A New Portrait Gallery by Charles Dickens
HOUSEHOLD WORDS, VOLUME XVIII
A NEW PORTRAIT GALLERY.
IT was once the fortune of the writer of these lines to employ a carpenter who, whenever he inserted a screw into any part of his work, always, before he did so, took the trouble of anointing the instrument with tallow or some other kind of grease, which he called the "friend." On being asked what was his motive for administering this unction, his reply was that he did it for the benefit of the person, whoever he might be, who should have, one of these days, to extract that same screw, and whose task this application of grease would render very much easier of execution than it otherwise would have been. There was a principle involved in the proceeding of this carpenter—in all respects a very honest man—which we are most of us inclined to lose sight of. He was acting for the benefit of posterity.
This small anecdote is appropriate here, because the project, the carrying out of which is to be urged in this paper, is one which, in some respects, affects those who will live after us more than it does ourselves. It does affect us too, or the case would be desperate; but it touches the interest of those who will walk on this stage, when we have walked off it. The project in question is the formation of a National Collection of Photographic Portraits of eminent and remarkable persons, to be got together and preserved in some public institution.
There are various opinions as to the value, and still more as to the satisfactoriness, of photographic portraits. Of some individuals it is said that they do not make good photographs. People will even say—generally after having proclaimed that they know whose physiognomy it is that is presented before them—" Well! I should really not have known who it was intended for." Such critics will remark, moreover, looking disparagingly at the portrait before them: "It is not my idea of him," or "It looks too serious," or "too ferocious." "The hands,"they will say, "are too big," or "the feet are out of all proportion." The criticism of the audience to which a photographic likeness is submitted may be of this sort, or even more severe yet; but it cannot be denied that that portrait, whether it excites approval or disapproval, is a reproduction of a face presented at a certain moment to the surface of a mirror which retained the image reflected upon it. Whether the face so reflected was truly reflected—whether it was presented under favourable or under unfavourable circumstances—whether the lights and shadows were so thrown upon it as to develop its beauties, or to bring out its defects—whether the view selected was the most characteristic or the most favourable—these are all points which may legitimately be called in question. One thing, however, is certain; the object that we see reproduced, was really presented before a plate chemically prepared to receive and to retain whatever was placed in front of it. A mechanical contrivance, like the photographic process, can neither invent nor omit; there may be defects in the working of that piece of machinery, there may be exaggeration in the size of the objects which happen to be nearest to the lens, there may be inaccuracy, produced by some trifling movement on the part of the sitter; but in the main we feel, in looking at a photographic portrait, that we know pretty well what the person who sat for it was like.
And, moreover, we certainly know that at least there has been no voluntary tampering with the face represented. There is a tendency in portrait-painters to humour their subjects a little. "This is an intellectual character,"says the artist. "I must make the most of the forehead and the eyes, and reduce the lower part of the face, ever so little, in size."The artist does so, and a "commanding brow,"and a "mouth and chin indicative of great refinement," are the result; together, probably, with a total deficiency of force, and a loss of individuality and character. We have had too many of these garbled representations of illustrious men. We want to see a remarkable man as he was; not as a portrait-painter thinks he ought to have been. If the hero were of a puny figure, and of a frail build, let us be made aware of it; if the man of genius had a disappointing forehead, let that be proclaimed also.We may learn something through such revelation, and correct our notions (generally very erroneous) of what is a disappointing forehead. We have most of us known instances of low and retreating foreheads from out of which great thoughts have issued, as we have of grand and ponderous brows behind whose mighty fastnesses there has lurked a prodigious amount of stupidity and weakness. At all events, let us see the man as he was, and harmonise his work and his appearance as best we may. They will generally be found, on reflection, to correspond very closely.
No doubt an adherence to the peculiarities and individualities of his model is more aimed at by the portrait-painter now, than it was a few years ago. It is not now considered essential that a man should be eight heads high—that is, that his head should go eight times in his height from crown to heel; nor is it deemed indispensable that the form of a lady's mouth should approximate to that of the cupid's bow; but still, the "ought to be" is more considered than the lover of truth could wish, and it is to be feared that the faces of public characters are improved upon before they are hung up in Trafalgar-square, just as their speeches are said to be doctored before they reach us in the public prints.
It is because people have become so accustomed to this improving process that they are so apt to quarrel with their photographic portraits as they commonly are. They have been so long accustomed to have their eyes enlarged, and their noses, and mouths, and jaws reduced, that when they find themselves represented as they really are, they are apt to be disappointed and angry. It may even happen that, unless they are posed very carefully indeed, and at a considerable distance from the photographic apparatus, the more ignoble portions of their countenances will be unduly insisted upon, and that the "ought-not-to-be" qualities which their faces exhibit will even be slightly exaggerated. It is certain that photographic portraits do not flatter, and that, in the case of ladies especially, they cannot always be said even to do justice to the originals; nevertheless, their value is incalculably great, and most of us would rather see a photograph of some one concerning whom our curiosity has been powerfully excited than a painted portrait.
Suppose, for instance, that some one were to find out that photography was a much older invention than has generally been imagined.Suppose we were to learn that it had flourished in the Elizabethan age, and that a photographic portrait of Shakespeare, concerning whose authenticity there could be no doubt, had been discovered. With what prodigious haste we should all rush off to inspect it! What would then be the worth of all your Chandos portraits, and the rest of the miserably unconvincing likenesses of the poet, with which people try to satisfy themselves, and which are so entirely unsatisfactory, and so irreconcilable with what Shakespeare did, that one thinks it would be better to let them alone altogether, and turn them with their faces to the wall and have done with them. What wonderful revelations would be made to us, too. We should be so surprised at first to see how unlike this portrait was to the "gentleman with the turn-down collar and tassels,"whom we know so much too well. We should be perhaps disappointed, as well as surprised at first; but then, as we looked longer, we should get to see and understand it all. We should find somewhere—maybe in the eyes or roundabout them—some of that penetration which told him that "when love begins to sicken and decay, it useth an enforced ceremony," or that, to tortured Lear, the misery and degradation of"Mad Tom" could only be accounted for by his having "unkind daughters." What discoveries we should make, too, among those delicate markings about the mouth, which could not be wanting. What abundance of sarcastic power, yet how much of pity. What contempt for evil, what admiration of good, and withal what sympathy with suffering! And if with this hypothetical portrait were associated others of such men as Watt, Harvey, Marlborough, Hogarth, Pitt, Nelson, what a national portrait-gallery that would be, and how—to use the theatrical phrase—it would draw! And yet just such a collection of modern illustrious persons might be formed now for the benefit of future ages.
What seems, then, to be wanted is, that, as we have already a national collection of painted portraits, so we should proceed to get together a collection of likenesses taken by the photographic process, to be chosen and preserved by persons selected especially on account of their fitness for the work, and who should be national servants in the employ of the public. This is not an undertaking which ought to be left to private enterprise; for, in that case, we should have no security that the portraits would be preserved at all—no assurance that they would not in time get to be destroyed or lost; while there would be every reason to fear that the portraits of those persons whose likenesses we most want might not be those which it would be most to the interest of the trade to preserve. It often happens that the portrait of a really remarkable person age will prove in the dealers' hands a less saleable commodity than that of some public favourite of the moment, concerning whose lineaments posterity will not care one single straw. If the photograph of a dancer, an acrobat, or a comic singer, sell better than that of a great philosopher or a luminary of science, we may be sure that the negatives of the dancer, the acrobat, or the comic singer, will be more carefully preserved and more closely looked after than that of the philosopher or scientific luminary.
There would be many important points which it would be necessary to consider in organising any such institution as this which we have been considering. It would be needful to ascertain—and to do this no amount of pains should be spared—which among the many photographic portraits taken of eminent persons was the best, and the most to be relied on. And in coming to a decision on this question, it seems only fair that the original of the portrait should have a voice. Supposing many portraits of a great author, for instance, to be in existence, he should be allowed to say by which he would choose, and still more, by which he would not choose, to be represented for the benefit of posterity. If a man have had two photographs done of him, one of which, owing to some unfortunate combination of lights and shadows, makes him look like a murderer, while the other shows him as a respectable and amiable member of society, it would be hard if he were obliged to submit to be represented by the first of the two.
It will be remembered by most persons who have had much experience of sitting for photographs, that at least one of their portraits has been suggestive of murderous tendencies in the original, while another has conveyed the idea of a simpering humbug. These unhappy results are oftener attributable to our own misdoing than we think. In sitting for our portraits we are apt to begin by trying to look preternaturally wise, and in making this attempt our features assume a homicidal cast. Horrified at this state of things, we smile, and behold the humbug appears! These two phases passed through, some of us, in the endeavour to steer clear of both extremes, and to resemble neither murderers nor hypocrites, are apt to fall into yet another pitfall, in some respects more terrible than the other two, and to contract an air of chronic imbecility. Suppose a dozen different portraits taken from the same original, each will probably differ in so many respects from all the others, that in some cases it might prove desirable to have more than one portrait of a single personage. And the getting together of some such collection of national photographic portraits should by no means be put off as a thing which may be delayed for an indefinite period, and thought of "some of these days." Many eminent persons have already died since the art of photography came into existence, the negatives of whose portraits are in private hands—in the hands, that is, of professional photographers—who are continually taking as many impressions of them as they are able to find a market for. Such negatives should at once be sought out and bought up before it is too late; and if it be the case that there is no method by which they can be preserved, if it be in their very nature to fade away and perish, then would it not be well that before they do so, facsimile engravings should be made from them, that they may be secured for ever?
As to this question of the durability of photographic portraits, and of the negatives from, which they are taken, there seems to be diversity of opinion among professors. We all know that the portraits themselves are apt to fade. The private collections of these which most of us possess include not a few specimens which are but the ghosts of what they once were; and year by year we see portraits to which we attach the greatest value becoming more and more indistinct. It is said that in Paris and elsewhere certain discoveries have been made—and that recently—which will remove this great objection to photographic likenesses. It may be so, or it may not. Time alone can prove. Meanwhile, until we know certainly that an imperishable photographic impression is an attainable thing, it is to the negative from which impressions can continually be obtained with which to replace the old ones as they become indistinct, that we naturally attach the greatest value.
The general opinion among practical men seems to be that, accidents apart, these negatives are not perishable. It seems probable that there is nothing inherently perishable in the thing itself. There is, however, nothing more liable to accidental injuries than one of these negatives. It is originally taken upon glass, the frailest of all substances. Then again, the composition with which the completed negative is varnished, may be defective: in which case the surface will crack, to the utter destruction of the portrait. The smallest substance—what we familiarly know as a piece of grit—brought into contact with the delicate surface, may destroy it in a moment; while if it should come to be scratched or rubbed, there is an end of it.
Now, the case standing thus—the photographic negative being, in itself and when protected from external injury, as far as we know, a durable thing, but being in a pre-eminent degree liable to all sorts of accidents, any one of which may render it worthless—it seems to follow that, in cases where this negative is a valuable piece of property, not to say a treasure impossible to replace, it ought to enjoy every chance that careful guardianship can give it, of immunity from misadventure.
Such immunity it certainly does not enjoy when left to encounter all the risks of the establishment of a professional photographer. The artist cannot attend to everything himself, but is compelled, perforce, to entrust the keeping of even his most valuable portraits to assistants and servants.Accidents are happening continually, and sometimes when he inquires for the negative of an especially eminent person, it is brought to him in two pieces, or with a great scratch across its surface from end to end. Of course we all know that by no system of human organisation can accident be wholly guarded against; but we also know that by the employment of precaution the danger to be apprehended from casualties may be reduced to a minimum. It is mainly by use that the security of negatives is endangered, as every time they are handled there is undoubtedly some risk of injury run. It follows that the less they are used, the less likely are they to receive harm.The negatives of any portraits included in a national collection would be but seldom used.It would be needful to take off some few impressions at first starting for the portrait-gallery itself, and also for preservation in public establishments in our own country towns, or in the colonies. These once supplied, the negative would be put away in some specially safe place, and no further use would be made of it until new impressions were required, either by reason of those originally taken being worn out, or inconsequence of the establishment of new
institutions at home or abroad.
There is one element in this proposal which should always be kept in sight. The project is pre-eminently an economical project, and there would be no need to dip at all deeply into the national pocket. The space required for the exhibition of a collection of photographs would not be large. No new buildings would be needed, as there are plenty of existing institutions of which such an establishment might form a part.The chief outlay would be in the purchase of portraits already in existence, and the taking of new portraits. As to the staff of employed persons, it should be of the smallest. One practical man, thoroughly well acquainted with the technicalities of the art, would be required to keep the portraits, and to take new impressions, as new impressions might be required. A photographic establishment for the taking of portraits would not be desirable. Men of genius, and persons of rare gifts or accomplishments, are ordinarily difficult customers to deal with, and are especially hard to get hold of when they are wanted to sit for their portraits. They must be caught when they can be caught, and, if possible, when they are in pliant humour. They would never come in cold blood to a central establishment to be "taken" for the collection, nor, even if they were persuaded to do so, woulda favourable likeness be likely to be got of them under such circumstances. Besides which, there would be great danger of monotony in the treatment of the subjects. The better plan would be to seek far and wide for the most successful photographs of such persons as should bethought worthy of being represented in the collection, and to buy up such portraits wherever they might appear. As to voluntary contributions, it would be necessary to exercise the greatest circumspection in admitting any such.
One word more concerning the practical advantages which might accrue to ourselves from the adoption of such a scheme, and enough will, for the present, have been said about it. There are plenty of living people who, by reason of their habitually leading a retired life, or from other causes, have had no opportunities of seeing some of the most distinguished men of their own day, but as to whose outward appearance they may yet feel a considerable amount of laudable curiosity. If the scheme under discussion were carried out, such people would have abundant opportunities of gratifying their curiosity, as, even if the main collection in the metropolis were inaccessible to them, copies of the portraits would be found in the public institutions of provincial towns, and so brought within easy reach of them. Men who had not seen the originals of these portraits would examine them with curiosity, and men who had seen the originals would find pleasure in comparing the portraits with the images preserved in their own memories; while not a few would feel a wholesome interest in showing the portraits of the great men of their own day to their children.
But even if this were not so—if this thing brought no gratification to us individually—would it not be worth doing for the good of generations to come? That wretched saying,"après nous le déluge," is a terribly popular one. It is one of the sayings from which no good has ever come. The old beehive motto,"Sic vos non vobis," is equally hackneyed, butvery much less frequently acted upon. It is peculiarly applicable in this case.