[Patmore, Coventry]. "Walls and Wall painting at Oxford." Saturday Review 4.113 (26 Dec. 1857), 583-584.

full text

Oxford, in addition to certain other and more important steps of a somewhat startling but very commendable character, has recently made–or rather is at this moment making–some remarkable experiments in architecture and architectural painting. The names of Mr. Woodward, Mr. Butterfield, and Mr. D. G. Rossetti are guarantees, not only of merit, but of novel merit in the works committed to their execution; and to these gentlemen, and their disciples and associates in art, have been entrusted works which cannot fail before long to attract a considerable amount of public and artistic attention. Mr. Butterfield, the architect of the famous All Saints’ Church, Margaret-street–certainly the most original piece of modern London architecture–has lately finished the new Chapel of Baliol–a structure inferior to the metropolitan building by which he has deservedly made so much reputation, but exhibiting several of its most striking characteristics. The works, however, to which we would more particularly draw the attention of our readers are the Oxford New Museum and the new Debating-room of the Union, both by Mr. Woodward. These as yet unfinished buildings are remarkable chiefly for a singularly happy modification and adaptation of the forms of old Italian Gothic architecture to modern English uses. The modification of the old style is, however, so great as to constitute a style having strong claims to be henceforth regarded as a new and independent one. The change–which is quite as considerable as took place in the transition from any one phase to any other of classical or mediæval building–consists chiefly in the addition of lofty broach-roofs suitable to a northern climate, and of windows so constructed as to take advantage of modern mechanical improvements, to the ordinary forms of Venetian Gothic, in which the wall was a far more important element than in the Northern pointed styles. The Italian style, on this account, was incomparably better fitted for secular purposes than the contemporary Northern manner, which was continually tending to the entire abolition of wall, and the substitution of spaces occupied wholly by buttresses, shafts, and mullioned and traceried windows. This manner of building, on its revival, has naturally called for a corresponding revival of mural decoration; and accordingly a number of painters, consisting of one or two of the leaders and several of the more promising disciples of the pre-Raphaelite school, have undertaken to adorn the walls of the Union with a series of paintings on subjects from the Arthurian Romances–it being proposed that the new Museum shall receive similar decorations when the building is sufficiently advanced to allow of their being proceeded with.

The plan of the room in which these paintings are in progress is an elongated octagon, two of the sides being double the length of the other six. This arrangement gives ten equal bays, each of which is pierced, a little below the springing of the roof, by two circular cusped windows. The portion of the interior wall-surface which is being painted is that which is thus pierced. It is a band of some ten or twelve feet in breadth, and extending round the building at a very considerable elevation above the floor. Four of the bays are, as yet, blank–the painting of only three is completed, or nearly so–and the other pictures are in various stages of progress. The subjects finished, or in hand, are the following:–"King Arthur receiving the Sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake," by J. H. Pollen, who has already distinguished himself at Oxford as an architectural painter by his beautiful decoration of the roof of Merton Chapel; "Sir Palomides’ Jealousy of Sir Tristram and Iseult," by W. Morris, who is engaged also on the painting of the roof; "Merlin being lured into the pit by the Lady of the Lake," by E. Jones; "Nimuë bringing Sir Peleas to Ettarde, after their quarrel," by V. Prinsep; "Sir Lancelot asleep before the Shrine of the Sancgrael," by D. G. Rossetti; and "Arthur conveyed by Weeping Queens to Avalon, after his death," by Arthur Hughes.

These paintings, which are in distemper, not fresco, promise to turn out novelties–and quite successful novelties–in art. We have not seen any mural painting which at all resembles, or, in certain respects, equals them. The characteristic in which they strike us as differing most remarkably from preceding architectural painting is their entire abandonment of’ the subdued tone of colour and the simplicity and severity of form hitherto thought essential in such kinds of decoration, and the adoption of a style of colouring so brilliant as to make the walls look like the margin of a highly-illuminated manuscript. The eye, even when not directed to any of the pictures, is thus pleased with a voluptuous radiance of variegated tints, instead of being made dimly and unsatisfactorily conscious of something or other disturbing the uniformity of the wall-surfaces. Those of our readers who have seen any of Mr. Rossetti’s drawings in water-colours will comprehend that this must be the effect of a vast band of wall covered with paintings as nearly as possible in that style of colouring. Those who have not had that pleasure–and Mr. Rossetti’s odd crotchet of refusing to exhibit has made these the majority–must be content with a less perfect idea; for this painter, who his necessarily given his tone to the whole work, is, among painters, what Mr. Butterfield is among architects–that is to say, about the most startlingly original living. Original artists, in every kind, are almost always mannerists–though it by no means follows that mannerists are original; and when the peculiar mannerism is added to the peculiar style–that invariable and essential accompaniment and proof of genius–the result is a departure from precedent as indescribable as it is complete. Mr. Rossetti, whom Mr. Ruskin has pronounced to be the only modern rival of Turner as a colourist, must at least be allowed, whether we admit that rivalry or not, to equal Turner in one of the noblest and least attainable qualities of harmonious colour–namely, its mysteriousness. The apparition of the "Damsel of the Sancgrael," surrounded with angels, on the wall of the Union, is a remarkable example of this mysteriousness. It is no skilful balance, according to academical rules or recipes by Mr. Owen Jones, of a red robe here, with a blue one there–it is "like a steam of rich, distilled perfumes," and affects the eye much as one of Mendelssohn’s most unwordable "Lieder ohne Wörter" impresses the ear. The colour is as sweet, bright, and pure, as that of the frailest waif of cloud in the sunrise; and yet, if closely looked into, there is scarcely a square inch of half those hundred square feet of colour which has not half-a-dozen different tints in it. The colours, coming thus from points instead of from masses, are positively radiant, at the same time that they are wholly the reverse of glaring. An indefiniteness of outline–by no means implying any general dissolution of form–is a necessary result of Mr. Rossetti’s manner of colouring; but this result is one which seems to us to render it all the better suited for architectural painting. Architecture, being itself characterized in all its leading features by the strongest definiteness of outline, ought to be relieved–not, as hitherto, emulated–in this respect, by mural painting.

The subject of Mr. Rossetti’s picture is a very fine one, and it is worthily conceived and executed–so far, at least, as we can judge of the work in its unfinished state. It is related that Lancelot fell asleep before the shrine of the Sancgrael, the object of his search, and could not enter in, because of his 1ove for Guineveve [sic]. Mr. Rossetti has represented the knight asleep on the ground, with a vision of the Queen, in all her glory of mortal beauty, standing between him and the Damsel of the Sancgrael, who appears in air, holding the sacred chalice, and surrounded by angels. The Queen, while she regards Lancelot, has her arms among the branches of an apple-tree–apparently to remind us of man’s first temptation.

Mr. Rossetti and his associates have observed the true conditions and limitations of architectural painting with a degree of skill scarcely to have been expected from their inexperience in this kind of work. It is to be remembered that the wall-surface allotted to each picture is pierced and cut away to the extent of, say, about one-third, by two large cusped windows, and that the subjects have all to be so managed as not to clash with this condition, which they would do were they not each divided into three principal compartments–as, for example, into the three figures and points of interest already described in Mr. Rossetti’s piece–and were they not also made to consist almost entirely of objects in the full foreground.

Mr. Arthur Hughes’ painting of the "Funeral of Arthur" is the only exception to the brightness of colour for which these pictures are remarkable. As the scene is a moonlit one, it could not well be otherwise than thus exceptional, and there is a certain poetic value in the contrast; nevertheless, we could have wished that architectural had here prevailed over poetical considerations, and that, if necessarily dark, the subject–essential as it seems–had been omitted, in order to secure uniformity of colour throughout the entire band of wall. The position, however, of this painting, at one of the ends of the room, together with a comparatively subdued tone of colour in Mr. Pollen’s picture in the corresponding bay at the other end, prevents the contrast in question from violating symmetry in an unpleasant degree.

Mr. Morris’s work, both in his picture and his roof-decoration, indicates a real feeling for peculiarly architectural painting. The sunflowers in his picture, and the flying water-fowl in that of Mr. Pollen, are striking examples of fine artistic power submitting to special material conditions, not only with a good grace, but with delight and profit to itself.

Mr. Jones’s painting is, we believe, the first work he has submitted to public inspection, with the exception of the designs for the stained glass in Bradfield College, Berkshire. As such, it is remarkably creditable. The colour is excellent, and the figure of Nimuë full of repose and noble natural grace. Mr. V. Prinsep is also executing his first public work on this occasion; but it is not sufficiently advanced to allow of our forming an opinion of it. We understand that Mr. Rossetti is to paint one, if not two, of the remaining bays.

In the tympanum of the porch to this room is a carving in stone by Mr. Monro, after a design by Mr. Rossetti. It represents Arthur at table with all his knights, and has the peculiarity of being coloured. Mr. Woodward and his pre-Raphaelite friends are clearly of opinion that the use of colour in architecture may and ought to be revived to an extent at present almost undreamt of by most persons; and certainly, in the beautiful and original Gothic room which Mr. Woodward has just completed in the house of Dr. Acland at Oxford, the extremely bold chromatic decoration is entirely successful.

We must not forget to mention that the painting of the Union Room is, on the part of all persons concerned, entirely a labour of love. As is often the case with such labours, its success will probably render it, in the long run, a good investment of time and pains.

We shall look with much curiosity to the completion of the Oxford New Museum, which promises to be our first great public work in which painting and sculpture have entered into a vital alliance with architecture. In this work Mr. Woodward has abandoned certain false traditions of building with admirable boldness. The covering-in of the quadrangle with glass and architectural iron-work is a perfectly new step in architecture, and one that was demanded by our modern means and requirements. His courage in adopting the plan, first publicly recommended by Mr. Ruskin, of entrusting the design as well as the execution of the stone carvings to common workmen, has been rewarded hitherto with full success. We do not remember any modern carving more beautiful than the foliage in the windows of one of the stair-turrets, and round the chimneys of the laboratory.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews