Men I Have Painted/Foreword
IT were well could one of the "Men I have painted" take up the pen and contribute a character sketch of the "Man who has painted me": for among all these living and admirable studies, it is doubtful if there is one individuality more unusual or more interesting than that of the writer himself. To me, the lucky chance (if anything in this world is chance) that brought John McLure Hamilton to my Hawarden home in the early 'nineties was invaluable, for it was the beginning of a deeply valued friendship, of an intercourse rich in experience. Had I the pen of a De Morgan, let alone the tongue of men and angels, a book might have been written on the five (in their different ways) unique members of this family, a book which would have surpassed even Joseph Vance or Alice for Short. May I hope to have the chance in another world.
I can never forget the moment when Mr. Hamilton, after a day or two spent anonymously in the Temple of Peace (Hawarden Castle), came into the library and asked us to come and look at his picture. I must first explain that Mr. Gladstone had a habit of concentration, acquired by long years of self-discipline, that resulted in complete ignorance of the presence of others, were they strangers or friends, in his room. So long as they read or worked in silence, his absorption would make him totally unaware of their presence.
To the immortal "Signor" (George Frederick Watts) he sat, in Little Holland House, no less than forty times, for a portrait that the artist eventually destroyed. This tragic experience had led to the determination, on Mr. Gladstone's part, never to sit to an artist again. From this time forward the only chance given was for the unfortunate man to steal silently into the room and work, as best he could, from what he saw—Mr. Gladstone at his writing-table bending over his papers, or seated in his armchair absorbed in his book. The last adventure we had had with a painter, who seemed glad to come under these conditions, resulted in a fancy portrait. Instead of painting what he saw, he placed Mr. G. in heroic attitude, standing on the terrace of the House of Commons, gazing over the river! With this absurd picture in my mind, we followed Mr. Hamilton into the Temple of Peace—literally with our hearts in our boots. The very first glance at the famous portrait (now in the Luxembourg) was arresting and delightful. For there was the man exactly as we knew him—exactly as day after day we saw him. He sat in the corner of the window, his customary place, the light that fell on his book reflected back on his face. Here was no fancy picture, but one of familiar everyday use—precious for all time, for us and for those that come after us, the man as he actually was—intent—unconscious.
Only last year I was reminded of the episode. Lord Halifax was sitting for his portrait. Mr. Hamilton had just left the house; the picture was brought to Lord Halifax. He gazed at it. "Why, it's me!" he said, intense astonishment in his voice.
When Olive Schreiner, aged seventeen, wrote the South African Farm, some among her friends were disappointed she had not called more upon her imagination and described wild and thrilling adventures, as her country might have suggested. "Such works," she says in her Preface to this wonderful book, "are best written in Piccadilly or the Strand; there the gifts of creative imagination, untrammelled by contact with fact, may spread their wings. Those brilliant phases and shapes are not for her to portray. Sadly she must squeeze the colour from her brush. She must paint what lies before her." These words might have been written by Mr. Hamilton. He is intensely real. He is a true impressionist. He paints what he sees, and as he sees it, and not as he imagines it. He paints the real, though the ideal may unwittingly be sometimes included. It is the same with his book. I have only heard fragments of it, but enough to show me its chief characteristic. It bears the hall-mark of reality, of sincerity, of truth. The book is alive—it will live.
I feel it a privilege to have been asked to contribute this word.