LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries
Portraits—Mr. West & his Gallery.

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.
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH




“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.


The two principal houses at which I visited when a boy, till the arrival of our relations from the West Indies, were Mr. West’s (late President of the Academy) in Newman-street, and Mr. Godfrey Thornton’s (of the celebrated mercantile family) in Austin Friars. How I loved the graces in one, and every thing in the other! Mr. West had bought his house, not long, I believe, after he came to England; and he had added a gallery at the back of it, terminating in a couple of lofty rooms. The gallery was a continuation of the hall-passage, and, together with the rooms, formed three sides of a garden, very small but elegant, with a grass-plot in the middle, and busts upon stands under an arcade. In the interior, the gallery made an angle at a little distance as you went up it; then a shorter one, and then took a longer stretch into the two rooms; and it was hung with his sketches and other pictures all
the way. In a corner between the two angles, and looking down the longer part of the gallery, was a study, with casts of Venus and Apollo on each side the door. The two rooms contained the largest of his pictures; and in the farther one, after stepping softly down the gallery, as if respecting the dumb life on the walls, you generally found the mild and quiet artist at his work; happy, for he thought himself immortal.

I need not enter into the merits of an artist who is so well known, and has been so often criticised. He was a man with regular, mild features; and, though of Quaker origin, had the look of what he was, a painter to a court. His appearance was so gentlemanly, that the moment he changed his gown for a coat, he seemed to be full dressed. The simplicity and self-possession of the young Quaker, not having time enough to grow stiff, (for he went early to study at Rome,) took up, I suppose, with more ease than most would have done, the urbanities of his new position. And what simplicity helped him to, favour would retain. Yet this man, so well bred, and so indisputably clever in his art, (whatever might be the amount of his genius,) had received so careless, or so homely an education when a boy, that he could hardly read. He pronounced also some of his words, in reading, with a puritanical barbarism, such as haive for have, as some people pronounce when they sing psalms. But this was perhaps an American custom. My mother, who both read and spoke remarkably well, would say haive, and shaul (for shall), when she sung her hymns. But it was not so well in reading lectures at the Academy. Mr. West would talk of his art all day long, painting all the while. On other subjects he was not so fluent; and on political and religious matters he tried hard to maintain the reserve common with those about a court. He succeeded ill in both. There were always
strong suspicions of his leaning to his native side in politics; and during
Bonaparte’s triumph, he could not contain his enthusiasm for the Republican chief, going even to Paris to pay him his homage, when First Consul. The admiration of high colours and powerful effects, natural to a painter, was too strong for him. How he managed this matter with the higher powers in England, I cannot say. Probably he was the less heedful, inasmuch as he was not very carefully paid. I believe he did a great deal for the late King, with very little profit. The honour in these cases is too apt to be thought enough. Mr. West certainly kept his love for Bonaparte no secret; and it was no wonder, for the conqueror expressed an admiration of his pictures. He thought his smile enchanting, and that he had the handsomest leg and thigh he had ever seen. He was present when the “Venus de Medicis” was talked of, the French having just then taken possession of her. Bonaparte, Mr. West said, turned round to those about him, and said, with his eyes lit up, “She’s coming!” as if he had been talking of a living person. I believe he retained for the Emperor the love that he had had for the First Consul, a wedded love, “for better, for worse.” However, I believe also that he retained it after the Emperor’s downfal; which is not what every painter did.

But I am getting out of my chronology. The quiet of Mr. West’s gallery, the tranquil, intent beauty of the statues, and the subjects of some of the pictures, particularly Death on the Pale Horse, the Deluge, the Scotch King hunting the Stag, Moses on Mount Sinai, Christ Healing the Sick, (a sketch,) Sir Philip Sidney giving up the Water to the Dying Soldier, the Installation of the Knights of the Garter, and Ophelia before the King and Queen, (one of the best things he ever did,) made a great impression upon me. My mother and I used to go down
the gallery together, as if we were treading on wool. She was in the habit of stopping to look at some of the pictures, particularly the Deluge and the Ophelia, with a countenance quite awestricken. She used also to point out to me the subjects relating to liberty and patriotism, and the domestic affections. Agrippina bringing home the Ashes of Germanicus was a great favourite with her. I remember, too, the awful delight afforded us by the Angel slaying the Army of Sennacherib; a bright figure lording it in the air, with a chaos of human beings below.

As Mr. West was almost sure to be found at work in the farthest room, habited in his white woollen gown, so you might have predicated, with equal certainty, that Mrs. West was sitting in the parlour reading. I used to think, that if I had such a parlour to sit in, I should do just as she did. It was a good-sized room, with two windows looking out on the little garden I spoke of, and opening to it from one of them by a flight of steps. The garden with its busts in it, and the pictures which you knew were on the other side of its wall, had an Italian look. The room was hung with engravings and coloured prints. Among them was the Lion’s Hunt, from Rubens; the Hierarchy with the Godhead, from Raphael, which I hardly thought it right to look at; and two screens by the fire-side, containing prints, from Angelica Kauffman, of the Loves of Angelica and Medoro, which I could have looked at from morning to night. Angelica’s intent eyes, I thought, had the best of it; but I thought so without knowing why. This gave me a love for Ariosto before I knew him. I got Hoole’s translation, but could make nothing of it. Angelica Kauffman seemed to me to have done much more for her namesake. She could see farther into a pair of eyes than Mr. Hoole with his spectacles. This reminds me that I could make as little
Pope’s Homer, which a schoolfellow of mine was always reading, and which I was ashamed of not being able to like. It was not that I did not admire Pope; but the words in his translation always took precedence in my mind of the things, and the unvarying sweetness of his versification tired me before I knew the reason. This did not hinder me afterwards from trying to imitate it; nor from succeeding, as every body else succeeds. It is his wit and closeness that are the difficult things, and that make him what he is;—a truism, which the mistakes of critics on divers sides have made it but too warrantable to repeat.

Mrs. West and my mother used to talk of old times, and Philadelphia, and my father’s prospects at court. I sat apart with a book, from which I stole glances at Angelica. I had a habit at that time of holding my breath, which forced me every now and then to take long sighs. Mrs. West would offer me a bribe not to sigh. I would earn it once or twice; but the sighs were sure to return. These wagers I did not care for; but I remember being greatly mortified when Mr. West offered me half-a-crown if I would solve the old question of “Who was the father of Zebedee’s children?” and I could not tell him. He never made his appearance till dinner, and returned to his painting-room directly after it. And so at tea-time. The talk was very quiet; the neighbourhood quiet; the servants quiet; I thought the very squirrel in the cage would have made a greater noise any where else. James the porter, a fine tall fellow, who figured in his master’s pictures as an apostle, was as quiet as he was strong. Standing for his picture had become a sort of religion with him. Even the butler, with his little twinkling eyes, full of pleasant conceit, vented his notions of himself in half tones and
whispers. This was a strange fantastic person. He got my brother
Robert to take a likeness of him, small enough to be contained in a shirt pin. It was thought that his twinkling eyes, albeit not young, had some fair cynosure in the neighbourhood. What was my brother’s amazement, when, the next time he saw him, the butler said, with a face of enchanted satisfaction, “Well, Sir, you see!” making a movement at the same time with the frill at his waistcoat. The miniature that was to be given to the object of his affections, had been given accordingly. It was in his own bosom.