The Value of Precedent


Charles Harrison Townsend




To borrow from the phraseology of science, Art is not an affair of spontaneous generation. The artist does not come into the world, 'as came Melchisedek, fatherless, motherless, ancestorless.' No, he is, as all of us, the creature of evolution and the slave of heredity. He stands midway between the Past from whom he takes, and the Future to whom he gives.

That 'something outside himself which makes for' Beauty – which we are wont to call Inspiration, invention, creative power – name it what you will –  without Knowledge is nothing worth.

The methods of Art are synthetical, not empirical; it is in great measure acquired, and not wholly intuitive. And this synthesis of knowledge means, and can only mean, reading and studying the experiences and lessons of the past, profiting by its gains, avoiding its errors. 'No plagiarist,' Mr Beerbohm Tree said the other day, 'is so prolific as he who does not read.' It is not enough to sit, like the faithful Buddhist, wrapped in solitary contemplation of your umbilical centre, insensible to outer influences, and brain-numbed with silent introspection. That were to end with his Nirvana and to enter into the state of nothingness, in which Past and Present and Future alike have ceased to be. Self-isolation is the bane of Art. There is no despotism so ghastly, so disastrous in its results, as that state in which each man claims to be a law unto himself. And of all codes of ethics, surely the lowest is that where every man doeth that which is right in his own eyes. In Art it is an illogical, because an impossible, rule of life. You cannot, if you would, escape your environment. You hold that you, quâ artist, have no need to go to any work of man's to help you in your art of to-day, and that, entirely self-sufficient, you will shape your course unaffected by, and apart from, what has been done in the past. Well, can you? Can you wipe the tablets of your mind clear from that which has been written on them by what lies around you? Is it possible to point out the result of the working of your own or any man's brain in which we shall fail to see the influences that have gone before? In the dawn of an early world, seen but dimly through the mists of time, sits your first teacher and master, and the forms he carves on the blade of his oar, the crude patterns he daubs in coloured earths, are the alphabet of that language in which Art will ever hereafter speak to the world her message or aspiration and satisfaction.

'When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it - Art? " '


And the whisper of the Devil is not hushed yet.

Again, it is mere convention to think originality in method as in idea of an importance that constitutes it the be-all and end-all of a man's life-work. If this were so, surely the logical step in literature, for instance (even if each of us did not replace his mother-tongue by his own brand-new Volaptik), would be to discard the stately rhythm of Shakespeare and Milton for some form entirely and absolutely new. Suppose them thus removed, is there room in our affections think you for many Walt Whitmans, nay, for nothing but Walt Whitmans?

That Wagner's genius crowned with success his departure from the rules of musical art, that in his hands rank discord becomes harmonious, cannot reassure us when we reflect what would be the consequences if those canons were henceforward and on all sides abandoned. 'To be free,' says Sidney Lanier, 'is not to be independent of any form, it is to be master of many forms.' And so in the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, we should seek to show 'the scholar's, not the child's simplicity,' and not 'to bow the knee to strange, new, misbegotten gods' of our own fashioning. Nor should we pour scorn on what we should venerate, nor despise the outcome of the past world's striving after the 'Wahrheit und Dichtung ' – Truth and Poetry – the ideals of the old artists as of ourselves.

The protest raised in favour of cutting ourselves apart from the methods and principles of our predecessors is not now heard by any means for the first time, nor is it one confined to that class of thinker whose thought crystallises into what is known as Art. It is due to that reactionary force of which the faint upheavals are to be seen around us in religious as in scientific thought, in politics as in painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Men groan under the conditions of their times; they feel, as Wordsworth says, that 'the world is too much with us day by day.' The result of this striving against what is stronger than themselves is a Pessimism which in the Arts finds its expression in a feverish desire to be entirely free from the precedents which a less morbid and self-conscious habit of thought would use and value on their merits. Better, as I said before, for the Present to submit to the domination of the Past, than embrace the Pessimism, and – its sequitur – the Nihilism, that mean the ruin of the Future.

What does much of the work of the present day for which the artist claims originality show us? Do we not find in the examples that at once rise up in the minds of all of us that the cardinal idea of the designer has been to differ from the old men by omitting what they had done before him? That they, for instance, worked on for centuries using strings and cornices, moulded or carved, is enough for him. In his building, to avoid the precedent he loathes, the man of the latest fashion cuts out all strings and cornices, loses all the beauty and interest of their play of light and shade, and calls the result the 'simplicity of originality '. It is not. It is, instead, the simplicity due to omission, a negation that is a poor substitute for invention, a cowardice pretending to be courage!

The true lesson of precedent is not to teach us, on the one hand, to distrust ourselves and to become tame copyists; nor, on the other, to repulse with scorn all it has to offer us. No, we should use it for our own help inasmuch as we are 'comrades of the past'; and since our difficulties are those of our forerunners, we should be grateful in remembering that they conquered their obstacle for us as well as for themselves. We are the heirs of the ages; let us not scorn the splendid heritage bequeathed us.

Let us try to enrich the soil in which our ideals are to find root and fructify, by an absorption of all that is best in the past as in the present, by widening, not narrowing, our sympathies; in a word, by a generous and discriminating self-culture, or, as Symonds phrases it, the 'self-tillage, the ploughing and harrowing of self by use of what the ages have transmitted to us from the work of gifted minds. It is the appropriation on the heritage bequeathed from previous generations to the needs and cravings of the individual, in his emancipation from “that which binds us all - the common.”’



This is an edited version of the essay originally published in 1894 in The Studio, Vol IV

Townsend wrote this essay not long before designing the Whitechapel Art Gallery, described in 1897 in The Studio as 'a building that attempts to strike its own note, to be personal, and to speak 1897, not 1797 or 1597'.