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

Author: jeh

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

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