Men I Have Painted/Lord Leighton

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 108f Lord Leighton.jpg


WHEN Lord Leighton's portrait was first exhibited, at the Goupil Gallery, I was standing looking at it, beside Joseph Pennell, who said, "I did not know before that he was a Jew." What is frequently concealed in the face itself is often revealed in a portrait. The movement of the muscles over the forms of the bones deceives the observer, but when everything is fixed and still, as in most portraits, the racial characteristics appear. Many have asked me if "General" Booth was a Jew, but I could always reply in the negative, because no trace of Israelitish blood appears in either of the two portraits I painted of him.

Lord Leighton had the talents of the race and all its virtues, even though an almost invisible line of that extraordinary and, shall I say, mystery blood flowed in his veins. He was a courtier, a persuasive orator, a graceful painter, and a forceful sculptor; a man of the world, a man of affairs, and, as President of the Royal Academy, unequalled in administrative ability. As upon George F. Watts, the sun of Italy had glowed upon his ambrosial curls, and he had brought from that home of Art and civilization the divine blessing of the goddess who presides there. Her spirit and influence were ever upon him, and he often left the cold and truly inhospitable climes of Albion to receive new inspiration at her shrine, the only shrine at which he worshipped.

The Jews are, many of them, supersensitive to that which seems to be implied in their race-name. Recently a Lord Chief Justice of England brought the subject up in open court, when counsel happened to say, "A Jew, I suppose?" The Judge asked, "What does that remark imply?" and followed with a lengthy comment upon the improper prejudice likely to be produced upon the mind of a jury by certain tones of voice and other subtleties of innuendo. Counsel, like a wise and prudent man, bowed to the remarks of the Judge, and agreed to a dictum which, if carried to the extreme, would not only lead to useless embarrassment in the conduct of a case, but to a positive fear of offending a judge by referring derogatively to the nationality of his people, were he Scot, Irish, American, or Jew.

What nation, it may be asked, has escaped the implication of ridicule and contempt conveyed in the intonation of its name? And are Christians spared by the Jew or the Mohammedan? The fact is that every people inhabiting this petty globe come under the lash of the scornful and contemptuous tongue of every other people. To be called an American in a rising inflection of the voice today, when Americans stand as the inheritors of all that is highest and noblest in civilization and purest in religious impulses, is more unexpected and unreasonable than to be called a Jew. When all is considered, what has Israel to complain of? Is not its history the history of the human race? Is not its God the God of all the nations of the earth? Is not the Messiah a direct descendant of Abraham and David? If the acquisitiveness of some of its people has caused resentment in the other peoples, that feeling is not ill-founded.

The sketch I made of Henry Irving shows that he was a Jew, and an amusing story connected with this is related in his monograph.

I cannot say that my first impression of Lord Leighton, the day Onslow Ford took me to his house, in Holland Park Road, was favourable to him. He was courteous and affable, but I cannot say he was kindly. Very few people are kindly; and no assumption of that virtue, in face, manner, or tone, will deceive anyone to whom real kindliness is necessary. Many kindly men are, at times, distant, cold, forbidding, and rude; in fact, the kind man can be cruel. The man who is proverbially courteous to all, and at all times, is a hollow and selfish mask.

And I did not like his appearance or his dress, the mode of his hair, a certain kind of classical beauty—or imitation of it. The cut of his clothes created the impression that he had no real tradition behind him. At that time—and ever after—Leighton looked upon Whistler as a queer fish, amusing no doubt, but to be suspected, both in his manners and in his Art. The odd part of all this is that the two men, though so entirely different, were alike in their differences. Recalling them now, as two figures, standing side by side, the stamp of complete unconventionality is upon each. Both wore long hair, one in curls, the other in ringlets; one had a white lock, the other white streaks; the hats, coats, trousers, and shoes all differed, but then they differed from all other hats, coats, trousers, and shoes. This unity of purpose, diversely expressed, had a similar impulse in dissimilar minds, the impulse to be artists in everything, even in appearance. Here were two men of similar tastes, who could not savour each other's food. Leighton stood for English respectability, and sought the homage of the great. Whistler, a Bohemian malgré lui, stood for his own Art, and was looked upon as a sort of pariah by Philistines, both high and low.

Time sweeps away the excrescences, reduces all men, not to the forked radishes of Carlyle, but to a bag of bones, any two pairs of which are interchangeable.

Both men left their impression upon the world. The painter Leighton was also a great sculptor. The sketch for the man stretching—"The Sluggard" he called it—is a master-piece, hardly excelled in mediæval or modern Art. If his painting was too conventional, too academic, his design was full of grace and charm, and when he confined himself to such subjects as The Garden of the Hesperides and The Summer Moon he was at home, and could display his full, if limited, power. When he attempted the tragic, he failed. Whistler understood the limitations in Art and in himself, and was content to trifle in a masterly manner with subjects that Leighton would have disdained to consider. But he trifled seriously; his fame will be endless. It is sometimes easier to describe a man by contrasting him with another whose unlikeness is more a matter of degree than of plane.

After several visits to Leighton House I began to like Lord Leighton, and he became more friendly to me. I often wondered if he suspected me because I was an American. Americans do not, as a rule, address Englishmen in America with, "Oh! you're an Englishman!" Why are Americans in England not taken for granted? Among artists they have been fairly numerous and very conspicuous. Benjamin West arrived in London from Philadelphia and became President of the Royal Academy. John Copley, a Bostonian, lived in London and painted portraits. His son, Baron Lyndhurst, became Lord Chancellor of England, and a conspicuous figure. Stuart was a wandering portrait painter in the United Kingdom, and has left there many works that are now of great and increasing value. Leslie and Boughton were both Americans. Of my contemporaries I shall not speak.

Finally I thought that Lord Leighton might be added to the group of portraits of artists I had commenced, so I asked him for sittings. He said he had so little time because he gave all the hours he could spare from his official duties, that involved him in social obligations, to his pictures. But if I would not object to coming early in the morning he would give me an hour or so before breakfast, which he took at half-past ten. Then, without lunching, he had the whole day in the studio until five, when his brougham came, and he drove away.

That suited me perfectly, and I commenced work in a small room overlooking, from a latticed window, the Persian Court below, where the music of a trickling fountain played all day long. These were very happy mornings, and conversation flowed as freely as the fountain over many a field of Art. Now I can recall but one thing: when I mentioned the work of Franz Hals and the characteristic hands he painted, Leighton ejaculated, "Yes, and such hands!"

He told me I was wasting my time painting him.

At half-past ten breakfast was announced, and we went down to the dining-room. He had had his cup of tea at seven, and I could not have had much more, so we were both hungry. The breakfast was laid out in silver dishes on a round table, and by its side, and at Leighton's right hand, there was another smaller table with plates and knives and forks in reserve. There was no servant in attendance. Leighton helped himself and me with great deftness and ease, and passed the first dish, piping hot, across the table, on a hot plate. When the first course was finished we placed the used plates and forks on the reserve table and took fresh plates from it. Now there was one thing about these breakfasts that I shall not forget—the grilled bacon. It surpassed any bacon I have ever seen or tasted, and I can compare it—may the roses forgive me!—only to the pink petals of some rather large and strange rose that had fallen to pieces in the dish. I do not say that it tasted like rose leaves, or smelled either like pot-pourri or attar of roses: and of this I am very glad, because my appetite demanded something less delicately fragrant, and more substantial and nourishing; but it was bacon cured à point, with the right flavour of smoking peat, and cooked lightly and lovingly by some experienced chef de cuisine. The dinners, you ask? Well, they were excellent; but I have had others, the most remarkable of which does not enter here, for I did not paint the host: he was by far too rich to think of having his portrait done.

Those breakfasts were the undoing of the portrait, for from the time I sat down to work I could think of nothing but the coffee and bacon, and I was so constantly on the qui vive for the first word of announcement, or the first faint odour of bacon, which, of course, in that well-regulated establishment, never was allowed to go anywhere but up the chimney, that my work suffered from the persistent distraction, and failed miserably.

Only one incident occurred that is worthy to be related. One morning Val Prinsep—who lived next door to Leighton, and who, as well as being a painter, was the husband of the daughter of Leland, for whom Whistler painted the celebrated Peacock Room, and of whom he also painted, and in his best manner, a large caricature, as a cloven-footed and horned devil, sitting strumming on a piano, with large purses on the floor and piano, inscribed "filthy lucre," which picture now hangs in the drawing-room of Mrs. Spreckles, of San Francisco—came in to breakfast, and a talk began between him and Leighton upon some of the painters of the day. They agreed with Ruskin's criticisms, or rather abuse, of Whistler's work, and thought he was amply rewarded in the libel suit by a farthing. There might be some merit in his etchings, and a little to like in the Valparaiso Bay, but as for the Connie Gilchrist, with the skipping-rope, that was an unforgivable impertinence.

But when they came to Sargent, I pricked up my ears and listened, to my utter bewilderment, to such a tirade of abuse of that unfortunate man's style, that I began at last to offer a protest, and to defend critically an Art which then seemed to outshine in brilliancy and in dashing technique the work of any other. It then transpired that Lord Leighton agreed with Prinsep about Sargent, and predicted for him, as well as for all the modern French school, beginning with Manet and ending with Monet, a well-merited oblivion within a few years. "These fellows think I do not understand them, that I am not in the movement, and never can be," said Leighton. "That is not the case. I understand perfectly what they are driving at, but this thing is not for me; I simply do not like it. As for Sargent, he will go no further. They talk of electing him to the Academy, but that will never be." "Never," chimed in Prinsep, with determination and will, as he drew himself up in his chair, and planted his two doubled-up fists down on the table.

"Don't you think they will have to elect him some day? Most of the young men admire him, and even one of the older members of the Academy," I ventured rather timidly. "No! no! Not at all. We do not want him; his influence is bad. Look at his drawing, his colour! The long, skinny arms and fantastic, pink fingers are enough to frighten any woman away from his studio—and his great brush-sweeps, mere daubs without meaning." "But," I murmured, when the chance permitted, in a lull, "you might have said the same of Sir Joshua, of Raeburn, and, more particularly, of Romney. Are not Romney's portraits as freely painted, without Sargent's accuracy of drawing? "Pooh! pooh! mere chance and guesswork. He relies upon accidental tints and colours and blendings to produce an effect, without any solid basis of drawing, or painstaking execution." And so they continued without a single word of praise for work which had already been acclaimed in Paris, and was attracting in the more conservative quarters of London an attention that was soon to develop into admiration, and ultimately to create a school of portraiture that became universal.

These two men were both sincere. Apart from that spontaneous and irresistible jealousy and chagrin that men of established position often feel at the too sudden flaring up of youthful genius which casts a shadow upon them, and tends to relegate them to comparative obscurity, there could have been no motive underlying this frank expression of feeling. Did they think that the prestige of English Art was endangered?

In Lord Leighton the Academy lost a great president. He lived and worked in the last days of traditions and conservatism. His contemporaries were Gladstone, Beaconsfield, Salisbury, and Chamberlain—the men who framed the Constitution of England on purely Conservative lines. Since their time chaos has reigned in Art as in politics.