Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 03.djvu/365

This page has been validated.
Basire
Basire
359

grandson the fulness of his talent. He assisted their fortunes: it was to him that the reputation of their family was chiefly due. From his father he must have learnt something; he is likely to have studied the more publicly known work of Vertue, who preceded him in the office of engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, but we cannot resist the impression that the character of his draughtsmanship was strengthened, that its correctness was more assured, even if it did not become at the same time more picturesque, when Richard Dalton, an artist and an influential person, librarian to the Prince of Wales, and keeper of the royal drawings under George III, made him his companion in a long sojourn in Italy, which dates from 1763. It was certainly after that year that there were executed both the greater number and the more important of James Basire's plates. It was at about that time that in succession to Vertue he was himself appointed engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. In 1766 he engraved 'Lord Camden,' after Sir Joshua Reynolds, a picture that had been painted only two years before; in 1771 he engraved 'Pylades and Orestes,' after Benjamin West, who declared his own preference for the softer and more persuasive art of Woollett. The 'Lord Camden' is unquestionably the work of a master, yet not, we think, of a master who was wholly indifferent to the lighter charm of the imitative reproduction of texture. Fine as is Basire's modelling of the more essential portions of the design, nothing can be better expressed than the furs and chain, or than that lace which recalls the famous French engraver's portrait of Bossuet. And nine years earlier a free wild scribble on the plate, after Salvator Rosa's drawn portrait of 'Berninus, pictor, sculptor, et architectus,' shows at all events something of the flexibility of his talent. Mr. Samuel Redgrave reports of him, undoubtedly with justice, that he was noted for 'the correctness of his drawing and the fidelity of his burin' (Dictionary of Artists of the English School). It was in the year in which James Basire engraved the 'Pylades and Orestes' that there came to him at his house in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he was then established as prosperous and busy, the youth William Blake, whom he accepted as his pupil, and who remained with him as his apprentice for seven years. Something of the good disposition of Basire may be gathered from the record of his frequently considerate behaviour to Blake, and of Blake's opinion with regard to him. This would have had less importance than it has if Blake had worked for very long in Basire's own fashion; but what temperaments can have been more different, what ways of labour at last more inevitably apart, than those of the patient and plodding Basire and of Blake, who ceased to be impulsive only to become dreamful? Yet Blake more than once paid a fiery tribute to his master, praising him to the depreciation of Woollett, whose study was 'clean strokes and mossy tints,' and in whose works 'the etching was all,' though 'Woollett could not etch.' 'All that are called Woollett's,' continues Blake, 'were etched by Jack Brown,' and then he adds, 'Strange's prints were, when I knew him, all done by Aliamet and his French journeymen, whose names I forget.' We need not take Blake's utterance for gospel, but it is instructive, even à propos of Basire, to get this glimpse of the fashion in which, as it is suggested, the workroom of the line engraver in the eighteenth century was no more the studio of an original and single artist than is now the workshop of the engraver on wood. An art in which so much might be mechanical ceased to be due to the inspiration of individual taste, and in Basire's own case the skilled apprentice at this time—and later the son—had, it is fair to presume, an unacknowledged share in the labour. The late Mr. Gilchrist in his 'Life of William Blake' refers to a particular print, a 'Portrait of Queen Philippa from her Monument,' in Gough's 'Sepulchral Monuments,' whose publication was delayed until long after Blake had left Basire, and he tells us that Stothard often spoke of this as Blake's work, and he surmises that for the inscription 'Basire delineavit et sculpsit,' we may read, 'as in many other cases, W. Blake.' Redgrave says that the best specimens of his works are 'the beautiful plates in the "Vetusta Monumenta," published by the Society of Antiquaries;' but certainly among the most remarkable instances of a sterling skill in line engraving are the large 'Distribution of his Majesty's Maundy by the Sub-Almoner in the Ante-chapel at Whitehall,' published in 1789, and a similar subject published in 1777. Both are after drawings by Grimm, which were made, it seems, in 1773. But in the interpretation of the designs for the now famous 'Oxford Almanacks' Basire had to deal with a greater art, for here Turner, a giant even in his youth, had often been the draughtsman. It would be impossible to render Turner's work at that period better than in the print of the 'East End of Merton' and in that of the 'South View of Christ Church from the Meadows.' This last is dated 1799, and, unless the second James Basire was much engaged upon it, which we