Above the Reynolds a small Gainsborough landscape blends well with the predominant brown of these old canvases. From the point of view of the modern landscape painter, who believes in the superiority of his outlook and attitude toward nature, we can only be glad that Gainsborough’s fame does not depend upon his representation of out-of-doors. This small canvas, like the very big one on the opposite wall, is interesting in design. But neither gives one the feeling of outdoors that our modern landscape painters so successfully impart. Historically they are very interesting, and even though they carry the name of such a master of portraits as Gainsborough undoubtedly was, they are devoid of all the refreshing qualities that modern art has given to the world.
Sir Peter Lely and Sir Henry Raeburn claim particular attention on the north wall — the first by a deftly painted portrait of a lady, and the other by a broadly executed likeness of John Wauchope. As portraits go, the first picture is one of the finest in the gallery. Very conspicuous by their size, the two big Romney portraits on the east wall are not in the same class with either the Lawrence or the Reynolds on the same wall. The great Lawrence portrait, the lady with the black hat, is one of the most superb portraits in the world. There is a peculiar charm about this canvas quite independent of the very attractive Lady Margaret represented in the picture. The luscious blacks and pale reds and the neutral cream silk cape make for a colour harmony seldom achieved. Reynolds’ portrait of John Thomas, Bishop of Rochester, is equally rich and full of fine colour contrasts. The shrewd-looking gentleman is psychologically well given, although one’s attention is detracted from the head by the gorgeous raiment of a dignitary of the church.
I think Hogarth’s portrait on the small wall to the right does not disclose this master at his best, nor does Hoppner rise to the level of his best work in the large portrait alongside of it. The Marchioness of Wellesley is better and more sympathetically rendered than her two children, who barely manage to stay in the picture.
On the whole an atmosphere of dignity permeates this gallery of older masters. One may deplore the lack of many characteristics of modern art in many of the old pictures. They are very often lifeless and stiff, but the worst of them are far more agreeable than most of those of our own time. The serene beauty of the Tiepolo, the Lawrence, and the Gainsborough portrait has hardly been surpassed since their day. Our age is, of course, the age of the landscape painter, the outdoor painter, as opposed to the indoor portraits of these great masters. It would not be right to judge a Gainsborough by his landscapes any more than it would be to judge a modern landscape painter by his portraits. But no matter how uninteresting these old landscapes are, their brown tonality insures them a certain dignity of inoffensiveness which a mediocre modern work of art never possesses, I would rather any time have a bad old picture than a bad one of the very recent schools. Modesty is not one of the chief attributes of modern art, and the silent protest of a gallery such as the one we are now in, the artist can well afford to heed.