Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

dedly his best one. This is a representation of the Field of Chevy Chase on the day after the battle. It is painted in the mournful spirit with which the glorious old ballad concludes, and cannot well be looked on without tears. These are the words im bodied:

"Of fifteen hundred Englishmen
Went home but fifty.three;
The rest were sLaine in Chevy Chase
Under the greenewoode tree.

Next day did many widows come

Their husbands to bewayle;
They washed their wounds in brinish tears,

But all would not prevayle.

Theyr bodyes bathed in purple blood

They bare with them away;
They kist them dead a thousand times

Ere they were cladd in clay.

Of this heroic ballad, which Sir Philip Sydney said roused him like the sound of a trumpet, and which Ben Johnson affirmed was well worth all his dramas, the people of England are great admirers, and among the peasantry of the south it is almost the only one known. When they saw a painting which gave a life-like and touching image of a scene often present to the fancy, they were loud in its praise. Lady Percy is, with perfect propriety, made a visiter of the fatal field: she appears in deep agony beside the body of her lord. The old Minstrel thought proper to slay Percy by the spear of Sir Hugh Montgomery, and we appeal to history in vain against the poet's decision. The gentle Kate of Shaksp-sare, who said to Hotspur, in his interview with Glendower, "Lie still, thou thief, and hear the Welch lady sing," had that sorrowful duty to perform at the battle of Shrewsbury, stricken many years after Otterbourne. This exquisite piece, which should have been pui chased by some wealthy Douglas or Percy, was bought for 300 guineas by the Marquis of Stafford; while Mr. (now Sir Walter) Scott acquired the original sketch. The same munificent nobleman purchased Bird's next picture, the Death of Eli, for 500 guineas; and the British Institution added their testimony to its merits, by presenting the painter with their premium, amounting to £315.

Concerning the picture of the Death of Eli a curious story was circulated. Bristol long endured the reproach of parsimony both in prose and verse. Two English poets have expressed themselves with no measured bitterness of spirit concerning the sordid spirit of its merchants. Thus sings Savage—

"Upstarts and mushrooms; proud, relentless hearts,
Thou blank of sciences ! thou dearth of arts!
Such foes as learning once was doomed to see,
Huns, Goths, and Vandals were but types of thee.''

A.nd Robert Lovell is equally severe—

"No mild urbanity attracts the sight,
No arts of skill, or elegant delight;
But sordid wealth inspires the general cry,
And speeds the step and sharps the eager eye;
Foul as their streets triumphant Meanness sways,
And grovelling as their mud.compelling drays;
Discordant sounds compose the Babel hum,
T is—how goes sugar f what's the price of rum?
What ships arrived? and, how are stocks to-day?
Who's dead 1 who's broken? and, who's run away P*

tf such reproaches were ever due, they are so no :onger: Bristol has now her literary and scientific institutions, and can point to many individuals of ihe most refined manners as well as the most generous liberality among her citizens. Touched somewhat, however, with the spirit described in Lovell's verses, three gentlemen of that city subscribed 100 pounds each, and commissioned, as it is called, a picture from the pencil of Bird. He painted the Death of Eli. The lucky proprietors sold it for 500 guineas; and, inspired with this, perhaps, unexpected profit, clubbed their hundreds again, and waited on he painter with a fresh commission. But he had no wish to have his brains sucked at that rate, and declined their proposal. The meaning of these citizens in their first offer was kindly; they wished to inspire the artist with a proper confidence, and made remuneration certain; but they could not resist the temptation of gain. They ought to have paid Bird the whole sum which they received, and not sought to enrich themselves under pretence of friendship. But neither the satire of poets nor individual parsimony must conceal the fact that Bristol took an affectionate interest in his prosperity, and that he found many friends and patrons among hei citizens.

Business about this time took Bird to his native town. He was personally recognised by many, and received with an enthusiasm which would have been creditable to a place of higher pretensions. His early companions gathered about him, and he made them cordially welcome. Many of those persons survive, and they all, and of their own accord, when his name is mentioned, speak first of the active kindness of his heart, and then of the early indications of his talents. "I knew Ned Bird, sir," said one of those humble friends, " when he was a boy at school; he never thought of himself; he would give the one-half of his dinner to a beggar-woman and the other to a lame soldier, and fast upon his lesson." Nor had increase of years hardened his heart. One night, as he was on his way to his lodging, a woman ran wildly out of a door, crying, "My child! my child!" Bird went into her house and finding one of her children in strong convulsions, instantly brought a physician. "Look to the boy," said Bird, " and look also to the mother; she seems to need it much: I will pay for all." He returned next day, gave the poor widow a present of money, and when the child, which recovered only for a short time, died, he buried it at his own expense.

On his return to Bristol he recommenced his studies. His chief merit as an artist lay in natural and touching representations of homely and social things: history, either profane or sacred, required a spirit more in unison with the magnificent and the majestic, and an imagination of a more heroic order. He had seen the living nature which the former requires, and had taken frequent sittings: he had to conceive the nature which belongs to the latter, and in that rare quality he was found deficient.

His picture of " Good News" is a happy performance. The group which he assembled in the little ale-house has no doubt recalled similar scenes to all who have observed it. "The Blacksmith's Shop," an early painting of much promise, was touched with the same spirit of social glee; and the " Country Auction" is ranked by many as one of his cleverest pictures. The sound of the auctioneer's hammer has called together a motley crowd, all anxious to bid for articles, and all bidding in character. An old gray-headed peasant has bought a large Bible; his son-in-law hesitates between a punch-bowl and a cradle; and his daughter sees nothing but the glitter of a tea-table service. , A cautious gamekeeper and a bustling butcher are contending for a fowling-piece. A little girl has placed a burnished cullender above her curls, and eyes a mirror with much satisfaction; while a gaping crowd of rustic connoisseurs are examining, with all the empty sagacity of a committee of taste, into the merits of an old daubing about to be exposed for sale. The colouring of the whole is mellow and harmonious.

Nor was he less skilful in subjects where the interest was confined to a single figure with little action. When he happened to meet an original-looking personage, young or old, his practice was to make a rude sketch on the spot—return to his study—assign to the figure some characteristic employment—expand it upon the canvass, and give it all the charm of colouring. He painted such works with astonishing rapidity; the picture existed complete in his mind, and an effort of art and memory reproduced it. During the stormy season of 1812 he was in London—found a famishing mateh-girl in the street —painted her in character in three days, and sold the work for thirty guineas. An old man seeking alms came across his way; of him too he took a characteristic likeness—half real and half imaginative, and with equal success. Accurate copies of nature he disliked: he took a poetic license with his subjects; he had a happy knack in combination, and formed clever and consistent groups out of very discordant materials. "He could," said one of his admirers," extract delight and joy out of any thing: I mean personally as well as with his pencil." "The Gipsy Boy," " The Young Recruit," " Meg Merrilies," "Game at Put," and various other paintings, are all instances of his skill in adapting living life to the purposes of art. In this respect he resembled Opie. When one of his friends congratulated him upon the rapidity with which he dashed off his lesser, but his happier works, Bird said, "Yes, I can do them quickly; but it will not do to tell the world how soon I can paint such things." They who believe that what is done well cannot have been done quickly, are often mistaken.

The reputation of these paintings recalled public attention to his earlier productions, and " The Village Politicians," a cabinet picture, and "The Poacher," in six scenes, came out of obscurity. In these six pictures he conducts a peasantufrom his happy fireside through the varied fortunes of a poacher's life: seeking for game with his companion; carrying it home to his wife and children; selling it by lamp-light to the guard of a coach; betrayed by his comrade; admonished by a clergyman in prison; and restored to his family an amended man with a resolution to be wise in future. I fear the poacher's career seldom terminates in a manner so pleasant to contemplate.

Sometime during the year 1813, Bird obtained the

« ZurückWeiter »