Men I Have Painted/Richard Vaux
WALKING with my son, in Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, one day long ago, when the boy's curls were still hanging over his small shoulders, I said to him, "Do you see that tall old man over there with long hair like yours? That is Mr. Richard Vaux, Mayor of Philadelphia. Go over and speak to him, and tell him that your father has sent you to greet him with the message that he will be at his office at eleven o'clock for a sitting for the portrait. He will understand. I want to see you standing together."
And a remarkable sight it was to see the tall and erect figure of Richard Vaux, one of the great characters of the city, bend over to the little boy with golden curls and take his hand. The flowing, ash-coloured hair of the Mayor had a crinkle in it that held it out, fan-like, beneath a broad-brimmed silk hat, whose crown was much too tall and elegant to be the hat of a Quaker. The tight-fitting, closely buttoned frock-coat, with ample skirt that hung shapely over trousers that wrinkled upon the instep of polished low shoes, tied with bows, made up a personality that had no counterpart in that or any other city. The Gladstone collar should not be forgotten, although to call Richard Vaux's collar a Gladstone was post-dating a style—a sort of atrophy of the old stock—used in America when Gladstone was an Oxford undergraduate. The background to these two strongly contrasted, and yet characteristically similar, figures was the display of roses and lilies in the window of Pennock's flower shop; and the peculiar picturesqueness of the scene began soon to attract the attention of passers-by, from whose curiosity and admiration I had to rescue them by taking the boy away.
At eleven o'clock I was admitted to the law offices of the distinguished old Quaker, where a portrait, already half finished, was waiting on the easel for the morning's work. The room was indescribable. A faint notion of its character can be obtained from the portrait, in which the accessories are rendered as faithfully in regard to condition and disposition as could be; for Mr. Vaux did not limit me either in the number or extent of the sittings, and I prolonged them purposely, in order to obtain as much of the detail as possible, and also for the pleasure he always gave me by talking, more or less at random, upon politics, signs of the times, philosophy, and religion. One of his favourite and persistent ejaculations was, "I can hear the ringing of the spurs and the clanking of the sword of the man on horseback." As the Republican Party was always in power in Pennsylvania, he had come to the conclusion that a military dictatorship would be necessary to dislodge it.
Between puffs at his cigar—there is one lighted and smoking on the table in the portrait—he would vent his views on the iniquities of all sorts perpetrated by the administrators of the city. He liked the sittings, because he found in me a sympathetic listener. The room was hazy with smoke, through which its unusual picturesqueness appealed to me as no other lawyer's office could do. Those that I have seen in America have been too spick and span, too well ordered, and the books too obviously new, in conventional yellow calf or sheep-skin, with bright red labels.
These were all faded, musty tomes, beautified by age and dust and repose—for Mr. Vaux had given up the practice of the law—and they were so numerous that the shelves and chairs and floors were encumbered by them. Here and there packages of bright blue and green pamphlets, lying loosely about and under the tables, gave a little colour to a scene of soft browns and smoky grays.
In downright picturesqueness, Richard Vaux, in his study, surpassed Mr. Gladstone in the Temple of Peace. And it was not premeditated, for although Mr. Vaux had been President of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, when the Academy building was in Chestnut Street, his artistic impulses were not strong, and he startled me one morning by asking abruptly, "What is the meaning of all this present-day Art talk? When I was President of the Academy no one ever gave Art a thought, and the picture galleries were always empty."
Richard Vaux was a democrat of the old school, which meant, in the Southern States, an aristocrat—an inconsistency in party names as curious as party shibboleths. He believed in tariffs for revenue only, and abhorred protection. His father had extracted from him a promise in his youth that he would never enter a theatre; and although he must have been often tempted to join theatre parties while he was attaché to the American legation in London, he never broke the promise. He was over eighty years of age when I painted him.
When speaking of religion he broke into the discussion by thumping his hand down upon a book, exclaiming, "I believe this book from cover to cover." It was the Bible.