I Am unfortunate enough to “have a taste” and very little money; indeed I am doubly and trebly unfortunate, for this makes my third “taste.” Once upon a time (not in the days of the fairies, but during my first term at college), it was ancient editions of the Greek classics, bound in vellum, clasped in brass, with wonderful and frousty texts, all abbreviations of the most complex kind, and paper of the brownest hue. This “taste” cost me all my “tin,” more than all my patience, and, what is worse, nearly all my eyesight. I see, of course, at the present moment, and fully intend to see, but then it is now through the medium of spectacles.
Some years after came “Taste” Number Two. I became mad after mezzotints, I raved after prints in general, and grew positively dangerous about line-engravings. I am not a great pedestrian, indeed I prefer sitting, with an occasional lounge on my back, to any other position: but I think during the three years of Taste Number Two’s reign, I must have walked at the very least something over eight thousand miles in search of “subjects.”
I went into new book shops, old book shops, curiosity shops, ladies’ wardrobe shops, lumber shops, old furniture shops, frame shops, undertakers’ shops, all sorts of shops. The only questions I ever asked anybody, anywhere, at any time, during those three years, were, I firmly believe, “How d’ye do?” and “Have you any old engravings for sale?”
And then, when after a day’s march I had secured my spoil, how I used to gloat over it! Up during the night with a great goggle-eyed magnifying glass of gigantic power and proportions, lighting all the candles I could get and a lamp besides; going over each superficial inch of lines; noting down in sleepy but vigorous characters my opinion of Greatbach’s arm fore-shortenings, of Berseneff’s flesh lines, of Fittler’s draperies. And, good Lord! how they used to laugh at me! What names they used to call me and my engravings, and how heartily they used to consign us (my engravings and me) to I shan’t say what old gentleman in Chiaroscuro! Well, Taste Number Two was gathered to its fathers in due time, and a new king reigned in its stead.
One Saturday morning in the spring of the present year, fortified by a ticket from Messrs. Smith of Bond Street, “et quelque diable aussi me poussant,” I strolled down St. James’s and into Bridgewater House, to look at Lord Ellesmere’s pictures. I looked and was looked at; for I confess I had on peg-tops of a most aggravated form, and I saw several fat old females (with small hampers on their arms) seated on the noble Earl’s benches, examining my left ankle with the right eye, and my right ankle with the left eye, and the Raffaelles and Titians of course with the other eye.
I prowled about the princely gallery, thinking of anything, or nothing, of the Countess’s lost jewels, of the fat old lady’s well-secured small hamper, certainly not of Art high, low, or middle, when a small picture (No. 244 in the catalogue) suddenly caught my eye, attracted me, seized me, bound me, enchained me, and has never let me go since. I am at this present moment, and have been for the last four months, manacled: my gaoler’s name is Gerard Dow.
Talk of the Spitzbergs, and the Vicarias, and the Piombi, and the Conciergeries, and the Newgates — I could escape from all of them consecutively, but from Gerard Dow — ! O beware, reader! of No. 244 in the catalogue!
I left Bridgewater House that morning (escorted of course by a double Gerard Dow, before and behind) with a new “taste.” I met a friend in the Burlington Arcade, and ravenously inquired if he had, or if he knew of, any specimen of the high Dutch school? My friend piques himself rather on being philosophical and facetious, and he suggested Mynheer Van Dunk, expressing at the same time his entire approval of that venerable Bourgemestre’s spirited performance in “brandy and water daily.” I turned from the man in disgust, and Gerard Dow took me along Oxford Street, on the south, or fishy, side, looking at everything and everybody with an eyeglass that seemed to say, fiercely: “Why the deuce are you not of the high Dutch school?”
I was getting desperate, I felt all over Gerard Dow, and Heaven only knows what would not have happened, had not a very small picture in a very large frame attracted my notice. I rushed into the shop: “Is that of the Dutch school?” Seller couldn’t say; might be; didn’t know anything at all about it. “What’s the price?” Well, the price was twenty guineas, and cheap too, but I might have it for eighteen. No; I didn’t care about it at that price, but (Gerard Dow was pinching me all over) but if he could state the lowest figure, &c., &c. Well, I might take it for fifteen guineas. I was going to decline this offer also, but Gerard Dow within and without me multiplied himself infinitely, choked me, and — I bought it!
The picture came home, and I was brought with it. Large blue-mouldy stains covered the principal figures. I got on my knees and washed it with — no matter. The stock of silk and saliva I exhausted on that picture might form an item in Mr. Gladstone’s revised budget next year. I rubbed, and breathed, and oil’d, and polish’d, like a machine, for two days and two nights without intermission, save for food (consisting of Gerard Dow and a mutton chop).
With the early dawn of the third day I perceived on the collar of one of the secondary personages (a female) something like a delicate fret-work of lace. Machinery in motion again; — more rubbing, more oil, more breathing, more silk, more saliva, and the lace-work became clearer and more distinct. A thought — an awful thought — struck me.
I rushed to the British Museum reading-room (conveyed by at least a quadruple Gerard Dow) and ransacked the catalogues for works on painting; attendants in obedience to my call came, — all books from the pit of the stomach up to the eyebrows; and I peered into them — those books, from Dr. Waagen’s downwards, in hopes of a description of my little painting with the big frame. And I and Gerard Dow within me found it, moreover. And then home again; but, oh! with what speed and apprehension.
What, if — during my absence — the house had caught fire, and the whole fire-brigade had failed to save my painting? What if my little nephew, with that new box of tools, had removed all doubts and difficulties by planing away the surface? What if, through the influence of the main-drainage works, the walls had fallen in? I breathed freely only on
again beholding my treasure and feeling it all over.
And then I rubbed at the lace collar again, and felt my knees giving way, and my whole body assuming a position of religious awe, as the lacework grew by degrees into — letters of fantastic shape, ’tis true: but still letters — and such letters — good Heavens! a G and an E and an R, and then an A, another R and a D; then a blank (just under the chin), and then a larger D and an O and Yes it was! I fell back shrieking the name — Gerard Dow!
I have the picture now. I have put it into a small portable joss-house, and I worship it daily, and sometimes nightly. When I have venerated it till my eyes are tired, I put on lemon-kid gloves, shut my eyes, and gently knuckle it behind, so that my ears may drink in the sounds proceeding from the wondrous panel. In a word I have Taste Number Three, and I have laid the foundation of my picture-gallery.
S. O. M
Note: Gerrit Dou (7 April 1613 – 9 February 1675), also known as Gerard and Douw or Dow, was a Dutch Golden Age painter whose small, highly polished paintings are typical of the Leiden fijnschilders.