Men I Have Painted/The King

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 022f King George V.jpg


A SHORT time before the coronation of King George V an idea was conceived by Mr. Donald, of the Daily Chronicle, that the members of the Senefelder Club, of which Mr. Joseph Pennell was the president, could take part in the celebration of that event by making a series of lithographs commemorative of some of the incidents connected with it. Mr. Jackson was selected to make a drawing of the Queen, and I of the King.

After some negotiations with the chamberlain, sittings were agreed to, and I received a note from Sir William Carrington to call at Buckingham Palace. I found Sir William in his very simply furnished office on the ground floor, where he instructed me how to proceed when His Majesty made an appointment. In due course the command came to attend at the Palace at eleven o'clock one morning. Sir William received me smilingly, and said, "I will conduct you to the room where you will work. The King may come in before noon. You should address him as 'Your Majesty' and see to it that you do not detain him more than twenty minutes, the time allowed"; and, as a final admonition, "Do not talk politics to him."

I was then left alone in a large central room on the second floor in the centre of the Palace and overlooking the avenue leading to Trafalgar Square. Immediately in front was the Memorial to Queen Victoria, by Brock. As the King did not come, I passed a few minutes sketching the view from the window looking down towards the Admiralty Arch in Trafalgar Square.

Some time before, I had witnessed the King proceeding in State to open Parliament from the platform of this monument, at the base of the Queen Victoria throne, and looked down upon the coach and horses as the King drove by, and upon the magnificent military guard and the vast concourse of people stretching along the avenues in all directions and over the grass of the Green Park. No better position for seeing this display of pomp and power could be imagined, and it was one of my lucky moments when I met the sculptor at the entrance door of the temporary studio that had been erected around the monument, and received a kind invitation for myself and Mrs. Hamilton to a place on the elevated platform. Few people realize how beautiful London is, but fewer still obtain the opportunity for observing from points of vantage the pageants and spectacles for which the great city forms so perfect a setting. I had time to reflect upon the spectacular character of life, and the peculiar part it plays in the economy of a nation, while I waited for the King to come. Presently Sir William Carrington returned to tell me that His Majesty had been called unexpectedly to a council meeting, and would not sit until after lunch; that I must have some, and he had ordered it up, so that I might be on hand should the King come in by chance. I told him I did not require lunch, and should work better without it. To this he hardly listened, hurrying away to his duties.

Time had fled rapidly—it was long after one o'clock, as I could see by the clock on the mantel, the clock that was to be almost my undoing a little later. Suddenly the two doors flew open with a whirr and two very tall men entered bearing trays which they put down on a table at the back of the room. The men must have been six feet three or four inches in height, and were resplendent in richly coloured liveries that shone like plush. They wore powdered hair, and silk stockings displayed well-shaped calves and ankles. Quickly placing the dishes in order on the table with a "Your luncheon is served, Sir," they silently and swiftly left me, bewildered by the unexpected splendour of their appearance. Had I rubbed Aladdin's lamp the genii could not have been more prompt in carrying out an order.

On the table were glistening glass and polished silver and damask naperies of snowlike whiteness. Covers had been removed from hot dishes containing lamb cutlets daintily trimmed and grilled and seasoned, the tenderest of fresh green peas, and other vegetables. Sweets that only a chef of genius could have devised, and hothouse fruits just picked from the royal conservatories with that virgin blue bloom upon them that rude fingers had not rubbed or spotted. There was nothing unusual or extravagant about this table. It was simply a thing well done.

In spite of the state of my nerves, I sat down to enjoy the sweet savour of the King's food, and lingered long over the luscious fruits and pale golden wine. The King at this hour must be lunching, I thought, so I did not hurry.

The room I was in was evidently used as a sort of studio, a place devoted to these casual and hasty sittings. There was a large model stand or throne with a chair on it, several easels, and an absence of furniture, so that moving about was not interfered with. While I was wondering who had been the last to give sittings, and to what artist, the King's valet came in and asked what dress or uniform I would require, and if I expected the King to change. I said an Admiral's dress-coat and hat would do, and that I would only ask the King to wear the hat. He went away and returned with a coat, a hat and a form; on the latter he buttoned up the coat, arranged its fold and decorations, admonishing me to be particular about the stars and their places on the coat, because the Royal Family were very punctilious about this most important matter. He told me how often artists made mistakes in the details of dress, and pointed several out to me in large portraits hanging on the walls. He had charge of the King's Wardrobe, and had made a study of the appropriate dress or uniform for each occasion or function. After he had left me, the tall footmen came to take away the trays. After another interval some one came to say the King was arriving. The prolonged waiting had begun to affect my nerves, and it was now with a certain tremulousness that I watched the great door.

I began to wonder exactly how His Majesty would come, whether alone or accompanied, when the two doors opened very quietly, a small middle-aged man in a simple black dress stood in the middle of the doorway and said in a quiet tone, "The King." Stepping to one side with a slight inclination of his body to allow a still smaller man, in a plain blue serge suit to pass, I was confronted with the King, who, advancing briskly towards me, with a slight smile and outstretched hand, asked what he could do for me. As he took my hand I said, "Please, your Majesty, to put on that admiral's hat, and stand upon the throne in any easy position." Stepping up on the throne, he took the hat from the chair, and slapping it on his head in rather a jaunty manner, he said, "May I smoke?" Without waiting for my reply he took out a cigarette case, struck a match, lighted a good large cigarette, and smoked.

I had forgotten the clock. With a start I noted the hour, and with my usual and fatal conscientiousness, kept looking at it at short intervals in order not to allow the minute hand to overrun the twenty-minute mark by a hair's breadth, I was sketching nervously and timidly, the King was talking and puffing at his cigarette, and the clock was ticking. I was asked all about the sketch, what it was for, who had ordered it, and if I had begun it from a photograph before coming to the Palace. "You see," he said, "I have so little time to give to each of the many sittings required of me, that the artists paint in a head from a photograph at home first, and bring it here in a proper state to work on from me. That gives them a chance of doing something." He seemed surprised that I had not brought an unfinished drawing. The minute hand of the clock had fallen over two minute marks, as they sometimes do on their downward course from three to four, and it was fast approaching four, which was the limit of the twenty minutes. We talked on, but the next time I looked at the clock I became confused, for the hour and the minute hand had merged into one, and after that I could not tell one from the other. This was all to my advantage, because the hour hand remained a little after three, while the minute hand went marching on. But the confusion of mind sadly interfered with my work, and presently, when the minute hand did clearly stand upon four, and I knew that the time was up, I rose in despair and said, "The twenty minutes are gone." "Oh!" said the King, "that does not matter. You may go on if you wish." Plumping myself down again on the stool, I began to draw, and inwardly to bless Sir William Carrington and the clock, and time itself, for having robbed me of my independence and my self-reliance. The King chatted on until I found the drawing could not be redeemed because of the bad beginning, and then I rose again. At this His Majesty came quietly to me, glanced at it, and began to talk about lithography. He was interested in hearing that any paper could be used, as well as that prepared by a sort of size, and forgot all about the time, for he continued to listen and to talk for another half-hour, taking me at last around the galleries and corridors where the portraits are hung, and calling my attention to this one by Angèle and that one by Winterhalter. At last we came to that delightful study of his father, King Edward VII, by Bastien-Lepage, and there I lingered to wonder at its great charm, its technique and colour, and mentally to contrast that art with the coarse and vulgar work of the modern school.

The King was positive in his views upon painting, and freely expressed them. He wondered if he would ever get a satisfactory portrait of himself, that Cope had done the best portrait of his father, but that nearly all portraits were unsatisfactory in one way or another. The conversation between us was easy and unrestrained, and the King seemed to be in no hurry to break it off. In the room where he posed there were several full-length portraits, among them one of the Tsar of Russia, the ill-fated Nicholas. In this portrait the stars and decorations on the breast were irregularly placed and out of their true order, and this His Majesty pointed out to me, with the comment that painters were very careless about these matters, which were as important as precedence in ceremonial.

The man was speaking about things that belonged to the ritual of the throne as though the monarch in him were a thing apart, another ego. For he was to me at that moment the man only, the man who had paced the quarter-deck, the sportsman who walked the turnips and cut out clean rights and lefts from the coveys of little brown birds, or stopped rocketing pheasants in a gale of wind. He could throw off kinghood with the robes of the Star and Garter, and assume simple manhood with a blue serge coat and a billycock hat.

And yet withal that spiritual presence of the monarch made itself felt, for without a vestige, that was apparent, of the bearing, the tone of voice, or the other conventional things that one usually associates with princes, and of which some cannot divest themselves, the august presence of the chief among princes impressed one with a sense of awe.

True kingship is a spiritual thing. From the time of the rule of the Priest-Kings to Julius Cæsar, with the civil sceptre in one hand, and the pontifical sacrificing knife in the other, the spiritual nature of the chief of the state was married to the civil nature, and in modern times the little father of all the Russians was not only the head of the Church but also the chief magistrate, with universal jurisdiction over the civil courts. The divorcement of the civil from the religious power has left some trace of each in the other, and will do, so long as parenthood, with its obligations, its joys, and its sorrows, continues to be the basis of human institutions.

The institution of monarchy is pivotal. The nation may loyally revolve around its centre in a cohesive mass—the attraction to the centre following the analogy of the creative force of nature, while other systems are for the most part centrifugal, the chief symptom of which is disintegration. Lord Halsbury considered an autocratic government to be the best of all governments if the autocrat be a good man. From this primitive and essentially spiritual system the best derivative appears to be a constitutional monarchy.