Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

William Hazlitt’s Account of ‘Mr Angerstein’s Collection of Pictures’

Hazlitt’s account of the Angerstein Collection was published anonymously in 1822, two years before Lord Liverpool purchased thirty-eight pictures from it to form the nucleus of the National Gallery. This paper considers Hazlitt’s essay within the wider context of writing about art collections in the early nineteenth century, which was then a new and developing field, and compares it with other publications on Angerstein’s pictures to highlight the distinctive qualities of Hazlitt’s art criticism. 

A prolific essayist and journalist, who wrote on philosophy, politics and literature, William Hazlitt has also been dubbed the first major art critic in English. Commentators have tended to focus on Hazlitt’s writings that most obviously deal with aesthetics, notably his essays on the Elgin marbles, the concept of ‘gusto’, and his critique of the art theory of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Comparatively little attention has been given to his more restricted accounts of important public and private British art collections.1 The aim of this paper is to focus on Hazlitt’s published account of the Angerstein Collection, written in December 1822 when it was still a private collection (but open to members of the public who had been granted an entry ticket) and before it became the nucleus of the National Gallery, after thirty-eight pictures from it were purchased by Lord Liverpool’s government in April 1824.2 Hazlitt’s account needs to be set within the wider context of writing about art collections in the early nineteenth century, which was then only in its infancy. Here it is compared with other writings, especially those about the Angerstein Collection, to highlight the distinctive qualities of Hazlitt’s piece and to show what new light may be thrown upon Hazlitt’s own work by examining this particular genre of his writing.

Hazlitt’s account of John Julius Angerstein’s pictures displayed at No.100 Pall Mall, London first appeared in the London Magazine of December 1822.3 It was not his first essay on an art collection for he had contributed one on Burghley House in Lincolnshire to the New Monthly Magazine (as a ‘Table Talk’) in April 1822, and another on Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire to the London Magazine that autumn.4 Earlier still as art critic for the Morning Chronicle he had penned a two-part reflection on an exhibition at the British Institution in May 1814, followed a month later by a commentary on Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode series for John and Leigh Hunts’ radical paper the Examiner. In his 1962 biography of Hazlitt, Herschel Baker suggested some reasons why in 1822 Hazlitt started to write once more about pictures, noting, ‘in this time of crisis [after his unsatisfactory affair with Sarah Walker] he turned again to art, not only as a way of making money but as a solace for his grief’.5 Here we may recall Hazlitt’s declaration that there were only three pleasures in life that were ‘pure and lasting’: ‘books, pictures, and the face of nature. What is the world but a heap of ruined friendships, but the grave of love?’6 Certainly for him art was capable of imparting joy and comfort, and at its best could offer the viewer an encounter equivalent to a religious epiphany, exemplified by his well-known recollection about setting eyes for the first time on Italian paintings from the celebrated Orléans Collection: ‘I was staggered when I saw the works there collected, and looked at them with wondering and with longing eyes. 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 … We had all heard of the names of Titian, Raphael, Guido, Domenichino, the Caracci – but to see them face to face, to be in the same room with their deathless productions, was like breaking some mighty spell – was almost the effect of necromancy!’7 Hazlitt equated this pivotal encounter with the other key moments in his life when he felt most truly alive and most connected either with the past or with some idea of heavenly bliss. These moments included his discussions with the dissenting polymath John Priestley, hearing the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge preach, visiting the Montpelier Tea Gardens at Walworth, and falling in love with Sarah Walker.

Hazlitt’s piece about Fonthill Abbey for the London Magazine led to a commission to write a new series titled ‘Sketches of Some of the Principal Picture-Galleries in England’ for the same magazine between 1822 and 1823. It commenced with an article on the Angerstein Collection; why this was chosen to launch the series is unclear, although it being a London-based collection clearly fitted with the journal’s acknowledged bias towards the metropolis or it may have been selected because Hazlitt held it to be ‘the finest gallery, perhaps, in the world’.8 The series continued with discussions – or to use Baker’s term, ‘highly charged essays’9 – about the collections at Dulwich Gallery, the Marquis of Stafford’s London house, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and at Oxford and Blenheim.10 That the series appeared in a general periodical reflects the fact that at the time there was no journal specifically dedicated to the arts.11 Consequently it was the norm that art and exhibition reviews found a home in newspapers and general or literary periodicals. Hazlitt also contributed regularly on a range of cultural matters to the Examiner and the Champion. In relation to the London Magazine, as literary historian Josephine Bauer has noted, usually some ten to twelve pages per issue were devoted to the fine arts and from the magazine’s second year ‘an engraving of a fine piece of sculpture or some famous painting prefaced many of the issues’.12 Among the other contributors whom the London Magazine’s editor John Scott solicited to write on artistic topics for this paper was the painter Charles Eastlake (later to become first director of the National Gallery), who, during the early 1820s, as an aspiring young painter living in Rome, submitted half a dozen erudite articles.13 Similarly between 1816 and 1820 the Annals of the Fine Arts, edited by James Elmes, employed the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon as a contributor, who often penned (unfavourable) reviews of Royal Academy exhibitions.14

Soon afterwards Hazlitt’s individual essays appeared in book form, together with his essay on Burghley House and his ‘Round Table’ paper on Hogarth, as Sketches of the Principal Picture-Galleries in England, with a Criticism on ‘Marriage a-la-mode’, published in 1824 by Taylor & Hessey.15 Over the years Hazlitt’s son and grandson went on to publish new edited volumes of his writings on art, in which information was updated.16 The original 1824 volume is significant for being one of the very first compilations concerning important British art collections, with Hazlitt’s piece about the Angerstein Collection for the London Magazine of December 1822 being the very first detailed published account of this collection. There had been earlier, briefer comments in private memoirs and correspondence (some of them were later published) as well as in biographical notices about Angerstein and in general guidebooks to England or London. The spectrum of such accounts share certain elements (they are also similar to contemporary writings about other important collectors and their collections): astonishment that the Angerstein Collection contained such important masterpieces, amazement at the expense involved in purchasing the pictures and gratitude that Angerstein had honoured his country by amassing a collection that in its quality, if not quantity (the small size is often noted), could rival any European collection.17 The language reflects these sentiments: it tends to be effusive and is littered with superlatives and references to the magical or miraculous. Given that England was still at war with France at the start of the nineteenth century, nationalism was to be expected. For instance the author of Public Characters of 1803 noted that Angerstein merited ‘the highest praise in securing [the pictures] to the country’,18 while the Picture of London, a guidebook that went through many editions, summarised the collection as ‘small and precious’ and ‘the triumph of a heavy purse’.19 When the writer and essayist Charles Lamb wrote to Hazlitt about his visit in March 1806 he exclaimed:

Mon Dieu! Such Claudes! Four Claudes bought for more than £10,000 … one of these was perfectly miraculous. What colours short of bonâ fide sunbeams it could be painted in, I am not earthly colourman enough to say; but I did not think it had been in the possibility of things. Then, a music piece by Titian – a thousand pound picture … Let me say, Angerstein sits in a room – his study (only that and the library are shown), when he writes a common letter, as I am doing, surrounded with twenty pictures worth £60,000. What a luxury!20

Attention was drawn to the presence in the Angerstein Collection of the most appreciated Old Masters of the day – Titian, Claude, Poussin, Rembrandt and Rubens – with the lengthiest descriptions saved generally for Sebastiano del Piombo’s painting The Raising of Lazarus c.1517–19 (National Gallery, London), partly because of its provenance from the famous Orléans Collection, and partly because of its origins in a competition with Raphael’s Transfiguration 1516–20 (Vatican Museums) and its association with Michelangelo, who provided drawings of figures for Sebastiano. William Hogarth was the only British painter who was consistently noted in praiseworthy terms, as represented by his series Marriage à la Mode c.1743 (National Gallery, London). David Wilkie’s The Village Holiday 1809–11 (Tate N00122), when mentioned, tended to be criticised for its lowbrow subject-matter and for being out of keeping with the rest of the collection. This bias may simply have reflected the fact that Angerstein increasingly displayed his contemporary British art in his suburban villa, ‘Woodlands’ at Blackheath, leaving his London town house to become a semi-public gallery space, dedicated to acknowledged continental Old Masters.

Angerstein, despite admitting visitors to see his collection, does not appear to have commissioned either a hand-list or a more detailed guidebook to it. In this regard he was not untypical, for as art historian Giles Waterfield has demonstrated, British catalogues of private collections lagged well behind their counterparts in continental Europe.21 The Earl of Pembroke and Horace Walpole are rare and early examples of British collectors who published accounts of their art collections, in the 1720s and 1730s in Pembroke’s case, and in 1747, 1774 and 1784 in Walpole’s.22 Even at the start of the nineteenth century when the practice of opening collections to public inspection was becoming more common, the writing of guidebooks was still infrequent. The Marquess of Stafford had various catalogues published, starting with that of 1808 by John Britton and advancing to a more scholarly account a decade later, produced by William Young Ottley, the artist and well known collector of drawings, who became Keeper of Prints at the British Museum. Sir John Leicester had William Carey produce a catalogue of his collection of British pictures in 1819 and Earl Grosvenor agreed to the publication of John Young’s text about his collection at Grosvenor House in 1821. But these were exceptional instances.

In the case of the Angerstein Collection the first substantial publication to appear was A Catalogue of the Celebrated Collection of Pictures of the Late John Julius Angerstein, Esq: Containing a Finished Etching of Every Picture, and Accompanied with Historical and Biographical Notices, written by John Young, Keeper of the British Institution, and published in July 1823. Young had first-hand knowledge of many of the leading picture collections, producing catalogues for several of them including, as noted above, Earl Grosvenor’s. Given that its text is in both French and English and that it is lavishly illustrated with a large-scale engraving of each picture, it looks like the type of publication that Waterfield has defined as the ‘presentation volume, especially associated with royal or noble collections’.23 Yet it was produced with the particular intention of finding a buyer for the pictures, as Angerstein had died in January 1823 leaving no provision for them in his will. Young announced in his preface that the collection comprised ‘only the finest works of the greatest masters’ and that it had been ‘formed upon the most scrupulous principles of selection and taste’.24 There were no ‘critical remarks’ and it included only ‘slight historical and biographical notices’, something justified by Young because he felt he could ‘add nothing to the reputation of works which are above criticism; and that an enlightened public needs not my aid to discover the sublimity of Raphael, the brilliancy of Titian, or the tenderness of Claude’.25 The eulogistic tone is not surprising given that the publication was acting along similar lines to a traditionally vainglorious auction catalogue; doubtless criticism was avoided so as not to put off any would-be buyers.

Two books about the Angerstein Collection and other British art collections were published in 1824, the same year that Hazlitt’s series was published in book format: Charles Molloy Westmacott’s British Galleries of Painting and Sculpture and Peter George Patmore’s British Galleries of Art, the latter based on a series of articles which had first appeared in 1823 in the New Monthly Magazine, at the very same time that Hazlitt’s series was appearing in the London Magazine.26 Unlike Hazlitt, who wrote on art in a sustained way, neither Westmacott nor Patmore published much else on art in addition to their 1824 books. Westmacott, of the well-known family of sculptors, wrote a Descriptive and Critical Catalogue of the Royal Academy around 1823–4, but spent most of his literary life disparaging the beau monde and publishing scurrilous information about the aristocracy. Patmore, a friend of Hazlitt’s, was, like Westmacott, essentially a gossip columnist, who divulged details of the lives of his writer and journalist friends, although he did write a catalogue for the British Museum’s collection in 1830, the titlepage of which noted him to be the author of pieces about Dulwich Art Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum.27 Waterfield regards Patmore as a skilled parodist noting: ‘his choice of pictures for discussion follows Hazlitt’s closely; a note in the Preface to British Galleries of Art acknowledges that The Picture Galleries of England (i.e. Hazlitt’s) was written before the British Galleries and that “any merit that may attach to the mere plan of the British Galleries of Art belongs entirely” to his illustrious model’.28 Westmacott claimed as a novelty of his approach the comprehensiveness of his British Galleries – that it comprised ‘separate Notices of every Work of Art’. This was different, he said, from ‘certain criticisms on a few of the Paintings in different galleries, originally published in the Monthly Magazines’ that had ‘made their appearance in a collected form’.29 This last remark was clearly a reference to the works of Patmore and Hazlitt, who never discussed all the pictures in any collection under review. Arguably the most distinctive feature of Westmacott’s guidebook was the fact that it provided practical information about certain collections – about their opening times, how and where to acquire entry tickets and so on – matters not covered by the other authors.30

Westmacott’s and Patmore’s writings on art collections are alike in their avoidance of any discussion of connoisseurial issues or inclusion of personal value judgements: both were content merely to describe the picture’s subjects, supplementing that with the odd fact. Westmacott noted in the introduction to British Galleries: ‘the author has been more solicitous of stating the historical fact and drawing the reader’s attention to the object in view, than of enforcing his own opinion upon its merits’.31 He justified this approach when he noted that Angerstein had been a man of ‘correct judgement and exquisite taste’ and in his assertion that there were no ‘inferior productions’ within the Angerstein Collection.32 Patmore’s approach was not that of a professional critic but rather, in his case, that of an enthusiastic observer. As he wrote in his account of the Angerstein Collection:

Much as the subject is susceptible of a critical and technical treatment, and useful as such a kind of treatment of it might unquestionably be made, I have no thought of supplying that desideratum; and have even no ambition to be, or to be thought, capable of supplying it. The little regular study I have given to art has been prompted by the spontaneous love I have always borne to it; and thus my knowledge, such as it is, has sprung much from love, not my love from much knowledge.33

Occasionally Patmore makes deferential allusions to the superior artistic knowledge of others. For instance when discussing Susannah and the Elders 1616 by Ludovico Carracci, he noted: ‘as to its characteristic expression, I cannot help differing in opinion with one whom I willingly allow to be almost always right on these subjects’.34 This is clearly a reference to Hazlitt.35 Here one needs to recall that neither Westmacott nor Patmore were painters as Hazlitt had been, nor had they studied paintings in the way that Hazlitt had made it his business to do. With their more limited knowledge and experience, they were less intellectually confident, at least in the artistic sphere, than Hazlitt. Patmore even went so far as to distance himself explicitly from those who might attribute to themselves an expertise, like Royal Academicians, when he said: ‘Admiration, then, will be my cue, as it is my delight … In fact, to criticise the works of Raphael, of Rembrandt, of Titian, of Correggio, of Claude, &c. may be safely left to Royal Academicians and makers of “Catalogues Raisonnées” [sic]: in any one else it is, at this time of day, a mere impertinence’.36

Patmore’s mention of catalogue raisonnés brings the discussion back to Hazlitt’s piece on the Angerstein Collection, where in its section on Hogarth’s Marriage-à-la-Mode series, Hazlitt stated: ‘Hogarth’s series of the Marriage-à-la-Mode, (the most delicately painted of all his pictures, and admirably they certainly are painted,) concludes the Catalogue Raisonnée of this Collection’.37 It may seem strange that Hazlitt chose this designation as he was not concerned to list and analyse the complete oeuvre of any one artist, which is what the term has come to denote. But in Hazlitt’s day it carried a different meaning. As art historian Konstantinos Stefanis has shown, the term derived from the French ‘catalogue raisonné’, a type of auction sale catalogue made popular by the dealer Edme-François Gersaint from the early eighteenth century, who for the first time provided an extensive discussion of each picture, rather than merely providing the bare facts.38 Having found a platform in auction catalogues, this new form of extended art historical discourse went on to influence the text of two other types of catalogue: permanent collection catalogues and temporary exhibition catalogues, the latter emerging properly as a genre from the first decade of the nineteenth century. Stefanis has charted the growth of these descriptive-type catalogues in Britain, citing Horace Walpole’s remark of 1784 that ‘Catalogues raisonnés of collections are very frequent in France and Holland’ which would indicate that they were comparatively rare in England in the later eighteenth century.39 He also compared it to a dictionary definition of the word ‘catalogue’ written in 1826 by James Elmes, which noted: ‘Some distinguished collectors have published descriptive catalogues of their collections, and which are usually called, Catalogues raisonnés’.40 From analysing the titles chosen to describe British private collections myself, it seems that the terms ‘Catalogue’, ‘Description’, ‘Descriptive Catalogue’ and ‘Catalogue Raisonné’ were used fairly indiscriminately to mean much the same thing. Certainly of all these terms the French one was used most rarely.41 What binds all of these ‘descriptive catalogues’ together, however, is the amount of information they contain.

What is apparent on closer analysis, however, is that the type of information tends to be of a different order depending on whether the catalogue relates to a permanent collection or a temporary exhibition. Whereas permanent collection catalogues usually included a description of the pictures, measurements and provenance information, all conveyed in a straightforward, objective narrative style, in temporary exhibition catalogues, at least in the earliest ones, a distinctive authorial voice is far more apparent. Stefanis has demonstrated this by way of two case studies – William Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue of 1809 and the British Institution’s catalogue for its pioneering retrospective exhibition of the work of Reynolds in 1813 – which are two of the earliest examples of this genre.42 Blake used his Descriptive Catalogue to provide a critical and analytical discussion of his own works of art, as well as to comment more generally on his beliefs about and tastes in art, such as his admiration for the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio Romano and Dürer over Venetian and Flemish practitioners. He also wrote about his preference for outline over colour effects; for fresco (or tempera) over oil painting; and the importance of artistic imagination over the ‘sordid drudgery of facsimile representations’.43 It may be, then, that Hazlitt used the term ‘catalogue raisonné’ in deliberate reference to the various descriptive catalogues that were rapidly being spawned at the time, especially those, like Blake’s, which became a platform to voice personal opinions at some length, even if, in the case of the Angerstein Collection, he was writing about a permanent collection not a temporary exhibition.

In Hazlitt’s case his ‘descriptive catalogues’ of important British art collections and his other pieces of writing about art were used to defend, more or less explicitly, the value of the Old Masters. He did this most forcefully in his 1814 essay noted above, ‘On the Catalogue Raisonné of the British Institution’, which is not so much a review of the contents of the exhibition as a diatribe against what he defined as the British Institution’s aim ‘to keep the old Masters under, or hold their names up to derision as good sport, merely to gratify the selfish importunity of a gang of sturdy beggars, who demand public encouragement and support’.44 This review and its bold defence of the Old Masters may usefully be viewed as a prelude to Hazlitt’s later series for the London Magazine in 1822 and 1823, in which attention was drawn and praise given to many Old Master paintings. Indeed in the very first paragraph of his account of the Angerstein Collection, which launched the series, Hazlitt makes his stance plain when he noted with approbation and pleasure that the collection is a selective one of acknowledged masterpieces, rather than a survey collection: ‘This is not a bazaar, a raree-show of art, a Noah’s ark of all the Schools, marching out in endless procession; but a sanctuary, a holy of holies, collected by taste, sacred to fame, enriched by the rarest products of genius’.45

More than contemporary journalists like Westmacott and Patmore, Hazlitt had experience and knowledge on which he could draw for his articles on artistic matters.46 Hazlitt’s first interest in art had started during his late teens, when his brother John was studying under Reynolds. Thinking then that he too would like to become a painter by profession, he earnestly studied the Old Masters. He made a number of copies after works in the Louvre in 1802 for a sponsor who had financed this study trip, keeping back a few for himself, which he treasured all his life. Additionally he visited and studied a number of English private collections. Apart from his copies after the Old Masters, Hazlitt’s artistic output seems to have been limited to portraits, including one of himself, his father, and of various poets and essayists with whom he was then friendly, notably Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth.47 Despite the pleasure Hazlitt took in painting likenesses, as recorded in an essay on that topic, he became convinced that he would never become a great painter. Setting aside his paintbrush, he started putting pen to paper instead. Did Hazlitt use his superior artistic knowledge to comment either on the technical aspects of the work under review or on such matters as the attribution or provenance of a painting as an expert was apt to do?

The text on the Angerstein Collection makes clear that in practice Hazlitt hardly engaged in artistic or scholarly argument. He did not say very much about the technical qualities of any picture. The only instances are the occasions when he draws attention to the skill of the limbs in the picture by Sebastiano, the luminescent colouring in Rembrandt’s The Woman taken in Adultery 1644 (National Gallery, London) and the minute brushwork in Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II 1511 (National Gallery, London),48 while at the start of the piece he does speak at some length about the crucial and distinctive role of colour in painting.49 In his essay ‘On Judging of Pictures’ this desire to focus on areas other than technical ones is made evident when he says that some critics (here he is focusing on artists):

are apt to overlook the higher and more mental parts of a picture, in their haste to criticise its mechanical properties. They forget the expression, in being too mindful of what is more strictly manual. They talk of such a colour being skilfully or unskilfully put in opposition to another, rather than of the moral contrast of the countenance of a group … To use a French term of much condensation, they think of the physique before they bestow any attention on the morale.50

Hazlitt says even less on the state of preservation of the pictures under discussion, the only instance of the latter occurring in relation to Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula 1641 (National Gallery, London).51

Nor did he interest himself in the connoisseurial matter of attribution. The only case where he does so is when comparing Titian’s work: ‘We like this picture of a Concert the best of the three by Titian in the same room. The other two are a Ganymede, and a Venus and Adonis; the last does not appear to us from the hand of Titian’.52 Hazlitt’s tendency was not to question established attributions and in this manner he paralleled Westmacott and Patmore. This stance is evident in his accounts of other art collections. For instance at Hampton Court he noted of a portrait of the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli said to be by Correggio that ‘We cannot pretend to give an opinion on this point’.53 Likewise in the Stafford Gallery he noted a painting of the Four Ages that had been attributed to Titian but which the British painters Barry and Collins thought to be a Giorgione. While noting ‘they were considered two of the best judges going’, he added, ‘We cannot pretend to decide on such nice matters ex cathedrâ’.54 What Hazlitt was happy to do, however, was to make qualitative judgements about pictures. Thus for instance he noted that Angerstein’s Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest:

is not, we think, the truest specimen of Vandyke [sic]. It has not his mild, pensive, somewhat effeminate cast of colour and expression. His best portraits have an air of faded gentility about them. The Gervatius has too many streaks of blood-colour, too many marks of the pencil, to convey an exact idea of Vandyke’s characteristic excellence; though it is a fine imitation of Rubens’s florid manner. Vandyke’s most striking portraits are those which look just like a gentleman or lady seen in a looking-glass, and neither more nor less.55

Again in relation to Angerstein’s pictures by the seventeenth-century French landscape painter Claude Lorraine, he noted:

We do not think these Claudes, famous as they are, equal to Lord Egremont’s Jacob and Laban; to the Enchanted Castle; to a green vernal Landscape, which was in Walsh Porter’s Collection, and which was the very finest we ever saw; nor to some others that have appeared from time to time in the British Institution. We are sorry to make this, which may be thought an ill-natured, remark; but, though we have a great respect for Mr. Angerstein’s taste, we have a greater for Claude Lorraine’s reputation.56

A lack of concern about supplying correct factual details is another characteristic of Hazlitt’s writings on art and reveals him not to have been a scholar by nature. This characteristic was picked up by his son, who sought to correct the most blatant errors when editing his father’s work for the later volume of 1843, noted above.57 He added, for instance, the following telling footnote about his father’s earlier remarks about Carracci’s Susannah and the Elders: ‘The critic’s memory, for he never took notes, here fails him; the arms are not crossed.’58 Or again, in relation to Hazlitt’s comments on a ‘studious and self-involved’ head by Raphael, his son noted: ‘There is no Head, by Raphael, at Windsor’.59 Similarly, Hazlitt’s mention of a picture of a girl reading by Correggio was disputed by his son, who declared: ‘There is no such subject, by Correggio, at Windsor. Hampton Court possesses a copy of his St. Catherine Reading’.60 There are countless other similar amendments made by Hazlitt Junior to correct his father’s loose memory for minutiae.

As discussed above and as summarised by literary historian Maureen McCue, Hazlitt’s approach may best be defined: ‘by its independence from and superiority to the merely mechanical knowledge of the practicing artist, the technical knowledge of the scholar and the fashionable tastes of the general public’.61 What, then, did his art criticism consist of? An answer appears in the 1824 book version of his accounts of art collections, where he promised ‘to give an account of the principal Picture-Galleries in this country, and to describe the feelings which they naturally excite in the mind of a lover of art’.62 The second part of this statement reveals Hazlitt’s true motivations. Hazlitt appears to desire that the genius of the artist will elicit a meeting of minds in his critic and that this will, in turn, be conveyed to a sympathetic reader. Or put another way, just as he wished to have his imagination in front of pictures stimulated, his senses aroused, and his sentiments engaged, so he wished, albeit in a second-hand way, to induce similar experiences in his readers through his text. Certainly Hazlitt’s early attempt to write about the Angerstein Collection of pictures is characteristic of his other later writings on art – both in terms of its clear view of what a great picture should be and what effect it should have on the viewer (whether that was the critic or the general public) and in terms of its direct and uncompromising prose.

If anything, his style of writing in his accounts of art collections is even pithier than that experienced in his more extended essays. What he outlined as his aims when lecturing, which appear in the introduction to his ‘Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth’, sum up his approach to writing about art collections (and art in general): ‘what I have undertaken to do … is … as I would do with a friend, to point out a favourite passage, to explain an objection; or if a remark or a theory occurs, to state it in illustration of the subject, but neither to tire him nor puzzle myself with pedantic rules and pragmatic formulas of criticism that can do no good to anybody’.63 Hazlitt’s prose in his account of the Angerstein Collection is engaging and modulating. He allows the introduction of some rhapsodic passages, such as his opening paragraph, which is addressed to the persona of Art, and which begins: ‘Thee we invoke, and not in vain, for we find thee here retired in thy plenitude and thy power!’64 Furthermore, he included a paean to Angerstein for having created what he calls ‘a sanctuary, a holy of holies, collected by taste, sacred to fame, [and] enriched by the rarest products of genius’.65 In line with his contemporaries he praised the consistently high quality of the works on display, noting that ‘the attention is never distracted for a moment, but concentrated on a few pictures of first-rate excellence’.66 He also chose to furnish his text with quotations from poetry (no other citations are employed) as can be found in his descriptions of The Music Lesson possibly by Titian, Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula and Rembrandt’s The Woman taken in Adultery.67

Peter Paul Rubens The Rape of the Sabine Women c.1635–40

Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Sabine Women c.1635–40
National Gallery, London 
© The National Gallery, London 

Emotive prose and the inclusion of passages of poetry sit alongside countless expressions of opinion, given in refreshingly straight-forward language. Hazlitt’s likes and dislikes are starkly stated, in just the way he would give his opinions in lectures or newspapers. To give a few examples of the bold and personal nature of his assertions we can turn to his remarks about individual artists. He wrote, for instance, of The Agony in the Garden c.1640–1750, then thought to be by Correggio but which is now given to a follower: ‘We would not give a farthing for it’.68 Rubens’s The Rape of the Sabine Women c.1635–40 (fig.1), according to Hazlitt, is ‘the most tasteless picture in the Collection: to see plump, florid viragos struggling with bearded ruffians, and tricked out in the flounces, furbelows, and finery of the court of Louis XIV. is preposterous’.69 And of Reynolds’s Lord Heathfield of Gibraltar 1787 (National Gallery, London), Hazlitt opined: ‘our artist’s pictures, seen among standard works, have (to speak it plainly) something old-womanish about them. By their obsolete and affected air, they remind one of antiquated ladies of quality, and are a kind of Duchess-Dowagers in the art – somewhere between the living and the dead’.70 Such outspoken comments, delivered in such a forceful tone, are not found in the publications of Britton, Westmacott or Patmore, which, insofar as they strike a critical tone, do so rarely and tentatively. For instance, when Patmore described TheRape of the Sabine Women his note about the costumes was emollient: ‘if we would enjoy the operations of genius, we must submit to the freaks in which it will sometimes indulge itself. If Rubens had been compelled to deny himself the use of this anachronism, he would probably not have painted the picture at all; and should we have been better off then? Assuredly not.’71 Here Patmore displays a modesty not present in Hazlitt, who had been an artist and as a result was much surer of his opinions.

Raphael Portrait of Pope Julius II 1511

Portrait of Pope Julius II 1511
National Gallery, London 
© The National Gallery, London 

Hazlitt’s comments on the pictures of Angerstein’s collection often transcended the ‘merely’ artistic, as his writing about pictures became springboards for reflections on other things – a quality again characteristic of him alone. For instance his discussion of Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II (fig.2) moves from a passing remark on the painter’s meticulous method of painting to a longer reflection about Raphael’s productivity and from there on to an aphorism:

When we have a single portrait placed before us, that might seem to have taken half a year to complete it, we wonder how the same painter could find time to execute his cartoons, the compartments of the Vatican, and a thousand other matchless works. The same account serves for both. The more we do, the more we can do. Our leisure (though it may seem a paradox) is in proportion to our industry.72

And his discussion of the Poussinesque Baccanalian scene depicting The Triumph of Silenus c.1637 leads to him moralising about the pretence to good taste of many people: ‘Indifferent pictures, like dull people, must absolutely be moral! We suggest this as a hint to those persons, of more gallantry than discretion, who think that to have an indecent daub hanging up in one corner of the room is proof, of a liberality of gusto, and a considerable progress in virtù. Tout au contraire.’73

It was the combination of a perceived lack of basic information together with a profusion of personal interjections that the anonymous critic who reviewed Hazlitt’s 1824 book in the Gentleman’s Magazine of that year found inappropriate. The reviewer lamented: ‘On opening this volume we anticipated much information. But how great was our surprise on its perusal, to find that instead of containing some rich stores of information, it abounded with reflections, the generality of which have not the least reference to the subject.’74 Clearly the reviewer preferred Patmore’s work for he noted, in relation to Hazlitt’s article on the Dulwich Gallery, ‘Far better articles on this and several other Galleries have appeared in a monthly periodical’.75 What Hazlitt’s work lacked was, according to the reviewer, requisite facts such as ‘the history and description of the superior productions of the first masters, the different galleries which they had embellished, and the sums expended by their respective owners, for the acquirement of these treasures’.76 Consequently, although the reviewer found Hazlitt’s text ‘tolerably well written, and as such … adapted to pass away an idle hour in the closet’, as a practical guide, it would ‘never be of much utility’.77 Clearly Hazlitt had not written the kind of catalogue the reviewer had expected he would, but, as Giles Waterfield has noted, ‘there hardly existed a developed language for the discussion of works of art’.78 Such a language would develop, thanks largely to the growth of public collections and the need to produce catalogues rich in information for an eager public. The unofficial early catalogue A Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures in the National Gallery, with Critical Remarks on their Merits of 1826 by Young Ottley (noted above as the author of the 1818 catalogue to the Stafford Collection) would push the genre in that direction.79 From the mid-1830s official publications concerning the national collection began to be written in response to governmental inquiries in 1834–5 and 1853 that determined the National Gallery’s future leadership, acquisition and display policies and cataloguing, all of which were brought increasingly into line with what were perceived as more advanced practices in continental art galleries. During the decade from 1855 when Sir Charles Eastlake acted as the first director of the National Gallery, separate scholarly catalogues for the Foreign Schools and British School were produced and updated regularly. They offered new, reliable and comprehensive research and rejected overt rhetorical flourishes and personal interjections. Similarly, during the 1840s and 1850s compilations that comprised commentaries on more than one art collection became more factual and less personal. Among the best-known were those by the German art historians and museum directors J.D. Passavant and Gustav Waagen, as well as by Mrs Anna Jameson, an early art historian of the Italian Renaissance and Christian iconography.80

When in 1842 Mrs Jameson published her Handbook to the Public Galleries of Art in and near London she wrote an extended paragraph on Hazlitt as a critic. This passage is hidden in her catalogue entry for Ludovico Carracci’s Susannah and the Elders and as a consequence has been generally overlooked. Jameson wrote:

To those who love pictures there cannot be a more delightful companion than Hazlitt – nor a worse guide. As long as he dwells in general speculation he ‘discourses most eloquent music’, the delighted fancy surrenders itself to his influence, and tastes eagerly from new founts of thought; but as to fact and detail he is inconceivably inaccurate, and his individual impressions take their colour from the splendour of his imagination. He says himself he ‘never took a note on the spot’.81

Clearly she was in agreement with the criticism found in the Gentleman’s Magazine of two decades earlier, where, as has been noted, Hazlitt had been castigated for his lack of art historical information. With an increasingly rigorously professional art criticism emerging during the second half of the nineteenth century coupled with a growing culture of museums, galleries and exhibitions, Hazlitt’s form of art criticism (while continuing to have its advocates) was thought less and less appropriate for the writing of art historical volumes, such as that of the catalogue raisonné, at least in the way that the genre had, by this point, developed.82

This article has noted facets of Hazlitt’s style and content that run counter to the development of the catalogue raisonné proper. His chatty style, which the reviewer in the Gentleman’s Magazine described as ‘overloaded with the spirit of Essay writing’, created the effect of having a companion through the galleries.83 His apparently irrelevant musings on topics not germane to the picture under review might best be understood when viewed in relation to the periodical press for which Hazlitt first wrote his accounts.84 Given that Hazlitt’s sketches of the picture galleries were quickly repackaged in book format, it is easy to forget that their conversational and autobiographical tone derives from – and was utterly appropriate to – their original setting in a monthly journal. As literary historian Greg Dart has shown, the rise of literary monthlies such as Blackwood’s, the New Monthly and the London Magazine in the late 1810s and early 1820s ushered in a novel tone ‘somewhere between the formal, lofty idiom of the two elite reviews and the unashamedly sensationalist tone of mass magazines’.85 This novel literary register was meant to help forge a new ideal writer-reader relationship, based on a warmth and openness and shared mutual feelings, as delineated by Leigh Hunt in his seminal article ‘On Periodical Essays’ in the second number of the Examiner.86 What Hazlitt himself sets out as the task for intellectuals of his day in his piece of 1823, ‘The Periodical Press’ for the Edinburgh Review, is also very much to the point here: ‘We have collected a superabundance of raw materials: the grand desideratum now is, to fashion and render them portable. Knowledge is no longer confined to the few; the object therefore is, to make it accessible and attractive to the many.’87 The writings of periodical essayists like Hunt and Hazlitt brought, to use historian Jon Mee’s phrase, ‘matters of social and cultural importance out of the cloisters of learning to lay them before a broader readership in a familiar style’.88 They overturned the tradition of a perceived superiority of writer over reader, emphasised by the anonymity of the pieces and their often lofty style. In Hazlitt’s case, a relaxed familiarity of style, which modulated from joviality into bluntness and even on occasion pugnaciousness, became the hallmark of his idiom. Witness the titles and contents of his two great collections of essays, Table Talk (1821 and 1822) and The Plain Speaker (1826). It is this very same desire to produce a virtual conversation for a middle class readership, via a personal presence and a style that allowed room for digression and a variety of tone, which informed Hazlitt’s pieces on art collections, penned for the London Magazine in 1822 and 1823. That Hazlitt valued this type of prose (a conversational style) and format (the periodical essay) over any other is made clear in his lecture ‘On the Periodical Essayists’, where he praised Montaigne as ‘the first author who was not a bookmaker’, where ‘bookmaking’ implies a form of writing that is barren and insipid in comparison with the innate power of colloquial language.89

Of these periodical essays, literary historian Mark Parker has noted: ‘In 1823 and 1824 Hazlitt published some essays on art collections which became Sketches. These pieces are remarkably illuminating about the holdings they describe, but they lack the verve and epigrammatic flair of Hazlitt’s other essays’.90 By way of conclusion I would like to take up Parker’s comment, and suggest that, in the light of arguments presented in this article, his footnote deserves a little revision. For one thing, from an art historical point of view, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Hazlitt’s article on the seed collection of the National Gallery adds much to what we know of his views of art, nor does it add factually very much to what contemporary writers said about the pictures in it. Yet, on the other hand, and despite Parker’s dismissal of the piece’s literary qualities, Hazlitt’s account of the Angerstein Collection may usefully be viewed as a kind of synecdoche of his wider writing on art. A possible advantage of looking at Hazlitt’s writings on individual art collections like Angerstein’s is that the reader is bombarded with observations that betray the author’s commitments and assumptions; here, in other words, we have his art philosophy in brief and in concrete. On comparing Hazlitt’s piece with other contemporary accounts of the Angerstein Collection, the distinctive features of his art criticism become even more apparent. In spite of the fact that Hazlitt had been a practising painter his critical reflections only rarely reflect those one would associate with such a person. Again only occasionally are they those of the scholar interested in matters of art-historical or connoisseurial information, as would become the norm. Many are much more the comments of a Romantic, who is moved and seeks to explain how he is moved. The aim of his criticism was largely to communicate personal experience to his audience, and he constantly sought to give voice to his own opinions about the works of art he was considering. Hazlitt’s approach, especially when displaced from their original context of the periodical essay, was ultimately too subjective to be wholly inclusive and readily comprehensible to a general readership in a way that the more prosaic Patmore’s comments were. Consequently it was never to become the standard type of art historical writing and the production of catalogues raisonné ultimately developed in a different direction. Yet the legibility of Hazlitt’s personality, as well as the colloquial address of the periodical essay genre, anticipated some of the boldest art criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the critic Harold Bloom eloquently opined, ‘Hazlitt, like Johnson before him, and the great progression of Carlyle, Emerson, Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde after him, teaches us several unfashionable truths as to the nature of authentically literary criticism. It must be experiential; it must be at least somewhat empirical or pragmatic; it must be informed by love for its subject; above all it must follow no method except for the personality of the critic himself.’91