Of Mural Painting

There seems no precise reason why the subject of this note should differ

much from that of Mr. Crane's article on "Decorative Painting" (pp.

39-51). "Mural Painting" need not, as such, consist of any one sort of

painting more than another. "Decorative Painting" does seem, on the

other hand, to indicate a certain desire or undertaking to render the

object painted more pleasant to the beholder's eye.

From long habit, however, chiefly induced by the constant practice of

the Italians of modern times, "Mural Painting" has come to be looked

upon as figure painting (in fact, the human figure exclusively) on

walls--and no other sort of objects can sufficiently impart that dignity

to a building which it seems to crave for. I can think of no valid

reason why a set of rooms, or walls, should not be decorated with

animals in lieu of "humans," as the late Mr. Trelawney used to call us:

one wall to be devoted to monkeys, a second to be filled in with tigers,

a third to be given up to horses, etc. etc. I know men in England, and,

I believe, some artists, who would be delighted with the substitution.

But I hope the general sense of the public would be set against such

subjects, and the lowering effects of them on every one, and the kind of

humiliation we should feel at knowing them to exist.

I have been informed that in Berlin the walls of the rooms where the

antique statues are kept have been painted with mixed subjects

representing antique buildings with antique Greek views and landscapes,

to back up, as it were, the statues. I must own it, that without having

seen the decoration in question, I feel filled with extreme aversion for

the plan. The more so when one considers the extreme unlikelihood of the

same being made tolerable in colour at Berlin. I have also been told

that some painters in the North of England, bitten with a desire to

decorate buildings, have painted one set of rooms with landscapes. This,

without the least knowledge of the works in question, as landscapes, I

must allow I regret. There is, it seems to me, an unbridgeable chasm,

not to be passed, between landscape art and the decoration of walls; for

the very essence of the landscape art is distance, whereas the very

essence of the wall-picture is its solidity, or, at least, its not

appearing to be a hole in the wall. On the matter of subjects fit for

painting on walls I may have a few words to say farther on in this

paper, but first I had better set down what little I have to advise with

regard to the material and mode of executing.

The old-fashioned Italian or "Buon Fresco" I look upon as practically

given up in this country, and every other European country that has not

a climate to equal Italy. If the climate of Paris will not admit of this

process, how much less is our damp, foggy, changeable atmosphere likely

to put up with it for many years! It is true that the frescoes of

William Dyce have lasted for some thirty years without apparent damage;

but also it is the case that the Queen's Robing Rooms in the House of

Lords have been specially guarded against atmospheric changes of

temperature. Next to real fresco, there has been in repute for a time

the waterglass process, in which Daniel Maclise's great paintings have

been executed. I see no precise reason why these noble works should not

last, and defy climate for many, many long years yet; though from want

of experience he very much endangered this durability through the too

lavish application of the medium. But in Germany, the country of

waterglass, the process is already in bad repute. The third alternative,

"spirit fresco," or what we in England claim as the Gambier-Parry

process, has, I understand, superseded it. I have myself painted in this

system seven works on the walls of the Manchester Town Hall, and have

had no reason to complain of their behaviour. Since beginning the

series, however, a fresh change has come over the fortunes of mural art

in the fact that, in France (what most strongly recommends itself to

common sense), the mural painters have now taken to painting on canvas,

which is afterwards cemented, or what the French call "maronflee," on to

the wall. White-lead and oil, with a very small admixture of rosin

melted in oil, are the ingredients used. It is laid on cold and

plentifully on the wall and on the back of the picture, and the painting

pressed down with a cloth or handkerchief: nothing further being

required, saving to guard the edges of the canvas from curling up before

the white-lead has had time to harden. The advantage of this process of

cementing lies in the fact that with each succeeding year it must become

harder and more like stone in its consistency. The canvases may be

prepared as if for oil painting, and painted with common oil-colours

flatted (or matted) afterwards by gum-elemi and spike-oil. Or the canvas

may be prepared with the Gambier-Parry colour and painted in that very

mat medium. The canvases should if possible be fine in texture, as

better adapted for adhering to the wall. The advantage of this process

is that, should at any time, through neglect, damp invade the wall, and

the canvas show a tendency to get loose, it would be easy to replace it;

or the canvas might be altogether detached from the wall and strained as

a picture.

I must now return to the choice of subject, a matter of much importance,

but on which it is difficult to give advice. One thing, however, may be

urged as a rule, and that is, that very dark or Rembrandtesque subjects

are particularly unsuited for mural paintings. I cannot go into the

reasons for this, but a slight experiment ought to satisfy the painter,

having once heard the principle enunciated: that is, if he belong to the

class likely to succeed at such work.

Another sine qua non as to subject is that the painter himself must be

allowed to select it. It is true that certain limitations may be

accorded--for instance, the artist may be required to select a subject

with certain tendencies in it--but the actual invention of the subject

and working out of it must be his. In fact, the painter himself is the

only judge of what he is likely to carry out well and of the subjects

that are paintable. Then much depends on whom the works are for; if for

the general public, and carried out with their money, care (it seems to

me but fair) should be taken that the subjects are such as they can

understand and take interest in. If, on the contrary, you are painting

for highly-cultured people with a turn for Greek myths, it is quite

another thing; then, such a subject as "Eros reproaching his brother

Anteros for his coldness" might be one offering opportunities for shades

of sentiment suited to the givers of the commissions concerned. But for

such as have not been trained to entertain these refinements, downright

facts, either in history or in sociology, are calculated most to excite

the imagination. It is not always necessary for the spectator to be

exact in his conclusions. I remember once at Manchester, the members of

a Young Men's Christian Association had come to a meeting in the great

hall. Some of them were there too soon, and so were looking round the

room. One observed: "What's this about?" His friend answered: "Fallen

off a ladder, the police are running him in!" Well, this was not quite

correct. A wounded young Danish chieftain was being hurried out of

Manchester on his comrade's shoulders, with a view to save his life. The

Phrygian helmets of the Danes indicated neither firemen nor policemen;

but the idea was one of misfortune, and care bestowed on it--and did as

well, and showed sympathy in a somewhat uncultivated, though

well-intentioned, class of Lancastrians. On the other hand, I have

noticed that subjects that interest infallibly all classes, educated or

illiterate, are religious subjects. It is not a question of piety--but

comes from the simple breadth of poetry and humanity usually involved in

this class of subject. That the amount of religiosity in either

spectator or producer has nothing to do with the feeling is clear if we


The Spaniards are one of the most religious peoples ever known, and yet

their art is singularly deficient in this quality. Were there ever two

great painters as wanting in the sacred feeling as Velasquez and

Murillo? and yet, in all probability, they were more religious than


It only remains for me to point to the fact that mural painting, when it

has been practised jointly by those who were at the same time

easel-painters, has invariably raised those painters to far higher

flights and instances of style than they seem capable of in the smaller

path. Take the examples left us, say by Raphael and Michel Angelo, or

some of the earlier masters, such as the "Fulminati" of Signorelli,

compared with his specimens in our National Gallery; or the works left

on walls by even less favoured artists, such as Domenichino and Andrea

del Sarto, or the French de la Roche's "Hemicycle," or our own great

painters Dyce and Maclise's frescoes; the same rise in style, the same

improvement, is everywhere to be noticed, both in drawing, in colour,

and in flesh-painting.


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