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It was not without diffidence that I undertook this work; nor have I forgotten the satiric complaint of my countryman—" Will no one write a book on what he understands?"
But the hands which hold the pencil are not always willing or able to hold the pen, and artists of literary attainments are either more profitably employed, or prudent enough to avoid an undertaking where there is more certainty of censure than of praise. I may also urge, in extenuation of my temerity, that as art reflects nature, through nature it must be judged.
The history of art, and the lives, and characters, and works of its earlier professors are scattered through many volumes, and are to be sought for in remote collections, private cabinets, and public galleries. Our paintings are widely diffused, nor are they all contained in the island; and the biographical materials collected by the indiscriminating diligence of Vertue, and brightened here and there by the wit or the sagacity of Walpole, lie strangely heaped together. The other sources of information consist chiefly of the lectures and discourses of the Professors, the accidental notice of the historian or the poet, anecdotes collected by lovers of gossip con
nected with eminent men, and certain detached biographies dictated, some by the affection of friends, others by the malevolence of enemies—but most of them drawn up with the hurried indifference of men writing for bread. Of these works some are concise and barren, others overflowing and diffuse, and all are more less liable to be charged with inaccuracy of criticism, with describing what ought to be, rather than delineating what is.
From materials thus varied and contradictory, it is my wish to extract a clear and concise account of our early art, with the lives and characters of the most eminent British artists. Before the birth of Hogarth there are many centuries in which we relied wholly on foreign skill. With him, and after him, arose a succession of eminent painters, who have spread the fame of British art far and wide. Of their conduct as men I hope to speak with candour. Of their works I shall express my own sentiments, wherever I have the power of personal examination. Where this is impracticable—for many paintings are in foreign lands, some are shut up in inaccessible galleries, and others have perished through time or accident—I shall follow what are generally esteemed the safest authorities.
Though the lives of men devoted to silent study and secluded labour contain few of those incidents which embellish the biographies of more stirring spirits, yet they are scarcely less alluring and instructive. Their works are at once their actions and their history, and a record of the taste and feeling of the times in which they flourished. We love to know under what circumstances a great work of art was conceived and completed: it is pleasing to follow the vicissitudes of their fortunes whose genius has charmed us—to sympathize in their anxieties, and to witness their triumph.
Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, and Music are the natural offspring, of the heart of man* They are