Open main menu

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 090f John Tyndall.jpg


JOHN TYNDALL was one of that remarkable group of scientists who dragged Truth from her hiding-place and exposed her, shrinking, to the astonished gaze of gaping multitudes. Falsehood, like all vicious, brazen things, shrieked her shrill protest: Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall, standing shoulder to shoulder, stoutly defended the new-found Truth from the vicious attacks of the vixen and her votaries.

John Tyndall was the freest, frankest, and most open-minded man I have ever met. Épanouissement, the act of opening out, expresses his nature better than any English word I can think of. He met you and greeted you like the fresh, pine-scented breeze that blows over his beloved hills of Hindhead.

Tyndall built himself two nests—one on Hindhead, overlooking the Devil's Punch Bowl, the other far up on the high Alps. It was in the latter place that he made the experiments which determined that life is not due to spontaneous generation, that where no life is, no life can be derived; and there for many years he passed the summers, climbing the peaks that rose from the snows and glaciers of the Matterhorn. He built the house which became his permanent home among the heather and pines of that high range of hills that receive the last breath of the sea winds as they pass northward from the English Channel over the downs that overlook the Isle of Wight.

He loved to be isolated with Nature. When Tyndall first went to Hindhead there were no houses on that bleak bit of moorland, no human folk, save a few wandering gipsies, to remind him of the existence of coal-sodden cities. The air was not polluted with unburnt carbon, and there was no veil of grey smoke, which the ignorant call fog, to dim the horizon that outlined, in clear-cut purple masses, the changing skies that gave him, night and day, a spectacle always sublime and often magnificent. Here he could walk, unseen by other men, on the dry sand of the hill-tops, and study the creatures that burrowed in it, or the wild plants that matted its surface. But this dream of bliss, of splendid isolation in Nature's solitudes, was soon to be disturbed and turned into a nightmare.

By building a house in the distant haunts of Nature's wild things Tyndall had unwittingly advertised the spot, and its unquestioned purity of air. Instead of purchasing a sufficiently large tract of land to ensure his isolation, he confined himself to a moderate acreage, never for a moment thinking that anyone would come to such a lonely place. When it was too late to correct his error of judgment, he one day discovered workmen constructing a house within two hundred yards of his windows and immediately on the other side of the boundary of his property. He spared no effort to dissuade the new-comer from his design, but without avail. In a few weeks' time he found the view from his southern windows and from his garden blemished by the roof of a suburban-like villa, and, what was really far more disturbing to him, his sense of isolation gone. He now did something that to me seemed perfectly natural—he caused to be built a large screen, to imitate in its contour the appearance of growing pine-trees, and he fringed the sides with pine-branches to give it the effect of reality. He also planted small pines and firs around the screen and along the edge of his property to form natural barriers against the invasion of oncoming villas, for they began to multiply rapidly. Viewed from the road approaching Hindhead the screen was an eyesore, and it caused a feeling of irritation among the good people of Haslemere who were in the habit of making excursions to the Devil's Punch Bowl. The screen was only remarkable because of the place, for similar shields of all sorts are put up in the gardens and parks of great estates every day without exciting any comment. Mrs. Tyndall gave me a long history of the transaction, and she aroused my sympathy and my indignation against the neighbour; for had he possessed a grain of neighbourly behaviour in his nature, he would have selected another spot just as good for his house, and out of view of Tyndall's.

This love of solitude which appeals so strongly to certain temperaments recalls a vivid imagination of my boyhood. The desire to be alone was so strong within me, that my idea of perfect happiness was to live in a planet all my own. I can now recall these visions of a time when I could see myself "paddling my own canoe" on a placid river overhung with flower-bearing trees and fruit-laden vines, where the stillness was broken only by the voices of birds. And if Edgar Allan Poe's theory, as explained by Agathos to Einos, be true, that motion creates, and that the source of all motion is thought, who may gainsay that my boyish thought may not have created a planet somewhere in space that is to receive me in the evermore? How often have I sought the solitude of the forest with my gun, where the mysterious and whispering music of insects was broken only by the occasional whirring of the partridge, and where I lingered in its depths until the last rays of the sun have warned me, by their deep red glow on the bark of leafless trees, that night would overtake me if I did not retrace my paths and seek the protection of humankind. On several different occasions Nature has seemed to reveal to my eyes alone spectacles of entrancing splendour that she would not grant to less discerning faculties, lest her chastity be outraged by imperfect worship; and so I found myself in complete harmony with the sentiments of this great thinker and dreamer of Hindhead.

I lived at "The Hut" near by while I was painting the portrait of Tyndall. One day at dinner a guest at the inn, who was sitting not far from me, on the same side of the table, handed me a glass with a yellow liquid in it, and asked me what it was, saying that he had ordered ginger beer, but that there seemed to be something wrong with it. After a whiff at the glass, I replied that most men would think that there was something right about it, because it was whisky. "Oh my!" he replied, "I'm a teetotaller, and I have drunk nearly all of it; it is a large glass, and it was full." "And that is what you will be, I should think, very shortly," I replied.

Noticing something very familiar in his face, I asked him if he happened to be Dr. Porter, of Philadelphia. "No," he replied, "I have never been to America, but at the same time I know you." "Well," said I, "if you are not Dr. Porter, whom you strangely resemble, I cannot imagine how you can know me." "I have been in your house—Alpha House—to see you about your portrait of Mr. Gladstone. You permitted me, afterwards, to introduce it in a volume of his speeches that I was editing. My name is Hutton."

While I lived at "The Hut" I lunched daily with the Professor and Mrs. Tyndall. Professor Tyndall had been suffering for a long time from insomnia. He had discovered, he thought, in the peculiar tissue of calf's head and tripe a narcotic principle of sufficient strength to compose him for sleep. This formed the staple of his diet, and the dishes were prepared under the supervision of Mrs. Tyndall, whose devotion to her husband amounted to idolatry.

At that time an invalid, Tyndall passed the day in a dressing-gown, reclining for the greater part of it on a couch in one of the libraries. I regret that there is no record of his conversation, for he was a fluent and willing talker, eager to instruct or amuse me while I painted. He touched frequently upon belief and unbelief, and I often seemed to detect a kind of apology for his attitude of "I don't know." He was not so uncompromising in his attitude as Darwin, who, one day after a long discussion upon religion at table, rose from his chair, and throwing his long leg over the back of it and planting his foot firmly down in the seat, said to Tyndall reproachfully, "Why, I believe you still hang on to some shreds of belief!" Tyndall replied that it was not so, but that he was ready to affirm nothing: he had neither proof nor disproof of the existence of God; he simply did not know. It was at this time that the controversy on miracles between Gladstone and Huxley was at its height, and the subject was uppermost with a good many people. To my query, "Don't you think the need of a God is so strong in the mind of the race, that the mere desire itself would assume such force and volume that it would create a Providence?" He replied by quoting Napoleon's saying, "If there had not been any God, men would certainly have had to invent one."

In the library one day, while I was painting and he was talking on the same subject, he swept his arm around the room, and said, "You must not think that I speak without knowledge of the subject—that, like many who simply say 'I do not believe,' I have not studied it. Look at the titles of these books; all, or almost all, in this room are works on religion. I have made myself master of the thought of theologians of all times and of all creeds. I do not speak idly and ignorantly." Such was the point of view of the scientist. Every rational mind must agree with the deductions drawn from an investigation of natural processes, yet the wisdom of men may possibly be foolishness to God. Tyndall held that there was no such thing as absolute truth, that all things seemed to possess two qualities—activity and change. What the final activity and the final change may be who can tell?

A Hair, they say, divides the False and True;
Yes; and a single Alif were the clue,
Could you but find it, to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to the Master too;

Whose secret Presence, through Creation's veins
Running, Quicksilver-like eludes your pains:
Taking all shapes from Máh to Máhi; and
They change and perish all—but He remains.

Not long ago I asked a young man who had been a Presbyterian, and who had gone over to Rome with the intention of becoming a monk—he has not yet put on the cowl—if there was any proof to be given in favour of agnosticism, of unbelief. He answered, "None." I then asked, "Is there any real proof of the Divinity of Christ?" and he answered, "None." On referring him to the strange fact of the conversion of St. Paul, he said, "That may have been an illusion." I merely remarked that these were unlooked-for answers from a Roman Catholic. However, if the essence of faith is a belief in things unseen, his answers could not have been different. Yet "I know that my Redeemer liveth" is not said idly by multitudes of sane men and women.

There are still a good many things that we know nothing about—water is one and life is another. The two, as a matter of fact, are inseparable—life cannot exist without water. Of all the emotions there are two that differ from the others, and they are inexplicable upon any rational hypothesis. These are Profane and Divine Love. Profane love is common to the animals and man, and is conspicuous as a sentiment among birds. When I speak of love I do not mean lust, or even desire—I mean that emotion which causes two birds to select among thousands a mate: that fidelity which makes the wild grey goose of a certain species to mate but once. The emotion of profane love is identical in its effects with the emotion produced by conversion.[1] It inspires a feeling of goodwill towards men. In spite of the fact that Seneca has written that love is a disease and a weakness to which no self-respecting man would succumb, it is a matter of knowledge that innumerable strong men of high character have fallen under its spell. No one can truthfully say that St. Paul was a dreamer, a visionary, or a fool. He plainly says that he was stricken suddenly, and became a convert to the truth of God. His life was changed from that moment. His story is the story of numberless men and women of good sense and repute in all Christian Churches. This is a matter for students of mind. Here are two emotions of the mind as mysterious as life itself. The searchers for the origin of life should not arrogate to themselves too much—they should wait until they know what life is, what thought is, and what emotion is. And they are still a long way off. "Can ye by seeking find out God?"

It is not a little remarkable that astronomers are religious men, and believers in a Divine direction of this vast universe, while scientists who deal with fossils and with biology are incredulous, and as a rule unbelievers. A knowledge of little things seems to be also a dangerous thing. One man looks out of a window and sees mud, another looks out and sees stars.

Tyndall took the safe ground, compromising, as it were, between the knowable and the unknowable. What his fearless and reasonable nature would have thought of the present-day creed that MAN is God I dare not consider.

A question of much greater importance to Tyndall at that time than belief and unbelief, and around which the political factions were raging, was Home Rule.

John Tyndall was a loyal Irishman; he understood perfectly the situation in Ireland, a situation which had grown out of the circumstances of its history. He knew that however unfortunate those circumstances may have been during the long centuries of the island's evolution, they had their origin in the turbulent character of the original peoples, and however unjust or unfair may have seemed to be the actions of the sovereigns of England, that the circumstances were inevitable, and that to give Home Rule to a house divided against itself would not unite it, but still further divide it. Upon this subject he conversed more energetically than upon any other—he was often vehement. At one time an admirer and supporter of Mr. Gladstone, he now had become one of his bitterest political foes. He wrote long letters to The Times, some of them so strong in tone that even that courageous newspaper would not publish them. I became frequently his courier, and carried the letters to London in order that they might reach sooner Printing House Square. Feeling ran higher and higher—one after another, Bright, Hartington, and Chamberlain seceded from the Liberal Party, and the Unionist Party was formed.

Tyndall has long been dead. We cannot know what he would now think of the Unionist Party, what he would think of Carson's surrender, of the acceptance of Home Rule by Ulster, of its probable rejection by the rest of Ireland, of the endless warfare.

Rising to a sitting position on his couch one day, after a more than usually vigorous denunciation of Home Rule, he burst forth, "Old as I am and ill as I am, the strength will be given to me to take that musket," pointing to an old gun on the wall, "and carry it across to Ireland to join the ranks of the loyalists."

Two portraits are the result of my visit to Hindhead. One was presented to the National Portrait Gallery by Mrs. Tyndall, and the other she retained. She thought she gave the best one to the nation, but I preferred the other.

Mrs. Tyndall made my visit agreeable and interesting. We drove to many places in the neighbourhood—to the James' really attractive rock garden, to hear Mr. Jackson play on his great organ.

My friend Walter Tyndale then lived in Haslemere, and I often walked down to the village to see him. He was, and is, an ardent Home Ruler. It was Walter Tyndale who, at the Grey House, Hornton Street, first discussed the question with me, and it was then that I instinctively took the side of Ulster. How could I help it? Two of my grandparents were born near Ballymena, in County Antrim.

  1. The following story of Dorothy Drew, aged eight, will perfectly illustrate this difference in emotion. She was devoted to a certain young doctor staying at the Castle. Her mother said to her, "How do you love him? Is it 'love' or 'in love'?" "Oh, it's love," the child replied. "What is the difference?" said her mother. "Love is being friends like I am with Mrs. Toiler—'in love' you change."