Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Three P.M. : At the National Gallery

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THREE P.M.: AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY

    THIS is a Saturday afternoon; and, as usual on this day, thank goodness, I have nothing to do. If I had anything to do, wild horses would not make me do it. Circumstances, however, over which I have no control, prevent me from going out of town this instant Saturday; so having lunched, smoked my inter-luncheon cigar, read my Saturday Review, my Athenaeum, my Academy, my Lancet, my Notes and Queries, and my New York Puck, the last a caustically humorous journal, capitally illustrated, I made up my mind to take a little walk. It was not a very long one: only a stroll from Pall Mall to Garrick Street, Covent Garden, and back again.
    Brief as was my saunter, it afforded me plenty of opportunity for observation and cogitation. What changes have I not seen in the line of route not many hundreds of yards in length between the eastern corner of Pall Mall and Garrick Street itself. The last-named thoroughfare was not constructed when I was young, and it owed its existence very much to the untiring efforts of Albert Smith, who did much more as a social reformer than his contemporaries gave him credit for, and who was continually protesting in the newspapers [-160-] - he was the "London Scoundrel" of the Times - and in his own books and magazine articles, against a narrow and inconveniently crowded little thoroughfare called New Street, running out of St. Martin's Lane, towards Covent Garden, which New Street is still existent, but the traffic in which has been much lightened by the building of Garrick Street, which obviously derived its name from the Garrick Club, which migrated thither from its original home, King Street.
    As for St. Martin's Lane, it has been so wonderfully transformed within the last few years, that I almost fail to recognise my old familiar thoroughfare. The slums at its southern extremity have all been cleared away; and there is a really spacious and handsome area, where I can remember only a choked-up labyrinth of noisome courts and alleys. Throughout the Lane, as far up as Long Acre, I see lofty buildings, warehouses, offices, chambers, and a theatre; all surprises and revelations to me ; but I miss the stick shop at the corner of Little St. Martin's Court, where there used to be a huge gnarled cudgel of some outlandish wood, the knob of which was carved into the semblance of a human head, which might have been intended for the portrait, either of the King of the Cannibal Islands, or of the Giant Bolivorax. At this shop umbrellas as well as sticks used to be sold; but the grotesquely carved head of which I have just spoken evidently suggested to Mr. G. Herbert Rodwell the notion of his Memoirs of am Umbrella.
   
There is another institution also in the Lane which [-161-] I miss, a certain tavern, to wit, with the sign of "The Coach and Horses," of which the landlord, in my time, was a renowned professional pugilist, called Ben Caunt. He was a fearfully hard hitter, so I have been told, and shared with the Russian Count Orloff the reputation of being able to squeeze a pint pewter pot quite flat with the fingers of one hand. I had the honour of being introduced to Mr. Caunt by my friend, Mr. Owen Swift, also a famous prize-fighter. He was, I believe, the champion of the light-weights, and was as mild, kind-hearted, and as friendly a little man as you would wish to meet with; only, in the course of his career, he had been so unfortunate as to kill one or two brother bruisers, with whom he had fought.
    When I was introduced to Mr. Caunt, he shook hands with me; and, although he did not exactly shatter the lower extremities of my radial and carpal bones, or crush my fingers, and squeeze my muscles into a jelly, my hand was sore for some days, from the force of his friendly but formidable grip. Spirit licenses, so the tradition runs, can never die so long as the house is well-conducted; and, for aught I know, the vanished "Coach and Horses" may be still lurking behind a hoarding; and when the vast structural improvements which are going on on the western side of St. Martin's Lane are completed, a new Coach and a new team of Horses may make their appearance in a most brilliant manner.
    What business I had to transact, or, rather, what pleasure I wished to enjoy in Garrick Street, was soon accomplished; and I walked slowly back to Pall Mall, [-162-] through Trafalgar Square. The gates at the base of the stone staircase leading to the National Gallery were open, and, without the slightest intention of looking at the pictures, I ascended the steps, and, in sheer idleness, loitered for a quarter of an hour on the balcony in front of the portico, and gazed on the wonderfully animated scene beneath. There were other loiterers and pleasure- seekers besides myself-foreigners, country cousins, a clergyman or two, and some meek-looking folk of both sexes, who might belong to that numerous and inoffensive class of people with small independent means of their own, and with nothing to do.
    I think, for the accommodation of such individuals, the authorities might see their way to providing a few garden-seats on the balcony, where the idlers might sit quietly and enjoy the solace of tobacco, while they surveyed the scene and the shifting groups below.
    Change! why, there are as many changes which I note in Trafalgar Square as there are transformation scenes in half a dozen Christmas pantomimes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In the year 1836 we were living in King Street, St. James's, opposite St. James's Theatre. Trafalgar Square was then being laid out, and the area was surrounded by an immense hoarding, which, notwithstanding minatory notices of "Stick no Bills," and "Bill-Stickers, Beware," was continually plastered over with placards relating to all kinds of things, theatrical and commercial, and at election time with political squibs. There were in those days no bill poster advertising-contractors. The [-163-] bill-stickers were an independent race, whose main objects in life were first, to get a sufficient number of bills to stick up, and next, to cover over the placards pasted on the hoardings by their rivals. Thus the perpetually superposed bills led to a most amusing confusion of incongruities. If you tried to read, say, six square yards of posters, the information was conveyed to your mind that Madam Malibran was about to appear in the opera of Cockle's Pills; that the leader for Westminster was the only cure for rheumatism that Mr. Van Amburg and his lions would be present at the ball of the Royal Caledonian Asylum; and that the Sun evening newspaper would contain Rowland's Maccassar Oil, two hundred bricks to be sold at a bargain; and the band of the Second Life Guards would be sure to ask for Dunn's penny chocolate at the Philharmonic Concert, with Mademoiselle Duvernay in the Cachuca.
    I have told you that we lived in King Street, St. James's. Our apartments were on the first floor, and on the second resided a remarkably talented young harpist and pianist called John Parry, junior. John Parry, senior, 1 remember, was an ancient gentleman of Welsh extraction, who had written a voluminous work on the Music of the Principality. Harping and pianoforte playing were not the only accomplishments of the junior John; he was very deft with his pencil, and was continually making humorous sketches. Struck by the curious incongruities of the much-pasted-over hoardings, round the nascent Trafalgar Square, a portion of which [-164-] was being built on the site of the old Royal Mews, he made a very droll sketch of part of the hoarding, the contents of which, with the exercise of a little ingenuity, he converted into a positively side-splitting budget of absurdities. To this droll whim he gave the title of "Cross Readings"; the design was engraved and coloured, and on being published had an immense circulation.
    Many middle-aged people will recollect genial, clever John Parry, junior, as a singer of comic songs at morning concerts. Then, for long years, he vanished from the metropolitan ken, and devoted himself, I believe, to the practice of an organist at a watering-place somewhere on the south coast; and then he made a brief reappearance at Mrs. German Reed's entertainments, and delighted his audiences once more with his marvellous pianoforte playing. It was the hoardings in the transformed St. Martin's Lane that reminded me of the old days when Trafalgar Square was rising on the ruins of the old Royal Mews - when there was no Nelson Column, no Admiral mastheaded on the top of the pillar, which is at least a diameter and a half too lofty; when there were no Landseer lions, and no spouting gingerbeer-bottle fountains. When I peer into the distance, it is an entirely new panorama which rises before me.
    Gone for ever is the great, gloomy brick fa?ade of Northumberland House, the town residence of the noble Percies. It was not a bad specimen of late Jacobean architecture, and you will remember that, from the centre of the pediment, there rose a stone pedestal [-165-] surmounted by the effigy of a lion, which, I believe, was removed at the demolition of Northumberland House to the Duke's mansion, Sion House, Isleworth. The only interest of a metropolitan character which attached to the image of the regal beast at the top of Northumberland House was, that it had led to the circulation of a more or less apocryphal story of a bet of a large sum being laid by a speculative gentleman that, merely by the utterance of two words, he would cause in the space of twenty minutes a crowd of five hundred persons to assemble in front of Northumberland House. All he did was to take up his station by the side of King Charles's equestrian statue at Charing Cross, and, lifting his head, gaze fixedly at the Northumbrian lion. Gradually groups began to form around him. They increased and increased until quite a dense little crowd assembled, and from this gathering there arose loud cries of, "What is it?" "What is it?" "What are you looking at?" The wagerer turned towards the crowd, and pointing at the lion of Northumberland House, quietly said, "It wags." Strange to relate, there was an immediate shout from the mob, "So it does!" and even at this day there may be some very elderly people ready to come into court and make affidavit that they did, with their own eyes, see the lion on the top of Northumberland House wag its tail.
    There was a secret door of copper, painted to imitate brickwork, in the fa?ade of Northumberland House, on the side towards the Strand; and many and many a time, as a boy, have I speculated on the uses of that [-166-] secret door, destitute as it was of handles, or steps, or lintel-who came in or who came out of it. It does not matter now. On the site of the ducal palace the sumptuous Grand Hotel has been built; lower down there is a towering political club; on the other side of Northumberland Avenue, built on the site of the ducal gardens, are two more sumptuous hotels, the Victoria and the M?tropole, and beyond these prodigious structures I behold the turrets of the National Liberal Club, and at the end of the long vista of Whitehall and Parliament Street, I discern the horizon of the towers and pinnacles of the Houses of Parliament and the venerable walls of Westminster Abbey.
    I look at my watch and find that I have yet another quarter of an hour before I am "fetched" by the "superior authority" and taken for a drive in the park. As I remarked, I had not when I went up the steps the slightest intention of entering the National Gallery, but it occurred to me that the remaining fifteen minutes might be very well utilised by taking a few turns in the Galleries. So in I went, and was at once relieved of my walking-stick by a courteous attendant. Seeing that the ridiculous system of depriving visitors of their sticks and umbrellas has been abandoned at the Royal Academy, amid with eminently satisfactory results, I confess that it does seem slightly red-tapish, not to say stupid, to maintain the rule of compelling people to part with these trifling personal belongings before they are allowed to enter a picture gallery which is the property of the nation. I am sure that I never had any kind of [-167-] desire to poke my walking-stick or my umbrella through a painting by an old master; and I am persuaded that there are many millions of English people, male and female, who are of the like mind with myself. Still, it must be admitted that, once in a generation or so, there may be among the visitors to the National Gallery some madman, who, in sheer frenzy, might strive to do injury to a valuable painting. Then again, the officials who take care of the sticks and umbrellas are Government employ?s, who may be old soldiers, and who, if this light work were not provided for them, might find it difficult to know how to spend their time.
    Do not for one moment imagine, worthy readers of mine, that I have any wish to bother you or weary you by descanting on the works of art now rapidly increasing in number in the National Collection in Trafalgar Square. The place is open free, gratis, and for nothing, on most secular days of the week; you have only to go there when you have any time to spare, see the pictures, and judge for yourselves. it is very possible that you may prove fundamentally as good art critics, if not sounder ones, than the writer of these lines, who has been grinding in the mills of art criticism for five-and-thirty laborious years. I remember once, in one of the most crowded streets of Manchester, halting before the shop window of a well-known print-seller. It was an engraving after Edwin Landseer's "Otter Hunt" that I was looking at; and I was thinking of the barbarous cruelty of that so-called sport, when I accidentally overheard the fragment of a conversation between two [-168-] brawny scions of those hardy men of the north-west, of whom Hugh Miller wrote that "they bulk large in the forefront of humanity." They were seemingly of the artisan or factory-hand class, and the object of their admiration was a splendid steel engraving after Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair." "That's fine," quoth Tim Bobbin No. One. "Fine!" echoed his companion, - I would not essay to imitate the Lancashire dialect- "Fine! no fear! What a jolly lot of pluck and go there is in yon lass, to be sure." Bobbin No. Two had evidently read about "La Grande Mademoiselle" of French painting in his illustrated paper, and whether illustrated papers cost sixpence or a penny, and whether they be issued weekly or daily, there is, to my mind, no sort of pictorial journal, conducted on sound and wholesome lines, which is not a distinct boon to civilisation, and a practical agent in the teaching, the amusement, and the amelioration of the people, from the very highest to the very humblest grades.
    I entered the building and delight to record that the halls of the National Gallery this particular Saturday afternoon were full; and that large numbers of the visitors were of the working class, and were not stolidly tramping from gallery to gallery, just glancing with listless gaze at the glorious works of art on the walls; but that they were steadily passing from room to room and scanning long and lovingly the marvellous collection of paintings which have grown up in Trafalgar Square from the nucleus of the Angerstein Gallery of thirty-eight pictures, purchased in 1824 by the Government, at the [-169-] trifling price of fifty-seven thousand pounds, and which, were England bankrupt, and forced to sell her art treasures, would now fetch possibly half a million of money, to say nothing of the prodigious additions which have been made to the collection during the last fifty years.

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