SOME ancient houses have storied in them the character, the beauty, and the trophies of experience which a vigorous family hands down the centuries. Such is Renishaw Hall, which, since 162.5, has been enlarged and reanimated by the Sitwells. Hottempered and reckless, scholarly and passionate and adventuresome, this family is in miniature a portrait gallery of England.
Renishaw today is the home of Sir Osbert Sitwell, an officer of the Grenadier Guards, 1914-1919, a poet and critic who now combines the duties of a squire with the art of a biographer. In his “ frank, beautifully written, and excessively amusing autobiography" he traces that blending of character and temperament which has produced three authors in his generation — Edith, Sacheverell, and Sir Osbert himself.
My EARLIEST recollection of an author, and of the impression such a being is likely to create, goes back to the year when I was seven.
Renishaw was full of guests, mostly relations of my mother’s; poor relations who spent a shadow-like existence silhouetted, at discreet intervals, upon the walls of great house after great house. They were said — and proudly they bore their label — to be “such fun"; though, somehow, one never gathered precisely how or why. (“Do you know Tita? She’s such fun.”) Nor did my Sitwell and Hely-Hutchinson relations ever seem to enter into this ambiguous, esoteric category: serious-minded, their every thought tinged with religion, no one attempted, or dared, to say it of them. Though they prided themselves upon the possession of a sense of humor, they would have been the first, I think, to resent being dismissed as “such fun.”
No, these relatives of whom I am talking were, in the main, distant female cousins of my mother’s or “connections,”spinsters for the most part, though they included a few married couples. But the worst of it was that this fun brigade stood divided against itself; mutual backbiting was rampant, although it must be admitted that sufficient esprit de corps prevailed to prevent a general breakup. No member of it would insinuate about another anything so definite as to make it unlikely that that person would again be invited to the house; such an action would have constituted a breach of the unwritten rules. Notwithstanding, when several ministers of fun were gathered together at the same time, an unmistakable acerbity would before long begin to make itself felt. Tempers were short because of the pressure of work. Like the members of a second-rate provincial touring company, they would stop at station after station along the line, to fulfill, as it were, a week’s engagement. As soon as it was finished, they must pack again and be off.
Then there would be a wedding or a memorial service, and they would all be obliged, at great expense, to troop back to London. But they had to be there, or someone might be offended. Besides, they must be seen, could not afford to drop out. It provided, too, an occasion for them to meet, concoct their future plans, and see that these would not conflict in any way. It was hard work, harder every year now. Fun, oh, such fun, but they had little of their time to spare, and none for the children of the house. If they could think of nothing to say, they just laughed, which kept things going, and compared with saying things to make the others laugh as treading water does with swimming. It kept, them afloat, and maintained their reputation for gayety and humor.
At such moments the children regarded them with a horrid, round-eyed wonder. The brigade hated the children in every house at which they stopped, and the children returned the feeling. But though the young were so great a trial, experience had taught these relatives that it was usually necessary to mask their animus, because the mothers never really seemed to like a show of it and one pleasant place of resort had already disappeared from circulation because of a piece of overenthusiastic and too hastily improvised mischief-making. I was an “elder son”; so, quite apart from the fact that my parents would have resented criticism of me, it was wiser to pet and to take trouble — you never knew; this treatment might pay a bonus later on.
They did not, I apprehend, care much for my father either. He had the reputation of being “clever”; and if you were “clever,” that somehow or other canceled out “fun.” Of course they did not see him a great deal in the day, hardly ever until dinner, but the ice-coated politeness with which he enveloped them made them feel, often, that they were being strangled or had fallen unaware into plaster of Paris. And, in any case, instinct told them that they would have got more out of it if only he had not been there — and, indeed, would have been there more often themselves. And the place was very convenient — situated on two main railway lines.
We returned their dislike heartily enough, but, if compelled to see much of them at any particular time, — beyond all things, I resented their being brought up to say good-night to me, — I could always find relief for my feelings by going down to the pantry the next morning, where I enjoyed a talk about these visitors with Henry, the butler, whose vivid tongue and acute judgment of people were a continual, if inhospitable, source of pleasure.
Generally, I would find Henry polishing a piece of silver with great vigor, and to the same rhythm as the tune he was singing. In the morning he usually chose hymns, rolling the pious and familiar words round his tongue with an unconjecturable unction, and rendering the notes in his well-known bellow, deep and melodious. Or, again, he might be singing a favorite song — “The Pope, he leads a happy life” — concerned with a comparison between the sensual indulgences affected by the Pope and the Sultan of Turkey, for, whereas the Holy Father was allowed as much wine as he liked, but no wives, the Caliph was permitted, on the other hand, as many wives as he liked, but no wine. After he had finished his song, which he had given with the utmost formality, as though in front of an audience, he would stop, and catching sight, through the window, of the chef and his underlings preparing food, would remark, “Miss Vasal looks hungrier than ever this year, Master Osbert. All you’ve got to do now, if you want her to come and stay, is to hang a bit of bacon outside on a hook. She’ll smell it, wherever she is, and walk straight in and begin laughing at once — unless she catches sight of Sir George (‘No, no, no!') — fit to bust ‘erself, poor lady.”
Fortunately, in those worlds apart of child and adult, except upon a picnic or outing of some sort, we saw little of the fun contingent. One such occasion presented itself, however, when an old elm, at the near end of the avenue, was cut down. We were all of us, fifteen or sixteen persons it may be, taken out to see the giant fall, for this is a process that most of humanity loves to witness. And it proved, indeed, an interesting spectacle, because, as it fell, a cloud of bats, hundred upon hundred of them, flew out into the, to them, impenetrable daylight, and wildly sped and spun and circled, squeaking in their voices that are so high-pitched as to be felt rather than heard. With shrieks of terror, as though they had just witnessed the landing of Mr. H. G. Wells’s contemporary Martians, the women of the party, clasping their piled-up masses of hair tightly with their hands, so as to protect it, — for a myth persisted that bats loved to become involved in those nests of crowning glory,—fled towards the house. It was an extraordinary scene, such as I now see might have inspired the brush of Nicholas Poussin — the flight, the stricken faces, the gestures of despair, the eyes round and welling with terror.
Even at so early an age, I found this rhythmic flight of women towards the house impressive: I scarcely expected to witness again soon such a classic scene of anguish. But I was wrong, for a few days later Miss de Rodes, the heiress of the beautiful Elizabethan house of Barlborough, brought over to tea at Renishaw the members of her house party. When, arriving on the lawn, she introduced one of them as “Mr. Augustus Hare, the writer,” her words created obvious panic. There ensued, metaphorically, the same tragic rush of women, away, off stage, holding their hair and, this time, crying, “He may put me in a book!”
It was then brought home to me for the first — but alas! not the last — time, the universal horror in which the writer is held in England, in elegant circles no less than among the common men. The lurking, inexpressible, awful fear haunted each of their hearts, like that which, were it sentient enough, would haunt the mind of a butterfly about to be netted, anesthetized, killed, and pinned out upon a square of cardboard. The prejudice was immense. Each man — though my father’s attitude, of course, was exceptional, for he was interested — and each woman felt sure of being the quarry. Perhaps, also, beneath the horror, there sprang up a certain feeling of selfimportance, in the same way that it had been, in a sense, self-flattery in each woman to have been so convinced that the bats wished particularly to snuggle in her hair. But then, writers, in addition, were clever. Even bats were not that! Again, the victims recoiled.
But I still consider it to have been on their part an unjustifiable panic. I can conceive of no writer’s wishing to “put them in a book.” Yet I suppose at the very moment I am being guilty of it.
THIS, then, was my first glimpse of a writer. My initial contact with a painter, on the other hand, began during the following spring, when with the rest of the family I sat for a portrait group to John Sargent. The minute circumstances attending and leading up to the painting of a conversation-piece of this kind are not without an interest even today, and will possess still more when the rendering of such groups is finally an extinct art. I shall try to revive for the reader the look of the figures before the painter in the hard north light, like that of a permanent arctic dawn, of a studio near the river, to see how that light showed us to him, as either we posed there — in that big room bristling with canvases and containing the smell of paint which binds all studios, whether the workingplaces of good or bad artists, into a kingdom of their own, hedging their occupants off from the rest of mankind — uneasily balancing, modeled for him by the cold fingers of a wintry day, or fidgeted, waiting our turn, in the dark background behind him.
Although at the time occupied with some particular physical aspect of one of the persons before him, or of something connected with it, of how the scarlet dress of my pale young sister — with her hair of shallow gold that was almost a polar green — blazed out against the lying avenues of the tapestry that led from nowhere to nowhere, of how the glistening white of my mother’s dress must flicker like a spectral flame against the figures of the tapestry, frozen in gesture, rigid in imagery, or of how he was, in general, to balance into a tolerable whole the various patterns which people and things imposed upon his facile and poignant brush — how, for example, to reconcile the warm and breathing yet correct beauty of my mother with the woven figure of the woman at her side, in a classical robe, with her cold face reflected in the mirror she was holding before her, and with one foot poised above a basket full of enameled masks; although, as I say, occupied with all this, he would nevertheless often peer round at us with his prominent eyes, saying a word or two to amuse or pacify or keep us quiet until the moment when we were due to mount the scaffold before him.
First of all, since I possess a horror of hedging over matters wherein art is concerned, let me a little elaborate my views of Sargent’s paintings: a body of work all the more necessary for us to explore at this moment because it constitutes an approach to the age which we are about to enter. These portraits are the guardians of the Edwardian shrine, comparable to the figures of the Four Marshals, those grotesque and stylized generals, with their swords and shields, their purple faces and bulging, glaring eyes, who customarily guard the entrance to temples of the Buddhist faith in China. I do not consider Sargent a great portrait painter, in the sense that Velásquez and Goya and Manet were great portrait painters, but neither, on the other hand, am I content summarily to dismiss his name.
To the aim of continuing to paint likenesses in a particular style, Sargent added his own smartness of eye, and many a touch from the Spanish and French Impressionist masters. And here the Ruskin-fed ignorance of the English public came to his aid, and helped to build him a reputation for brilliance: the mass of art patrons in this country, who had remained steadfast in their ignorance of Manet and Degas and Renoir, and even of Goya, although these painters had been famous on the Continent for a quarter of a century, mistook a reflection of this technique — now itself discarded in the lands of its origin, or, rather, actually antiquated by the complete transformation in the aims of painting that had occurred during that period —for genuine and personal invention.
Nevertheless, and in spite of his lamentable frescoes in the Boston Public Library, it must be allowed that Sargent was a painter who lived for his painting, and that, albeit not of the first, or even second, order, not of the quality of the two other celebrated portrait painters that America has given us, not so sound in workmanship or so true in color as his fellow citizen, John Singleton Copley, nor so inspired a poet of his period as the great Whistler, yet he can be compared in value, though not, of course, in the method of his painting, to such other fashionable portraitists of their epochs as Sir Thomas Lawrence or Wiinterhalter; painters who will always be of more interest to writers and social historians than to their fellow artists.
In order to make a living in England during the late Victorian and the Edwardian ages, every portrait painter had, to a certain extent, to become a faker of old masters, because the clients who could afford to patronize him demanded, “Give me the sort of Gainsborough that my grandfather had,” — or, more usually, that somebody else’s grandfather had, and which the grandson had sold, — “but not so old-fashioned! ”: that was the clamant cry. Sargent, by supplying old masters, to which was added the skin-thin glint of the French Impressionists, novel to the English public, precisely met this demand. His portraits are usually good period-pieces, de luxe, and bear the same relation to the portraits of Gainsborough or Sir Joshua that the Ritz Hotels in the ruined capitals of Europe present to the Place Stanislas in Nancy. But they will always retain their own charm; a charm often founded in the repulsion of their subjects. For to light upon a fashionable painter who knows how to paint at all is a rarity, and Sargent knew how to make — or. rather, fake — his obvious effects better, even, than did Winterhalter.
Moreover, Sargent matched the Edwardian Age to a nicety; he was entirely occupied with outward and superficial effects. Money, one would hazard, bore for this painter the identical Edwardian sanctity that it possessed for the city magnates, sporting peers, and oldclothes and furniture dealers whose likenesses and those of their wives he was obliged to perpetuate. Yet the fact that he was so plainly more interested in the appurtenances of the sitters and in the appointments of their rooms than in their faces, from which he sought refuge in the tilted top-hats, with their somber but water-light reflections, the cravats and fur coats of the men, or in the tiaras, flashing, stiff but uneasy, above the heads of the women, or in the brocades and velvets they were wearing, in no way detracted from his popularity with them. To the whole age which he interpreted, these values were true values, and so could not be resented: sables, ermine, jewels, bath salts, rich food, covered every lapse or defect. Sargent remains the painter of Pêche Melba, the artist who exalted this dish to the rank of an ideal.
THE events and opinions that, in our particular case, led up to the execution of the Sargent group offer a field of minute observation and present a microcosm of the development of English aesthetic opinion; so I propose to examine them in detail.
The great exhibition of English Art at Burlington House had taken place, to which my father had lent the Copley group of the Sitwell Children. He had spent many hours at it, comparing the merits of the various famous portrait painters of the eighteenth century. And about this time, or perhaps a year or two later, he wrote me a charming letter, which I found and mislaid again only the other day; a letter wherein he gravely and politely discusses with me, although I was only six or seven, the various excellencies and faults of such masters as Gainsborough, Sir Joshua, and Romney. But of all the pictures he had seen, it was the family groups that he had most enjoyed, for these appealed particularly to the ancestor-and-descendant theme which so largely dominated his conception of the family; “A delightful thing for one’s descendants to have!”
Besides, in 1898, he sat, in evening dress with white waistcoat and tie, to Tonks for his portrait, though I find no reference to it in his correspondence. Tonks stayed at Renishaw for some time, and I remember dimly that he stared for several hours a day, as it seemed, at the Copley group, and I recall more clearly his appearance, so lank, damp, and forlorn, as he came back to the house one afternoon, when the punt he had been sailing on the lake had capsized. A sudden squall had swung the sail right over, and he had been immersed. I have never seen a figure that looked more wet, almost as though clothed in water weeds.
The visit, I think, was not a success, and he never repeated it. There must have been a clash of temperaments. But all I know is that when, just after the last war, I came to know Tonks well, my father always referred to this austere artist, with his passion for connoisseurship and tradition, as “that Bolshevik,” and that Tonks, for his part, told me, without making any comment, that when he had been beginning his morning’s work at Renishaw, my father had looked across at him and said, “Don’t paint the hair today: it’s not quite in its usual form.” Be that as it may, my father was not satisfied with Tonks’s portrait and realized now, finally, that it was a family group that he would like to have painted.
On April 29,1899, from Belvoir House, Scarborough, he writes to his agent, and former tutor, Peveril Turnbull, a long letter, for the most part concerned with balance sheets. It must be explained that both Mr. and Mrs. Turnbull were cultivated and intelligent, and friends of such people as Walter Crane and D. S. McColl, both of whom wielded in their own spheres considerable influence. To his surprise, my father says, he finds that he is slightly better off than he had feared. He adds: “I feel now equal to paying for a large portrait group, and wish you would ask your artist friend McColl whom he recommends. I also wish to buy two pieces of land behind Morewood the butcher’s shop. . . . What is to be done about buying a billiard-table?”
In his reply, Turnbull must have informed my father that McColl had recommended for the task Jacques Emile Blanche, that charming man and brilliant talker who, during his career, had been the owner of so many good, and the painter of so many bad, pictures. (He was very generous, as they say, “with his own.” Before the war, hardly a gallery in Europe existed in which did not hang several portraits by Blanche, the gift of the artist.) But it is plain that in reality my father, though he still asked for suggestions, no longer needed them. He had made up his mind. Accordingly on June 14 he wrote to Turnbull — from Scarborough again— the following long letter, this time devoted entirely to the question of the group, and of the aesthetic principles underlying it, and making no mention of butcher’s shop or billiard-table: —
MY DEAR PEVERIL,
So much obliged for McColl’s advice. Is it possible anywhere to get a photograph of Blanche’s portrait groups, or a landscape of the painter Thornton and his family? I should much like to get one if possible.
I believe I have settled with Sargent for next year, but “there’s many a slip.” Sargent is very much the kind of painter McColl recommends. He will only paint in his own studio in London, won’t hear of a motive for the group or an outdoor picture, and will please himself. It is evident therefore that I cannot get what I want, namely a portrait group that will give information and tell its own story, and will hang and mezzotint as a pair to the Copley. At the same time Sargent is a great artist, and I shall get the best this age can offer, if all goes well. What I am afraid of is that Sargent has not studied the principles which have to be considered in dealing with portrait groups, an art by itself, and that he will presently realise that five figures can’t be grouped without a motive, and will “chuck” the picture before it is half finished. Sargent and the modern school seem actually proud of not being able to paint what they can’t see. But what a misfortune that, is, for that is where the highest art comes in. Sir Joshua and the old English painters were always doing it. . . .
I showed McColl Richmond’s portrait [of my mother] and told him the story, which I dare say he doesn’t remember very well. The difficulty there was that Richmond won’t allow one to see his canvas from the day he commences it to the day he finishes it. When one did see it one was appalled at the length of leg. ... I have had a good deal to do with artists and always get on well with them. — Yours very truly, GEORGE R. SITWELL.
This letter is full of that minute concern with detail which always distinguishes my father’s dealings. Its air is peculiarly and individually authoritative, and denotes, too, that he has no intention of depriving any artist of the benefit of his own experience and of his advice. In the last short sentence alone, which a little suggests a heroic theme blown upon a cracked bugle, there is to be detected, perhaps, an undertone suggesting, in spite of the assertive ring of it, that even the writer of the letter himself is unconvinced of the truth of his boast. At the same time, apart from this, a basis of aesthetic good sense lies under what he says.
SEVERAL things had occurred in the preceding year to make my father alter the direction of his gaze towards Sargent. For a year and more he had been fascinated by Sargent’s approach to his sitters, one so novel in England, and, besides, he had been introduced to the painter himself (as well as to his work) by George Swinton, my father’s first cousin. George Swinton possessed a love and knowledge of the arts and was one of the first patrons — if not the first — of both Orpen and Sargent. His wife, Elsie Swinton, whose great portrait by Sickert is so justly celebrated, became in after years — and, I am glad to say, remains — an intimate friend of mine, and of my sister’s, though to achieve this, we had, all three of us, first to fight our way out of cousinhood into friendship. She was perhaps the most gifted of all English singers of her time, an artist of a remarkable kind.
It was through the Swintons, then, that Sargent came to Renishaw to make the acquaintance of his sitters and to see the Copley group, with which his picture was to tally, for it was to be of the same size, the figures in it of the same proportion, and, in so far as he could be induced to make it, of a similar feeling. Rather unexpectedly, the Copley immediately excited Sargent’s admiration, and his first words, on seeing it, were, “I can never equal that.”George and Elsie Swinton accompanied Sargent at the beginning of his stay, but I can remember little of him from this visit, except that he spent a considerable time fixing a cyclometer upon Elsie’s bicycle. I can, however, still see very clearly in my mind’s eye George Swinton and my father walking up and down the lawns together, talking, but not listening, and pointing their sticks in different directions.
This was the first time I had been privileged to see them together. They resembled each other considerably in appearance and manner, though George Swinton was taller (my father was six foot one), presenting a byzantine counterpart to my father’s gothic; and their interests were akin. As the years progressed, this racing over the lawn, with their usual air of dignity combined with disapproval, their somewhat similar walk, their identical bearing and gestures, and the mutual but impersonal criticism by each of them of the remarks the other made, became one of the favorite “turns ” of the Renishaw summer. “ I should put the vista there, if I were you.”“No, no, no!” — “But the eye should always be carried toward the horizon.” “Such a mistake!” (With an air of finality) “They never do that in Italy.”
Neither my father nor George Swinton seemed as a rule inclined to take the other’s advice, though each possessed a respect for the other’s judgment. Consequently I am surprised that my father, in the matter of the Sargent, should have allowed himself to be so plainly influenced by his cousin. However, things were now set in train. Sargent agreed to paint a picture of the dimensions and kind desired, for fifteen hundred pounds: a charge by no means excessive, for, though not yet at the height of his vogue, which reached its climax about 1910 when his prices ranged from two to three thousand pounds for a single portrait, he was already receiving large sums.
Tremendous scenes of bustle and activity now began at Renishaw. “We have got the tapestry, picture and sideboard packed up, and the place put right again,” the sub-agent reports to Turnbull, in a letter of February 20, 1900; for, since it was intended, as I have said, that the group should be a conversation-piece of a certain size, with its own appropriate furniture and accessories, and since Sargent refused to paint except in his own studio, my father, when he set off for London during this first winter of the Boer War, took with him the Copley picture — so that Sargent should have it before his eyes while he painted — besides the other extensions of his own and the family personality that follow: a vast and dark panel of Brussels tapestry, measuring thirty by twenty feet, signed by Louis de Vos and representing the Triumph of Justice, a figure — for once un-blindfold posed on a column, holding in her right hand a sword and in her left the scales, against a Versailles-like vista of clipped trees and of water, while other personifications of virtue, with their particular attributes, loll in classical attitudes in the foreground; a so-called commode, designed by Robert Adam, and executed by Chippendale and Haigh, with ormolu mountings by Matthew Boulton—a large and exquisite piece of furniture, made for the marriage of Francis Hurt Sitwell in 177G; a silver racing cup won by an ancestor at the Chesterfield races in 1747; and, last but not least, my mother, my sister, my brother, and myself, as well as the toys with which we children were to play and the black pug which was to be beside us; Yum, a sleek Chinese dog of changeable, Oriental temper whom — because this is a convention for children, a liking for dogs being almost obligatory upon them — I was expected to fondle, in spite of his snuffling manners and snapping ways.
We settled then, for the first few months of 1900, in 25 Chesham Place, a house which was almost opposite the Russian Embassy and belonged to Mrs. Moreton Frewen, a sister of Lady Randolph Churchill. (Only a few days ago I saw a ragged gap in the line of painted-plaster houses precisely where it used to stand.) It was “doneup ” in the height of the fashion of the moment, for interior decoration had only just started as a mode and on its present professional basis, and Lady Randolph had been almost the first person to interest herself in it and may perhaps have had a hand in these color schemes. Before 1900, the aesthetes alone had shown an interest in the rooms in which they beautifully existed; ordinary rich people had been content to live in the houses in which they lived, with their possessions, ugly or beautiful, about them. They accepted that which fate had decreed, unless a fire, or new circumstances of one kind or another, imposed fresh surroundings upon them. They had not hitherto felt a conscious need for self-dramatization — but, with the turn of the late nineties into 1900, their confidence had all of a sudden wilted. Thus I believe that the rage for interior decoration can be related to the enormous social changes that were only hidden from them by the still shadowy outline of the new century.
In the house that we had taken, mauve, I remember, was the color on which each scheme was founded. Indeed, mauve was the acme of fashion in all branches of decoration, whether for ceilings or wallpapers, and for coverings, of a woman herself no less than of her furniture. And so I remember an aunt, who wore very striking and modish dresses, appearing in a gown of mauve striped with turquoise blue. Henceforth, mauve and the Boer War were to be inextricably associated in my mind.
Nevertheless, the house was to be memorable to me still more because it contained the first electric fan I had ever seen and, since I was young and the idea that electricity could move things, as well as illuminate them, was novel to me, I never wearied of turning it on and off, to the violent peril of my fingers. The machine stood on a mahogany pedestal in a corner of the dining room that was peculiarly drafty by nature as well as by this artifice, and I fear that before I had tired of this new toy, my mother and her friends had, during the bitter early months oi that year, paid for my pleasure with many a cold, many a stabbing rheumatic pain.
My father, meanwhile, was very busy. Sargent was to begin his picture in a few days’ time, — on March 1, — and the tapestry, the furniture, the Copley, and the silver bowl had all to be deposited and unpacked — under my father’s personal supervision, of course — in the studio. He had, further, to arrange for the reinsurance of all the objects that he had placed there. And, during the whole time, too, he was jotting down in his notebook pieces of advice and various technical hints that he thought might be useful to the artist. Then, after the furniture and objects had been safely installed in Tite Street, there was the arrangement of them to be pondered. The bowl, for instance — where ought it to be put? The matter required careful consideration. Eventually it was placed on an Empire table, belonging to Sargent, who was a collector of furniture, and showed great taste and knowledge. This table is to be seen in other of his portraits, and it, together with the Aubusson carpet, and the pieces of china which stand on the commode, are the only things in the picture which did not come from Renishaw.
THE sittings began on March 1, as planned, and I remember the day because we heard in the morning that the siege of Ladysmith had been lifted. Every second day for five or six weeks we posed to the famous painter in his studio, and no picture, I am sure, can ever have given the artist more trouble, for my father held strong views concerning the relationship of the patron to the painter, who ought, he inwardly maintained, to occupy the same position as a bone to a dog, — or, as for that, of a mouse to a cat , — being created and placed before him to be worried, gnawed, and teased. That my father believed this painter to be a great artist at his greatest in no wise relieved him of his duty as patron, which was to offer an opinion upon every matter, whether of taste, of feeling, or of technique, with an air of absolute and final authority, and to distract him by starting a new theory every instant, and then swiftly abandoning it, or, alternatively, by suddenly behaving as though it were Sargent’s theory and not his own at all, and by consequently opposing it with startling vigor just as the artist had agreed to accept it. At moments that became steadily more frequent as the picture progressed, he played a very strong hand and became positively dictatorial.
In some ways a man of gentle temperament, despite his full-blooded, energetic, resolute appearance, Sargent exhibited under this treatment a remarkable mildness and self-control. Notwithstanding, albeit difficult to provoke, there were enacted from time to time considerable scenes, though, even then, the sudden outbursts of the artist, his rushing bull-like at the canvas and shouting, were in reality the expression more of tremendous physical vitality than of rage. And, in any case, my father himself enjoyed these exhibitions very much, for, according to his code, a show of temperament was expected of every artist — who ought, indeed, to be goaded daily by the patron until he gave it, that being part of the contract, as it were, existing between them, and a guarantee that the work would be of the highest quality.
On one occasion, then, a really big scene took place, but my father triumphed, and obliged Sargent to paint out completely a table with some silver upon it, the most skillful and typical still-life — so George Swinton, who had seen it, told me in after years — that he had ever executed. There, somewhere under the dark surface of the present picture, that pyrotechnical display lies interred. But Sargent had been loath to lose it and had not scrupled to state plainly his own views on the painterpatron relationship.
I remember, too, another incident. My father, who, as I have said, only admired in a female small du Maurierlike features, pointed out to the painter that my sister’s nose deviated slightly from the perpendicular, and hoped that he would emphasize this flaw. This request much incensed Sargent, obviously a very kind and considerate man; and he showed plainly that he regarded this as no way in which to speak of her personal aspect in front of a very shy and supersensitive child of eleven. Perhaps, too, he may already have divined in her face and physique the germ of a remarkable and distinguished appearance which was later to appeal particularly to painters. At any rate, he made her nose straight in his canvas and my father’s nose crooked, and absolutely refused to alter either of them, whatever my father might say.
Even this difference of opinion, however, and the expressions of a turbulent and rebellious kind which accompanied it, seem in no way to have spoiled my father’s pleasure in the picture. Thus, on March 19, we find him writing to Turnbull a short account of the progress of the group, and a description of it: “Sargent’s picture is going on famously and will I think be finished in a fortnight. We are all very much pleased with it. Lady Ida is standing in a white and silver evening-dress arranging flowers in that old silver bowl on a little first Empire table. Osbert and the baby are on the floor to her left, giving the black pug a biscuit. I am standing to her right in dark grey and with brown riding-boots with one hand on Edith’s shoulder — she is in scarlet. The tapestry and old French chiffonier make a most satisfactory background. We have put Lady Ida in a black ‘shadow’ hat, something like that in Copley’s picture, with white feathers and red ribbons. ...”
The dress worn by my mother, though perhaps oddly chosen, was certainly very pretty in its way and had been made — this offers a singular footnote to the epoch — by the then celebrated dressmaker, Madame Clapham, who worked in Hull (another link between the Sargent group and that city). From the present distance in time it would seem improbable that any fashionable woman should go especially to Hull for her clothes; but so it was. The mode had originated with the daughters of Mrs. Arthur Wilson and Mrs. Charles Wilson, — afterwards Lady Nunburnholme, — who, coming from this district, had startled London a few years before with their good looks and their dashing clothes, and had soon made the reputation of the local dressmaker whom they were said to patronize.
I remember, though I cannot be certain of the year, accompanying my mother and her cousin, Lady Westmorland, by train from Scarborough to Hull, and then being taken to see Madame Clapham, who was fitting them for the dresses they had ordered for a Court Ball. Lady Westmorland, a famous beauty, bought some of her clothes, it is true, in Paris, but as yet very few women — apart front the American contingent, who thereby gained an unfair advantage over the rest — obtained them there. And though within a few years every woman who could afford to do so was following the American example, at present Hull was the rage. 33
A CHILD of seven is granted very good chances of observation, for he is old enough to notice a considerable amount and, so long as he behaves himself, grown-up people are usually unself-conscious, thinking that he is too young to understand their characters. Thus, if he is much with them, he can for the most part watch them being their natural selves, without any attempt at disguise, except, occasionally and only with certain individuals, for a special show of friendliness and condescension.
I was privileged in this manner to watch at his work this tall, taurine figure, with his large, rather shapeless but forceful torso and strong arms, his head, small for the body supporting it, and his flushed face with its little beard and prominent, bulging blue eyes. He was always dressed in a conventional blue serge suit, for in those times fashionable portrait painters never indulged in the overalls or semi-fancy dress which they would adopt today, and no doubt the tight, starched white collar was responsible for the rather plethoric appearance of his face as he painted, for work of an aesthetic and intellectual order is as difficult as manual labor in such constricting fetters. I can still see him now, if I shut my eyes, as, when something he had done displeased him, he would lower his head and, as it were, charge the canvas with a brush in his hand to blot out what the minute before he had so rapidly created, bellow ing, at the same time, in his deep voice, the words, “It’s pea-green, pea-green, pea-green — it’s all pea-green!”
I think Sargent must have liked children — or perhaps he only found them a pleasant change from the usual, more sophisticated occupants of his studio, public monuments of men, proconsuls and generals, grave and portentous mouths through whom spake spirits, the infinite army of the banal dead, or fashionable beauties, with psyches that resembled air-balloons, inflated, light and highly colored. Certainly he was very patient, would go to almost any trouble, consistent with being allowed to paint, to amuse us. When the first fascination of watching him at work, a conjurer drawing effects out of the void, had worn off, we became restless — especially Sacheverell, who w as only two years old.
After a quarter of an hour, it would be impossible for either Davis or me any longer to restrain his childish impatience, or to cajole him into posing; but Sargent could always contrive to hold his attention for a few extra minutes, either by indulging in a peculiar and elaborate whistling he had cultivated, like that of a French sifflcur upon the music-hall stage, or by incessantly intoning a limerick, which ran: —
Who often was sick in a train,
Not once and again,
But again and again,
And again and again and again.
With an air of rapt amazement and delight, Sacheverell would listen to this recitation, rooted throughout the performance of it to the right spot. Even this, however, did not serve to keep him quiet indefinitely, and, being so young, his fidgeting was such that eventually a doll had to be made, of exactly his size and coloring, so that it could pose for him. Sargent would then paint him for so long as the restless child would allow, and, when his continuing to sit any longer became out of the question, this miniature waxen-faced lay figure, with the same fair curls and the same clothes, would take his place.
Although my brother and I were always pleased wdien the time came to leave the studio, we both of us liked Sargent, and appreciated his kindness, of which we sawmany indications. He always tried to avoid implicating us in any trouble, when trouble arose because we had been “difficult.” He championed us, and especially my sister, who could not do very much that was right. So the platform on which we were painted was not as unpleasant as it might have been. Indeed I, for one, enjoyed watching him paint. He bore the reputation of being an extremely rapid worker, and it may be that, in his capacity of illusionist, — for, at his best, he was that rather than an impressionist, — he was more interesting for a child to observe than many a greater artist.
We went to the studio always in the same groups or solitary units, at the same repetitive hours; Sachie and I, always together, for example, with Davis shepherding us, but without the rest of the family. Our nurse would take great care to see that we were smartly dressed — for to sit to a painter was, in her eyes, merely a more expensive form of sitting to a photographer: you must wear your best clothes and most disarming smile — and that we reached the studio punctually; which, in practice, meant about half an hour before the sitting began.
We would wait in a darkened corner, watching Sargent as he stood there, with one eye shut, regarding his models for several minutes from a very considerable distance, and then bore down upon the canvas, which was much nearer to them than to him. We would look, too, at the people he was painting: my father, with a certain air of distinguished isolation, and “ with one hand on Edith’s shoulder, rather in the manner of a stage magician, producing a rabbit out of a hat; Edith in her scarlet dress, with her lank, golden-green hair frizzed out unbecomingly for the occasion (for my father said that “ all hair should be inclined to curl, and so soften the lines of the face”), and her pale face very intent, as though waiting, listening for some sound she could scarcely catch as yet, some sound in the future, the particular rhythm that it had been left to her, alone of those who speak our English tongue, to seize, adding thereby a new and lovely melody to the innumerable glories of English poetry; my mother (who had usually brought with her a friend now sitting with us, watching), with one long-gloved hand, the fingers pointed and bent back upon the table, with the other about to make an ineffectual attempt to cope with a few crimson anemone fulgens in the silver bowl; and I would wonder, too, at the silver bowl itself, and the Chelsea figures and the silver embroidery. Could they be so like, when the lights in them were just twists and blobs of paint; so like, when you wished them to be like, so unlike, so flat and simple, at other moments?
Then my sister or my mother would step down from the platform, and it would be our turn. Soon Sargent would begin reciting again, until finally came the hour of release. As the evenings grew longer and finer, my mother would sometimes come back to fetch us in an open carriage, so that we could have some air. We would usually cross the Suspension Bridge that spanned the enormous river, and drive in Battersea Park. Then we would return to the mauve, brightly lit interior of Chesham Place. The footman would open the door, and I would quickly dash through it into the dining room, to turn on the electric fan before anyone could stop me.
Altogether, I liked London. In these months I did not experience the attacks of croup that I should certainly have had to endure in Scarborough; for croup is a kind of nervous frenzy brought on by boredom, that complaint of the spirit from which it is never admitted that children can suffer. The atmosphere of this city was exciting — though this, indeed, made the length of the sittings seem more dreary — and there was — oh, so occasionally! —a theater to visit; and the Zoölogical Gardens, living continuation of Noah’s Ark, were open to us on Sundays. But, besides, there existed the fascinating pleasure-round of every day: one could always go to Hamley’s, to look at the latest and most enchanting tricks and toys; brightly lit shops that put to flight the yellow fogs outside.
Or I could tease Davis till she took me to Harrod’s store — “Anything for peace!” — and, once there, while she was not looking, make a dash for the escalator (the earliest, I believe, in London; not. so much a moving staircase as a moving inclined plane). Even out walking, treats were plentiful. We might meet a battalion of one of the regiments of the Brigade of Guards, with its red coats and enormous bearskins, lighting the gray streets like fires, as they passed with drums and fifes, or even occasionally accompanied by the regimental band. Or we might see persons or personages at whom we were actually encouraged to stare, in order that we might never forget having seen them, and how they looked.
Thus, one cold spring morning, when gray clouds clustered round the sky as gray feathers round a sea-bird, Edith and I were walking with Davis along the Mall — then an unpretentious street., and not a processional road modeled by elephantine Edwardian taste upon the Sieges Allee in Berlin. Suddenly a clatter and scraping of hoofs told us that a body of Life Guards was approaching, and behind them, in an open carriage, sat a small figure, in black, with a black bonnet, bowing with a regular swaying motion to right and left, as the people thinly lining the road cheered her. She liked the air, and her face was rather red with exposure to it.
This was the sovereign who, at the age of seventeen, had mounted a shaken and a shaky throne and now, after a reign of sixty and more years, was about to leave it, transmuted into rock by the magic of the common virtues she exhibited, to her heirs. This was the presiding deity of a golden age, blessed and tranquil in spite of its manifold endeavor; this the young girl who had remained, until the time she had become an old woman, the personification of a way of life, and who, by some combination of evolutional advantage and of instinct, had invented a new kind of sovereignty, so that the frontiers of it now stretched as the very portals of the world.
AT LAST, the picture was finished; at last the moment came when we no longer had to go to Sargent’s studio — except, as the reader will see, on one more, and a different, occasion. The end came with a flourish and a gesture, for the painter had secretly caused the frame of the Copley to be copied for his pendant to it, and now presented it to my father as a surprise. My father, who did not usually like to receive gifts, was on this occasion enchanted.
Then came the question of exhibition. The picture had been finished too late to be sent in to the Royal Academy of 1900, and so, as my father wished various members of the family who were living in London, or happened to be staying there, to see it, he asked Sargent’s permission to allow them to come to the studio one afternoon in early April. Accordingly they were invited, in order to give their opinion of the picture and Sargent the benefit of their informed advice; at least that is what they imagined was expected of them, though in reality my father only wanted to be congratulated on his taste and on having obtained so fine a bargain.
But this, again, was not at all what the opposition — led by my grandmother Londesborough — intended (the members of my mother’s family, so much less interested in works of art than those of my father’s, had nevertheless turned up in much greater force). On the contrary, she and her followers immensely enjoyed the sensation of allowing themselves to be amazed. Serge Lifar tells us that in Paris, when Diaghilev felt dull or was bored, he would always send for Jean Cocteau and say to him imploringly, “ Etonne-moi, Jean!" To the Russian impresario, therefore, the process of being astonished was evidently pleasurable as well as stimulating, but not so with this gathering of my relatives. To be astonished was, to them, to be shocked; nay, scandalized. They may, secretly, have reveled in the emotion, but they pretended to be aghast.
My grandmother, and her unmarried sister, Lady Geraldine Somerset, — a fascinating and, indeed, cultivated old lady, possessed of infinite character, who lived inside what appeared to be a series of tents composed of fading photographs, pitched in Upper Brook Street, and who had to be shouted at, for she was very deaf and carried an elaborate ear-trumpet, flounced and pleated like an early lamp-shade, — concentrated on the picture, and pecked away at its faults after the manner of two powerful birds. “Why riding things and an eveningdress?” “Why an evening-dress and a hat?” “Why, if you wear a hat, have a hat with a transparent brim?” they demanded of each other rhetorically, expecting no answer. “Why?” “Why, d’you suppose?” (This last was a favorite phrase of theirs.) “And why not go to an ordinary painter?” “Why, do you suppose?” “Why go to an American?”
“Why, do you suppose?” The eager and attentive chorus of younger relatives took up the theme from them, and made it swell to a grand, imposing culmination, “Why, do you suppose?”
This memorable spring afternoon was the last occasion on which I saw Sargent in his studio. Indeed, I never met him again until I was nineteen or twenty, when I dined in his company one night at Elsie Swinton’s. (When I mentioned this to my father, afterwards, he said anxiously, “I hope you didn’t talk — these great men don’t like it.”) It was also the last occasion on which I saw my grandmother arrayed in her ordinary clothes. Henceforth she wore widow’s weeds, for, a fortnight later, on April 19, my grandfather died. Already in the winter he had been unwell, had been advised to seek a more genial climate— and had, in fact, done so. But he had been brought home too early in the year and the weather had turned cold and had lowered his resistance. But the actual cause of his death was strange, or at any rate seemed so at that time, and I will relate it.
I saw him again, a day or two after the private view in the studio, for he was attached to me, and I was the last person to go out with him. One afternoon he fetched me for a drive. He was driving the vehicle himself— whatever it may have been; we sat very high up, I remember, with a groom at the back. Because of the unpopularity on the Continent of the Boer War, an unknown man had just made an attempt on the life of the Prince of Wales as he had been passing through Belgium on his way to visit Denmark, and my grandfather first called at Marlborough House, so that he could write his name in the book there. Then he took me in the growing dusk, through the streets of Pimlico, where the stalls, tended by costers, were lit by flares that flowed in the wind like ostrich plumes, to the door of a big yellow warehouse in which were sold parrots, cockatoos, and lovebirds.
The next day he fell ill, and died a few days later — it was said of pneumonia, but my father told me subsequently that this illness had been very rare, a form of pneumonia that could only be caught from parrots infected with it (the disease in fact which, when in after years it grew more common, was known as psittacosis). And he added that it had struck him as singular under these circumstances that the delirium of the dying man had consisted in a reversion to the time, many years previously, when he had visited Central and South America in his yacht, so that, as if influenced by the source of the germs he had contracted, he was perpetually traveling again on the wide rivers through the otherwise impenetrable forests of those tropical lands.
My sister, my brother, and I were sent down to stay with my grandmother Sitwell in her large honey-colored house in Surrey, set among commons and leafy lanes. Later my mother, and a friend or two to offer profane and comforting company in this secluded religious community, came down to join us. Sometimes, we would hear the grown-up people talking anxiously of business and family affairs. Where, they asked, where would my grandmother Londesborough live? And they would go and look for houses for her. My grandfather had left no personalty; Francis, they said, would be “badly off ” now he had succeeded: he would only have forty thousand a year at first to spend, though eventually sixty. Taxes were so high. They looked worried.
Meanwhile my father’s mind, absorbed as ever by so many affairs, was still following, among other tracks, the pictorial. Sargent had not, for all my father’s admiration for him, converted him to Impressionism.
In a long, cross letter to Turnbull, dated May 26, 1900, concerned mainly with coal leases and having in it such sentences as “Wardell’s coal report is to my belief the first I have seen, and is not what I want,” “I have long felt I have not sufficient information or control about my mineral affairs. I should have copies of all letters, so that I can interfere whenever I think interference necessary,” and much more of the same sort, we are, at the end, rewarded with a fitful gleam of aesthetic illumination: —
I am sending the quarry leases, and should also thank you very much for the Sieveking book In Praise of Gardens. ... I have been finishing Lecky’s Map of Life and Stevenson’s Velasquez. The latter is an excellent statement of the “impressionist” case, but has left me more prejudiced against impressionism than I was before. They seem to make truth of visual impression their one aim, and to turn up their noses at the highest qualities of a painter — imagination and a sense of beauty. No doubt the scientific problems of painting want working out, but the greatest art is to paint what one does not see. — Yours very sincerely, GEORGE R, SITWELL.
So that is — or was — that!
THE picture still hangs I wonder for how long? — in the house in which I write these words. A few people occasionally look at it as they pass, and one or two inquire, “ Is that a Sargent ?" My mother is indeed exquisite in it; though Sargent was inclined to see in every woman he painted the reflection — which he himself projected — of Mrs. Charles Hunter, of whom he made so many portraits. Upon all his female sitters he liked to bestow a little of her massive, embalmed, and enameled beauty; whereas my mother’s looks — which sometimes recalled a form in one of Michelangelo’s frescoes, by the attitude which came naturally to her, and by the turn of her head and body — resided in her line, in her beautifully shaped features, and small head set so elegantly upon her graceful neck and tall figure, and in her carriage, which was, perhaps, in part the result of her having as a child been taught “dancing and deportment” by the great Taglioni.
On the whole, then, the picture is impressive; the tapestry, clothes, and furniture are rendered with a brilliance that is undeniable, the people themselves with a kind of uncomprehending scintillation, which, because the element of caricature, always present in the work of this portraitist, has its emphasis in the wrong place, yet lets in the light all the more clearly. The tapestry of the background is mysterious as one of the wind-blown arrases, covered with arabesques, in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The figure of Justice, with sword and scales, hovers, just out of sight, above the heads of my father and mother, and the wooden stiffness of the figures, which is the fault of the picture, is also its merit, imparting to it a sense of expectation. They are frozen in this cataleptic immobility only for an instant in time, and will presently thaw to life. A feeling of tension broods in the stillness and darkness.
In the year that intervened between the painting and the exhibition of the picture, much had happened. An age had come to an end.
At Scarborough the following January, a tolling of bells at seven in the evening announced the death of the old Queen. “What shall we do now?” I heard people say in perplexity; for the loss was something in which no man born and brought up in that long reign could altogether believe. The people mourned sincerely, but perhaps a few inwardly rejoiced at the overthrowing of the prim barriers of the Victorian conventions. Now it would be possible to live in the shell of these, in the space hollowed out behind them, as a wasp lives in a peach.
The ageing heir to the throne had at last inherited it. Within a few years it was boasted that nothing remained of the Victorian Age! Yet this was not true, though those who made it may have believed the statement, for henceforth it lived in the bones of English men and women, who could no more be deprived of it, with all its faults and virtues, than of the Elizabethan era, to which it provided so remarkable and strait-laced a sequel. But the Rich Man’s Banquet, which was to last for a decade, had now begun: the feast, it was recognized, went to the greediest. And Sargent was to be the recorder of it in paint, as Veronese had been of the Age of Opulence in Venice.
But Beauty, today, was not everything — indeed, anything. The Venetians had lavished their fortunes upon the building of palaces and gardens, upon brocades and jewels in lovely settings, upon masques and entertainments of an exquisite loveliness: the Edwardians squandered their accumulated riches at the shrine of the strange new goddess Comfort; they spent them on the gilding of pathetic but vulgar dreams from South Africa and the Ghetto, on the installation of bathrooms, electric fight, and radiators. (When the wife, noted for her malapropisms, of an American millionaire of the time, whose daughter had just married an English peer, remarked of her husband’s generosity to the bride, “Where another father would have placed a diamond pendant, Mr. X installed an electric elevator,” she knew of what she was talking.)
They had waited, among other things, for Sargent to record them, and he snatched many of them from Time’s effacement; the aristocrat with his top hat and riding whip, his handsome ram’s head and air of dowdy elegance, the fashionable beauties who were beautiful, but in so unstylized and fade a manner that it was almost impossible to formulate them upon canvas, and the fashionable beauties who were ugly and, so, much easier to paint. But all the women in his pictures are richly clothed and all have the same harpies’ hands, grasping and ineffectual, with long gray-green talons, and hold or allow to dangle the same arm’s-length white kid gloves. Then there are the generals, the statesmen, and the viceroys, and a ponderous and pondering author or two, with domed forehead and businessman’s jaw, looking out of presentation portraits in expensive frames.
Everything seemed still to be fixed and immutable. The wainscoting was very thick. Soon we were back at Renishaw, in a fife that somehow one knew had the patine of time upon it. The very nursery atmosphere itself was impregnated with that of other times; one of the blankets on my bed bore the date 1801 on it, the rooms were full of plain oak chairs of the time of Charles I, and long, long ago a hand that was now dust had scratched a phrase in French, with a date, upon one of the windowpanes. Outside, in the passage, stood the large old rocking-horse upon which a former generation of children had been painted in 1836. It had lost one ear, so that it was more difficult to climb on to, but its rocking was as satisfactory as ever.
With this fifth installment the Atlantic concludes its serialization of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s book. The chapters selected for the magazine comprise two thirds of the text. We hope that not a few readers will wish to read LEFT HAND, RIGHT HAND! when it appears in book form later this spring.
Beginning in the June Atlantic
THE WORLD OF WASHINGTON IRVING By Van Wyck Brooks