An Artist – Punch. March 14 1945

William Roberts, 1895-1980. Drawing. British Museum

WITH the heavy mashie-niblick I have rather a special technique. To begin with I wiggle a good deal to give my Eustachian tubes a chance of warming up to their vital task of establishing a true balance. Comparable to the run-up in the bomber world, my wiggling. Next I stand perfectly still except for my eyebrows, which. I slide up and down very slowly three times, like pistons, with terrifying concentration. This movement has often been criticized unfavourably by the crowd at Westward Ho and St. Andrews, but it puts at least three yards on such balls as I hit, and a lot of useful backwash as well.

This time there was no crowd to distract me, and vou would think a man’s head, nicely teed up on a stiff white collar, was an easier mark than a golf ball, but I found to my surprise that this was not so. My eyebrows were going under for the third time when a vision of fatherless children swept over me and I remembered that the chair-covers had only just come back from the cleaners. I flung the club away in disgust. The man, who was sitting with his back to me examining one of my Georgian tankards through a jeweller’s glass screwed into his right eye, sprang round.

“You did give me a fright ! ” he complained.

“I had every intention of laying you dead by the pin,” I said, going towards the telephone. “Put that can down and sit quiet. The last burglar who doubted my force of character is still on the danger-list.”

“You don’t look’ at all a violent man,” said the burglar, studying me with some surprise.

“The two years I spent with the cannibals when I was a lad were very formative,” I told him, as I spun the dial. “Once I’m roused there’s no holding me. I pull big men to pieces like flies.”

“I’ve been admiring your silver,” he said politely, pointing to the pile on the table.

“I hope you liked the whisky too ? “

“I must apologize for helping myself, but I got frozen fiddling with that patent catch on the window.”

“I’d have put a thermos out if I’d known you were coming. Blast this exchange!”

“These country ones are getting very uneven in their work. I sometimes think all one wants in the country is a commodity-phone, on which one could dial PUB for refresh­ment and TAX for a cab and, naturally, POL for the police.”

I suddenly felt very angry, not only with the exchange. It was four in the morning and I was in pyjamas.

“You miserable little son of a dustcart!” I cried. “If there’s one crime that sticks in my gullet it ‘s larceny. It’s so wretchedly inconsiderate!”

My burglar regarded me mildly. I forgot to say that he looked like a Cabinet Minister on the way to the funeral of an Under-Secretary, national mark, second grade.

“I hate it too,” he said, and sighed deeply.

“I suppose your heart is really in the missionary field ? “

“In art,” he said simply, and sighed again. I went on dialling, and the girl at the exchange went on sleeping.

“Do you mind if I look at your pictures while you ‘re getting through ? They may be the last I’ll see for some time.” He got up and turned slowly towards the mantel­piece. Then he whistled loudly.

“You know who that’s by? ” he asked, pointing to a small painting which hung above it. The apple of my eye. Imagine the Flying Scotsman piling up in a fish market that has joined forces with the House of Lords, a thriving marine store and an acre of artichokes, and as near as can be you have it.

“A man called Albert Skeffington,” I said.

” You know about him of course ? “

“I’ve never been able to find out anything. It was a wedding present.”

“Then you’re in luck. I shared a studio with Albert for five years. In Paris. It was the interregnum between the Absinthe and the Methylated Skeffington periods. What a painter!”

“This is extraordinarily interesting!” I said, stopping dialling.

“You ought to hang on to that. It’ll be worth twenty thousand one day. You know when he did it ? “

“No?”

“The night Rosa left him. I found him hanging over the Pont Royal about to chuck himself in. I dragged him back to the studio and talked to him like an uncle. He grabbed his brushes about midnight and worked without stopping for forty-eight hours. That ought to be in the National Gallery!”

“I’ve always thought it terrific.”

“Terrific ? It’s a classic.”

“What sort of a man was he ? “

“Short. Red beard. Had been an engine-driver. Kept hares under his bed. What mastery of the primaries! And just look at the way he disciplines his verticals!”

He was prancing up and down in a great state of excite­ment. He was rather a dear little man. I caught it too.

“My wife will be tremendously pleased to hear all this. Where is he now ? “

“I wouldn’t like to say. Poor old Albert!”

“Not dead ? “

“Long time ago. Practically spontaneous combustion. Nothing else of his, I suppose ? “

” Why, yes. Give yourself another whisky and I’ll get it.”

“This is the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me for years,” he said, rubbing his hands. And I think he meant it, because when I got back, carrying the bedroom Skeffington of the snowplough reversing through the bishops in Brighton Aquarium, he was gone. And so was the silver. But the Skeffington over the mantelpiece was still there, all right.


An Artist. PUNCH or The London Charivari. March 14 1945. Anonymous – Author byline: Eric.

Image: William Roberts, 1895-1980. Drawing. British Museum.

A comic short story which presents the traditional role of the eccentric Bohemian artist in Paris. This perspective of the artist can be traced from Henri Murger, 1822-1861, Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1847–49; George du Maurier, 1834-1896, Trilby, 1894; W Somerset Maugham, 1874-1895, The Moon and Sixpence, 1919; to Tony Hancock, 1924-1968, and the film  The Rebel, 1961, published as Alan Holmes, The Rebel, 1961.

The artist, Albert Skeffington, is described as a manic genius, a consumer of Absinthe and Methylated spirits, whose once unconsidered paintings with scenes of “the Flying Scotsman piling up in a fish market that has joined forces with the House of Lords, a thriving marine store and an acre of artichokes” and a “snowplough reversing through the bishops in Brighton Aquarium” have acquired a high market value.

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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