Arnold Bennett – The Death of Simon Fuge, 1907

 

The second thing that I saw in the Gazette (the first was of course the ‘Entremets’ column of wit, humour, and parody, very uneven in its excellence) was the death of Simon Fuge. There was nearly a column about it, signed with initials, and the subheading of the article ran, ‘Sudden death of a great painter’. That was characteristic of the Gazette. That Simon Fuge was indeed a great painter is now admitted by most dilettantes, though denied by a few. But to the great public he was not one of the few great names. To the great public he was just a medium name. Ten to one that in speaking of him to a plain person you would feel compelled to add: ‘The painter, you know,’ and the plain person would respond: ‘Oh yes,’ falsely pretending that he was perfectly familiar with the name. Simon Fuge had many friends on the press, and it was solely owing to the loyalty of these friends in the matter of obituary notices that the great public heard more of Simon Fuge in the week after his death than it had heard of him during the thirty-five years of his life. It may be asked: Why, if he had so many and such loyal friends on the press, these friends did not take measures to establish his reputation before he died? The answer is that editors will not allow journalists to praise a living artist much in excess of the esteem in which the public holds him; they are timid. But when a misunderstood artist is dead the editors will put no limit on laudation. I am not on the press, but it happens that I know the world. Of all the obituary notices of Simon Fuge, the Gazette’s was the first. Somehow the Gazette had obtained exclusive news of the little event, and some one high up on the Gazette’s staff had a very exalted notion indeed of Fuge, and must have known him personally. Fuge received his deserts as a painter in that column of print. He was compared to Sorolla y Bastida for vitality; the morbidezza of his flesh-tints was stated to be unrivalled even by –I forget the name, painting is not my speciality. The writer blandly inquired why examples of Fuge’s work were to be seen in the Luxembourg, at Vienna, at Florence, at Dresden; and not, for instance, at the Tate Gallery, or in the Chantrey collection. The writer also inquired, with equal blandness, why a painter who had been on the hanging committee of the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts at Paris should not have been found worthy to be even an A.R.A. in London. In brief, old England ‘caught it’, as occurred somewhere or other most nights in the columns of the Gazette. Fuge also received his deserts as a man. And the Gazette did not conceal that he had not been a man after the heart of the British public. He had been too romantically and intensely alive for that. The writer gave a little penportrait of him. It was very good, recalling his tricks of manner, his unforgettable eyes, and his amazing skill in talking about himself and really interesting everybody in himself. There was a special reference to one of Fuge’s most dramatic recitals–a narration of a night spent in a boat on Ham Lake with two beautiful girls, sisters, natives of the Five Towns, where Fuge was born. Said the obituarist: ‘Those two wonderful creatures who played so large a part in Simon Fuge’s life.’

This death was a shock to me. It took away my ennui for the rest of the journey. I too had known Simon Fuge. That is to say, I had met him once, at a soiree, and on that single occasion, as luck had it, he had favoured the company with the very narration to which the Gazette contributor referred. I remembered well the burning brilliance of his blue-black eyes, his touching assurance that all of us were necessarily interested in his adventures, and the extremely graphic and convincing way in which he reconstituted for us the nocturnal scene on Ham Lake–the two sisters, the boat, the rustle of trees, the lights on shore, and his own difficulty in managing the oars, one of which he lost for half-an-hour and found again. It was by such details as that about the oar that, with a tint of humour, he added realism to the romantic quality of his tales. He seemed to have no reticences concerning himself. Decidedly he allowed things to be understood…! Yes, his was a romantic figure, the figure of one to whom every day, and every hour of the day, was coloured by the violence of his passion for existence. His pictures had often an unearthly beauty, but for him they were nothing but faithful renderings of what he saw. My mind dwelt on those two beautiful sisters. Those two beautiful sisters appealed to me more than anything else in the Gazette’s obituary. Surely–Simon Fuge had obviously been a man whose emotional susceptibility and virile impulsiveness must have opened the door for him to multifarious amours–but surely he had not made himself indispensable to both sisters simultaneously. Surely even he had not so far forgotten that Ham Lake was in the middle of a country called England, and not the ornamental water in the Bois de Boulogne! And yet…. The delicious possibility of ineffable indiscretions on the part of Simon Fuge monopolized my mind till the train stopped at Knype, and I descended. Nevertheless, I think I am a serious and fairly insular Englishman. It is truly astonishing how a serious person can be obsessed by trifles that, to speak mildly, do not merit sustained attention.

I wondered where Ham Lake was. I knew merely that it lay somewhere in the environs of the Five Towns. What put fuel on the fire of my interest in the private affairs of the dead painter was the slightly curious coincidence that on the evening of the news of his death I should be travelling to the Five Towns–and for the first time in my life. Here I was at Knype, which, as I had gathered from Bradshaw, and from my acquaintance Brindley, was the traffic centre of the Five Towns.

Chapter V

‘Here we are!’ ejaculated Mr Brindley.
And he was out of the car almost before I had risen.
We strolled along a quiet street, and came to a large building with many large lighted windows, evidently some result of public effort.

‘What’s that place?’ I demanded.

‘That’s the Wedgwood Institution.’

‘Oh! So that’s the Wedgwood Institution, is it?’

‘Yes. Commonly called the Wedgwood. Museum, reading-room, public library–dirtiest books in the world, I mean physically–art school, science school. I’ve never explained to you why I’m chairman of the Management Committee, have I? Well, it’s because the Institution is meant to foster the arts, and I happen to know nothing about ’em. I needn’t tell you that architecture, literature, and music are not arts within the meaning of the act. Not much! Like to come in and see the museum for a minute? You’ll have to see it in your official capacity tomorrow.’

. . . . .

Who can tell what was passing in the breast of Mr Brindley? I could not. At least I could not tell with any precision. I could only gather, vaguely, that what he considered the wrong- headedness, the blindness, the lack of true perception, of his public was beginning to produce in his individuality a faint trace of permanent soreness. I regretted it. And I showed my sympathy with him by asking questions about the design and construction of the museum (a late addition to the Institution), of which I happened to know that he had been the architect.

He at once became interested and interesting. Although he perhaps insisted a little too much on the difficulties which occur when original talent encounters stupidity, he did, as he walked me up and down, contrive to convey to me a notion of the creative processes of the architect in a way that was in my experience entirely novel. He was impressing me anew, and I was wondering whether he was unique of his kind or whether there existed regiments of him in this strange parcel of England.

‘Now, you see this girder,’ he said, looking upwards.

That’s surely something of Fuge’s, isn’t it?’ I asked, indicating a small picture in a corner, after he had finished his explanation of the functions of the girder.

As on the walls of the staircase and corridors, so on the walls here, there were many paintings, drawings, and engravings. And of course the best were here in the museum. The least uninteresting items of the collection were, speaking generally, reproductions in monotint of celebrated works, and a few second–or third-rate loan pictures from South Kensington. Aside from such matters I had noticed nothing but the usual local trivialities, gifts from one citizen or another, travel-jottings of some art-master, careful daubs of art students without a sense of humour. The aspect of the place was exactly the customary aspect of the small provincial museum, as I have seen it in half-a-hundred towns that are not among ‘the great towns’. It had the terrible trite ‘museum’ aspect, the aspect that brings woe and desolation to the heart of the stoutest visitor, and which seems to form part of the purgatorio of Bank-holidays, wide mouths, and stiff clothes. The movement for opening museums on Sundays is the most natural movement that could be conceived. For if ever a resort was invented and fore-ordained to chime with the true spirit of the British sabbath, that resort is the average museum. I ought to know. I do know.

But there was the incomparable Wedgwood ware, and there was the little picture by Simon Fuge. I am not going to lose my sense of perspective concerning Simon Fuge. He was not the greatest painter that ever lived, or even of his time. He had, I am ready to believe, very grave limitations. But he was a painter by himself, as all fine painters are. He had his own vision. He was unique. He was exclusively preoccupied with the beauty and the romance of the authentic. The little picture showed all this. It was a painting, unfinished, of a girl standing at a door and evidently hesitating whether to open the door or not: a very young girl, very thin, with long legs in black stockings, and short, white, untidy frock; thin bare arms; the head thrown on one side, and the hands raised, and one foot raised, in a wonderful childish gesture–the gesture of an undecided fox-terrier. The face was an infant’s face, utterly innocent; and yet Simon Fuge had somehow caught in that face a glimpse of all the future of the woman that the girl was to be, he had displayed with exquisite insolence the essential naughtiness of his vision of things. The thing was not much more than a sketch; it was a happy accident, perhaps, in some day’s work of Simon Fuge’s. But it was genius. When once you had yielded to it, there was no other picture in the room. It killed everything else. But, wherever it had found itself, nothing could have killed IT. Its success was undeniable, indestructible. And it glowed sombrely there on the wall, a few splashes of colour on a morsel of canvas, and it was Simon Fuge’s unconscious, proud challenge to the Five Towns. It WAS Simon Fuge, at any rate all of Simon Fuge that was worth having, masterful, imperishable. And not merely was it his challenge, it was his scorn, his aristocratic disdain, his positive assurance that in the battle between them he had annihilated the Five Towns. It hung there in the very midst thereof, calmly and contemptuously waiting for the acknowledgement of his victory.

‘Which?’ said Mr Brindley.

That one.’

‘Yes, I fancy it is,’ he negligently agreed. ‘Yes, it is.’

‘It’s not signed,’ I remarked.

‘It ought to be,’ said Mr Brindley; then laughed, ‘Too late now!’

‘How did it get here?’

‘Don’t know. Oh! I think Mr Perkins won it in a raffle at a bazaar, and then hung it here. He did as he liked here, you know.’

I was just going to become vocal in its praise, when Mr Brindley said–

‘That thing under it is a photograph of a drinking-cup for which one of our pupils won a national scholarship last year!’

Mr Aked appeared in the distance.

‘I fancy the old boy wants to be off to bed,’ Mr Brindley whispered kindly.

So we left the Wedgwood Institution. I began to talk to Mr Brindley about music. The barbaric attitude of the Five Towns towards great music was the theme of some very lively animadversions on his part.

. . . . .

Chapter IX

He flew off to escape my thanks, and Mr Brindley and I went into the station. Owing to the celerity of the automobile we had half-an-hour to wait. We spent it chiefly at the bookstall. While we were there the extra-special edition of the STAFFORDSHIRE SIGNAL, affectionately termed ‘the local rag’ by its readers, arrived, and we watched a newsboy affix its poster to a board. The poster ran thus–

HANBRIDGE RATES LIVELY MEETING

KNYPE F.C. NEW CENTRE–FORWARD

ALL–WINNERS AND S.P.

Now, close by this poster was the poster of the DAILY TELEGRAPH, and among the items offered by the DAILY TELEGRAPH was: ‘Death of Simon Fuge’. I could not forbear pointing out to Mr Brindley the difference between the two posters. A conversation ensued; and amid the rumbling of trains and the rough stir of the platform we got back again to Simon Fuge, and Mr Brindley’s tone gradually grew, if not acrid, a little impatient.

‘After all,’ he said, ‘rates are rates, especially in Hanbridge.

And let me tell you that last season Knype Football Club jolly nearly got thrown out of the First League. The constitution of the team for this next season–why, damn it, it’s a question of national importance! You don’t understand these things. If Knype Football Club was put into the League Second Division, ten thousand homes would go into mourning. Who the devil was Simon Fuge?’

They joke with such extraordinary seriousness in the Five Towns that one is somehow bound to pretend that they are not joking. So I replied–

‘He was a great artist. And this is his native district. Surely you ought to be proud of him!’

‘He may have been a great artist,’ said Mr Brindley, ‘or he may not. But for us he was simply a man who came of a family that had a bad reputation for talking too much and acting the goat!’

‘Well,’ I said, We shall see–in fifty years.’

‘That’s just what we shan’t,’ said he. ‘We shall be where Simon Fuge is–dead! However, perhaps we are proud of him. But you don’t expect us to show it, do you? That’s not our style.’

He performed the quasi-winking phenomenon with his eyes. It was his final exhibition of it to me.

‘A strange place!’ I reflected, as I ate my dinner in the dining- car, with the pressure of Mr Brindley’s steely clasp still affecting my right hand, and the rich, honest cordiality of his au revoir in my heart. ‘A place that is passing strange!’

And I thought further: He may have been a boaster, and a chatterer, and a man who suffered from cold feet at the wrong moments! And the Five Towns may have got the better of him, now. But that portrait of the little girl in the Wedgwood Institution is waiting there, right in the middle of the Five Towns. And one day the Five Towns will have to ‘give it best’. They can say what they like! … What eyes the fellow had, when he was in the right company!

Arnold Bennett, 1867-1931. The Death of Simon Fuge (Chapter 1), from – The Grim Smile of the Five Towns, 1907. (

Image: Garnet Wolseley, 1884 – 1967. Cottage Girl 

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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