Men I Have Painted/Onslow Ford
WHO can describe this gentle and amiable man? With the allure of the garçon du Quartier Latin, although I believe he studied only for a short time in Paris, his inner personality was that of a true-born, loyal Briton, with that intense love of home and of family life which is characteristic of the race. He was all his life dominated by two strong affections—love of his family and love of Art; and, as is usual where a man is not single-hearted in his loves, jealousies and conflicts occurred between the rival passions. But he was strong and patient in the depths of a nature that on the surface was so frail and fragile, that it vibrated like the leaves of an aspen at each breath of wind or touch of sunshine.
He was born to enjoy much, and to suffer much. His life was comparable to the ever-restless seas that pass from buoyancy to calm, and from calm to storm, under the changing moods of mobile skies. We met in early life, and we walked side by side in joy and in sorrow until he died, nearly twenty years ago. He moulded his Follies and his Singers, "little waxen figures," as a "friendly critic" once called them, and I limned my little portraits of big men; and we both were happy at our work and in our homes.
We mingled in the throngs of men in Piccadilly or on the Boulevards like two exotics, our pointed beards and long moustaches ébouriffées, hats with straight brims, à la Whistler, pegtop trousers, and square-toed low shoes, with silken ties making us more at home sur les Boulevards than in Piccadilly. I was the first to degenerate into the normal style, but Ford hung on to the flowing tie until the last, and in the height of his success he had his imitators. I shall never forget the effect he produced in Chatham, at the time of the unveiling of his statue to Gordon, as he walked alone down the main street, upon the provincial populace of that truly British town, who greeted him with shouts of "Frenchy!" quite unconscious of the fact that they were acclaiming the hero of the hour.
Onslow Ford, as I have said, was in no sense a Frenchman, either in blood, in habits, or in education. He studied in Munich, the most artistic of all the towns of Germany, where he at first made so little progress in drawing and painting that one of his heartless teachers told him to return to his home and take up shoemaking. He followed his advice in part, gave up drawing and painting, and entered the studio of a sculptor. Here he found the bent of his mind, and followed it with success, which proves that talent must be trained in the direction of its growth, and not against it.
It was not long before his work began to attract the attention it deserved. The Royal Academy welcomed him as a member, and one important commission after another followed in close succession. But it is not so much as an artist that I wish to consider him, but as a man. His Shelley, at Oxford, is a beautiful and pathetic figure, but the two works that I love are Folly, the first of the small bronzes, and the last marble, A Snowflake. The latter, a frail young girl, seems to be melting out of life, just as the creator himself melted slowly away. It was his last work. How typical are these two statues of his nature and his life! He admired frost and dreaded it. To him heat was life, and cold death.
He both gave and received friendship. His was that rare and perfect amity that anticipated desire and hastened to gratify it almost before the friend was conscious of a want. It was l'âme that spoke from the inner consciousness of a dependent nature, the only lovable nature.
He was intensely religious. He worshipped the emotions of beauty, love, charity, fidelity, loyalty. One incident in his life will reveal the tenderness and gentleness of his disposition. A celebrated athlete, named Jones, a runner who had outstripped Lightfoot, the Indian, had been converted at a Moody and Sankey meeting, and gave up the ring to be an evangelist. Finding that this did not enable him to provide for his wife and family, he became a model. Having overstrained his lungs in running, he developed consumption and wasted slowly over a period of years. During this time Ford and I employed him to sit for us, and as we permitted Jones to talk upon his religious experiences, the former pugilist conceived a great liking for both of us. Once on returning from a journey I was hurriedly visited by Ford, who begged me to go with him at once to see the dying Jones, whom he had been caring for and comforting in my absence.
When we entered his room we found the poor man, a living skeleton, lying on his back, breathing his last. Only his eyes seemed to be alive, and on seeing us they filled with a joyful light that seemed to illumine supernaturally his shrunken and pallid face. Seating ourselves one on each side of him and taking his waxlike hands, we bent down to hear his last few words of adieu, of faith and hope. While he was speaking, the notes of the hymn "Nearer, my God, to Thee" were wafted from the street below through the open windows. Turning suddenly upon his side, he breathed a long and contented sigh, and died.