LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries
Mr. Fuseli.

Lord Byron.
Mr. Moore.
Mr. Shelley. With a Criticism on his Genius.
Mr. Keats. With a Criticism on his Writings.
Mr. Dubois. Mr. Campbell. Mr. Theodore Hook. Mr. Mathews. Messrs. James & Horace Smith.
Mr. Fuseli. Mr. Bonnycastle. Mr. Kinnaird.
Mr. Charles Lamb.
Mr. Coleridge.
Recollections of the Author’s Life.
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“It is for slaves to lie, and for freemen to speak truth.

“In the examples, which I here bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I have forbid myself to dare to alter even the most light and indifferent circumstances. My conscience does not falsify one tittle. What my ignorance may do, I cannot say.”       Montaigne.


At the hospitable table of Mr. Hunter the bookseller, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, I became acquainted with the survivors of the literary party that used to dine with his predecessor, Mr. Johnson. They came, as of old, on the Friday. The most regular were Mr. Fuseli, and Mr. Bonnycastle. Now and then, Mr. Godwin was present: oftener Mr. Kinnaird the magistrate, a great lover of Horace.

Fuseli was a small man, with energetic features, and a white head of hair. Our host’s daughter, then a little girl, used to call him the white-headed lion. He combed his hair up from the forehead, and as his whiskers were large, his face was set in a kind of hairy frame, which, in addition to the fierceness of his look, really gave him an aspect of that sort. Otherwise, his features were rather sharp than round. He would have looked much like an old officer, if his face, besides its real energy, had not affected more. There was the same defect in it as in his pictures. Conscious of not having all the strength he wished, he endeavoured to make out for it by violence and pretension. He carried this so far, as to look fiercer than usual when he sat for his picture. His friend and engraver, Mr. Houghton drew an admirable likeness of him in this state of dignified extravagance. He is sitting back in his chair,
leaning on his hand, but looking ready to pounce withal. His notion of repose was like that of Pistol:
“Now, Pistol, lay thy head in Furies’ lap.”
Agreeably to this over-wrought manner, he was reckoned, I believe, not quite so bold as he might have been. He painted horrible pictures, as children tell horrible stories; and was frightened at his own lay-figures. Yet he would hardly have talked as he did about his terrors, had he been as timid as some supposed him. With the affected, impression is the main thing, let it be produced how it may. A student of the Academy told me, that Mr. Fuseli coming in one night, when a solitary candle had been put on the floor in a corner of the room, to produce some effect or other, he said it looked “like a damned soul.” This was by way of being Dantesque, as
Michael Angelo was. He was an ingenious caricaturist of that master, making great bodily displays of mental energy, and being ostentatious with his limbs and muscles, in proportion as he could not draw them. A leg or arm was to be thrust down one’s throat, because he knew we should dispute the truth of it. In the indulgence of this wilfulness of purpose, generated partly by impatience of study, partly by want of sufficient genius, and, no doubt, also by a sense of superiority to artists who could do nothing but draw correctly, he cared for no time, place, or circumstance, in his pictures. A set of prints, after his designs, for Shakspeare and Cowper, exhibit a chaos of mingled genius and absurdity, such as perhaps was never before seen, and afford an hour’s entertainment of the most ludicrous description. He endeavoured to bring Michael Angelo’s apostles and prophets, with their superhuman ponderousness of intention, into the
commonplaces of modern life. A Student reading in a Garden, is all over intensity of muscle; and the quiet tea-table scene in Cowper, he has turned into a preposterous conspiracy of huge men and women, all bent on showing their thews and postures, with dresses as fantastical as their minds. One gentleman, of the existence of whose trowsers you are not aware till you see the terminating line at the ankle, is sitting and looking grim on a sofa, with his hat on, and no waistcoat. Yet there is real genius in his designs for
Milton, though disturbed, as usual, by strainings after the energetic. His most extraordinary mistake, after all, is said to have been on the subject of his colouring. It is a sort of livid green, like brass diseased. Yet they say, that when praised for one of his pictures, he would modestly answer, “It is a pretty colour.” One would have thought this a joke, if remarkable stories were not told of the mistakes made by other people with regard to colour. Sight seems the least agreed upon, of all the senses.

Mr. Fuseli was lively and interesting in conversation, but not without his usual faults of violence and pretension. Nor was he always as decorous as an old man ought to be; especially one whose turn of mind is not of the lighter and more pleasurable cast. The licences he took were coarse, and had not sufficient regard to his company. Certainly they went a great deal beyond his friend Armstrong; to whose account, I believe, Mr. Fuseli’s passion for swearing was laid. The poet condescended to be a great swearer, and Mr. Fuseli thought it energetic to swear like him. His friendship with Mr. Bonnycastle had something childlike and agreeable in it. They came and went away together, for years, like a couple of old schoolboys. They also, like boys, rallied one another, and sometimes made a singular display of it,—Fuseli at least,
for it was he that was the aggressor. I remember, one day, Bonnycastle told a story of a Frenchman, whom he had received at his house at Woolwich, and who invited him in return to visit him at Paris, if ever he should cross the water. “The Frenchman told me,” said he, “that he had a superb local. When I went to Paris I called on him, and found he had a good prospect out of his window; but his superb local was at a hairdresser’s up two pair of stairs.” “Vell, vell!” said Fuseli impatiently, (for though he spoke and wrote English remarkably well, he never got rid of his Swiss pronunciation)—“Vell—vay not—vay not—Vat is to hinder his local being superb for all thtat?” “I don’t see,” returned Bonnycastle, “how a barber’s in an alley can be a superb local.” “You doan’t! Vell—but thtat is not thte barber’s fault—It is your’s.” “How do you make that out? I’m not an alley.” “No; but you’re coarsedly eegnorant.” “I may be as ignorant as you are polite; but you don’t prove any thing.” “Thte thtevil I doan’t! Did you not say he had a faine prospect out of window?” “Yes, he had a prospect fine enough.” “Vell, thtat constituted his superb local. A superb local is not a barber’s shop, by Goade! but a faine situation. But that is your coarsed eegnorance of thte language.”

Another time, on Mr. Bonnycastle’s saying that there were no longer any Auto da Fés, Fuseli said he did not know that. “At all events,” said he, “if you were to go into Spain, they would have an auto-da-fé immadiately, oan thte strength of your appearance.”