« PreviousContinue »
too long-lived at its best. In the days when Norwegian, Dane, and Icelander stalked through the streets of Micklegarth, and hedged with their axes the throne of Kirialax the Greek king, it was alive and vigorous. When blind Dandolo was led from the Venetian galleys on to the conquered wall of Constantinople, it was near to its best and purest days. When Constantine Palæologus came back an old and careworn man from a peacefuller home in the Morea to his doom in the great city, and the last Cæsar got the muddle of his life solved, not ingloriously, by Turkish swords on the breached and battered walls of that same Constantinople, there were signs of sickness beginning to show in the art that sprang from there to cover East and West alike with its glory.
And all that time it was the art of free men. Whatever slavery still existed in the world (more than enough, as always) art had no share in it; and still it was only here and there that any great names rose above the host of those that wrought it. These names (and it was mainly in Italy only) came to the front when those branches of it that were the work of collective rather than individual genius, architecture especially, had quite reached their highest perfection. Men began to look round for something more startlingly new than the slow, gradual change of architecture and the attendant lesser arts could give them. This change they found in the glorious work of the painters, and they received it with an outspoken excitement and joy that seems strange indeed to us in these days when art is held so cheap.
All went better than well for a time; though in Italy architecture began to lose something of the perfection it had gained, yet it was scarcely to be noticed amidst the glory of the light that was increasing in painting and sculpture. In France and England meantime the change, as it was slower in growing to a head, so it had begun earlier, as witness the sculpture in the great French Churches, and the exquisite drawing of the illuminations of English books; while the Flemings, never very great in the art of building, towards the end of this period had found their true vocation as painters of a sweet and serious external naturalism, illuminated by color unsurpassed for purity and brightness.
So had the art of the middle ages climbed gradually to the top of the hill, doubtless not without carrying the seeds of the disease that was to end it, threatenings of great change which no doubt no one heeded at the time. Nor was there much to wonder at in their blindness, since still for centuries to come their art was full of life and splendor, and when at last its death drew near men could see in it nothing but the hope of a new life. For many years, a hundred years at least, before the change really showed itself, the expression of the greater thoughts that art can deal with was being made more difficult to men not specially learned. Without demanding the absolute perfection that was the rule in the days of Greece, people began to look for an intricacy of treatment that the Greeks had never dreamed of; men began to see hopes of realizing scenes of history and poetry in a far more complete way than the best of their forerunners had attempted. Yet for long the severance between artist and artisan (as our nicknames go) was not obvious, though doubtless things were leading up to it; it is, perhaps, noticeable chiefly in the difference between the work of nation and nation rather than among the individual workmen. I mean, for instance, that in the Thirteenth century England was going step by step with Italy as far as mere excellence is concerned, while in the middle of the Fifteenth England was rude, and Italy cultured; and even while the change was preparing, by one accident or another came a great access of discoveries of the art and literature of the ancient world, and, as it were, fate ran to meet the half-expressed longings of men.
Then, indeed, all hesitation was over, and suddenly, as it now seems to us, amidst a blaze of glory, the hoped-for new birth took place. Once, as I have said, the makers of beautiful things passed away nameless; but under the Renaissance there are more names of excellent craftsmen left to us than a good memory can well remember, and among those names are the greatest the world has ever known, or perhaps ever will know. No wonder men's exultation rose high; no wonder that their pride blinded them and that they did not know where they were; yet most pitiable and sad the story is. It was one of those strange times when men seem to themselves to have pierced through all the space which lies between longing and attainment. They, it seems, and no others, have at last reached the spot where lie heaped together all the treasures of the world, vainly sought aforetime. They, it seems, have everything, and no one of those that went before them had anything, nay, not even their fathers whose bones lie yet unrotted under the turf.
The men of the Renaissance looked at the thousand years behind them as a deedless blank, and at all that lay before them as a perpetual triumphal march. We, taught so much by other people's failures, can see their position otherwise than that. We can see that while up to that time, since art first began, it had always looked forward, now it was looking backward; that whereas once men were taught to look through the art at that which the art represented, they were now taught to deem the art an end in itself, and that it mattered nothing whether the story it told was believed or not. Once its aim was to see, now its aim was to be seen only. Once it was done to be understood, and to be helpful to all men: now the vulgar were beyond the pale, and the insults which the Greek slaveholders and the Roman tax-sweaters of old cast upon the people, upon all men but a chosen few, were brought forth and tricked up again in fantastic guise to adorn the day of boundless hope.
Not all this, indeed, came at once, but come it did, nor very slowly either, when men once began to look back. At the beginning of the Sixteenth century the new birth was in its heyday. Before the Seventeenth had quite begun, what had become of its overweening hopes? In Venice alone of all Italy was any art being done that was of any worth. The conquered North had gained nothing from Italy save an imitation of its worst extravagance, and all that saved the art of England from nothingness was a tradition of the earlier days still lingering among a people rustic and narrow-minded indeed, but serious, truthful, and of simple habits.
I have just spoken somewhat of how this came about. But what was at the bottom of it, and what I wish you chiefly to note and remember is this, that the men of the Renaissance lent all their energies, consciously or unconsciously, to the severance of art from the daily lives of men, and that they brought it to pass, if not utterly in their own days, yet speedily and certainly. I must remind you, though I, and better men than I, have said it over and over again, that once every man that made anything made it a work of art besides a useful piece of goods, whereas now, only a very few things have even the most distant claim to be considered works of art. I beg you to consider that most carefully and seriously, and to try to think what it means. But first, lest any of you doubt it, let me ask you what forms the great mass of the objects that fill our museums, setting aside positive pictures and sculpture? Is it not just the common household goods of past time? True it is that some people may look upon them simply as curiosities, but you and I have been taught most properly to look upon them as priceless treasures that can teach us all sorts of things, and yet, I repeat, they are for the most part common household goods, wrought by “common fellows," as people say now, without any cultivation, men who thought the sun went round the earth, and that Jerusalem was exactly in the middle of the world.
Again, take another museum that we have still left us, our country churches. Take note of them, I say, to see
I how art ran through everything; for you must not let the name of “church” mislead you: in times of real art people built their churches in just the same style as their houses; " ecclesiastical art" is an invention of the last thirty years. Well, I myself am just fresh from an out-ofthe-way part of the country near the end of the navigable Thames, where, within a radius of five miles, are some halfdozen tiny village churches, every one of which is a beautiful work of art, with its own individuality. These are the works of the Thames-side country bumpkins, as you would call us, nothing grander than that. If the same sort of people were to design and build them now (since within the last fifty years or so they have lost all the old traditions of building, though they clung to them longer than most people), they could not build anything better than the ordinary little plain Nonconformist chapels that one sees scattered about new neighborhoods. That is what they correspond with, not an architect-designed new Gothic church. The more you study archæology the
more certain you will become that I am right in this, and that what we have left us of earlier art was made by the unhelped people. Neither will you fail to see that it was made intelligently and with pleasure.
That last word brings me to a point so important that at the risk of getting wearisome I must add it to my old sentence and repeat the whole. Time was when everybody that made anything made a work of art besides a useful piece of goods, and it gave them pleasure to make it. That is an assertion from which nothing can drive me; whatever I doubt, I have no doubt of that. And, sirs, if there is anything in the business of my life worth doing, if I have any worthy aspiration, it is the hope that I may help to bring about the day when we shall be able to say, So it was once, so it is now. Do not misunderstand me; I am not a mere praiser of
I know that in those days of which I speak life was often rough and evil enough, beset by violence, superstition, ignorance, slavery; yet I cannot help thinking that sorely as poor folks needed a solace, they did not altogether lack one, and that solace was pleasure in their work. Ah, sirs, much as the world has won since then, I do not think it has won for all men such perfect happiness that we can afford to cast aside any solace that nature holds forth to us. Or must we forever be casting out one devil by another? Shall we never make a push to get rid of the whole pack of them at once?
I do not mean to say that all the work we do now is done without any pleasure, but I mean to say that the pleasure is rather that of conquering a good spell of work, a courageous and good feeling certainly, or of bearing up well under the burden, and seldom, very seldom, comes to the pitch of compelling the workman, out of the fulness of his heart, to impress on the work itself the tokens of his manly pleasure.
Nor will our system of organizing the work allow of it. In almost all cases there is no sympathy between the designer and the man who carries out the design; not unseldom the designer also is driven to work in a mechanical, down-hearted kind of way, and I don't wonder at it. I know by experience that the making of design after design, mere diagrams, mind you, without one's self exe