The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Chapter XIV - Dilettantism

He took the drawing to Palgrave. It was closely pasted to an old, rather thin, cardboard mount, and, on holding it up to the window, one could see lines on the reverse. "Take it down to Reed at the British Museum," said Palgrave; "he is Curator of the drawings, and, if you ask him, he will have it taken off the mount." Adams amused himself for a day or two by searching Rafael's works for the figure, which he found at last in the Parnasso, the figure of Horace, of which, as it happened — though Adams did not know it — the British Museum owned a much finer drawing. At last he took the dirty, little, unfinished red-chalk sketch to Reed whom he found in the Curator's room, with some of the finest Rafael drawings in existence, hanging on the walls. "Yes!" said Mr Reed; "I noticed this at the sale; but it's not Rafael!" Adams, feeling himself incompetent to discuss this subject, reported the result to Palgrave, who said that Reed knew nothing about it. Also this point lay beyond Adams's competence; but he noted that Reed was in the employ of the British Museum as Curator of the best — or nearly the best — collection in the world, especially of Rafaels, and that he bought for the Museum. As expert he had rejected both the Rafael and the Rembrandt at first-sight, and after his attention was recalled to the Rafael for a further opinion he rejected it again.

A week later, Adams returned for the drawing, which Mr. Reed took out of his drawer and gave him, saying with what seemed a little doubt or hesitation: "I should tell you that the paper shows a water-mark, which I kind the same as that of paper used by Marc Antonio." A little taken back by this method of studying art, a method which even a poor and ignorant American might use as well as Rafael himself, Adams asked stupidly: "Then you think it genuine?" "Possibly!" replied Reed; "but much overdrawn."

Here was expert opinion after a second revise, with help of water-marks! In Adams's opinion it was alone worth another twelve shillings as education; but this was not all. Reed continued: "The lines on the back seem to be writing, which I cannot read, but if you will take it down to the manuscript-room, they will read it for you."

Adams took the sheet down to the keeper of the manuscripts and begged him to read the lines. The keeper, after a few minutes' study, very obligingly said he could not: "It is scratched with an artist's crayon, very rapidly, with many unusual abbreviations and old forms. If any one in Europe can read it, it is the old man at the table yonder, Libri! Take it to him!"

This expert broke down on the alphabet! He could not even judge a manuscript; but Adams had no right to complain, for he had nothing to pay, not even twelve shillings, though he thought these experts worth more, at least for his education. Accordingly he carried his paper to Libri, a total stranger to him, and asked the old man, as deferentially as possible, to tell him whether the lines had any meaning. Had Adams not been an ignorant person he would have known all about Libri, but his ignorance was vast, and perhaps was for the best. Libri looked at the paper, and then looked again, and at last bade him sit down and wait. Half an hour passed before he called Adams back and showed him these lines: — "Or questo credo ben che una elleria Te offende tanto che te offese il core. Perche sei grande nol sei in tua volia; Tu vedi e gia non credi il tuo valore; Passate gia son tutte gelosie; Tu sei di sasso; non hai piu dolore."

As far as Adams could afterwards recall it, this was Libri's reading, but he added that the abbreviations were many and unusual; that the writing was very ancient; and that the word he read as "elleria" in the first line was not Italian at all.

By this time, one had got too far beyond one's depth to ask questions. If Libri could not read Italian, very clearly Adams had better not offer to help him. He took the drawing, thanked everybody, and having exhausted the experts of the British Museum, took a cab to Woolner's studio, where he showed the figure and repeated Reed's opinion. Woolner snorted: "Reed's a fool!" he said; "he knows nothing about it; there maybe a rotten line or two, but the drawing's all right."

For forty years Adams kept this drawing on his mantelpiece, partly for its own interest, but largely for curiosity to see whether any critic or artist would ever stop to look at it. None ever did, unless he knew the story. Adams himself never wanted to know more about it. He refused to seek further light. He never cared to learn whether the drawing was Rafael's, or whether the verse were Rafael's, or whether even the water-mark was Rafael's. The experts — some scores of them including the British Museum, — had affirmed that the drawing was worth a certain moiety of twelve shillings. On that point, also, Adams could offer no opinion, but he was clear that his education had profited by it to that extent — his amusement even more.

Art was a superb field for education, but at every turn he met the same old figure, like a battered and illegible signpost that ought to direct him to the next station but never did. There was no next station. All the art of a thousand — or ten thousand — years had brought England to stuff which Palgrave and Woolner brayed in their mortars; derided, tore in tatters, growled at, and howled at, and treated in terms beyond literary usage. Whistler had not yet made his appearance in London, but the others did quite as well. What result could a student reach from it? Once, on returning to London, dining with Stopford Brooke, some one asked Adams what impression the Royal Academy Exhibition made on him. With a little hesitation, he suggested that it was rather a chaos, which he meant for civility; but Stopford Brooke abruptly met it by asking whether chaos were not better than death. Truly the question was worth discussion. For his own part, Adams inclined to think that neither chaos nor death was an object to him as a searcher of knowledge — neither would have vogue in America — neither would help him to a career. Both of them led him away from his objects, into an English dilettante museum of scraps, with nothing but a wall-paper to unite them in any relation of sequence. Possibly English taste was one degree more fatal than English scholarship, but even this question was open to argument. Adams went to the sales and bought what he was told to buy; now a classical drawing by Rafael or Rubens; now a water-color by Girtin or Cotman, if possible unfinished because it was more likely to be a sketch from nature; and he bought them not because they went together — on the contrary, they made rather awkward spots on the wall as they did on the mind — but because he could afford to buy those, and not others. Ten pounds did not go far to buy a Michael Angelo, but was a great deal of money to a private secretary. The effect was spotty, fragmentary, feeble; and the more so because the British mind was constructed in that way — boasted of it, and held it to be true philosophy as well as sound method.

What was worse, no one had a right to denounce the English as wrong. Artistically their mind was scrappy, and every one knew it, but perhaps thought itself, history, and nature, were scrappy, and ought to be studied so. Turning from British art to British literature, one met the same dangers. The historical school was a playground of traps and pitfalls. Fatally one fell into the sink of history — antiquarianism. For one who nourished a natural weakness for what was called history, the whole of British literature in the nineteenth century was antiquarianism or anecdotage, for no one except Buckle had tried to link it with ideas, and commonly Buckle was regarded as having failed. Macaulay was the English historian. Adams had the greatest admiration for Macaulay, but he felt that any one who should even distantly imitate Macaulay would perish in self-contempt. One might as well imitate Shakespeare. Yet evidently something was wrong here, for the poet and the historian ought to have different methods, and Macaulay's method ought to be imitable if it were sound; yet the method was more doubtful than the style. He was a dramatist; a painter; a poet, like Carlyle. This was the English mind, method, genius, or whatever one might call it; but one never could quite admit that the method which ended in Froude and Kinglake could be sound for America where passion and poetry were eccentricities. Both Froude and Kinglake, when one met them at dinner, were very agreeable, very intelligent; and perhaps the English method was right, and art fragmentary by essence. History, like everything else, might be a field of scraps, like the refuse about a Staffordshire iron-furnace. One felt a little natural reluctance to decline and fall like Silas Wegg on the golden dust-heap of British refuse; but if one must, one could at least expect a degree from Oxford and the respect of the Athenaeum Club.

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