Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Eastlake, Charles Lock

EASTLAKE, Sir CHARLES LOCK (1793–1865), president of the Royal Academy, born at Plymouth on 17 Nov. 1793, was the fourth son of George Eastlake, admiralty agent in that town, an office which had been held by the Eastlakes for some generations. His mother, a ‘woman of refined and gentle nature,’ was Mary, daughter of Samuel Pierce of Exeter, where her family had been long resident. Charles was sent to the grammar school at Plympton, then under Mr. Bidlake, and at the same time he studied French under M. Lelong, and took lessons in drawing from Samuel Prout [q. v.] He was ‘conscientious, painstaking, and ambitious,’ and, though fond of boyish sports, ‘always a quiet and studious boy, and determined to do well whatever he undertook.’ His ‘voluntary delight and recreation was the art of poetry,’ and he was ‘an enthusiast for music. … Industry, application, and self-denial were strenuously taught and practised in his family, and the habitual tone in conversation, and in letters between father, sons, and brothers, was scholarlike, cultivated, and accurate in thought and expression.’ Moreover, William, the eldest of his brothers, was fourteen years his senior, and ‘took an almost fatherly interest and pride in his advancement.’

In the autumn of 1808 he was sent to the Charterhouse, but in December of the same year he announced to his father, in a letter of remarkable firmness and closeness of reasoning, that his resolution to be an historical painter was ‘unalterably fixed.’ He was no doubt influenced by Benjamin Haydon [q. v.], his fellow-townsman, who was then in London engaged upon his great picture of ‘Dentatus,’ which was to effect a revolution in art. Next month, with his father's consent, he became an art student under the charge of Haydon, and was installed in Haydon's old lodgings at 3 Broad Street, Carnaby Market, London. In March he was admitted to the antique school of the Royal Academy, in April to Sir Charles Bell's school of anatomy, in December to the life school of the Academy; in April 1810 he obtained the silver medal of the Society of Arts for a drawing of a bas-relief, and about the same time Mr. Harman, the banker, gave him his first commission for a picture. He read the classics for two hours a day regularly until he could read Virgil and Homer without a dictionary, but this was part of what he deemed necessary for his education as an historical painter. His life indeed, even from these early years, was one of incessant hard work, and methodically regulated. He measured everything and every person with wonderful justice, even Haydon, the defects of whose character and art he soon found out, and Turner, another fellow-townsman, whose genius he at once recognised, and Fuseli, whose ignorance of ‘the mechanical part of the art’ showed Eastlake the importance of mastering it to begin with. He showed from the outset the high aims, the critical faculty, and the interest in both the theory and the technical details of his art, which guided him throughout.

His commission for Mr. Harman was not finished till 1812, for a classical composition on which he had spent a great deal of time, research, and energy, was abandoned for conscientious motives, and the subject of the ‘Raising of Jairus's Daughter’ chosen instead. In 1812 he lost his youngest brother, John, who had conceived an ardent desire to explore the interior of Africa for purposes of philanthropy and science, and died of fever at Sierra Leone six months after he left England. In 1813 Eastlake went home for some months, and painted several portraits, including one of his mother, and another of his old master, Mr. Bidlake. A short trip to Calais in April 1814 was followed in 1815 by a visit to Paris, where he studied with attention the great collections of masterpieces then in the Louvre. He stayed there till Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was about to re-enter Paris. Leaving that city on 19 March (the same day as Louis XVIII), he returned to Plymouth, where he remained painting portraits till the emperor was brought in the Bellerophon to Plymouth Sound. Eastlake hovered round the Bellerophon in a boat, taking rapid sketches, which resulted in a small full-length portrait of the emperor, and another, life-size, with other figures, which was purchased by five gentlemen of Plymouth. The former now belongs to Lady Eastlake, and the latter to Lord Clinton. The large picture was exhibited in London and the provinces, and Eastlake received altogether about 1,000l. for his labour. This enabled him to visit Italy, for which he started in September 1816, passing through Paris, Geneva, Turin, Milan, Parma, Bologna, Florence, and Siena, en route for Rome, which he entered on 24 Nov. in company with Dr. Bunsen (the chevalier).

For the next fourteen years Rome was his home. First seeking Italy for its classical associations, its antiquities, and its art, he learned to love it for its scenery. For a while he abandoned his ambitions as an historical painter, and devoted himself to landscape, and landscape with the picturesque figures of the Italian peasantry. The society was also congenial to him. He had valuable introductions from Visconti and others. Here he met Cockerell, Sir Humphry Davy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Moore, Samuel Rogers, Turner, Etty, Uwins, Jackson, the Miss Berrys, Miss Catherine Fanshawe, and Captain and Mrs. Graham (afterwards Lady Callcott). From the date of his first arrival in Rome till 1830, when he finally made his home in England, he only visited England twice, once in 1820 after his father's death, and again in 1828 after his election as an associate of the Royal Academy. The first two years in Italy were spent principally in study, travel, and sketching from nature.

In April 1817 he went by sea to Naples in company with Mr. Seymour Kirkup, and in March 1818 to Greece with Mr. (afterwards Sir Charles) Barry and two others. He stayed more than three months at Athens. From Athens he went to Malta and Sicily, returning to Rome in December 1818, ‘bringing with him ninety oil-sketches, many of them comparatively finished oil-pictures, all interesting works of art.’

His industry in Greece was equalled in Italy; besides sketching in the open air regardless of the sun he drew regularly at the Academy in the evening, and earned himself the title of the most industrious artist in Rome. In Rome his Greek sketches made a sensation, and he was beset with commissions. Little of this pure landscape work is known. Except in 1823 he seldom or ever exhibited a simple landscape, and though his skill and refinement in this branch of art are obvious enough in his later pictures, such as his ‘banditti’ pictures and ‘Pilgrims in Sight of Rome,’ their interest for the public mainly consisted in the figures. A fine example of his union of truth and poetry in landscape composition is now in the National Gallery (‘Byron's Dream,’ exhibited 1829).

His ‘banditti’ pictures first brought him fame in England. Those exhibited at the British Institution in 1823 (all commissions from visitors at Rome) could have been sold ‘fifty times over,’ and brought him a fine compliment from Sir Thomas Lawrence. At this time ‘the principles of Venetian colouring began to occupy his mind,’ and the next year he exhibited at the British Institution a picture with half figures life-size called ‘The Champion,’ which was praised by Haydon for its ‘Titianesque simplicity.’ Returning to his early ambition to excel as an historical painter, he completed a picture of ‘The Spartan, Isadas,’ who, according to Plutarch's ‘Life of Agesilaus,’ was taken for a divinity in battle. It created a sensation in Rome first and afterwards in England, where it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827. In the following November Eastlake was elected an associate. In 1828 he exhibited the first version of his celebrated picture of ‘Pilgrims in sight of Rome,’ and in the next year ‘Byron's Dream.’ In the following February, although he had exhibited only six pictures at the Academy, but three of which could be called important, he was elected a full member of the Academy.

When he returned to settle for the rest of his life in England, Eastlake possessed perhaps the most cultivated understanding on art then existing. He travelled always ‘handbook in hand,’ and observed, noted, and criticised with the strictest care everything, whether picture, architecture, or scenery, which came in his way. To complete his knowledge of the picture galleries of Europe, he had on his return to Rome in 1828 taken a tour through Holland, Belgium, and Germany, and on his way to England in 1830 he had visited Vienna. As early as 1819 he had written six articles on different subjects for the ‘London Magazine,’ which was started in the following year, and in 1829 he composed a paper for the ‘Quarterly Review’ on the ‘Philosophy of the Fine Arts.’ This, owing to the author's fastidiousness, was never published in the ‘Review,’ but parts of it were included in the selections from his writings (‘Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts’), edited by Mr. Bellenden Ker, in 1848.

The period from 1830 to 1840 was, says Lady Eastlake, ‘the most productive in works of note.’ Besides numerous portraits for which, especially those of ladies in fancy costumes, there was a great demand, there belong to this time the ‘Hagar and Ishmael’ (diploma picture); the ‘Peasant Woman fainting from the Bite of a Serpent’ (1831) (South Kensington Museum); ‘Escape of Francesco Carrara’ (1834), a replica of which, painted 1849, is in the National Gallery (Vernon collection); several ‘Pilgrim’ pictures, variations more or less of the picture of 1827; ‘Gaston de Foix’ (1838); and ‘Christ blessing little Children’ (1839). This last picture and ‘Christ weeping over Jerusalem,’ painted in 1841, and now in the National Gallery, raised his popularity to its height; and a graceful composition of the same year, ‘The Sisters,’ had to be repeated (with variations) six times. Never a large producer, the pressure of other duties and an increasing fastidiousness now limited more and more the number of his works.

Of his art no one has written more justly than his widow in the memoir prefixed to the second edition of ‘Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts,’ which is one of the most admirable of short biographies. She writes truly that ‘he was one of those painters whose art, however in unison with his mind, by no means conveys a just measure of it.’ Elegance of composition, breadth and sweetness of colour, and refinement of expression are the chief characteristics of his pictures, and their most enduring charm lies perhaps in those female heads of ‘enchanting type’ which first appeared in ‘Pilgrims in Sight of Rome.’

In 1832 Eastlake was presented with the freedom of his native city of Plymouth, and the reputation he had acquired as an authority on art began to show itself in many ways. Though he thought and wrote much upon art, he refused to enter into any engagements which would interfere with his profession as an artist. Twice (in 1833 and 1836) he refused to be the first professor of fine arts at the London University, and the scheme fell to the ground. He declined to give a series of lectures at the Royal Institution, and after the government had adopted his scheme for the establishment of schools of design he could not be induced to undertake its direction. In 1836, however, he consented to be one of the council appointed by the board of trade for the new schools. In the following year he was examined before Mr. (afterwards Sir Benjamin) Hawes' [q. v.] committee for inquiring into the means of promoting the arts in this country, and his evidence and a letter which he wrote to the chairman may be said to have been the commencement of his long labours as a public servant. His learning and capacity attracted the attention of Sir Robert Peel, and when the commission for the decoration of the houses of parliament (called the Fine Arts Commission) was appointed he was singled out for its secretary. He had previously declined to be one of the commissioners, on the ground ‘that they would have to select the artists most fitted for employment.’ The appointment brought him into close communication with Prince Albert, and he was from this time the chief adviser of the government and the prince in all matters of art.

He threw himself with the greatest ardour into his new duties, and poured without stint all the accumulated knowledge of his life into a series of papers and memoranda on art, which were buried in appendices to the blue-books of the commission, only to be resuscitated in part by his friend Mr. Bellenden Ker, by whom a selection from them was published in 1848 (‘Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts,’ 1st ser.) His labours in connection with the commission were heavy, especially in the earlier of the twenty years during which they lasted. In 1843 a competition of cartoons was held in Westminster Hall, and for this, as well as for the subsequent exhibitions in connection with the decoration of the houses of parliament, Eastlake prepared catalogues carefully designed to instruct and interest the thousands who came to see them. In 1849 he was appointed one of the commissioners for the exhibition of 1851. In 1849 also Eastlake married the present Lady Eastlake, then Elizabeth Rigby, the daughter of a celebrated physician of Norwich and already well known as the authoress of ‘Letters from the Baltic.’

In 1842 Eastlake was appointed librarian of the Royal Academy, and from 1843 to 1847 was keeper of the National Gallery, but he resigned the latter position in consequence of some groundless attacks. In 1850 he was elected president of the Royal Academy, and in 1855 he was appointed to the newly created post of director of the National Gallery. From this time he may be said to have left off painting, devoting his life to the discharge of the duties of these two important offices. Every year he paid a visit to the continent in search of pictures with which to enrich the national collection, sparing no labour and visiting the remotest parts of Italy in this (for him) most interesting pursuit. During his directorship he purchased 139 pictures for the nation, many of them of the greatest interest and value, and raised the gallery to a position of high rank among the public collections of Europe. In one of these journeys his health, which had long been failing, broke down utterly, and he died at Pisa on 14 Dec. 1865. He was buried first at Florence, but at the desire of the Royal Academy his body was brought to England and buried publicly at Kensal Green. His widow declined a public funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral as not consonant with his wishes.

Eastlake's life was one of singular purity, loftiness of aim, and unremitting industry, entailing deservedly a high reputation as a painter, a writer, and a public servant. The cultivation of the arts in this country received so marked a stimulus from the exhibition of 1851 that their progress since is generally, and in the main rightly, ascribed to its influence; but it should not be forgotten that a vigorous movement for the promotion of art had commenced long before, and that the exhibition itself was the outcome of prolonged exertions in which Eastlake was second to none. Of his learning and highly trained reasoning faculty his writings are a sufficient witness. His style is marked, as his widow has justly observed, by a ‘quiet lucidity of expression,’ and whether we regard him as a critic, an expert in technique, an art scholar, or an authority on questions of principle, he holds an honourable place in the literature of the fine arts. Perhaps his ‘Materials for the History of Oil-painting’ is at the present time the most valuable and most frequently consulted of his works.

Besides this book (published in 1847) and the papers collected in the ‘Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts,’ 1848 and 1870, Eastlake's principal literary works were translations of Goethe's ‘Theory of Colours,’ 1840, Kügler's ‘Schools of Painting in Italy,’ 1842, ‘Presidential Lectures at Royal Academy,’ 1852–63. He also contributed an article on fresco painting to the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for January 1860, and several lives of artists to Charles Knight's ‘Portrait Gallery.’ Eastlake was a fellow of the Royal Society, an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and a member of several foreign academies.

[Memoir by Lady Eastlake prefixed to the second series of Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts; Pictures by Sir Charles Eastlake; Haydon's Autobiography; Catalogue of the National Gallery (Wornum), and books mentioned in the text.]

C. M.