In St James’s Street, London, on the 10th June, 1787, was born George Henry Harlow [see picture]. His father, an East India merchant for a time resident at Canton, had been dead about four months. The widowed mother, only twenty-seven, and of remarkable personal attractions, was fortunately left with an ample dower. Mourning her husband, she devoted herself to her children - five very young girls and the new-born son. Perhaps it was not unnatural that to the youngest child, born under such circumstances - the only boy - the largest share of her maternal affection and solicitude should be given.
He was first placed at the classical school of Dr Barrow in Soho Square, then under the tuition of Dr Roy in Burlington Street; for some time he was at Westminster. In after-life, in boastful moments, he was pleased to speak grandly of his classical attainments; of these, however, he could never adduce any notable evidence. It is probable that he was at no time a very eager student; he had tastes and ambitions not compatible with school-learning, and an over-indulgent mother was hardly likely to rebuke his want of application, or to desire that her darling’s attention should be fixed upon his books in too earnest a manner. Certainly before he was sixteen he had left school, and even then he had devoted much of his time to other than scholastic pursuits.
He was a smart, clever boy, with a lively taste for art, a constant visitor at the picture-galleries, already able to ply his pencil to some purpose; yet bent, perhaps, upon acquiring the manner and the trick of others rather than of arriving at a method of his own by a hard study of nature. He almost preferred a painted to a real human being - a picture landscape to a view from a hill-top. He was satisfied that things should come to him filtered through the canvases of his predecessors - content to see with their eyes. He was apt to think painting was little higher than legerdemain, was a conjuror’s feat to be detected by constantly watching the performer, was a secret that he might be told by others or might discover for himself by examining their works, not a science open under certain conditions to all who will take the trouble to learn. These were not very noble nor very healthy opinions to entertain upon the subject; but at least at the foundation of them was a certain fondness for art, at least there was promise in the performances of the young man. Of this Mrs Harlow was speedily satisfied, and the friends she consulted confirmed her opinion. It was determined that he should enter the studio of a painter. Not much care was exercised in the selection of a preceptor. A Dutch artist, named Henry De Cort, had settled in London; he produced landscapes of a formal, artificial pattern - compositions in which Italian palaces and waterfalls and ruins appeared prominently, formal in colour, neat in finish, the animals and figures being added to the pictures by other Dutchmen. There was rather a rage at one time for Italian landscape seen through a Dutch medium, a fashion in favour of which there is little to be said. It was not a very good school in which to place George Henry Harlow. De Cort was pretentious and conceited - worse, he was dull. The student loved art, but he could not fancy such a professor as De Cort. He began to feel that he could learn nothing from such a master - that he was, indeed, wasting his time. He quitted De Cort, and entered the studio of Mr Drummond, A.R.A. He applied himself assiduously, “with an ardour from which even amusement could not seduce him,” says a biographer. For, alas! young Mr Harlow was becoming as noted for his love of pleasure as for his love of his profession. He remained a year with Mr Drummond and then commenced to sigh for a change.There is a story that the beautiful Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire interested herself in the studies of the young man, and that owing to her influence and interposition he was admitted into the studio of Sir Thomas Lawrence in Greek Street. Another account has it that Mr Harlow and his mother visited the various painters with the view of selecting one with whom the student would be content to remain until his period of pupilage was at an end, and that he himself finally selected Sir Thomas Lawrence. A premium of one hundred guineas was paid. For this sum the student was to have free access to his master’s house "at nine o’clock in the morning, with leave to copy his pictures till four o’clock in the afternoon, but was to receive no instruction of any kind.” It was supposed, apparently, that the example of Sir Thomas was instruction enough. But it is possible that Lawrence while, with his innumerable engagements, he was unable to bestow much time upon a pupil, was also, like Sir Joshua, unable to communicate art instruction. He knew very little of rules, he was little imbued with academic prescriptions, he painted rather from an instinctive love of beauty and from a purely natural quickness in observing expression. Harlow might have said of Lawrence as Northcote said of Reynolds: "I learnt nothing from him while I was with him." Though it seems hard to say that a student could be long in the studio of either master and benefit in no way.
The friends of the late Mr. Harlow were greatly distressed that his son should follow the unprofitable business of the Fine Arts. They hastened to rescue him from ruin, as they believed. They offered him a writership in India. He declined their assistance. “I care not for riches,” he said; “give me fame and glory,” They could not comprehend an ambition so absurd; they thought the young man out of his senses, and left him accordingly. They were even angry with their friend’s son that he would not permit them to tear him from the profession of his choice.
Harlow was excitable, impulsive, enthusiastic. He was well acquainted with his own ability; indeed he was inclined to set almost too high a value upon it. He could bear no restraint. If Lawrence had attempted to impart instruction to him, he would probably have resisted it with all his might; he was ill at ease under even the semblance of pupilage; he declined to recognise his own inferiority; he was angry with the position he occupied in the studio of Sir Thomas. It would seem to have been difficult to quarrel with one who was always so courtier-like in manner, so gentle and suave and forbearing as was Lawrence. But it is possible these very characteristics were matters of offence to Harlow. He could not give credit for ability to a man who was so calm and elegant and placid midst all the entrancements of his profession. He thought a great painter should gesticulate more, should sacrifice the gentlemanly to the eccentric as he did, should be feverish and frothy and unconventional and absurd as he was. And then he possessed a quick mimetic talent. He had soon acquired great part of Lawrence’s manner. People are always prone to think themselves equal to those they can imitate, and he was far ahead of all the other young gentlemen who entered the studio; indeed it may be said that no one has ever approached more closely to the peculiar style and character of Lawrence’s art than his pupil Harlow. The master admitted this himself - if not in words, at least in conduct. He employed Harlow upon his portraits, to paint replicas, and even to prepare in dead colours the originals. Of course the painting of backgrounds and accessories was the customary occupation of the pupils.
For eighteen months Harlow remained in the studio of Sir Thomas. A portrait had been painted of Mrs Angerstein. In this Lawrence had introduced a Newfoundland dog, so skilfully represented as to excite the warmest admiration. Harlow, perhaps, had had a share in the painting of this dog, and he loudly claimed credit for it. He is said even to have intruded himself upon the Angerstein family, and to have represented to them how greatly the success of the picture was due to his exertions. Of course this conduct on the part of a pupil amounted to flat mutiny. Sir Thomas informed of it, sought out his pupil, and said to him: "You must leave my house immediately. The animal you claim is among the best things I ever painted. Of course you have no need of further instruction from me." Harlow withdrew abruptly. In a day or two afterwards he was heard of, living magnificently, at the Queen’s Head, a small roadside inn on the left hand as you leave Epsom for Ashstead. When the host approached with the reckoning it was found that the painter was without the means of liquidating it. It was agreed that the account should be paid by his executing a new sign-board He painted both sides: on one a full-face view of Queen Charlotte, a dashing caricature of Sir Thomas’s manner; on the other a back view of the Queen’s head, as though she were looking into the sign-board , while underneath was inscribed "T. L., Greek Street, Soho." Sir Thomas informed of this eccentric proceeding, said to Harlow:
“I have seen your additional act of perfidy at Epsom, and if you were not a scoundrel I would kick you from one end of the street to the other.”
"There is some privilege in being a scoundrel then," answers the pupil, "for the street is very long."
So we read of the quarrel of Lawrence and Harlow, one of those stories so easy to relate and so difficult to disprove. But there are incoherencies about it. The portrait of Mrs Angerstein was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the year 1800, some years before Harlow had become a pupil of Lawrence’s, and there is no dog in the picture! The speech about the kicking is a very unlikely one to have proceeded from Lawrence, while it is still more unlikely that Harlow would have received it so quietly. Had such language passed between them it is hardly possible they could have been on the footing of anything like friendship afterwards, yet we find Lawrence assisting Harlow in his picture of the Kemble family in quite an intimate way. Certainly there was a quarrel, and Harlow quitted Sir Thomas. A living writer says, in reference to the sign-board story:
“I remember to have seen it as early as 1815. Some twenty years after, missing this peculiar sign from the suspensory iron (where a written board had been substituted), I made inquiry at the inn as to the fate of Harlow’s Queen’s Head, but could not learn anything of its whereabouts."
It is not probable that Lawrence was disposed to condemn this more severely, than as one of those artistic freaks which clever caricaturing students are every day indulging in.
Thenceforth Harlow determined to set up as a painter on his own account. He would be a student no longer. He refused to avail himself of the advantages offered by the Academy - he would not draw there - would not enrol himself as a student. He would toil no more in the studios of others - he was now a full-blown artist himself. So he argued. "Naturally vain," writes J. T. Smith, one of his biographers, "he became ridiculously foppish, and by dressing to the extreme of fashion was often the laughing-stock of his brother artists, particularly when he wished to pass for a man of high rank, whose costume he mimicked; and that folly he would often venture upon without an income sufficient to pay one of his many tailors’ bills." He seemed bent upon exaggerating even the extravagances of fashion. There is a story of his having been seen with such enormously long spurs that he was obliged to walk down stairs backwards to save himself from falling headlong, He had a craving for notoriety. If the public would not notice his works, at least they should notice him. Somehow he would be singled out from the crowd. People should ask who he was, no matter whether censure or applause was to follow the inquiry. So he dressed with wild magnificence and swaggered along the streets and laughed loudly and talked with an audacious freedom that was often the cause of his expulsion from respectable company. A glass or two of wine seemed quite to turn his brain; he was alert then for any frivolity, and he was not always content with so restricted a libation, when the consequences were even more to be deplored.
He now offered himself as a candidate for Academic honours. He was not a likely man to succeed, yet he did all he could to conciliate the more influential Academicians, and certainly he had merits that entitled him fairly to look for the distinction. He painted a portrait of Northcote, said to be the best that had ever been taken of the veteran artist, and the number of portraits of him was very great. He also painted Stothard and Nollekens, and the well-known and admirable portrait of Fuseli (the picture to the left is of Fuseli, but not that by Harlow). With this he took extraordinary pains, had numerous sittings, and was two whole days engaged upon the right hand only - a long time according to the Art opinion of his day, when it was the fashion to finish a portrait in a very dashing style of execution, after one sitting, and in a few hours’ time. Mr. Leslie allowed Harlow’s portrait of Fuseli to be the best. "But," he said, "it would have required a Reynolds to do justice to the fine intelligence of his head. His keen eye of the most transparent blue I shall never forget." But the Academy would not think favourably of Harlow. In later days Northcote sturdily declaimed "The Academy is not an institution for the suppression of Vice but for the encouragement of the Fine Arts. The dragging morality into everything, in season and out of season, is only giving a handle to hypocrisy, and turning virtue into a byword for impertinence." There was only one Academician who could be found to give a vote for Harlow. This was, of course, Fuseli. He was accused of it, and vindicated himself - "I voted for the talent, not for the man I!" He was seeking to estimate the fitness of the claimant for Art-honours, by means of perhaps the fairest criterion. The Academy tested on a different plan. It was hard to say that Harlow’s moral character rendered him unfit to associate with the painters of his day; yet such was the effect of the decision of the Academy.
Of course he was cruelly mortified, deeply incensed; of course he swore in his wrath that he would wreak a terrible vengeance upon his enemies. But what could he do? He could privately abuse the Academicians corporately and severally wherever he went; and publicly he would paint them down. He would demonstrate their imbecility and his own greatness by his works. He took to large historical paintings - "Bolingbroke’s Entry into London" and "The Quarrel between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex." Unfortunately the merits of these achievements were not sufficient to carry dismay into the hearts of his oppressors; and what was even worse, no purchaser came for these ambitious works. He was driven to portrait painting again. He was dexterous in delineating character, was rapid in execution, had a respectable appreciation of colour. His first exhibited portrait was one of his mother; she lived to see him, in a great measure, successful, and died when he was twenty-two years old. A deep affection seems to have subsisted between the mother and the son. He was greatly moved at her death, and always mentioned her name with tenderness. He had soon no lack of sitters. He was soon recognised as being, in a certain style of portraiture, second to Lawrence only. And he next achieved a considerable success in a higher order of art. His "Arthur and Hubert" was highly applauded by the public. It was painted for Mr. Leader, at the price of one hundred guineas. The patron, however, was less pleased with the vigour and glow of colour of the work than were the critics, and was not sorry to exchange the picture for portraits of his children. This was sufficiently galling to the painter’s pride, but he was not rich enough to resent such conduct. He could not afford to close all dealing with his patron, as he would have preferred to do.
The next picture - and the one by which of all his works he is the most popularly known - was that combination of historical art and portraiture known as the "Trial of Queen Katherine." The work was commissioned by Mr. Welsh the professor of music. It was commenced during the progress of the artist’s portrait of Fuseli, who, examining the first drawing of the picture, said:
"I do not disapprove of the general arrangement of your work, and I see you will give it a powerful effect of light and shade. But you have here a composition of more than twenty figures, or I should rather say, parts of figures, because you have not shown one leg or foot, which makes it very defective. If you do not know how to draw feet and legs I will show you."And with a crayon he made drawings on the wainscot of the room.
However inclined Harlow may have been to neglect counsel, given in rather an imperious tone, he did not hesitate to profit by Fuseli’s comments, and accordingly he re-arranged the grouping in the foreground of his picture. On a subsequent visit Fuseli remarked the change: "So far you have done well," he said "but now you have not introduced a back-figure to throw the eye of the spectator into the picture." And he then proceeded to point out by what means this might be managed. Accordingly, we learn, Harlow introduced the two boys who are taking up the cushion, and the one with his back turned is altogether due to Fuseli, and is, no doubt, the best drawn figure in the picture.
Fuseli was afterwards desirous that the drawing of the arms of the principal object - Queen Katherine - should be amended, but this it seems was not accomplished. "After having witnessed many ineffectual attempts of the painter to accomplish this, he desisted, and remarked, 'It is a pity that you never attended the antique academy.'" It was only Fuseli who would have presumed to address such an observation to Harlow. While it was only from Fuseli that it would have been received with even the commonest patience.
The Kemble family are represented in this picture; and it is probable that the painter was more anxious for the correctness of their portraits, and an accurate representation of the scene, as it was enacted at Covent Garden Theatre, than for any of the higher characteristics of historical art. Mrs Siddons is the Katherine; John Kemble, is Wolsey; Charles Kemble, Cromwell; while Stephen Kemble, who was reputed to be fat enough to appear as Falstaff, "without stuffing," here represents the King. These are all admirable portraits of a strikingly handsome family, firmly and grandly painted, and full of expression. Perhaps the best of all is Mrs Siddons’, and the next Charles Kemble’s. The whole picture is a highly commendable work of art, and received during many years an extraordinary popularity.
It was with John Kemble (see painting), however, that the artist had his greatest difficulty, and it was here that Sir Thomas Lawrence rendered assistance to Harlow. Kemble steadily refused to sit, and great was the distress of the painter. At last Sir Thomas advised his pupil to go to the front row of the pit of the theatre (there were no stalls in those days, it should be remembered), four or five times successively, and sketch the great actor’s countenance, and thus make out such a likeness as he could introduce into the painting. This expedient was adopted, and not only was a very good likeness secured, but the artist was successful in obtaining the expression of the Cardinal at the exact point of his surprise and anger at the defiance of the Queen. Had Mr Kemble sat for his portrait, Harlow would have experienced the difficulty Northcote complained of:
"When Kemble sat to me for Richard III, meeting the children, he lent me no assistance whatever in the expression I wished to give, but remained quite immoveable, as if he were sitting for an ordinary portrait. As Boaden said, this was his way. He never put himself to any exertion except in his professional character. If any one wanted to know his idea of a part, or of a particular passage, his reply always was, you must come and see me do it."
Harlow had much of that talent for painting eyes which was so lauded in the case of his master Lawrence. A critic has described the eyes in certain of Lawrence’s portraits as "starting from their spheres." The opinion is rather more extravagant than complimentary, or true. There is a winning sparkle about them which may occasionally be carried to excess, but, as a rule, they are singularly life-like.
Sir Joshua had laid it down as a fixed principle that, to create the beautiful, the eyes ought always to be in mezzotint. To this rule Sir Thomas did not adhere very rigorously, and indeed, by a departure from it, frequently arrived at the effect he contemplated.
Ambitious at one time of exhibiting his learning, Harlow thought proper to express surprise at a scholar like Fuseli permitting the engravers to place translations under his classical subjects.
"Educated at Westminster school," he said, rather affectedly, "I should prefer to see the quotations given in the original language," and he was rash enough to instance the print from the death of Oedipus, as a case in point. The unfortunate part of this was, that, on the plate in question, the passage was really engraved in Greek characters under the mezzotint. Fuseli learnt of this criticism: "I will soon bring his knowledge to the test," he said.
On the next occasion of his sitting to Harlow he wrote with chalk in large letters, on the wainscot, a passage from Sophocles: "Read that," he said to Harlow. It soon became evident that Mr Harlow was quite unable to do this. Fuseli thought the occasion a worthy one for administering a rebuke. "That is the Greek quotation inscribed under the Oedipus, which you believed to be absent from the plate, and a word of which you are unable to read. You are a good portrait-painter; in some ways you stand unrivalled. Don’t then pretend to be what you are not, and, probably, from your avocations, never can be, - a scholar."
Mr Fuseli was inclined to be censorious, but possibly his severity was, in a great measure, deserved in the instance of poor, vain, pretentious Harlow.
In June, 1818, in his thirty-first year, Harlow set out for Italy, bent on study and self-improvement. An interesting and characteristic account of his life in Rome is contained in his letter dated the 23rd November, addressed to Mr Tomkison, the pianoforte maker of Dean Street, Soho, who was in several ways connected with artists, and interested in art.
"The major part of my labours are now at an end, having since my arrival made an entire copy of the Transfiguration; the next was a composition of my own, of fifteen figures which created no small sensation here. Canova requested to have the picture at his house for a few days, which was accordingly sent, and, on the 10th November, upwards of five hundred persons saw it; it was then removed to the academy of St Luke’s, and publicly exhibited. They unanimously elected me an Academician, and I have received the diploma. There are many things which have made this election very honourable to me, of which you shall hear in England. You must understand that there are two degrees in our academy - one of merit, the other of honour; mine is of merit, being one of the body of the academy. The same night of my election the King of Naples received his honorary degree (being then in Rome on a visit to the Pope) in common with all the other sovereigns of Europe, and I am happy to find the Duke of Wellington is one also. West, Fuseli, Lawrence, Flaxman, and myself, are the only British artists belonging to St. Luke’s as academicians. This institution is upwards of three hundred years standing. Raffaelle, the Caracci, Poussin, Guido, Titian, and every great master that we esteem, were members. I had the high gratification to see my name enrolled in the list of these illustrious characters. Now, my dear friend, as this fortunate affair has taken place, I should wish it added to the print of Katherine’s Trial: you will perhaps have the kindness to call on Mr Cribb, the publisher, in Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, and have it worded thus Member of the Academy of St. Luke’s at Rome." (This, of course, was by way of reproach to the Royal Academy of Great Britain.) "I mention this as it is a grand plate, and indeed ought to be added. I expect to be in England by Christmas-Day or near it. I shall have an immensity to talk over. I was much pleased with Naples; stayed ten days; went over to Portici; Herculaneum and Pompeii, and ascended Mount Vesuvius: this was a spectacle - the most awful and grand that I had ever witnessed - the fire bursting every two minutes, and the noise with it like thunder: red-hot ashes came tumbling down continually where I stood sketching, many of which I brought away, and different pieces of the old lava which I hope to show you. The eruption took place a week or two after I left. But Pompeii exhibits now the most extraordinary remains of antiquity in the world; a whole city laid open to view; the habitations are unroofed, but, in other respects, are quite perfect. The house of Sallust, the Roman historian, was particularly gratifying to me, unaltered in every respect, except the furniture (which I believe is now in Portici), the same as it was eighteen hundred and fifty years ago when inhabited by him. There are many shops; in one the amphorae which held the wine are curious, and marks of the cups they used upon the slabs are distinctly seen: a milkshop with the sign of a goat is perfectly preserved with the vessels, and also several other shops in the same perfect state. Rome has been a scene of the utmost gaiety lately, during the stay of the King of Naples. I was at three splendid balls given at the different palaces. We were obliged to appear in court-dresses, and the cardinals added very much to the richness and grandeur of the party. The ladies looked peculiarly striking, but they did not wear hoops as in the English court. We had French and English dances, etc, and the fireworks surpassed all my expectations. Upon the whole, the entertainments were very novel and very delightful. I am to be presented to the Pope either on the 2nd or 3rd of next month. Cardinal Gonsalvi will let me know when the day is fixed, and I leave Rome directly after; perhaps the next day - a day that I most sincerely dread - for I have become so attached to the place and the people that I expect a great struggle with myself. I should be the most ungrateful of human beings if I did not acknowledge the endless favours they have bestowed on me. It is the place of all others for an artist, as he is sure to be highly appreciated if he has any talent ; and I shall speak of the country to the end of my days with the most fervent admiration. The Transfiguration, I think, will make a stare in England!"
It was of this same copy of the Transfiguration that Canova had spoken so applaudingly: "This, sir, seems rather the work of eighteen weeks than of eighteen days."
He gave a picture of "The Presentation of the Cardinal's Hat to Wolsey in Westminster Abbey" to the Academy of St Luke’s at Rome, and his own portrait to the Academy of Florence, in acknowledgement of having been elected a member. He embarked for England in January, 1819. Lord Burghersh, the English ambassador at Florence, had paid him marked attentions. Lord Liverpool gave instructions that the painter’s packages should be passed at the Custom House. He established himself in a house, No. 83, Dean Street, Soho. Everything seemed to promise to him a happy and prosperous future, when suddenly he sickened with the disease, known popularly as the mumps. He died on the 4th February, 1819, and was buried under the altar of St James’s Church, Piccadilly. In the churchyard had been buried, a year or two previously, an artist of less merit, James Gillray, the caricaturist.
It is not possible to lay great stress upon the early failings of Harlow; errors, after all, rather of manners than of morals. Had he lived, it is likely that a successful career would have almost effaced the recollection of these, while it would certainly have contradicted them as evidences of character. As Lawrence said of his dead pupil, generously yet truthfully, "he was the most promising of all our painters." There was the material for a very great artist in Harlow. He died too young for his fame, and for his art. A proof engraving of one of his best works (a portrait of Northcote) was brought to Lawrence to touch upon:
"Harlow had faults," he said, "but we must not remember the faults of one who so greatly improved himself in his art. It shall never be said that the finest work from so great a man went into the world without such assistance as I can give."
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