|Hazlitt's Last Book
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
24 September 2005
It is very hard for any reader to do justice
to a writer like Hazlitt. Twenty-one volumes, the collected
works run to. Who can hope to give them house-room? Who has
the time to read them? Hazlitt's last book, first published
in periodical form under the title "Boswell Redivivus,"
is called Conversations of James Northcote, Esq., R.A.
Published in 1830, the year of Hazlitt's death, it is an account
of several visits to the studio of a portrait painter renowned
for his vitriolic conversation: "that walking thumb-bottle
of aqua fortis," Peter Pindar called him.
Northcote himself, in a letter to Ruskin's
father, claimed that the book had been published against his
wishes, that he had done everything in his power to stop it,
and that "Hazlitt, although a man of real abilities, yet
had a desire to give pain to others, and has also frequently
exaggerated that which I had said in confidence to him."
But Northcote was a sly man and knew what was going on between
him a Hazlitt. He gives an ambiguous consent early on. In the
last of the twenty-two conversations he says to his Boswell,
"I ought to cross myself like the Catholic, when I see
you. You terrify me by repeating what I say."
Northcote was pleased to find that the elder
Ruskin admired the resulting book, which Ruskin himself said
"remains classical to this day, and is indeed the best
piece of existing criticism founded on the principles of Sir
Joshua's school." Like Reynolds, Northcote came from Devon.
He left Plymouth in 1771 to seek his fortune in London, in due
course entering Reynolds's studio and household as a pupil,
and staying there for five years before striking out again on
The publication, six decades later, of his
conversations with Hazlitt was designed to evoke a remote era.
That's what the expression Boswell Redivivus was intended to
convey. At the time, and in a more recent book, doubt was cast
on Northcote's active role in these conversations: the best
bits were supposed to have been devised by Hazlitt and generously
attributed to the old man. We can test the likelihood of this
being true: another set of Northcote's conversations was recorded
by another painter, James Ward, but not published until 1901.
(Ruskin had wanted to edit these, but went mad before he could
do so.) Northcote can be just as fascinating with the less interesting
Ward as he is with Hazlitt.
Hazlitt is not a mimic, so we do not get Northcote's
thick Devon accent, as we can hear it from another Devonian,
B.R.Haydon. "Zo," says Northcote on meeting young
Haydon in 1804, "you mayne tu bee a peinter, doo-ee? What
zort of peinter?" "Historical painter, sir."
"Heestorical peinter! Why yee'll starve with a bundle of
straw under yeer head!" This prediction was not far off.
Still, though we might not get a sense of accent
or dialect, Northcote's manner of speaking, his tartness (vitriol
at this distance seems too strong a word) and his acuteness
come across. Some charming stories get corrected. Dr Johnson
is asked by another painter whether it was true that he had
sat up all night to read Fanny Burney's Evelina. He replies:
"I never read it through at all, though I don't wish this
to be known." Reynolds had also pretended to have read
Evelina at a sitting, and Northcote thinks it "affectation
in them both, who were thorough-paced men of the world, and
hackneyed in literature, to pretend to be so delighted with
the performance of a girl, in which they could find neither
instruction nor any great amusement, except from the partiality
He goes on, referring to Johnson's famous biography
of the self-destructive poet Richard Savage: "So Johnson
cried up Savage, because they had slept on bulks when they were
young; and lest he should be degraded into a vagabond by the
association, had elevated the other into a genius." This
"prevarication" of Johnson's, this "tampering
with his own convictions" was inconsistent with the moralising
tone he assumed on other occasions, "such as correcting
Mrs Thrale for saying that a bird flew in at the door, instead
of the window." Northcote is talking about the kind of
myth-making writers go in for when exaggerating the merits of
fellow-writers -- a familiar phenomenon today.
The honesty and straightforwardness that Northcote
evinces, and that Hazlitt so clearly relishes, can be seen in
his admission that there are some things "in respect to
which I am in the same state that a blind man is as to colours.
Homer is one of these. I am utterly in the dark about it. I
can make nothing of his heroes or his Gods." But Jack-the-Giant-Killer
"is the first book I ever read, and I cannot describe the
pleasure it gives me even now. I cannot look into it without
my eyes filling with tears
It is to me
heroic of performances."
Conversations of James Northcote,
Esq., R.A. by William Hazlitt, Henry Colburn and Richard
Bentley, London 1830.
Conversations of James Northcote
R.A. with James Ward on Art and Artists edited and
arranged from the manuscripts and notebooks of James Ward
by Ernest Fletcher, Methuen, London 1901.
The edition of Hazlitt I used is the
first. P.P.Howe's edition of the Complete Works
is the 21 volume set referred to (1930-34).
David Bromwich is the critic who in his
Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (Oxford, 1983) says:
"This fondness for Northcote is a delicate thing.
When Hazlitt came to write his "Boswell Redivivus,"
he set up the fading society-painter as the Johnson of
the piece. One of Hazlitt's friends, visiting the studio
to hear them talk, was surprised to find Hazlitt saying
all the good things: in the published Conversations
of James Northcote, by William Hazlitt, these were
usually refined into epigrams and then credited to Northcote."
I suggest that this question might be looked into again.
Ruskin's remarks about Northcote may
be found in Praeterita.
Calling Northcote a fading society-painter,
as Bromwich does, is simply a casual piece of denigration.
See, for instance, Northcote's portrait of Ira Aldridge,
the first black actor to play Othello.