A Gallery of Immortals

THE National Portrait Gallery looks like a bank, a square, graystone, sturdy annex to the more imposing National Gallery. Its foundations seem rooted in rock and iron under Trafalgar Square; it is permanent, safe, a good place to lock up valuables, standing withdrawn, yet in full sight, of Nelson’s monument and just around the corner from the quick tide of traffic that circles Piccadilly. Perhaps it is a bank, and its tall chambers are safety vaults to house the dead, the famous dead in their familiar attitudes of life, not merely an inscription on a stone. The Gallery, then, is rather less a gallery than a compromise between a public library and a national churchyard where one may trace the origin of the million faces seen on the streets of London, faces at noon at Waterloo Station, in Soho, the Thames Embankment, or down the Strand.

One looks for history here and not for art; and the atmosphere, like so much (too much) of English painting, is literary. Pay your sixpence, walk up the stairs; the way is broad and the halls are empty. Members of the present royal family and a wide semicircle of diplomats in treaty conferences are quickly passed. These figures, spread on canvas and framed in heavy gilt, are wooden creatures, and far less lively than our memory of them in the feature sections of the Sunday paper. Strangely enough, history begins with an American by an American — the Sargent portrait of Henry James. Somehow the reproductions of this familiar head, shoulders, and upper torso have never done the original canvas justice. Seeing him here, quite as Sargent left him, he seems to dominate the room, and for a moment seems more English than his peers. His head is John Bull’s head, — round and full-blooded, bald, — and was this why the Suffragists slashed at the canvas? They were in a hurry to get things done and slashed in fury, but, had they looked longer, they would have discerned a gaze of defiance, most un-English, in the candid eyes that met their own. They would have seen that the left thumb, hooked into the armhole of the vest, showed an aggressiveness beyond mere male complacency after a Sunday dinner. In this gesture he betrays that moment of boldness which comes to every timid man. He is determined, despite long sentences and longer fits of shyness, to be heard at last and honored in a foreign land. One almost hears the hesitant, persistent low voice echoing across drawing-rooms where James imagined himself unwanted, and, in spite of silences which cleared his way, ignored. Pale Edmund Gosse, beside him on the wall, is infinitely more assured than he, for Gosse could well afford a show of modesty, and could peer nearsightedly into the faces of many friends at tea, friends who brought him praise and fame and offered him posts of authority on lecture platforms and in literary weeklies.

Across the room from Gosse and James is a young woman who would remain unrecognized were it not that her name appears in brass below the portraitShe is Marian Evans and this likeness of her was painted, I would say, before ‘George Eliot’ gave her a weighty reputation. Here she has sunlit yellow hair and a red-rose and white complexion. The heavy features that we know so well, the halfclosed eyes and heavy lips, the face that seems to be the proper image of her who wrote in semiclassic beef-andpudding prose, are of a later sitting. Perhaps the signs of heaviness are here, but they can be mistaken for robust health and prematernal animal calmness, as yet untouched by years of hard-won dignity and the lack of a fixed social position. The face that smiles down at us seems now reflected in the faces of the lower middle classes. These very features, sharpened slightly and less smiling, are to be found in the faces of barmaids and ribbon clerks, and those women who are stationed behind glass cages in restaurants and hotels. These, like the face above us, seem preternaturally calm, yet they retain their calmness with a grim edge of resistance to the memory of Victorian womanhood. They tower over the little men surrounding them and stand guard over fleets of deferential bell boys and suave waiters. Efficient management is in the air, and through each swift action British serenity must be sustained.

George Eliot, however, is not the only woman in the room. Here are the Bronte sisters, and, among others, a certain mother and daughter who effect a singular contrast in personality. Of course the two are Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, and, if the mother has an obvious advantage, some credit must be given to John Opie. Honest warmth entered each canvas as he touched it with his brush, and the woman was a nearly perfect model for his talent. He did not, however, invent the rich lips and generous mouth, nor the warm light that radiated from her body. It was she who transmuted something of this light to the chilly blood of William Godwin; and she who changed him, as though by some chemic miracle, into a lover. His humanitarianism was of the kind that fed itself upon abstract perfections; whatever emotions he possessed were quick to die and found their substitute in silent anger and martyred pride. Her death gave him the solace of human grief, yet after it there was nothing left but the spiritless desire to gain an income from the inheritance of his wealthy son-inlaw.

It would be easy to dismiss the pretentious portrait of Mary Shelley as so much vanity and outmoded affectation. The thin lips are curved into a simper that is the worst of all possible substitutes for a smile. It is obvious that Mary Shelley was acting the part of a grand lady seated at a writing table: the red curtain behind her, the fashionable black dress, the writing implements in ordered disarray about her, were details chosen for posterity to admire. The table reminds us that she was a novelist in her own right as well as the widow of a famous poet, but the rich, heavy furniture and the smart dress also remind us that she was the mother of a son who was to inherit a baronet’s title and a respectable fortune.

The grand lady was not too vain, nor was she affected without good reason. In the past she had learned to fear gossip and ill fame, and she knew well, I think, that outward appearances too often fix the world’s opinion of a woman. Perhaps she had a premonition that the pose struck by the grand lady in the portrait would gain respect in the Victorian age that was to follow hers. She had, moreover, the task of making her dead husband’s poetry seem more suitable to the title that her son would bear, and perhaps, if such were possible, less obscure. She used what means she could to build a posthumous reputation for the poetry that had not found its audience, and I think it is not too much to say that the portrait is among the unconscious contributions to that end. At last she had won security and now would not relinquish it; something of that deliberate coolness that guided her hither’s elaborate but unsuccessful plans toward making a livelihood ran in her blood and she was not to fail.

Now that a hundred years have left Haydon’s tragedy behind us, it is no longer necessary to apologize for the fantastic discrepancy between his finished work and its intention. It is enough to say that no man ever paid a higher price for being what Haydon was — a painter with a ‘literary’ imagination; yet his portrait of Wordsworth is more convincing than all other attempts to paint the poet, and the original canvas is far more effective than any of its reproductions. The experience of seeing it on a wall is not unlike that of meeting Sargent’s Henry James. Haydon, I think, loved Wordsworth with a pure heart; by that I mean that both men met for a brief moment on common ground. Both shared a sense of awe concerning the importance of their work, their duty to themselves, their art, their nation, and the world.

Haydon’s Wordsworth stands with dark mountain clouds behind him. The head and shoulders of the gaunt figure are bent forward in heavy reverie. The eyes gaze downward on a distant earth below, and under the hawklike nose the left side of a distorted lip is suddenly revealed. This revelation of the twisted lip is a surprise, for here one sees, or rather feels, an element of deep selfpity that was to counterbalance its discontent by the sonorous music of epic pantheism. Even the sonnets of the later Wordsworth contain this epic quality; the simple world of mountains, hills, and trees grew very large; it is still the largest world England ever knew-

This vision of a large world, so Alan Odle tells me, is a rare experience in English art. Milton shared it and Byron embellished his possession of it in the ironic cantos of Don Juan. Both Blake and Shelley held outlines of this vision in the mind’s eye, yet neither lived to see the edifice completed. And Hardy in his great Victorian ruin, The Dynasts, again looked upward and saw its rounded hemispheres. Alan Odle reminds me that the same vision haunted D. H. Lawrence, and in his painting the grand manner revealed itself once more. I think it is not too much to say that the vision led to Haydon’s suicide. He could not guide his hand to encompass that thing he valued most, but as he saw its symbol rise in Wordsworth he sketched a detail and preserved it for posterity.

Here, in this room, set in glass cases on a centre table, rest the life masks of Keats and Blake. Keats is the prototype of the ‘little’ Londoner one sees on the less-crowded thoroughfares; the sensitive lips, the delicately veined eyelids, are of the type. But these whom we meet now have no release in words for the sensibilities that are revealed in a graceful inflection of the voice or in a final gesture of the hand. They stand at bookstalls in Bloomsbury or wander, black-hatted, through Soho Square. They are to be found under the shelter of a German bookshop near Charing Cross and some admit a recent conversion to Communism. Perhaps the heady fire of Karl Marx will give them strength to live beyond the futile expenditure of gesture which is a ‘ mute, inglorious’ appreciation of the sensual beauty that feeds upon its own youthful reflection in a mirror and always dies too soon.

Contrast to Keats lies in the head of Blake: here is the compact jaw, and the full lips set in a straight line, as though the muscles of the face were controlled by some centrifugal force. Here one may well imagine a tenacity of purpose seldom discovered in those erratic flashes of genius which illuminate his poetry. The face is a self-righteous face which is the moral aspect of true heresy. By gazing inward he hoped to find that godlike image of his own strength, but the effort demanded more than human effort could sustain. At the least sign of weakness the image blurred and the focus of his mind’s eye opened on seas of darkness where the self-image in an unfinished poem was destroyed by the very violence which gave it birth.

After a circuit of the many faces in this room, a circuit extending backward from the end of the nineteenth century to its beginning, one says good-bye by stopping for a moment at the large dark portrait of Leigh Hunt. There is no denying the man’s charm, nor the attraction of the intelligent brown eyes with their quick appeal to human sympathy. It would be difficult to refuse him anything, or to remember that he had borrowed money from you. Many of his friends could testify to his liberal service in their cause. His praise of their poetry came from his lips as easily as most men breathed the fragrance of twilight April air. The benevolent mischief in his eyes made praise such as his a special gift, a gift to be offered and accepted without embarrassment. In return he asked the right to live, to smile as he smiles here, dependent on your good humor, your purse, your willingness to respond with human tolerance to human weakness.

Upstairs the eighteenth century revives itself again. The more or less predictable knowledge of the world’s affairs is written large in the faces that Sir Joshua Reynolds knew so well, and in them we see again those signs of maturity that the nineteenth century discloses in the features of its scientists alone: Faraday, Owen, Huxley, Darwin. We have learned rather too well their various attitudes of elegance, their love of fine linen and brocaded velvets. And because of this we are not prepared to see the restlessness that animates the room: Matt Prior looking up from his busy writing table as though about to speak; Bonnie Prince Charlie, as a boy, breathless, as though he had run into the room and were about to leave again at once; Laurence Sterne sitting on the edge of a chair, forcing a heavy white-lipped smile in a brief interview. Despite their courtesy, despite a background which reveals a succession of calm Georgian interiors, there is something almost American in their demand for movement. Tobias Smollett, with his red nose and shrewd blue eyes, is about to ask a question and turn away, and there, of course, is a theatrical portrait of David Garrick, trying his best to represent tragedy, melodrama, comedy, and farce with both eyes wide and staring into nowhere. This is not (as one might suppose, seeing each reproduction of a canvas separately) a quiet room, for the entire company collectively seems to move in a dozen swirls and eddies. If they could speak, one might well imagine that even their conversation was a form of activity; such talk as the eighteenth century inspired demanded the use of brain as well as tongue, for intelligence was transferred from one man to the next. We are mistaken, I think, if we consider the prose of the Spectator or the verse of Pope’s Epistles as living apart from the conversation that overflowed coffeehouse and card table. The bright stream of nervous energy released through the portraits of cabinet minister, poet, court lady, and painter could be checked only by the counterweight of Latin verbs and an evenly balanced sentence structure.

Speaking of conversation and its entry into literature, one thinks of Boswell’s famous Life, and from this memory of it we turn to Reynolds’s excellent portrait of the early Johnson.

The early Johnson is by no means a young man; he is on the nether side of middle age, retaining, with characteristic tenacity, the vigor of forty-five. The coarse-grained skin is pale and its pallor is accentuated by the dark background that Reynolds chose for this three-quarter profile of his friend. Again one does not ask too much of ‘art’ in the National Portrait Gallery, but I suspect that this present portrait is among the best of Reynolds’s work. The profile is very like a cameo or medallion, and certainly in its clear outline of forehead, nose, lips, chin, and naked throat it resembles the classic head on a Roman coin. And to this outline Reynolds has added his peculiar gift of scientific observation; with admirable candor he has painted in the nearsighted eye narrowing to a painful squint — the face is almost blind. The physical handicap is balanced against the strength of the broad neck, which is reenforced by the dignity of the strong curving line extending down from upper forehead to the open shirt front below the throat.

This Samuel Johnson is not the portly, awkward Leviathan seated at a tea table. One is reminded here of the man who wrote that magnificent essay on Richard Savage, one of the greatest of all English biographies. In The Lives of the Poets we see Johnson resisting the changes in English life that reached a climax during the eighteenth century, that transformed London from an island capital into a genuine cosmopolis — those changes that brought with them the new enclosure laws, and a new wave of technical advancement in industry. Against these Johnson stood, intolerant, yet compassionate always, a tribal god of England’s middle class thrusting itself forward out of poverty. His image is not re-created in any single figure today, but his elements are scattered among his people. His prejudices, his kindliness, his national pride, his reverence for royalty, his endurance against physical lethargy, are part of London’s heritage. Johnson’s radical Toryism, with all its contradictions and humorless irony, is peculiar to the English temperament alone.

As we walk upward, leaving the eighteenth century behind us in a lower gallery, the circle of English life grows smaller, and we are facing, more often than not, effigies of men and women whose activity, hopes, ambitions, began and ended in a life at court. Here is the court life of the Stuarts, and beyond them are found glimpses of the Tudors. History and legend have done well by them. They belong to the mythology of a deeply nourished tradition. It is well to note the mixture of strength and kindliness in Cromwell’s features, and amusing to recognize family resenfblance to Charles the Second in the faces of the children embraced by his court ladies. But in these last speculations we reëenter mythology by way of the back stairs, and the London street below us has little kinship to the intimacies of a life long vanished from the chambers of old Whitehall. Not even the skill of a Van Dyck can revive those passions for which men died in a lost cause.

As we descend the stairs, the halls of the square building seem more deserted than before. The portraits seem to lock themselves within their separate chambers, and again, as one steps out to sunshine and Piccadilly, the impression of leaving a huge safety vault returns. The faces in the street, however, seem less strange, and, if your road homeward is lost, someone with Dr. Johnson’s courteous compassion in his voice will point the way.