Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. – Wilkie Collins
There is much in this book that will interest the English artist. The story of the painter’s life is plainly told – with just enough, scattered here and there, of filial affection and partiality to take it out of the level of ordinary biographies. The journals are rather short, and the correspondence is somewhat scanty, but the matter is generally good, and some of the criticisms will be found both original and suggestive. William Collins, the father of well-known author Wilkie Collins, was born in Great Titchfield Street, London, on the 18th of September 1788. His father was a native of Wicklow – his mother was a Scottish lady, born in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. “It was a favourite tradition in the family of the painter,” writes his son, “that they were descended from the same stock as the great poet whose name they bore;”-a pleasing belief rendered additionally interesting by some anecdotes.
Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. .
Excerpt from the text:
To write biography successfully, is to present the truth under its most instructive and agreeable aspect. This undertaking, though in appearance simple, combines among its requirements so much justice in the appreciation of character, and so much discrimination in the selection of examples, that its difficulties have been felt by the greatest as by the humblest intellects that have approached it. A task thus experienced as arduous, by all who have attempted it, must present a double responsibility when the office of biographer is assumed by a son. He is constantly tempted to view as biographical events, occurrences which are only privately important in domestic life; he is perplexed by being called on to delineate a character which it has hitherto been his only ambition to respect; and he is aware throughout the progress of his labors, that where undue partiality is merely suspected in others, it is anticipated from him as an influence naturally inherent in the nature of his undertaking.
Feeling the difficulty and delicacy of the employment on which I am about to venture, and unwilling to attempt a remonstrance, which may be disingenuous, and which must be useless, against any objections of partiality which may meet it when completed, I shall confine myself to communicating my motives for entering on the present work; thereby leading the reader to infer for himself, in what measure my relationship to the subject of this Memoir may be advantageous, instead of asserting from my own convictions, how little it may be prejudicial to the furtherance of my design.
To trace character in a painter through its various processes of formation; to exhibit in the studies by which he is strengthened, in the accidents by which he is directed, in the toils which he suffers, and in the consolations which he derives, what may be termed his adventures in his connection with the world; and further, to display such portions of his professional life, as comprehend his friendly intercourse with his contemporaries, as well as the incidents of his gradual advance towards prosperity, and the powerful influence of rightly-constituted genius in the Art, in exalting and sustaining personal character; are my principal objects, in reference to that part of the present work, which depends more exclusively upon its author, and less upon the journals and letters which are connected with its subject. In thus reviewing my father’s career as a painter, it is my hope to produce that which may interest in some degree the lover of Art, and fortify the student, by the example of reputation honestly acquired, and difficulties successfully overcome; while it tends at the same time to convey a just idea of the welcome, steadily, if not always immediately, accorded to true genius in painting; not only by those whose wealth enables them to become its patrons, but also by the general attention of the public at large.
In what measure my opportunities of gathering biographical knowledge from my father’s conversation, and from my own observation of his habits and studies, may enable me in writing his life, upon the principles above explained, to produce a narrative, in which what may appear curious and true shall compensate for what may be thought partial and trifling, it is now for the reader to judge. The motives with which I enter upon my task are already communicated. To emulate, in the composition of the following Memoirs, the candor and moral courage which formed conspicuous ingredients in the character that they are to delineate, and to preserve them as free from error and as remote from exaggeration as I may, is all that I can further promise to the reader, to give them that claim to his attention which may at least awaken his curiosity, though it may not procure his applause,
William Collins was born in Great Titchfieldstreet, London, on the 18th September, 1788. His father was an Irishman, a native of Wicklow; his mother was a Scottish lady, born in the neighborhood of Edinburgh. He was the second of a family of three children, — the eldest of whom, a girl, died a month before his birth; the youngest, a boy, lived to see his brother attain high celebrity in the art, but died several years before him. It was a favorite tradition in the family of the painter, that they were descended from the same stock as the great poet whose name they bore. Of his ancestors I am enabled to mention one — Doctor Samuel Collins — who signalized himself in the seventeenth century by his professional skill, and who has found a place in our Biographical Dictionaries as one of the most remarkable anatomists of his time. The family originally came from Chichester, whence, about the time of the Revolution of 1688, a branch of it emigrated to Ireland, and fought on the side of King William, at the battle of the Boyne; settling definitely in Ireland from that period to the birth of Mr. Collins’s father. An imprudent marriage, bringing with it the usual train of domestic privations and disappointments, had so far reduced the pecuniary resources of the family of Mr. Collins’s grandfather, that his father found himself, on arriving at manhood, entirely dependent on his own exertions for support — exertions, which were soon rendered doubly important by his subsequent union with a young and portionless wife.
It will be found that I shall advert at greater length than may appear immediately necessary to some of my readers, to the character and employments of Mr. Collins’s father. But the pursuits that he chose for himself, as a man of letters and a dealer in pictures, and the remarkable influence that his knowledge of art and artists had in determining his son in following the career in which he was afterwards destined to become eminent, concur to make him an object of no ordinary importance and interest at this stage of a work devoted to the curiosities of painting, as well as to the biography of a painter.
His poetical abilities, developed, I believe, at an early age, and his social accomplishments as a man of polished manners and ready wit, soon brought Mr. Collins, sen., into contact with most of the painters and authors of his time. In choosing, therefore, as a dealer in pictures, a pursuit that might swell his precarious profits as a man of letters, the company he frequented may reasonably be imagined to have had no small influence in urging such a selection. But his choice was an unfortunate one; too honorable to descend to the rapacities, and too independent to stoop to the humiliations, attaching to picture-dealing in those days, neither by principles, nor disposition, was he in any way fitted for the uncongenial character he had assumed; and, though he continued throughout his life to force his attention to the pursuit in which he had engaged, he remained to the last a poet in his inward predilections, and a poor man in his outward circumstances.
His “Memoirs of a Picture” — to which I shall presently refer at length — his ” Life of George Morland,” and his ” Poem on the Slave Trade,” — illustrated by two of Morland’s most successful pictures, subsequently engraved by J. R. Smith — were his principal works; but they brought him more popularity than profit. In those days, when literary genius was yet unemancipated from the fetters of patronage; the numbers of the reading and book-buying public were comparatively small; and the fine old race of genuine garret authors still existed, to fire the ingenuity of rapacious bailiffs, and point the sarcasms of indignant biographers. Articles in the public journals, songs, fugitive pieces, and all the other miscellanies of the literary brain, flowed plentifully from Mr. Collins’s pen; gaining for him the reputation of a smart public writer, and procuring for him an immediate, but scanty support. No literary occupations were too various for the thoroughly Irish universality of his capacity. He wrote sermons for a cathedral dignitary, who was possessed of more spiritual grace than intellectual power; and, during the administration of Mr. Wyndham, composed a political pamphlet, to further the views of a friend; which procured that fortunate individual a Government situation of four hundred a year, but left the builder of his fortunes in the same condition of pecuniary embarrassment in which he had produced the pamphlet, and in which, to the last day of his life, he was fated to remain.
But no severity of disappointment and misfortune was powerful enough to sour the temper or depress the disposition of this warm-hearted and honorable man. All the little money he received was cheerfully and instinctively devoted to the pleasures and advantages of his family: and in spite of the embarrassment of his circumstances, he contrived to give his sons, William and Francis, as sound and as liberal an education as could possibly be desired. Surrounded from their earliest infancy by pictures of all ages and subjects, accustomed to hear no conversation so frequently as conversation on Art, thrown daily into the society of artists of all orders, from the penniless and dissipated Morland, to the prosperous and respectable West, nothing was more natural than that the two boys should begin to draw at an early age. In overlooking their ravages among old palettes, their predatory investigations among effete color-bladders, and their industrious pictorial embellishment of strips of old canvas and scraps of forgotten paper, it was not difficult for the practiced eye of the elder Mr. Collins, to discover in William, — who took the lead, on evenings and half-holidays, in all ebullitions of graphic enthusiasm, — some promise of the capacity that was lying dormant in the first rude essays of his childish pencil. Year by year the father watched and treasured up the son’s drawings, until the boy’s spontaneous intimation of his bias towards the painter’s life enabled him to encourage his ambition to begin the serious direction of his studies, and to predict with delight and triumph that he might perhaps live long enough ” to see poor Bill an R.A.”
Before, however, I proceed to occupy myself with the incidents of Mr. Collins’s boyhood, I would offer a few remarks on the principal work which his father produced, — the ” Memoirs of a Picture.” I have been told that this book enjoyed, in its day, no inconsiderable share of popularity. It is so novel in arrangement, it belongs so completely, both in style and matter, to a school of fiction now abandoned by modern writers, it is so thoroughly devoted to painters and painting, and so amusingly characteristic of the manners and customs of the patrons and picture-dealers of the day, (and I might add, of the hardihood of the author himself, in venturing to expose the secret politics of the pursuit to which he was attached,) that a short analysis of its characters and story, whether it be considered as a family curiosity, a literary antiquity, or an illustration of the condition of the Art and the position of the artists of a bygone age, can hardly be condemned as an intrusion on the purposes, or an obstacle to the progress of the present biography.
The work is contained in three volumes, and comprises a curious combination of the serious purpose of biography with the gay license of fiction. The first and the third volumes are occupied by the — history of the picture. The second volume is episodically devoted to a memoir of George Morland, so filled with characteristic anecdotes, told with such genuine Irish raciness of style and good-natured drollery of reflection, that this pleasant biography is by no means improperly placed between the two volumes of fiction by which it is supported on either side.
The story opens with an account of the sudden disappearance from its place in the royal collection of France, of the subject of the memoirs, “an unique and inestimable jewel, painted by the. immortal Guido.” The perpetrator of this pictorial abduction is an accomplished scamp, named the Chevalier Vanderwigtie, whose adventures before the period of the theft, and whose safe arrival on the frontiers with his prize, advance us considerably through the preparatory divisions of volume the first.
All is not success, however, with the Chevalier. After he and his picture have run several perilous risks, both are finally threatened with ruin by a party of Prussian cavalry, who, utterly ignorant of the existence of Guido, begin paying their devotions at the shrine of his genius by scratching his production (which is painted on copper) on its back with their knives, to ascertain whether any precious metal lurks beneath. Finding themselves disappointed in the search, they resign ” the gem ” with contempt, but take care to make use of its possessor by enlisting him in a regiment of dragoons. Unseated, like many an honester man, in the course of his martial exercises, by his new Bucephalus, the Chevalier is placed, for the injury thereby contracted, in the hands of a surgeon, who robs him of his divine picture, probably from a natural anxiety to secure his medical fees, and sells it, after all its adventures, to a Dutch picture-dealer at Rotterdam for a hundred guilders.
At this point the narrative, true to its end, leaves the ill-fated Vanderwigtie inconsolable for his loss in the hut of a peasant, to follow the fortunes of the stolen Guido, which has become contaminated for the first time by the touch of a professed dealer.