Aldous Huxley – Crome Yellow, 1921

NPG Ax140432; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Maria Huxley (nÈe Nys); Lytton Strachey; Duncan Grant; Vanessa Bell (nÈe Stephen) by Unknown photographer

Gombauld had annexed for his painting-room a little disused
granary that stood by itself in a green close beyond the farm-
yard. It was a square brick building with a peaked roof and
little windows set high up in each of its walls. A ladder of
four rungs led up to the door; for the granary was perched above
the ground, and out of reach of the rats, on four massive
toadstools of grey stone. Within, there lingered a faint smell
of dust and cobwebs; and the narrow shaft of sunlight that came
slanting in at every hour of the day through one of the little
windows was always alive with silvery motes. Here Gombauld
worked, with a kind of concentrated ferocity, during six or seven
hours of each day. He was pursuing something new, something
terrific, if only he could catch it.

During the last eight years, nearly half of which had been spent
in the process of winning the war, he had worked his way
industriously through cubism. Now he had come out on the other
side. He had begun by painting a formalised nature; then, little
by little, he had risen from nature into the world of pure form,
till in the end he was painting nothing but his own thoughts,
externalised in the abstract geometrical forms of the mind’s
devising. He found the process arduous and exhilarating. And
then, quite suddenly, he grew dissatisfied; he felt himself
cramped and confined within intolerably narrow limitations. He
was humiliated to find how few and crude and uninteresting were
the forms he could invent; the inventions of nature were without
number, inconceivably subtle and elaborate. He had done with
cubism. He was out on the other side. But the cubist discipline
preserved him from falling into excesses of nature worship. He
took from nature its rich, subtle, elaborate forms, but his aim
was always to work them into a whole that should have the
thrilling simplicity and formality of an idea; to combine
prodigious realism with prodigious simplification. Memories of
Caravaggio’s portentous achievements haunted him. Forms of a
breathing, living reality emerged from darkness, built themselves
up into compositions as luminously simple and single as a
mathematical idea. He thought of the “Call of Matthew,” of
“Peter Crucified,” of the “Lute players,” of “Magdalen.” He had
the secret, that astonishing ruffian, he had the secret! And now
Gombauld was after it, in hot pursuit. Yes, it would be
something terrific, if only he could catch it.

For a long time an idea had been stirring and spreading,
yeastily, in his mind. He had made a portfolio full of studies,
he had drawn a cartoon; and now the idea was taking shape on
canvas. A man fallen from a horse. The huge animal, a gaunt
white cart-horse, filled the upper half of the picture with its
great body. Its head, lowered towards the ground, was in shadow;
the immense bony body was what arrested the eye, the body and the
legs, which came down on either side of the picture like the
pillars of an arch. On the ground, between the legs of the
towering beast, lay the foreshortened figure of a man, the head
in the extreme foreground, the arms flung wide to right and left.
A white, relentless light poured down from a point in the right
foreground. The beast, the fallen man, were sharply illuminated;
round them, beyond and behind them, was the night. They were
alone in the darkness, a universe in themselves. The horse’s
body filled the upper part of the picture; the legs, the great
hoofs, frozen to stillness in the midst of their trampling,
limited it on either side. And beneath lay the man, his
foreshortened face at the focal point in the centre, his arms
outstretched towards the sides of the picture. Under the arch of
the horse’s belly, between his legs, the eye looked through into
an intense darkness; below, the space was closed in by the figure
of the prostrate man. A central gulf of darkness surrounded by
luminous forms…

The picture was more than half finished. Gombauld had been at
work all the morning on the figure of the man, and now he was
taking a rest–the time to smoke a cigarette. Tilting back his
chair till it touched the wall, he looked thoughtfully at his
canvas. He was pleased, and at the same time he was desolated.
In itself, the thing was good; he knew it. But that something he
was after, that something that would be so terrific if only he
could catch it–had he caught it? Would he ever catch it?

Three little taps–rat, tat, tat! Surprised, Gombauld turned his
eyes towards the door. Nobody ever disturbed him while he was at
work; it was one of the unwritten laws. “Come in!” he called.
The door, which was ajar, swung open, revealing, from the waist
upwards, the form of Mary. She had only dared to mount half-way
up the ladder. If he didn’t want her, retreat would be easier
and more dignified than if she climbed to the top.

“May I come in?” she asked.


She skipped up the remaining two rungs and was over the threshold
in an instant. “A letter came for you by the second post,” she
said. “I thought it might be important, so I brought it out to
you.” Her eyes, her childish face were luminously candid as she
handed him the letter. There had never been a flimsier pretext.

Gombauld looked at the envelope and put it in his pocket
unopened. “Luckily,” he said, “it isn’t at all important.
Thanks very much all the same.”

There was a silence; Mary felt a little uncomfortable. “May I
have a look at what you’ve been painting?” she had the courage to
say at last.

Gombauld had only half smoked his cigarette; in any case he
wouldn’t begin work again till he had finished. He would give
her the five minutes that separated him from the bitter end.
“This is the best place to see it from,” he said.

Mary looked at the picture for some time without saying anything.
Indeed, she didn’t know what to say; she was taken aback, she was
at a loss. She had expected a cubist masterpiece, and here was a
picture of a man and a horse, not only recognisable as such, but
even aggressively in drawing. Trompe-l’oeil–there was no other
word to describe the delineation of that foreshortened figure
under the trampling feet of the horse. What was she to think,
what was she to say? Her orientations were gone. One could
admire representationalism in the Old Masters. Obviously. But
in a modern…? At eighteen she might have done so. But now,
after five years of schooling among the best judges, her
instinctive reaction to a contemporary piece of representation
was contempt–an outburst of laughing disparagement. What could
Gombauld be up to? She had felt so safe in admiring his work
before. But now–she didn’t know what to think. It was very
difficult, very difficult.

“There’s rather a lot of chiaroscuro, isn’t there?” she ventured
at last, and inwardly congratulated herself on having found a
critical formula so gentle and at the same time so penetrating.

“There is,” Gombauld agreed.

Mary was pleased; he accepted her criticism; it was a serious
discussion. She put her head on one side and screwed up her
eyes. “I think it’s awfully fine,” she said. “But of course
it’s a little too…too…trompe-l’oeil for my taste.” She
looked at Gombauld, who made no response, but continued to smoke,
gazing meditatively all the time at his picture. Mary went on
gaspingly. “When I was in Paris this spring I saw a lot of
Tschuplitski. I admire his work so tremendously. Of course,
it’s frightfully abstract now–frightfully abstract and
frightfully intellectual. He just throws a few oblongs on to his
canvas–quite flat, you know, and painted in pure primary
colours. But his design is wonderful. He’s getting more and
more abstract every day. He’d given up the third dimension when
I was there and was just thinking of giving up the second. Soon,
he says, there’ll be just the blank canvas. That’s the logical
conclusion. Complete abstraction. Painting’s finished; he’s
finishing it. When he’s reached pure abstraction he’s going to
take up architecture. He says it’s more intellectual than
painting. Do you agree?” she asked, with a final gasp.

Gombauld dropped his cigarette end and trod on it.
“Tschuplitski’s finished painting,” he said. “I’ve finished my
cigarette. But I’m going on painting.” And, advancing towards
her, he put his arm round her shoulders and turned her round,
away from the picture.

Mary looked up at him; her hair swung back, a soundless bell of
gold. Her eyes were serene; she smiled. So the moment had come.
His arm was round her. He moved slowly, almost imperceptibly,
and she moved with him. It was a peripatetic embracement. “Do
you agree with him?” she repeated. The moment might have come,
but she would not cease to be intellectual, serious.

“I don’t know. I shall have to think about it.” Gombauld
loosened his embrace, his hand dropped from her shoulder. “Be
careful going down the ladder,” he added solicitously.

Mary looked round, startled. They were in front of the open
door. She remained standing there for a moment in bewilderment.
The hand that had rested on her shoulder made itself felt lower
down her back; it administered three or four kindly little
smacks. Replying automatically to its stimulus, she moved

“Be careful going down the ladder,” said Gombauld once more.

She was careful. The door closed behind her and she was alone in
the little green close. She walked slowly back through the
farmyard; she was pensive.

Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963

Crome Yellow , 1921

Image: Garsington Manor.L-R. O Merrell, Mrs A Huxley, L Strachey, D Grant, V Bell


Sir Roger L’Estrange – Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists,1692

T Bewick. Aesop A Lion and A Man : Leo et Statua 1818 

A Fox And A Carv’d Head

As a Fox was rumidging among a great many carv’d Figures, there was one very extraordinary Piece among the rest. He took it up, and when he had consider’d it a-while, Well, (says he) what Pity ‘tis that so exquisite an Out-side of a Head should not have one Grain of Sense in’t.

THE MORAL. ‘Tis not the Barber or the Taylor that makes the Man: and ‘tis no new thing to see a fine wrought Head without so much as one Grain of Salt in’t.


An Old Man And A Lion

A Person of Quality dream’d one Night that he saw a Lion kill his only Son, who was, it seems, a generous Cavalier, and a great Lover of the Chace. This Fancy ran in the Father’s Head to that degree, that he built his Son a House of Pleasure, on purpose to keep him out of harm’s way; and spar’d neither Art nor Cost to make a delicious Retreat. This House, in short, was to be the young Man’s Prison, and the Father made himself his Keeper. There was a world of Paintings every where up and down, and among the rest, there was the Picture of a Lion, which stirred the Blood of the young Man for the Dream sake, and to think that he should now be a Slave for the Fancy of such a Beast. In this Indignation he made a blow at the Picture; but striking his Fist upon the Point of a Nail in the Wall, his Hand cancerated, he fell into a Fever, and soon after died on’t: So that all the Father’s Precaution could not secure the Son from the Fatality of dying by a Lion.

THE MORAL. A body may as well lay too little as too much stress upon a Dream; for some Dreams are monitory, as others are only complexional; but upon the Main, the less we heed them better; for when that Freak has once taken possession of a fantastical Head, the Distemper is incurable.


A Man And A Wooden God

A Man that had a great Veneration for an Image he had in his House, found, that the more he pray’d to’t to prosper him in the World, the more he went down the wind still. This put him into such a Rage, to lie dogging at his Prayers so much and so long, to so little purpose, that at last he dash’d the Head on’t to pieces against the Wall: and out comes a considerable Quantity of Gold. Why this ‘tis, says he, to adore a perverse and insensible Deity, that will do more for Blows than for Worship.

THE MORAL. Most People, Clergy as well as Laity, accommodate their Religion to their Profit, and reckon that to be the best Church that there’s most to be got by.

Mercury And A Statuary

Mercury had a great Mind once to Learn what Credit he had in the World, and he knew no better Way, than to Put on the Shape of a Man, and take Occasion to Discourse the Matter as by the Bye, with a Statuary: So he went to the House of a Great Master, where, among other Curious Figures, he saw several Excellent Pieces of the Gods. The first he Cheapen’d was a Jupiter, which would have come at a very easy Rate. Well (says Mercury) and what’s the Price of that Juno over there? The Carver set it a little Higher. The next Figure was a Mercury, with his Rod and Wings, and all the Ensigns of his Commission. Why this is as it should be, says he to himself: For here am I in the Quality of Jupiter’s Messenger, and the Patron of Artizans, with all my Trade about me: And now will this Fellow ask me Fifteen Times as much for this as the did t’other: And so he put it to him, what he valued that Piece at: Why truly, says the Statuary, you seem to be a Civil Gentleman, give me but my Price for the other Two, and you shall e’en have That into the Bargain.

THE MORAL. This is to put the Vanity of those Men out of Countenance, that by Setting too high a Value upon themselves, appear by so much the more Despicable to Others.

A Pigeon And A Picture

A Pigeon saw the Picture of a Glass with Water in’t, and taking it to be Water indeed, flew rashly and eagerly up to’t for a Soup to quench her Thirst. She broke her Feathers against the Frame of the Picture, and falling to the Ground upon’t, was taken up by the By-Standers.

THE MORAL. Rash Men do many Things in Haste that they Repent of at Leisure.


A Lion and a Man

There was a Controversy started betwixt a Lion and a Man, which was the Braver, and the stronger Creature of the two. Why look ye, says the Man, (after a long Dispute) we’ll appeal to that Statue there, and so he shew’d him the Figure of a Man Cut in Stone, with a Lion under his Feet. Well! says the Lion, if We had been brought up to Painting and Carving, as You are, where you have One Lion under the Feet of a Man, you should have had Twenty Men under the Paw of a Lion.

THE MORAL: ‘Tis against the Rules of common Justice for Men to be Judges in their own Case.


An Image Expos’d to Sale

A Certain Carver, that had a Mercury lay a great while upon his Hands, bethought himself at last of Billing it about in Coffee-Houses, that at such a place there was a God to be Sold, a Merry Penn’orth, and such a Deity as would make any Man Rich, if you Keep him, as well as he will make me Rich if I Buy him. You say very Right says t’other; but ’tis Ready Mony that I want, and the Purchaser will have only an Estate in Reversion.

THE MORAL. Ready Mony goes as far in Religion as in Trade: People are willing to Keep what they Have, and to get what they Can, without Launching out into Lives, and Uncertainties. They are well enough Content to deal in the Sale of Reversions, but they do not much care for Buying them. 


An Ass Carrying an Image

As an Ass was Carrying an Image in Procession, the People fell every where down upon their Knees before him. This Silly Animal fancy’d that they Worship’d Him all this while; ’till One Rounded him in the Ear; and told him, Friend, says he, You are the very same Ass with this Burden upon your Back, that you were before you took it up; and ’tis not the Brute they Bowe to, but the Image.

THE MORAL. A Publick Character is never the less to be Reverenc’d, because a Coxcomb perhaps may Carry it; nor that Coxcomb one jot the more, save only for the sake of his Office. 


Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1616-1704. Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists, published, 1692.

Sir Roger L’Estrange originally published his version of the fables under the title Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists in 1692. L’Estrange’s book included fables from the Hecatomythium,1495, of Laurentius Abstemius and other Renaissance fabulists.

32. A Fox And A Carv’d Head
100. An Old Man And A Lion
105. A Man And A Wooden God
169. Mercury And A Statuary
197. A Pigeon And A Picture
240. A Lion and a Man
446. An Image Expos’d to Sale
487. An Ass Carrying an Image

Image: Thomas Bewick, 1753-1828.  Aesop’s Fables.  A Lion and A Man / Leo et Statua, 1818


Ambrose Bierce – The Devils Dictionary, 1911


ART, n. This word has no definition. Its origin is related as follows by the ingenious Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J.

  One day a wag—what would the wretch be at?—
  Shifted a letter of the cipher RAT,
  And said it was a god’s name!  Straight arose
  Fantastic priests and postulants (with shows,
  And mysteries, and mummeries, and hymns,
  And disputations dire that lamed their limbs)
  To serve his temple and maintain the fires,
  Expound the law, manipulate the wires.
  Amazed, the populace that rites attend,
  Believe whate’er they cannot comprehend,
  And, inly edified to learn that two
  Half-hairs joined so and so (as Art can do)
  Have sweeter values and a grace more fit
  Than Nature’s hairs that never have been split,
  Bring cates and wines for sacrificial feasts,
  And sell their garments to support the priests.

CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.

  There is a land of pure delight,
      Beyond the Jordan’s flood,
  Where saints, apparelled all in white,
      Fling back the critic’s mud.
  And as he legs it through the skies,
      His pelt a sable hue,
  He sorrows sore to recognize
      The missiles that he threw.

Orrin Goof

LAOCOON, n. A famous piece of antique scripture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.

PAINTING, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

Formerly, painting and sculpture were combined in the same work: the ancients painted their statues. The only present alliance between the two arts is that the modern painter chisels his patrons.

PHOTOGRAPH, n. A picture painted by the sun without instruction in art. It is a little better than the work of an Apache, but not quite so good as that of a Cheyenne.

REALISM, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.

REPLICA, n. A reproduction of a work of art, by the artist that made the original. It is so called to distinguish it from a “copy,” which is made by another artist. When the two are made with equal skill the replica is the more valuable, for it is supposed to be more beautiful than it looks.

Ambrose Bierce, 1842-1913
The Devils Dictionary, 1911. (The Cynic’s Word  Book, 1906)

Gustave Flaubert – Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, c.1870 (published 1913) The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas


ART: Ca mène à l’hôpital. A quoi ça sert, puisqu’on le remplace par la mécanique qui fait mieux et plus vite.

ART: It leads to the hospital. What’s the point, since replaced by the technician who makes it better and faster.

ARTISTES: Tous farceurs. Vanter leur désintéressement (vieux).
 S’étonner de ce qu’ils sont habillés comme tout le monde (vieux).
 Gagnent des sommes folles, mais les jettent par les fenêtres. 
Souvent invités à dîner en ville. Femme artiste ne peut être
qu’une catin. Ce qu’ils font ne peut s’appeler travailler.

ARTISTS. All charlatans. Boast of their disinterestedness (old-fashioned). Express astonishment that they dress like everybody else (old-fashioned). They earn insane amounts, but spend it frivolously. Often invited to dine out in town. A woman artist cannot be anything but a whore. Of those that don’t like to be called a worker.

DAGUERRÉOTYPE: Remplacera la peinture.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Will make painting obsolete.

DESSIN (l’art du): Se compose de trois choses: la ligne, le grain, et le grainé fin; de plus, le trait de force. Mais le trait de force, il n’y a que le maître seul qui le donne. (Christophe.)

DRAWING (the art of): This consists of three things: line, gradation and fine gradation: In addition, the stroke of genius. But as for genius, there is only one master who gives that. (Christophe)

KALÉIDOSCOPE: Ne s’emploie qu’à propos des salons de peinture

KALEIDOSCOPE: Only to be used in connection with exhibitions of painting

MUSÉE: De Versailles: retrace les hauts faits de la gloire nationale; belle idée de Louis-Philippe. Du Louvre: à éviter pour les jeunes filles. Dupuytren: très utile à montrer aux jeunes gens.

MUSEUM: From Versailles: recounts the deeds of national glory; beautiful idea of Louis Philippe. The Louvre: to be avoided for young girls. Dupuytren: very useful to show to young people

(*note: Guillaume Dupuytren, 1777-1835,was an anatomist and surgeon.)

PEINTURE SUR VERRE: Le secret en est perdu

PAINTING ON GLASS. The secret has been lost.

PORTRAIT: Le difficile est de rendre le sourire.

PORTRAIT: The difficulty is in capturing the smile.

Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1880

Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, (1870s) published 1913. The Dictionary of Received Ideas

Vladimir Nabakov – Venetsianka, or The Fascination of Art , 1924 (La Veneziana)

s del piombio-Dorotea-berlin

Chapter 3

“I  guess  you  liked  that old rake del Piombo’s Venetian lass,” said McGore, releasing a rosy puff  of  smoke  into  the dark.
“Very  much,”  replied  Simpson,  and added, “Of course, I don’t know anything about pictures–”
“All the same, you liked it,”  nodded  McGore.  “Splendid. That’s  the  first  step toward understanding. I, for one, have dedicated my whole life to this.”
“She looks absolutely real,” Simpson said pensively. “It’s enough to make one believe  mysterious  tales  about  portraits coming  to life. I read somewhere that some king descended from a canvas, and, as soon as–”
McGore dissolved in  a  subdued,  brittle  laugh.  “That’s nonsense,  of  course.  But  another phenomenon does occur–the inverse, so to speak.”

Simpson glanced at him. In  the  dark  of  the  night  his
starched  shirt-front bulged like a whitish hump, and the flame
of his cigar,  like  a  ruby  pinecone,  illumined  his  small,
wrinkled  face  from  below.  He had had a lot of wine and was,
apparently, in the mood to talk.

“Here is  what  happens,”  McGore  continued  unhurriedly.
“Instead of inviting a painted figure to step out of its frame,
imagine  someone  managing  to  step  into the picture himself.
Makes you laugh, doesn’t it? And yet I’ve done it many a  time.
I  have had the good fortune of visiting all the art museums of
Europe, from The Hague to Petersburg and from London to Madrid.
When I found a painting I particularly  liked,  I  would  stand
directly in front of it and concentrate all my willpower on one
thought:  to  enter it. It was an eerie sensation, of course. I
felt like the apostle about to  step  off  his  bark  onto  the
water’s surface. But what bliss ensued! Let us say I was facing
a  Flemish  canvas,  with  the  Holy  Family in the foreground,
against a smooth, limpid, landscape.  You  know,  with  a  road
zigzagging  like a white snake, and green hills. Then, finally,
I would take the plunge.  I  broke  free  from  real  life  and
entered the painting. A miraculous sensation! The coolness, the
placid  air  permeated  with wax and incense. I became a living
part of the painting and everything around me came  alive.  The
pilgrims’  silhouettes  on  the  road began to move. The Virgin
Mary was saying something in a rapid Flemish patter.  The  wind
rippled  through  the  conventional  flowers.  The  clouds were
gliding. . . . But the delight did not last long. I  would  get
the  feeling  that  I  was softly congealing, cohering with the
canvas, merging into a film of oil colour. Then I would shut  my
eyes  tight, yank with all my strength, and leap out. There was
a gentle plop, as when you pull your foot out  of  the  mud.  I
would  open my eyes, and find myself lying on the floor beneath
a splendid but lifeless painting.”

Simpson listened with attention  and  embarrassment.  When
McGore  paused,  he  gave a barely perceptible start and looked
around. Everything was as before. Below,  the  garden  breathed
the  darkness,  one could see the dimly lit dining room through
the glass door, and, in  the  distance,  through  another  open
doorway,  a  bright  corner  of  the  parlour with three figures
playing cards. What strange things McGore was saying! .. .

“You understand, don’t you,'” he  continued,  shaking  off
some  scaly  ash,  “that  in another instant the painting would
have sucked me in forever.  I  would  have  vanished  into  its
depths  and lived on in its landscape, or else, grown weak with
terror, and lacking the strength either to return to  the  real
world  or  to  penetrate the new dimension, I would have jelled
into a figure painted on the canvas, like the anachronism Frank
was talking about. Yet, despite the danger, I have  yielded  to
temptation time after time. . . . Oh, my friend, I’ve fallen in
love  with Madonnas! I remember my first infatuation–a Madonna
with an azure corona, by the delicate Raffaello. . .  .  Beyond
her, at a distance, two men stood by a column, calmly chatting.
I  eavesdropped on their conversation–they were discussing the
worth of some dagger. . . . But the most enchanting Madonna  of
all  comes  from the brush of Bernardo Luini. All his creations
contain the quiet and the delicacy of the lake on  whose  shore
he  was  born, Lago Maggiore. The most delicate of masters. His
name even yielded a new adjective,  luinesco.  His  best
Madonna has long, caressingly lowered eyes, and her apparel has
light-blue,  rose-red,  misty-orange tints. A gaseous, rippling
haze encircles her brow, and that of her reddish-haired infant.
He raises a pale apple toward her, she looks at it lowering her
gentle, elongated eyes . . . Luinesque eyes . . .  God,  how  I
kissed them. . . .”

McGore  fell  silent  and  a  dreamy smile tinged his thin
lips, lighted by the cigar’s flame.  Simpson  held  his  breath
and, as before, felt he was slowly gliding off into the night.
“Complications  did  occur,” McGore went on after clearing
his throat. “I got an ache in my  kidneys  after  a  goblet  of
strong  cider that a plump Rubens bacchante once served me, and
I caught such a chill on the foggy, yellow skating rink of  one
of  the Dutchmen that I went on coughing and bringing up phlegm
for a whole month. That’s the kind of thing  that
can happen, Mr. Simpson.”

Chapter 8

He was unaware of how he had got up, gone indoors, and
switched on the lights, bathing Luciani’s canvas in a warm
sheen. The Venetian girl stood half-facing him, alive and
three-dimensional. Her dark eyes gazed into his without the
sparkle, the rosy fabric of her blouse set off with an
unhabitual warmth the dark-hued beauty of her neck and the
delicate creases under her ear. A gently mocking smile was
frozen at the right corner of her expectantly joined lips. Her
long fingers, spread in twos, stretched toward her shoulder,
from which the fur and velvet were about to fall.

And Simpson, with a profound sigh, moved toward her and
effortlessly entered the painting. A marvelous freshness
immediately made his head spin. There was a scent of myrtle and
of wax, with a very faint whiff of lemon. He was standing in a
bare black room of some kind, by a window that opened on
evening, and at his very side stood a real, Venetian,

Maureen–tall, gorgeous,  all  aglow  from within. He realized
that the miracle had happened, and  slowly  moved  toward  her.
With a sidewise smile la Veneziana gently adjusted her fur and,
lowering  her  hand  into her basket, handed him a small lemon.
Without taking his eyes off her now playfully mobile eyes, he
accepted  the  yellow  fruit  from her hand, and, as soon as he
felt its firm, roughish coolness and the dry warmth of her long
fingers, an incredible bliss came to  a  boil  within  him  and
began  deliciously  burbling.  Then, with a start, he looked
behind him toward the window. There, along a  pale  path  amid
some  rocks,  walked  blue  silhouettes  with  hoods  and small
lanterns. Simpson  looked about  the  room  in  which  he  was
standing, but  without  any  awareness  of a floor beneath his
feet. In the distance, instead  of  a  fourth  wall,  a  far,
familiar  hall glimmered like water, with the black island of a
table at its centre It was then that a sudden terror made him
compress  the cold little lemon. The enchantment had dissolved.
He tried looking to his left at the girl but was unable to turn
his neck. He was mired like a fly in honey–he gave a jerk and
got  stuck,  feeling  his  blood and flesh and clothing turning
into paint, growing into the varnish, drying on the canvas.  He
had  become part of the painting, depicted in a ridiculous pose
next to the Veneziana, and, directly in front of him, even more
distinct than before, stretched the  hall,  filled  with  live,
terrestrial air that, henceforth, he would not breathe.

Vladimir Nabakov, 1899-1977
Venetsianka, or The Fascination of Art, 1924 (La Veneziana)

Image: Sebastiano Luciani, called Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547),  Ritratto di giovane romana con cesto di frutta, (La Dorotea), c. 1512. oil on panel. 78 x 61cm, ©Gemäldegalerie Berlin

M R James – The Mezzotint, 1904,

WolseleyHall staffordshire“What’s this place, Williams?”

“Just what I am going to try to find out,” said Williams, going to the shelf for a gazetteer. “Look at the back. Somethingley Hall, either in Sussex or Essex. Half the name’s gone, you see. You don’t happen to know it, I suppose?”

“It’s from that man Britnell, I suppose, isn’t it?” said Binks. “Is it for the museum?”

“Well, I think I should buy it if the price was five shillings,” said Williams; “but for some unearthly reason he wants two guineas for it. I can’t conceive why. It’s a wretched engraving, and there aren’t even any figures to give it life.”

“It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,” said Binks; “but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure just on the edge in front.”

“Let’s look,” said Williams. “Well, it’s true the light is rather cleverly given. Where’s your figure? Oh yes! Just the head, in the very front of the picture.”

And indeed there was–hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving–the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Williams had not noticed it before.

“Still,” he said, “though it’s a cleverer thing than I thought, I can’t spend two guineas of museum money on a picture of a place I don’t know.”

Professor Binks had his work to do, and soon went; and very nearly up to Hall time Williams was engaged in a vain attempt to identify the subject of his picture. “If the vowel before the ng had only been left, it would have been easy enough,” he thought; “but as it is, the name may be anything from Guestingley to Langley, and there are many more names ending like this than I thought; and this rotten book has no index of terminations.”

Hall in Mr. Williams’s college was at seven. It need not be dwelt upon; the less so as he met there colleagues who had been playing golf during the afternoon, and words with which we have no concern were freely bandied across the table–merely golfing words, I would hasten to explain.

I suppose an hour or more to have been spent in what is called common-room after dinner. Later in the evening some few retired to Williams’s rooms, and I have little doubt that whist was played and tobacco smoked. During a lull in these operations Williams picked up the mezzotint from the table without looking at it, and handed it to a person mildly interested in art, telling him where it had come from, and the other particulars which we already know.

The gentleman took it carelessly, looked at it, then said, in a tone of some interest:

“It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” said Williams, who was just then busy giving whisky-and-soda to others of the company, and was unable to come across the room to look at the view again.

It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable–rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

I do not know what is the ideal course to pursue in a situation of this kind. I can only tell you what Mr. Williams did. He took the picture by one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed; but first he wrote out and signed an account of the extraordinary change which the picture had undergone since it had come into his possession.

Sleep visited him rather late; but it was consoling to reflect that the behaviour of the picture did not depend upon his own unsupported testimony. Evidently the man who had looked at it the night before had seen something of the same kind as he had, otherwise he might have been tempted to think that something gravely wrong was happening either to his eyes or his mind. This possibility being fortunately precluded, two matters awaited him on the morrow. He must take stock of the picture very carefully, and call in a witness for the purpose, and he must make a determined effort to ascertain what house it was that was represented. He would therefore ask his neighbour Nisbet to breakfast with him, and he would subsequently spend a morning over the gazetteer.

Nisbet was disengaged, and arrived about 9.30. His host was not quite dressed, I am sorry to say, even at this late hour. During breakfast nothing was said about the mezzotint by Williams, save that he had a picture on which he wished for Nisbet’s opinion. But those who are familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to lawn-tennis. Yet I am bound to say that Williams was rather distraught; for his interest naturally centred in that very strange picture which was now reposing, face downwards, in the drawer in the room opposite.

The morning pipe was at last lighted, and the moment had arrived for which he looked. With very considerable–almost tremulous–excitement, he ran across, unlocked the drawer, and, extracting the picture–still face downwards–ran back, and put it into Nisbet’s hands.

“Now,” he said, “Nisbet, I want you to tell me exactly what you see in that picture. Describe it, if you don’t mind, rather minutely. I’ll tell you why afterwards.”

“Well,” said Nisbet, “I have here a view of a country-house–English, I presume–by moonlight.

“Moonlight? You’re sure of that?”

“Certainly. The moon appears to be on the wane, if you wish for details, and there are clouds in the sky.”

“All right. Go on. I’ll swear,” added Williams in an aside, “there was no moon when I saw it first.”

“Well, there’s not much more to be said,” Nisbet continued. “The house has one–two–three rows of windows, five in each row, except at the bottom, where there’s a porch instead of the middle one, and—-”

“But what about figures?” said Williams, with marked interest.

“There aren’t any,” said Nisbet; “but—-”

“What! No figure on the grass in front?”

“Not a thing.”

“You’ll swear to that?”

“Certainly I will. But there’s just one other thing.”


“Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor–left of the door–is open.”

“Is it really? My goodness! he must have got in,” said Williams, with great excitement; and he hurried to the back of the sofa on which Nisbet was sitting, and, catching the picture from him, verified the matter for himself.

It was quite true. There was no figure, and there was the open window. Williams, after a moment of speechless surprise, went to the writing-table and scribbled for a short time. Then he brought two papers to Nisbet, and asked him first to sign one–it was his own description of the picture, which you have just heard–and then to read the other which was Williams’s statement written the night before.

“What can it all mean?” said Nisbet.

“Exactly,” said Williams. “Well, one thing I must do–or three things, now I think of it. I must find out from Garwood”–this was his last night’s visitor–“what he saw, and then I must get the thing photographed before it goes further, and then I must find out what the place is.”

“I can do the photographing myself,” said Nisbet, “and I will. But, you know, it looks very much as if we were assisting at the working out of a tragedy somewhere. The question is, Has it happened already, or is it going to come off? You must find out what the place is. Yes,” he said, looking at the picture again, “I expect you’re right: he has got in. And if I don’t mistake there’ll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms upstairs.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Williams: “I’ll take the picture across to old Green” (this was the senior Fellow of the College, who had been Bursar for many years). “It’s quite likely he’ll know it. We have property in Essex and Sussex, and he must have been over the two counties a lot in his time.”

“Quite likely he will,” said Nisbet; “but just let me take my photograph first. But look here, I rather think Green isn’t up to-day. He wasn’t in Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the Sunday.”

“That’s true, too,” said Williams; “I know he’s gone to Brighton. Well, if you’ll photograph it now, I’ll go across to Garwood and get his statement, and you keep an eye on it while I’m gone. I’m beginning to think two guineas is not a very exorbitant price for it now.”

In a short time he had returned, and brought Mr. Garwood with him. Garwood’s statement was to the effect that the figure, when he had seen it, was clear of the edge of the picture, but had not got far across the lawn. He remembered a white mark on the back of its drapery, but could not have been sure it was a cross. A document to this effect was then drawn up and signed, and Nisbet proceeded to photograph the picture.

“Now what do you mean to do?” he said. “Are you going to sit and watch it all day?”

“Well, no, I think not,” said Williams. “I rather imagine we’re meant to see the whole thing. You see, between the time I saw it last night and this morning there was time for lots of things to happen, but the creature only got into the house. It could easily have got through its business in the time and gone to its own place again; but the fact of the window being open, I think, must mean that it’s in there now. So I feel quite easy about leaving it. And, besides, I have a kind of idea that it wouldn’t change much, if at all, in the daytime. We might go out for a walk this afternoon, and come in to tea, or whenever it gets dark. I shall leave it out on the table here, and sport the door. My skip can get in, but no one else.”

The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.

We may give them a respite until five o’clock.

At or near that hour the three were entering Williams’s staircase. They were at first slightly annoyed to see that the door of his rooms was unsported; but in a moment it was remembered that on Sunday the skips came for orders an hour or so earlier than on week-days. However, a surprise was awaiting them. The first thing they saw was the picture leaning up against a pile of books on the table, as it had been left, and the next thing was Williams’s skip, seated on a chair opposite, gazing at it with undisguised horror. How was this? Mr. Filcher (the name is not my own invention) was a servant of considerable standing, and set the standard of etiquette to all his own college and to several neighbouring ones, and nothing could be more alien to his practice than to be found sitting on his master’s chair, or appearing to take any particular notice of his master’s furniture or pictures. Indeed, he seemed to feel this himself. He started violently when the three men came into the room, and got up with a marked effort. Then he said:

“I ask your pardon, sir, for taking such a freedom as to set down.”

“Not at all, Robert,” interposed Mr. Williams. “I was meaning to ask you some time what you thought of that picture.”

“Well, sir, of course I don’t set up my opinion again yours, but it ain’t the pictur I should ‘ang where my little girl could see it, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you, Robert? Why not?”

“No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible, with pictures not ‘alf what that is, and we ‘ad to set up with her three or four nights afterwards, if you’ll believe me; and if she was to ketch a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore baby, she would be in a taking. You know ‘ow it is with children; ‘ow nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it don’t seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone that’s liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting anything this evening sir? Thank you, sir.”

With these words the excellent man went to continue the round of his masters, and you may be sure the gentlemen whom he left lost no time in gathering round the engraving. There was the house, as before, under the waning moon and the drifting clouds. The window that had been open was shut, and the figure was once more on the lawn: but not this time crawling cautiously on hands and knees. Now it was erect and stepping swiftly, with long strides, towards the front of the picture. The moon was behind it, and the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs. The head was bent down, and the arms were tightly clasped over an object which could be dimly seen and identified as a child, whether dead or living it was not possible to say. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.

From five to seven the three companions sat and watched the picture by turns. But it never changed. They agreed at last that it would be safe to leave it, and that they would return after Hall and await further developments.

When they assembled again, at the earliest possible moment, the engraving was there, but the figure was gone, and the house was quiet under the moonbeams. There was nothing for it but to spend the evening over gazetteers and guide-books. Williams was the lucky one at last, and perhaps he deserved it. At 11.30 p.m. he read from Murray’s Guide to Essex the following lines:

“16½ miles, Anningley. The church has been an interesting building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last century. It contains the tombs of the family of Francis, whose mansion, Anningley Hall, a solid Queen Anne house, stands immediately beyond the churchyard in a park of about 80 acres. The family is now extinct, the last heir having disappeared mysteriously in infancy in the year 1802. The father, Mr. Arthur Francis, was locally known as a talented amateur engraver in mezzotint. After his son’s disappearance he lived in complete retirement at the Hall, and was found dead in his studio on the third anniversary of the disaster, having just completed an engraving of the house, impressions of which are of considerable rarity.

M R James, 1862-1936        The Mezzotint, 1904, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Image: Wolseley Hall, Staffordshire. Etching. 19th Century. Courtesy of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

Full text of The Mezzotint.  

Benjamin Disraeli – Vivian Grey, 1826

Benjamin disraeli

“The Rodensteins are a singular family. My mother was a Rodenstein. Do you think this beautiful?” said Mrs. Felix, showing Vivian a small miniature which was attached to a chain round her neck. It was the portrait of a youth habited in the costume of a German student. His rich brown hair was flowing over his shoulders, and his dark blue eyes beamed with such a look of mysterious inspiration, that they might have befitted a young prophet.

“Very, very beautiful!”

“’Tis Max, Max Rodenstein,” said the lady, with a faltering voice. “He was killed at Leipsic, at the head of a band of his friends and fellow-students. O, Mr. Grey! this is a fair work of art, but if you had but seen the prototype you would have gazed on this as on a dim and washed-out drawing. There was one portrait, indeed, which did him more justice; but then that portrait was not the production of mortal pencil.”

Vivian looked at his companion with a somewhat astonished air, but Mrs. Felix Lorraine’s countenance was as little indicative of jesting as that of the young student whose miniature rested on her bosom.

“Did you say not the production of a mortal hand, Mrs. Felix Lorraine?”

“I am afraid I shall weary you with my stories, but the one I am about to tell you is so well evidenced that I think even Mr. Vivian Grey will hear it without a sneer.”

“A sneer! O lady-love, do I ever sneer?”

“Max Rodenstein was the glory of his house. A being so beautiful in body and in soul you cannot imagine, and I will not attempt to describe. This miniature has given you some faint idea of his image, and yet this is only the copy of a copy. The only wish of the Baroness Rodenstein, which never could be accomplished, was the possession of a portrait of her youngest son, for no consideration could induce Max to allow his likeness to be taken. His old nurse had always told him that the moment his portrait was taken he would die. The condition upon which such a beautiful being was allowed to remain in the world was, she always said, that his beauty should not be imitated. About three months before the battle of Leipsic, when Max was absent at the University, which was nearly four hundred miles from Rodenstein Castle, there arrived one morning a large case directed to the Baroness. On opening it it was found to contain a picture, the portrait of her son. The colouring was so vivid, the general execution so miraculous, that for some moments they forgot to wonder at the incident in their admiration of the work of art. In one corner of the picture, in small characters yet fresh, was an inscription, which on examining they found consisted of these words: ‘Painted last night. Now, lady, thou hast thy wish.’ My aunt sank into the Baron’s arms.

“In silence and in trembling the wonderful portrait was suspended over the fireplace of my aunt’s favourite apartment. The next day they received letters from Max. He was quite well, but mentioned nothing of the mysterious painting.

“Three months afterwards, as a lady was sitting alone in the Baroness’s room, and gazing on the portrait of him she loved right dearly, she suddenly started from her seat, and would have shrieked, had not an indefinable sensation prevented her. The eyes of the portrait moved. The lady stood leaning on a chair, pale, and trembling like an aspen, but gazing steadfastly on the animated portrait. It was no illusion of a heated fancy; again the eyelids trembled, there was a melancholy smile, and then they closed. The clock of Rodenstein Castle struck three. Between astonishment and fear the lady was tearless. Three days afterwards came the news of the battle of Leipsic, and at the very moment that the eyes of the portrait closed Max Rodenstein had been pierced by a Polish Lancer.”

“And who was this wonderful lady, the witness of this wonderful incident?” asked Vivian.

“That lady was myself.”

Benjamin Disraeli, 1804-1881.      Vivian Grey, 1826.  Book III. Chapter IV.