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The Scottish Nation
Henning


HENNING, JOHN, an eminent modeller and sculptor, the discoverer of intaglio, son of Samuel Henning, a house carpenter and cabinet-maker from Galloway, was born at Paisley, on 2d May, 1771. His education was simple enough, consisting only of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and at the age of thirteen he was put to the trade of a carpenter. He acquired a knowledge of history by reading the works of Rollin and Hume to his mother while she sat beside him sewing. The voyages of Cook, Anson, and Byron made him anxious to be a sailor, and to qualify himself for a seafaring life, he studied geometry, trigonometry, and navigation. When nearly seventeen years old, he had packed up his clothes for flight, when his mother’s illness caused him to delay his departure, and his bundle being discovered, his father lectured him so severely that he entirely abandoned the idea of going to sea. He had ere this time begun to attempt the pencil, his efforts being confined to that small degree of architectural drawing required by his father’s business. He was first led to try that peculiar art, namely, of modelling, in which he afterwards excelled, from the following circumstance. Having previous to his marriage gone to visit Edinburgh, as he himself informs us, on August 16, 1799, he got lodgings with a carpenter who was then working for Mr., afterwards Sir Henry, Raeburn, the eminent painter, and accompanied him to the house of the latter on the following day. Being ushered into a room he recognised a portrait of General Macdowall, but on looking at it again, it did not strike him so forcibly as a likeness. He resolved to attempt a portrait himself, and try to model a head in wax. On his return to Paisley, he took for his first model a bench comrade, A. Woodrow by name. It turned out a strong though a coarse likeness, and he was teased by some of his acquaintances to model their portraits. He did so, working in the evening, and thus gradually improved in his finish. In his own immediate neighbourhood the fame of the untaught artist soon began to spread. Sitters came to him, tradesmen of Paisley, country farmers, and afterwards country squires. Of these he took medallion portraits in wax. He still worked, as a carpenter, under his father, whose business fell off, in consequence of the war, until, out of fifteen or twenty journeymen, the only one that Samuel Henning had remaining was his steady and diligent son, who worked at the same business till he was nearly thirty years old. In the following year happened the circumstance which decided his fortune, of which the following is his own simple account: “Early in 1800, being in Glasgow, on business for my father, I had been obliged to stay the night at the house of a friend. Modelling being my hobby at the time, I always carried wax and tools in my pocket. I did medallions of my friend and his wife during the evening. He showed them to his master, James Monteith, Esq., whereupon Mr. Monteith proposed to sit to me. I wrote stating that having no intention of following modelling as a profession, I felt sick at the idea of being dragged into public notice, by practising an art to which I was not competent.” These objections were overruled by Mr. Monteith, who appointed a day for the sitting. “This,” he continues, “was the 2d of May, my birthday. I took my way to Glasgow in a very uneasy state of mind. On seeing me. Mr. Monteith said, ‘I am too engaged to sit, but I have nine sitters ready for you.’ At this my trepidation increased, and I went away with him, feeling very miserable. As we trudged along, a gentleman accosted Mr. Monteith, and while they stood talking, I slipped into a close. It was not a thoroughfare, or I think, from the humour I was in, that I should have run away, and so have done with modelling for ever.” But this was not to be. The turning point in John Henning’s career was his introduction to Mr. Monteith. From that time he relinquished the carpenter’s tools for those of the sculptor. About 1802, he removed to Edinburgh, where he remained for nine years, and his proficiency in his art as a modeller of busts and medallions, his attainments as a linguist, his general literary taste and extensive information, secured him the patronage and esteem of many of the most distinguished philosophers and literary men of that time. In the list of afterwards celebrated characters whom Henning numbered among his sitters were a set of young lawyers then just rising into notice, Lord Jeffrey, Lord Murray, Lord Brougham, and Francis Horner. Mrs. Siddons, also, when visiting Edinburgh, had a medallion taken by Mr. Henning, probably one of the best likenesses extant of this great actress. From this portrait we may date an after-phase of the sculptor’s fortune. Among his acquaintances and friends he ranked Sir Walter Scott, Adam Fergusson, Dugald Stewart, the Rev. Archibald Alison, father of Sir Archibald Alison, baronet, Mrs. Grant of Laggan, Professor Wilson, and many of the most eminent members of Edinburgh society at that period.

      In July 1811, Mr. Henning visited London for the first time, being then in his 41st year. His friend, Francis Horner, took him to the galleries of the marquis of Lansdowne and Earl Grey, where he made various drawings and studies. As he was preparing to return to Scotland, a casual street meeting induced him to visit the Elgin marbles, then newly brought over from Greece, and placed in a stable-like apartment in the corner of Burlington House. They struck him with wonder, and having procured a letter of introduction to Lord Elgin for permission to draw or model from the marbles, he thus relates the result: “His lordship called on me, saying it was customary to bring a letter from an academician. I answered: ‘My lord, I cannot understand why noblemen or gentlemen should not dare to allow an individual to draw or model from works of art in their possession; I call this the popery of art, and I protest against such slavery.’ His lordship left me. The following morning he came again, accompanied by President West, who praised my drawings and models very much. Lord Elgin then said he was going to give me leave to draw from the marbles. Mr. West replied, ‘To Allow Mr. Henning to draw from your lordship’s marbles would be like sending a boy to the university before he had learned his letters.’ This produced a solemn pause. Lord Elgin coloured; the president looked abashed, and I mustered my dancing school science, and bowed them out right gladly. His lordship then returned, in a few minutes, and said good-humouredly, ‘You are a very odd man not to comply with custom.’ I said, ‘My lord, I never will to what seems to me absurd custom; it has long been my confirmed opinion, that academies, from their selfish spirit of exclusion, have not always been promoters of art, but sometimes have actually retarded willing students: to-day has shown me an instance of this which I never can forget.; “ This frank reply appears to have pleased Lord Elgin, for Mr. Henning received a cordially-granted permission to copy from the marbles. “I began to draw,” he says, “on August 16, 1811, which fixed me in the mud, dust, and smoke of London. I was so fascinated with the study, that I was there by sunrise every morning except Sunday, and even the cold of winter did not mar my darling pursuit.”

      In 1812, his medallion of Mrs. Siddons was brought by that lady under the notice of the princess of Wales, afterwards the unfortunate Queen Caroline, and in consequence he had many interviews with her royal highness and the Princess Charlotte, the latter of whom he modelled repeatedly. When looking over his drawings from the Elgin marbles, the Princess Charlotte asked him if he could reduce a special group in ivory, restoring all the mutilations of the original. He succeeded, and afterwards seventeen more were executed by him in a similar manner for the marquis of Lansdowne, the duke of Devonshire, &c. He then commenced the chief labour of his life, the restored friezes of the Parthenon, which occupied him “twelve long years, from the morning’s dawn to the gloaming.” At first the material used was ivory, on which he worked in relief, but an incident occurred which caused him to change this plan, while he made, at the same time, a valuable discovery. Poverty obliged him, as he himself expressed it, “to act the dominie” in his own household. One day, when giving his youngest son a lesson in arithmetic, he observed the latter amusing himself by cutting a head in the slate with a tool that he himself used to carve ivory with. “The same acuteness,” says his biographer, “which has converted many a child’s toy into a mighty instrument 9in the hand of science, caused John Henning to reason upon, and apply the experiment. The result was the discovery of intaglio. In this manner the friezes were done, first cut in slate, and then cast. Thus, this man, almost uneducated and unaided, save by the powers of his own strong and active mind, produced a work which is known throughout Europe as the best, – indeed, the only effort at reproducing these glorious remains of Grecian art. The value of Mr. Henning’s work was early proved by that most unjust but most decisive test – imitation. No sooner were the friezes completed than they were pirated by innumerable modellers, who, buying the original, were enabled to take from it cast after cast, at an expense comparatively trifling. These inferior reproductions were sold everywhere, with Mr. Henning’s name appended, by which not only was his name injured, but he was deprived of nearly all the profits of his indefatigable industry. Before long a firm at Paris brought out a series of anaglyptic engravings from Mr. Henning’s frieze, the artist’s name in the first issues not being even mentioned. This omission was afterwards reluctantly rectified, though the engravings were of a character little likely to do justice to the work; yet, in spite of this inferiority, the firm boasted in 1835 that they had sold 12,000 copies.” [Biographical Sketch in Art Journal for April 1849.]

      Henning’s Elgin friezes were succeeded by the Cartoons and the Transfiguration of Raffaelie, engraved in intaglio; works of transcendent merit which, for their minuteness of detail and beauty of execution, elicited the warm encomiums of Canova and Flaxman. In this undertaking he was assisted by his sons, now growing up, and following art as a profession. Other works in relief were executed by the same united hands; among these were the friezes on Hyde Park gate, of which John Henning, Jun., furnished the designs; those on the Athenaeum clubhouse, London, and a diplomatic box engraved in steel, after Flaxman. These works, together with numberless medallions and busts, occupied the sculptor till 1846. Then, advancing in years, and unequal to much exercise of his art, Mr. Henning began to consider a play whereby he might reap from his long pirated works the benefit which was his due, and which he unfortunately required. He agreed with his friend, Mr. A. R. Fairbairn, an eminent engraver, to commence an undertaking whereby the latter was to make anaglyptic engravings of the Restoration of the Parthenon friezes, thus securing for Mr. Henning a correct interpretation of his work, as well as the advantage of copyright. The series were to be published by subscription, the sculptor and engraver making an agreement that secured to both due remuneration. Thereupon, Mr. Henning revisited his native place, where he resided for several months with his two sisters. He was received by his townsmen in a manner that might well gladden his heart. Subscribers were quickly obtained. The town council of Paisley unanimously presented him with the freedom of the town, and he was entertained at a public dinner presided over by the provost. On that occasion, his old friend, Professor Wilson, went from Edinburgh to do honour to the man who forty years before had followed his lowly trade of carpenter within the precincts of the town. The engravings were commenced, but before the second plate was finished, Mr. Fairbairn’s death put an end to the undertaking. Mr. Henning himself died at London, 8th April 1851, in his eightieth year. In bas relief, Count Cignari, an accomplished Italian nobleman, declared that Mr. Henning surpassed all ancient or modern artists. To Mr. Henning’s labours Great Britain is indebted in no small degree for the progress which has been made in the art he cultivated and adorned. For the materials of this sketch we have been mainly indebted to an ably drawn up memoir of Mr. Henning in the Art Journal.


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