Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

‘A gallery in the mind’? William Hazlitt, Edmund Spenser and the Old Masters

This essay explores the associations made by William Hazlitt between the work of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser and paintings by Rubens, Titian and Poussin, revealing how the nineteenth-century critic drew upon Spenser’s writing to conjure the notion of ‘a gallery in the mind’: a virtual collection of pictures encountered through words that served the new public for temporary exhibitions of Old Master paintings.

How can an encounter with paintings be remembered and shared with the public through words? This challenge was taken up by the nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt, whose writing encouraged new ways of seeing opened up by the invention of the temporary exhibition, a phenomenon captured by art historian Francis Haskell in his 2000 book The Ephemeral Museum.1 In Hazlitt’s art criticism literature and painting complement each other in the art of memory: one can learn to ‘read poetry with the eyes of a connoisseur’ and to treasure pictures ‘in the chambers of the brain’. This essay tests Hazlitt’s critical practice by comparing his lecture ‘On Chaucer and Spenser’ (1818) with his later essay ‘Pictures at Oxford and Blenheim’ (1823). Imagining the Old Masters translating Edmund Spenser’s visionary art on canvas involves an exercise in hypothetical history: going against the record of early modern painting Hazlitt opened up an alternative visual tradition fuelled by the power of literary invention.

‘When artists or connoisseurs talk on stilts about the poetry of painting, they shew [sic] that they know little about poetry, and have little love for the art’.2 This denunciation of the cant of criticism appears in ‘On Poetry in General’, the first of William Hazlitt’s ‘Lectures on the English Poets’, delivered at the Surrey Institution in January 1818. Hazlitt’s claim about the specificity of poetry harks back to Edmund Burke’s influential argument about the differences between the arts, and challenges the critical tradition that drew on Aristotle’s concept of enargeia to interpret poetry in terms of its visual power to produce images in the eye of the reader.3 In his 1758 edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1596), John Upton declared the Elizabethan poet ‘unrivalled in the visionary art of bringing objects before your eyes, and making you a spectator of his imaginary representations’.4 How this visionary art could be captured on canvas was a challenge modern painters took up in works exhibited year after year at the Royal Academy from 1772 and at the British Institution from 1809. In the first arts column published in the Analytical Review in June 1788 the painter Henry Fuseli argued that ‘the excellence of pictures or of language consists in raising clear, complete, and circumstantial images, and turning readers into spectators’.5 Fuseli’s claim gave prominence to Thomas Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery, where Spenser’s poem was illustrated by Fuseli’s Prince Arthur’s Vision, John Opie’s The Freeing of Amoret, by Britomartis, Richard Cosway’s Sans Loy Killing the Lyon, and Amoret rapt by Greedie Lust by Martin.6 Hazlitt’s point against poetical paintings thus went against an established tradition in modern art.

However, Hazlitt’s pattern of thinking as an essayist involved trying out reverse positions. In the second of his ‘Lectures on the English Poets’, dedicated to Chaucer and Spenser, he went on to imagine a gallery of portraits coming out of Spenser’s Faerie Queene: ‘The description of Hope, in this series of historical portraits, is one of the most beautiful in Spenser: and the triumph of Cupid at the mischief he has made, is worthy of the malicious urchin deity’.7 Hazlitt’s art historical language turns Spenser’s stanzas into a series of pictures. His gallery of words can be matched to the literary inventions of modern painters, a recurrent feature of the contemporary exhibition scene. A generation of sitters had been posing as allegorical characters from the Faerie Queene; the first was a portrait of Mary Hall by Benjamin West, which was exhibited at the third Royal Academy exhibition in 1772.8 A review indicated that the subject of the painting, which was titled Una and the Lion, ‘is founded upon a passage in Spencer [sic], which as the author is but little read at present, I shall take the liberty of giving you at length’, and went on to quote two stanzas from the Faerie Queene.9 Spenser’s poem reached the new exhibition-going public in catalogue entries, print captions and articles in newspapers and periodicals. In anchoring portraits to quotations, paintings circulated the poem as a gallery of excerpts. Conversely, literature offered a store of subjects for modern painters keen to establish a British School of painting. The visual power of literary invention to elevate portraiture to the higher genre of poetical painting was crystallised in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Lady Leicester as ‘Hope’ (1814), which was exhibited at Sir John Fleming Leicester’s Gallery of British Paintings when it opened to the public in spring 1818.10

Hazlitt, however, chose to ignore the work of modern painters in his lecture ‘On Chaucer and Spenser’. As private collections opened to the public and temporary exhibitions brought Old Master paintings to the British Institution, Spenser’s ‘visionary art’ took on new aesthetic possibilities:

In reading these descriptions, one can hardly avoid being reminded of Rubens’s allegorical pictures; but the account of Satyrane taming the Lion’s whelps and lugging the bear’s cubs along in his arms while yet an infant, whom his mother so naturally advises to ‘go seek some other play-fellows’, has even more of this high picturesque character. Nobody but Rubens could have painted the fancy of Spenser.11

The choice to celebrate Spenser for his fancy in 1818 marks Hazlitt’s rejection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s critical appraisal of the respective powers of fancy and imagination in his Biographia Literaria, published just a year earlier. For Coleridge, Aristotle’s psychology spells out ‘the universal law of the passive fancy and the mechanical memory’: in Aristotle’s system ‘ideas by long having been together acquire a power of recalling each other; or every partial representation awakes the total representation of which it had been a part’.12 In his review of Coleridge’s Biographia Hazlitt ridiculed Coleridge’s attempt to ‘desynonymise’ the imagination from the fancy and to assign them to different faculties: ‘the author deludes us with a view of the Promised Land that divides the region of Fancy from those of the Imagination’.13 While Coleridge’s poetic genealogy supports the autonomy of the literary imagination, Hazlitt embraced Spenser’s pictorialism to articulate a ‘Romantic counter-poetics of the fancy’.14 In bringing Rubens to the eyes of the reader, Hazlitt proposed that Spenser’s ‘picturesque’ mythological compositions activate an intermedial power of invention shaped by complementary, overlapping, and merging practices of reading and viewing.

What was involved in comparing Spenser to Rubens? What did Rubens mean for the public of Hazlitt’s lectures? For Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Hazlitt’s lecturing exemplified ‘the egotism of the Cockneys’, who are first identified as ‘lecturers of the Surrey Institution, and editors of Sunday papers’, then by name and classical alter ego: ‘[Leigh] Hunt, the Cockney Homer, Hazlitt, the Cockney Aristotle, and [Benjamin] Haydon, the Cockney Raphael’.15 Hazlitt’s lecturing at the Surrey Institution set the scene: ‘Mr Hazlitt cannot look round him at the Surrey, without resting his smart eye on the idiot admiring grin of several dozens of aspiring apprentices and critical clerks’.16 Blackwood’s social satire captured the cultural breadth and ambition of Hunt and Hazlitt, and then debunked them by referring to them as ‘Cockney’, which localised their cultural referents and thus challenged the credibility of culture for the urban middle classes. By contrast, Hazlitt’s association of Spenser with Rubens opened up a cosmopolitan field of comparison, situating English literature and the metropolitan exhibition scene within a European visual tradition.17 In bringing Old Masters to public view the invention of the temporary exhibition generated new ways of seeing, new forms of comparison, and a new critical practice. Hazlitt’s writing addressed its new public and shaped art as a subject for ‘Table Talks’ around a new ‘Round Table’, which reimagined the communal culture of Arthurian romance for a periodical reading nation.18 But how did his readers see Old Master paintings? How did the ‘substantial entertainment’ of painting make them ‘read poetry with the eye of a connoisseur’?19

The British Institution

Hazlitt’s pictorial Spenser is best understood in the context of Old Master exhibitions at the British Institution. In comparing Spenser to Rubens Hazlitt could count on his readers’ memory of the Rubens works included in the loan exhibition of Flemish and Dutch paintings at the British Institution in 1815.20 Rubens’s allegories were on view when he discussed Spenser as ‘the painter of abstractions’.21 Another loan exhibition of the Italian and Spanish Schools brought paintings by Titian, Poussin, Raphael, Correggio and Claude to the British Institution the following year.22 The comparative canon of these temporary exhibitions helped Hazlitt articulate the concept of ‘gusto’ as ‘power or passion defining any object’, made apparent in the ‘flesh-colour’ of Titian, which ‘seems sensitive and alive all over; not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling in itself’.23 Its ‘truth of passion’ is conveyed by ‘that sort of tingling sensation to the eye, which the body feels within itself’.24 For Hazlitt the experience of the senses is not subsumed under more disembodied frames of artistic appreciation; instead, the encounter with the Old Masters produces a physical awakening in which ‘the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another’.25

After Peter Paul Rubens Silenus engraved by Charles Howard Hodges, published 1789

After Peter Paul Rubens
Silenus engraved by Charles Howard Hodges, published 1789
Mezzotint on paper
British Museum, London
© The Trustees of the British Museum 

The pulse of nature defined Hazlitt’s preference for the Old Masters over modern painters in his polemical response to the satirical Catalogue Raisonnée of the Pictures now Exhibiting at the British Institution (1815). Attributed to Robert Smirke and penned within Royal Academy circles, the ‘catalogue’ expressed the position of modern painters against the aristocrats and connoisseurs associated with the British Institution. For Hazlitt ‘the works of the moderns are not, like those of the Old Masters, a second nature’, which provided ‘the stay, the guide and anchor of our purest thoughts; whom having once seen we always remember, and who teach us to see all things through them’.26 Hazlitt defined ‘second nature’ with reference to William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798). Wordsworth’s poem celebrates the power of nature as an underlying presence, which acts differently from ‘a landscape to a blind man’s eye’: its memory is ‘felt in the blood, and felt along the heart’.27 Hazlitt inflected Wordsworth’s lines to articulate a different kind of ‘restoration’ effected by the enhanced experience of nature captured in Old Master paintings, which provide a source of energy that can counteract absence and the intervals of time. At the heart of Hazlitt’s argument was ‘Rubens, around whose pencil gorgeous shapes thronged numberless, startling us by the novel accidents of form and colour, putting the spirit of motion into the universe, and weaving a gay fantastic round and Bacchanalian dance with nature’.28 Central to Hazlitt’s entry on ‘Fine Arts’, written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica that same year, is a painting by Rubens loaned from the collection of the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim to the British Institution exhibition in 1815, and listed under the title Bacchanalians.29 In the encyclopaedia entry Hazlitt declared Rubens to be unrivalled ‘in the grotesque style of history’, for the ‘striking contrasts of form are combined with every kind of rapid and irregular movement … Witness his Silenus at Blenheim, where the lines seem drunk and staggering’.30 Hazlitt’s evocation of the painting in words betrays the mediation of print, for ‘Silenus’ was the title adopted for the mezzotint by Charles Howard Hodges, published by John and Josiah Boydell in 1789 (fig.1).31 Hazlitt’s appreciation of Rubens is in stark contrast to the Catalogue Raisonnée of the Pictures now Exhibiting at the British Institution, which denounces Rubens’s ‘bestial production’ for ‘the brutal and disgusting exhibition it offers to the eyes of the spectator’, judged particularly inappropriate ‘in an Exhibition which is made the medium of collecting together the female branches of the higher classes’.32 Rubens’s eroticism marked the boundary between the martial virility of the first Duke of Marlborough and the gendered economy of early nineteenth-century public exhibitions. For the Catalogue Raisonnée, Rubens’s painting presented ‘monsters that must put every degree of feminine decency and delicacy to the blush’; for Hazlitt it captured the energy of the elemental powers of nature.33

In focusing on the physiological pleasures of painting, Hazlitt’s appreciation of Rubens forms part of the embodied aesthetic stigmatised by John Gibson Lockhart in a series of eight articles published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine under the title ‘The Cockney School of Poetry’ between October 1817 and July 1825.34 Lockhart’s attack denounced the effeminacy, libertinism and heterodox sexuality of the poetry published by the urban group of writers and artists revolving around the radical writer and editor Leigh Hunt and his publication network. The ‘extreme moral depravity of the Cockney School’ is exemplified, for Lockhart, by Hunt’s Story of Rimini (1816).35 Hazlitt collaborated with Hunt on the ‘Round Table’ series published in Hunt’s Examiner between 1814 and 1817 and collected in volume form under Hazlitt’s name in 1817. According to the literary historian Jeffrey Cox, when set against Blackwood’s denunciation of the Cockney School in 1817, Hunt’s preface to Foliage (1818) reads like a ‘cockney manifesto’, for it promotes a middle-class sensibility that delights in the physical response to art criticised by Lockhart.36 Hunt advocated ‘Grecian mythology not as a set of school-boy commonplaces which it was thought manly to give up, but as something which it requires more than mere scholarship to understand’.37 Reclaiming mythology from the restricted circulation of the classically educated and offering it to a broader public involved formulating an ‘aesthetics of pleasure’ for a new aesthetic subject.38 Against the ‘frigid imagination’ of Boileau, Quinault and modern criticism, against the commodification of gods and goddesses as ‘a set of toys for the ladies’, shepherds and shepherdesses on mantle-pieces, Hunt turned to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans: ‘Spenser, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher evidently sparkled up, and had their most graceful perceptions upon them, whenever they turned to the fair forms and leafy luxuries of ancient imagination’.39 In Hunt’s account Elizabethan and Jacobean literature activated the palpable pleasures of nature. Rubens had a similar potential for nineteenth-century viewers: his paintings opened up a classical world ready to break loose from the restraint of a culture of ‘commonplaces’. While the Catalogue Raisonnée saw in the ‘abominable and gross sensualities’ of Rubens’s painting the bad judgement and morality of the directors of the British Institution, suggesting that its exhibition subverted codes of public display, for Hazlitt it offered an alternative form of aesthetic appreciation based on passion and embodiment rather than control and detachment.

This aesthetics of pleasure is crucial to reading Spenser in 1818. To argue that Spenser’s Faerie Queene brings to mind ‘Rubens’s allegorical pictures’ is to activate their erotic charge, to reclaim the text from its circulation as a store of aristocratic inflections of female virtue, and therefore to discard modern painters’ fancy portraits. If ‘Nobody but Rubens could have painted the fancy of Spenser’, his corpus is likely to generate images incompatible with modern re-enactments such as Miss Elizabeth Beauclerk posing as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Una, or Lady Leicester as Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Hope.40 Opting for Rubens instead means rejecting portraiture and freeing up Spenser’s text from its appropriations as a series of moral portraits illustrating commonplace conduct book virtues. Abstracted from aristocratic ownership, patronage networks, and the strictures of modern painters and their codes of public display, Rubens and Spenser can flesh out an alternative ‘reawakening of the poetical faculty’.41 Their allegories open up new ‘realities of the imagination’.42

Hazlitt’s engagement with the world of exhibitions may seem contradictory: on the one hand he lectured and wrote for radical periodicals, presenting the pleasures of the Old Masters to a wider urban constituency of viewers who could peruse Old Master paintings on loan to the British Institution, or experience them vicariously through the pages of periodicals. On the other hand, in defending the Old Masters rather than modern painters, Hazlitt took sides with the connoisseurs rather than the Royal Academicians. However, his denunciation of the short-sighted position of modern painters was part of his critique of corporate interests and restrictions on the practice, codification, and judgment of art; it was not a retrograde identification with the directors of the British Institution.43 Hazlitt’s politics of art is best understood in relation to the republican field of art embodied in the Louvre, which had opened to the public as the museum of French citizens in 1793.44 Hazlitt expressed his support for a republican field of art in discussions about the restitution of Napoleonic spoils in 1814 and 1815.45 Memories of his personal encounter with the republican sublimity of the Louvre during the Peace of Amiens in 1802 kept coming back in later years. Remembering being hailed as a citizen by the republican porters meant thinking of the republican promise of art as a temporary possibility.46 The restitution of the Napoleonic spoils emphasised the dynamic of presence, absence, and the memory of alternative orders of painting in the ephemeral museum. Ways of seeing in the ephemeral museum are central to Hazlitt’s writing of the early 1820s. The experience of painting involved a new art of memory.

‘A gallery in the mind’

The relationship between memory, place, and painting is rooted in classical ekphrasis, which preserves paintings that have not survived in the form of a collection of words. This technique of memory can be extended to pictures seen on the Grand Tour or at temporary exhibitions. In turn, the experience of paintings can shape reading practices that bring pictures before the eyes of the reader. Hazlitt drew on the ideas of the painter, collector and art critic Jonathan Richardson when remarking on the complementary relationship between poetry and painting. In his Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715) Richardson argued: ‘By Painting we are taught to form Ideas of what we read’.47 In his attempt to establish the ‘science of a connoisseur’ Richardson expanded his analysis of the cognitive connections between seeing and reading. Central to this science is the peculiar practice of collecting, ‘the getting a fine Collection of Mental Pictures’.48 This virtual collection harks back to the traditional art of memory, in which texts are turned into a series of images mentally arranged in consecutive places within an architectural space, usually a series of rooms in a palace, or doors along a road. The composition would thus consist of a mental walk through the topology of memory.49 Drawing on this early modern tradition, Richardson emphasised the interdependence of poetry and painting. His intermedial art of memory consisted in ‘furnishing the Mind with Pleasing Images; whether of things Real, or Imaginary; whether of our own forming, or borrow’d from Others. This is a Collection which every one may have, and which will finely employ every vacant moment of ones time’.50 What Richardson meant by ‘every one’ is quite different from Hazlitt’s early nineteenth-century periodical reader. Richardson addressed ‘people of condition’ coming back from the Grand Tour when he gave ‘a Specimen or two of these in the Delicate, and in the Great kind, or to speak more like a Connoisseur, in the Parmegiano, and in the Rafaelle Taste; and both out of Milton’.51 However, radical changes in the culture of art brought these gestures of critical appreciation home to Hazlitt’s early nineteenth-century periodical reader.

Hazlitt first mentioned Richardson as a bad influence on Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, whose ‘logical acuteness’, Hazlitt argued, ‘was not such as to enable him to detect the verbal fallacies and speculative absurdities which he had learned from Richardson’.52 Hazlitt’s own debt to Richardson comes across in ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’, the fifth essay published in the ‘Table Talk’ series, which appeared as the opening feature in the London Magazine in December 1820.53 Hazlitt’s essay ends with pages of quotations from Richardson’s ‘Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it Relates to Painting and an Argument on Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur’ (1719), and thus transfers the extended powers of vision that Richardson had promised connoisseurs to the periodical reader of his ‘Table Talks’: ‘their Eyes being once open’d ‘tis like a New Sense, and New Pleasures flow in as often as the Objects of that Superinduc’d Sight present themselves’.54 A memory of Richardson’s enhanced sensorium marks the language of visual enthusiasm adopted by Hazlitt to describe his encounter with paintings exhibited at the sale of the Orléans Gallery: ‘a mist passed away from my sight: the scales fell off. A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me’.55 Hazlitt’s visual transfiguration endows Richardson’s promise of a new sight with medical and religious iconography. Alluding to the eye condition of Saul in the Acts of the Apostles and Adam in Book 11 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hazlitt drew on the symptoms and remedies of eye medicine to present the transition from print to painting as an enhanced power of vision comparable to the effects of a cataract operation.56 The new field of the visible is equated to the new heaven and earth of Revelation.57 Yet this is where the transfiguration takes on a secular turn, for instead of the vision of the holy city, Hazlitt conjured up a new world of Old Master paintings.

In ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’ Hazlitt followed Richardson’s curatorial injunction to assemble in a mental gallery paintings dispersed in different collections, which he later discussed in a series of essays published in the London Magazine in 1822–3, and collected in volume form under the title Sketches of the Principal Picture-Galleries in England in 1824. His selection included the Claudes in Lord Radnor’s Park, Van Dyck at Wilton House, and Blenheim, ‘where there is … the most magnificent collection of Rubenses in the world’:

The young artist makes a pilgrimage to each of these places, eyes them wistfully at a distance … at last, is ushered into the room where his treasure is, the idol of his vows – some speaking face or bright landscape! It is stamped on his brain, and lives there thenceforward, a tally for nature, and a test of art. He furnishes out the chambers of the mind from the spoils of time, picks and chooses which shall have the best places – nearest his heart.58

Like Napoleon’s spoils, abstracted from their physical locations, Hazlitt’s ‘spoils’ articulate an alternative order.59 The curatorial hang in ‘the chambers of the mind’ expresses the painter’s ‘interest in them of which the owner is scarce conscious’.60

The anatomy of Hazlitt’s mental gallery harks back to ‘Remarks on the Systems of Hartley and Helvetius’, published in 1805, in which Hazlitt drew on the philosopher John Locke’s metaphor of the closet and the camera obscura to explain perception as the production of images in the tabula rasa of the mind:

If the mind is but a sort of inner room where the images of external things like pictures in a gallery are lodged safe, and dry out of the reach of the turbulence of the senses, but remaining as distinct from, and if I may so say as perfectly unknown to one another as the pictures on a wall, there being no general faculty to overlook and give notice of their several impressions, this medium is without any use.61

In Hazlitt’s associationist analysis, the picture gallery stands for the possibility of a well-ordered perception as well as for its dystopian alternative, a series of disconnected and random images ‘unknown to one another as the pictures on a wall’. The turn from Locke’s camera obscura to Hazlitt’s picture gallery is symptomatic of competing orders of viewing in early nineteenth-century visual culture. Unreasonable hanging criteria constitute a key criticism of the British Institution in the Catalogue Raisonné of the Pictures now Exhibiting in Pall Mall, which faulted the directors for relegating Poussin’s historical compositions out of the way, in corners, and requested:

the proprietors of the better works, to look and see whose and what those are, which occupy the best lights and the most prominent places. Let Mr Hope turn his eyes to his Temptation of Christ by Titian; Mr West, to his Guido; Lord Egremont, to his Claude; Lady Lucas, to her Titians; the owners of all the Nichola Poussins [sic], to their Pictures – and say, if these works, which are truly admirable, are not sacrificed by their situations?62

The conclusion suggests that the hang reflects the interests of the directors, ‘gentlemen and other dealers’.63

By contrast, choice, rather than chance or blind mechanism, governs the painter’s mental collection. A meritocratic art of memory revives Richardson’s eighteenth-century art of reading and selects pictures from aristocratic collections for the chambers of the brain of the middle-class reader. Which paintings should be hung in the mental gallery becomes the critical question. This is the new dialogic ground for the argument between modern painters and Old Masters. While the Examiner enjoined the public of taste who could not afford to buy Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Christ’s Agony in The Garden to hang it ‘in the gallery of their mind’,64 Hazlitt drew on Hamlet and an Old Master painting at the British Institution to reassert his choice in ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’: ‘It is a luxury to have the walls of our rooms hung round with them, and no less so to have such a gallery in the mind, to con over the relics of ancient art bound up “within the book and volume of the brain, unmixed (if it were possible) with baser matter!”’65 Hazlitt applied the Examiner’s formula of ‘the gallery in the mind’ to produce an alternative canon. ‘From the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / all books, all forms, all pressures past’, says Hamlet, to preserve the commandment of the father.66 Hazlitt shared Hamlet’s desire to devote undivided attention to his relics, wipe out all trivia, and make space for the Old Masters. Instead of Haydon, Hazlitt opted for Poussin.

Through Hamlet Hazlitt’s recollection of the Old Masters takes on an intermedial form. In the incongruous space of the brain, the dimensions of the gallery can find a place within a book. Hazlitt’s virtual play points to the materiality of the medium and hybrid practices of inscription. His reference to binding suggests a shift from the gallery to the codex as a support of memory; an archival form in which extraneous objects can be interleaved, treasured, preserved. From the walls of the British Institution, as ‘a set of chosen images, a stream of pleasant thoughts passing through the mind’, pictures take temporary virtual form on ‘the walls of our rooms’ and in ‘a gallery in the mind’. Finally, they are ‘bound up “within the book and volume of the brain”’.67 While alliteration attempts to seal the analogy between ‘book’ and ‘brain’, the rhetorical figure of the hendiadys rewords the ‘book’ in the ‘volume of the brain’, and indicates the metamorphic dynamism of its unfolding.68 The expanding capacity of this medium suited Hazlitt’s image of a repository that can welcome the endless store of Old Masters on view at the British Institution year after year. As a material inscription that requires the binding of loose sheets within a pre-existing volume, Hazlitt’s mental gallery evokes the dynamic and hybrid form of the extra-illustrated book.

Literary historian Mary Favret has argued that ‘the move from gallery to book replicates Hazlitt’s biographical (and vexed) turn away from a career in painting to a career in writing’, while Deidre Lynch has suggested that Hazlitt’s quotation from Hamlet mediates the metamorphosis of art into literature.69 Yet the hybrid form in which Old Masters are entered within the volume of the brain indicates that art and literature cannot be kept distinct. In an earlier essay Hazlitt had argued that ‘the arts of painting and poetry are conversant with the world of thought within us, and with the world of sense without us, with what we know, and see, and feel intimately’.70 In ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’ the conversation between the arts depends on a specific material form. Its intermedial art of memory exemplifies the work of art in the age of technical reproducibility. Painting and poetry become mutually reinforcing, complementary practices when temporary exhibitions can be recollected and reimagined through the medium of the book as a support for the convergence of reading and viewing.

How painting can teach the viewer ‘to read poetry with the eye of a connoisseur’ is articulated in Hazlitt’s essay on the poetry of George Crabbe, published in the London Magazine in May 1821. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s recommendation of Crabbe’s ‘The Village’ (1783) to Samuel Johnson is part of a story that attributes to the study of the fine arts the ability to restore ‘our eye for nature’, doing away with ‘book-learning, the accumulation of wordy commonplaces, the gaudy pretensions of poetical diction’. As an imitative art that ‘cannot subsist for a moment on empty generalities’, painting acts as a corrective to the abstractions of writing: ‘little captivated with smooth, polished, unmeaning periods’, the connoisseur ‘would turn with double eagerness and relish to the force and precision of individual details, transferred as it were to the page from the canvas. Thus an admirer of Teniers and Hobbima [sic] might think little of the pastoral sketches of Pope or Goldsmith’.71 Nor would he appreciate the nature poetry of James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726–30); uninterested in what Thomson ‘sees in his mind’s eye’, ‘the adept in Dutch interiors, hovels, and pig-styes must find in such a writer as Crabbe a man after his own heart’.72 If Dutch painting shaped a taste for Crabbe, his poetry was subjected to the test of the exhibition and found less effective than the paintings of David Wilkie.73 Complementary practices of reading and viewing generated an intermedial art of criticism.

In the early 1820s reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene as an ekphrastic work that could preserve, recall, or invent a world of pictures was supported by one of Alexander Pope’s anecdotes from the previous century: ‘after my reading a canto of Spenser two or three days ago to an old lady between 70 and 80, she said that I had been showing her a collection of pictures’.74 Published in Joseph Spence’s Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men (1820) and reviewed in the London Magazine in February and by Hazlitt in the Edinburgh Magazine in May, this scene of reading reached a new public. Through Pope’s, Spenser’s and Richardson’s intermedial art of memory Romantic periodicals could appropriate and reinvent earlier ways of seeing and measure up changes that had taken place in emerging art practices. What paintings did Pope’s old lady see in Spenser’s Faerie Queene? What could readers of Romantic periodicals see in Spenser’s poem in the 1820s?

Mythological and ekphrastic writing was singled out as a characteristic of cockney poetry by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, with Leigh Hunt’s pictorial allusions to Polyphemus debunked as ‘nothing more than a copy in words of a picture in oil’.75 The Cockney School’s use of public spaces as sites of composition was deplored for the ostentatious ‘fashion of firing off sonnets … in Sir John Leicester’s Gallery’.76 John Keats’s poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818) exercised Blackwood’s for belonging to ‘the Cockney School of Politics, as well as the Cockney School of Poetry’: ‘Endymion is not a Greek shepherd, loved by a Grecian goddess; he is merely a young cockney rhymester, dreaming a phantastic dream at the full of the moon’.77 In turning an apprentice away from the respectable profession of medicine, Keats’s metromania is, for Blackwood’s, emblematic of the disease that was perverting society. The London Magazine was founded as an organ of metropolitan culture with the express aim to challenge ‘The Mohock Magazine’.78 Blackwood’s Cockney School series was an express target of its satire, and ‘Cockney Writers’ were defended among its celebrated contributors. The very different politics of the London Magazine is measured by its review of Keats’s ‘Endymion’, which reads his Spenserian poem through Michelangelo, Raphael and Correggio. In evoking paintings, music, and perspective views, Keats’s poem takes on architectural dimensions in the reader’s mind: if it is not a ‘regular fabric’ that will meet the approval of a surveyor, it is ‘a glittering and fantastic temple … as well adapted to the airy and fanciful beings who dwell in it, as a regular Epic Palace’.79 This imaginary house of poetry illustrates how writing can appropriate and mediate the architecture of the gallery for the urban middle-class reader. As a medium for imagining the gallery, poetry presents ‘the student of art as interloper and interior decorator, furnishing a country estate within his brain and imagining the region of his mind as a country estate’, as Favret has argued.80 It is in this context that Hazlitt’s art criticism for the London Magazine should be read. In the age of the temporary exhibition poetry and painting shared a new order of things.


Spenser’s association with Rubens reappears in Hazlitt’s ‘Pictures at Oxford and Blenheim’ (1823). This last essay on English picture galleries vicariously brings the urban readers of the London Magazine to Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Reference to Spenser mediates the encounter with Rubens, abstracts it from its context at Blenheim, and articulates it in the gallery in the mind to bring it before the eyes of the readers of periodicals. If Spenser helped to bring Rubens to the eyes of the reader in Hazlitt’s 1818 lecture, Rubens brought Spenser to the eye of the viewer in the 1823 essay. While in 1818 Hazlitt saw Rubens in the stanzas of the Faerie Queene and turned Spenser’s poem into an imaginary ekphrasis, a reverse ekphrasis takes place at Blenheim, where Hazlitt’s experiment in ‘superinduc’d sight’ goes from painting to text to imagine a one-man show:

Rubens was the only artist that could have embodied some of our countryman Spenser’s splendid and voluptuous allegories. If a painter among ourselves were to attempt a SPENSER GALLERY, (perhaps the finest subject for the pencil in the world after Heathen mythology and Scripture History,) he ought to go and study the principles of his design at Blenheim! –The Silenus and the Rape of Proserpine contain more of the Bacchanalian and lawless spirit of ancient fable than perhaps any two pictures extant. We shall not dispute that Nicolas Poussin could probably give more of the abstract, metaphysical character of this traditional personages, or that Titian could set them off better, so as to ‘leave stings’ in the eye of the spectator, by a prodigious gusto of coloring, as in his Bacchus and Ariadne: but neither of them gave the same undulating outline, the same humid, pulpy tone of the flesh, the same graceful involution to the grouping and the forms, the same animal spirits, the same breathing motion.81

Hazlitt’s description activates the erotic charge of painting in a series of comparisons and quotations from his essay on ‘gusto’. ‘Silenus’ was the title under which Rubens’s Bacchanalians was reproduced in print. In 1817 the painting was listed in the East Drawing Room, the same place as The Rape of Proserpine. In 1820 Bacchanalians was in the Dining Room, but The Rape of Proserpine was not listed; it was in the Titian Room in 1825, where it was destroyed by fire in 1861, and now only survives in a seventeenth-century etching by Pieter Soutman (fig.2).82

After Peter Paul Rubens The Rape of Proserpine engraved by Pieter Soutman, published c.1620–5

After Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of Proserpine engraved by Pieter Soutman, published c.1620–5
Etching on paper
British Museum, London
© The Trustees of the British Museum 

In William Mavor’s guides to Blenheim, the Rubens works are strongly associated with the martial campaigns of the first Duke of Marlborough. Of the three hanging in the Dining Room in 1820 two are presented as public gifts to the Duke of Marlborough in recognition of his military achievements: Venus and Adonis: A Present from the Emperor of Germany, and Lot and his Daughters; Another Present from the Emperor, hung in the same room as Bacchanalians. Rubens, His Wife, and Child was given to the Duke by the City of Brussels.83 Like the series of Loves of the Gods attributed to Titian, a gift from the King of Sardinia, these paintings mark out the Duke’s martial vigour and virility, and the house and collection as a public memorial.84 In 1766 Titian’s Loves of the Gods were recorded still hanging in the Great Hall, underneath the apotheosis of the Duke of Marlborough painted by Sir James Thornhill.85 Two decades later the Loves of the Gods had been moved out of view: ‘It is said these pictures were discovered in an old lumber-room by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ in 1788.86 No mention was made of the Titian Room, nor of the Titians, in William Mavor’s 1789 New Description of Blenheim. In 1806 Mavor announced that ‘after long lying hid from public view, [they] are now liberally displayed, chiefly for the sake of amateurs in the pictorial art’.87 Yet in 1810 the writer Charles Lamb wrote to Hazlitt expressing his concern that he would never gain admittance.88 The trajectory of the Loves of the Gods illuminates the attempt to shift from military valour to intimacy and retirement associated with the third Duke, as art historians Mark Hallett and Kate Retford have pointed out.89 The Rape of Proserpine ultimately shared the trajectory and fate of the Loves of the Gods. However, when Hazlitt wrote about the Blenheim collection for the urban public of the London Magazine, he abstracted the paintings from the architectural setting and public iconography of Blenheim. Through the pages of the periodical press they became part of a virtual gallery without walls.

Hazlitt’s essay re-gendered the iconography of Rubens’s paintings. Rather than representing the vigorous masculine world of the Duke of Marlborough memorialised at Blenheim, Rubens represented for Hazlitt the taste and discrimination of the Duke’s wife, Sarah Churchill, Duchess Marlborough: ‘she had, during her husband’s wars and negotiations in Flanders, a fine opportunity of culling them, “as one picks pears, saying, this I like, that I like still better.”’90 Hazlitt’s focus may have been influenced by Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of the Duchess in the guise of Minerva, which perhaps functions for him as a relay for the other pictures hanging in the Dining Room. In an earlier essay on the ‘Character of Sir Joshua Reynolds’, Hazlitt wrote that Van Dyck’s portrait of the Duchess of Buckingham with her children hanging in the East Drawing Room ‘produces the same sort of respect and silence as if the spectator had been introduced into a family circle of the highest rank, at a period when rank was a greater distinction than at present’.91 Rubens’s Bacchanalians and Van Dyck’s Duchess of Buckingham were recorded hanging in the same room in early catalogues of Blenheim Palace.92 However, while Van Dyck’s portrait conjures up the intimate sphere of the sitters, Rubens’s Bacchanalians and The Rape of Proserpine articulate an alternative scene for an alternative community.

Hazlitt’s reference to a ‘Spenser Gallery’ shifts the focus of the essay towards a new way of seeing. Going against the aristocratic world of Blenheim, Rubens’s imaginary contribution to a Spenser Gallery participates in the dynamic of the ephemeral museum. Thinking about Rubens through the poetry of Spenser produces a new order of comparison. Hazlitt’s references to Poussin and Titian abstract Rubens from its physical location. While he dwells at length on the Loves of the Gods in the Titian Room at Blenheim, it is not to these Titians that he compares Rubens as a Spenserian painter.93 If access to the Titian Room was still limited, Hazlitt’s metropolitan reader could supplement Hazlitt’s references with the visual memory of exhibition culture. His comparison takes Rubens’s Bacchanalian subjects away from Blenheim, opting for the title ‘Silenus’, as Bacchanalians was known in its print reproduction, he offered a surrogate to those who had no access to the original; he then reintegrated the painting in the ephemeral series of pictures on view at the British Institution. Thus Rubens’s Bacchanalians from the Flemish and Dutch exhibition of 1815 comes together with the Poussin and Titian on loan from Thomas Hamlet’s collection in 1816.94 In the British Institution catalogue paintings were entered with an indication of their provenance and current owners. The juxtaposition encouraged viewers to piece together a heterotopic gallery, which overlaid the space of the exhibition room with the imagination of the paintings’ current collections and of the Renaissance palaces where they had originally hung. Architectural space comes across as a condition of possibility for painting in Hazlitt’s discussion of the Rubens works in the Grosvenor collection: ‘The spectator is … thrown back by the pictures, and surveys them, as if placed at a stupendous height, as well as distance from him … They were painted to be placed in some Jesuit church abroad’.95 Hazlitt’s analysis here captures painting’s power to project an architectural space outside the frame, and the resulting clash between the painting’s ideal and actual viewing positions. However, as Rubens’s Bacchanalian subjects flesh out Spenser’s inventions in an intermedial art of memory, their architectural setting is erased in the gallery of the mind.

Freed from their original abodes, works selected from the temporary exhibitions come to occupy a shared and synchronic comparative space. Poussin’s superiority in the ‘abstract, metaphysical character of his traditional personages’ is pointed out in Hazlitt’s essay ‘On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin’, where he considers Poussin’s ‘allegorical abstractions’ ‘with minds more inwardly depraved’.96 In discussing the Blenheim pictures, however, he goes back to the Bacchanalian movement that he had celebrated in Rubens’s brushwork in his 1816 essays: ‘in that sort of licentious fancy, in which a certain grossness of expression bordered on caricature, and where grotesque or enticing form was to be combined with free and rapid movements, or different tones and colours were to be flung over the picture as in sport or in a dance, no one ever surpassed the Flemish painter’.97 The pleasure of painting involves the rhythm of physical exercise; it combines body and mind, and blurs distinctions between painting and painter, the world within and outside the frame. Rubens’s painting embodies a physical practice that breaks through the boundaries of form.

Compare the domain of writing in Hazlitt’s lecture ‘On Chaucer and Spenser’: ‘the imagination of a poet brings such objects before us, as when we look at wild beasts in a menagerie; their claws are pared, their eyes glitter like harmless lightning; but we gaze at them with a pleasing awe, clothed in beauty, formidable in the sense of abstract power’.98 Just as Hazlitt is about to convey a sense of Chaucer’s peculiar kind of ‘gusto’, the power of literature takes the form of a spectacular enclosure.99 How can Spenser’s allegorical inventions break through the boundaries of form? Bringing together Hazlitt’s lecture ‘On Chaucer and Spenser’ with ‘Pictures at Oxford and Blenheim’ helps illuminate the dynamic of poetry and painting in Hazlitt’s criticism.

Allegorical inventions and counterfactuals

‘Abstract power’ is central to Hazlitt’s literary appreciation in his lecture ‘On Chaucer and Spenser’. While Chaucer’s descriptions ‘have a sort of tangible character belonging to them, and produce the effect of sculpture on the mind’, Spenser ‘is the painter of abstractions’.100 While Hazlitt celebrates his ‘fantastic delineations’ and ‘inexhaustible imagination’, he acknowledges those who ‘cannot understand it on account of the allegory. They are afraid of the allegory, as if they thought it would bite them: they look at it as a child looks at a painted dragon, and think it will strangle them in its shining folds. This is very idle: if they do not meddle with the allegory, the allegory will not meddle with them’.101 From wild beasts imprisoned in a cage to a painted dragon, the abstract power of poetry is again presented through an image of disempowerment. This is far from the Bacchanalian force of Rubens’s satyrs, but the distinction cannot be simply mapped on the difference between painting and poetry. The next step Hazlitt takes is to expose the implausible position of anybody who lets allegory stand in the way of reading through a pictorial comparison: ‘it might as well be pretended that we cannot see Poussin’s pictures for the allegory, as that the allegory prevents us from understanding Spenser’.102 A gallery of examples follows to prove that Spenser’s poetry can be understood without paying attention to the allegory. Hazlitt’s defence of Spenser, ‘unjustly charged with a want of passion and of strength’, involves incorporating his poetry in a pictorial poetics of gusto, in which painting can supply the sensory stimulation.103 If Spenser’s ‘ideas … seem more distinct than his perceptions’, the erotic power of Rubens, Poussin, and Titian can bring these ideas before the eyes of the reader.104

Hazlitt’s ‘Spenser Gallery’ is shaped in the potential world of conditionals and counterfactuals, a form of imaginary history that literally ‘goes against facts’ to imagine alternative worlds.105 In 1818 reading Spenser and seeing Rubens led to the conclusion that ‘Nobody but Rubens could have painted the fancy of Spenser’. The logic of counterfactuals requires a negative outcome to act as a prompt for a series of alternative scenarios.106 Rubens did not paint pictures from Spenser, but regret for the unrealised possibility is counterbalanced by the potentiality of what might have happened. Hazlitt’s negative claim includes an implicit hypothetical clause: ‘if Rubens had painted Spenser’. Rubens did spend time in England painting grand commissions for Charles I. The patronage and the dispersal of Charles I’s collection were central to eighteenth-century discussions about why Britain lacked a tradition of epic and historical painting and how it might invent a new tradition. What if Rubens had painted Spenser? What visual culture would English literature have produced? Against the history of what failed to happen the alternative histories of what might have happened open up a world of future possibility.

When Hazlitt returned to Rubens and Spenser in 1823 the hypothetical association between the painter and the poet took on a more potential formulation: Rubens ‘could have embodied some of our countryman Spenser’s splendid and voluptuous allegories’. The negative claim of 1818 has gone. Hazlitt’s exercise in counterfactual thinking involved establishing the false antecedent, then reshaping the past that never was with an act of ideal attribution. Hazlitt’s intervention read Spenser’s Faerie Queene for the pictures and brought Rubens’s allegories before the eyes of the readers. This is the critical gesture that Leigh Hunt fleshed out, turning Spenser into a virtual gallery of Old Master paintings for the New Monthly Magazine a decade later.107 Having established Rubens’s Bacchanalians as a potential illustration to the Faerie Queene, this act of reverse ekphrasis generated an invented tradition. The next step was to turn Rubens into a school of painting, a model for a new generation of modern painters: ‘if a painter amongst ourselves were to attempt a SPENSER GALLERY … he ought to go and study the principles of his design at Blenheim!’108 As the philosopher Nelson Goodman has argued, ‘any counterfactual can be transposed into a conditional with a true antecedent and consequent’.109 Turning his critical appreciation to pragmatic ends, Hazlitt addressed the painters among his readers, an inclusive first person plural to whom the unrealised possibility of a Spenser Gallery of Old Masters was presented as a model for future practice.

However, Hazlitt’s address to painters involved an act of strategic amnesia. His hypothetical clause ignored and effectively erased from the record an ever growing catalogue of Spenserian pictures by modern painters exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution year after year. Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Lady Leicester as ‘Hope’, which celebrated the wife of Sir John Fleming Leicester, was reviewed in the Examiner with a quotation and discussion of the Spenserian source in spring 1818 when his Gallery of British Painters opened. It was reviewed again in the papers when the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition the following year, and featured prominently in the catalogue edited by William Carey in spring 1819.110 That year the Royal Academy chose Una in the Cave of Despair, from the first book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene as a subject for the prize in Historical Painting won by Joseph Severn, a painter Hazlitt knew well. Against the record of modern painters and patrons, Hazlitt’s imaginary ekphrasis invented an alternative tradition.

The modern exhibition scene shaped a new practice of reading and viewing. As a physical space the gallery established the visual paradigms that shaped and institutionalised the orders of painting. The medium of the exhibition showed the role played by poetry as a source of subjects for painters, promoting fancy portraits to the status of poetical or historical painting. The Royal Academy and the British Institution displayed Spenser’s allegories domesticated and neutralised in the form of excerpts anchored to static and pious historical portraits that declared the allegorical virtues of Spenserian aristocrats. However, in presenting paintings on view the gallery also opened up an imaginary space. Writing about paintings in the age of technical reproducibility, art theorist André Malraux invited readers to think about an ‘imaginary museum’ in which what is on display calls upon what is absent.111 In other words, the museum acts as a potential form. This dynamic can take the form of a desire for completion, but it can also produce alternative forms. As art historian Rosalind Krauss has argued, the museum opens up a ‘conceptual space of the human faculties: imagination, cognition, judgment’.112 As a place that activated the play of the human faculties, the Romantic ‘gallery in the mind’ challenged the limitations of art; it became a prompt for thinking about alternative imaginary pasts and alternative ways in which the ‘imaginary museum’ could reinvent the ‘museum without walls’. Going against the record of Spenserian paintings, Hazlitt’s critical invention turned Spenser’s Faerie Queene into a counter-gallery. In this ‘gallery in the mind’ Rubens, Poussin and Titian offered alternative forms that could break through the social and aesthetic limitations of modern painting. Reading poetry through pictorial allegories, Hazlitt revealed Spenser to be ‘the poet of our waking dreams’.113