THE Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, which has spent the better part of two centuries contributing to the ``increase of learning,'' is truly called a ``Noble Foundation,'' and one of the first to have opened its doors to the public. This came about early in the 19th century through the enlightened vision of its generous founder, Lord Fitzwilliam, who endowed it with many of his own treasures, some acquired on his ``grand tour'' and subsequent travels. And over the years these have been augmented by gifts and purchases.
Recently a selection from the collection - pictures, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, and other objects - were on view in New York at the National Academy of Design.
In the exhibit was this miniature of three of the children of Charles I, painted on vellum by John Hoskins about 1646. At the time, the young people were being held in Carisbrooke Castle under the surveillance of the Earl of Northumberland, from whose custody the central figure, the future James II, would escape, fleeing to France.
Little is known of the artist, except that he was court miniaturist to the ill-fated monarch, and that he died in 1665, never enjoying the ``enormous'' pension he had been awarded (L 200, a great sum in those days, and indicative of the painter's repute). Although Hoskins's style was considered ``virile and unaffected,'' this little triple portrait charms us with its evident sincerity, its clear tones, and perfect finish.
The children appear sad, but calm and fairly resolute. They are touching in their ignorance of what their destinies would be. We know that Elizabeth would pass away when she was only 15, that Henry, on the right of the group, would become a soldier and die young, and that James would be so maladroit on the throne that he would be forced to abdicate.
The artist could not have known these things, but the clarity and directness of this miniature is a valuable record. Artistically it is graceful and accomplished - and gives us pause.
Also in the Fitzwilliam exhibit was this exquisite watercolor by Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828), who was, after J.M.W. Turner, the greatest of all the English watercolorists. ``Boccadasse, Genoa, with Monte Fasce in the Background,'' executed in 1826, has also been called ``Port of Genoa and the Bay,'' and even ``Lake Garda.''
By any name it is beautiful, sensitive, and luminous, glowing with fresh and lovely colors, rich in its play of light and shade. The last feature was always a forte with this artist, and the composition - picturesque, vivid, and poetic - is typical of him.
BONINGTON was born in Arnold, a village near Nottingham, England. His father had been an unsuccessful portrait painter, and for a time the governor of a jail; his mother was a teacher. Mrs. Bonington seems to have been much more successful than her husband, and managed to secure a large house in Nottingham and establish a school in it.
Unfortunately the town was in the throes of the nascent Industrial Revolution, which created unemployment as machines took the place of manual workers. An important local occupation was lace-making, which was greatly affected by the changes taking place. The school lost its pupils and the Boningtons were once again in grave financial difficulties.
These were troubled times. The Napoleonic wars had raged for so long on the Continent that the English had been isolated from the European point of view.
The Battle of Waterloo was fought at the time the Boningtons were in Nottingham. After the victory, the Duke of Wellington warned his countrymen against going to France, where he was sure they would be met with antagonism. However, that was what the Boningtons were determined to do, finding no other options; they believed that in France they could continue the lace-making business in which they had become involved.
Choosing Calais as their destination, they set off, and found that in spite of the Duke's alarms the French welcomed them and they could settle there. Mr. Bonington set up his lace business, and intended his son Richard to have a career designing his products.
RICHARD PARKES BONINGTON was 15 at the time, and had just a decade more to live. Interested in history, literature - especially poetry - and acting, he was above everything a remarkable watercolor painter, adept in the handling of architecture, landscapes, and figures.
Coming as he did from the landlocked midlands, the beauty of the channel ports was a revelation to him, and he began immediately to paint the harbors, fishing fleets, and coastal views of his new environment, becoming a great artist overnight.
Bonington's handling of light and shade, his sense of composition, combined with the beautiful colors he created and his delicacy of touch, greatly impressed the French, to whom watercolor was at that time practically unknown. It was in fact a peculiarly English style, developed during the period of isolation, and uniquely adapted to the national temperament - being individual, often related to literature, particularly poetry, and enabling its artists to be close to nature in a free, direct, and personal way.
The young gentlemen who had made the ``grand tour'' earlier had used this method of sketching, which was widely taught, and it had since become more general. The French meanwhile were more apt to consider nature as Rousseau had done, in the context of social justice - the English approach was simple and easy. All this was part of young Bonington's heritage, though he was probably unaware of it.
In Calais, then in Dunkerque, and later in Paris where he studied in the Louvre, he met with immediate appreciation. For a time he worked in the atelier of Baron Gros. There he encountered the fierce passions aroused in the city between the Classicists and the Romantics, but the English youth followed his own star, always a watercolorist and a Romantic.
Stories of this period abound concerning Bonington - how Jean Baptiste Corot saw his sketches in a shop window and was turned from an errand-boy into an artist; how Baron Gros sent his pupils to see Bonington's work in a shop, unaware that the artist was his own pupil; how Eug`ene Delacroix admired him, and remembered him vividly decades later.
Bonington sent some of his pictures to the Royal Academy in London; his work was acclaimed at once, praised by its president, Sir Thomas Lawrence.
There was still time for Bonington to travel on the Continent, making lovely Italian sketches, particularly of Venice, before he went back to London, and passed away, just before his 26th birthday. His funeral was attended by many Royal Academicians who were well aware of the immense powers of this brilliant and modest youth.
Bonington's watercolors still afford us great delight.