Author: Caroline Palmer (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
In 1845 the Athenaeum bemoaned the loss to the nation of an ‘exquisite fragment’ by Filippino Lippi: the Angel Adoring once owned by the painter Augustus Wall Callcott and his wife Maria (1785–1842). This early painting, probably bought by Maria herself, epitomizes the revolutionary ideas set out in her publications on art. Initially known for her travel writing, she launched her art historical career in 1820 with a pioneering biography of Nicolas Poussin. A friend of painters such as Thomas Lawrence and J. M. W. Turner, she was especially close to Charles Eastlake and shared his desire to promote late medieval and early Renaissance art. On honeymoon in 1827 and 1828, Maria viewed such Primitive works in Germany and Italy, meeting the curators and artists who were producing a ‘revolution’ in taste. The trip resulted in Maria’s groundbreaking Essays Towards the History of Painting (1836). Prevented by ill health from making a substantial published contribution to the history of art, Maria Callcott influenced artistic debates of the day through her informal salon in Kensington. This article examines how she used her personal networks and travel experience to reassess works by the old masters, challenging conventional ideas, while also helping to combat prejudice against the female connoisseur.
Keywords: art criticism, women's writing, Nicholas Poussin, Charles Eastlake, Lady Callcott, Maria Graham, history of taste, female connoisseurship
How to Cite: Palmer, C. (2019) “‘A revolution in art’: Maria Callcott on Poussin, Painting, and the Primitives”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. 2019(28). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.833
In May 1845 the Athenaeum expressed outrage at the apparent loss to the British nation of an ‘exquisite fragment’ by Filippino Lippi (1457–1504): an ‘antique fresco’ of An Angel Adoring owned by the late landscape painter Augustus Wall Callcott (1779–1844) and his wife Maria (1785–1842), and recently sold at Christie’s (Fig. 1).1 The ‘cream of gentlemen critics’ in Trafalgar Square, the writer declared, should blush with shame to see this gem snapped up by a dealer instead of being ‘enshrined for universal homage’ in the National Gallery.2 Suggesting that the trustees had been lulled to sleep by the murmuring of their new fountains, the writer, George Darley, begged ‘their Somnolencies to wake up and look about them’, pointing to other recent wasted opportunities to acquire important works for the national collection: Charles Aders’s fine copy of Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece (c. 1625) and a ‘Memling’ sold to the poet Samuel Rogers, for example; and the magnificent Thomas Lawrence collection of Raphael and Michelangelo drawings purchased for the University of Oxford.3 Darley found this all the more inexplicable because Charles Eastlake, keeper of the National Gallery, was known to be a partisan of the ‘Grandiose Antique style’ (‘Filippino’, p. 548). Eastlake, of course, was hamstrung by bureaucracy — a situation with which many museum professionals will be only too familiar.4 However, it is perhaps odd that he did not do more to persuade the trustees to acquire this particular painting, given that he had long been a close friend of Maria, Lady Callcott.
Eastlake had first met her in Malta with her then husband Captain Thomas Graham, and in 1819 they lodged together in the same house in Rome, near the Spanish Steps.5 ‘Dear Carlo’, as Maria later called him, supplied illustrations for her account of a journey they undertook together, Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome (1820), and spoke of him warmly, as being like ‘a brother’ to her.6 Maria Graham, later Callcott, was according to one reviewer ‘a perfect phenomenon in the history of woman’.7 Variously described as ‘intrepid’ and ‘undaunted’, she was not to everyone’s taste: Lady Holland, for example, sympathized with ‘poor Callcott’ on the announcement of their engagement.8 Today, Maria is perhaps best known for her lively travel writing, thanks to her stays in India, Brazil, and Chile.9 She first worked for John Murray as a reader, translator, and author, with interests ranging from history to geology and botany, before focusing increasingly on art.
Maria had been interested in art from an early age, visiting Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill through her uncle Sir David Dundas and the Miss Berrys, and being taught drawing by William Crotch and William Delamotte (Gotch, pp. 26, 44, 63–64). However, it may well have been Eastlake and the painter Thomas Lawrence who first persuaded her to write specifically on art (Gotch, p. 58). She knew Lawrence from her time in Richmond as a teenager, and the friendship between the three is underlined by the portrait sketch of Maria painted in Eastlake’s studio in Rome, and given by Lawrence to Eastlake in exchange for some of his sketches (Fig. 2). Maria’s close relationship with Murray may also have contributed to this move towards art historical publications, and her pioneering Memoirs of the Life of Nicholas Poussin (1820) undoubtedly encouraged him to commission further art-related translations and reviews.10 In this biography Maria underlined the value of artists as connoisseurs, emphasizing the importance of their practical knowledge for appreciating art of the past. She clearly based her comments concerning Poussin’s technique and use of colour on her conversations with living artists, such as Lawrence, Eastlake, and J. M. W. Turner — another friend met through the painter John Linnell. The work was overtly patriotic, encouraging contemporary British artists to take Poussin as their model for his gritty determination to succeed without relying on autocratic patronage. She praised his landscapes and mythological subjects, while criticizing his Madonnas as too ‘austere and dignified’ (pp. 112, 145).
Reviews of the book were not universally positive, but although some considered the text derivative, based on French and Italian sources, others recognized its more innovative aspects, such as the catalogue of Poussin’s works, which included prints made after them.11 Maria stressed that Poussin’s cerebral paintings appealed to the understanding rather than to the eye, and so were especially ‘favourable to engraving, as they depend[ed] more on composition than colour’ (p. 179). Drawing on previous writings by Reynolds, Walpole, and Fuseli, she nevertheless handled her sources critically. Controversially, for example, she criticized the great Deluge in the Louvre (Fig. 3), the most praised of all Poussin’s works, for tackling an impossible subject. ‘One critic has followed another, till it is become a kind of heresy to dispute its justice’, but she insisted that ‘the effect of the whole picture is unpleasant’ (pp. 124, 125).12 As late as 1900 her book was still the only biography to have been published on Poussin, and had been translated into French and German. One reviewer pointed out the unfairness of Maria being remembered as the author of the popular children’s book Little Arthur’s History of England (1835) rather than for her far more scholarly work on Poussin.13
This was a tentative start, but Maria’s connoisseurial confidence was growing. As she wrote to Lawrence in 1820, ‘I am no connoisseur […] but I can feel — & moreover I can be alive to what the painter meant to say.’14 Ultimately, Maria — like Eastlake — promoted art that lay beyond the prevailing canon of early nineteenth-century Britain, and herein lies her importance for art history.15 When the Callcotts embarked on their lengthy honeymoon tour of Europe in 1827 and 1828, the couple deliberately sought out early works in Germany and Italy, meeting the curators and artists who were producing ‘a revolution in art’ and taste.16 It was less of a honeymoon and more of an extended research trip. In particular, the Callcotts went in hunt of the Boisserée collection, which they finally tracked down in Munich and to which they gained privileged access.17
In a sense they went as representatives of a small coterie of British enthusiasts for early art, including their artist friends and collectors — such as William Young Ottley, David Wilkie, William Hilton, Thomas Phillips, and Dawson Turner, for example (Collier and Palmer, pp. 4–5). Their conscious mission was to study first-hand the works of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century artists, and to bring back news of the latest Continental ‘discoveries’ for their friends. The second part of their plan was to examine the revival of fresco painting by the Nazarenes busily at work in Bonn, Munich, and Rome, and to obtain information on their techniques and materials (Collier and Palmer, pp. 39–42).
The Callcotts were particularly unusual in their taste for early Northern European art, as inspired by August and Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and the Boisserée brothers, Sulpiz and Melchior. They were among the first to appreciate works by the Cologne school and to question the pre-eminence of Dürer (Collier and Palmer, p. 143). Like Eastlake, they had a thorough awareness of recent German scholarship, and through their travels forged lasting links with like-minded enthusiasts, such as Gustav Waagen, Johann David Passavant, the Nazarene painter Karl Christian Vogel in Dresden, and the collector August Kestner, Hanoverian minister in Rome. A letter written to Goethe by Sulpiz Boisserée reveals how warmly the German cultural elite responded to the Callcotts; he praises Augustus for his outstanding connoisseurship and understanding of colour, while recommending that Goethe’s daughter-in-law Ottilie should get to know the witty and intelligent (‘geistreich’) Maria, who, like a ‘second Odysseus’, had travelled many lands and oceans.18 As in the case of Anna Jameson and the Eastlakes, the German connection was a vital component in the Callcotts’ approach to connoisseurship, inspiring their interest in pre-Renaissance artists (Jenny Graham, pp. 53–89).
The tour was very much a joint project, relying on Augustus Callcott’s art-world connections and expertise as a painter, and numerous notebooks were compiled by the couple en route, along with meticulous catalogues and gallery descriptions.19 However, Maria’s more discursive journal of the trip was ultimately designed to transmit new ideas from the Continent, not just to painters and connoisseurs, but to a much broader audience. This is clear from an unpublished manuscript in Oxford which is an adapted version of the start of the honeymoon journal. Written in letter form, it indicates that Maria was planning a travel book for a general readership, which would explain and promote the High and Low German schools.20 She has a lively way of bringing the past alive for this non-specialist audience by making cross-cultural connections. For example, she uses the experience of seeing pictures exhibited in a marketplace in Germany to explain the function of medieval ‘series’ paintings, which taught moral tales by showing the lives of the saints as a kind of ‘strip cartoon’, or ‘raree show’.21 She gives detailed accounts of works in Augsburg and Munich, and stresses the importance of the early German and Flemish schools as an epoch in the history of art.
Maria was recognized as an important writer by a number of key German connoisseurs. Passavant, for example, who had met her when visiting England in 1831, acknowledged her as the author of many ‘highly-esteemed works’, while Waagen commented, ‘I have very seldom seen a woman in whose features so much depth of feeling is united with so much mind.’22 He describes receiving a copy of the Description of the Annunziata dell’Arena; or, Giotto’s Chapel in Padua (1835) — one of the earliest publications to draw attention to the tender beauties of Giotto, based on notes by Maria and drawings first made by her husband in 1827.23 The work was limited in its impact, being privately printed, but its influence extended to key individuals in Britain and across Europe. Apart from the British recipients, copies were sent to Vogel and Johann Frenzel in Dresden, to Passavant and Waagen, Carlo Lasinio and Kestner in Italy, and to the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.24
This groundbreaking publication was an outcome of the Callcotts’ joint honeymoon project (though undertaken primarily to distract Maria during her severe illness). However, the second publication broadly based on the tour was Maria’s own. It was her modestly titled Essays Towards the History of Painting (1836), with its Continuation — a single essay published in 1838. There are few reviews, but most agree on the particular value of Maria’s final chapter on materials and techniques, based on her awareness of actual use as well as thorough historical research. Her closeness to painters — especially to Augustus — was again of central importance here, as was the opportunity to study unfinished paintings while on tour. Discussions with the Nazarenes and Carlo Lasinio in Pisa led to a fresh understanding of fresco, while her enquiries on the chemical properties of pigments were answered by Humphry Davy. As in the case of Mary Merrifield, Maria used her extensive network to boost her authority, while claiming to write as a mere ‘unpretending’ lover of art.25
In this context Maria makes a virtue of what she calls her ‘homely’ approach, using examples drawn from everyday life, as opposed to displaying ‘the pride of unusual learning’.26 It was not just women writers on art who took this approach at the time, but also many middle-class male writers, upholding the value of ‘common sense’ as against the myopic focus of the gentleman connoisseur, blinded by excess classical learning to the evidence of his own eyes (a frequent topos of eighteenth-century art-writing).27 This had been Hogarth’s strategy, to emphasize the valuable clear-sightedness of those who were apparently excluded from the intellectual elite — even women and servants!28 Maria’s advantage was that in addition to this ‘no-nonsense’ freshness of vision, she could offer a great breadth of examples, casting her gaze across a worldwide field, from Europe to India, Chile, and Brazil, as well as taking a long view of history. Her greatest innovation in the Essays was to call for deeper appreciation of certain medieval artists, placing them as equals alongside later Renaissance painters.
Maria was original in many of her ideas but was prevented from publishing as much as she would have liked by ill health. From 1831 she was in considerable pain, barely able to write, and confined to her home; reading was almost her sole amusement, she told Passavant in 1833.29 The poet Joanna Baillie described her in 1836 as being in a ‘very weak state’ though still ‘full of spirit, industry and animation’: ‘She gave me a copy of her last Essay on the history of Painting which she expects to be the last thing she shall ever write.’30 It is regrettable that Maria’s ambitious plans were frustrated. Her published Essays were only a small fragment of the work she planned, as she makes clear in several letters. According to the Continuation of her Essays, she had intended mapping the development of art alongside the progress of European society from the second to the fifteenth centuries, tracing in particular the transfer of art from east to west, and from south to north.31 Copious notes survive, spread across the collections of the Bodleian Library, the Courtauld Institute, and the Royal Academy, covering everything from Druidical stone circles to the art of Sweden, Spain, and Bohemia.32
In another manuscript of c. 1834, entitled ‘Extracts from Some Letters Written to a Person in Rome’, Maria writes on the representation of sibyls by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Perugino, as well as emphasizing the debt owed to earlier medieval artists by these great masters of the Renaissance.33 She explains the historical background to the sibyls as ‘prophetical ladies’, justifying their adoption by the early Christian church for their oracular sayings foretelling the coming of Christ. In a second essay she then explains the typology of the Sistine Chapel, advising visitors to look more closely at the earlier frescoes along the side walls, by Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli, depicting scenes from the life of Moses. While admiring Michelangelo’s ceiling, she emphasizes the profound achievements of his predecessors, and expresses annoyance at the notion peddled by ciceroni that earlier ages were unaware of typological links. ‘In the name of common sense,’ she pleads, ‘pause before you ascribe to the invention of one man that which Ages had been gradually preparing.’34 These ‘letters’ were most likely written in response to questions from a real or imagined travelling correspondent (perhaps her cousin Sir William Dundas), and Maria must have considered publishing the text with illustrations. She commissioned through Linnell a copy after a Perugino print, writing to him, ‘I wish to have the group of sibyls only copied, the rest not belonging to my subject.’35 This was probably a print after the fresco in the Collegio del Cambio, Perugia — possibly the engraving by Francesco Cecchini (Fig. 4).
I would argue that despite her few publications on art, Maria Callcott wielded considerable influence over artistic debates of the day through her ‘salon’ at the Mall, Kensington Gravel Pits during the 1830s. As in the case of the collectors Charles Aders and Samuel Rogers, she must have played an informal role in transforming the climate of aesthetic opinion.36 Although housebound, she corresponded with figures in the art world across Europe — sending Passavant lists of corrections to his publication on English collections, for example.37
Within England, Maria maintained a web of contacts with those who shared her fascination with early printmaking and manuscript illumination, swapping books and portfolios of prints — with Linnell, John Flaxman, Dawson Turner, and Francis Palgrave. She borrowed Samuel Rogers’s collection of drawings of the Sistine Chapel, for example, then thought to be by Vasari, and it was while they were with the Callcotts that Linnell saw them and decided to create facsimile copies, published in 1833.38 Many of Maria’s interests overlapped with those of the antiquary Francis Douce (1757–1834), including Holbein’s Dance of Death, and the recently uncovered murals of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster.39 Like Douce, Maria had an interest in early British art that Eastlake did not display, while also sharing Douce’s thematic approach to visual material, ranging across cultures, and from high to low art.40 The connection between them is highlighted by the publication The Seven Ages of Shakespeare, illustrated by Maria’s artist-friends William Mulready, Wilkie, and C. R. Leslie, as well as by her husband. Maria contributes to the theme of the Ages of Man a Hebrew parable from the Midrash Kohelet, revealing her continuing interest in cross-cultural religious links.41 She suggests early visual examples by Tobias Stimmer and Federighi of Siena, while Douce supplies a woodcut from a children’s picture book of 1658.
Despite her lack of any official position, Maria was therefore vital in forging connections between members of the artistic community, just as Mary Berry had done in an earlier period.42 When Eastlake translated August Kestner’s Über die Nachahmung in der Malerei (‘On Imitation in Painting’, 1818), for example, Maria offered to show the work to Murray, in the hope of getting it published — unsuccessfully, as it turned out.43 Kestner described the Callcotts as the ‘best people in the world’, having established relations with them of ‘mutual Attachement’.44 Maria continued to write to him during the 1830s, expressing her views on the unsuitability of fresco for the English climate and discussing recent discoveries in the Etruscan tombs.45 In a letter delivered by Ludwig Grüner, she also introduced the sculptor Laurence Macdonald (1799–1878) to Passavant, requesting that he show him ‘whatever is most worth seeing in Frankfort — As a Sculptor of great talent he will of course be anxious to see Danecker’s Ariadne & as a lover of Art pray shew him the Staedel & whatever private collections you have.’46 Such pan-European introductions were important, despite the fact that it is difficult to quantify their impact.
Maria may also have had some influence on contemporary painters, while lying ‘somewhat imperious in her state chamber’.47 E. V. Rippingille underlines this in his ‘Recollections’; he describes Augustus Callcott as a ‘somewhat stately personage’, his ‘subdued’ manner forming a strong contrast with his
talented partner, whose lively talk […] upon any subject that turned up, never failed to excite surprise, attention, and interest […]. A social and a hospitable feeling was found in his house, by which many intelligent people were brought together, and the utmost freedom and ease prevailed.48
Although Maria complained to Passavant that she could not attend the Royal Academy summer exhibitions — for ‘alas! I am a prisoner’ — many paintings were brought to her sickbed beforehand so she could offer her thoughts to the painters concerned. She then transmitted news of these paintings to Passavant in Frankfurt and Kestner in Rome, describing works by Mulready, Landseer, Leslie, Wilkie, and Linnell — all but the very biggest canvases.49 She kept Passavant up to date with the opening of the National Gallery, parliamentary reform, and with news of Ottley’s appointment to the British Museum.50 Informally too, Maria seems to have given advice to Queen Victoria on prints and collecting, via her friend Marianne Skerrett, the Queen’s head dresser.51
Apart from this exchange of information, the Redgraves give a fascinating glimpse into the physical context of the Callcott household where, according to a poem written by Maria, there were ‘gold-ground saints of face demure | From Pisa — more than half a score’. Some of these are visible in the sepia sketch by her great-nephew John Callcott Horsley (Fig. 5).52 On the wall to the left we see the Lippi painting, which is likely to be the ‘head of Botticelli’ Maria describes buying in Florence from the restorer Natale Ussi in Santa Croce on 19 December 1827.53
This Lippi was one of sixteen lots of early paintings, then attributed to Giunta Pisano, Giotto, Benozzo Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio, and Fra Angelico, listed in the Christie and Manson sale catalogue of the Callcott collection on 8 May 1845. Many of these were probably fragments of dismembered altarpieces acquired through Carlo Lasinio in Pisa.54 Also mentioned in George Darley’s Athenaeum article is ‘another very curious […] antique’, a Giunta Pisano Virgin and Child on copper, just four by three inches in size, ‘the late Mr. Ottley’s picture so-called’ (‘Sale’, p. 499). Although Waagen is said to have described it as ‘Greekish’, Darley insists that it improves on the early Greek style, as the impasto is ‘full of brushmarks, not smooth and japanned; the expression earnest and individual, not copied mechanically after the one Byzantine prototype’ (pp. 499–500). Both Virgin and Child wear black tiaras, ‘arabesqued with small red and white roses’; ‘the Virgin also wears a hooded mantle […] adorned in front with a pelican vulning herself between two of her brood […]. Golden glories and background of course.’55
It is difficult to judge the effect of such paintings on the Callcotts’ many visitors. As in the case of Ottley’s domestic picture gallery, hung ‘floor to ceiling with pictures by the old pre-Raphaelite artists’, so it must have been with the Callcotts’ home.56 Their regular evening parties brought together important figures in the art world, as well as musicians, writers, and other intellectuals. Waagen, for example, described a ‘congenial’ gathering chez Callcott where he met Eastlake, Eduard Magnus, a portrait painter from Berlin, and Dr Rosen, an expert in Oriental languages.57 These interdisciplinary and cross-European exchanges must have facilitated the development of fresh insights.
Dwelling in the ‘very densest atmosphere of art’, as wife to a respected painter at the centre of the art establishment, Maria Callcott used her wide personal networks and travel experience to challenge the accepted canon of taste.58 On both a personal level and in print, she contributed to the transformation of conventional wisdom regarding early Renaissance art, while also helping to combat prejudice against women writers and connoisseurs. Evidence of that continuing prejudice can be found in responses to her publications. There is the usual backhanded compliment, for example, in a review of the Essays: ‘It is a work of more substance and research, of more positive knowledge and practical information, […] than it is either usual or reasonable to expect at the hands of lady authors.’59
Rather more obliquely, in the very Athenaeum article that praises her Lippi painting, Darley reveals continuing resistance to female connoisseurship. He recalls Samuel Woodburn’s exhibitions of the Lawrence drawings where the Leonardos, Michelangelos, and Raphaels ‘produced a thin attendance of enthusiasts, all mute and almost all masculine’ — while those by the Carracci ‘drew a throng of both sexes, all bustle, rustle, ecstasies, — and exclamations, the fair fanatics (save for their tight stays which restrained them a little, like strait-waistcoats) threatening to run mad with amatorial raptures’. He characterizes the ‘higher gusto’ for Raphael and Michelangelo as ‘caviare’ for the masculine elect, while the vulgar-minded ‘inferior smack’ for Murillos and Carlo Dolces is seen as ‘ketchup’ for the female multitude (‘Sale’, p. 499, emphases in original).
The age-old prejudice against women as serious viewers of art is still in evidence here — a prejudice rife in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — and which Maria Callcott was resisting in publishing on art. Her choice of history-painting heavyweights like Michelangelo and Poussin was especially challenging, since women were believed to dislike the ‘grand manner’.60 How ironic that such prejudice should continue to be expressed in the context of a painting sale that amply demonstrated a woman’s revolutionary connoisseurship.
Darley comments in the article on the change in taste that had swept over England in the previous ten years. A decade before, he writes, the Lippi angel would have been dismissed as ‘uncouth’ and ‘wooden’; ‘every petty vial of wrathful criticism’ would have been ‘poured upon it’ and the ‘vocabulary of vulgar vituperation emptied to the dregs’. Whereas now it was described as ‘graceful, dignified, […] expressive! angel-like indeed’ (‘Sale’, p. 499). Having had the truth about the beauty of early Renaissance art thundered into their ears for the last ten years, he declares, the English public are at last listening to reason.
Along with Ottley, Jameson, and the Eastlakes, Maria’s was one of the voices that had long been thundering that truth into the ears of the British public. For Maria, the lifetime of Raphael marked a fundamental change from the ‘old intellectual style’ to the ‘new sensual style’.61 She was one of the first to describe Bolognese art as vulgar, mannered, and decadent, while admiring the predecessors to Michelangelo and Raphael as pure, noble, and graceful. Indirectly, Darley was acknowledging the success of her influence, while still belittling the vulgar-mindedness of ‘Carracci-bitten, Murillo-mad’ female viewers.62
The Lippi angel was not in fact lost to the nation, as Darley first feared, but was sold to the liberal politician Wynn Ellis via the Sloane Street dealer Bentley (‘The Filippino’, pp. 548–49). It was ultimately bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1876 and stands as a reminder of Maria Callcott’s contribution to the rediscovery of the Primitives.63 Typical of her taste, it exemplifies the revolutionary ideas set out in her publications and unpublished manuscripts.