There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness.
Although the tale may well not be true, it’s exemplary of the curiosity and unorthodox thinking that history associates with the man who is still known, more than 250 years after his actual death, as a scholar and philosopher, strikingly original thinker, and humane churchman in what was a brutal age.
Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.
An oil painting of George Berkeley painted in 1873 by John Weir was hoisted into place on the west wall of the ornate and monumental Heyns Room in Doe Memorial Library on campus on Friday, January 13, 2012. After some 15 years in storage that will be his new, long-term, home courtesy of the University Library.
I had a small role in this—I suggested that the portrait be brought to the Library, as part of Doe’s Centennial celebration—but the credit for execution justly goes to University Librarian Tom Leonard and Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive Director Larry Rinder and their staffs, who liked the suggestion and carried it through to reality.
The hope is that the presence of George Berkeley, overlooking his eponymous earthly realm, will help future generations passing through the campus appreciate where the institution came from and how it connects to the past.
An Appropriate Name
There’s a bit of a backstory that I’d like to tell of how the painting came back on public view, where it came from, and why it’s important. But first I’d like to affirm how suitable it was that our town and campus were named for George Berkeley.
As news circulates about the portrait, it’s possible you’ll read differently. Journalists and bloggers often look for the quirky / funny side of an issue, and this is tailor made for them. Often when people write about George Berkeley in connection to our town, they seek to make fun of it, and / or him. A bishop? Namesake of secular / Godless Berkeley? Really? The “when a tree falls in the forest…” man? And he’s a dead white European guy, too, fronting for a multicultural town. What were they thinking? The meme will go on.
I differ. “Berkeley” was and is a profoundly appropriate identity for our campus and community.
George Berkeley was a serious scholar in an age when it was hard and rare to get an academic education. He explored philosophy, and also tried his best to do good, including attempting to start a college. When it was very easy for a bishop to simply live large off income and title, he took his religious role seriously, spending much of his time and clerical authority to serve the desperate poor in Ireland, then a particularly troubled land.
He came up with ideas and concepts people still think about and debate. He thought and wrote about natural and unseen worlds and the nature of existence in ways that still have relevance. He traveled, had a big family, lived on both sides of the ocean, was apparently open minded and curious, held high office in one religion but got along well with those from other faiths and traditions, loved music and reading, and did some weird things, too.
Anything in that list so far that doesn’t seem to express modern Berkeley well? And he still ended up living a full, rich, life apparently admired by most everyone who left a record of encountering him. One striking thing about George Berkeley—or so his contemporaries and biographers have said—is that no one who knew him seems to have written a seriously unkind word about him. The classic quote about him, from contemporary Alexander Pope, hails him with “every virtue under heaven.”
Honestly, who should the campus have been named for nearly 150 years ago—a 19th century robber baron? (There is local precedent for that, of course--Stanford.) Someone who once owned a piece of land here and thus had their name connected to it? A Roman Catholic Saint (see St. Mary’s)? Some momentarily popular puffed up mid-19th century political, literary, or military figure that no one would remember today if not for the name?
It’s fine to joke about things, but over time as I’ve learned more about George Berkeley I have less and less patience for those who are content to glibly dismiss or typecast him or make fun of the name.
Several years ago I briefly visited Middletown and Newport, Rhode Island, where George Berkeley lived for about two and a half years while vainly awaiting the funds for his college project (Berkeley is well remembered there—there’s even an annual dinner held each year on January 23, the anniversary of when he sailed into Newport harbor from England.) I went to several of the places associated with Berkeley, and even had a chance to stay overnight in his home, a red-painted wooden house he dubbed “Whitehall”, out in the countryside.
On a sunny, quiet, fall morning I sat in what had probably been his study—and now contains a small library of Berkeleyania—and leaf through accounts of his American sojourn. He was the highest ranking European churchman to ever visit the English colonies in North America, but he acted not as a pompous prelate but rather as a friendly scholar, curious about the colonies and their people and interested in what he could learn from, and teach, them.
Rhode Island was a refreshing center of diversity, Newport in particular. It housed the first permanent Jewish community in North America (the Touro Synagogue), the first lending library open to public subscription (the Redwood Library), and a jostling but still mutually accommodating mix of Catholics, mainstream Protestants of various leanings, Puritans, Anglicans, freethinkers.
Berkeley periodically preached from the elevated pulpit of Trinity Church in Newport and, his contemporaries recalled, the church was filled to hear the thoughts of this curious English divine. Even Quakers—who usually disdained conventional religious establishments—came and stood in the aisles of the sanctuary to listen to his sermons. Later, Berkeley and his wife would bury one of their young children in the churchyard there, just before sailing back to England.
As I read more about him there, and saw the places connected with him, I became very comfortable with the idea that “our” Berkeley was named for this man.
How Our Name Came About
The story of the naming of Berkeley, California (and the campus) has been told elsewhere, so here’s just an abbreviated account.
Within a dozen years of the Gold Rush the private College of California—founded primarily by New England Congregationists—had accumulated enough land in the unnamed hinterland north of Oakland that the College Trustees decided they could consecrate their site to education. They did so in April, 1860.
Six years later, while subdividing land for sale adjacent to the still unoccupied campus site, the Trustees were urgently in need of a name to help market the property. Trustee Frederick Billings supplied one in May, 1866, when he stood by Founders’ Rock on campus and looked out to the Golden Gate, musing “Westward the course of empire takes its way…” The authorship of that line was well known to the educated Trustees, and they thought the name “Berkeley” would work well for their new campus site.
The College of California never had the means to move from its original home in Oakland to “Berkeley”, but in 1868 the property was turned over to the State of California as part of the establishment of the University of California. A few years later UC moved to new buildings in Berkeley. As a town grew up around the campus, the name “Berkeley” came into common usage, and it was formally adopted for the entire community (supplanting the earlier name of what’s now west Berkeley, “Ocean view”) when the community incorporated in 1878.
(The name “Berkeley” wasn’t the only one in the running. A number of other suggestions had been made, including “Peralta” and “Billings”, but all were rejected. And “Berkeley” did not yet adorn a major educational establishment in 1866, although it might have. When he visited the colonies George Berkeley had advised the men who would later found “King’s College” in New York City. After the American Revolution threw off the British monarchy, the college leaders there were casting about for a more popular name. There was the suggestion that the institution be renamed “Berkeley College”; instead, they went with “Columbia University”. Lucky for us, or we would all be living in New York and paying Manhattan prices.)
Origins of the Painting
Now let’s get back to the painting itself. The UC portrait of George Berkeley was painted in 1873 by John Weir, who worked at Yale University. Yale had in its collection a famed 18th century group portrait by artist John Smibert. Showing George Berkeley and his coterie. This was the “Bermuda Group” painting (more, later, about that odd name).
The idea for having a painting of Berkeley, here at Berkeley, seems to have been crystalized by Daniel Coit Gilman the second President of UC.
In April, 1873, Gilman was in Connecticut and crossed paths with Frederick Billings, the man who had, as we’ve seen above, memorably suggested the name “Berkeley” for the future campus site. “You asked me if a copy of Smebert ‘s(sic) portrait of Bishop Berkeley…could be procured for the University”, Billings wrote to Gilman. “The question was a felicitous suggestion. It made known to me how, in a very appropriate way, I could give a little proof of my great interest in the institution which may be said to have grown out of the College of California, with whose history I was identified through all its struggles from the very beginning.”
“It is most fit that he who gave the name of the good Bishop to the site of the University”, Billings went on, “should have the privilege of placing his portrait in the University Halls.” Billings agreed to pay to have the portrait painted.
Gilman acted with apparent alacrity. That same month he was writing to Weir, asking him to paint the portrait or find someone else who could do it equally well. The fee would be up to $500 from Billings, Gilman said, and the University would expect the portrait to arrive on the West Coast in time for a July 15 opening of the Berkeley campus.
Weir executed the work and had it done within a couple of months—by June 10, at the latest, when it was put on temporary display in the Yale Art Gallery. Then, in July, it was shipped by train from East to West. Here it was mounted in an elaborate redwood and gilt frame Gilman had fabricated probably, one guesses, in San Francisco.
On July 16, 1873, the young University celebrated the first Commencement exercises to be held at the Berkeley campus. Governor Newton Booth spoke, along with students Nathan Newmark and Frank Otis (later, Mayor of Alameda).
President Gilman delivered an address, and the painting was officially presented to the University by William Ingraham Kip, first Protestant Episcopal Bishop of California. Appropriately a spiritual cousin of Bishop Berkeley—and the first Episcopalian Bishop to actually reach the West Coast, just as Berkeley had been, in his time, the highest church official to come to the East Coast from England—welcomed the portrait of the philosopher to California.
Interestingly, that Commencement and presentation was held in old North Hall, which stood about where the Bancroft Library rises today. A few dozen feet west of the North Hall site is the Heyns Room in Doe Library, where the portrait now hangs. So Berkeley’s portrait has, by coincidence, returned to close to the same spot where it was first formally received on campus 139 years ago.
That’s how Berkeley came to Berkeley, full color, and life sized. Gilman told Weir in a letter that the painting “will be for a long time ‘or it may be for ages’ a central figure in our University halls.” But the placement of the painting was not so certain.
The exact tracing of its display career throughout the corridors of the campus is faded by history and incomplete records, but it seems most likely that the painting would have first hung in one of the University’s two original buildings, either South Hall or North Hall, where it had been presented.
In 1881 the campus built its first freestanding library structure—Bacon Hall—that also included an art gallery space. The painting was probably moved there, since in the 1920s there’s an archival mention that it was moved from the Bacon collection to California Hall, which then housed both classrooms and administrative offices for the University.
In 1929 it may have gone into temporary storage in the basement of California Hall, later to re-emerge in the early 1930s back upstairs in one of the main corridors. By the early 1950s it was back in storage for some reason, this time in Hearst Gymnasium, and sometime thereafter—maybe the 1960s, but definitely by the 1970s—it was out again, moved to the stairwell of University House, the residence of the Chancellor on the campus. University House was, then as now, an official private residence but also doubled as a campus center for receptions and events, so Berkeley was probably exposed to quite a number of visitors over the years.
And there it stayed until a major renovation and refurbishment of that building in the mid-1990s, when it was transferred to the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive for its most recent (and, hopefully, last) extended period in storage Finally, on January 13, 2012 during the last days of the quiet intersession period it was carefully trucked to Doe Library and hung on the west wall of the monumental Heyns Reading Room.
I wasn’t really aware of the portrait several years ago when I organized an exhibit at the Berkeley Historical Society on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Berkeley’s death (the demise of the Bishop, that is, not the city). I then got a call from Charles Burress, who was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was trying to get permission to view the University’s portrait of Bishop Berkeley.
Portrait? I said. Yes, Burress said. The Museum provided a black and white photograph, but wasn’t able, for various reasons, to let him see the actual picture, which was in secure storage.
Years passed, but I kept the portrait in mind. With changing times—and the fragility of a 19th century artifact—it wouldn’t be realistic for it to hang in some indefensible space on campus. It could, conceivably, have gone back in California Hall where it once hung, but that building is now access controlled (a security guard sits at the entrance) so it wouldn’t really be public, in the best sense.
Then, in September 2010, an opportunity to actually see the portrait arose. The Australian descendants of Bishop Berkeley’s brother, Robert (George himself has no living descendants today) were coming to town and Philosophy Department and Visitor Center representatives were preparing to host them.
They should see the portrait, I suggested. And the BAM / PFA, graciously arranged to bring it out of storage for a day where the Berkeley family could view it; earlier in the same trip they had visited Newport, Middletown, and Berkeley’s Whitehall. Here the painting was propped against a concrete corridor wall in the BAM for the inspection, which the living Berkeley’s much enjoyed.
Then back to storage. But not too long thereafter I was asked to join a committee planning for the 2011-12 Centennial Celebration of Doe Library. When the committee met, University Librarian Tom Leonard purposefully opened up the floor to any and all ideas, and I tossed out several, including the idea of hanging the portrait in Doe. The group discussed it, people liked it, and Leonard approved.
So did, fortunately, the Berkeley Art Museum administration, which has custody of the portrait. Like the other painting hanging in Doe Library—“Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth”—the portrait of Bishop Berkeley was a physically large and unwieldy work that the BAM didn’t have the room to permanently display in either its current building, or its future structure. But they still recognized the two paintings as having value and interest and historical resonance, and displaying them in the Library was a good fit.
It was even historically appropriate. As I noted above, one of the places the portrait once hung on campus in earlier years was Bacon Hall, which did double duty as library and art gallery for the campus.
The Genesis of Our Painting
Now, how did Weir decide to paint this particular image once he had the commission from Gilman and Billings? He based it, perhaps at Gilman’s suggestion, on that famed painting of George Berkeley from the early 18th century that I talked about earlier. That work—popularly called the “Bermuda Group”—depicted Berkeley, his wife and son, and various friends, on the eve of their departure for the New World to found a new college. Berkeley originally intended the institution to be in Bermuda; hence the name.
The painter of the Bermuda Group was John Smibert (aka Smybert, or Smebert) who was a young Scottish artist who came along with Berkeley on the expectation that he would teach architecture at the new college. Instead—since the college idea fell flat—Smibert married a colonial and settled down in Boston, staying there when Berkeley went back to England.
While the teaching job hadn’t materialized, it all seems to have worked out in the end for Smilbert. He became a notable portrait artist in New England at a time when fine artists were few and far between on this side of the Atlantic. From what I’ve read, he merits at least a fat footnote in American art history.
In any case, Smibert painted the Bermuda Group, it was seen by many people, and remained part of his estate when he died in the 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century the painting had come into the hands of one Issac Lothrop (sic), who then gave it to Yale University in 1808.
Yale was a sensible place for the group portrait of Berkeley and his friends to reside. Berkeley had visited Yale during his American sojourn and left assets to the New Haven college, including books (really rare on this side of the Atlantic at that time) and his own house—“Whitehall”—in Middletown, Rhode Island. Yale would even create a “Berkeley College” residential campus in the 1930s.
The painting presumably would have been viewable at Yale in the mid-19th century, when Daniel Coit Gilman, that future UC President, graduated from Yale (in 1852) and soon thereafter (1856) served as Librarian of Yale College, then a member of the faculty at the Sheffield Scientific School, a branch of Yale that he had helped plan and establish.
From there Gilman came west to Berkeley, where he was well positioned to suggest both the idea of a new Berkeley portrait to Billings and—when the Billings made the offer to pay for it—subsequently suggest that the Smibert painting be the model for the new rendering by Weir.
So Weir did, adding his own take. If you look at the two paintings, you’ll see that Weir seems to have scrupulously copied the pose, position, clothing and head of Smibert’s Berkeley, but made some other alterations.
Gilman told Weir by letter that he wanted a “worthy work” and trusted Weir to produce one. “I am delighted to learn that you are to give an artistic treatment to the Berkeley portrait and not make a literal transcript of it”, Gilman later wrote to Weir on May 28, 1873, presumably referring to the Bermuda Group as the artistic source. “It was just like you to think of making a picture out of a relic and your way of going forward shows the advantage of asking an artist instead of a photographer for advice.”
Weir’s way was to move Berkeley from standing at a table, his hand on a book, to standing next to a column with a book cradled in his arms (University Librarian Leonard puckishly points out that Berkeley has his finger stuck in the book—he needs a bookmark). On the column Weir painted the line that inspired Billings, “Westward the course of empire…” (Gilman had mused to Weir that perhaps the words could go on the frame, but concluded that Weir’s approach of incorporating them into the painting itself was more successful.)
Berkeley, Leutze, and Velezquez
There are two more coincidental connections about UC’s Berkeley portrait that are worth mentioning because they help shed light on what is perhaps the most persistent mis-interpretation of George Berkeley over the years—that he was anticipating or hoping for the military and political establishment of the British Empire, with all of its associations, from glorious to unfortunate.
Berkeley did write “Westward the course of empire takes its way…” but Berkeley scholars seem to generally believe he was dreaming about the growth of a new, more vibrant, humane, and enlightened civilization in the New World that would replace and rectify the errors of old, decadent, Europe.
Berkeley’s own age was very troubled. He had plenty of evidence of apparent civilizational decline. England, not yet a world power, had only recently been dismembered by civil war, and only recently put back together. Continental wars, some involving England, were an almost annual occurrence, and despotism and economic inequality and malfeasance was everywhere.
In 1720 England was particularly shaken by what became known as the “South Sea Bubble”, a financial collapse brought on by shady dealings and frenzied speculation in the stock of companies proposing to import from the “South Seas” (meaning the South Atlantic and South America). Thousands of investors, prudent and foolish, lost their money and the country got a glaring look at the consequences of corruption and unregulated greed.
This was the context in which Berkeley began to dream of civilization starting anew in the Americas, where England had a small fringe of colonies along the Eastern Seaboard. Hence his poem which called for “a rise of empire and the arts” in the New World where “the good and great inspiring Epic (would) rage” and the “noblest minds and hearts” would prevail.
This concept was not original to Berkeley, but he was the one who, in what became popular literature—his poem—translated it to the Americas. Scholar Peter Freese wrote in a paper analyzing the poem and its context, “Berkeley evokes the notion of the westward movement of culture by having the ‘disgusted Muse’ emigrate from a corrupt Europe where the lack of ‘glorious Theme(s)’ has put her out of work, into the ‘distant lands’ of America, there to await “a better time” and “subjects worthy (of) Fame.”
But, once it crossed the seas and marinated for several decades, Berkeley’s rather benign concept—which Freese called “an Irish bishop’s Christian vision of the impending completion of divinely ordained world history”—became a rather more fraught and toxified concept. Americans in the 19th century, pushing westwards across the North American continent, shoving European powers aside, subjugating or killing natives and—eventually—arrived on the shores of the Pacific, where they gazed out at the economic and political potential of dominating Asia.
There was a word—two words, rather—for their sense of purpose. Manifest Destiny.
Americans, in the era the College of California and the University of California were founded, became fond of quoting “Westward the course of Empire…” (sometimes mis-translated as “star of Empire”) to evoke the supposed inevitability of the United States ruling the New World and dominating the Old.
And few did more to popularize that misconception of George Berkeley’s poetic phrase than Emmanuel Leutze. Just about 150 years ago, as the Civil War began, Leutze, a German-born painter known for his popular and patriotic subjects, began a commission in the unfinished United States Capitol Building.
His painting showed an idealized group of trans-continental settlers—complete with coonskin caps, rifles, Conestoga wagons, intrepid wives and children (and one African-American man)—toiling up a precipitous mountainside and, from the summit, gazing westward at a golden promised land…California. (There’s even, below the main painting, a smaller image showing the unbridged entrance to the Golden Gate from offshore in the Pacific. If you peek past the headlands, you can probably see the site of our Berkeley.)
Entitling his Capital painting “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”, Leutze expressed in glorious graphic form what had become the popular (mis) interpretation of Berkeley’s words.
Leutze is also well known for his “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting, but that work had a lesser-known companion piece, “Washington Rallying The Troops At Monmouth.” The Monmouth painting eventually came, by way of an eccentric donor, into the hands of the University of California.
And, like the University’s George Berkeley painting, it was hung, taken down, stored, moved around, and finally deposited (in the 1990s) in a semi-permanent location at the south end of the Heyns Room of Doe Library, one of the few places on campus large enough to accommodate the vast canvas.
And there it hangs today, now joined just to the northwest by George Berkeley. There is irony in the juxtaposition. At Berkeley the campus, Berkeley the philosopher can gaze across at one of the major paintings of a man who did as much as anyone to change the meaning of George Berkeley’s words that inspired the campus name.
Finally…George Berkeley’s portrait is not the first to hang on the wall of the Heyns Room in that particular spot. For a period in the mid-20th century the University of California possessed, on loan, a collection of full-sized reproductions of works by the 18th century Spanish artist, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. They were later returned to Spain.
After looking at a grainy black and white photo of the Heyns Room with its walls lined with those portraits, I think that the picture that hung in George Berkeley’s present spot was a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain, painted between 1624-27. (The original is in the Prado, in Madrid). Velázquez was Philip’s court painter.
During Philip’s reign, the Spanish Empire was as large as it ever got, but was already headed for decline. So George Berkeley, appropriately enough, now takes the place of a portrait of a monarch who presided over the beginning of the end of one of those European empires that would drive Berkeley to despair—and to look to the New World—a century later.
(Steven Finacom is the current President of the Berkeley—California—Historical Society and writes frequently for the Planet on historical and feature topics.)
(Almost every historical account builds considerably on the earlier work of others, and it’s important to acknowledge their contributions. For information about the origins of the Weir portrait I’m indebted to the research of Betsy Fahlman, a Professor of Art History at the Arizona State. She generously shared her research resources with the Berkeley campus when the hanging of the painting was being planned. Ira Jacknis, a researcher in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology on campus has been indefatigable in his pursuit of research on the history of campus art collections, and has uncovered most of the early history of the Weir painting as it moved about the campus. And German scholar of American Studies, Peter Freese, wrote an insightful paper,“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”: The Translato-Concept in Popular American Writing and Painting”, published in 1996, that details the transmutation of Berkeley’s vision; you can find a full version in the JSTOR on-line archive.
UC Newscenter article about hanging of the painting: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/02/02/bishop-berkeley-doe/
FAQ about Bishop Berkeley and the Berkeley campus portrait: http://doe100.berkeley.edu/george_berkeley_faq.html
Website of the International Berkeley Society, a good gateway to historical and philosophical information about George Berkeley: http://georgeberkeley.tamu.edu/