Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2/Fuseli

Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2
by John Thomas Smith
Nollekens's Contemporaries. Fuseli.
765476Nollekens and His Times/Volume 2 — Nollekens's Contemporaries. Fuseli.John Thomas Smith


Henry Fuseli considered the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds unequal. He said that a great many of them were indifferent, though some were so wonderfully fine, that nothing could surpass them;[1] but he observed, that even the most inferior picture from the pencil of Sir Thomas Lawrence was excellent.

Fuseli, speaking of Nollekens to me, said, "He think himself a very cunning little fellow in his plagiarisms, but he can be detected as well as other artists. Why, the principle of the position of the Mercury he modelled from you, he took from Stella's print after Poussin's picture of the 'Accusation of Peter.'" This accusation reached the ear of Nollekens, who observed to me, that Fuseli had no occasion to make such a remark; "for I know," said he, "he fluently steals things himself. Why, do you know, he stole the idea of one of the figures for Seward's Anecdotes, from a female in the background of Pesne's print after Poussin's Woman at the Well. He sketched it in my parlour, one evening, from my print, and showed it to Mrs. Nollekens, and said it would do very well for a figure in deep meditation; so that I am sure Fuseli need not talk of my taking a hint for my Mercury, But he's always for ever ridiculing me." As to the extent of the truth of this, I shall not venture a remark: but this I do know, and Mr. Knowles is my authority, that when his friend, the late Mr. Coutts, requested him to recommend a Sculptor to execute a bust of him, Fuseli immediately answered, "Go to Nollekens for a bust."

It is well known that Fuseli could put forth his sting when he indulged his wit, as will appear in the following anecdote. Fuseli, hearing that Northcote, the Painter, kept a dog, immediately exclaimed, "What? Northcote keep a dog! what must he feed upon? Why he must eat his own fleas."

Severe as Fuseli was, I should be sorry to merit the lash of Northcote, for his thong would make any man's back, tingle who dared to kick him viciously; indeed Fuseli has been known to smart at even the twitch of Northcote's retort-courteous. As for the dog alluded to, I will answer for Duke, that he, poor fellow! was one of the most sagacious, faithful, best-bred, and best-fed animals I ever knew. His very eyes smiled at his master and mistress's friendly visitors. As I have said master and mistress, it is proper that the biographer of a centurion to come should not be misled, and conclude that Mr. Northcote had been a married man. His sister keeps his house, and then happiness seems to exist in the society of each other; they listen to each other's anecdotes with the pleasure of old friends, and receive their visitors with true hospitality.

A late worthy friend, who would now and then make my fireside-party smile, has declared, that Mr. Northcote's sister appeared to him like Northcote in petticoats; and they certainly are wonderfully alike. There is, indeed, one most honourable circumstance which this celebrated artist has to boast of, namely, that his pictures, whenever they have been resold at auctions, have always been knocked down for more than four times their original price; and what is more, they have generally been purchased by persons of high rank and taste. Lord Egremont has; perhaps, the finest, specimens of his pencil.

One day, as Fuseli, Northcote, and Legat, the Engraver, were walking from Hampstead to London, the two latter gentlemen were extolling the talent of Brown, the Draughtsman, who was. so much noticed by Mr. Townley. Fuseli, after having listened to the Artist's praise, exclaimed, "Well Brown, Brown, we have had enough of Brown; let us now talk of Cipriani, who is in hell!" Cipriani had been one of Fuseli's best friends when he first came to England. Fuseli, whose wit was at all times spirited and unexpected, upon entering the Antique Academy one evening, bruised his shin against one of the student's boxes which stood in his way, but, instead of chiding the student who had left it there, he very good-humouredly cried out, drawing his leg up to his body, "Bless my heart! bless my heart! well, I see one thing, I must now wear spectacles upon my shins as well as upon my nose."

The students, whilst waiting to go into the schools one evening, were making so great a noise, that Fuseli came out of his office' into the hall, and called out in a voice of thunder, "By G—d! you are a pack of d—d wild beasts, and I am your bl—st—d keeper!" upon which some of the students laughing at the singularity of the expression, the old gentleman was put into so good a humour, that he went back without saying any thing more.

Upon his entering the Model Academy, he observed the pieces of a figure on the ground; "Who the devil has been doing this?" A tell-tale of a student, wishing to initiate himself with the Keeper, told him it was Mr. Medland, who had broken it by jumping over the rail. However, the mischief-maker was disappointed by the good-tempered manner in which the communication was received by Fuseli, who observed, "Well, if Mr. Medland is so fond of jumping, I would advise him to go to Sadler's Wells; that is the best academy I know of for the improvement of agility."

Rembrandt, who painted and etched his own portrait oftener than any other artist, in one of his pictures, represented himself with so large a nose, that Fuseli exclaimed, upon seeing it, "What a nose! why his nose is as big as his face! Well, he was a fine fellow; I like to see a great man with a great those. Richard Wilson had a great nose."

A person wishing to see Mr. Fuseli upon business wholly concerning himself, was so close upon Sam Stowger's heels, that he announced himself, hoping that he did not intrude. "You do intrude," observed Fuseli.—"Then, Sir, I will come to-morrow, if you please."—"No, Sir," replied Fuseli, "I don't wish you to come to-morrow, for then you will intrude a second time; let me know your business now."

Mr. Northcote is in possession of a letter, which he received from Fusdi when at Rome, in 1778, concluding with "Love me,_Fuseli." Northcote, in his dry manner, when noticing this epistle, was heard to remark, "A pretty creature to love, indeed! but I admire his talents."[2]

Upon one of the private days for viewing the Exhibition of the Royal Academy, Fuseti coming in contact with Nollekens, who at that time had a scorbutic eruption on half his mouth and chin, fell back, and said, "Why, Nollekens, what the devil's the matter with you? you look like Valentine and Orson united; one half shaved and the other not at all."

The two following anecdotes were communicated to me by my worthy friend Mr. Cooper, the Academidan. Mr. Nollekens greatly annoyed the members of the Academy by coughing incessantly when they were engaged in retouching their pictures, before the opening of an Exhibition. As he was passing Fuseli, after coughing several times, he muttered, "Oh! dear, I am sure I shall die!" to which Fuseli humorously replied, "While you have a cough, Nollekens, you can never die"—A student of the Academy, when showing his drawing to Mr. Fuseli, assured him that he had finished it without using a crumb of bread. "Take my advice," said Fuseli; "go and buy a two-penny loaf, and I think with that you will be able to rub it all out."

Mrs. Fuseli being in a great rage, was advised by her husband to swear. "Harriet, my dear, why don't you swear? it will ease your mind."

Fuseli thus reprimanded one of the porters in the hall, for calling the students fellows. "Fellows! I would have you to know, that those fellows, as you call them, may one day or another be Academicians."

One morning, two members of the Royal Academy, who had been disappointed in their wishes for the election of Fuseli as a member the preceding evening, agreed to repeat their assurances of their future exertions in his favour. Accordingly they made him a visit; and as soon as the door was opened, Fuseli, who stood in the passage, knowing how the election had gone, with his accustomed humomr, fiercely exclaimed, "Come in, come in!" but finding they continued to scrape their shoes, he again cried out, "Why the devil don't you come in? if you don't come in, you will do me a great injury." "How?" asked one of them. "Why, if you stand there, my neighbour over the way will say, 'I saw two blackguards stand at Fuseli's door; I dare say he is going to prison!'"

Fuseli's severe criticisms upon the works of his brother artists were often so pointedly witty, that in some instances he rendered his best friends both uneasy and ridiculous; but as he good-naturedly bore many sarcasms from Doctor Wolcott and other critics of his time, so he thought his friends would receive, with equal good temper, whatever he said of them or their productions. I must, however, do him the justice to say, that I firmly believe his observations were not kept in reserve to show off in the presence of great people—a practice too common with men viciously inclined; for sometimes his most stinging remarks were made to those of the least perception: and I firmly believe that many of his best are now entirely lost, though now and then Sam Stowger would relate a few of them. One I recollect hearing respecting Northcote's picture of the Judgment of Solomon, in which the King's right hand was raised, as ordering the executioner to divide the living child. Mr. Northcote, to avoid vulgarity, employed two fingers of the hand to accompany the commands; but, unfortunately, these fingers Fuseli considered, as they were wide apart, to be so much like an open pair of shears, that he was heard to make the following observation; "Ay, King Solomon suits his action to his words, he is saying, with his fingers, cut him in two."

One year, during the time the artists woe touching up their pictures in the great room at the Royal Academy, previous to the opening of the Exhibition, Northcote was looking at one of Fuseli's pictures, in which, a man was represented in the attitude of shooting at another seated upon a throne. Fuseli, who ob« served Northcote to stop at this performance, went up to him, and said, "Well, Northcote, what do you think of it?" To which the answer was, "He'll never hit him." Fuseii; without returning thanks for this pointed remark, sullenly ascended the ladder, and after waking upon it for nearly an hour descended, and going to some distance to view it, was heard to utter, emphatically, "He will hit him! I say he will hit him!!" However, "Tit for tat" Northcote had hit Fuseli in the wing, for he could not fly, no, not even after the attempted struggle, as the marksman's arrow was drawn parallel to the top of the frame, perfectly horizontal, and the man he wished to shoot was seated in an inward angle of the composition! and so the picture remained during the whole time of exhibition:

Fuseli seeing a person for some time looking steadfastly at one of his pictures in the Academy, went up to him and said, "He must be a devilish clever fellow who painted that picture!" at which the gentleman smiled, knowing it to be the production of the artist who accosted him.

Fuseli was heard to relate, that he begged a curious fly of his friend Lady Guildford, for a collector, to whom he had been under some obligations; her Ladyship gave him the insect, upon condition that his friend should not kill it. Fuseli observed that he should not kill it; but, as a mental reservation, he got somebody else to do it

Fuseli once asked Cooper, who is an Entomologist, "Well, have you taken Fraxina?"[3]—"No," said he, "I have not been so fortunate,"—"You can get it in Yorkshire," observed Fuseli; "why don't you walk there?"

All Fuseli's family had been Entomologists; and so attached was he to the pursuit, that one evening, late in life, when descending from the rostrum, after he had delivered a Lecture on Painting in the Royal Academy, which had almost exhausted him, he was so revived by the sight of Cooper, who stood near him, that he said with a smile; "What! is it you, Cooper? well, how goes on entomology?"

Fuseli has seldom been spoken of as a Painter beyond a chiaro-'scurist, nor was it until I saw his picture of the Embrace of Sin and Death, that I had any idea of his knowledge of colouring; but, in that performance, he most certainly has proved that he could colour most beautifully, and why he neglected so essential a branch of his art, after producing so brilliant a specimen, is most extraordinary. This treasure is in the possession of Mr. Knowles, who has withstood every temptation to part with it, even from his dearest friend Fuseli himself; who, upon all occasions, declared it to be by far the best picture in every respect that he had produced. In my opinion, it possesses a combination of the style of Rembrandt and Titian; and is altogether, though not of so brown a cast, not unlike the usual effect of Sir Joshua Reynolds; in particular, the right arm of the female figure, which is altogether admirably drawn, is a rich, clear, and perfect specimen of flesh. There is neither name nor date upon this picture; nor was it, Mr. Knowles informs me, ever his custom to put his name either upon his pictures or drawings; the latter he would date, and state where they were made, as "at Rome," "Putney-hill," &c.—I shall now close the few anecdotes respecting this great man, with a sincere wish that Mr. Knowles may soon favour the public with his intended Life of him, for the composition of which his dose intimacy With Mr. Fuseli afforded him such excellent opportunities; indeed I am convinced, that no one is better qualified for the work, nor in possession of a richer mine of materials; as I understand that he has six imprinted Lectures, an abundance of papers of the most interesting kind, and two hundred original aphorisms, which, if we may judge from Fuseli's pungent wit, would alone make an entertaining volume. Mr. Knowles and Fuseli were inseparable, and bosom friends; and as a convincing proof how highly he is respected by Mrs. Fuseli, that lady, who has so much in her power to communicate, has presented him with the splendid silver cup, so liberally designed by Flaxman for the Students of the Royal Academy, who presented it to their Keeper by subscription; for, however strange it may appear, though his manner was at times so repulsive to them, they all seemed to love him. Mr. Knowles kindly complied with my request to insert, in this work, the following inscriptions engraven upon it.


To the above inscription Mrs. Fuseli caused the following to be added.


Another favour I now publicly ask of Mr. Knowles, namely, that he will allow an engraving of his friend's portrait, painted by Harlow, to accompany his life. For this picture, Fuseli placed himself in a studious position, and the Painter, who had numerous sittings, has succeeded beyond expression; for it is not only a fine specimen of colouring, but of most exquisite finishing: he was two days engaged upon his right hand only, which accords most admirably in character with his face. Fuseli, severe as he certainly was in his remarks upon modern art, was extremely serviceable to Harlow, particularly in his picture of the Kemble Family, which gained him so much fame, in consequence of its extensive dissemination in the print so beautifully engraved by Clint. When Fuseli first saw this picture, which then contained thirty-one figures, they were all without feet, but by his advice, Harlow immediately altered it, and also introduced the back figure of a boy in a diagonal direction across the picture, suggested and actually drawn for him by Fuseli, which immediately produced a connexion, and perfected the composition. Harlow was unquestionably an artist of very high talent, but owing to some circumstances, he did not make his way into the Royal Academy, though he, like all other Waltonites, attempted to tickle the trout, by painting portraits of some of its members. In addition to the one already mentioned of Fuseli, he produced a capital likeness of Northcote, of which Lewis has made an admirable print: he also painted the one of Stothard, so well engraved by Worthington; and he began one of Nollekens, which was never completed. Harlow, unlike the generality of his brother artists, was so ridiculously foppish in his attention to dress, that I have known him to follow the height of Fashion's follies so closely, that in consequence of the enormous length of his spurs, he has been inevitably obliged to walk down-stairs backwards, to save himself from falling headlong.

Fuseli, when in company, was frequently teased by persons, who asked him what he thought of such a work? how he held the talents of such a man? and, indeed, some would go so far as to observe, "I wonder you can suffer snch trash to be praised."

To one of these persons he put the following question: "Pray, Sir, do you think I am to carry a shovel wherever I go, to clear away every dunghill I meet with?"

When Northcote was touching upon his celebrated picture of the lowering the Princes down the steps to their place of burial, so spiritedly engraved by Skelton for Boydell's Shakspeare, Fuseli objected to the hands belonging to a figure below, raised to receive the victims. "You should not," observed the critic, "have the fellow's hands so employed; he ought to be digging the hole for them: only think how awfully grand it would have been had you made him with a pick-axe—dump—dump—dump!" Upon which Northcote, who was fully aware of his man, requested to know in what way he would paint the sound of dump—dump—dump.

Fuseli, upon hearing that a figure had been broken in the Antique Academy, entered the room with the following vociferation. "Which is the man who broke the cast? where is he? which is he?—Well, Sir, it is you who have broken the cast. Will you look round the room, and see if there be any other you would wish me to order out for you to break?"

Fuseli, for a length of time, had been teased by an idle and stupid student for his opinion of his drawing. "It is bad; take it into the fields and shoot at it, that's a good boy."

When Morton, the Portrait-painter, first studied at the Academy, he commenced drawing the sandal of a foot before he got in the toes. Fuseli, after turning his drawing in every direction, asked him what he intended it for. "Is it a horse's bridle?" The assiduous student, though he had considered his mode no bad way of drawing the foot, found, by the admonition of the Keeper, that it was not the best way of doing it. Some students would have been displeased at the remark, but upon Morton's exertions it acted with so strong a stimulus, that he had the honour of gaining two medals in the Royal Academy for drawings of the human figure.

It has been reported that Fuseli and Lavater, whose friendship commenced in their childhood, were obliged to quit Switzerland when very young, for most seriously and premeditatedly frightening a young lady, by attempting to produce the apparition of her deceased lover. True it is, that no persons could more mutually regard each other than Lavater and Fuseli, nor was their attachment lessened till the death of the Physiognomist, who certainly had paid every compliment to the Artist; for he not only introduced his portrait in his work, of which he spoke in the highest terms,[5] but placed the English translation of that interesting book entirely under his direction.

Fuseli was short in stature, his eyes full, prominent, and, like the eagle's, piercingly

brilliant. He dressed well, and at all timed looked like a superior man. His remarks wale generally witty, and sometimes severely cutting: but to the ladies, particularly those who were qualified to give him the retort-courteous, he was cautiously and precisely polite. In early life, he suffered each of his many female admirers to suppose herself the favourite fair. Miss Moser, at one period, drew that conclusion, and for a long time he flirted with Angelica Kauffmann; but be found at last that that lady's glances were directed towards Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr. Parker. In Fuseli's marriage state, Mrs. Wolstoncroft fell desperately in love with him; and many other ladies were extremely delighted with his conversation, even to the extent of a long life, for his company was much courted.

One evening, when Mr. Nollekens accompanied Fuseli to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Coutts, the lively hostess, who had dressed herself as Morgiana, went round the room, after dinner, presenting a dagger to the breast of every one of her visitors, as if she intended to stab them;[6] and when she came to Nollekens, Fuseli was heard to cry out, "You may strike with safety; Nolly was never known to bleed."

  1. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Doctor Armstrong were Fuseli's best friends; the latter of whom frequently noticed him in the newspapers.
  2. Mr. Northcote recollects one of Armstrong's newspaper paragraphs running something like this; "Parry may learn from Reynolds, but there is one now unknown and unpatronized, who will astonish, terrify, and delight all Europe," &c.
  3. One of the Underwings.
  4. The cup is a splendid one, and was executed by Messrs. Rundell and Bridge.
  5. Lavater, speaking of Fuseli, says:

    "The curve which describes the profile in whole, is obviously one of the most remarkable; it indicates an energetic character, which spurns at the idea of trammels. The forehead, by its contours and position, is more suited to the poet than the thinker. I perceive in it more force than gentleness; the fire of imagination rather than the coolness of reason. The nose seems to be the seat of an intrepid genius. The mouth promises a spirit of application and precision, and yet it costs the original the greatest effort to give the finishing touch to the smallest piece. His extreme vivacity gets the better of that portion of attention and exactness with which Nature endowed him, and which is still distinguishable in the detail of all his works. You will even sometimes find in them a degree of finishing almost over-curious, and which, for this reason, affords a singular contrast with the boldness of the whole. Any one may see, without my telling it, that this character is not destitute of ambition, and that the sense of his own merit escapes him not. It may also be suspected that he is subject to impetuous emotions; but will any one say that he loves with tenderness, with warmth, to excess? There is nothing, however, more true: though, on the other hand, his sensibility has occasion continually to be kept awake by the presence of the beloved object: absent, he forgets it, and troubles himself no more. The person to whom he is fondly attached, while near him, may lead him like a child; but, quit him, and the most perfect indifference will follow. He must be roused, be struck, in order to be carried along. Though capable of the greatest actions, to him the slightest complaisance is an effort. His imagination is ever aiming at the sublime, and delighting itself with prodigies.

    "The sanctuary of the Graces is not shut against him, but he has no great skill in sacrificing to them, and gives himself very little concern about it. Though formed to feel it, he seldom reaches the sublime. Nature intended him for a great poet, a great painter, a great orator; but, to borrow his own words, 'inexorable fate does not always proportion the will to our powers; it sometimes assigns a copious proportion of will to ordinary minds, whose faculties are very contracted; and frequently associates with the greatest faculties, a will feeble and impotent.'"

  6. This was what Fuseli told Nollekens was "play-acting."