Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2/Francis Oliver Finch, In Memoriam



Printed as a Note in First Edition, Vol. I. p. 298.

[Mr. Finch, the reader will remember, was one of the young disciples much with Blake in his last days, from whom interesting reminiscences were gleaned.]

On the twenty-seventh of August, 1862, the old Society of Painters in Water-Colours lost, in Mr. Finch, one of their earliest members, who had long enjoyed, in the highest degree, their confidence and esteem, and the warm affection of such as had the pleasure of knowing him intimately. He was the last representative of the old school of landscape-painting in water-colours—a school which had given pleasure to the public for half a century, and contributed to obtain for Englishmen, in that department of art, an European reputation.

When he left school he was articled as a pupil to Mr. John Varley, from whose studio came also two of our most eminent living artists, one of whom has engraved, con amore, Varley's Burial of Saul; and from such a work we may estimate the value of his influence and instruction. It led to the study of refined models, and pointed to sentiment as the aim of art. It will, probably, be acknowledged that the aim was essentially right, and that, if the old school did not arrest and detain the eye by intricate imitation, yet that it was massive and manly, and that its tendency was to elevate and refine. It is difficult to call to mind a single work by Mr. Finch that did not suggest happy and beautiful lands, where the poet would love to muse: the moonlit glade, the pastoral slope, the rocky stream, the stately terrace, and mouldering villas or casements opening on the foam—

'Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.'

How the Society estimated his works was shown by their occupying some of the most conspicuous places on the walls.

He had imagination, that inner sense which receives impressions of beauty as simply and surely as we smell the sweetness of the rose and woodbine. When a boy he chanced to light on the poetry of Keats, and a plaster-figure maker, seeing him hang with longing eye over a cast of the poet's head which lay in his shop, made him a present of it, and he bore it home in triumph. At this time Keats was known to the public only by the ridicule of a critique.

Those who were intimate with Mr. Finch will find it difficult to name a man more evenly and usefully accomplished. Besides modern languages and scientific acquisitions, he had large general knowledge. His conversation was never obtrusive, and it never flagged: it was solemn, playful or instructive, always at the right time and in the right place. An eminent friend, a sagacious observer of men, said that he never thought a friendly dinner-party complete unless Finch were at the table: 'It was like forgetting the bread.'

He had read much, and was familiar with the great poets and satirists; knew the philosophy of the mind, and had observed men and manners. Of those departments of knowledge which lay apart, his good sense enabled him to take, at least, the relative dimensions. Knowledge apprehends things in themselves; wisdom sees them in their relations. He taught his young friends that goodness was better even than wisdom, and the philosophy which is conversant with the unseen than any ingenuities of technical science. He said he thought we ought not to claim a monopoly of wisdom because we had discovered that steam would turn a wheel.

It is difficult to convey a notion of his musical genius, because the skill of amateurs, after all the time which is lavished to acquire it, so seldom amounts to more than the doing indifferently what professors do well; but it was not so with him: it seemed to be his natural language—an expression of that melody within, which is more charming than any modulation of strings or voices. The writer has felt more pleasure in sitting by his pianoforte, listening to fragments of Tallis, Croft, or Purcell, with the interlude, perhaps, of an Irish melody, than from many displays of concerted music. To music his friend resorted at the right time—after his temperate dinner, as Milton directs in his 'Tractate.'

Nor was his pen unused, and he could use it well. 'His endeavour,' says one who knew him best, 'to benefit his young friends will be long and affectionately remembered, nor is it probable that those of maturer age will easily forget his gentle influence and wise counsel.' Of his social and moral excellence it is difficult to speak in so short a notice, for the heart overflows with memories of his active kindness, and the skill is lacking to condense a life into a paragraph.

In all the domestic relations, he was exemplary; throughout his single and married life his good mother never left his house but for her grave, to which the unremitting kindness of her new relative had smoothed the passage. He did not work alone; were another resting by his side, it might be told that, with one will and purpose, there were two hearts equally busy in 'devising liberal things.' His hospitality was not adjusted to his interest, nor his table spread for those who could repay beef with venison; but for old friends who were in the shade; for merit and virtue in distress or exile; for pale faces which brought the recommendation of sorrow. Let us bear with his simplicity. Perhaps when he 'made a feast,' he consulted a very old-fashioned Book as to the selection of his guests.

The writer willingly incurs the ridicule of those who believe goodness to be only a refined selfishness, when he looks back, as far as boyhood, to recall some single piece of slight or rudeness, some hard unkindness or cold neglect, some evil influence or moral flaw in his old friend's character, and cannot find it. Were there many such, sarcasm might break her shafts. Our great satirist said that, if his wide experience had shown him twelve men like Arbuthnot, he never would have written the 'Travels.'

A symmetrical soul is a thing very beautiful and very rare. Who does not find about him and within him grotesque mixtures, or unbalanced faculties, or inconsistent desires; the understanding and the will at feud, the very will in vacillation; opinions shifting with the mode, and smaller impertinences which he forgives, if they are not his own, for the amusement they afford him?

Let those who knew Francis Finch be thankful; they have seen a disciplined and a just man—'a city at unity with itself.