I bought this book at last year’s exhibition on Eastlake, but haven’t had the time to read and review it until this year.
There are many things that this book does well, but it succeeds above all in giving Lady Eastlake (Elizabeth Rigby) her rightful place at the centre of the whirl of Victorian art and institutional politics, something that previous accounts of the Eastlakes have failed to do. Not only was Rigby a formidable writer, translating such early surveys of Italian art as Kugler’s Handbook on Painting and famously criticising Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but she drew, and contributed much to the study of art history through her many translations, essays and work for her husband.
Born into a family of middle-class professionals, the daughter of a doctor, Elizabeth took drawing lessons from Cotman, visited Germany and developed an intellectual personality which emerged in her writings for the conservative journal, The Quarterly Review as well as her translations and reflections as a lady traveller in Europe. In 1849 Rigby married the diffident painter and rising star of the London art administration community, Charles Locke Eastlake. Though they were a well-matched couple, there was a hint of pragmatism about the union; she saw it as a form of “rationalised happiness.” Not much is known about the personal side of the Eastlake’s marriage, so it is impossible to know exactly what she could have meant. The authors are probably correct in assuming that Lady Eastlake destroyed this personal material in order to preserve certain aspects of the marriage.
John Partridge, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake,1825, National Portrait Gallery, pencil, 24.1 x18.4 cm.
“He probably, in early life, began with accurate habits, which make…an attention to details always easy, and which are the best foundation for enlarged experience. A slip-slod workman is good for neither; he can neither be a plodder nor a philosopher. Without attention to the business of the moment there can be no accuracy, without accuracy and industry (the evidence of zeal) there can be no extensive knowledge of facts and details, which are the pabulum of judgement, and the only true groundwork of theory.”
Sir Thomas Lawrence. Maria Graham, Lady Calcott, 1819. John Prescott Knight, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, Royal Academy, London, 1857.
The second protocol consisted of comparative analyses of a broad range of artworks in Eastlake’s meticulously kept notebooks. Here, Eastlake differed greatly from the likes of Morelli and Berenson who disdained this note-taking activity preferring to use their eyes; but Eastlake was an archivist through and through, and more significantly an administrator who knew the necessity of noting down details. It was noted by one of his contemporaries that Sir Charles wrote brilliant minutes! Where Eastlake gelled with Berenson was in his use of photographic reproductions to aid comparative study of pictures. Interestingly, Lady Eastlake shared the same emphasis as her husband on photography; she even wrote on it and saw its potential for connoisseurship.
At the risk of using a phrase sounding like some dreadful thriller novel, the final protocol made scrupulous use of archival and secondary source material: examination of inscriptions, sometimes in archives abroad. This was supported by what the authors call the “formation of a pioneering private library,” the result of frequenting book shops on the continent. This would eventually form the core of the NG’s own library. For Eastlake, a picture had to be “eligible”, for acquisition by the National Gallery. He would award a positive or negative attribution after weighing up all the facts and possibilities, even re-visiting the picture in the final stages of the process. Above all, he was anxious, to quote his wife, of not “morally or connoisseurially” disappointing in his choices. What Eastlake would have made of today’s market-driven, internet-promoting scramble for attributions and re-discoveries, is anybody’s guess.
John Singer Sergeant,”Vernon Lee”, aka Violet Paget, Tate Gallery, London, 1881.
|David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson, Elizabeth Eastlake, 1843-8, calotype, National Portrait, Gallery, London,|
Another of Lady Eastlake’s stratagems was to try to get Charles Lock Eastlake (the nephew) into the directorship of the NG, in order that he too as another “keeper of the flame” could preserve his uncle’s memory in the new, modernised institution that the ex-Director had created. Despite the fact that he could never live up to his uncle’s reputation and had therefore no chance of getting the job, it is heart-breaking to read this tale of an earnest, capable man enduring his defeat stoically in his retirement amongst his modest pictures and prints,- there’s nothing more sadder than ambition and talent unrewarded. Yet how could the nephew, or how could any of them hope to aspire to the heights of achievement that Eastlake reached? His triumphs are simply staggering. During his three years as Director, Eastlake acquired something in the region of 171 pictures for the gallery; he had transformed a ramshackle operation into a sleek, modern machine that ran smoothly; and he had set down rigorous standards for the studying, cataloguing and presentation of paintings that the museum observes today. Every director that followed him is considerably in his debt.
A rewarding read throwing light on some of the darker corners of Eastlake scholarship. Recommended for those interested in the National Gallery and the culture of connoisseurship surrounding it.