I do not think that his literary tastes and opinions were on a level with the rest of his mind. He himself, though he was clear as to what he thought good, considered that in matters of literary taste, he was quite outside the pale, and often spoke of what those within it liked or disliked, as if they formed a class to which he had no claim to belong.
In all matters of art he was inclined to laugh at professed critics, and say that their opinions were formed by fashion. Thus in painting, he would say how in his day every one admired masters who are now neglected. His love of pictures as a young man is almost a proof that he must have had an appreciation of a portrait as a work of art, not as a likeness. Yet he often talked laughingly of the small worth of portraits, and said that a photograph was worth any number of pictures, as if he were blind to the artistic quality in a painted portrait. But this was generally said in his attempts to persuade us to give up the idea of having his portrait painted, an operation very irksome to him.
This way of looking at himself as an ignoramus in all matters of art, was strengthened by the absence of pretence, which was part of his character. With regard to questions of taste, as well as to more serious things, he always had the courage of his opinions. I remember, however, an instance that sounds like a contradiction to this: when he was looking at the Turners in Mr. Ruskin's bedroom, he did not confess, as he did afterwards, that he could make out absolutely nothing of what Mr. Ruskin saw in them. But this little pretence was not for his own sake, but for the sake of courtesy to his host. He was pleased and amused when subsequently Mr. Ruskin brought him some photographs of pictures (I think Vandyke portraits), and courteously seemed to value my father's opinion about them.
Much of his scientific reading was in German, and this was a great labour to him; in reading a book after him, I was often struck at seeing, from the pencil-marks made each day where he left off, how little he could read at a time. He used to call German the "Verdammte," pronounced as if in English. He was especially indignant with Germans, because he was convinced that they could write simply if they chose, and often praised Dr. F. Hildebrand for writing German which was as clear as French. He sometimes gave a German sentence to a friend, a patriotic German lady, and used to laugh at her if she did not translate it fluently. He himself learnt German simply by hammering away with a dictionary; he would say that his only way was to read a sentence a great many times over, and at last the meaning occurred to him. When he began German long ago, he boasted of the fact (as he used to tell) to Sir J. Hooker, who replied, "Ah, my dear fellow, that's nothing; I've begun it many times."
In spite of his want of grammar, he managed to get on wonderfully with German, and the sentences that he failed to make out were generally really difficult ones. He never attempted to speak German correctly, but pronounced the words as though they were English; and this made it not a little difficult to help him, when he read out a German sentence and asked for a translation. He certainly had a bad ear for vocal sounds, so that he found it impossible to perceive small differences in pronunciation.
His wide interest in branches of science that were not specially his own was remarkable. In the biological sciences his doctrines make themselves felt so widely that there was something interesting to him in most departments of it. He read a good deal of many quite special works, and large parts of text books, such as Huxley's 'Invertebrate Anatomy,' or such a book as Balfour's 'Embryology,' where the detail, at any rate, was not specially in his own line. And in the case of elaborate books of the monograph type, though he did not make a study of them, yet he felt the strongest admiration for them.
In the non-biological sciences he felt keen sympathy with work of which he could not really judge.