As Gainsborough never attempted the heroick style, so neither did he destroy the character and uniformity of his own style, by the idle affectation of introducing mythological learning in any of his pictures.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, no. 14
Among the lives of famous men, I know
No more delightful case than this to show
How schemes conspire against us in the end.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, writing to a friend,
The Earl of Ossory, could scarcely guess
His note, two centuries old now, more or less,
Affable, easy, with the barest hint
Of a well-bred self-interest, would see print,
(Quaritch’s Catalogue seven ninety five
where I first saw it) or that it would survive
With notes by Frederick Hilles, Ph.D.,
Superbly edited for the world to see
How artlessly he gives himself away.
The things a man may scribble from day to day,
My God, it makes my blood run cold to think
What Judases may lurk in pen and ink!
(Too late to worry: Time holds all the tricks.)
This letter’s dated seventeen eighty six;
His Lordship, it would seem, had lately bought
A putative Titian; Sir Joshua’s report,
With some slight change to help the metre, I
Set down. I have surmised the earl’s reply.
My Lord, your Venus and Adonis here
After much careful scrutiny, I fear
Roma’s opinion I must needs confirm:
The canvas is much damaged, and worse harm
Caused by coarse overpainting here and there;
The back of Venus spoiled beyond repair,
Adonis ungainly, a dirty yellow sky—
I am quite at a loss what course to try:
To have it cleaned—the first thought that occurs—
Would without question make it ten times worse
Unless I might—the thought is tentative—
My Lord! the best advice that I can give
Is a suggestion merely: to exchange
Your Venus—if you would not think it strange—
For one of my own pictures. Let me take
The Titian, for there can be no mistake.
The genuine Titian tint, though fouled and faint,
Glows through the varnish and the dirty paint.
If it were mine, I should at least essay
To get this off—or ruin it by the way.
The colour alone would make it worth the while.
The draughtsmanship is not in his best style;
The Venus is not handsome and her love
Wretchedly disproportioned, for above
Short legs he shows a body immensely long.
There is much overpainting (all done wrong).
This must be taken off. The trees and sky
Must be re-painted too, a thing that I
Am vain enough to own, at least to you,
That no-one living but myself can do;
But I shall do whatever you think best.
In the meantime, my Lord, I would suggest
That at my house the picture should remain
Until your Lordship comes to town again.
Till when, in resolution to abide
By anything your Lordship shall decide,
I am, believe me, your most humble and
Reynolds, to command
Post Scriptum: If this bargain we arrange,
I am thinking what to offer in exchange.
What if I give my Girl with Pigs for it,
That gem by Gainsborough? You must admit
‘Tis the best thing he ever did, by far,
Or perhaps ever will.
Sir, yours, J. R.
My dear Sir Joshua, though you may not think
A blind horse needs a nod that spurns a wink,
Your letter with such delicacy penned,
Such tact as I would look for in a friend,
I had some difficulty, I own, to sift
Its kind proposals and discern its drift;
But, if my reading of their sense be just,
Should I take time to ponder them, I trust
You will not take amiss some brief delay,
Since I foresee some problems by the way
Which, though it may be they will not arise,
Let me explain and see what you advise.
Your offer to exchange with me, I deem
Handsome, indeed sir, generous in extreme.
Your very generosity, alas,
In this exchange could lead to an impasse
And might entail more debt, friend, let me say,
Than friendship, nay, than honour can repay.
What can I say? On reading your report
On that poor, damaged canvas that I bought,
Whether it be by Titian and, if so,
In any state to be restored or no—
You offer your own genius for the task
—A thing, I vow, I should scarce dare to ask—
And, seeing all the risks this must entail,
To give, should your attempt succeed or fail,
Gainsborough’s Girl with Pigs, his masterpiece.
You overwhelm me with such gifts as these,
But, sir, in your access of noble zeal,
Do you reflect how I myself must feel?
Was Gainsborough’s charming canvas not on show
At the Academy three years ago?
I know the picture well, and what is more,
I know the very sum you bought it for:
More than the painter asked. That handsome fee
Was praised for noble generosity.
(More than my ‘Titian’ cost me, I admit.)
But, should your restoration ruin it,
Or should it prove no Titian after all,
Could I, our bargain made beyond recall,
Bear to take such advantage of my friend
As no return or forfeit could amend?
Could I, like gamesters, Sandwich, say, or Fox,
Laugh off another’s misfortune saying “Pox
Take it! He would have done the like to me”?
If so, all would cry shame, you must agree.
If, on the other hand, you should succeed
And the botched canvas prove a Titian indeed,
Restored as none but you, I know, can do,
My mind misgives me and my conscience too.
Let me be frank: a Titian, I repeat,
Can Gainsborough, even at his best, compete
With the great prince of painters in his prime?
Can Fancy Pictures vie with the Sublime
Of that grand style, whose masters, you have said,
Have Angelo, Raphael, Titian at their head?
You may reply, and have implied in part,
That this is a poor sample of Titian’s art:
‘Venus so ugly, Adonis so ill-drawn!’
Between your two options I am torn,
Unwilling to think you fence or don the mask,
Yet here’s a thing I cannot help but ask:
If Titian’s true colouring you here detect,
Where is the draughtsmanship one should expect?
All know, for colour alone you place him first,
For drawing somewhat lower, at the worst;
But, ‘wretchedly disproportioned’?—Your own word—
Surely applied to Titian, this seems absurd!
Titian, whom your Discourses call ‘divine’,
Could his hand here so fail his main design?
When the Colonna version, all admit,
Yourself among them, shows no sign of it?
Surely, unless sir, you exaggerate,
Our bargain, till this be resolved, must wait.
But not to disappoint a friendly zeal
Which even your diffidence can scarce conceal,
May I propose in answer to your kind
Suggestions, one I have had long in mind.
A scheme of profit to both and, as I judge,
More suited to your genius than the drudge
Of cleaning dirty canvas and the scruff
And dross of overpainting to scrape off?
Sir, while I keep my Venus at a stand,
May I commission a Venus from your hand,
Such as the newspapers, if this be true,
Say that his Grace of Dorset bought from you
To send to France, and of which others say
You have a second version on the way?
So, even should our bargain come to nought
—Something to which at least I must give thought—
You will be richer by what price you name
And I enriched beyond the dreams of fame,
Possessing a masterpiece from the sublime
Draughtsman and the first colourist of our time.
I am, sir, your obliged, most heartily
And truly grateful servant,
My Lord, your pardon if I seem abrupt
But I am loath just now to interrupt
The composition of my Hercules
Which shortly goes despatch for overseas;
The Russian Empress, sir, you understand
Has honoured me of late with this command.
Kings must be served as everybody knows
And otherwise, your Lordship, I should close
With your proposal and the proffered fee;
Both, I acknowledge, most flattering to me,
Except for one particular: I fear
My Venus, at which I have been working here,
She has already, my Lord—have you not heard?—
Been promised; the Duke of Rutland has my word.
To offer a copy would not meet the case
And would not please yourself, nor yet his Grace.
I have a third proposal, though, which I
Shall put for your approval by-and-by.
Meanwhile my Venus, which you are so kind
To wish in your possession, brings to mind
My former scheme at which, although you balk
May I, perhaps, renew that line of talk?
One point your letter makes, unless I err
Which, it would seem, inclines you to demur,
Is that, beyond comparisons of art,
The subjects must appear such worlds apart:
The Queen of Love in all her majesty
And the poor cottager with her piglets three.
This view, my Lord with such politeness put,
I venture with permission to rebut.
As for my Venus (and for Titian’s too),
Remove her title: what remains to view
Is but a naked woman, nothing more
I tell you—as I told the Duke before—
A naked woman sitting on the ground
Propped up against a tree and, peeping round
Another tree at her, a naked boy—
For Cupid’s but a name. Can you employ
Your reasons now which you put forth to prove
The exchange unequal of the Queen of Love,
Adonis and his mastiffs, for a plain
Poor cottage girl with piglets in her train?
Without our titles, with our clothes put by,
As Nature sees us and the painter’s eye,
We are but flesh and, as the sacred text
Calls flesh but grass, ‘twixt one stalk and the next
What difference of status or degree
In art, and under God, sir, can there be?
Now, seeing my so-called Venus is bespoke
In hope my former scheme to re-invoke,
I now propose a third: to undertake
A copy of my Nymph and Shepherd, to make
Many improvements which I have in view
And add a pleasing landskip to it too.
If to your satisfaction this were done,
Perhaps—forgive me sir if I run on—
But in my brain my first proposal still
Itself runs on—though much against my will.
Your Lordship’s arguments in the main I must
Acknowledge, and almost all you urge is just.
Two points, however, in my own defence
May I extenuate, without offence?
For both impugn my judgement, and if I
Doubt this, or you, you must conclude I lie;
And, since you know that this is not my wont,
—Nor would your Lordship offer such affront,
Allow me first to say, ’twas no surmise,
But fact confirmed, led me to recognize
That genuine Titian colouring. Long ago
I copied his Venus and have my notes to show;
In the Colonna Palace day by day
I studied at his style and slaved away,
Using his method, from dead colouring on
Umber and cinnabar, to achieve the tone
Beneath the scumbled colours overspread,
Or glazing with vermilion and red-lead.
I flatter myself I did achieve at last
That brilliant glow no painter has surpassed.
I cannot be deceived, my Lord, in this.
As for your doubts: could Titian so draw amiss
Adonis’ legs as crippled his design?
Yes, sir, he could. The observation’s mine;
In Titian’s Saint Sebastian, I claim,
Drawing his model too close, the fault’s the same!
My Lord, I fear I grow importunate.
Would you but re-consider, let me state
No self-regard these humble views inspire;
To serve your Lordship is my sole desire.
Believe me, all commands I shall obey.
Your Lordship’s most obedient,
My dear Sir Joshua, my dear old friend,
I have considered the course you recommend
And those new reasons which you urge so well.
I am grieved to say I have no more to tell,
Except that my decision, sir, must stand!
Your knowledge and experience, out of hand
Convince me that I have a Titian indeed.
I am grateful for that help. We need proceed
No further. As you say, the risk incurred
In restoration would make it quite absurd
To pass the risk to you, whose end might be
A ruined canvas, Girl with Pigs with me,
I put it to you now, in friendship’s name:
Could I view such a prospect but with shame?
I was much moved, Sir Joshua, I confess,
Reading your letter, at the deep distress
You tried, but tried in vain, sir, to conceal;
Nor was I deaf to your sincere appeal
To serve me, knowing full well the risk you ran,
But tired my wits to find a better plan.
This being so, would you, when you have space
To see poor Venus back into her case,
Be good enough to have her duly sent
To Vandergucht, who is more competent
I think than Roma, where needful to repair
The canvas and to clean the whole with care;
And say that I shall call, when next I come
To London and convey my Venus home?
With gratitude, my friend, for all your pains
And deep assurance that, while life remains,
Of all your kind attentions, sir, to me
I shall be sensible,
P.S. This post script I cannot resist,
Seeing you, for the once, turn casuist
To argue theme and manner count for nought
Provided that a painting’s highly wrought.
Considered merely by the visual sense,
The painter’s eye detects no difference
‘Twixt Gainsborough’s child and Titian’s Queen of Love.
Come, come, my friend! what were you thinking of?
Where’s the Grand Style which your Discourses preach,
And Gainsborough knew, you say, beyond his reach?
Consider the noble scope of Titian’s line,
The imaginative sweep of his design;
What does the ‘Fancy Picture’ have to show
—Remember modest Gainsborough called it so—
Beside that intellectual majesty?
Can you maintain that in the same degree
Each painter found the means here to impart
Ideal Beauty, which is the crown of art?
Would it not have been more convincing, pray,
To turn the argument the other way?
Instead of claiming, as you did before,
Venus a naked wench and nothing more,
Your cottage girl with portent to invest
And plead she’s ‘Nature to advantage drest’?
Then in the light of fable she may shine
An infant Circe, changing men to swine.
I do but tease, sir, as an old friend may,
But there’s a serious point in what I say.
When painters lose the concept of the whole,
To take depiction as their only goal
And think in copying nature all is done,
Art becomes trivial in the long run.
The future is not given us to know,
But clocks may soon run fast that now tick slow.
My Lord, your Lordship’s orders are obeyed:
The picture has been sent, I am afraid,
To Vandergucht. I am sorry it is done,
And not from selfish motives, sir, alone,
For, parting with it, I felt, as once I did …
—Should history be repeated, God forbid!—
The Titian at Northumberland House, alas,
I saw, the Wilton Vandyke too, not as
In pristine glory I had known them first,
But when the cleaner’s art had done its worst;
Their surfaces defaced, their paint ‘repaired’,
Scarce with good copies even to be compared.
I mean no slight, of course, to Vandergucht
And pray he may respect his usufruct.
A tradesman, he will do the best he can
And that’s as good as almost any man
That plies the trade in England may perform,
But I predict that he will do more harm
As he endeavours to make it better. Sir,
It is over now. I offer no demur,
But I am sure, the offer you reject
Was a good bargain.
I am, with great respect,
Your Lordship’s servant,
J. Reynolds, while I live,
London, 1786, September five
So there the comedy ends and no-one knows
Who had the last laugh; though we must suppose
It was Sir Joshua. If the Earl had won,
There’d be the Titian. But it seems no-one
Knows what became of it, who has it now,
Or whether it was by Titian anyhow.
The Earl, having succeeded in his ploy
To thwart Sir Joshua, was content to enjoy
His victory, if cleaning and repair
Left much between enjoyment and despair.
Sir Joshua, for his part, a downright man,
Settled for what he had and soon began
Relations with his aristocratic friend,
And left him Nymph and Shepherd in the end.