Frances Burney – Evalina, 1778

f hayman the triumph of britanniaLETTER XLVI. EVELINA TO THE REV. MR. VILLARS. Holborn, June 17th.

Observing that Sir Clement seemed disposed to renew his enquiries, I turned towards one of the paintings, and, pretending to be very much occupied in looking at it, asked M. Du Bois some questions concerning the figures.

“O! Mon Dieu! ” cried Madame Duval, “don’t ask him; your best way is to ask Mr. Smith, for he’s been here the oftenest. Come, Mr. Smith, I dare say you can tell us all about them.”

“Why, yes, Ma’am, yes,” said Mr. Smith: who, brightening up at this application, advanced towards us with an air of assumed importance, which, however, sat very uneasily upon him, and begged to know what he should explain first: “For I have attended,” said he, “to all these paintings, and know every thing in them perfectly well; for I am rather fond of pictures, Ma’am; and, really, I must say, I think, a pretty pictures is a – a very – is really a very – is something very pretty – ”

“So do I too,” said Madame Duval; “but pray now, Sir, tell us who that is meant for,” pointing to a figure of Neptune.

“That! – why, that, Ma’am, is, – Lord bless me, I can’t think how I come to be so stupid, but really I have forgot his name; – and yet, I know it as well as my own too: – however, he’s a General, Ma’am, they are all Generals.”

I saw Sir Clement bite his lips; and, indeed, so did I mine.

“Well,” said Madame Duval, “it’s the oddest dress for a general ever I see!”

“He seems so capital a figure,” said Sir Clement, to Mr. Smith, “that I imagine he must be Generalissimo of the whole army.”

“Yes, Sir, yes,” answered Mr. Smith, respectfully bowing, and highly delighted at being thus referred to, “you are perfectly right; – but I cannot for my life think of his name; – perhaps, Sir, you may remember it?”

“No, really,” replied Sir Clement, “my acquaintance among the generals is not so extensive.”

The ironical tone of voice in which Sir Clement spoke entirely disconcerted Mr. Smith; who again retiring to an humble distance, seemed sensibly mortified at the failure of his attempt to recover his consequence.

Frances Burney, 1752-1840. Evalina, 1778

Letter XLVI. Evalina to the Rev. Mr. Villars. Holborn, June 17th. (Vol II. Letter XV. Evalina in continuation. June 17th)

Note: The Picture Room at Vauxhall Gardens, which opened in 1661, was attached to the Rotunda. Also known as the ‘saloon’, it was 70 feet long by 34 feet wide. The paintings on the walls of the Picture Room were commissioned in 1760 from Francis Hayman, 1708-1776. They depicted famous British victories and the military heroes associated with them. The painting of The Triumph of Britannia, now lost, celebrated Sir Edward Hawke’s defeat of the French fleet in 1759 included  the central figure of Neptune appearing to favour the British cause. Hayman also made paintings for the fifty supper-boxes at Vauxhall. The images were contemporary and jingoistic as seen in the work by marine painter, Peter Monamy, 1681-1749, who depicted episodes from the current conflict with Spain, the so-called “War of Jenkins’ Ear.” Including The Taking of Porto Bello, and the Capture of the San Joseph. Hayman created a series of fifty-three paintings, fourteen of which have survived, painted by the staff and students, at the Saint Martin’s Lane Academy. Eighteen of the paintings were published as popular engravings, illustrating subjects from contemporary theatre, children’s games,  and adult pursuits.

Image: Edward Francis Burney, 1760-1848. Portrait of Frances Burney. c.1784-85. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image: Francis Hayman (after). The Triumph of Britannia. Print by Simon François Ravenet. Published in London,1765. © The Trustees of the British Museum, Prints & Drawings Department

Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre, 1847


 Jane Eyre, 1847. Vol 1. Chapter 13.

Mr. Rochester continued–‘Adele showed me some sketches this morning, which she said were yours. I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing; probably a master aided you?’

‘No, indeed!’ I interjected.

‘Ah! that pricks pride. Well, fetch me your portfolio, if you can vouch for its contents being original; but don’t pass your word unless you are certain: I can recognise patchwork.’

‘Then I will say nothing, and you shall judge for yourself, sir.’

I brought the portfolio from the library.

‘Approach the table,’ said he; and I wheeled it to his couch. Adele and Mrs. Fairfax drew near to see the pictures.

‘No crowding,’ said Mr. Rochester: ‘take the drawings from my hand as I finish with them; but don’t push your faces up to mine.’

He deliberately scrutinised each sketch and painting. Three he laid aside; the others, when he had examined them, he swept from him.

‘Take them off to the other table, Mrs. Fairfax,’ said he, ‘and look at them with Adele;–you’ (glancing at me) ‘resume your seat, and answer my questions. I perceive those pictures were done by one hand: was that hand yours?’


‘And when did you find time to do them? They have taken much time, and some thought.’

‘I did them in the last two vacations I spent at Lowood, when I had no other occupation.’

‘Where did you get your copies?’

‘Out of my head.’

‘That head I see now on your shoulders?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Has it other furniture of the same kind within?’

‘I should think it may have: I should hope–better.’

He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.

While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are: and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.

These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,–a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was ‘the likeness of a kingly crown;’ what it diademed was ‘the shape which shape had none.’

‘Were you happy when you painted these pictures?’ asked Mr. Rochester presently.

‘I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.’

‘That is not saying much. Your pleasures, by your own account, have been few; but I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints. Did you sit at them long each day?’

‘I had nothing else to do, because it was the vacation, and I sat at them from morning till noon, and from noon till night: the length of the midsummer days favoured my inclination to apply.’

‘And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?’

‘Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.’

‘Not quite: you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably. You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar. As to the thoughts, they are elfish. These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? for the planet above quells their rays. And what meaning is that in their solemn depth? And who taught you to paint wind? There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top. Where did you see Latmos? For that is Latmos. There! put the drawings away!’

Charlotte Brontë. 1816-1855 (first published as Currer Bell). Jane Eyre, 1847. Vol 13.

Charlotte Brontë, 1816-1855, who wrote under the pseudonym, Currer Bell,  is an English novelist noted for her realistic and sometimes autobiographical, narratives on the lives of women in conflict with the social and moral opinions of the mid-Nineteenth century. She wrote  Jane Eyre,1847; Shirley,1849 and Villette,1853.

Image: George Richmond,  Charlotte Bronte, 1850. Chalk on Paper.

See also: Charlotte Brontë, Villette, 1853.


Jane has an “ever shifting kaleidoscope of imagination” and her love of art and drawing occurs throughout the novel as a pastime that makes her feel “absorbed” and “happy”. The subjects are for the most part domestic subjects, still life, portraits and landscapes, considered appropriate female activity. But, to signify her qualities of  independent thought and character she also paints subjects that are unusual, conceived in her own imagination, depicting macabre Romantic figures in settings of shipwreck and polar landscape. Mr. Rochester asks ‘Were you happy when you painted these pictures?’ and she replies ‘I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.’

When Mr Rochester view her work in Vol 1 Chapter 13. he acknowledges their high quality but patronisingly remarks that “‘I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing; probably a master aided you?’”

In Vol 1. Chapter 8, Jane “sketched my first cottage (whose walls, by-the- bye, outrivalled in slope those of the leaning tower of Pisa), on the same day. That night, on going to bed, I forgot to prepare in imagination the Barmecide supper of hot roast potatoes, or white bread and new milk, with which I was wont to amuse my inward cravings: I feasted instead on the spectacle of ideal drawings, which I saw in the dark; all the work of my own hands: freely pencilled houses and trees, picturesque rocks and ruins, Cuyp-like groups of cattle, sweet paintings of butterflies hovering over unblown roses, of birds picking at ripe cherries, of wren’s nests enclosing pearl-like eggs, wreathed about with young ivy sprays.”

In Vol 3, Chapter 6 Jane draws a  portrait of a neighbour, Rosamond Oliver, after she had rummaged through her drawers and found “my drawing-materials and some sketches, including a pencil-head of a pretty little cherub-like girl, one of my scholars, and sundry views from nature, taken in the Vale of Morton and on the surrounding moors. She was first transfixed with surprise, and then electrified with delight.

‘Had I done these pictures? Did I know French and German? What a love–what a miracle I was! I drew better than her master in the first school in S-. Would I sketch a portrait of her, to show to papa?’

‘With pleasure,’ I replied; and I felt a thrill of artist-delight at the idea of copying from so perfect and radiant a model. She had then on a dark-blue silk dress; her arms and her neck were bare; her only ornament was her chestnut tresses, which waved over her shoulders with all the wild grace of natural curls. I took a sheet of fine card-board, and drew a careful outline. I promised myself the pleasure of colouring it; and, as it was getting late then, I told her she must come and sit another day.”

Anne Brontë – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall-January 10th, 1827. While writing the above, yesterday evening, I sat in the drawing-room. Mr. Huntingdon was present, but, as I thought, asleep on the sofa behind me. He had risen, however, unknown to me, and, actuated by some base spirit of curiosity, been looking over my shoulder for I know not how long; for when I had laid aside my pen, and was about to close the book, he suddenly placed his hand upon it, and saying – ‘With your leave, my dear, I’ll have a look at this,’ forcibly wrested it from me, and, drawing a chair to the table, composedly sat down to examine it – turning back leaf after leaf to find an explanation of what he had read. Unluckily for me, he was more sober that night than he usually is at such an hour.

Of course I did not leave him to pursue this occupation in quiet: I made several attempts to snatch the book from his hands, but he held it too firmly for that; I upbraided him in bitterness and scorn for his mean and dishonourable conduct, but that had no effect upon him; and, finally, I extinguished both the candles, but he only wheeled round to the fire, and raising a blaze sufficient for his purposes, calmly continued the investigation. I had serious thoughts of getting a pitcher of water and extinguishing that light too; but it was evident his curiosity was too keenly excited to be quenched by that, and the more I manifested my anxiety to baffle his scrutiny, the greater would be his determination to persist in it – besides it was too late.

‘It seems very interesting, love,’ said he, lifting his head and turning to where I stood wringing my hands in silent rage and anguish; ‘but it’s rather long; I’ll look at it some other time; – and meanwhile, I’ll trouble you for your keys, my dear.’

‘What keys?’

‘The keys of your cabinet, desk, drawers, and whatever else you possess,’ said he, rising and holding out his hand.

‘I’ve not got them,’ I replied. The key of my desk in fact was, at that moment, in the lock, and the others were attached to it.

‘Then you must send for them,’ said he; ‘and if that old bitch, Rachel, doesn’t immediately deliver them up, she tramps bag and baggage tomorrow.’

‘She doesn’t know where they are,’ I answered, quietly placing my hand upon them, and taking them from the desk, as I thought, unobserved. ‘I know, but I shall not give them up without a reason.’

‘And I know, too,’ said he, suddenly seizing my closed hand and rudely abstracting them from it. He then took up one of the candles and relighted it by thrusting it into the fire.

‘Now, then,’ sneered he, ‘we must have a confiscation of property. But, first, let us take a peep into the studio.’

And putting the keys into his pocket, he walked into the library. I followed, whether with the dim idea of preventing mischief or only to know the worst, I can hardly tell. My painting materials were laid together on the corner table, ready for to-morrow’s use, and only covered with a cloth. He soon spied them out, and putting down the candle, deliberately proceeded to cast them into the fire – palette, paints, bladders, pencils, brushes, varnish: – I saw them all consumed – the palette-knives snapped in two – the oil and turpentine sent hissing and roaring up the chimney. He then rang the bell.

‘Benson, take those things away,’ said he, pointing to the easel, canvas, and stretcher; ‘and tell the housemaid she may kindle the fire with them: your mistress won’t want them any more.’

Benson paused aghast and looked at me.

‘Take them away, Benson,’ said I; and his master muttered an oath.

‘And this and all, sir?’ said the astonished servant, referring to the half-finished picture.

‘That and all,’ replied the master; and the things were cleared away.

Mr. Huntingdon then went up-stairs. I did not attempt to follow him; but remained seated in the arm-chair, speechless, tearless, and almost motionless, till he returned about half an hour after, and walking up to me, held the candle in my face and peered into my eyes with looks and laughter too insulting to be borne. With a sudden stroke of my hand I dashed the candle to the floor.

‘Hal-lo!’ muttered he, starting back – ‘She’s the very devil for spite. Did ever any mortal see such eyes? – they shine in the dark like a cat’s. Oh, you’re a sweet one!’ So saying, he gathered up the candle and the candle-stick. The former being broken as well as extinguished, he rang for another.

‘Benson, your mistress has broken the candle: bring another.’

‘You expose yourself finely,’ observed I, as the man departed.

‘I didn’t say I’d broken it, did I?’ returned he. He then threw my keys into my lap, saying, – ‘There! you’ll find nothing gone but your money, and the jewels – and a few little trifles I thought it advisable to take into my own possession, lest your mercantile spirit should be tempted to turn them into gold. I’ve left you a few sovereigns in your purse, which I expect to last you through the month – at all events, when you want more you will be so good as to give me an account of how that’s spent. I shall put you upon a small monthly allowance, in future, for your own private expenses; and you needn’t trouble yourself any more about my concerns; I shall look out for a steward, my dear; I won’t expose you to the temptation. And as for the household matters, Mrs. Greaves must be very particular in keeping her accounts: we must go upon an entirely new plan – ‘

‘What great discovery have you made now, Mr. Huntingdon? Have I attempted to defraud you?’

‘Not in money matters, exactly, it seems, but it’s best to keep out of the way of temptation.’

Here Benson entered with the candles, and there followed a brief interval of silence – I sitting still in my chair, and he standing with his back to the fire, silently triumphing in my despair.

‘And so,’ said he at length, ‘you thought to disgrace me, did you, by running away and turning artist, and supporting yourself by the labour of your hands, forsooth? And you thought to rob me of my son too, and bring him up to be a dirty Yankee tradesman, or a low, beggarly painter?’

‘Yes, to obviate his becoming such a gentleman as his father.’

‘It’s well you couldn’t keep your own secret – ha, ha! It’s well these women must be blabbing. If they haven’t a friend to talk to, they must whisper their secrets to the fishes, or write them on the sand or something; and it’s well too I wasn’t overfull tonight, now I think of it, or I might have snoozed away and never dreamt of looking what my sweet lady was about – or I might have lacked the sense or the power to carry my point like a man, as I have done.’

Leaving him to his self-congratulations, I rose to secure my manuscript, for I now remembered it had been left upon the drawing- room table, and I determined, if possible, to save myself the humiliation of seeing it in his hands again. I could not bear the idea of his amusing himself over my secret thoughts and recollections; though, to be sure, he would find little good of himself therein indited, except in the former part – and oh, I would sooner burn it all than he should read what I had written when I was such a fool as to love him!

Anne Brontë. 1820-1849. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1848. Chapter 40. A Misadventure. (First published under the name of Acton Bell).


Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey, 1847

anne bronte roeheadThrough all our troubles, I never but once heard my mother complain of our want of money. As summer was coming on she observed to Mary and me, ‘What a desirable thing it would be for your papa to spend a few weeks at a watering-place. I am convinced the sea-air and the change of scene would be of incalculable service to him. But then, you see, there’s no money,’ she added, with a sigh. We both wished exceedingly that the thing might be done, and lamented greatly that it could not. ‘Well, well!’ said she, ‘it’s no use complaining. Possibly something might be done to further the project after all. Mary, you are a beautiful drawer. What do you say to doing a few more pictures in your best style, and getting them framed, with the water-coloured drawings you have already done, and trying to dispose of them to some liberal picture-dealer, who has the sense to discern their merits?’

‘Mamma, I should be delighted if you think they COULD be sold; and for anything worth while.’

‘It’s worth while trying, however, my dear: do you procure the drawings, and I’ll endeavour to find a purchaser.’

‘I wish I could do something,’ said I.

‘You, Agnes! well, who knows? You draw pretty well, too: if you choose some simple piece for your subject, I daresay you will be able to produce something we shall all be proud to exhibit.’

‘But I have another scheme in my head, mamma, and have had long, only I did not like to mention it.’

‘Indeed! pray tell us what it is.’

‘I should like to be a governess.’


Anne Brontë , 1820-1849.  Agnes Grey, 1847. C hapter 1.


images:  Anne Brontë . Roe Head School. Mirfield. c.1835-1837

Attributed to Anne Brontë. Portrait of a Young Woman, (mary robinson?), c1840-1845

Roe Head School
c. 1835 – 1837

Saki – The Stalled Ox, 1923

Front View of a Bull's Head null by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780THEOPHIL ESHLEY was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. It is not to be supposed that he lived on a ranche or a dairy farm, in an atmosphere pervaded with horn and hoof, milking-stool, and branding-iron. His home was in a park-like, villa- dotted district that only just escaped the reproach of being suburban. On one side of his garden there abutted a small, picturesque meadow, in which an enterprising neighbour pastured some small picturesque cows of the Channel Island persuasion. At noonday in summertime the cows stood knee-deep in tall meadow-grass under the shade of a group of walnut trees, with the sunlight falling in dappled patches on their mouse-sleek coats. Eshley had conceived and executed a dainty picture of two reposeful milch-cows in a setting of walnut tree and meadow-grass and filtered sunbeam, and the Royal Academy had duly exposed the same on the walls of its Summer Exhibition. The Royal Academy encourages orderly, methodical habits in its children. Eshley had painted a successful and acceptable picture of cattle drowsing picturesquely under walnut trees, and as he had begun, so, of necessity, he went on. His “Noontide Peace,” a study of two dun cows under a walnut tree, was followed by “A Mid-day Sanctuary,” a study of a walnut tree, with two dun cows under it. In due succession there came “Where the Gad- Flies Cease from Troubling,” “The Haven of the Herd,” and “A-dream in Dairyland,” studies of walnut trees and dun cows. His two attempts to break away from his own tradition were signal failures: “Turtle Doves alarmed by Sparrow-hawk” and “Wolves on the Roman Campagna” came back to his studio in the guise of abominable heresies, and Eshley climbed back into grace and the public gaze with “A Shaded Nook where Drowsy Milkers Dream.”

On a fine afternoon in late autumn he was putting some finishing touches to a study of meadow weeds when his neighbour, Adela Pingsford, assailed the outer door of his studio with loud peremptory knockings.

“There is an ox in my garden,” she announced, in explanation of the tempestuous intrusion.

“An ox,” said Eshley blankly, and rather fatuously; “what kind of ox?”

“Oh, I don’t know what kind,” snapped the lady. “A common or garden ox, to use the slang expression. It is the garden part of it that I object to. My garden has just been put straight for the winter, and an ox roaming about in it won’t improve matters. Besides, there are the chrysanthemums just coming into flower.”

“How did it get into the garden?” asked Eshley.

“I imagine it came in by the gate,” said the lady impatiently; “it couldn’t have climbed the walls, and I don’t suppose anyone dropped it from an aeroplane as a Bovril advertisement. The immediately important question is not how it got in, but how to get it out.”

“Won’t it go?” said Eshley.

“If it was anxious to go,” said Adela Pingsford rather angrily, “I should not have come here to chat with you about it. I’m practically all alone; the housemaid is having her afternoon out and the cook is lying down with an attack of neuralgia. Anything that I may have learned at school or in after life about how to remove a large ox from a small garden seems to have escaped from my memory now. All I could think of was that you were a near neighbour and a cattle painter, presumably more or less familiar with the subjects that you painted, and that you might be of some slight assistance. Possibly I was mistaken.”

“I paint dairy cows, certainly,” admitted Eshley, “but I cannot claim to have had any experience in rounding-up stray oxen. I’ve seen it done on a cinema film, of course, but there were always horses and lots of other accessories; besides, one never knows how much of those pictures are faked.”

Adela Pingsford said nothing, but led the way to her garden. It was normally a fair-sized garden, but it looked small in comparison with the ox, a huge mottled brute, dull red about the head and shoulders, passing to dirty white on the flanks and hind-quarters, with shaggy ears and large blood-shot eyes. It bore about as much resemblance to the dainty paddock heifers that Eshley was accustomed to paint as the chief of a Kurdish nomad clan would to a Japanese tea-shop girl. Eshley stood very near the gate while he studied the animal’s appearance and demeanour. Adela Pingsford continued to say nothing.

“It’s eating a chrysanthemum,” said Eshley at last, when the silence had become unbearable.

“How observant you are,” said Adela bitterly. “You seem to notice everything. As a matter of fact, it has got six chrysanthemums in its mouth at the present moment.”

The necessity for doing something was becoming imperative. Eshley took a step or two in the direction of the animal, clapped his hands, and made noises of the “Hish” and “Shoo” variety. If the ox heard them it gave no outward indication of the fact.

“If any hens should ever stray into my garden,” said Adela, “I should certainly send for you to frighten them out. You ‘shoo’ beautifully. Meanwhile, do you mind trying to drive that ox away? That is a MADEMOISELLE LOUISE BICHOT that he’s begun on now,” she added in icy calm, as a glowing orange head was crushed into the huge munching mouth.

“Since you have been so frank about the variety of the chrysanthemum,” said Eshley, “I don’t mind telling you that this is an Ayrshire ox.”

The icy calm broke down; Adela Pingsford used language that sent the artist instinctively a few feet nearer to the ox. He picked up a pea-stick and flung it with some determination against the animal’s mottled flanks. The operation of mashing MADEMOISELLE LOUISE BICHOT into a petal salad was suspended for a long moment, while the ox gazed with concentrated inquiry at the stick-thrower. Adela gazed with equal concentration and more obvious hostility at the same focus. As the beast neither lowered its head nor stamped its feet Eshley ventured on another javelin exercise with another pea-stick. The ox seemed to realise at once that it was to go; it gave a hurried final pluck at the bed where the chrysanthemums had been, and strode swiftly up the garden. Eshley ran to head it towards the gate, but only succeeded in quickening its pace from a walk to a lumbering trot. With an air of inquiry, but with no real hesitation, it crossed the tiny strip of turf that the charitable called the croquet lawn, and pushed its way through the open French window into the morning-room. Some chrysanthemums and other autumn herbage stood about the room in vases, and the animal resumed its browsing operations; all the same, Eshley fancied that the beginnings of a hunted look had come into its eyes, a look that counselled respect. He discontinued his attempt to interfere with its choice of surroundings.

“Mr. Eshley,” said Adela in a shaking voice, “I asked you to drive that beast out of my garden, but I did not ask you to drive it into my house. If I must have it anywhere on the premises I prefer the garden to the morning-room.”

“Cattle drives are not in my line,” said Eshley; “if I remember I told you so at the outset.” “I quite agree,” retorted the lady, “painting pretty pictures of pretty little cows is what you’re suited for. Perhaps you’d like to do a nice sketch of that ox making itself at home in my morning-room?”

This time it seemed as if the worm had turned; Eshley began striding away.

“Where are you going?” screamed Adela.

“To fetch implements,” was the answer.

“Implements? I won’t have you use a lasso. The room will be wrecked if there’s a struggle.”

But the artist marched out of the garden. In a couple of minutes he returned, laden with easel, sketching-stool, and painting materials.

“Do you mean to say that you’re going to sit quietly down and paint that brute while it’s destroying my morning-room?” gasped Adela.

“It was your suggestion,” said Eshley, setting his canvas in position.

“I forbid it; I absolutely forbid it!” stormed Adela.

“I don’t see what standing you have in the matter,” said the artist; “you can hardly pretend that it’s your ox, even by adoption.”

“You seem to forget that it’s in my morning-room, eating my flowers,” came the raging retort.

“You seem to forget that the cook has neuralgia,” said Eshley; “she may be just dozing off into a merciful sleep and your outcry will waken her. Consideration for others should be the guiding principle of people in our station of life.”

“The man is mad!” exclaimed Adela tragically. A moment later it was Adela herself who appeared to go mad. The ox had finished the vase-flowers and the cover of “Israel Kalisch,” and appeared to be thinking of leaving its rather restricted quarters. Eshley noticed its restlessness and promptly flung it some bunches of Virginia creeper leaves as an inducement to continue the sitting.

“I forget how the proverb runs,” he observed; of something about ‘better a dinner of herbs than a stalled ox where hate is.’ We seem to have all the ingredients for the proverb ready to hand.”

“I shall go to the Public Library and get them to telephone for the police,” announced Adela, and, raging audibly, she departed.

Some minutes later the ox, awakening probably to the suspicion that oil cake and chopped mangold was waiting for it in some appointed byre, stepped with much precaution out of the morning-room, stared with grave inquiry at the no longer obtrusive and pea-stick-throwing human, and then lumbered heavily but swiftly out of the garden. Eshley packed up his tools and followed the animal’s example and “Larkdene” was left to neuralgia and the cook.

The episode was the turning-point in Eshley’s artistic career. His remarkable picture, “Ox in a morning-room, late autumn,” was one of the sensations and successes of the next Paris Salon, and when it was subsequently exhibited at Munich it was bought by the Bavarian Government, in the teeth of the spirited bidding of three meat-extract firms. From that moment his success was continuous and assured, and the Royal Academy was thankful, two years later, to give a conspicuous position on its walls to his large canvas “Barbary Apes Wrecking a Boudoir.”

Eshley presented Adela Pingsford with a new copy of “Israel Kalisch,” and a couple of finely flowering plants of MADAME ANDRE BLUSSET, but nothing in the nature of a real reconciliation has taken place between them.

Saki (H H Munro), 1870 -1916                 The Stalled Ox, 1923

image: Joseph Highmore, 1692-1780. Front View of a Bull’s Head. Ink and watercolour on paper. 168x144mm. Tate Gallery Collections

Saki – The Unbearable Bassington, 1912

j j shannon lady marjorie mannersThe Rutland Galleries were crowded, especially in the neighbourhood of the tea-buffet, by a fashionable throng of art-patrons which had gathered to inspect Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Quentock was a young artist whose abilities were just receiving due recognition from the critics; that the recognition was not overdue he owed largely to his perception of the fact that if one hides one’s talent under a bushel one must be careful to point out to everyone the exact bushel under which it is hidden. There are two manners of receiving recognition: one is to be discovered so long after one’s death that one’s grandchildren have to write to the papers to establish their relationship; the other is to be discovered, like the infant Moses, at the very outset of one’s career. Mervyn Quentock had chosen the latter and happier manner. In an age when many aspiring young men strive to advertise their wares by imparting to them a freakish imbecility, Quentock turned out work that was characterised by a pleasing delicate restraint, but he contrived to herald his output with a certain fanfare of personal eccentricity, thereby compelling an attention which might otherwise have strayed past his studio. In appearance he was the ordinary cleanly young Englishman, except, perhaps, that his eyes rather suggested a library edition of the Arabian Nights; his clothes matched his appearance and showed no taint of the sartorial disorder by which the bourgeois of the garden-city and the Latin Quarter anxiously seeks to proclaim his kinship with art and thought. His eccentricity took the form of flying in the face of some of the prevailing social currents of the day, but as a reactionary, never as a reformer. He produced a gasp of admiring astonishment in fashionable circles by refusing to paint actresses- -except, of course, those who had left the legitimate drama to appear between the boards of Debrett. He absolutely declined to execute portraits of Americans unless they hailed from certain favoured States. His “water-colour-line,” as a New York paper phrased it, earned for him a crop of angry criticisms and a shoal of Transatlantic commissions, and criticism and commissions were the things that Quentock most wanted.

“Of course he is perfectly right,” said Lady Caroline Benaresq, calmly rescuing a piled-up plate of caviare sandwiches from the neighbourhood of a trio of young ladies who had established themselves hopefully within easy reach of it. “Art,” she continued, addressing herself to the Rev. Poltimore Vardon, “has always been geographically exclusive. London may be more important from most points of view than Venice, but the art of portrait painting, which would never concern itself with a Lord Mayor, simply grovels at the feet of the Doges. As a Socialist I’m bound to recognise the right of Ealing to compare itself with Avignon, but one cannot expect the Muses to put the two on a level.”

“Exclusiveness,” said the Reverend Poltimore, “has been the salvation of Art, just as the lack of it is proving the downfall of religion. My colleagues of the cloth go about zealously proclaiming the fact that Christianity, in some form or other, is attracting shoals of converts among all sorts of races and tribes, that one had scarcely ever heard of, except in reviews of books of travel that one never read. That sort of thing was all very well when the world was more sparsely populated, but nowadays, when it simply teems with human beings, no one is particularly impressed by the fact that a few million, more or less, of converts, of a low stage of mental development, have accepted the teachings of some particular religion. It not only chills one’s enthusiasm, it positively shakes one’s convictions when one hears that the things one has been brought up to believe as true are being very favourably spoken of by Buriats and Samoyeds and Kanakas.”

The Rev. Poltimore Vardon had once seen a resemblance in himself to Voltaire, and had lived alongside the comparison ever since.

“No modern cult or fashion,” he continued, “would be favourably influenced by considerations based on statistics; fancy adopting a certain style of hat or cut of coat, because it was being largely worn in Lancashire and the Midlands; fancy favouring a certain brand of champagne because it was being extensively patronised in German summer resorts. No wonder that religion is falling into disuse in this country under such ill-directed methods.”

“You can’t prevent the heathen being converted if they choose to be,” said Lady Caroline; “this is an age of toleration.”

“You could always deny it,” said the Rev. Poltimore, “like the Belgians do with regrettable occurrences in the Congo. But I would go further than that. I would stimulate the waning enthusiasm for Christianity in this country by labelling it as the exclusive possession of a privileged few. If one could induce the Duchess of Pelm, for instance, to assert that the Kingdom of Heaven, as far as the British Isles are concerned, is strictly limited to herself, two of the under-gardeners at Pelmby, and, possibly, but not certainly, the Dean of Dunster, there would be an instant reshaping of the popular attitude towards religious convictions and observances. Once let the idea get about that the Christian Church is rather more exclusive than the Lawn at Ascot, and you would have a quickening of religious life such as this generation has never witnessed. But as long as the clergy and the religious organisations advertise their creed on the lines of ‘Everybody ought to believe in us: millions do,’ one can expect nothing but indifference and waning faith.”

“Time is just as exclusive in its way as Art,” said Lady Caroline.

“In what way?” said the Reverend Poltimore.

“Your pleasantries about religion would have sounded quite clever and advanced in the early ‘nineties. To-day they have a dreadfully warmed-up flavour. That is the great delusion of you would-be advanced satirists; you imagine you can sit down comfortably for a couple of decades saying daring and startling things about the age you live in, which, whatever other defects it may have, is certainly not standing still. The whole of the Sherard Blaw school of discursive drama suggests, to my mind, Early Victorian furniture in a travelling circus. However, you will always have relays of people from the suburbs to listen to the Mocking Bird of yesterday, and sincerely imagine it is the harbinger of something new and revolutionising.”

“WOULD you mind passing that plate of sandwiches,” asked one of the trio of young ladies, emboldened by famine.

“With pleasure,” said Lady Caroline, deftly passing her a nearly empty plate of bread-and-butter.

“I meant the place of caviare sandwiches. So sorry to trouble you,” persisted the young lady

Her sorrow was misapplied; Lady Caroline had turned her attention to a newcomer.

“A very interesting exhibition,” Ada Spelvexit was saying; “faultless technique, as far as I am a judge of technique, and quite a master-touch in the way of poses. But have you noticed how very animal his art is? He seems to shut out the soul from his portraits. I nearly cried when I saw dear Winifred depicted simply as a good-looking healthy blonde.”

“I wish you had,” said Lady Caroline; “the spectacle of a strong, brave woman weeping at a private view in the Rutland Galleries would have been so sensational. It would certainly have been reproduced in the next Drury Lane drama. And I’m so unlucky; I never see these sensational events. I was ill with appendicitis, you know, when Lulu Braminguard dramatically forgave her husband, after seventeen years of estrangement, during a State luncheon party at Windsor. The old queen was furious about it. She said it was so disrespectful to the cook to be thinking of such a thing at such a time.”

Lady Caroline’s recollections of things that hadn’t happened at the Court of Queen Victoria were notoriously vivid; it was the very widespread fear that she might one day write a book of reminiscences that made her so universally respected.

“As for his full-length picture of Lady Brickfield,” continued Ada, ignoring Lady Caroline’s commentary as far as possible, “all the expression seems to have been deliberately concentrated in the feet; beautiful feet, no doubt, but still, hardly the most distinctive part of a human being.”

“To paint the right people at the wrong end may be an eccentricity, but it is scarcely an indiscretion,” pronounced Lady Caroline.

One of the portraits which attracted more than a passing flutter of attention was a costume study of Francesca Bassington. Francesca had secured some highly desirable patronage for the young artist, and in return he had enriched her pantheon of personal possessions with a clever piece of work into which he had thrown an unusual amount of imaginative detail. He had painted her in a costume of the great Louis’s brightest period, seated in front of a tapestry that was so prominent in the composition that it could scarcely be said to form part of the background. Flowers and fruit, in exotic profusion, were its dominant note; quinces, pomegranates, passion- flowers, giant convolvulus, great mauve-pink roses, and grapes that were already being pressed by gleeful cupids in a riotous Arcadian vintage, stood out on its woven texture. The same note was struck in the beflowered satin of the lady’s kirtle, and in the pomegranate pattern of the brocade that draped the couch on which she was seated. The artist had called his picture “Recolte.” And after one had taken in all the details of fruit and flower and foliage that earned the composition its name, one noted the landscape that showed through a broad casement in the left-hand corner. It was a landscape clutched in the grip of winter, naked, bleak, black-frozen; a winter in which things died and knew no rewakening. If the picture typified harvest, it was a harvest of artificial growth.

“It leaves a great deal to the imagination, doesn’t it?” said Ada Spelvexit, who had edged away from the range of Lady Caroline’s tongue.

“At any rate one can tell who it’s meant for,” said Serena Golackly.

“Oh, yes, it’s a good likeness of dear Francesca,” admitted Ada; “of course, it flatters her.”

“That, too, is a fault on the right side in portrait painting,” said Serena; “after all, if posterity is going to stare at one for centuries it’s only kind and reasonable to be looking just a little better than one’s best.”

“What a curiously unequal style the artist has,” continued Ada, almost as if she felt a personal grievance against him; “I was just noticing what a lack of soul there was in most of his portraits. Dear Winifred, you know, who speaks so beautifully and feelingly at my gatherings for old women, he’s made her look just an ordinary dairy-maidish blonde; and Francesca, who is quite the most soulless woman I’ve ever met, well, he’s given her quite–”

“Hush,” said Serena, “the Bassington boy is just behind you.”

Comus stood looking at the portrait of his mother with the feeling of one who comes suddenly across a once-familiar half-forgotten acquaintance in unfamiliar surroundings. The likeness was undoubtedly a good one, but the artist had caught an expression in Francesca’s eyes which few people had ever seen there. It was the expression of a woman who had forgotten for one short moment to be absorbed in the small cares and excitements of her life, the money worries and little social plannings, and had found time to send a look of half-wistful friendliness to some sympathetic companion. Comus could recall that look, fitful and fleeting, in his mother’s eyes when she had been a few years younger, before her world had grown to be such a committee-room of ways and means. Almost as a re-discovery he remembered that she had once figured in his boyish mind as a “rather good sort,” more ready to see the laughable side of a piece of mischief than to labour forth a reproof. That the bygone feeling of good fellowship had been stamped out was, he knew, probably in great part his own doing, and it was possible that the old friendliness was still there under the surface of things, ready to show itself again if he willed it, and friends were becoming scarcer with him than enemies in these days. Looking at the picture with its wistful hint of a long ago comradeship, Comus made up his mind that he very much wanted things to be back on their earlier footing, and to see again on his mother’s face the look that the artist had caught and perpetuated in its momentary flitting. If the projected Elaine-marriage came off, and in spite of recent maladroit behaviour on his part he still counted it an assured thing, much of the immediate cause for estrangement between himself and his mother would be removed, or at any rate, easily removable. With the influence of Elaine’s money behind him he promised himself that he would find some occupation that would remove from himself the reproach of being a waster and idler. There were lots of careers, he told himself, that were open to a man with solid financial backing and good connections. There might yet be jolly times ahead, in which his mother would have her share of the good things that were going, and carking thin-lipped Henry Greech and other of Comus’s detractors could take their sour looks and words out of sight and hearing. Thus, staring at the picture as though he were studying its every detail, and seeing really only that wistful friendly smile, Comus made his plans and dispositions for a battle that was already fought and lost.

The crowd grew thicker in the galleries, cheerfully enduring an amount of overcrowding that would have been fiercely resented in a railway carriage. Near the entrance Mervyn Quentock was talking to a Serene Highness, a lady who led a life of obtrusive usefulness, largely imposed on her by a good-natured inability to say “No.” “That woman creates a positive draught with the number of bazaars she opens,” a frivolously-spoken ex-Cabinet Minister had once remarked. At the present moment she was being whimsically apologetic.

“When I think of the legions of well-meaning young men and women to whom I’ve given away prizes for proficiency in art-school curriculum, I feel that I ought not to show my face inside a picture gallery. I always imagine that my punishment in another world will be perpetually sharpening pencils and cleaning palettes for unending relays of misguided young people whom I deliberately encouraged in their artistic delusions.”

“Do you suppose we shall all get appropriate punishments in another world for our sins in this?” asked Quentock.

“Not so much for our sins as for our indiscretions; they are the things which do the most harm and cause the greatest trouble. I feel certain that Christopher Columbus will undergo the endless torment of being discovered by parties of American tourists. You see I am quite old fashioned in my ideas about the terrors and inconveniences of the next world. And now I must be running away; I’ve got to open a Free Library somewhere. You know the sort of thing that happens–one unveils a bust of Carlyle and makes a speech about Ruskin, and then people come in their thousands and read ‘Rabid Ralph, or Should he have Bitten Her?’ Don’t forget, please, I’m going to have the medallion with the fat cupid sitting on a sundial. And just one thing more–perhaps I ought not to ask you, but you have such nice kind eyes, you embolden one to make daring requests, would you send me the recipe for those lovely chestnut-and-chicken-liver sandwiches? I know the ingredients of course, but it’s the proportions that make such a difference–just how much liver to how much chestnut, and what amount of red pepper and other things. Thank you so much. I really am going now.”

Staring round with a vague half-smile at everybody within nodding distance, Her Serene Highness made one of her characteristic exits, which Lady Caroline declared always reminded her of a scrambled egg slipping off a piece of toast. At the entrance she stopped for a moment to exchange a word or two with a young man who had just arrived. From a corner where he was momentarily hemmed in by a group of tea-consuming dowagers, Comus recognised the newcomer as Courtenay Youghal, and began slowly to labour his way towards him. Youghal was not at the moment the person whose society he most craved for in the world, but there was at least the possibility that he might provide an opportunity for a game of bridge, which was the dominant desire of the moment. The young politician was already surrounded by a group of friends and acquaintances, and was evidently being made the recipient of a salvo of congratulation– presumably on his recent performances in the Foreign Office debate, Comus concluded. But Youghal himself seemed to be announcing the event with which the congratulations were connected. Had some dramatic catastrophe overtaken the Government, Comus wondered. And then, as he pressed nearer, a chance word, the coupling of two names, told him the news.

Saki (H H Munro), 1870-1916. The Unbearable Bassington, 1912. Chapter 10

image:James Jebusa Shannon,1862-1923.  Lady Marjorie Manners. later marchioness of Anglesey. painting in the Octagon Room at Plas Newydd, Anglesey, Wales. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Saki – The Bull, 1923

t roebuck the bull - sakiTom Yorkfield had always regarded his half-brother, Laurence, with a lazy instinct of dislike, toned down, as years went on, to a tolerant feeling of indifference. There was nothing very tangible to dislike him for; he was just a blood-relation, with whom Tom had no single taste or interest in common, and with whom, at the same time, he had had no occasion for quarrel. Laurence had left the farm early in life, and had lived for a few years on a small sum of money left him by his mother; he had taken up painting as a profession, and was reported to be doing fairly well at it, well enough, at any rate, to keep body and soul together. He specialised in painting animals, and he was successful in finding a certain number of people to buy his pictures. Tom felt a comforting sense of assured superiority in contrasting his position with that of his half-brother; Laurence was an artist-chap, just that and nothing more, though you might make it sound more important by calling an animal painter; Tom was a farmer, not in a very big way, it was true, but the Helsery farm had been in the family for some generations, and it had a good reputation for the stock raised on it. Tom had done his best, with the little capital at his command, to maintain and improve the standard of his small herd of cattle, and in Clover Fairy he had bred a bull which was something rather better than any that his immediate neighbours could show. It would not have made a sensation in the judging-ring at an important cattle show, but it was as vigorous, shapely, and healthy a young animal as any small practical farmer could wish to possess. At the King’s Head on market days Clover Fairy was very highly spoken of, and Yorkfield used to declare that he would not part with him for a hundred pounds; a hundred pounds is a lot of money in the small farming line, and probably anything over eighty would have tempted him.

It was with some especial pleasure that Tom took advantage of one of Laurence’s rare visits to the farm to lead him down to the enclosure where Clover Fairy kept solitary state–the grass widower of a grazing harem. Tom felt some of his old dislike for his half- brother reviving; the artist was becoming more languid in his manner, more unsuitably turned-out in attire, and he seemed inclined to impart a slightly patronising tone to his conversation. He took no heed of a flourishing potato crop, but waxed enthusiastic over a clump of yellow-flowering weed that stood in a corner by a gateway, which was rather galling to the owner of a really very well weeded farm; again, when he might have been duly complimentary about a group of fat, black-faced lambs, that simply cried aloud for admiration, he became eloquent over the foliage tints of an oak copse on the hill opposite. But now he was being taken to inspect the crowning pride and glory of Helsery; however grudging he might be in his praises, however backward and niggardly with his congratulations, he would have to see and acknowledge the many excellences of that redoubtable animal. Some weeks ago, while on a business journey to Taunton, Tom had been invited by his half- brother to visit a studio in that town, where Laurence was exhibiting one of his pictures, a large canvas representing a bull standing knee-deep in some marshy ground; it had been good of its kind, no doubt, and Laurence had seemed inordinately pleased with it; “the best thing I’ve done yet,” he had said over and over again, and Tom had generously agreed that it was fairly life-like. Now, the man of pigments was going to be shown a real picture, a living model of strength and comeliness, a thing to feast the eyes on, a picture that exhibited new pose and action with every shifting minute, instead of standing glued into one unvarying attitude between the four walls of a frame. Tom unfastened a stout wooden door and led the way into a straw-bedded yard.

“Is he quiet?” asked the artist, as a young bull with a curly red coat came inquiringly towards them.

“He’s playful at times,” said Tom, leaving his half-brother to wonder whether the bull’s ideas of play were of the catch-as-catch- can order. Laurence made one or two perfunctory comments on the animal’s appearance and asked a question or so as to his age and such-like details; then he coolly turned the talk into another channel.

“Do you remember the picture I showed you at Taunton?” he asked.

“Yes,” grunted Tom; “a white-faced bull standing in some slush. Don’t admire those Herefords much myself; bulky-looking brutes, don’t seem to have much life in them. Daresay they’re easier to paint that way; now, this young beggar is on the move all the time, aren’t you, Fairy?”

“I’ve sold that picture,” said Laurence, with considerable complacency in his voice.

“Have you?” said Tom; “glad to hear it, I’m sure. Hope you’re pleased with what you’ve got for it.”

“I got three hundred pounds for it,” said Laurence.

Tom turned towards him with a slowly rising flush of anger in his face. Three hundred pounds! Under the most favourable market conditions that he could imagine his prized Clover Fairy would hardly fetch a hundred, yet here was a piece of varnished canvas, painted by his half-brother, selling for three times that sum. It was a cruel insult that went home with all the more force because it emphasised the triumph of the patronising, self-satisfied Laurence. The young farmer had meant to put his relative just a little out of conceit with himself by displaying the jewel of his possessions, and now the tables were turned, and his valued beast was made to look cheap and insignificant beside the price paid for a mere picture. It was so monstrously unjust; the painting would never be anything more than a dexterous piece of counterfeit life, while Clover Fairy was the real thing, a monarch in his little world, a personality in the countryside. After he was dead, even, he would still be something of a personality; his descendants would graze in those valley meadows and hillside pastures, they would fill stall and byre and milking-shed, their good red coats would speckle the landscape and crowd the market-place; men would note a promising heifer or a well-proportioned steer, and say: “Ah, that one comes of good old Clover Fairy’s stock.” All that time the picture would be hanging, lifeless and unchanging, beneath its dust and varnish, a chattel that ceased to mean anything if you chose to turn it with its back to the wall. These thoughts chased themselves angrily through Tom Yorkfield’s mind, but he could not put them into words. When he gave tongue to his feelings he put matters bluntly and harshly.

“Some soft-witted fools may like to throw away three hundred pounds on a bit of paintwork; can’t say as I envy them their taste. I’d rather have the real thing than a picture of it.”

He nodded towards the young bull, that was alternately staring at them with nose held high and lowering its horns with a half-playful, half-impatient shake of the head.

Laurence laughed a laugh of irritating, indulgent amusement.

“I don’t think the purchaser of my bit of paintwork, as you call it, need worry about having thrown his money away. As I get to be better known and recognised my pictures will go up in value. That particular one will probably fetch four hundred in a sale-room five or six years hence; pictures aren’t a bad investment if you know enough to pick out the work of the right men. Now you can’t say your precious bull is going to get more valuable the longer you keep him; he’ll have his little day, and then, if you go on keeping him, he’ll come down at last to a few shillingsworth of hoofs and hide, just at a time, perhaps, when my bull is being bought for a big sum for some important picture gallery.”

It was too much. The united force of truth and slander and insult put over heavy a strain on Tom Yorkfield’s powers of restraint. In his right hand he held a useful oak cudgel, with his left he made a grab at the loose collar of Laurence’s canary-coloured silk shirt. Laurence was not a fighting man; the fear of physical violence threw him off his balance as completely as overmastering indignation had thrown Tom off his, and thus it came to pass that Clover Fairy was regaled with the unprecedented sight of a human being scudding and squawking across the enclosure, like the hen that would persist in trying to establish a nesting-place in the manger. In another crowded happy moment the bull was trying to jerk Laurence over his left shoulder, to prod him in the ribs while still in the air, and to kneel on him when he reached the ground. It was only the vigorous intervention of Tom that induced him to relinquish the last item of his programme.

Tom devotedly and ungrudgingly nursed his half brother to a complete recovery from his injuries, which consisted of nothing more serious than a dislocated shoulder, a broken rib or two, and a little nervous prostration. After all, there was no further occasion for rancour in the young farmer’s mind; Laurence’s bull might sell for three hundred, or for six hundred, and be admired by thousands in some big picture gallery, but it would never toss a man over one shoulder and catch him a jab in the ribs before he had fallen on the other side. That was Clover Fairy’s noteworthy achievement, which could never be taken away from him.

Laurence continues to be popular as an animal artist, but his subjects are always kittens or fawns or lambkins–never bulls.

Saki, (H H Munro), 1870-1916.  The Bull, 1923

image: Thomas Roebuck. b.1806. TheDerbyshire Bull. oil on canvas, 76 x 91 cm

Saki – The East Wing, 1914

odalisque3“I’m so glad you have come,” she said; “servants are so little help in an emergency of this kind. My husband has gone off in the car to summon the fire-brigade.”

“Haven’t you telephoned to them?” asked the Major.

“The telephone unfortunately is in the east wing,” said the hostess; “so is the telephone-book. Both are being devoured by the flames at this moment. It makes one feel dreadfully isolated. Now if the fire had only broken out in the west wing instead, we could have used the telephone and had the fire-engines here by now.”

“On the other hand,” objected Lucien, “Canon Clore and Major Boventry and myself would probably have met with the fate that has overtaken the telephone-book. I think I prefer the present arrangement.”

“The butler and most of the other servants are in the dining-room, trying to save the Raeburns and the alleged Van Dyke,” continued Mrs Gramplain, “and in that little room on the first landing, cut off from us by the cruel flames, is my poor darling Eva. Eva of the golden hair. Will none of you save her?”

“Who is Eva of the golden hair?” asked Lucien.

“My daughter,” said Mrs Gramplain.

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said Lucien, “and really I don’t think I can risk my life to save some one I’ve never met or even heard about. You see, my life is not only wonderful and beautiful to myself, but if my life goes, nothing else really matters ? to me. I don’t suppose you can realise that, to me, the whole world as it exists to-day, the Ulster problem, the Albanian tangle, the Kikuyu controversy, the wide field of social reform and Antarctic exploration, the realms of finance, and research and international armaments, all this varied and crowded and complex world, all comes to a complete and absolute end the moment my life is finished. Eva might be snatched from the flames and live to be the grandmother of brilliant and charming men and women; but, as far as I should be concerned, she and they would no more exist than a vanished puff of cigarette smoke or a dissolved soda-water bubble. And if, in losing my life, I am to lose her life and theirs, as far as I personally am concerned with them, why on earth should I, personally, risk my life to save hers and theirs?”

“Major Boventry,” exclaimed Mrs Gramplain, “you are not clever, but you are a man with honest human feelings. I have only known you for a few hours, but I am sure you are the man I take you for. You will not let my Eva perish.”

“Lady,” said the Major stumblingly, “I would gladly give my life to rescue your Eva, or anybody’s Eva for the matter of that, but my life is not mine to give. I am engaged to the sweetest little woman in the world. I am everything to her. What would my poor little Mildred say if they brought her news that I had cast away my life in an endeavour, perhaps fruitless, to save some unknown girl in a burning country house?”

“You are like all the rest of them,” said Mrs Gramplain bitterly; “I thought that you, at least, were stupid. It shows how rash it is to judge a man by his bridge-play. It has been like this all my life,” she continued in dull, level tones; “I was married, when little more than a child, to my husband, and there has never been any real bond of affection between us. We have been polite and considerate to one another, nothing more. I sometimes think that if we had had a child things might have been different.”

“But, your daughter Eva?” queried the Canon, and the two other men echoed his question.

“I have never had a daughter,” said the woman quietly, yet, amid the roar and crackle of the flames, her voice carried, so that not a syllable was lost. “Eva is the outcome of my imagination. I so much wanted a little girl, and at last I came to believe that she really existed. She grew up, year by year, in my mind, and when she was eighteen I painted her portrait, a beautiful young girl with masses of golden hair. Since that moment the portrait has been Eva. I have altered it a little with the changing years ? she is twenty-one now ? and I have repainted her dress with every incoming fashion. On her last birthday I painted her a pair of beautiful diamond earrings. Every day I have sat with her for an hour or so, telling her my thoughts, or reading to her. And now she is there, alone with the flames and the smoke, unable to stir, waiting for the deliverance that does not come.”

“It is beautiful,” said Lucien; “it is the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”

“Where are you going?” asked his hostess, as the young man moved towards the blazing staircase of the east wing.

“I am going to try and save her,” he answered; “as she has never existed, my death cannot compromise her future existence. I shall go into nothingness, and she, as far as I am concerned, will go into nothingness too; but then she has never been anything else.”

“But your life, your beautiful life?”

“Death in this case is more beautiful.”

The Major started forward.

“I am going too,” he said simply.

“To save Eva?” cried the woman.

“Yes,” he said; “my little Mildred will not grudge me to a woman who has never existed.”

“How well he reads our sex,” murmured Mrs Gramplain, “and yet how badly he plays bridge!”

The two men went side by side up the blazing staircase, the slender young figure in the well-fitting dinner-jacket and the thick-set military man in striped pyjamas of an obvious Swan & Edgar pattern. Down in the hall below them stood the woman in her pale wrapper, and the Canon in his wonderful-hued Albanian-work dressing-gown, looking like the arch-priests of some strange religion presiding at a human sacrifice.

As the rescue-party disappeared into the roaring cavern of smoke and flames, the butler came into the hall, bearing with him one of the Raeburns.

“I think I hear the clanging of the fire-engines, ma’am,” he announced.

Mrs Gramplain continued staring at the spot where the two men had disappeared.

“How stupid of me!” she said presently to the Canon. “I’ve just remembered I sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned. Those two men have lost their lives for nothing.”

“They have certainly lost their lives,” said the Canon.

“The irony of it all,” said Mrs Gramplain, “the tragic irony of it all!”

Saki (H H Munro), 1870-1916.   The East Wing, 1914

Henry James – The Madonna of the Future, 1875


“I am not an artist, I am sorry to say, as you must understand the term.  But pray make no apologies.  I am also under the charm; your eloquent remarks have only deepened it.”

“If you are not an artist you are worthy to be one!” he rejoined, with an expressive smile.  “A young man who arrives at Florence late in the evening, and, instead of going prosaically to bed, or hanging over the traveller’s book at his hotel, walks forth without loss of time to pay his devoirs to the beautiful, is a young man after my own heart!”

The mystery was suddenly solved; my friend was an American!  He must have been, to take the picturesque so prodigiously to heart.  “None the less so, I trust,” I answered, “if the young man is a sordid New Yorker.”

“New Yorkers have been munificent patrons of art!” he answered, urbanely.

For a moment I was alarmed.  Was this midnight reverie mere Yankee enterprise, and was he simply a desperate brother of the brush who had posted himself here to extort an “order” from a sauntering tourist?  But I was not called to defend myself.  A great brazen note broke suddenly from the far-off summit of the bell-tower above us, and sounded the first stroke of midnight.  My companion started, apologised for detaining me, and prepared to retire.  But he seemed to offer so lively a promise of further entertainment that I was indisposed to part with him, and suggested that we should stroll homeward together.  He cordially assented; so we turned out of the Piazza, passed down before the statued arcade of the Uffizi, and came out upon the Arno.  What course we took I hardly remember, but we roamed slowly about for an hour, my companion delivering by snatches a sort of moon-touched æsthetic lecture.  I listened in puzzled fascination, and wondered who the deuce he was.  He confessed with a melancholy but all-respectful head-shake to his American origin.

“We are the disinherited of Art!” he cried.  “We are condemned to be superficial!  We are excluded from the magic circle.  The soil of American perception is a poor little barren artificial deposit.  Yes! we are wedded to imperfection.  An American, to excel, has just ten times as much to learn as a European.  We lack the deeper sense.  We have neither taste, nor tact, nor power.  How should we have them?  Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present, the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, are as void of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist, as my sad heart is void of bitterness in saying so!  We poor aspirants must live in perpetual exile.”

“You seem fairly at home in exile,” I answered, “and Florence seems to me a very pretty Siberia.  But do you know my own thought?  Nothing is so idle as to talk about our want of a nutritive soil, of opportunity, of inspiration, and all the rest of it.  The worthy part is to do something fine!  There is no law in our glorious Constitution against that.  Invent, create, achieve!  No matter if you have to study fifty times as much as one of these!  What else are you an artist for?  Be you our Moses,” I added, laughing, and laying my hand on his shoulder, “and lead us out of the house of bondage!”

“Golden words—golden words, young man!” he cried, with a tender smile.  “‘Invent, create, achieve!’  Yes, that’s our business; I know it well.  Don’t take me, in Heaven’s name, for one of your barren complainers—impotent cynics who have neither talent nor faith!  I am at work!”—and he glanced about him and lowered his voice as if this were a quite peculiar secret—“I’m at work night and day.  I have undertaken a creation!  I am no Moses; I am only a poor patient artist; but it would be a fine thing if I were to cause some slender stream of beauty to flow in our thirsty land!  Don’t think me a monster of conceit,” he went on, as he saw me smile at the avidity with which he adopted my illustration; “I confess that I am in one of those moods when great things seem possible!  This is one of my nervous nights—I dream waking!  When the south wind blows over Florence at midnight it seems to coax the soul from all the fair things locked away in her churches and galleries; it comes into my own little studio with the moonlight, and sets my heart beating too deeply for rest.  You see I am always adding a thought to my conception!  This evening I felt that I couldn’t sleep unless I had communed with the genius of Buonarotti!”

He seemed deeply versed in local history and tradition, and he expatiated con amore on the charms of Florence.  I gathered that he was an old resident, and that he had taken the lovely city into his heart.  “I owe her everything,” he declared.  “It’s only since I came here that I have really lived, intellectually.  One by one, all profane desires, all mere worldly aims, have dropped away from me, and left me nothing but my pencil, my little note-book” (and he tapped his breast-pocket), “and the worship of the pure masters—those who were pure because they were innocent, and those who were pure because they were strong!”

“And have you been very productive all this time?” I asked sympathetically.

He was silent a while before replying.  “Not in the vulgar sense!” he said at last.  “I have chosen never to manifest myself by imperfection.  The good in every performance I have re-absorbed into the generative force of new creations; the bad—there is always plenty of that—I have religiously destroyed.  I may say, with some satisfaction, that I have not added a mite to the rubbish of the world.  As a proof of my conscientiousness”—and he stopped short, and eyed me with extraordinary candour, as if the proof were to be overwhelming—“I have never sold a picture!  ‘At least no merchant traffics in my heart!’  Do you remember that divine line in Browning?  My little studio has never been profaned by superficial, feverish, mercenary work.  It’s a temple of labour, but of leisure!  Art is long.  If we work for ourselves, of course we must hurry.  If we work for her, we must often pause.  She can wait!”

This had brought us to my hotel door, somewhat to my relief, I confess, for I had begun to feel unequal to the society of a genius of this heroic strain.  I left him, however, not without expressing a friendly hope that we should meet again.  The next morning my curiosity had not abated; I was anxious to see him by common daylight.  I counted upon meeting him in one of the many pictorial haunts of Florence, and I was gratified without delay.  I found him in the course of the morning in the Tribune of the Uffizi—that little treasure-chamber of world-famous things.  He had turned his back on the Venus de’ Medici, and with his arms resting on the rail-mug which protects the pictures, and his head buried in his hands, he was lost in the contemplation of that superb triptych of Andrea Mantegna—a work which has neither the material splendour nor the commanding force of some of its neighbours, but which, glowing there with the loveliness of patient labour, suits possibly a more constant need of the soul.  I looked at the picture for some time over his shoulder; at last, with a heavy sigh, he turned away and our eyes met.  As he recognised me a deep blush rose to his face; he fancied, perhaps, that he had made a fool of himself overnight.  But I offered him my hand with a friendliness which assured him I was not a scoffer.  I knew him by his ardentchevelure; otherwise he was much altered.  His midnight mood was over, and he looked as haggard as an actor by daylight.  He was far older than I had supposed, and he had less bravery of costume and gesture.  He seemed the quiet, poor, patient artist he had proclaimed himself, and the fact that he had never sold a picture was more obvious than glorious.  His velvet coat was threadbare, and his short slouched hat, of an antique pattern, revealed a rustiness which marked it an “original,” and not one of the picturesque reproductions which brethren of his craft affect.  His eye was mild and heavy, and his expression singularly gentle and acquiescent; the more so for a certain pallid leanness of visage, which I hardly knew whether to refer to the consuming fire of genius or to a meagre diet.  A very little talk, however, cleared his brow and brought back his eloquence.

“And this is your first visit to these enchanted halls?” he cried.  “Happy, thrice happy youth!”  And taking me by the arm, he prepared to lead me to each of the pre-eminent works in turn and show me the cream of the gallery.  But before we left the Mantegna he pressed my arm and gave it a loving look.  “He was not in a hurry,” he murmured.  “He knew nothing of ‘raw Haste, half-sister to Delay!’”  How sound a critic my friend was I am unable to say, but he was an extremely amusing one; overflowing with opinions, theories, and sympathies, with disquisition and gossip and anecdote.  He was a shade too sentimental for my own sympathies, and I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in shallow places.  At moments, too, he plunged into the sea of metaphysics, and floundered a while in waters too deep for intellectual security.  But his abounding knowledge and happy judgment told a touching story of long attentive hours in this worshipful company; there was a reproach to my wasteful saunterings in so devoted a culture of opportunity.  “There are two moods,” I remember his saying, “in which we may walk through galleries—the critical and the ideal.  They seize us at their pleasure, and we can never tell which is to take its turn.  The critical mood, oddly, is the genial one, the friendly, the condescending.  It relishes the pretty trivialities of art, its vulgar cleverness, its conscious graces.  It has a kindly greeting for anything which looks as if, according to his light, the painter had enjoyed doing it—for the little Dutch cabbages and kettles, for the taper fingers and breezy mantles of late-coming Madonnas, for the little blue-hilled, pastoral, sceptical Italian landscapes.  Then there are the days of fierce, fastidious longing—solemn church feasts of the intellect—when all vulgar effort and all petty success is a weariness, and everything but the best—the best of the best—disgusts.  In these hours we are relentless aristocrats of taste.  We will not take Michael Angelo for granted, we will not swallow Raphael whole!”

The gallery of the Uffizi is not only rich in its possessions, but peculiarly fortunate in that fine architectural accident, as one may call it, which unites it—with the breadth of river and city between them—to those princely chambers of the Pitti Palace.  The Louvre and the Vatican hardly give you such a sense of sustained inclosure as those long passages projected over street and stream to establish a sort of inviolate transition between the two palaces of art.  We passed along the gallery in which those precious drawings by eminent hands hang chaste and gray above the swirl and murmur of the yellow Arno, and reached the ducal saloons of the Pitti.  Ducal as they are, it must be confessed that they are imperfect as show-rooms, and that, with their deep-set windows and their massive mouldings, it is rather a broken light that reaches the pictured walls.  But here the masterpieces hang thick, and you seem to see them in a luminous atmosphere of their own.  And the great saloons, with their superb dim ceilings, their outer wall in splendid shadow, and the sombre opposite glow of mellow canvas and dusky gilding, make, themselves, almost as fine a picture as the Titians and Raphaels they imperfectly reveal.  We lingered briefly before many a Raphael and Titian; but I saw my friend was impatient, and I suffered him at last to lead me directly to the goal of our journey—the most tenderly fair of Raphael’s virgins, the Madonna in the Chair.  Of all the fine pictures of the world, it seemed to me this is the one with which criticism has least to do.  None betrays less effort, less of the mechanism of success and of the irrepressible discord between conception and result, which shows dimly in so many consummate works.  Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate exhalation of genius.  The figure melts away the spectator’s mind into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he has given to heavenly purity or to earthly charm.  He is intoxicated with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever bloomed on earth.

“That’s what I call a fine picture,” said my companion, after we had gazed a while in silence.  “I have a right to say so, for I have copied it so often and so carefully that I could repeat it now with my eyes shut.  Other works are of Raphael: this is Raphael himself.  Others you can praise, you can qualify, you can measure, explain, account for: this you can only love and admire.  I don’t know in what seeming he walked among men while this divine mood was upon him; but after it, surely, he could do nothing but die; this world had nothing more to teach him.  Think of it a while, my friend, and you will admit that I am not raving.  Think of his seeing that spotless image, not for a moment, for a day, in a happy dream, or a restless fever-fit; not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy—time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza; but for days together, while the slow labour of the brush went on, while the foul vapours of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!  What a master, certainly!  But ah! what a seer!”

“Don’t you imagine,” I answered, “that he had a model, and that some pretty young woman—”

“As pretty a young woman as you please!  It doesn’t diminish the miracle!  He took his hint, of course, and the young woman, possibly, sat smiling before his canvas.  But, meanwhile, the painter’s idea had taken wings.  No lovely human outline could charm it to vulgar fact.  He saw the fair form made perfect; he rose to the vision without tremor, without effort of wing; he communed with it face to face, and resolved into finer and lovelier truth the purity which completes it as the fragrance completes the rose.  That’s what they call idealism; the word’s vastly abused, but the thing is good.  It’s my own creed, at any rate.  Lovely Madonna, model at once and muse, I call you to witness that I too am an idealist!”

“An idealist, then,” I said, half jocosely, wishing to provoke him to further utterance, “is a gentleman who says to Nature in the person of a beautiful girl, ‘Go to, you are all wrong!  Your fine is coarse, your bright is dim, your grace is gaucherie.  This is the way you should have done it!’  Is not the chance against him?”

He turned upon me almost angrily, but perceiving the genial savour of my sarcasm, he smiled gravely.  “Look at that picture,” he said, “and cease your irreverent mockery!  Idealism is that!  There’s no explaining it; one must feel the flame!  It says nothing to Nature, or to any beautiful girl, that they will not both forgive!  It says to the fair woman, ‘Accept me as your artist friend, lend me your beautiful face, trust me, help me, and your eyes shall be half my masterpiece!’  No one so loves and respects the rich realities of nature as the artist whose imagination caresses and flatters them.  He knows what a fact may hold (whether Raphael knew, you may judge by his portrait, behind us there, of Tommaso Inghirami); bad his fancy hovers above it, as Anal hovered above the sleeping prince.  There is only one Raphael, bad an artist may still be an artist.  As I said last night, the days of illumination are gone; visions are rare; we have to look long to see them.  But in meditation we may still cultivate the ideal; round it, smooth it, perfect it.  The result—the result,” (here his voice faltered suddenly, and he fixed his eyes for a moment on the picture; when they met my own again they were full of tears)—“the result may be less than this; but still it may be good, it may be great!” he cried with vehemence.  “It may hang somewhere, in after years, in goodly company, and keep the artist’s memory warm.  Think of being known to mankind after some such fashion as this! of hanging here through the slow centuries in the gaze of an altered world; living on and on in the cunning of an eye and hand that are part of the dust of ages, a delight and a law to remote generations; making beauty a force and purity an example!”

“Heaven forbid,” I said, smiling, “that I should take the wind out of your sails!  But doesn’t it occur to you that, besides being strong in his genius, Raphael was happy in a certain good faith of which we have lost the trick?  There are people, I know, who deny that his spotless Madonnas are anything more than pretty blondes of that period enhanced by the Raphaelesque touch, which they declare is a profane touch.  Be that as it may, people’s religious and æsthetic needs went arm in arm, and there was, as I may say, a demand for the Blessed Virgin, visible and adorable, which must have given firmness to the artist’s hand.  I am afraid there is no demand now.”

My companion seemed painfully puzzled; he shivered, as it were, in this chilling blast of scepticism.  Then shaking his head with sublime confidence—“There is always a demand!” he cried; “that ineffable type is one of the eternal needs of man’s heart; but pious souls long for it in silence, almost in shame.  Let it appear, and their faith grows brave.  How should it appear in this corrupt generation?  It cannot be made to order.  It could, indeed, when the order came, trumpet-toned, from the lips of the Church herself, and was addressed to genius panting with inspiration.  But it can spring now only from the soil of passionate labour and culture.  Do you really fancy that while, from time to time, a man of complete artistic vision is born into the world, that image can perish?  The man who paints it has painted everything.  The subject admits of every perfection—form, colour, expression, composition.  It can be as simple as you please, and yet as rich; as broad and pure, and yet as full of delicate detail.  Think of the chance for flesh in the little naked, nestling child, irradiating divinity; of the chance for drapery in the chaste and ample garment of the mother! think of the great story you compress into that simple theme!  Think, above all, of the mother’s face and its ineffable suggestiveness, of the mingled burden of joy and trouble, the tenderness turned to worship, and the worship turned to far-seeing pity!  Then look at it all in perfect line and lovely colour, breathing truth and beauty and mastery!”

“Anch’ io son pittore!” I cried.  “Unless I am mistaken, you have a masterpiece on the stocks.  If you put all that in, you will do more than Raphael himself did.  Let me know when your picture is finished, and wherever in the wide world I may be, I will post back to Florence and pay my respects to—the Madonna of the future!”

He blushed vividly and gave a heavy sigh, half of protest, half of resignation.  “I don’t often mention my picture by name.  I detest this modern custom of premature publicity.  A great work needs silence, privacy, mystery even.  And then, do you know, people are so cruel, so frivolous, so unable to imagine a man’s wishing to paint a Madonna at this time of day, that I have been laughed at—laughed at, sir!” and his blush deepened to crimson.  “I don’t know what has prompted me to be so frank and trustful with you.  You look as if you wouldn’t laugh at me.  My dear young man”—and he laid his hand on my arm—“I am worthy of respect.  Whatever my talents may be, I am honest.  There is nothing grotesque in a pure ambition, or in a life devoted to it.”

There was something so sternly sincere in his look and tone that further questions seemed impertinent.  I had repeated opportunity to ask them, however, for after this we spent much time together.  Daily for a fortnight, we met by appointment, to see the sights.  He knew the city so well, he had strolled and lounged so often through its streets and churches and galleries, he was so deeply versed in its greater and lesser memories, so imbued with the local genius, that he was an altogether ideal valet de place, and I was glad enough to leave my Murray at home, and gather facts and opinions alike from his gossiping commentary.  He talked of Florence like a lover, and admitted that it was a very old affair; he had lost his heart to her at first sight.  “It’s the fashion to talk of all cities as feminine,” he said, “but, as a rule, it’s a monstrous mistake.  Is Florence of the same sex as New York, as Chicago?  She is the sole perfect lady of them all; one feels towards her as a lad in his teens feels to some beautiful older woman with a ‘history.’  She fills you with a sort of aspiring gallantry.”  This disinterested passion seemed to stand my friend in stead of the common social ties; he led a lonely life, and cared for nothing but his work.  I was duly flattered by his having taken my frivolous self into his favour, and by his generous sacrifice of precious hours to my society.  We spent many of these hours among those early paintings in which Florence is so rich, returning ever and anon, with restless sympathies, to wonder whether these tender blossoms of art had not a vital fragrance and savour more precious than the full-fruited knowledge of the later works.  We lingered often in the sepulchral chapel of San Lorenzo, and watched Michael Angelo’s dim-visaged warrior sitting there like some awful Genius of Doubt and brooding behind his eternal mask upon the mysteries of life.  We stood more than once in the little convent chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-notes which makes an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll in some monkish garden.  We did all this and much more—wandered into dark chapels, damp courts, and dusty palace-rooms, in quest of lingering hints of fresco and lurking treasures of carving.

I was more and more impressed with my companion’s remarkable singleness of purpose.  Everything was a pretext for some wildly idealistic rhapsody or reverie.  Nothing could be seen or said that did not lead him sooner or later to a glowing discourse on the true, the beautiful, and the good.  If my friend was not a genius, he was certainly a monomaniac; and I found as great a fascination in watching the odd lights and shades of his character as if he had been a creature from another planet.  He seemed, indeed, to know very little of this one, and lived and moved altogether in his own little province of art.  A creature more unsullied by the world it is impossible to conceive, and I often thought it a flaw in his artistic character that he had not a harmless vice or two.  It amused me greatly at times to think that he was of our shrewd Yankee race; but, after all, there could be no better token of his American origin than this high æsthetic fever.  The very heat of his devotion was a sign of conversion; those born to European opportunity manage better to reconcile enthusiasm with comfort.  He had, moreover, all our native mistrust for intellectual discretion, and our native relish for sonorous superlatives.  As a critic he was very much more generous than just, and his mildest terms of approbation were “stupendous,” “transcendent,” and “incomparable.”  The small change of admiration seemed to him no coin for a gentleman to handle; and yet, frank as he was intellectually, he was personally altogether a mystery.  His professions, somehow, were all half-professions, and his allusions to his work and circumstances left something dimly ambiguous in the background.  He was modest and proud, and never spoke of his domestic matters.  He was evidently poor; yet he must have had some slender independence, since he could afford to make so merry over the fact that his culture of ideal beauty had never brought him a penny.  His poverty, I supposed, was his motive for neither inviting me to his lodging nor mentioning its whereabouts.  We met either in some public place or at my hotel, where I entertained him as freely as I might without appearing to be prompted by charity.  He seemed always hungry, and this was his nearest approach to human grossness.  I made a point of asking no impertinent questions, but, each time we met, I ventured to make some respectful allusion to the magnum opus, to inquire, as it were, as to its health and progress.  “We are getting on, with the Lord’s help,” he would say, with a grave smile.  “We are doing well.  You see, I have the grand advantage that I lose no time.  These hours I spend with you are pure profit.  They are suggestive!  Just as the truly religious soul is always at worship, the genuine artist is always in labour.  He takes his property wherever he finds it, and learns some precious secret from every object that stands up in the light.  If you but knew the rapture of observation!  I gather with every glance some hint for light, for colour, or relief!  When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of toy Madonna.  Oh, I am not idle!  Nulla dies sine linea.”

I was introduced in Florence to an American lady whose drawing-room had long formed an attractive place of reunion for the foreign residents.  She lived on a fourth floor, and she was not rich; but she offered her visitors very good tea, little cakes at option, and conversation not quite to match.  Her conversation had mainly an æsthetic flavour, for Mrs. Coventry was famously “artistic.”  Her apartment was a sort of Pitti Palace au petit pied.  She possessed “early masters” by the dozen—a cluster of Peruginos in her dining-room, a Giotto in her boudoir, an Andrea del Sarto over her drawing-room chimney-piece.  Surrounded by these treasures, and by innumerable bronzes, mosaics, majolica dishes, and little worm-eaten diptychs covered with angular saints on gilded backgrounds, our hostess enjoyed the dignity of a sort of high-priestess of the arts.  She always wore on her bosom a huge miniature copy of the Madonna della Seggiola.  Gaining her ear quietly one evening, I asked her whether she knew that remarkable man, Mr. Theobald.

“Know him!” she exclaimed; “know poor Theobald!  All Florence knows him, his flame-coloured locks, his black velvet coat, his interminable harangues on the beautiful, and his wondrous Madonna that mortal eye has never seen, and that mortal patience has quite given up expecting.”

“Really,” I cried, “you don’t believe in his Madonna?”

“My dear ingenuous youth,” rejoined my shrewd friend, “has he made a convert of you?  Well, we all believed in him once; he came down upon Florence and took the town by storm.  Another Raphael, at the very least, had been born among men, and the poor dear United States were to have the credit of him.  Hadn’t he the very hair of Raphael flowing down on his shoulders?  The hair, alas, but not the head!  We swallowed him whole, however; we hung upon his lips and proclaimed his genius on the house-tops.  The women were all dying to sit to him for their portraits and be made immortal, like Leonardo’s Joconde.  We decided that his manner was a good deal like Leonardo’s—mysterious, and inscrutable, and fascinating.  Mysterious it certainly was; mystery was the beginning and the end of it.  The months passed by, and the miracle hung fire; our master never produced his masterpiece.  He passed hours in the galleries and churches, posturing, musing, and gazing; he talked more than ever about the beautiful, but he never put brush to canvas.  We had all subscribed, as it were, to the great performance; but as it never came off people began to ask for their money again.  I was one of the last of the faithful; I carried devotion so far as to sit to him for my head.  If you could have seen the horrible creature he made of me, you would admit that even a woman with no more vanity than will tie her bonnet straight must have cooled off then.  The man didn’t know the very alphabet of drawing!  His strong point, he intimated, was his sentiment; but is it a consolation, when one has been painted a fright, to know it has been done with peculiar gusto?  One by one, I confess, we fell away from the faith, and Mr. Theobald didn’t lift his little finger to preserve us.  At the first hint that we were tired of waiting, and that we should like the show to begin, he was off in a huff.  ‘Great work requires time, contemplation, privacy, mystery!  O ye of little faith!’  We answered that we didn’t insist on a great work; that the five-act tragedy might come at his convenience; that we merely asked for something to keep us from yawning, some inexpensive little lever de rideau.  Hereupon the poor man took his stand as a genius misconceived and persecuted, an âme méconnue, and washed his hands of us from that hour!  No, I believe he does me the honour to consider me the head and front of the conspiracy formed to nip his glory in the bud—a bud that has taken twenty years to blossom.  Ask him if he knows me, and he will tell you I am a horribly ugly old woman, who has vowed his destruction because he won’t paint her portrait as a pendant to Titian’s Flora.  I fancy that since then he has had none but chance followers, innocent strangers like yourself, who have taken him at his word.  The mountain is still in labour; I have not heard that the mouse has been born.  I pass him once in a while in the galleries, and he fixes his great dark eyes on me with a sublimity of indifference, as if I were a bad copy of a Sassoferrato!  It is a long time ago now that I heard that he was making studies for a Madonna who was to be a résumé of all the other Madonnas of the Italian school—like that antique Venus who borrowed a nose from one great image and an ankle from another.  It’s certainly a masterly idea.  The parts may be fine, but when I think of my unhappy portrait I tremble for the whole.  He has communicated this striking idea under the pledge of solemn secrecy to fifty chosen spirits, to every one he has ever been able to button-hole for five minutes.  I suppose he wants to get an order for it, and he is not to blame; for Heaven knows how he lives.  I see by your blush,” my hostess frankly continued, “that you have been honoured with his confidence.  You needn’t be ashamed, my dear young man; a man of your age is none the worse for a certain generous credulity.  Only allow me to give you a word of advice: keep your credulity out of your pockets!  Don’t pay for the picture till it’s delivered.  You have not been treated to a peep at it, I imagine!  No more have your fifty predecessors in the faith.  There are people who doubt whether there is any picture to be seen.  I fancy, myself, that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s—a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!”

Henry James, 1843-1906. The Madonna of the Future, 1875

Image: Raphael (1483-1520. Madonna of the Chair, 1515. Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence, Italy

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – Venus in Furs, 1870

Titian Venus witth a Mirror (furs)“I cannot deny,” I said, “that nothing will attract a man more than the picture of a beautiful, passionate, cruel, and despotic woman who wantonly changes her favorites without scruple in accordance with her whim—”

“And in addition wears furs,” exclaimed the divinity.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I know your predilection.”

“Do you know,” I interrupted, “that, since we last saw each other, you have grown very coquettish.”

“In what way, may I ask?”

“In that there is no way of accentuating your white body to greater advantage than by these dark furs, and that—”

The divinity laughed.

“You are dreaming,” she cried, “wake up!” and she clasped my arm with her marble-white hand. “Do wake up,” she repeated raucously with the low register of her voice. I opened my eyes with difficulty.

I saw the hand which shook me, and suddenly it was brown as bronze; the voice was the thick alcoholic voice of my cossack servant who stood before me at his full height of nearly six feet.

“Do get up,” continued the good fellow, “it is really disgraceful.”

“What is disgraceful?”

“To fall asleep in your clothes and with a book besides.” He snuffed the candles which had burned down, and picked up the volume which had fallen from my hand, “with a book by”—he looked at the title page— “by Hegel. Besides it is high time you were starting for Mr. Severin’s who is expecting us for tea.”

“A curious dream,” said Severin when I had finished. He supported his arms on his knees, resting his face in his delicate, finely veined hands, and fell to pondering.

I knew that he wouldn’t move for a long time, hardly even breathe. This actually happened, but I didn’t consider his behavior as in any way remarkable. I had been on terms of close friendship with him for nearly three years, and gotten used to his peculiarities. For it cannot be denied that he was peculiar, although he wasn’t quite the dangerous madman that the neighborhood, or indeed the entire district of Kolomea, considered him to be. I found his personality not only interesting—and that is why many also regarded me a bit mad—but to a degree sympathetic. For a Galician nobleman and land-owner, and considering his age—he was hardly over thirty—he displayed surprising sobriety, a certain seriousness, even pedantry. He lived according to a minutely elaborated, half-philosophical, half- practical system, like clock-work; not this alone, but also by the thermometer, barometer, aerometer, hydrometer, Hippocrates, Hufeland, Plato, Kant, Knigge, and Lord Chesterfield. But at times he had violent attacks of sudden passion, and gave the impression of being about to run with his head right through a wall. At such times every one preferred to get out of his way.

While he remained silent, the fire sang in the chimney and the large venerable samovar sang; and the ancient chair in which I sat rocking to and fro smoking my cigar, and the cricket in the old walls sang too. I let my eyes glide over the curious apparatus, skeletons of animals, stuffed birds, globes, plaster-casts, with which his room was heaped full, until by chance my glance remained fixed on a picture which I had seen often enough before. But to-day, under the reflected red glow of the fire, it made an indescribable impression on me.

It was a large oil painting, done in the robust full-bodied manner of the Belgian school. Its subject was strange enough.

A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.

Venus in Furs,” I cried, pointing to the picture. “That is the way I saw her in my dream.”

“I, too,” said Severin, “only I dreamed my dream with open eyes.”


“It is a tiresome story.”

“Your picture apparently suggested my dream,” I continued. “But do tell me what it means. I can imagine that it played a role in your life, and perhaps a very decisive one. But the details I can only get from you.”

“Look at its counterpart,” replied my strange friend, without heeding my question.

The counterpart was an excellent copy of Titian’s well-known “Venus with the Mirror” in the Dresden Gallery.

“And what is the significance?”

Severin rose and pointed with his finger at the fur with which Titian garbed his goddess of love.

“It, too, is a ‘Venus in Furs,'” he said with a slight smile. “I don’t believe that the old Venetian had any secondary intention. He simply painted the portrait of some aristocratic Mesalina, and was tactful enough to let Cupid hold the mirror in which she tests her majestic allure with cold satisfaction. He looks as though his task were becoming burdensome enough. The picture is painted flattery. Later an ‘expert’ in the Rococo period baptized the lady with the name of Venus. The furs of the despot in which Titian’s fair model wrapped herself, probably more for fear of a cold than out of modesty, have become a symbol of the tyranny and cruelty that constitute woman’s essence and her beauty.

“But enough of that. The picture, as it now exists, is a bitter satire on our love. Venus in this abstract North, in this icy Christian world, has to creep into huge black furs so as not to catch cold—”

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, 1836-1895. Venus im Pelz, 1870  (Venus in Furs)

image: Titian. Venus with a Mirror, c.1555. National Gallery of Art,Washington D.C. Andrew W. Mellon collection.