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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834–1894)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE SNEER of Disraeli, that a critic is a man who has failed in the branch of work he sets up to judge, is like saying that a mill-race is a stream which has failed to run in its own channel: making a definition serve as an insult. The man who does not fail is too busy with his own creations to spare much time for shaping judgments on others’. And so far as it implies that the failure leaves the critic no claim to be heard, it is shallow to the point of stupidity. On the contrary, the only thing which does give his verdicts weight is the fact that he has wrought enough in the given field to know its technic and its implications. Experience without success is the very condition of most good professional criticism. The limitations and perversions involved by this are equally clear, and must be allowed for.  1
  Hamerton was in his generation the best literary exponent of art to the public, and of different classes of art to each other;—for artists are often as narrow and distorted in their estimates of other branches than their own as the public is in its estimates of all, and are perhaps even more acrid and unreasonable. This position he owed precisely to the fact that he was a trained and learned artist, versed in the technics of a singularly wide range of artistic methods, but neither a great nor a popular artist; combined of course with other qualities which marked him out for an efficient interpreter. His analytic powers, his remarkable freedom from bias or bigotry, his catholicity of taste and sanity of mind, gave him unusual insight and foresight; few men have measured work or reputations with more sobriety of judgment, or made fewer mistakes in prophecy.  2
  The character and purpose of his writing must be borne in mind. He was not instructing artists but the public, even though a special, wealthy, and fairly cultivated public; a body which, as he has said, is at once practically ignorant of art and sorely affronted at being taxed with such ignorance. He was therefore in the general position of a schoolmaster with a voluntary school of jealous and conceited pupils. His lucid and pleasing literary style, his clearness of analysis, his justness of spirit, and a temper never ruffled even into a tu quoque, gave him unequaled power of persuasiveness over this audience; but great depth or originality of exposition would have been worse than wasted. He says himself that “the vulgarization of rudiments has nothing to do with the advance of science”; nor has it anything to do with the advance of art, except—and the exception is of the first importance—by raising the level of the buyers of art work. Hence it is unreasonable to blame him for the commonplaceness which artists fret over in his art writing: it was an indispensable part of his service and influence; and probably fewer are beyond the need and spope of his commonplaces than would like to acknowledge it. Indeed, through his guiding of public taste, he had much more influence even on the development of art forms themselves than is generally supposed: it is due mainly to him that etching, the most individual and expressive of the methods of engraving, has been raised from an unfamiliar specialty to the foremost place in the favor of cultivated art lovers.  3
  His literary services to art taken as a whole—his quarter-century editing of the Portfolio which he founded, with his clear and patient analysis of current works of art, and his indirect and conciliatory but all the more effective rebuffs to public ignorance and presumption; his thorough technical works on Etching, on Landscape, on all the Graphic Arts; his life of Turner; his ‘Thoughts on Art,’ steadily readable and clarifying; and much other matter—have probably done more than all other art writing of the age together to put the public mind into the only state from which anything good can be hoped for art; to wit, a willing recognition of its ignorance of the primary laws and limitations of artistic processes, and its lack of any right to pass on their embodiments till the proper knowledge is acquired. He has removed some of that ignorance, but in the very process contrives to explain how vast a body is still left, and how crude, random, and worthless any judgments based upon that vacuity of knowledge must be. To do this and yet rouse no irritation in his pupils, but leave instead a great personal liking, is a signal triumph of good exposition, good manners, and intrinsic good feeling. Mr. Hamerton never indulged in the acrimony by which critics so often mar their influence; he assumed that when his readers make mistakes, they do so from misunderstanding, and would be glad of knowledge courteously presented: and he was rewarded by being both listened to and liked. And to the uninstructed who listen teachably, his incomparably lucid explanations of the principles of artistic values and sacrifices, the piecemeal attempts of different forms of art to interpret nature, and their insuperable boundaries, the technics of materials, the compulsion to imaginative work by physical limitations, and other pieces of analysis, form the best of preliminary trainings in rational judgment of art, and render the worst class of ignorant misjudgments wholly impossible.  4
  His literary work unconnected with art was of considerable volume, and equals the other in general repute and appreciation. Best known of all his books is ‘The Intellectual Life,’ which deserves its fame as being the chief storehouse of philosophic consolation to the vast class of literary weaklings developed by a comfortable democracy. It is a perpetual healing in the hours of despondency that come to every aspiring but limited worker, when he looks on his petty accomplishment by the light of his ambition. It consists of a set of short conversational articles, many of them in the form of letters, developing the thesis that the intellectual life is not a matter of volume but of quality and tendency; that it may be lived intensely and satisfyingly with little actual acquirement and no recognized position; that it consists not in the amassing of facts or even in power of creation, but in the constant preference of higher thought to lower, in aspiration rather than attainment; and that any one mind is in itself as worthy as another. The single utterance that “It never could have been intended that everybody should write great books,” naïvely obvious as it is, was worth writing the book for, as an aid to self-content. It is full of the gentlest, firmest, most sympathetically sensible advice and suggestion and remonstrance, as to the limitations of time and strength, the way in which most advantages breed compensating obstacles so that conditions are far more equal than they appear, the impossibility of achievement without sacrifice, the need of choice among incompatible ends, and many other aspects of life as related to study and production. Its teaching of sobriety and attainability of aim, of patient utilization of means, and of contentment in such goal as our powers can reach, is of inestimable value in an age of a general half-education which breeds ambitions in far greater number than can be realized.  5
  ‘Human Intercourse’ is a collection of essays on life and society, some of them ranking among his best: the admirable chapter on ‘The Noble Bohemianism’ is really an estray from ‘The Intellectual Life.’ The book ‘French and English,’ most of it first published in the Atlantic Monthly, is a comparison of the two peoples and modes of life and thought, of great charm and suggestiveness. His double position, as a loyal Englishman by birth and long residence and a sort of adoptive Frenchman by marriage and also long residence, made him solicitous to clear up the misunderstandings each people had of the other; and he wrote much to this end, with his usual calm sense and gentlemanly urbanity. ‘Five Modern Frenchmen’ is a set of excellent biographies of French artists and others. ‘Chapters on Animals’ explains itself. He wrote two novels, ‘Wenderholme’ and ‘Marmorne,’ deserving of more reading than they receive; and a number of other works, besides publishing collected volumes of shorter papers, and at twenty-one a volume of poems.  6
  Mr. Hamerton was born in Laneside, near Shaw, Lancashire, England, September 10th, 1834. After preparing for Oxford, he went to Paris to study art and literature. A few years later he set up a camp at Loch Awe, Scotland, to paint landscapes; this he described in ‘A Painter’s Camp in the Highlands,’ and began to gain the note as a man of letters which he vainly hoped to gain as an artist. From 1866 to 1868 he was art critic for the London Saturday Review. In 1869 he established the Portfolio, a high-grade art review, addressing a public of supposably cultivated art lovers rather than the miscellaneous mass; but how little he felt himself dispensed from rudimentary exposition, and how low an estimate he set on even their connoisseurship, may be learned from the first chapter of the ‘Thoughts on Art.’ He married a French lady of Autun, and spent the latter part of his life mostly there or in Boulogne; he died in the latter place November 5th, 1894.  7
  Greater geniuses in dying have deprived the world of less service and less enjoyment. Many of his readers felt a personal bereavement in his loss, as in that of a companion with a nature at once lofty and tender, a safe guide and elevating friend, unfailing in charm, comfort, and instructiveness.  8
 
 
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