Reminiscences of J. D. Harding. by William Collingwood

It is pleasant to remember old friends who have long since passed off the stage. I have a grateful memory of J. D. Harding, to whom I owe my adoption of art as a profession. As a boy, amusing myself with drawing, I reverenced his name as one of the great ones of the earth. It was partly from family association; for his father, a drawing-master of the old school, and a most worthy gentleman, was a neighbour and friend of my father; and the son’s rise into eminence was naturally a source of pride to both. My first efforts at learning to draw had been from his drawing-books, which then came out annually. These I had assiduously copied and studied, and by degrees had arrived at the stage of making small drawings, half original and half “cribbed,” which I sold by the dozen to some drawing-master I knew, till by degrees these little successes, and my love for the employment, awoke in me, as in too many others, the desire to be an artist. With this feeling the thought possessed me, could I but get to know the great man whose works I so admired and whose name I so reverenced ! It seemed for a long time too high for my ambition to grasp, till one day, sitting with my father, out it came; and what was my delight when he at once said he would himself take some of my drawings to show him. This he did that very week. Mr. Harding expressed a wish to see me, and not only encouraged me to per-severe, but used his influence with the firm to whom I was apprenticed to induce them to give me up to what I had set my heart upon, only sorrowing at my prospects lost, and a life thrown away on such a miserable occupation. Harding was true to his kind purpose. Though he had now almost relinquished the practice of teaching, he said he would give me a start in four lessons. I knew something of his lines of thought from his “Elementary Art,” which had just been published (about 1835), and I was prepared to find he could teach me something sound and earnest. How I drank in every word in those four important hours! Each night before I went to bed I had written out all as nearly word for word as possible; for it was so orderly, plain, and forcible, that it could not fail to be graven on my memory, at least when fresh. After this he turned me over to one of his favourite pupils for practical work, inviting me to come to him from time to time with the results. This is perhaps more about myself than Harding; but it is recalled for the sake of the man and his generous character which many besides myself have proved. Out of our connection as neighbours with Harding’s father arose an intimacy between Harding and my uncle, the father of Collingwood Smith. He was a shrewd and thoughtful man. Harding was pleased to say, in presenting him with a copy of his first large work, “Elementary Art,” that if there was any good in it he owed it to him. It was not surprising that young Smith, who inherited his father’s penchant for drawing, should be destined for an artist, or that Harding should take him under his wing. He was like an adopted child, artistically; and hence the influence of Harding on his manner all through life. Smith could never speak of him but with gratitude for the unwavering interest he took in his career. Harding was a man of independent and original thought. He found the landscape art of his early days to consist in imitation of the Old Masters, who in that department hardly claimed to be students of Nature but of each other. Great and almost unapproachable as are the works of the early schools as to the figure, as to landscape they had never pursued the same course or reached the same goal. Their ideal too often was art, not Nature, nor sincerely founded on Nature. And in the art prevailing in the early part of this century the beau-ideal was attained when it was on the model of some great man of past times, when a work could be called Rembrantesque or Cuyp-like, or in the style of Ruysdael, and especially the art commonly taught, that of the popular drawing-masters of the day, was the purest mannerism, in the formation of which Nature had absolutely no share. In the pencil, mere smoothness of execution passed for “finish,” while truth seemed never to be thought of. And again, there was “the bold style,” a libel on all that it pretended to pourtray, violating every sense of beauty or correctness. These defects Harding keenly felt, and steadfastly set his face against them. He early went straight to Nature, and humbly sat at her feet. One of his first lithographs was given to me as “a Pre-Raphaelite Harding,” servile only to Nature as he saw it, with no mannerism yet evident, no copying of anything but what he had before him. He learned to see how trees grew, studied their habits, their ” manners and customs,” entered into their life, perhaps not so deeply as Ruskin ; but he did what Ruskin has since done better still and carried further. No wonder, then, that he abhorred the ropy curves that make up the ideal of tree-life in the art too common at that day. No wonder that he struck out for himself a new “style,” which should be founded on Nature. And if he became a mannerist — which he would hardly himself deny — it was a manner of repeating truth, telling all the truth in the best way he could devise for that end.
He loved Nature ; but he loved her best at her best. He loved trees ; but he did not love their deformities. He did not love to represent disease. His was the ideal of an Apollo. He sought the highest standard, the most perfect model for whatever he drew. He eschewed the rule on which the Pre- Raphaelite school was founded —that of ” selecting nothing and rejecting nothing.” He would paint only what was beautiful, or what he thought so. It was not with the courtier feeling that would flatter his subject; it was the love that would cover all faults. He would speak evil of nothing in Nature ; if he saw it he would seek to hide it. Nature to him was synonymous with beauty ; and since that beauty was so far beyond him in the race, he at least would not be handicapped by anything ugly. He said of William Hunt that if he had to paint a beggar he would be sure to give him a cut finger with a rag upon it ; and as he remarked to me, ” in the next exhibition there it was !” Hunt could make a saint of his beggar with his sores. Harding’s feeling was different ; each, it may be, right in its place.
Of course he abhorred Pre-Raphaelism ; to him it was the apotheosis of deformity. He had hailed the first appearance of “Modern Painters ” as the advocacy of an abler pen of the great principles he was teaching ; and he was willing enough to have Turner held up as a model; for though he never emulated his imagination, or accepted the extent to which it was carried, in Turner’s work he found an example of what he taught about looking out for Nature’s beauties and making them the theme of art. But when it came to the setting up of a school of ugliness—as it seemed to him and to most—in the palmy days of the P.-R.B., (*Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood)he could not abide it. Perhaps he ought to have foreseen that these childish beginnings, these outcomes of boyish conceit, would give way to more sober experience, and that the youth who painted the ” Carpenter’s Shop ” would become the man who should produce the loveliest touches of infant beauty, and the boldest strokes of life-like portraiture. As it was, Harding’s antagonism to what he saw growing up damaged him by holding him back from lessons he himself might have learned, and which would have made him a greater painter.
It was always a treat to go round the exhibition with the man who was undoubtedly by far the best teacher of his day—one who had studied art thoroughly and practically, who had unusual power of communicating what he knew, and no less loved to do so. Many a point of lasting instruction I have thus gained from him. If I mention any example, it must be some that would interest the reader. I remember standing before a Stanfield, the principal feature in which was a large boat in the foreground high and dry on the sand, most carefully studied, and every bit of light and shade on it drawn. We had been talking of the importance of drawing shadows correctly ; I remarked, ” There is a man who understands this.” How so ?” he replied ; ” he does not seem to know what a shadow is. That boat has been drawn from the object with care ; he has put in the ‘darks ‘ as he put in the colour, because he saw them, but only for their picturesque value. When he comes to paint his boat on the shore, it never occurs to him to put any shadow on the dry sand.” So in fact it was. The boat had been studied in the water in full sunshine, but now on the sand it cast no shadows.
Harding laid great stress on the part which shade or shadow plays in expression. In the Royal Academy (it might have been on the same occasion) we came upon two pictures placed near each other —a head by Eastlake and a dog by Landseer. He pointed out how, with a fortnight’s labour and all his sweetness of flesh tint, Eastlake had failed to make the head appear round ; there was none of Nature’s shade anywhere. In Landseer’s dog, by one stroke of a large flat brush just at the junction of the light and shade, the head stood out in startling reality. Harding ever enforced the finding out and emphasising of that on which expression depends, and leaving other things to take their time and their chance.
He was always inventing some new appliance, some new mode of work. The solid sketch-book was first his idea, to use up old scraps of paper too small to be stretched on a board. He had his own drawing desks and nests of models, his stump and his port-crayon, and numberless other things were the fruit of his ingenious brain. Perhaps the most important was his ” pure drawing paper,” which he got made up to his ideal–perfect as suited to his habit of work, and certainly for those whose work it suited it was a great boon : a machine-made paper, with two surfaces, the rough side having a pleasant tooth, unbleached and therefore with a slight tone. So long as he lived to superintend its make it was perfect in its sort. This must not be judged of by the rubbish afterwards turned out with hs initials upon it, and which is a libel on his reputation. I have saved some pieces of the old, and as they can never be replaced, I grudge to desecrate them by working on them.
To one who did so much with the point – pencil or chalk — lithography was a great gain, and he carried it to its full strength, applying it ever in new ways. Among these was lithotint, in which, at great cost of time and experiment, he ultimately succeeded, giving what was till then unknown, a reproduction of Indian ink or sepia drawing. The effect was so charming, and the process, as he completed it, so simple, that I have often wondered how it should have so soon fallen into disuse.
He worked sometimes with great decision and designed with facility. I remember a large draw-ing—antiquarian, I think of a distant view of the Alps, which, when he saw it on the exhibition walls, he took from its frame and sponged out the lower half, putting in an entirely new fore-ground and restoring it to its place in three hours. Neither of Harding’s two sons inherited his talent for art. His mantle, as a teacher, fell on W. Walker, of Manchester, a man quite his equal, if not superior, in the power of communicating instruction. This Harding highly appreciated, and left to him the republication of any of his works. Walker’s teaching was known in and around Manchester as being of the highest order, and to his influence Society owes many a useful member. He never went in for artistic reputation, but gave himself up to the work he could do so well, till paralysis laid him low, and has disabled him from all active labour. He leaves it to his son Wm. Eyre Walker, R.W.S., to take rank as a painter.
I should not do justice to these reminiscences of Harding if I omitted to mention his religious character, which those knew best who knew him best. And his convictions stood him in good stead when his end drew near. Though his fame never could rank among the greatest, he had fulfilled his mission. His influence in the development of art was far more than he is usually credited with. Others have reaped the fruit of his labours ; but it was he that did more than any to set the ball rolling which has gathered the force we see at this day.

The Magazine of Art 1898 Pg 80-82

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