this new hall–and there will be many young ladies escorted by undergraduates–will be charmed by the treatment of the hall, and dwell with interest on each panel on which the artist has bestowed his labor and his love; but when the winter evenings come round, the hall is crowded, the debate is at its height, and those voices are heard in the trifling contest of the hour which are hereafter to be upraised in the struggles of mighty parties, or, better still, in liberties of nations,–then, in the pause of the moment, will the youthful orator look around, and what will he see that is germane to his English heart? Will he see realities depicted which are to nerve him to endurance in the mimic exercises of his schoolboy time, or aught that has sympathy with his mind and the feeling to which he has wrought his fellows? Or will he turn to a blank of thought, or wearying distraught dream, in Merlin being lured into the pit by the Lady of the Lake, or in the damsel of the Sancgrael appearing in air, holding the sacred chalice and consecrated host, and surrounded by angels? Here is poetry belike, but no that kind of mental sustenance which is to uphold a man whose words must breathe the choice of verse, but whose argument must be governed not by the authors of the Art Poetica, but by the straighter masters of the dialectic art. From those walls he may get a quaint simile, but no apt illustration or life-like example.

Mr. Woodward had given to him the opportunity of erecting a monument which would have been historical in its memories of the Union Society; but this he has missed, and for any consideration of propriety he might have invited its members to assemble in Billingsgate-market, or in the gaol of Newgate, for nothing whatever has its decoration to do with the Union, and yet we own that his work has merits, and will, we believe, be visited with pleasure. This will not acquit him of a greater artistic crime and misdemeanour, from which no adherence to all the codes and ceremonies of Venetian-Gothic or medieval polychromy will redeem him. Two hundred years hence Sir Lancelot and the Sancgrael will please scholars who understand them and ladies who do not; but the history of the Union written on the walls, would every year have been perused with deeper reverence, and time would have more and more hallowed its associations. Some day in this nation we shall get a school of historical art, when we begin to understand that we have a history as well as the Romans and the French.

The writer in the Saturday Review assures us that the treatment by bright tints of distemper, adopted by Mr. Rossetti and his brethren, is startling and striking, and very honestly he does not attempt to conceal the mannerism by which it is accompanied. It may be an offensive mannerism; but better to have the mannerism of Pre-Raffaelites who will strive to do something, than the want of mannerism of those good boys who say their lessons so well that there is not even the interest of a beautiful fault. We must not forget one thing highly meritorious in this undertaking–that the painting in the Union room is, on the part of all persons involved, entirely a labor of love. It will not escape notice that Reynolds and his brother Academicians offered to decorate St. Paul's, and this offer has always conferred honor on them. Messrs. Rossetti, Pollen, Morris, Jones, Prinsep, and Hughes, have been in so far happier that their offer has been as willingly received as it was nobly made. They are likely to get a material reward for this action, by creating a demand for this kind of decoration, from the example they have set; but had the subjects been more prosaic, within the line we have drawn, we believe the influence of the labors would have been greater, for they would have raised an historical as well as an artistic monument. From what honor they are entitled to, and that is great, we must not detract.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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