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Memoirs of William Hazlitt
Ch. VII 1803-05

Chap. I 1778-1811
Ch. II: 1791-95
Ch. III 1795-98
Ch. IV 1798
Ch. V 1798
Ch. VI 1792-1803
‣ Ch. VII 1803-05
Ch. VIII 1803-05
Ch. IX
Ch. X 1807
Ch. XI 1808
Ch. XII 1808
Ch. XII 1812
Ch. XIV 1814-15
Ch. XV 1814-17
Ch. XVI 1818
Ch. XVII 1820
Ch. XX 1821
Ch. I 1821
Ch. II 1821-22
Ch. III 1821-22
Ch. IV 1822
Ch. V 1822
Ch. VI 1822
Ch. VII 1822-23
Ch. VIII 1822
Ch. IX 1823
Ch. X 1824
Ch. XI 1825
Ch. XII 1825
Ch. XIII 1825
Ch. XIV 1825
Ch. XV 1825
Ch. XVI 1825-27
Ch. XVII 1826-28
Ch. XVIII 1829-30
Ch. XX
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The young painter in the provinces—Tour in Lancashire, Yorkshire, &c.—Autobiographical recollections—Second appearance in print.

His next step was to undertake a professional tour in the north of England, and it appears that he was not unsuccessful in obtaining sitters. But my notes go no farther than a bare record of his having painted the Rev. Dr. Shepherd of Gateacre, the poet Wordsworth,* and Coleridge’s son Hartley, whom his family nicknamed Pi-Po.

To this Lancashire tour belongs, in order of time, I surmise, his visit to Daniel Stringer, the artist, at Knutsford.

“I saw some spirited sketches,” he says. “One of the blacksmith swallowing the tailor’s news, from Shake-

* Wordsworth, in a letter to my father of May 23, 1831, says of my grandfather: “I cannot recollect that I ever saw him but once since the year 1803 or 1804, when he passed some time in this neighbourhood. He was then practising portrait-painting, with professional views. At his desire, I sat to him, but as he did not satisfy himself or my friends, the unfinished work was destroyed.”—W. C. H.

speare, in an unfinished state; and a capital female figure by
Cignani. All his skill and love of art had, I found, been sacrificed to his delight in Cheshire ale and the company of country squires. Tom Kershaw of Manchester used to say that he would rather have been Dan Stringer than Sir Joshua Reynolds at twenty years of age.”

I gather, however, that he also visited the Railtons of Liverpool in his way, even if he did not paint some of them. It was at their house that he stayed a short time in 1790, if I am not mistaken; and more lately, on his going abroad, Mr. Railton, who seems to have been on friendly terms with Mr. Hazlitt of Wem, intrusted to him one or two commissions. Of these he speaks in his correspondence. In the ‘Conversations of Northcote,’ with which Northcote had next to nothing to do, he characterizes Railton as “a very excellent man, and a good patriot.” His descendants are still at Liverpool, or were very lately.

Whatever may have been his opportunities of seeing the Railtons, or of judging of their characters, one point is clear, that he fell in love with one of the daughters; and it was the earliest adventure of this description which he had yet met with, unless more implicit faith than I have supposed is to be put in an allegation of De Quincey’s—of which more hereafter. He was now five-and-twenty, and the young lady was of about the same age. She was possessed of considerable personal attractions, with very dangerous dark eyes. My grandfather was strongly smitten, and I have understood that
the attachment was not wholly on one side. Something might have come of the affair, had the family approved of the alliance; but they did not view with a very favourable eye the prospect of a connexion with a struggling artist, and relations were broken off. I conceive that it must have been while the courtship was still in progress, that Miss Railton sat to
John Hazlitt for that beautiful miniature on ivory of her, which is now for the first time engraved; and the presumption is, that, upon the discouragement of my grandfather’s attentions by the parents, the likeness was returned.

His personal recollections of this period of his life are more likely to interest than what has gone immediately before. But as the incident I have just reported is a new one in his history, I may be pardoned for having introduced it without anything approaching to sufficient data for making a connected and intelligible narrative of it.

An interesting little love adventure, which he met with down at the Lakes, while he was upon his first experimental trip in search of sitters, is so distinctly alluded to in a letter from Lamb to Wordsworth, that I shall just give what Lamb says about it; premising that Patmore had heard in his time of some story of my grandfather being struck by the charms of a village beauty in Wordsworth’s neighbourhood, and of having narrowly escaped being ducked by the swains for his ill-appreciated attentions.

Wordsworth had evidently described the whole affair in a letter to Lamb. The latter writes back to him:—


“The ‘’scapes’ of the great god Pan, who appeared among your mountains some dozen years since [1803], and his narrow chance of being submerged by the swains, afforded me much pleasure. I can conceive the water-nymphs pulling for him. He would have been another Hylas—W. Hylas. In a mad letter which Capel Lofft wrote to M[onthly] M[agazine] Phillips (now Sir Richard), I remember his noticing a metaphysical article of Pan, signed H., and adding, ‘I take your correspondent to be the same with Hylas.’”

It seems that “little Mr. De Quincey” (Southey wished “he was not so little, and would not always forget his greatcoat”) got hold of a report that Mr. H. was also smitten by Miss Wordsworth, the poet’s sister Dorothy. It was, if true, like some of his others, a Buncle-ish passion, and came to nothing. W. H. was at this time twenty, and Dorothy Wordsworth was twenty-seven. I confess that I place very little reliance on the statement; but as I find it, so I set it down.

Again I become only a transcriber. He says:—

“I remember well being introduced to a patron of art and rising merit at a little distance from Liverpool, and was received with every mark of attention and politeness, till the conversation turning on Italian literature, our host remarked that there was nothing in the English language corresponding to the severity of the Italian ode, except, perhaps, Dryden’sAlexander’s Feast,’ and Pope’sSt. Cecilia!’ I could no longer contain my desire to display my smattering in criticism, and began to maintain that Pope’s ‘Ode’ was, as
it appeared to me, far from an example of severity in writing. I soon perceived what I had done. . . . .

“I once lived on coffee (as an experiment) for a fortnight together, while I was finishing the copy of a half-length portrait of a Manchester manufacturer, who died worth a plum. I rather slurred over the coat, which was a reddish brown, ‘of formal cut,’ to receive my five guineas, with which I went to market myself, and dined on sausages and mashed potatoes, and while they were getting ready, and I could hear them hissing in the pan, read a volume of ‘Gil Blas,’ containing the account of the fair Aurora. This was in the days of my youth. Gentle reader, do not smile! Neither Monsieur de Véry, nor Louis XVIII., over an oyster-pâté, nor Apicius himself, ever understood the meaning of the word luxury better than I did at that moment!

“I have heard an anecdote connected with the reputation of Gainsborough’s pictures, which rests on pretty good authority. Sir Joshua Reynolds, at one of the Academy dinners, speaking of Gainsborough, said to a friend, ‘He is undoubtedly the best English landscape-painter.’ ‘No,’ said Wilson, who overheard the conversation, ‘he is not the best landscape-painter, but he is the best portrait-painter in England.’

“The first head I ever tried to paint was an old woman’s, with the upper part of the face shaded by her bonnet, and I certainly laboured [at] it with great perseverance. It took me numberless sittings to do it. I have it by me still [1821], and sometimes look at it with surprise, to think how much pains were thrown
away to little purpose; yet not altogether in vain, if it taught me to see good in everything, and to know that there is nothing vulgar in nature seen with the eye of science or of true art. . . . I spared no pains to do my best. If art was long, I thought that life was so too at that moment. I got in the general effect the first day, and pleased and surprised enough I was at my success. The rest was a work of time—of weeks and months (if need were) of patient toil and careful finishing. I had seen an old head by
Rembrandt at Burleigh House; and if I could produce a head at all like Rembrandt in a year, it would be glory and felicity, and wealth and fame enough for me. The head I had seen at Burleigh was an exact and wonderful facsimile of nature, and I resolved to make mine (as nearly as I could) an exact facsimile of nature. . . . The picture was never finished, and I might have gone on with it to the present hour.*

“Statuary does not affect me like painting. I am not, I allow, a fair judge, having paid a great deal more attention to the one than to the other. Nor did I ever think of the first as a profession; and it is that perhaps which adds the sting to our love of excellence, the hope of attaining it ourselves in any particular walk. . . . .

* “The person who sat to him for this picture (nearly destroyed by megilp) was an old cottager he met near Manchester. She died very soon after her likeness was taken. The picture used for a long time to hang in Mr. John Hunt’s room, when he was in Coldbath Fields Prison, and Mr. Hazlitt would go there and gaze at it fondly. It is now in the hands of the family.

One reason, however, why I prefer painting to sculpture is, that painting is more like nature. It gives one an entire and satisfactory view of an object at a particular moment of time, which sculpture never does. It is not the same in reality, I grant; but it is the same in appearance, which is all we are concerned with.”

Among other essays in painting which he made upon commission, was a half-length of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with which he was put out of conceit by witnessing a performance of Indian jugglers; and a head of Lear, which, from all that I can learn, was quite an early experiment. It is a sketch of the head and shoulders of the old mad king, with his white hair waving in the wind, very characteristic and Shakespearian.

He was very impatient with himself, and when he could not produce the effect he desired, he has been known to cut the canvas into ribbons. The grand object of his ambition as an artist was the illustration of the subject of Jacob’s Ladder; and here he never, in his own estimation, so much as approached success.

In 1804 he commenced a portrait of his father, who was now beginning to get on in years. He shall speak for himself:—

“One of my first attempts was a picture of my father, who was then in a green old age, with strongly marked features, and scarred with the small-pox. I drew it with a broad light crossing the face, looking down, with spectacles on, reading. The book was ‘Shaftesbury’s Characteristics,’ in a fine old binding, with Gribelin’s etchings. My father would as lieve it had been any
other book; but for him to read was to be content,—was ‘riches priceless.’ The sketch promised well; and I set to work to finish it, determined to spare no time nor pains. . . . He had some pride in the artist, though he would rather I should have written a sermon than have painted like
Rembrandt or like Raphael. Those winter days, with the gleams of sunshine coming through the chapel-windows, and cheered by the notes of the robin-redbreast in our garden [at Wem]. . . . were among the happiest of my life. I used regularly to set my work in the chair, to look at it through the long evenings; and many a time did I return to take leave of it before I could go to bed at night. I remember sending it with a throbbing heart to the Exhibition, and seeing it hung up there by the side of the Honourable Mr. Skeffington (now Sir George). . . . I think, but I’m not sure, that I finished this portrait (or another afterwards) on the same day that the news of the battle of Austerlitz came. I walked out in the afternoon; and as I returned, saw the sun set over a poor man’s cottage, with other thoughts and feelings than I shall ever have again.*

“I am sure, my father had as little vanity for the art as most persons; yet when he had sat to me a few times . . . . he grew evidently uneasy when it was a fine day, that is, when the sun shone into the room, so that we could not paint; and when it became

* ‘On the Pleasures of Painting.’ The picture referred to, a very fine one, quite in the Rembrandt style, is still in possession of the family.

cloudy, began to bustle about, and ask me if I was not getting ready. . . . Between my father’s love of sitting and mine of painting, we hit upon a tolerable likeness at last; but the picture is cracked and gone, and megilp (the bane of the English school) has destroyed as fine an old Nonconformist head as one could hope to see in these degenerate times.”

The operation of the megilp has not been quite so fatal in the present instance as the painter’s words might leave us to conclude. The picture is still in existence, and although the deleterious element in the old varnish has undoubtedly damaged it to some slight extent, it is in very fair preservation at this moment, after upwards of sixty years’ exposure to all atmospheric influences. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806, when perhaps the artist had made up his mind to let it go, and to give no more last touches.

It was in 1804, also, that he finished, after eight years’ labour, his ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Actions,’ which he had begun proprio motu, and persevered in at the instigation of Coleridge, who found him at work upon it in 1798. He had great difficulty in procuring a publisher for a book so ill-calculated to meet with popular demand. His brother’s friends, however, lent him a helping hand here; and he obtained, through one of them, an introduction to Mr. Johnson, of St. Paul’s Churchyard, who undertook the speculation, and brought out the essay in 1805, in an octavo volume of 263 pages.


The sale was slow and small, and I do not believe that the author ever received a penny from it. The pleasure of having written it was his only, as it was his greatest, reward. Yet not his only reward, neither; for he heard it mentioned with commendation and respect by persons whose opinion he could not but value. Among his admirers was Mr. Scarlett, afterwards Lord Abinger. The tradition in the family (true or untrue) is that Scarlett communicated his favourable estimate of the treatise to my grandfather; and that the latter might have reaped, from the connexion thus opened, considerable advantage and eventual emolument, if the Rev. Mr. Hazlitt had not inculcated upon his son the idea that his new correspondent had sinister designs upon his liberty of action.

Upon this book, which never was, and never could be popular, he was pleased to take his stand.

“The only thing I ever piqued myself upon was the writing the ‘Essay on the Principles of Human Actions,’” he assures us repeatedly.

It had the strongest possible hold on his affection; and when it was printed, he set about making notes in his own copy, adding, altering, and taking away, with a distinct view to a new edition, which was thirty years making its way to the public.

He had abandoned now all expectation of succeeding as an artist; but it was while he was in London, in 1805, as I have some reason to think, that he painted the portrait of Lamb in the costume of a Venetian Senator, which has this double interest, that is, the likeness of so
dear and old a friend, and that it was the last time that he took the pencil in hand.* The picture represents Lamb as he was about thirty, and it is by far the most pleasing and characteristic resemblance we possess of him as a comparatively young man. The costume was the painter’s whim, and must be said to detract from the effect of the whole.

* Perhaps with the exception of a copy of Titian, which he attempted to make for a friend later in life; but this was never completed.