+ ~ -
Please report pronunciation problems here. Select and sample other voices. Options Pause Play
Report an Error


A WRITER in the Athenaeum literary
journal recently observed, in speaking of the
Historical Portrait Gallery at Sydenham, that
every century seems to have impressed its
peculiar crimes and virtues, and its hopes
and struggles on the faces of its great men.
Let us enlarge upon this text, which has
already been indicated in brief.

The face being the outward index of the
passions and sentiments within, the immortal
dweller fashions and moulds the plastic
substance of its home, and helps to form and
to alter the architecture of its house, like
the bees and birds. In return, his mind is
not seldom influenced by the house itself.
Between the head of a Shakespeare or a
Bacon, and that of a Newgate murderer, there
is as much difference as between a stately
palace standing apart and a rotting hovel in
a blind alley. The spiritual principle writes
its own character on its exterior walls, and
chronicles from time to time its upward
aspirations or its more complete abasement; for
every one must have observed that, even in
comparatively mature life, a face may alter
for the better or worsemay waver with the
wavering mindmay report with terrible
fidelity the progress of that inner struggle
between the good and evil, darkness and the
light. Such a face becomes of itself a drama
of profound and pathetic interesttoo often a
tragedy in its ending, though sometimes a
triumph; but in any case a tremendous
spectacle; because, in the visage of our
human fellow-creature, we behold the battle-
ground of the oldest antagonists in the world
a visible incarnation of the Manichaean
dreamthe ancient mystery of Evil wrestling
openly with Good. The features may also be
impressed with the character of surrounding
influences, and are too often made sordid and
earthy by their owners being compelled to
live in the midst of squalid and depressing
sceneslike the Lady Christabel of
Coleridge's beautiful poem, who is obliged
involuntarily to imitate the serpent-glances of
the witch.

It is moreover generally admitted that the
cultivation of particular branches of intellect
leads to a distinctive character of physiognomy,
and that perhaps as a consequence of this
all nations have a cast of countenance peculiar
to themselves, and not to be mistaken by a
thoughtful observer. For instance, the
Greeks and the Italians, who in former times
were the most artistic people in the world,
possess to this day the most ideal heads and
faces that are to be met with anywhere;
and cannot we see in the melancholy,
meditative eyes of the poor Hindoos who sweep
our London crossings, the essential characteristics
of that ancient race from whom all
mythology and all mystical philosophy are
derived, and who speculated so long and
so profoundly on the grey secrets of birth,
death, and resurrection that they became a
petrified mass among the living nations of
the earth? In families where ancestral
portraits are kept, it will often be found that a
particular form of countenance reappears in
different successive generations, conjoined
with a similar tendency of mind or heart.
Leigh Hunt remarks in his Autobiography, that
there is a famous historical bit of transmission
called the Austrian lip; [then there is the
pear-shaped face of the Bourbons]; and faces
which we consider to be peculiar to
individuals are said to be common in whole
districtssuch as the Boccaccio face in one part
of Tuscany, and the Dante face in another.
"I myself," he adds, "have seen in the Genoese
territory many a face like that of the
Bonapartes." William Howitt professes to
have discovered a schoolboy at Stratford-
upon-Avon, named Shakespeare, by his likeness
to the portraits of the poet; but these
transmissions are less common in England
than elsewhere, on account of the mixed
population of our island and the continual
influx of fresh foreign blood, which is known
to have an influence upon our national

A parity of physical and moral
characteristics in different individuals,
however, may exist without any relationship.
Hazlitt once remarked that the heads of the
more brutalised of the Roman emperors
were very like our English prizefighters;
and the Athenaeum writer to whom we have
alluded observes that " the depraved women
of the imperial times, as Faustina, Agrippina,
&c., have the hard, round forehead, and small,
weak chin which became the marked features
of the Louis Quinze age, or may be traced