Four Stories High

The Poor Artist

Marcus Clarke

“‘THERE IS a follow who has been painting some picture,’ my editor had said, handing me a note written in a woman’s handwriting. ‘I wish you would go down and have a look at it. He wants a notice, or something.’ “Mr. Bell, artist, the studio, 3005 Bourke-street,” was on the printed card, and I called the next day. The studio was difficult to approach, for the building in Bourke-street was one of those overgrown places in which a dozen trades are carried on under one roof. The ground floor (bisected by the staircase) was occupied by a hairdressing tobacconist on the one side, and an umbrella-maker on the other. On the second floor, Messrs. Gripe and Squezem, solicitors and proctors, had established their offices. On the third floor, two working jewellers, an engraver, and a myall-wood pipe-maker burrowed together, and on the top of the fourth flight of stairs lived Mr. Bell. A glass door with the word ‘studio’ on it gave token of his artistic claims, and a sort of aerial conservatory strongly smelling of collodion, and littered with photographic portraits, betrayed his profession.

“Getting no reply to a knock at the studio door, I turned into the photographic-room, and, with an unpleasant feeling that someone was inspecting me from the purblind window of the ‘dark-house,’ sat upon a chair, and awaited the advent of somebody connected with the establishment. There is to me nothing more depressing to contemplate than the photographs of common-place people; for such folk—worthy citizens in ordinary working days—indulge, on such occasions, in such monstrosities of costume, and in such sadly ludicrous assumption of ease and wealth, that the tender-hearted spectator cannot but sigh at the horrible evidences of the prevalence of “Sham.” A “group” (Father, Mother, Mary, Jane, Tommy, Sukey, Jacky, and Baby) which, gorgeously painted, and framed in stamped leather-work to imitate oak, had attracted my attention by reason of the amount of gold leaf expended on the family electro-plate, caused me to wonder what artist could endure life among such vulgarities, when the door opened, and a middle-aged lady entered. She was dressed in greasy black, was busily rubbing her hands as though she had but just washed them, and from certain sucking noises made by the twitching of her lips, I concluded that I had disturbed her at an early dinner. When she saw that I was alone, a certain heartiness of welcome, which had marked her hasty entrance, vanished.

She had expected a “group,” perhaps.

“Is this Mr. Bell’s studio?” I asked.

“It is, sir.”

“I have—um—called to see a picture,” producing the letter.

“Oh! Certainly. From the Peacock office? Mr. Bell is out just now—my son, sir—but it’s in the stoodio. Will you sit down a moment? I didn’t expect you so soon. Dear, dear, if Tom had only been at home now!”

Mrs. Bell retired, and from certain whisperings which reached me, mingled with the muffled clattering of plates, I concluded that the studio was sometimes devoted to the study of the art of dining. Presently she reappeared in a clean apron and another cap (women can on occasions make such changes of costume with the rapidity of pantomimists), and smiling, led the way.

The studio was a large, bare room, hung round with casts of feet, clenched hands, and flowers. Some photographs were strewn upon a table. A violin depended from a nail. In one corner was a cupboard. The “dinner” was upon a tray with a cloth thrown over it. At the further end of the room stood an easel of portentous size, and on the easel stood It.

“I am so sorry Tom is out,” repeated Mrs Bell. “But he gives lessons, you see, sir, and he’s gone to Hawthorn this afternoon. You might wait, sir; but it is a long walk, and he started later than usual today. However, of course, you can judge, you know, sir, just as well; but I wish Tom had been here.”

I stood before the canvas. A tall man, dressed in flowing robes and crowned with feathers, occupied the centre of the picture, leaning on the arms of two other feather-bearers. Over the heads of the trio two brown, half-naked slaves held a canopy, which also sprouted with plumes. On the right hand, and in the extreme foreground, stood a man in armour, with a woman dressed in boy’s clothes holding the bridle of a horse whose nose only was visible. A priest talked to another man in armour on the left, and in the background arose the ruins of a windmill.

“Pray, madam, what is the subject of this work?”

“It’s Cortez, sir. Cortez meeting the King of Mexico after burning the capital.” The windmill, then, was a sacrificial tower.

One glance was enough. Had I been alone I should have turned on my heel and departed straightway. The figures were not in drawing, the background was not in perspective, the composition was common-place. But the anxious eyes and restless hands of the poor mother forbade me to quit without the utterance of some cheering platitude.

“Mr. Bell has spent some time over this?” I hazarded.

“Indeed he has, sir—worked at it from daylight till dark (often when he might have been earning money, too); but he’s devoted to his art, Tom is. You see, sir, he always had a taste for drawing, and went to a school of design, and that, and worked hard at it. Photography pays best, though, as I tell him, but he will be a painter, sir. He thinks—he hopes—oh, what do you think of it, sir?”

“Your son has been very careful.”

“He has, sir. The books he’s read to get ideas, too! But there, you see—I’ll send for Polly, she can talk about it better than I—Polly!”

Polly was evidently Mrs. Tom, and, unless my ears deceived me, I heard the querulous wail of a sickly infant from the adjoining room.

“She is quite an artist, Polly is,” said Mrs. Bell, as the dark-eyed, slim girl removed a paint-brush, which she blushingly remembered was sticking behind her ear. “Tom often says he wouldn’t know what to do without Polly.” It was evident that Polly coloured the photographs.

“I am sorry that Mr. Bell is out,” said she; “but—if you will allow me I will move it a little, so—now you get a better light, see. You know the story of Montezuma, sir?”

“I have heard it.”

“Mr. Bell has seized the moment when the fallen sovereign approaches leaning on the arms of his brothers. Cortez you see in the foreground with his wife, Marina, holding his horse. The priest on the left is Father Olmedo. Mr. Bell copied it from an engraving.”

“The head of the priest, you mean?”

“Yes,” she returned quickly; “the rest is quite original.”

There was a painful pause, and though I did not see the glance, I was conscious that the two women looked at each other with eyes unfavourable to me. They had divined that I did not appreciate Tom.

“Well, I will say good-morning,” I said at last. “Many thanks for your kindness.”

“Oh, it is no kindness, sir,” said Polly. “I, I hope you like the picture. Mr. Bell has set such hopes on it. He thinks it will make our fortunes, and though I am not so hopeful as that, I do think that he should get a good price for it.”

I looked at the thin face and the shabby gown, and said honestly that I hoped Mr. Bell would get a good price for it.

“I was thinking that some of the rich merchants might buy it,” she continued; “there are so many of them in Melbourne, but Mr. Bell says that it is a national work, and that the trustees of the Public Library ought to take it. Do you think it would be of any use to offer it to them?”

“I don’t know,” said I, knowing right well. “They might buy it; but then, you see, they have commissioners in London who purchase for them.”

“That is true,” assented Polly; “and, as I tell Tom, a national work should be something about Australia, shouldn’t it? But he says that Australia is mean and stupid, and that there is no romance about it. Of course High Art, you know, sir, is very exacting, and—but I am keeping you. I wish Mr. Bell had been here.”

What could one say under such circumstances? The picture was only, in journalistic phrase, “worth a paragraph,” but of what nature should that paragraph be? My duty was very plain. “We have seen a picture by Mr. T. Bell, The Meeting of Cortez and Montezuma. It is simply execrable.” Had Mr. Bell himself, blatant, rubicund, and self-conceited, bored me for an hour with a sermon upon his own merits, I could have written such a paragraph with a savage joy; had caprice of fortune brought me accidentally before the daub, I could have justly consigned it to limbo, but—with the memory of that struggling household, that hopeful mother, that plucky Polly, “who was quite an artist,”—it was not to be thought of.

“I saw that picture of that fellow’s,” I said to my editor that evening. “It is—well—it is deuced bad, but the poor fellow—struggling beggar, don’t you know?”

“Oh, confound him, yes,” said my editor, with roseate smile. “Let him down easy, poor devil.”

So I wrote my paragraph thus:—“We have been invited to inspect a picture by Mr. T. Bell. It represents The Meeting of Cortez and Montezuma. The Spanish conqueror stands, &c., &c., &c.; on the right, &c.; on the left, &c.; in the distance, &c. The subject of the painting has evidently been carefully considered by the artist, who has reproduced the scene as described by old Bernal Diaz with commendable accuracy. The figure of Marina is graceful, and the left nostril of the charger, &c., &c., &c. The painting will, we believe, be offered by Mr. Bell for sale in a few days.”

The next day I was visited by Mr. Bell. He was a thin, consumptive, young man, with dirty nails, long hair, and a red beard.

“I have come to thank you for the notice of my picture, sir,” he said, with a proud, constrained air; “but I am sorry that you did not see fit to mention the expression on the face of Montezuma.”

“Ah!” said I.

“But no matter—you write, of course, according to your lights. Now, having so favourably reviewed my work, I have come to you, sir, to ask you to help me to sell it.”

“Upon my word, Mr. Bell, I—”

“My dear sir, you are a writer, I am an artist. What need for more words. You will help me in this. In fact, just now, ha, ha!—you know Art is not appreciated here—well, in fact, I am rather poor—ha, and if that work could but be brought under the notice of men of taste, I am convinced, convinced, sir, that our little difficulties would be—.” Here a fit of coughing cut him short.

“Mr. Bell,” said I, “I will do anything I can to help you, but do not place your hopes of fortune upon the sale of that painting. It is” (my heart failed me)—“it is a subject unfamiliar to many. It does not appeal to public taste. It—in fact, there are reasons—”

“There are no reasons,” said Mr. Bell, tossing his long hair. “Look here, sir; I must walk to Kew to give a lesson in drawing to a pawnbroker’s daughter. I can’t stop now. Will you come up to my studio and have a pipe this evening?”

“Thank you, Mr. Bell, but—”

“But you are engaged, I can understand. You have many—”

“No, no—I will come,” I interposed, hastily, with a thought of the poor, proud fellow trudging to his accomplished pawnbroker’s. “Expect me.”

I went. We smoked, we drank Mrs. Polly’s tea, we talked. He was the feeblest of mediocrities, and those dear, good women believed him a genius and worked for him, and admired him, and loved him.

“If Tom only had a chance,” said Mrs. Bell the elder, stitching her stocking.

“This is such an envious place,” said Mrs. Bell the younger, stippling her photograph.

Tom smoked, and talked Art, and raved about his Mission, and the Genius that was in him, and which (with a bang of his wasted hand upon the table) should come out of him—“by God, sir!”

I suppose we have all met with those unhappy souls who, only powerful enough to admire, are cursed with a desire to create. I have often thought what a work might be written upon the lives of unsuccessful men. It is easy to revere the genius who succeeds, though it is probable that the man whom the world delights to honour has suffered some heart-pangs; but, oh! with what infinite tenderness and pity should we regard those poor, unsuccessful ones, who, tasting all the agony of martyrdom, die without having grasped the crown!

Cortez and Montezuma steadily decreased in the estimation of all who saw it. I lied (Heaven forgive me) like a friend for the man. The truth was sufficiently plain. Mr. Bell would never be an artist. He was an enthusiast in art, that was all. He could but “copy” at the best. Some might think it manly and just to say, “Tom, you are an ambitious incapable. Your great picture is not worth twopence. You would earn a better living for your wife and mother if you were a bootmaker or a saddler.” But I—seeing how gallantly the poor fellow strove to keep his silly noddle above water; how manfully he tramped through the mud to his vulgar patrons, and how sweetly these two good souls bore with the ill-temper caused by anxiety, sickness, and hope deferred—I did not, could not, wound them by the declaration of the cruel truth. I was an ass, dear Dives; pray, let me admit it! I brought merchants galore. I invited drapers (Mr. Stuckely, who had been “dresser” in Ribbonman’s years ago, and now, being worth £20,000, bought pictures and went a-hunting on a fifty guinea horse which he couldn’t ride). I besought Mr. Nosey (the ex-eating-house keeper—the celebrated Welch rarebit-and-glassof-ale-for-sixpence-man) to untie his purse-strings. I even got old Gripe out of his cobwebbed sanctum, and condescended to slap the contemptible hunks on the back in the hope of slapping some compassion into his sordid soul. In vain. Montezuma stared at us unmoved. “They shall buy you!” poor Bell would cry, shaking his fist at the unlucky monarch, but the vigour of the sentiment was its only recommendation.

Meanwhile, summer waned to autumn, autumn sank to winter, and Polly’s fond eyes would fill with tears when the artist’s hacking cough was heard on the stairs. What need to prolong the tale! The poor mediocrity died last week, with the daub that was to make him famous yet on the easel. Polly, the mother, and I buried him in Carlton Cemetery.

“He’s happy now, poor dear,” said Polly, amid her sobs, as we turned to leave the humble grave, “and some day they will appreciate his genius.”

God bless the faithful women, they—

“Why Tityrus, what’s the matter?”

“The smoke went the wrong way,” said Tityrus, wiping his eyes. “Confound you, sir! what are you staring at?”

“I did not know you had so much heart, Falx,” said Marston.

“Thank you. That muscle is of normal size I believe. Some people have fatty philanthropic degeneration of their heart—our friend Tallowfat here, for instance.”

“I don’t disguise the fact that I am easily moved,” said Tallowfat. “But I prefer to be merry. Confound it, those two stories have made me miserable.”

“Tell us a lively anecdote then, and make us laugh.”

The good old gentleman paused, wiped his spectacles, felt in all his pockets, and at last produced an enormous official envelope marked On Her Majesty’s Service. The sight of this seemed to cheer him; he drew himself up, then smiled, then laughed gently, and finally committed himself to a peal of cacchinatory convulsion which nearly shook him off his chair.

“What on earth is the matter with the man?” asked Falx.

“Matter!” cried Tallowfat, regaining his composure. “Listen, my dear fellow, and I will tell you the romantic history of King Billy’s Breeches.”

Four Stories High - Contents    |     King Billy’s Breeches

Back    |    Words Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback