My father dressed as he thought a painter should, in a distinct and recognizable garb which made him a familiar and, in his later years, a venerable figure as he took his exercise in the streets round his house. There was no element of ostentation in his poncho capes, check suits, sombrero hats and stock ties. It was rather that he thought it fitting for a man to proclaim unequivocally his station in life, and despised those of his colleagues who seemed to be passing themselves off as guardsmen and stockbrokers. In general he liked his fellow academicians, though I never heard him express anything but contempt for their work. He regarded the Academy as a club; he enjoyed the dinners and frequently attended the schools, where he was able to state his views on art in Johnsonian terms. He never doubted that the function of painting was representational. He criticized his colleagues for such faults as incorrect anatomy, “triviality” and “insincerity.” For this he was loosely spoken of as a conservative, but that he never was where his art was concerned. He abominated the standards of his youth. He must have been an intransigently old-fashioned young man, for he was brought up in the heyday of Whistlerian decorative painting and his first exhibited work was of a balloon ascent in Manchester—a large canvas crowded with human drama, in the manner of Frith. His practice was chiefly in portraits—many of them posthumous—for presentation to colleges and guildhalls. He seldom succeeded with women whom he endowed with a statuesque absurdity which was half deliberate, but given the robes of a Doctor of Music or a Knight of Malta and he would do something fit to hang with the best panelling in the country; given some whiskers and he was a master. “As a young man I specialized in hair,” he would say, rather as a doctor might say he specialized in noses and throats. “I paint it incomparably. Nowadays nobody has any to paint,” and it was this aptitude of his which led him to the long, increasingly unsaleable series of historical and scriptural groups, and the scenes of domestic melodrama by which he is known—subjects which had already become slightly ludicrous when he was in his cradle, but which he continued to produce year after year while experimental painters came and went until, right at the end of his life, he suddenly, without realizing it, found himself in the fashion. The first sign of this was in 1929 when his “Agag before Samuel” was bought at a provincial exhibition for 750 guineas. It was a large canvas at which he had been at work intermittently since 1908. Even he spoke of it, with conscious understatement, as “something of a white elephant.” White elephants indeed were almost the sole species of four-footed animal that was not, somewhere, worked into this elaborate composition. When asked why he had introduced such a variety of fauna, he replied, “I’m sick of Samuel. I’ve lived with him for twenty years. Every time it comes back from an exhibition I paint out a Jew and put in an animal. If I live long enough I’ll have a Noah’s ark in its background.”
The purchaser of this work was Sir Lionel Sterne.
“Honest Sir Lionel,” said my father, as he saw the great canvas packed off to Kensington Palace Gardens. “I should dearly have liked to shake his hairy paw. I can see him well—a fine, meaty fellow with a great gold watch-chain across his belly, who’s been decently employed boiling soap or smelting copper all his life, with no time to read Clive Bell. In every age it has been men like him who kept painting alive.”
I tried to explain that Lionel Sterne was the youthful and elegant millionaire who for ten years had been a leader of aesthetic fashion. “Nonsense!” said my father. “Fellows like that collect disjointed Negresses by Gauguin. Only Philistines like my work and, by God, I only like Philistines.”
There was also another, rather less reputable side to my father’s business. He received a regular yearly retaining fee from Goodchild and Godley, the Duke Street dealers, for what was called “restoration.” This sum was a very important part of his income; without it the comfortable little dinners, the trips abroad, the cabs to and fro between St. John’s Wood and the Athenaeum, the faithful, predatory Jellabys, the orchid in his buttonhole—all the substantial comforts and refinements which endeared the world and provided him with his air of gentlemanly ease—would have been impossible to him. The truth was that, while excelling at Lely, my father could paint, very passably, in the manner of almost any of the masters of English portraiture and the private and public collections of the New World were richly representative of his versatility. Very few of his friends knew this traffic; to those who did, he defended it with complete candour. “Goodchild and Godley buy these pictures for what they are—my own work. They pay me no more than my dexterity merits. What they do with them afterwards is their own business. It would ill become me to go officiously about the markets identifying my own handicraft and upsetting a number of perfectly contented people. It is a great deal better for them to look at beautiful pictures and enjoy them under a misconception about the date, than to make themselves dizzy by goggling at genuine Picassos.”
It was largely on account of his work for Goodchild and Godley that his studio was strictly reserved as a workshop. It was a separate building approached through the garden and it was excluded from general use. Once a year, when he went abroad it was “done out”; once a year, on the Sunday before sending-in day at the Royal Academy it was open to his friends. He took a peculiar pleasure from the gloom of these annual tea parties and was at the same pains to make them dismal as he was on all other occasions to enliven his entertainments. There was a species of dry, bright yellow, caraway cake which was known to my childhood as “Academy cake,” which appeared then and only then, from a grocer in Praed Street; there was an enormous Worcester tea service—a wedding present—which was known as “Academy cups”; there were “Academy sandwiches”—tiny, triangular and quite tasteless. All these things were part of my earliest memories. I do not know at what date these parties changed from being a rather tedious convention to what they certainly were to my father at the end of his life, a huge, grim and solitary jest. If I was in England I was required to attend and to bring a friend or two. It was difficult, until the last two years when, as I have said, my father became the object of fashionable interest, to collect guests. “When I was a young man,” my father said, sardonically surveying the company, “there were twenty or more of these parties in St. John’s Wood alone. People of culture drove round from three in the afternoon to six, from Campden Hill to Hampstead. Today I believe our little gathering is the sole survivor of that deleterious tradition.”
On these occasions his year’s work—Goodchild and Godley’s items excepted—would be ranged round the studio on mahogany easels; the most important work had a wall to itself against a background of scarlet rep. I had been present at the last of the parties the year before. The recollection was remarkable. Lionel Sterne was there, Lady Metroland and a dozen fashionable connoisseurs. My father was at first rather suspicious of his new clients and suspected an impertinent intrusion into his own private joke, a calling of his bluff of seed-cake and cress sandwiches; but their commissions reassured him. People did not carry a joke to such extravagant lengths. Mrs. Algernon Stitch paid 500 guineas for his picture of the year—a tableau of contemporary life conceived and painted with elaborate mastery. My father attached great importance to suitable titles for his work, and after toying with “The People’s Idol,” “Feet of Clay,” “Not on the First Night,” “Their Night of Triumph,” “Success and Failure,” “Not Invited,” “Also Present,” he finally called this picture rather enigmatically “The Neglected Cue.” It represented the dressing room of a leading actress at the close of a triumphant first night. She sat at the dressing table, her back turned on the company and her face visible in the mirror, momentarily relaxed in fatigue. Her protector with proprietary swagger was filling the glasses for a circle of admirers. In the background the dresser was in colloquy at the half-open door with an elderly couple of provincial appearance; it is evident from their costume that they have seen the piece from the cheaper seats, and a commissionaire stands behind them uncertain whether he did right in admitting them. He did not do right; they are her old parents arriving most inopportunely. There was no questioning Mrs. Stitch’s rapturous enjoyment of her acquisition.
I was never to know how my father would react to his vogue. He could paint in any way he chose; perhaps he would have embarked on those vague assemblages of picnic litter which used to cover the walls of the Mansard Gallery in the early twenties; he might have retreated to the standards of the Grosvenor Gallery in the nineties. He might, perhaps, have found popularity less inacceptable than he supposed and allowed himself a luxurious and cosetted old age. He died with his 1932 picture still unfinished. I saw its early stage on my last visit to him; it represented an old shipwright pondering on the idle dockyard where lay the great skeleton of the Cunarder that was later to be known as the Queen Mary. It was to have been called “Too Big?” My father had given the man a grizzled beard and was revelling in it. That was the last time I saw him.
Evelyn Waugh, 1903-1966
My Father’s House (from Work Suspended), 1943
Image: Samuel hews Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal. ( Samuel 15:32, 33) from: Figures de la Bible (1728)