Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (September 8, 1860)
THE BARREN SESSION.
The Session of 1860 is at an end. Our legislators have not much in the shape of definite results to show for the labour of seven months. In publications more especially devoted to the discussion of political events, the Session which has just been brought to a close has been already stigmatised as the Barren Session. Towards its close prayers might well have been put up in our churches for laws, as they have been offered for rain. For months and months nothing was heard of but fruitless discussions upon a Reform Bill, concerning which not even John Bright was in earnest.
Some thirty years ago, or thereabouts, Lord John Russell carried a Reform Bill when the alternative was a revolution, and therefore he thought it his duty to carry a Reform Bill in 1860, when the alternative was to let it alone. Fifteen years ago the late Sir Robert Peel carried the Repeal of the Corn Laws, and a general change in our commercial system from Protection to Free Trade; therefore, in 1860, Mr. Gladstone endeavoured to burn up the last rags of Protection, and to make a complete end of the task which the great English statesmen had taken in hand in the years 1845-46. Again, more than thirty years ago, Catholic Emancipation became an acknowledged fact; in other words, the nation solemnly decided that religious opinions should not, in any way, affect the political status of British subjects. From that time, down to the present, there have been spasmodic attempts made in Parliament to emancipate the Jews from the miserable restrictions which savoured of the Ghetto, and the yellow gown of the middle ages. Of these, too, there is an end; but it is only in the Session which is now concluded that the oath administered to a Jewish member has been placed upon a footing which relieves him of all humiliation when he takes the seat to which he has been elected by the free choice of a British constituency. Here, then, are three great principles which were not acknowledged in our statute-book without three solemn struggles which shook the structure of English society to its very foundation. They were carried in fitting order: First, there was Religious Freedom; secondly, there was Political Freedom; thirdly, there was Commercial Freedom. In the days when these great matters were at issue—matters which stirred men’s hearts and made their blood leap madly in their veins—naturally there was great turmoil and contention within and without the walls of Parliament. In those days a political Dilettante was out of place. You would as soon have expected to find a lounger of the St. James Street clubs in the ranks of Cromwell’s Ironsides. Fathers turned aside from their sons if they “went wrong,”—that is, if they fell off from the political traditions of their family, whatever these might be. The Whigs and Tories carried on their party-strife with an inveteracy which was greater than the hatred of private life. They ranted against each other on the hustings—they dined against each other at Pitt and Fox dinners. Country-gentlemen, in order to carry country-seats, ruined themselves, or at least, saddled their magnificent estates with burdens from which they would never have been relieved but for the improved value communicated to their estates by the introduction of steam. Railroads have been the panacea for the political unthrift of the last century. Old George Stephenson, and that brave band of mute Paladins, who clambered up behind him from the darkness of the north country mines, to the light of day, have been the true saviours of the Squirearchy and territorial aristocracy of England. The party-contests, which had been for awhile suspended, by the imminent dangers of the war between Europe and the first French Empire, were renewed with increased bitterness in 1816. Between that date and 1846 we saw the fullest development and the extinction of party strife. Whigs and Tories carried on the war as though they were born to be each other’s natural antagonists. A Radical was a mad dog to be hunted down by the Attorney-General and his law beagles, amidst the general applause. In those days the late Earl Grey was a probability; Lord Eldon a possibility; William Cobbett a necessity. We could not, if we would, handle again either the rapiers or the bludgeons with which our elders ran each other through the body in a gentlemanlike way, or broke each other’s heads in a rude but thoroughly efficient manner. Now-a-days we should think of Earl Grey as Polonius; of Lord Eldon as an intelligent Druid; of William Cobbett as a “rough.” There is a great gulf between the England of 1815 and 1860. There are no longer struggles for the three great principles of Religious Freedom, Political Freedom, Commercial Freedom. Our heads are upon the pillows which our fathers have made smooth, and it is only in dreams we can take part in the gigantic struggles of opinion in which they were engaged. When we meddle with such matters we are but feeding upon the scraps which have fallen from their table. We are crossing their t’s, and dotting their i’s. We are wearing their old coats, and writing postscripts to their letters. We are painting their lilies and gilding their gold.
Does this therefore mean that we have no struggle before us?—and that because our fathers toiled we can fold our hands in sleep, and give ourselves up to disgraceful lethargy? Not so. We have our appointed task as they had theirs; but our task is different in kind. Let us, however, see what it is, and not, because we mistake the Past for the Present, say that there is nothing left for us to do. We might as well whine over Stonehenge, as lament over the decay of parliamentary strife and the decline of party spirit. What if the life and brain of England have passed from Parliament into the nation, is that any great loss? Our elders fought for thirty years that this very result might come to pass. Of course we shall not henceforward have as many gladiatorial displays within the walls of the two Houses, but we shall have more magnificent achievements performed by the nation collectively—and by the individuals of whom it is composed. Here we have a nation of 30,000,000 of energetic people—leaving India and the colonies out of the question—who can say what they like, write what they like, and do what they like, so they do not infringe a few very simple laws enacted for the common benefit of all. The old English blood has not stagnated in our veins. The population of the country is rapidly increasing despite of the enormous drain of emigration—nor has the race degenerated in any respect. Most of the suits of armour in the Tower would be found too small for the stout limbs of the young Cumberland recruits who join the ranks of our Household troops. The duration of life has increased. It is a mistake to suppose that the increase of luxury has sapped the vigour of the English people. We have still a practical monopoly of the coal and iron of the world, and increased skill in using them. Better still, we have absolute freedom of action and thought. It is, then, natural enough, and scarcely a conclusion to be regretted, that the thoughts of Englishmen are more intent upon private enterprise than upon the “struggles,” as they are called, of political life—where struggles there are none. Let Parliament go wrong—that is, oppose on any vital point the desires of the nation, and there would be little doubt as to the result which would instantly follow. Let us not, then, blame our legislators too much if from this Session of 1860 we have not reaped an ample crop of laws. The tendency of Parliament is to become every year more and more a mirror in which the forms of public opinion are represented.
To say this is not to say that the British Parliament has degenerated, but that the nation has increased in intelligence and power. The British statesman has still a noble task before him in the conduct of our relations with foreign powers. It is still his province to carry into effect such changes in our laws as may be rendered necessary by the altered circumstances of the times. His place is still in the vanguard of the nation. The position is still one of such honourable distinction that it must be coveted by all men who are endowed with aptitudes for public life. Occasion arising, no doubt men will be found in abundance equal to the necessities of the time. So it is with Parliament generally, Why should we sneer at this poor session of 1860? Have not the two Houses very fairly represented the political ideas of the nation during the current year? Some of us were for trying a Reform Bill. The majority of the nation were indifferent to the subject. These two views, and in due proportion, were adopted by Parliament. We have all run mad—judiciously enough—about volunteering. Parliament has patted the volunteers on the back very handsomely. We all felt that the question of our military arrangements in India, should be placed upon some stable and permanent footing. Parliament has settled the matter in the way which had upon its side the weight of superior authority. We all of us are casting anxious glances at the continent of Europe, and feel, that, come what may, England must be put in a state of security. Parliament has voted the money necessary for the defence of our great arsenals; and in other respects has gone quite as far as the bulk of the nation were disposed to go. Upon the conclusion of the treaty with France, the opinions of men were divided; but, as far as may be gathered from the tone of our public writers, opinion seems to be gravitating towards the conclusion that, although not strictly correct on economic principles, on the whole it was worth our while to assist the French Emperor in his praiseworthy endeavours to vaccinate the French nation with a little matter drawn from the healthy arm of Richard Cobden. This matter also was discussed at great length, and finally settled in a manner of which the nation approves. To be sure we should have been glad if Sir Richard Bethell had carried his Bankruptcy Bill, and his proposals for the consolidation of the criminal law; but these may be looked for early next session. Even with regard to the first named of these measures, how justly the Commons intervened, and checked the great lawyer in one or two injudicious provisions which he had introduced into his bill! If these bills, and a few like them, which were not calculated to call forth any serious division of opinion, had been carried through, we should not have had any serious reason to quarrel with this barren session of 1860.
There has, no doubt, been a great deal of idle talk, but it will probably remain a difficulty until the world’s end to collect together 650 men and give them well-nigh unlimited freedom of speech without danger of this evil. On the whole, honourable gentlemen have talked a certain amount of nonsense, but have acted much good sense in the session of 1860.
The cry at Naples whilst these lines are being committed to paper is still of the proximate arrival of Garibaldi, at the head of the revolution. Before they are published there will probably be an end of the dynasty of the Neapolitan Bourbons. Every one is falling off from the king. He has no longer even the lazzaroni of the Neapolitan quays, or any considerable body of foreign mercenaries on whom he may rely in the hour of his need. Empire has literally passed from the hands of Francis II. He is now but titular sovereign of the Two Sicilies, as he claims to be titular sovereign of Jerusalem. Domestic conspiracy has been added to the miseries and misfortunes of the last days of the Bourbons in Naples. The Prince Luigi, than whom a man more contemptible could be found with difficulty, even upon the bead-roll of emasculated Italian princes, would have succeeded to his inheritance before he was dead. Francis II. overcame that difficulty, but he cannot overcome the greater difficulty of Italy in arms and Garibaldi at its head. Had the race of these Neapolitan Bourbons been one whit less treacherous and blood-thirsty, one might look with something like compassion upon the last fruitless struggle in which he is engaged, even whilst we write. An army is there which wears his uniform, and will do everything but fight for him. A fleet is still under his flag, but is just waiting for the moment to haul it down. He is inhabiting his palace still, but the Austrian frigate in the offing is his only home. He makes promises which no one believes, and receives in return lip-homage which is only a mockery. But for the tyranny of the first few months or weeks of his rule, and were it not that the yet unburied corpses, and blackened walls of Palermo testify against him, his fate might awake some little sympathy in the hearts even of those who had suffered from the cruelty and bigotry of his father. What a destiny it was to be born the summer king of that lovely land, where the blue waters of the Mediterranean wash the rocks upon which the orange trees grow; where the air is so delicate and light that one draws in contentment and happiness with every breath. So very easily ruled are the people in this southern paradise, that it was not necessary to be a great, nor a wise, nor a good king; but simply to abstain from the most violent forms of tyranny and wickedness. From the days when old Tiberius fixed his last abiding-place on the summit of Capri, till those when Ferdinand II. filled his dungeons in Ischia and Procida with state prisoners, the Southern Italians have been well broken in to masterful rule. They would not have been shocked at trifles. By religion, by temperament, and by tradition they were accustomed to acquiesce in the guidance of a strong hand, and were not ready to challenge any exercise of power so it did not drive them to desperation. The Neapolitan Bourbons, however, have tired out the patience of this people, and it needs but the presence of the deliverer to drive the young sovereign from that splendid throne, which he might have held throughout a long life, had he simply abstained from walking in the steps of his father.
The march of Garibaldi from Reggio to Naples, will probably be as the march of our own William from Torbay, or the march of Napoleon from Cannes. When the Neapolitan “difficulty” is disposed of, we shall probably hear that the Pope, in his temporal capacity, is melting away like a snow-figure in the sun-shine—afterwards, what? Let us trust that the Italians will retain moderation in the midst of their triumphs, and not be too ready to invoke a contest with a coalition, which now seems to number in its ranks the united Powers of Germany and Russia. Providence is too apt to be on the side of the best drilled grenadiers. The condition of Italy since 1815 is a convincing proof of this lamentable fact.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUMS.
What a pity it is that all our National collections of pictures, of statues, of antiquities, of objects of Natural History, should be shorn of half their value from the meanness of the various buildings in which they are exhibited to public view, and from the confused manner in which they are huddled together. We have, in London, but one room which is really worthy of the purpose to which it is devoted, and that is the new Reading-room of the British Museum. This, indeed, is a magnificent apartment—a credit to the country, and a great boon to all men engaged in literary pursuits. It was well-nigh impossible to work out any literary task in the room formerly set aside at the British Museum for the use of students. The Museum head-ache had become a by-word. How was it possible to extract, from the over-tasked brain, the due execution of the daily task, when the atmosphere in which the labour was performed was little better than a foul and unwholesome stench? This blot, however, has been removed, and Englishmen may now point, with honest pride, to the home which has been prepared for their students. Almost equal praise must be given to the manner in which the book-department of the Museum generally is conducted, under the careful and intelligent management of Mr. Panizzi. There is not a more useful public servant to be found.
Here, however, there must be an end of praise. In the Museum we have the finest collection of Greek sculpture in the world,—but in how paltry a manner it is displayed. The continental traveller—and everybody is a continental traveller in these days—thinks with shame upon the difference between the arrangements which he finds at Rome, Florence, Paris, and elsewhere, and those which are deemed good enough in London for the exhibition of the noblest works of antiquity. No doubt, in magnitude and in numbers, the Roman collections are superior to our own; but even at Rome, there is nothing which we would receive in exchange for our own Elgin marbles. In the Vatican they would be enshrined in a magnificent temple, worthy of such precious relics of the genius of by-gone days. The sculpture-room at the Louvre may well put us to shame, although the Parisian collection is not to be mentioned by the side of our own English treasures in marble. Even the little collection at Munich is shown to such advantage that it is doubled in value. Passing from the works of the ancients to those of modern artists, is it not wonderful that English sculptors can be induced, year after year, to exhibit their works in that dismal little hole at the Academy, which is thought good enough for the reception of the fruits of their annual toil? The portrait-busts, in particular, are so arranged that they would be almost ridiculous if light enough were admitted into the apartment to permit of a judgment upon the general effect.
It is the same with regard to our pictures. Let us be frank—the National Gallery is a national disgrace. Of course, as far as the number of pictures is concerned, we cannot yet boast of being upon an equality with some of the continental nations, but we possess many pictures by the hands of the old masters which are of the very highest merit. Our national collection is small, but in the main it is good. There is not in it, even comparatively speaking, anything like the same amount of inferior pictures as may be seen, for example, in the great gallery of the Louvre. The rooms, however, in which the English pictures are hung are, in every way, contemptible, and unworthy of the purpose to which they have been assigned. If a suitable frame serves to bring out the beauties of a picture, so also does a suitable room serve to bring out the full beauties of the pictures when framed. Light is, of course, a vital question. Even the light at the National Gallery is admitted in an insufficient way. It is easy enough for Londoners to appreciate the difference which good hanging and good light may make in the apparent value of pictures. Not so long since, the magnificent collection of his own works, bequeathed by Mr. Turner to the nation, was exhibited in the dull, dingy rooms of Marlborough House. Every one was surprised at the little effect which they produced. They were then moved up to Brompton, and although the rooms in which they are now hung are but part of a temporary building, we can there see, for the first time, what the works of Turner really are. Our modern oil-painters are equally cramped for space in the rooms devoted to the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy. The old and the modern painters cannot live under the same roof any longer, unless that roof covers a very different building from the National Gallery at Charing Cross. Some time back we heard of a proposition for converting Burlington House, and the surrounding space, into a series of galleries for the use of modern artists, as painters in oil, painters in water-colours, sculptors, &c. In that case the idea was to give up the National Gallery at Charing Cross exclusively to the collection of ancient masters. It was not intended at first to pull down the building, and erect a new one which should be worthy of the purpose and of the nation; although, if the great gallery of the nation is to remain in that spot, nothing will be done until that is done. For the present everything is at a dead-lock, and the explanation is this. The Court are anxious that the collection of ancient masters should be moved up to Brompton. This proposition was distasteful to the public, and when it came to be inquired into by commissioners appointed by the Crown for the purpose, the opinion of the majority of the commissioners so appointed was in favour of leaving the great National Collection at Charing Cross. To have acted upon the Burlington House idea would have clenched this suggestion—and that is not a thing which will be done. The partisans of the Brompton scheme are biding their time patiently, and moving up by driblets, and without attracting public attention, as many pictures as they may. Meanwhile, and on account of this difference of opinion, nothing decisive will be carried out, or even attempted for some time to come,—and we must content ourselves with our miserable picture-galleries with the best grace we may.
Looking back from these to the collections of natural history and of antiquities at the British Museum, we find the same lethargy prevailing. The time has come when we must make up our minds either to sever the collections, or to increase the building in Great Russell Street to an enormous degree; or, finally, to acquiesce in the practical inutility of the various collections. We had rather not adopt the third alternative; the second seems out of the question on the score of expense, as the price of land in the immediate neighbourhood of the Museum is so enormous;—the third remains.
During the session of parliament just concluded, a select committee sat to inquire into the subject, but they have not done much. The pith and marrow of their suggestions just amount to this, that the matter should be left as heretofore in the hands of the trustees. But it is in the hands of the trustees that matters have come to their present pass. Therefore, the decision to leave the affair, as heretofore, in the hands of the trustees amounts to an adoption of the third alternative. Mr. A. H. Layard addressed a letter last week upon this subject to the “Times,” in which he describes the miserable condition in which he found the Assyrian collection, as well as the relics of Greek art lately brought from Halicarnassus. The students of natural history also complain, on their side, that the collections from which they are anxious to derive information are in such a confused state, owing to the defective nature of the accommodation, that their value is much depreciated, as far as the student is concerned. The natural remedy would appear to be a severance of the collections. It was proposed before the committee that the collections of natural history should be separated from those of antiquity and art; but this proposition, which seems reasonable enough, was summarily rejected.
Undoubtedly it would be a grand thing if at South Kensington, or on any other suitable site, there could be erected one or two great buildings which should contain the national collections of painting and sculpture. One would wish for a more central situation, certainly; but London is extending itself so rapidly in all directions that it is not a little difficult to say where the centre of the town will shortly be. Besides, if the scheme of metropolitan railroads be carried out, as intended, South Kensington will shortly be but a quarter of an hour from anywhere.
The question obviously seems at present to lie between that site and Burlington House. If either of the two collections is to be removed from the British Museum, it seems a pity not to select that one for removal which would best serve to complete the national collection of sculpture. An English Glyptothek would never be complete without the Elgin marbles, and the various treasures of Greek art which are now to be seen in the British Museum. On the other hand, the more central situation at Charing Cross would seem to be more required in the case of the Royal Academy and the Exhibition of Modern Masters.
If all the rooms in the unsightly building at Charing Cross were devoted to the annual exhibition of the works of modern artists, and to the purposes generally of the Royal Academy, at least the pictures could be seen to some advantage. The building itself would of course remain a deformity and a blotch upon one of the finest sites in London. It will be pulled down in time by ourselves, or our posterity, and the sooner it is done the better. Meanwhile we commend this subject to the attention of the readers of Once a Week. What the British nation can do in this particular, when it fairly takes the duty of execution upon itself, and throws overboard trustees, curators, and heaven-born guardians of art, was seen in the Manchester Exhibition of 1857. England ought to stand high in this respect amongst the nations of Europe. We actually possess in the country, and in the hands of private individuals, as well as in our public collections, many of the most valuable art-treasures of the world; but the public collections will never attain their due importance until suitable galleries are prepared for their reception.