Self-Portrait of an Artist

I

I PAINTED my first picture in 1876, when I was twenty. A woodcut of the ‘Death of Chatterton’ appeared in a magazine about that time. It affected me greatly and was the cause of my very first attempt at a picture. I was helped by the brother of my landlady, who was a copperplate engraver and knew a little about drawing; he showed me how to square it off on a larger scale. I spent many months stippling it in water color, and when finished I thought it good enough to offer for sale. The difficulty, of course, was to find a buyer; but a raffle was suggested and tickets were issued at half a crown each. After the frame and the drinks all round had been paid for I realized eight or nine pounds. Before the final draw, the picture was on view in the bar parlor of a friendly publican, a patron of the Arts, which included boxing.

This initial success inspired me to attempt my Georgina picture. It was a highly stippled water color inspired by reproductions of Millais’s ‘Yes or No?’ I spent a year on the picture and sent it to the Royal Academy priced one hundred guineas (sentiment is valued highly when one is young). It was rejected.

After my three years’ apprenticeship as a miniature painter were up, I took a small flat in a tenement house in the west end of Glasgow. I had a brass plate on the door: JOHN LAVERY, ARTIST. At the same time I took an engagement with another photographer at £100 a year. At the end of that time he desired to renew the engagement at £200. I thanked him, but did not accept. He was not pleased, and his parting shot was ‘Weel, ma man, ye may want to come back before lang, but mebbe I’ll no want ye.’

My studio was next door to a sentimental house painter who had given up his job and taken to painting portraits. One was called ‘Tender and True,’ a commission he had obtained from a newly married couple. In spite of the fact that it is most unlikely that it was either too true or too tender, they did not appreciate it and refused to pay.

One morning I met him climbing up the stairs, his face swollen and battered out of recognition. ‘Hello, Tommy!’ I said. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘A was oot collectin’ ma account late yestere’en an’ b’God I had to fight for it.’

In those days in Glasgow the existence of the artist’s model was made known by advertisements in the Herald, which brought forth all kinds of applicants for the post. One morning I found sitting at the studio door a ragged, barefooted child of about seven or eight. ‘Would you be wanting a model, sir?’ ‘Have you been sitting?’ ‘A wus sitting to Rattray.’ Her reply indicated a familiarity with the profession that was surprising. Mr. Rattray was a stainedglass painter, and I inquired what she had been posing for. ‘A wus posing for an angel and he gave me saxpence an oor in ma claise and ninepence in ma skin.’

She compared favorably with the girl who came to pose as Marguerite for a picture of the Garden Scene in Faust. This girl was terribly upset when Faust got a bit familiar in the greenhouse that was being used as a dressing room. She rushed out and refused to let him near her. Faust was a hussar I had got from the barracks close by. She was very refined in her appearance and genteel in her choice of language. She would not pose again, saying to her friends, ‘I would not have went if I had knew.’

Sitting at dinner one afternoon in the house of a friend, we heard a loud knock on the front door and a strange voice in the hall wanted to know if Lavery was there. A burly Highland policeman entered the dining room, looked hard at me, and said, ‘Are you Lavery?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered with some anxiety. ‘Weel, ye’re gutted.’ It was his delicate way of breaking the news that my studio had been burnt to the ground and my first masterpiece, ‘’Tis Better to Have Loved and Lost,’ had gone with the rest of my belongings.

I cannot remember ever feeling so happy; I was insured for £300. At the moment I could not pay my rent, long overdue, and my present sitter, a busy city man, had got tired of sitting for his portrait. On the morrow he was giving me my last sitting and I was in a terrible mess, as I knew that I could not possibly finish it. I had pawned everything I could get money on, literally my shirt, for food. I met with much sympathy, even from people who did not like me, and it was difficult to hide my joy at the thought of getting £300, a larger sum than I had ever had before.

It gave a brother brush an idea, and he had his studio insured at once. Shortly after, a gas jet attached to an easel was unfortunately left alight and burnt a hole in the canvas he was engaged on. He made a claim to the insurance company, and an inspector was sent round to estimate the extent of the damage. The inspector asked some searching questions, looking all over the place and making no comment. As he was going out of the door my friend anxiously asked how much he thought he would get. The answer was brief: ‘About six months.’

The insurance put enough money in my pocket to pay my bills and take me to London to attend Heatherley’s Art School in Newman Street. I remained there for twelve months — the loneliest year I have ever spent in my life. Every morning I walked from Liverpool Street Station and back in the evening without meeting a soul I knew. For a whole year, for all the communion I had with my fellow men, I might have been in the middle of the Gobi. In the school everyone went his own way when the classes were over, in the well-known English manner. The cheap lodgings at Dalston — with a dismal landlady who had recently lost her husband and was continually telling me how hard a struggle it was to make ends meet, and how she never thought she would be reduced to taking lodgers for a living — were not a great attraction.

Soon I began to feel that I should never be able to make much progress at Heatherley’s and that only in Paris could I get the grounding I needed. And, still owing to that windfall from the insurance company, I was able to go there.

II

This first journey abroad was slightly complicated by the fact that, although I took only one suitcase, I also had to take a lunatic. It was this way. About seven or eight years after the FrancoPrussian War, I was taking lessons in French from a former franc-tireur who had escaped from Metz when that city capitulated. His name was Gravet; his father, he said, was mayor when disaster came. When I knew him he was married to a pretty little Irish girl, the daughter of an Irish resident magistrate. My French lessons were being given for a portrait I made of him and his wife. I well remember the strange look in his eyes and the hopeless misery of his expression at times. He gradually lost his reason, which made it necessary to place him in an asylum; and, hearing that I was going to Paris for the winter session at Julien’s studio, his father-in-law came over from Ireland to ask me to take charge of the harmless lunatic on his way to Charenton.

Gravet’s brother was meeting us in Paris, and it was arranged that I was to meet the father-in-law at Victoria. The rush of the Underground proved too much for his slow habits, and he was left standing on the platform at Charing Cross while the lunatic, with his luggage and without a ticket, was carried around the ‘Inner Circle.’ Meanwhile all the different stations were notified that a man without a ticket might attempt to pass the barrier. We waited until the train had had time to go round the circle twice without a sign of the traveler before we called in Scotland Yard. Next afternoon a message was received from Bromley, Kent, that a man answering the description had been found asleep and partially clothed on the side of the road outside that town and at that moment was in bed in the workhouse there. How he had passed the ticket collector or where his luggage had gone remains a mystery.

We got him back to London and more clothing — he had only shirt and trousers — and off we started for Paris by the Newhaven and Dieppe night boat. He was now in my full charge, and feeling tired, sleepy, and anxious, I suggested a comfortable seat in the saloon. I soon found it difficult to keep awake, so, pretending it was for warmth, I sat close up to him, slipped a bit of his overcoat under me, and went to sleep, thinking I had made escape difficult. I woke a couple of hours later still sitting on the tail of his overcoat, but he was no longer in it. He was found up forward, stretched full-length on his face, all but frozen, gazing at the waves breaking against the bow.

His brother met us in the morning at the Gare St. Lazare. We three, with two stern-faced men, had breakfast together at the Grand Hotel. Poor Gravet, looking hopelessly unhappy, anticipating disaster without knowing in what form it might come, sat refusing to taste a morsel. His brother and the two strangers talked a great deal, not paying much attention to either Gravet or me until they rose from the table saying that it was time to go. The hotel bus took us to the asylum at Charenton, Gravet sleeping most of the way. We drove into a courtyard and were politely escorted into an office where doctors, warders, and others kept us for some time. The brother, Gravet, and I were asked if we should like to see the place, and we went out into a wide passage, followed closely behind by three sturdy warders. We had not gone far when Gravet was suddenly pounced upon and rushed through a door at the side that was quickly barred. We were told that we might look through a grating and see him. There he was, walking quietly with the warders in a large sunlit courtyard. I was allowed to visit him on Sundays until the end came, some months afterwards, from softening of the brain.

On arriving at the Atelier Julien, I was asked by the massier if I were English. I said, ‘No, Irish.’ ‘Are you a landlord?’ ‘No.’ ‘How many have you bagged?’ I was surprised to find him so well informed.

My first instruction was from Bouguereau; after he had looked at my drawings from the nude and asked me a number of questions he was very brief, though kindly: ‘Mon ami, çà c’est comme boischerchez le caraclère et les valeurs.’ During the three winters I spent chez Julien I cannot remember being told anything else. The rest of my training came, and has continued to come, from what I saw rather than what I heard.

But that does not alter the fact that we foreigners were getting our art training from what we believed to be the greatest French artists, and the nominal fees we paid merely covered the rent of the studios and the cost of the models. I believe at the École des Beaux-Arts no charge at all was made. As a result, when we sent to the Salon, we looked upon it as our right, and if our works were neglected or badly treated all we had to do was to notify our special professor and it was rectified. The State purchased irrespective of nationality — all of which was very different from the treatment of the foreign artist in England at that time.

One Sunday I went to Nogent-surMarne and started a little canvas which found a place on the line at the Salon next to the ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ by Manet. Mine was called ‘Les Deux Pêcheurs’ and was purchased by SaintMarceaux, the sculptor, for three hundred francs. On Varnishing Day a very chic little lady in the height of fashion, Marie Bashkirtseff, in front of whose picture ‘Pas Mèche’ I had been standing, introduced herself, speaking perfect English, and congratulated me on my exhibit and the Atelier Julien — where she also was — on having such a distinguished student. I am sorry to say that is all I remember about her. At that time I knew nothing about her famous diary, in which she confessed her ambition and declared her will: ‘I swear solemnly — by the Gospels, by the Passion of Christ, by myself—that in four years I will be famous.’

III

After my return from France my first successful picture was the ‘Tennis Party,’which was accepted by the Royal Academy. It is generally considered — and I think fairly — that this picture expresses my debt to French teaching. Although I had only seen BastienLepage on one occasion on the Pont des Arts, where I was presented to him by a fellow student, I have never forgotten his advice on figures in motion. Pointing to people passing, he said: ‘Always carry a sketchbook. Select a person — watch him — then put down as much as you remember. Never look twice. At first you will remember very little, but continue and you will soon get complete action.’ From that day on I became obsessed by figures in movement, which resulted finally in the ‘Tennis Party’ and drew attention to what became known as the Glasgow School. When it first appeared it shocked the critics. They lamented that so promising a young man, who had hitherto shown such good taste and high-mindedness in the choice of subject, should now decline into mere vulgarity. After the Academy it went to Paris and was bought for the Neue Pinakothek at Munich. After the war it was sold along with a number of other foreign works, and now is in the Municipal Gallery of Aberdeen.

In the early spring of 1888 I held a small one-man show in Glasgow, and included in it were a series of sketches I had been making in the Glasgow Exhibition grounds. This led to my being chosen by the Glasgow Corporation to paint the State Visit of Queen Victoria in August, for which £600 had been earmarked to meet the cost. Thus at one swoop I was ushered into Royal circles, having up to then aspired to nothing higher in social life than that of the Lord Provost.

No one dared to ask the Queen to give a sitting. The Lord Provost sent me to Sir Henry Ponsonby, her private secretary. He was very nice, but the best he could do was to give me permission to make a copy of Her Majesty’s portrait by Von Angeli, her favorite painter. I explained that I feared a copy of the portrait might not satisfy the people who had given the Queen one of the most enthusiastic receptions of her reign. I tried the Honorable Harriet Phipps, the Duchess of Buccleuch, and Lady Southampton, all in especial favor, but without success. At last, when I had given up hope, Prince Henry came to my aid; the Queen could refuse him nothing. He came to Glasgow with the Royal entourage, and while he was giving me a sitting at Windsor I told him of my difficulty. He at once said, ‘ I will ask the Queen.’ He left the room and returned in a few minutes. ‘The Queen will come at two o’clock.’ I got my things together and waited. On the tick the door opened and in walked a little lady, followed by two ladies-in-waiting all in black with their bonnets on. It was a very cold, large room with a very small fire in the distance. The Queen looked warm — a dark red complexion and plenty of clothing; the ladies seemed afraid to raise their voices. I offered the Queen a chair, which she refused, saying she would rather stand. She asked what view of her face I wanted. I said, ‘Profile, if it please Your Majesty.’ She said she had put on the bonnet she had worn in Glasgow, at the same time looking me up and down; then she went on talking with her ladies. The subject of her conversation was flannel underclothing, which must have given the ladies some comfort, they were looking so cold. I might have felt embarrassed had I not had an important task on hand.

Before I could complete the study the Queen indicated that she had had enough, — about twenty minutes, it appeared to me, — and turned and left the room without showing any interest in what I had done. However, I was more than pleased that I had got something to show. Her profile reminded me of a Roman coin showing a Cæsar.

In order to do the thing properly it was necessary to have over two hundred portraits, all of them painted from life. For my London sitters my friend Patrick Whyte lent me his studio on Primrose Hill.

One day while engaged on the Royal Visit picture an incident occurred which altered my life. Coming out of an artist’s color shop in Regent Street early one morning, I saw a young girl with a bright red shawl round her head like a gypsy, in a neat navy-blue frock, standing under the Arches rather shyly holding a little basket of flowers, which she was evidently offering for sale. I was so struck by her extraordinary beauty that I turned back and asked her to let me paint her. She understood at once and in the most charming manner said she would. I had no card, but by good luck I had a letter from Windsor Castle in my pocket giving my address at Whyte’s studio, which I thought would impress her favorably. I gave it to her and asked her to bring it when she came to sit in the morning. She was, I thought, greatly relieved at my confidence and more sure than if I had given her a card. She came to the studio the next morning looking happy and contented at the thought that perhaps, after all, there was something less alarming in an artist’s studio than being stared at by passers-by in Regent Street — though fortunately she had not been there for more than ten minutes when I spoke to her.

Whyte was bowled over by her, and, I admit, so was I. She told us that she was eighteen, that she had run away from a convent school, and that her name was Kathleen MacDermott. Her appearance and accent suggested that she was Irish. I learned years afterwards that she was sixteen when I met her, and her real name was Annie Evans, for she had taken her mother’s name to prevent discovery. I asked her if she would care to come to Scotland to be an artist’s model. She jumped at the idea, and, a day or two after, Whyte saw us off at Euston by the ‘Flying Scotsman’ bound for Glasgow. I got her lodgings, but within a year she developed a cough I did not quite like. I called in a doctor, who said that her chest was weak and Glasgow not the place for her in winter. She reluctantly agreed to go to her married sister in Wales — both her parents were dead — during the worst months in Glasgow. On the third of January at the Central Station we parted, she in tears, I, in my selfishness, with a sense of relief.

As the weeks passed I found it very difficult to resist her pleadings to come back to the studio; but for the doctor’s warning me of the danger to her life, I would have risked everything in my desire, even the Royal picture. Fortunately for both of us, the rush of sitters filled up my every moment, three and sometimes four a day coming to the studio, while at intervals I would have to go out to them. I had no assistance, no secretary or anyone to help me in making and keeping appointments scattered all over England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. Still the memory of that cold, bleak morning on the platform of the Central Station could not be blacked out. The more exhausted I became with overwork, the weaker my resolve not to see her again.

It was little wonder that the strain was beginning to show itself, and without my knowing it the doctor was told to keep an eye on me. All that I can remember is that for some reason I believed in my sleep that I was being blackmailed for something terrible I had done, the nature of which I cannot recall. In the mornings I would leave my lodgings for the studio, believing that I should find in the letter box a sealed document denouncing me. The sense of terror as I reached the door was indescribable, as was also the relief when I found nothing of an incriminating nature in my correspondence. As the day wore on and I got buried in my work, I would gradually wake up to the fact that I had been dreaming and the whole thing was a nightmare that persisted in holding me in its clutches even when I was awake.

This had been going on, slowly but surely getting worse, until one morning early in March I found Kathleen in the studio. There she was in white muslin, the cheap, stiff kind which was all that she could afford, seated on the model’s throne, a vision of innocent loveliness, waiting in fear that I might be angry and send her back. She said nothing. I was beaten. Joseph Crawhall and Patrick Whyte came in and acted as witnesses while I went through the formula, ‘I, John Lavery, take you, Kathleen MacDermott, as my wedded wife,’ and so we were married. We were all sworn to secrecy until the completion of the Royal picture.

When Kathleen was nineteen Eileen was born, but her mother never recovered from it. Acute phthisis set in, and within a year she passed away.

Whyte, who had nursed her through all her illness, taking her from one health resort to another, had finally rented a furnished villa at Kilmalcolm, near Glasgow, where I could go daily. There was a little sheltered garden where Kathleen, all wrapped up, would sit in the sun when there was any, and where Whyte, day after day, week after week, sat with her. I could spare only the week-ends. There was a United Presbyterian Kirk near that made Sundays hideous by the sharp clanging of a bell morning and evening. The days were shortening and growing too cold to sit out, and her cough was persistent. One Sunday morning the bell was beginning to clang. The nurse knocked at the door and said, with characteristic Scottish brevity, ‘She is going.’ I heard Whyte on the stair saying in a strained voice, ‘Come quickly.’ She was being held up, breathing with difficulty, her large eyes staring straight out. I took the nurse’s place, but her eyes did not move, though her lips smiled. I tried to whisper a prayer in her ear; I could just hear ‘Good-bye,’ a gasp, and her head fell forward. High up on the banks of the Clyde, overlooking the Kyles of Bute, she lies under a simple headstone designed by Whyte.

IV

Whyte now gave up his time and means to my child, calling himself the ‘nursery governor.’ There were two things he lived for: Eileen, and the painting of his masterpiece, the Cà Doro in Venice. He took a house in the country and lived with Eileen and her nurse through babyhood: I with my head in a paintpot in London—forgetful. Eventually they came to live with me. The Cà Doro and Eileen were inseparable; everywhere he went he talked of them. At the Chelsea Arts Club, where he was nicknamed ‘Permanent White,’ the usual salutation was, ‘Hello, Whyte. How’s Eileen and how’s the Cà Doro?’

I first met William Patrick Whyte — it annoyed him if it was spelled White — at the Atelier Julien. He was the finest man I have ever known. He had rather a military appearance and was proud of some months spent as a volunteer in the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders. He had been in an architect’s office in Glasgow when his parents died, leaving him a couple of thousand a year. Then he decided to throw over architecture and study painting in Paris. He took a charming apartment on the Quai Bourbon and allowed me the use of one of his rooms as a studio. He would appear at Julien’s regularly every morning about eleven o’clock, leisurely set up his easel and drawing carton, look at the model, sharpen his charcoal, have another look, make a few scratches, then spend some time in further contemplation, roll a cigarette, and look at the other fellows’ work. Someone would call out, ‘L’heure model,’ and we would leave Whyte putting away his things for the morrow. And so day after day for weeks, when suddenly he would disappear for the rest of the term. He used to say, when people looked at his work, that everything they saw good in it they annexed as their own, and all the bad they gave him credit for having done.

He spent his winters in Venice, painting the Cà Doro on the Grand Canal, year after year making many studies for it under different aspects of light, until at last he found what he wanted. Then he got a sixty-by-forty-inch canvas and started on what was to be his masterpiece. For twenty years he worked at it, cutting a few inches off one side of it, adding to the other, taking it back each year, never completing it. He had frames cut to fit the varying shapes, having them cut or added to, the canvas becoming so loaded with paint and relinings that its weight was ten times more than that of the original picture. He got rather sensitive about it; once a friend said, ‘Whyte, if it is not a rude question, how long have you been working on the Cà Doro?’ ‘Well, now,’ said Whyte, ‘suppose we discuss the question of rudeness first.’

He was an honorable gentleman — one of the few I have ever met. And with this he combined the wit of a genius. I cannot recall the brilliant gems he let fall in days before men treasured up every bon mot so that it might be published and paid for. Three only I remember, and those three I lay here as a wreath on his memory. On religion: he said he did not attend church because prayer showed a want of confidence in the Creator. On morality: ‘I have never gone back on the devil for the pleasure he has given me.’ And when his income became considerably reduced he said: ‘I am living on the explanations of how my friends lost my money.’

Perhaps the most noble and unselfish incident in his whole life was when he sacrificed himself that Kathleen might marry me. He was in love with her and she with him, but he had got it into his head that he would never arrive anywhere and that she was far too beautiful to be tied to a failure. So he told her that I possessed every virtue and continued pleading for me until she consented to marry me.

(To be concluded)