Pettitt taught me to draw in a hard, clear, scientific manner. He himself knew a little geology, and one of his sons was a well-informed geologist. I copied studies of cliffs that were entirely conceived and executed in the scientific spirit.
The ideas of artistic synthesis, of seeing a subject as a whole, of subordination of parts, of concentration of vision, of obtaining results by opposition in form, light and shade, and color, all those ideas were foreign to my master's simple philosophy of art. In his view the artist had nothing to do but sit down to a natural subject and copy with the utmost diligence what was before him, first one part and then another, till the whole was done. My master, therefore, only confirmed me in my own tendencies, which were to turn my back on art and go to nature as the sole authority. Mr. Ruskin's influence had impelled me in the same direction. Every one is the product of his time and of his teachers. It is not my fault if the essentially artistic elements in art were hidden from me in my youth. Had I perceived them at that time they would only have seemed a kind of dishonesty.
If Mr. Pettitt had written an autobiography it would have been extremely interesting. He was the twenty-fifth child of his father, and five were born after him. He began by being apprenticed to a cabinet-maker, but did not take to the work, and was put into a printing-office. Then he served an apprenticeship to a japanner, and married very early on incredibly small earnings, which, however, he increased by his rapidity in work and his incessant industry. Before the expiration of his apprenticeship he had a shop of his own, and sold japanned tea-trays and bellows. When he was able to rent a house, he made all the furniture with his own hands, and took a pride in having it very good, either solid mahogany or veneered. He saved money in the japanning business, and then on these savings undertook to teach himself painting. His earliest works were sold for anything they would fetch. Whilst I was in London he recognized one of them, a small picture that he immediately bought back for sixpence. There had been a fall in its market value, alas! for the original price was ninepence. Pettitt had a fancy for collecting his early daubs, as they confirmed his sense of progress. Having acquired some knowledge of painting, he engaged himself on weekly wages as a decorator of steamboat panels. His employers wanted quantity rather than finish, but Pettitt liked to finish as well as he could, and recommended his fellow-workmen to study from nature. This led to his dismissal.
During the time of his poverty, Pettitt made an excursion into France, and being at Paris with a companion as penniless as himself, he had to devise means for reaching England without money. The pair had nothing of any value but a flute, and the flute had silver keys, so it was a precious article. With the proceeds in their pockets the friends tramped to Boulogne on foot, and there they arrived in the last stage of poverty. They cleaned themselves as well as they could before showing their faces at the hotel they had patronized when richer, and there they stayed for some days in the hope of a remittance from an uncle. That relative was of opinion that a little hardship would surely bring the travellers back to England, and so he sent them nothing. What was to be done? They avowed the whole case to the hotel-keeper, who not only made no attempt to detain them, but filled their empty purses. The story concludes prettily, for the obdurate uncle relented on their arrival, and at once repaid the Frenchman.
Pettitt long preceded Mr. Louis Stevenson in the idea of travelling in France with a donkey. He, too, explored some mountainous districts in the centre or south of France with a donkey to carry his luggage, and the two companions slept out at nights, as Mr. Stevenson did afterwards. At last Pettitt met with an old woman whose lot seemed to him particularly hard. She had to walk from a hill-village down to the valley every day, nearly twenty miles going and returning; so Pettitt made her a present of his donkey, and she prayed for him most fervently.
Another of my master's pedestrian rambles extended for fifteen hundred miles along the coast of Great Britain. During this excursion he accumulated a vast quantity of sketches, truthful memoranda, almost as accurate as the photographs which have now superseded studies of that kind.
Pettitt had made astonishing progress considering the humble position he started from; but unfortunately for me he was not a man of culture, even in art. One of his friends, a journalist, who often called at the studio, and who saw a little deeper than most people, said to me one day that the art of painting, as practised by many fairly successful men (and he referred tacitly to my master), might be most accurately described as "a high-class industry."
For my part I worked very steadily when in London, and made rapid progress. It was not quite in the right direction, unfortunately.
No reader of these pages will be able to imagine what a sacrifice that stay in London was for me. The studio was never cleaned, and very badly ventilated. My master did not perceive this amidst the clouds of his own tobacco smoke, but for me, who had come from perfect cleanliness and the pure air of our northern hills, it was almost unbearable.
Acquaintance with R. W. Mackay.—His learning and accomplishments.—His principal pursuit.—His qualities as a writer.—Value of the artistic element in literature.—C. R. Leslie, R. A.—Robinson the line-engraver.—The Constable family.—Mistaken admiration for minute detail.—Projected journey to Egypt.—Mr. Ruskin.—Bonomi.—Samuel Sharpe.—Tennyson.
My lodgings were at Maida Hill, and I soon became personally acquainted with a writer whom I knew already by correspondence, Mr. R. W. Mackay, author of "The Progress of the Intellect."
Mr. Mackay was for many years a kind friend of mine. An incident occurred long afterwards which put an end to this friendship. I made some reference to him in a review that was not intended to be unkind or depreciatory in any way, as I always felt a deep respect for Mr. Mackay, but unhappily he saw it in another light, and so it ended our intercourse. In 1853, and for long afterwards, there was nothing to foreshadow a rupture of this kind, and I am still able to write of my old friend as if he had always remained so.
Mr. Mackay was primarily a scholar and secondarily an artist. He had been educated at Cambridge, and being gifted with an extraordinary memory, he accumulated learning in very abundant stores. As to his memory, it is said that he once accepted a challenge to recite a thousand lines of Virgil, and did it without error. He had a good practical knowledge of French and German. He possessed a large collection of water-color sketches made during his travels in Italy and elsewhere, work of a kind that an amateur might judiciously practise, as there was no false finish about them. They recalled scenes that had interested him either by their natural beauty, which he appreciated, or by association with classical literature.
I hardly like to use the word "gentleman," because it is employed in so many different senses, but I never knew anybody who realized my conception of that ideal more perfectly than Mr. Mackay. In him, as Prince Leopold said of another, all culture and all refinement met. He was extremely simple in all his ways, and averse to every kind of vanity and ostentation. He had a sufficient fortune for a refined life, and did not care for any kind of wasteful extravagance. All belonging to him was simple and in good taste. He did not see very much society; that which he did see included several men and women of distinguished ability.
Mr. Mackay's chief pursuit was one to which I would never have devoted laborious years—theology on the negative side. His idea was that the liberation of thought could only be accomplished by going painfully over the whole theological ground and explaining every belief and phase of belief historically and rationally. My opinion was, and is, that all this trouble is superfluous. The true liberation must come from the enlargement of the mind by wider and more accurate views of the natural universe. As this takes place, the mediaeval beliefs must drop away of themselves, and we now see that this process is actually in operation. So far from devoting a life to the refutation of theological error, I would not bestow upon such an unnecessary and thankless toil the labor of a week or a day.
The habit of study and reflection had done Mr. Mackay some harm in one respect; it had withdrawn him too much from commonplace reality. He always seemed to be moving in a dream, and to recall himself to the actual world by an effort. This is a result of excessive culture that I have observed in other cases. My conclusion is that all the culture in the world, all the learning, all the literary skill and taste put together, are not so well worth having as the keen and clear sense of present reality that common folks have by nature.
Mr. Mackay was a laborious and careful writer, and he had a good style of its kind, though it was more remarkable for strength and soundness than for vivacity and ease. It was too much of one texture to be attractive, and so he never became a popular author. Of course the heterodoxy of Mr. Mackay's opinions was one great cause of his failure to catch the public ear in England, but even that difficulty can be got over by a great literary artist. He tried to do his best, as to literary form, but he never condescended to write for the market in any way, and used to maintain that if a book was to be profitable it must be written for the market.
I do not quite agree with this opinion. I should say, rather, that literature resembles painting in being one of the fine arts, and that when a book, like a picture, is a fine work of art, it has a great chance of being a commercial success.
Renan's books have been very successful literary speculations, because Renan is a first-rate artist. Mackay would have been a better artist in literature if he had not been so much overpowered by the immense masses of his materials.
Amongst the new friends I gained at Mr. Mackay's house was C. R. Leslie, the painter. I was charmed with him from the first, and retain to this day the liveliest recollection of his exquisitely urbane manners, and even of the tones of his voice. Leslie was a man of unquestionable genius, but entirely free from the tendency to despise other people, which so often accompanies genius. On first meeting with him I took him for a clergyman, and told him of it later. He felt rather flattered than otherwise by the mistake, and I have no doubt that his modest nature would at once refer to points on which the average clergyman would probably be his superior. Some artists are lost in admiration of their own works, so that the way to please them is to praise what they have done themselves; but the way to please Leslie was to praise what Constable had done. His admiration for Constable was quite as strong a passion as Mr. Ruskin's admiration of Turner, though it did not express itself in such perfervid language. I might at that time have become Constable's pupil, indirectly. Leslie would have educated me in the art of that master. I had nothing to do but work by myself, copying studies and pictures by Constable in a studio of my own within a short distance of Leslie's house, and he would have come to me often to advise. Robinson, the eminent line-engraver, strongly urged me to put myself under Leslie's direction, and this, I believe, was the Academician's kind, indirect way of offering it. On the other hand, I did not wish to hurt Pettitt by leaving him, and Constable's choice of quiet rural subjects was to me, at that time, uninteresting. I disliked tame scenery, not having as yet the artistic perceptions which are needed for the appreciation of it.
Leslie introduced me to Constable's family, who were very kind, and they showed me all the sketches of his that remained in their possession. My love for precise and definite drawing made me unable to see the real merits of those studies, though I was not much mistaken in thinking that drawing of the quality I then cared for was not to be found in them. Constable was essentially what the French understand by the word paysagiste; that is, an artist who studies the every-day aspects of common nature broadly. He would have done me much good at that time, if I had felt interested in him, but the lover of the Western Highlands could not bring himself to care for the fields and hedgerows about Flatford. Pettitt, at any rate, loved our Lake District and Wales. Again, though I had a hearty and just admiration for Leslie's unrivalled power of painting expression in the faces of ladies and gentlemen in drawing-rooms, I had never seen any landscape by him except tame backgrounds, which seemed to me quite secondary, as they were.
I had at that time a mistaken belief (derived originally from Mr. Ruskin and confirmed by Mr. Pettitt) that there was something essentially meritorious in bestowing great labor on a work of art. It is well for an artist to be habitually industrious, because that increases his skill, but it is a matter of indifference whether this or that picture has cost much or little labor, provided that the artist has clearly expressed what he desired. Mr. Robinson, the line-engraver, gave me a good lesson on this subject. We were looking at a drawing by Millais in Indian ink which was penned all over in minute hatchings. I was full of admiration for the industry of the artist, but Robinson thought it labor thrown away. I met Mr. Ruskin personally one evening, and we examined a water-color by John Lewis which was on a table-desk. The drawing was fortunately glazed, for as Mr. Ruskin was holding the candle over it the composite dropped on the glass. He pointed out the minute beauties of a camel's eye, which was painted so carefully that even the hairs of the eyelash were given, and the reflections on the mirror of the eye. This praise of minute detail was at that time only too much in accordance with my own taste. I had an intense admiration for such feats of skilled industry as the wonderful lattices that Lewis used to paint with the eastern sunshine streaming through them on a variety of different surfaces. I met John Lewis himself. He was a fine-looking man, with a beard which at that time was of the purest silvery white. I afterwards had the advantage of a little correspondence with Lewis. He wrote well, and expressed his opinions about art-work very clearly in his letters. They amounted chiefly to this: Work always as much from nature as possible, and give all the care you can.
At that time I had a settled scheme for going to travel and work in Egypt, and it would have been better for me than Scotland on account of the greater sameness of the effects. I mentioned this project to Mr. Ruskin, who said that he avoided travelling in countries where he could not be sure of ordinary comforts, such as a white table-cloth and a clean knife and fork; still, he would put up with a great deal of inconvenience to be near a mountain. Talking of Turner's paintings in comparison with his water-colors, he said he would rather have half the drawings than all the oil pictures. He compared a drawing of Nemi with an oil picture that we could see at the same time, two works almost of the same date, and gave reasons for preferring the water-color.
My Egyptian scheme brought me into relations with Bonomi, who at that time was a famous traveller. Bartlett, the artist-traveller, whose works had been very widely spread abroad by engraving, told me that when he was ill of a fever at Baalbec he was nursed by a sheik who wore a beard and rode an Arab horse. This sheik spoke English, and was, in fact, Bonomi, who had adopted the manners of the wandering Arabs, and would have remained amongst them if his English friends had not persuaded him to return.
Bonomi was one of the liveliest little men I ever met. I feel almost guilty of a fraud with regard to him, for his amiability towards me was due in great part to his belief of my statement that I was going to Egypt; yet I never went there, and shall certainly not go now. My only excuse is that I sincerely believed the same statement myself. He said that the effects of color and light in Egypt at morning and evening were perfectly inconceivable. He recommended me to travel, not on the Nile itself, but on the bank with camels, as that gave a greatly superior view, both of the country and the river.
Mr. Samuel Sharpe was a charming, straightforward old gentleman, who said what he thought, without any feeble concession to other people's opinions. He did not share the prevalent enthusiasm for Turner, which was of course in great part factitious, as many of the people who praised Turner so warmly then had laughed at his pictures a few years before. Mr. Sharpe thought that Turner was an unsafe guide for a young landscape-painter to imitate. It is remarkable, as a matter of fact, how little practical influence Turner has had upon the progress of landscape art. Another and a stronger proof of the independence of Mr. Sharpe's judgment was his opinion about England and Russia. He did not think it necessary to oppose Russia's progress towards Constantinople by force, but thought there was room enough for the two empires without collision. If Mr. Sharpe's opinion had prevailed, there would have been no Crimean War, but he and those who thought with him were very much isolated at that time.
I met at his house a cousin of Miss Martineau, who told us some good stories, especially about Tennyson. On this a brother of our host said that he was once travelling when he met with a party of tourists, among whom he recognized the Laureate. "Who is that gentleman?" said they. "He has been the life and soul of our party, and we cannot get a clue to his name, for he has baffled us in every way, tearing it off his luggage and out of the book he was reading." Mr. Sharpe betrayed the secret, not much to the Laureate's satisfaction. When travelling in Scotland some time afterwards I myself met with Tennyson, so a tourist kindly explained who he was in these words: "That's Alfred Tennyson, the American poet."
Such is fame!
A visit to Rogers.—His home.—Geniality in poets.—Talfourd.—Sir Walter Scott.—Leslie's picture, "The Rape of the Lock."—George Leslie.—Robert Leslie.—His nautical instincts.—Watkiss Lloyd.— Landseer.—Harding.—Richard Doyle.
Mr. Leslie took me one afternoon to see old Mr. Rogers, the poet. When we arrived he was out for a drive, so we quietly examined the works of art in the house until his return.
The interest of that house was quite peculiar to itself. Even the arrangement of the furniture had been unaltered for years, and as the rooms, just as we saw them, had been visited by most people of note during nearly two generations, they had an interest from association with famous names that could not be rivalled, at that time, by any other rooms in London. The dining-room, for example, was exactly in the same state as when Byron dined there, and would eat nothing but a biscuit. Leslie said: "I have seen Mrs. Siddons sitting on the corner of that sofa near the fire, and Walter Scott walk up to her and shake hands." Leslie mentioned many other celebrities, but none of them were so interesting to me as the authors of "Waverley" and "Childe Harold."
Many of the material objects about us had a history of their own. A stand that carried an antique vase had been carved by Chantrey when a young unknown furniture-carver, and so had the sideboard, as Chantrey reminded Mr. Rogers long afterwards, when he was received as a guest in the same room. The fender, chimney-piece, and ceiling had been designed by Flaxman, the panels of a cabinet had been painted by Stothard.
We went upstairs to see some pictures in Rogers' bedroom, in itself a very simple, homely place, with the old man's flannels warming before the fire. The picture in that room which pleased me most was a subject borrowed from Raphael, by Leslie,—a lady teaching her boy to read,—but it was treated freely by Leslie from other models. The boy was his son George (the future Academician) when young; he had already begun to be good-looking.
As we were examining this picture, Mr. Rogers returned from his drive and received us in the dining-room. He said, "Mr. Hamerton, I think I've seen you before," but I said he was mistaken, so he held out his hand and went on: "Well then, I'm very glad to see you now, especially so well introduced. Have you been all over the house? You have the honor of knowing a very distinguished artist. Look at that picture on the sideboard, of the poor babes in the Tower! Don't you like it? I think it is beautiful, beautiful. Nobody ought to be able to look at such a picture without shedding tears. See the light on the heads—oh! it is beautiful!" Then he began to ramble a little, but soon came back to realities, and invited Leslie to dine the next day and meet two distinguished friends. "I'd rather have you by yourself," he added; "you and I could do very well without the others."
This was the Rogers of 1854,—senile, as was natural at the age of ninety-one years and eight months, yet still retaining much of the old Rogers, hospitable, sometimes caustic, sometimes pathetic, and always a true lover and appreciator of the fine arts. Leslie declared him to be the only amateur who had knowledge enough to form a good collection without assistance.
I dined with Leslie the same day, and the talk turned upon the poets. Leslie said that the virtue of geniality was of great value to a poet, and that if Byron had possessed the geniality of Goldsmith, he would have been as great a poet as Shakespeare, but that his misanthropy spoiled all his views of life. In saying this, Leslie probably underestimated the literary value of ill-nature. Much of Byron's intensity and force is due to the energy of malevolence. The success of Ruskin's earlier writings was due in part to the same cause. In periodical literature, it was pure mechancete that first made the "Saturday Review" successful.
Talking of Talfourd (who had lately died on the bench) Leslie said that he was a high liver, and that led him to give an account of Sir Walter Scott's way of life. At dinner he would eat heartily of many dishes and drink a variety of wines. At dessert he drank port; and last of all a servant brought him a small wooden bowl full of neat whiskey, which he drank off. He then either wrote or talked till midnight, and refreshed himself with a few glasses of porter before going to bed. Leslie did not mean to imply that Scott was intemperate for a man of a robust constitution who took a great deal of exercise, but only that, like Talfourd, he was a high liver. It is remarkable, in connection with the subject of Scott's own habits, that eating and drinking are so often and so minutely described in his novels. His heroes and heroines always have hearty appetites, except when they are laid up with illness.
A few days after our visit to Rogers, I went to see Leslie's picture of "The Rape of the Lock," and met Robinson, the engraver, on my way. He told me to expect the finest modern picture I had ever seen. It was certainly one of the most perfect works of its class. The action and expression of the sixteen figures were as lively as in a Hogarth, with more refinement. Leslie was completely in sympathy with Queen Anne's time, and reproduced it with unfailing zest and knowledge. He had been very careful about details. The interior at Hampton Court had been painted on the spot, and all the still life in the picture, even to a fan, had been studied with equal accuracy. Mrs. Leslie's mother sat looking at the picture, and making the liveliest comments on the subject and the actors. She would get up without hesitation to see something more nearly, and turn round with perfect balance of body to make her remarks to the company. She appeared to me then to be about sixty, but the age of her daughter made that impossible. Her real age was ninety-three! It seemed incredible that she was older than Mr. Rogers. Her grandchildren were playfully sarcastic at times, to draw her out in argument.
"We know, grandmamma, that you are a dandy yourself, so no wonder that you admire the dresses in the picture."
"Yes, yes, I do like people to be dressed as well as possible,—as well, I mean, as they can really afford. I like them to wear the very best materials as tastefully as they can." Whilst she was looking at the picture, Mr. Leslie sat down by her side and read the passage from "The Rape of the Lock" that his painting illustrated. It was a very interesting scene—the master with his children about him, and his wife and her old mother all looking at his last and greatest work, whilst he was reading Pope's perfect verses so beautifully.
I have scarcely mentioned Leslie's sons yet. George, the future Academician, was an intimate friend of mine in those days. He was a clever talker, and he had the advantage—often precious to a taciturn companion like me—of never allowing the conversation to flag for a single instant. I think I never knew any one of the male sex, with the exception of Francis Palgrave, who could keep up such an abundant stream of talk as George Leslie. This led some of his friends to think that he would never have any practical success in art, but he afterwards proved them to be in the wrong. He had a frank, straightforward, boyish nature, with a fund of humor, and a healthy disposition to be easily pleased. His philosophy of life, under an appearance of careless gayety, was, perhaps, in reality deeper than that of my learned friend Mr. Mackay; for whilst the elderly scholar was laboring painfully and thanklessly to elucidate the past, the young artist was enjoying the present in his own way, and looking forward hopefully to the future. The buoyancy of spirits that George Leslie had in those days is an excellent gift for a young artist, because it carries him merrily over the difficulties of his craft. His brother Robert was older and graver. He painted landscape and marine subjects; but though his pictures have been regularly accepted at the Academy he has had no popular success. This may be attributed in great part to his habit of living away from London. Robert Leslie has all his life had very strong nautical instincts, and very likely knows more about shipping than any other artist. My belief is that one reason why he has not been a very successful painter is that he knows too much about nature, and lives too much in the presence of nature, which is always overwhelming and discouraging. After I knew him in London, Robert Leslie indulged his nautical instincts in sailing and yacht-building, as well as in painting marine pictures. Aided only by a single workman, he constructed a vessel of thirty-six tons. With this and other yachts he has made himself familiar with the southern coasts of England, and has frequently crossed the Atlantic both on steamers and sailing-vessels. Now that we are both getting elderly men I heartily regret not to have seen more of Robert Leslie; but so it is in life,—so it has been particularly in my life,—we are separated by distance from those who might have been our most intimate and most valued friends. [Footnote: Robert Leslie had a literary gift, and wrote some clever papers, which have been collected and published under the title of "A Sea Painter's Log."]
Another friend, gained during my first stay in London, was Mr. Watkiss Lloyd, who has given up many of the best years of his life to intellectual pursuits. He has been much devoted to ancient Greek literature and history, and has studied Greek art with unflagging interest at the same time, so that he possesses an advantage over most scholars in knowing both sides of the Hellenic intellect. He has a manly, frank, and generous nature, with cheerful, open manners. Watkiss Lloyd is one of several superior men amongst my acquaintances who have not achieved popularity as authors. The reason in his case may be that as he has never been obliged to write for money, he has never cared to study the conditions of success. I told him once, when we were talking on this subject, that in my opinion it was most necessary to have a clear and definite idea of the kind of public one is addressing, and that we ought to write to an especial public, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians. Failure may be caused by having confused ideas about our public, or by writing only for ourselves, as if our works were destined to remain in manuscript like a private journal. A man may write what is clear for himself, when it will require to be read twice or three times by another. Besides this reason, I am inclined to believe that the constant study of ancient Greek is not a good preparation for popular English authorship. The scholar and the successful writer are two distinct persons. They may be occasionally combined in one by accident, but if the reader will run over in his mind the names of popular modern authors, he will find very few distinguished scholars amongst them.
However this may be, Watkiss Lloyd is something better than a popular author; he is an intellectual man, truly a lover of knowledge and of wisdom. Without shutting his eyes to the evils that are in the world, he does not forget the good. On one occasion, after a terrible malady that had occurred to one dear to him, I said that undeserved diseases seemed to me clear evidence of imperfection in the universe. He answered, that as we receive many benefits from the existing order of things that we have not merited in any way, so we may accept those evils that we have not merited either. This struck me as a better reason for resignation than the common assertion that we are wicked enough to deserve the most frightful inflictions. We do not really believe that our wickedness deserves cancer or leprosy.
I never wished to push myself into the society of celebrated persons for the purpose of getting acquainted with them, but I plead guilty to that degree of curiosity which likes to see them in the flesh. I knew Landseer by sight, and probably rather astonished him once in a London street by taking my hat off as if he had been Prince Albert. He used to pass an evening from time to time at Leslie's house, and I met him there. He then seemed a very jovial, merry English humorist, with a natural talent for satire and mimicry; but there was another side to his nature. If he enjoyed himself heartily when in company, he often suffered from deep depression when alone. I remember seeing him by himself when he looked the image of profound melancholy. At that time I had warmer admiration for his art than I have now, and the general public looked upon him as the greatest artist in England. No doubt he was very observant, and had a wonderful memory for animals and their ways, as well as some invention; he had also unsurpassable technical skill, of a superficial kind, in painting.
Harding was another very clever artist whom I met at Leslie's. I had correspondence with him a little as a teacher, and had studied his works. He had taught many amateurs, including Mr. Ruskin and a clever friend of mine in the North. I admired his skill, but disliked his extreme artificiality of style, and the more I went to nature the more objectionable did it appear to me. The kind of success which is attained by forcing nature into drawing-masters' set forms never tempted me in the least. Harding was at one time probably the most successful drawing-master in England. The word "clever" characterizes him exactly. He was clever in the art of substituting himself for nature, clever in the wonderful facility with which he used several graphic arts technically very different from each other, and clever especially in that supreme tact of the successful drawing-master by which he makes the amateur seem to get forward rapidly. He had immense confidence in himself, and in his own theories and principles.
Another well-known artist whom I met at Leslie's was Richard Doyle. He had great gifts of wit and invention, with a curiously small fund of science,—genius without the knowledge that might have given strength to genius. It is impossible, however, to feel any regret on this account, for if Doyle's drawings had been thoroughly learned they would have lost their naivete. He was intelligent enough to make even his lack of science an element of success, for he turned it into a pretended simplicity. His own face was mobile and expressive, and it was evident that he passed quickly from one idea to another without uttering more than a small percentage of his thoughts.
I remember dancing "Sir Roger de Coverley" when Landseer and Richard Doyle were of the set. They were both extremely amusing, but with this difference: that whereas Landseer evidently laid himself out to be funny in gesture and action, the fun in Doyle's case lay entirely in the play of his physiognomy. Leslie, too, had a most expressive face—not handsome (I mean, of course, the elder Leslie; his son George is handsome), but most interesting, and full of meaning.
Miss Marian Evans.—John Chapman, the publisher.—My friend William Shaw.—His brother Richard.—Mead, the tragedian.—Mrs. Rowan and her daughter.—A vexatious incident.—I suffer from nostalgia for the country.
Mr. Mackay took me to one of the evening receptions that were given at that time by Mr. John Chapman, the publisher. On our way he spoke of Miss Marian Evans, then only known to a few as a translator from the German, and to still fewer as a contributor of articles to the "Westminster Review,"—a periodical that she partly directed. Neither the translations nor the articles revealed anything beyond good ordinary literary abilities. Mr. Mackay told me, however, that this Miss Evans was a very accomplished lady, and played remarkably well on the piano.
She was at Mr. Chapman's little conversazione, and performed for us. I remember being well pleased with the music, and thinking that she was one of the best amateurs I had heard, but I cannot remember what she played, nor anything about her talk, which would probably be a series of little private conversations with people that she already knew.
Mr. John Chapman was young at that time, and a very fine-looking man. He had entered upon the most unprofitable line of business that he could have chosen in the England of those days, the trade in philosophic free-thinking literature of the highest class. The number of buyers was, of course, exceedingly limited, both by the thoughtful character of the works published, and by the unpopularity of the opinions expressed in them. The marvel is that such a speciality in publishing could be made to support itself at all. As a matter of fact, some of the wealthier free-thinkers published their works, or those of others, at their own expense, and some helped to maintain the "Westminster Review." Things have altered wonderfully since then. At the present day the literature of free inquiry is presented to the world by the richest and most eminent publishing firms, and free-thinkers have access to the most influential and the most widely disseminated periodicals.
Some readers of this autobiography may still look upon John Chapman's speciality with horror; but such a feeling would be unjust. The books he published were generally high in tone, and they certainly never condescended to the use of unbecoming language in dealing with matters held sacred by the majority of the English people. The only object of that modest propaganda was to win for Englishmen the right to think for themselves, and also to express their thoughts. That battle has been won, and, for my part, I feel nothing but respect for those who had courage to confront the stern intolerance of the past.
My society in London was not entirely confined to the pursuers of literature and art. I had a few other friends, especially one old school-fellow, William Shaw, afterwards an able London solicitor. His mind was an odd compound of manly sense in everything connected with his profession, and boyishness in other ways. He always retained that boyishness, which was probably an excellent thing for him as a relaxation from serious cares. He took little interest in the fine arts, but at a later period he had the wonderful goodness to give house-room to some of my unpopular and unsalable pictures, and went so far, in the way of friendship, that he actually hung them in his dining-room! He was very fond of recalling reminiscences of our childhood, especially what he characterized as "the great Fulledge railway swindle." When we were little boys we undertook the construction of a miniature railway on his father's land, and issued shares to pay for the rolling plant and the rails. We got together rather a handsome sum in this way from various good-natured friends, and after the expiration of some weeks could show them a rather long embankment. Then we got tired of spade work, and the enterprise languished. Finally the works came to a standstill, and I believe we spent the shareholders' money on something else, for assuredly they never saw it again. After beginning so hopefully in the art of getting up bubble companies, it is perhaps to be regretted that we did not continue, as we might have been eminent financiers by this time. My friend was very active in his youth. I have seen him run by the side of a galloping horse in a field, holding by the mane, and vault on the animal's back, after which it went on faster than ever and leapt a little brook or a hedge. An odd incident occurs to my recollection just now. My friend had a susceptible heart, and a ravishing beauty was staying at a certain, country house, so we drove over to call there that he might see her. I went with him, and we had a dog-cart with a very lively horse. The drive was in the form of a great circle before the front door, so he tried to turn to the left; but the horse had decided for the right, and between them they effected a compromise by taking a straight cut over the lawn and flower-beds, which presented a deplorable appearance afterwards. Any one else would have felt a little confused after such an accident, but Shaw relied upon the good-nature of the ladies, who always forgave him everything in consideration for his winning ways and his handsome face.
William Shaw's brother, Richard, was the first member of Parliament who represented Burnley. I met him in London in 1854, and remember a description he gave of an old gentleman who was then living permanently at the Tavistock Hotel. That old gentleman was a perfect mystery; no one knew where he came from: he never either wrote or received a letter, he had no settled occupation, but read all the papers, and used to swear aloud quite dreadfully when he found any fact or opinion that displeased him. He compensated for this bad language by shouting "Bravo! bravo! Go it, my boy!" when he found an article to his mind. He once rambled twice round Covent Garden market without being able to find his way out, and on discovering that he had got back to the Tavistock, attributed all his difficulties to the waiter, and scolded him most furiously. The mystery about him, and his odd manners, would have been an attraction for Dickens.
Amongst other acquaintances that I made in London was Mead, the tragedian of Drury Lane Theatre. I recollect admiring his "Iago" very much. His countenance, which was agreeable and bland in private life, could be made to express all the evil passions with astonishing power. He was rather a skilful painter, having occasionally been able to sell a picture for twenty pounds. When he had a little time to spare, Mead would come and work on Pettitt's great picture of the Golden Image. He once drew my portrait, and I drew his. My guardian was not quite pleased that I should know an actor, but Mead attracted me by the superior tone of his conversation. It was the first time in my life that I had met with an accomplished talker; I had known plenty of talkers who were only fluent, but Mead had always something interesting to say, and he invariably said it with easy finish and good taste. In a word, he was a master of spoken English, and did not fear to make use of his power, not having the usual English false shame which prevents our countrymen from saying things quite perfectly. Mead had tender feelings. Once after reading in a newspaper the account of some battle of no great importance, as we consider such events from a distance, he suddenly realized, in imagination, the effect of the news on the relatives of the killed and wounded, and burst into tears. Mead was good enough to accept on one or two occasions the simple kind of hospitality that I could offer him at my lodgings, and I find notes in the diary recording the happy swiftness of the hours I spent with him.
I never made the slightest attempt to enter what is specially called "London Society," though I had some friends or acquaintances who belonged to it. My time was entirely taken up with work and visits to a few houses. I am astonished on looking back to those days by the extreme kindness of people who were much older than myself, and for whom my society could have no other attraction than the opportunity it offered for the exercise of their own goodness. I had one merit, that of being an excellent listener, which has been a great advantage to me through life. A distinguished Frenchman once said to me, "You are the best listener I ever met;" but he had been accustomed to his own countrymen who are not generally patient or attentive for more than a few seconds at a time, and who have the habit of interruption.
It is possible, too, that my manners may have been good, for my dear guardian, so kind and mild about most things, could not tolerate anything like boorishness, and never hesitated to correct me. Another effect of her influence upon me was that I liked the society of well-bred ladies, and felt quite at ease in it. There was a most intelligent Danish family of ladies, Mrs. Rowan and her daughters, who received me very kindly. They spoke English wonderfully, with something like a slight Cumberland accent, and I believe their German was as good as their English. Mrs. Rowan had been a friend of Thorwaldsen the sculptor, and possessed three hundred and fifty of his original drawings, which I did not see, as she had lent them to Prince Albert. A singular and most vexatious incident is associated in my memory with those drawings, and I am sure Mrs. Rowan could never think of them without remembering it. She had (too kindly) lent them to an artist, who returned them, indeed, but not without having exercised his own talents in improving them, as drawing-masters do to the work of their youthful pupils. The reader may imagine the depth of Mrs. Rowan's gratitude. Her daughter, Frederica, whose name afterwards became generally known, was one of the most cultivated and agreeable women I ever met. Her nature had been a little saddened by family misfortunes (the Rowans had been a very wealthy family in Denmark), but her quiet gravity was of a noble kind, and if she took life seriously she had sufficient reasons for doing so.
My studies under Mr. Pettitt went on very regularly all this time, and I made great apparent progress, although, as will be seen later, it was not progress in the right direction. One little incident may be mentioned in proof that I could at least imitate closely. The reader is already aware that my master's system of teaching consisted in bringing a picture slowly forward in my presence, whilst I was to copy what had been done. One day, when the picture had got well forward, Mr. Pettitt took up my copy by mistake and put it on his own easel. After he had worked upon it for a quarter of an hour I thanked him for the improvement. He said he had been quite unconscious of the difference, and told me to work on his own canvas to repay him for his labor on mine. Critics will please understand that I know how little this proves as well as they do. It proves nothing beyond a talent for imitation and the possession of some manual skill. I have sometimes thought in later life that if instead of going so much to nature I had mimicked some particular painter I might have obtained recognition as an artist.
Notwithstanding so much that was agreeable in my London life, it was still a hard trial of resolution for me to work in a close, ill-ventilated, and gloomy studio without any view from its window, and in the beginning of April I returned to the country. From that day to this I have never lived in London, which has probably been a misfortune to me, both as artist and writer. I have been there frequently on business, but have never stayed a day or an hour longer than the time necessary to get through what was most pressing. It is curious, but perfectly true, that I have never in my life felt the slightest desire to purchase or rent any house whatever in London, and there is not a house in all "the wilderness of brick" that I would accept as a free gift if it were coupled with the condition that I should live in it.
Some of my relations emigrate to New Zealand,—Difficulties of a poor gentleman.—My uncle's reasons for emigration.—His departure.—Family separations.—Our love for Hollins.
In the month of April, 1854, an event occurred which was of great importance in our family.
My eldest uncle, Holden Hamerton, emigrated to New Zealand with all his children, and a son and daughter of my uncle Hinde accompanied them. This suddenly reduced our circle by eleven persons, without counting a young family belonging to my cousin Orme.
My uncle, who was at that time a solicitor in Halifax, had reached a very critical period in the life of a pere de famille. His children were grown up and expensive, and he had tried various ways of economizing without any definite result. Amongst others, he had given up Hopwood Hall, his mansion in Halifax, and had converted the stabling at Hollins into a residence for his wife and the children who remained with her. The stables were large enough to make a spacious dwelling. I remember the regret I felt on seeing the workmen pull down the handsome oak stalls, and remove the beautiful pavement, which was in blocks of smooth stone carefully bevelled at the angles. My unfortunate uncle lived like a bachelor in a small house in Halifax to be near his office, and only came to Hollins for the Sunday.
It is, of course, very easy to criticize a comparatively poor gentleman with a large family who is trying not to be ruined. It is easy to say that he ought to live strictly within his income, whatever it may be; but to do that strictly would require an iron resolution. He must cut short all indulgences, annihilate all elegancies, set his face against all the customs of his class. His attitude towards his wife and children must be one of stern refusal steadily and implacably maintained. If he relaxes—and all the influences around him tend to make him relax—the old habits of customary expense will re-establish themselves in a few weeks. He must cut his family off from all society, and with regard to himself he must do what is far more difficult—cut himself off from all domestic affection, behave like a heartless miser, and, at the very time when he most needs a little solace and peace in his own home, constitute himself the executor of the pitiless laws that govern the human universe.
My uncle was not equal to all this. He could make hard sacrifices for himself, and, in fact, did reduce his own comforts to those of a poor bachelor, but he could not find in his heart to refuse everything to his family; so that although they made no pretension now to anything like an aristocratic position, my uncle still found himself to be living rather beyond his means, and the expense of establishing his sons and daughters in England being now imminent, and avoidable only in one way, he spent days, and I fear also nights, of anxiety in arriving at a determination.
A journey to Scotland settled the matter. My uncle visited his eldest son Orme, who was then at Greenock, and he discovered, as I had done, that my cousin was married. Of course I had kept his secret, having found it out by accident when a guest under his roof. The young man offered to accompany his father to New Zealand, and my uncle, who loved his eldest son, thought that this would be some compensation for leaving England. He did not know that Orme's irresistible instinct for changing his residence would make the New Zealand expedition no more than a temporary excursion for him.
Another reason for emigrating to New Zealand was this: My uncle's second son, Lewis, had abandoned the profession of the law and gone to Australia by himself, where he was now a shepherd in the bush. He would rejoin his father, and they would be a re-united family. All of them would be together in New Zealand except one, my cousin Edward, who lay in the family vault in Burnley Church. I had feelings of the strongest fraternal affection for Edward, and if the reader cares to see his likeness, he has only to look at the engraved portraits of Shelley, especially the one in Moxon's double-column edition of 1847. The likeness there is so striking that, for me, it supplies the place of any other.
Edward died at the age of seventeen. He had a gentle and sweet nature; but although he resembled Shelley so closely in outward appearance, he was without any poetical tendency. His gifts were arithmetical and mathematical, and whenever he had a quarter of an hour to spare he was sure to take a piece of paper and cover it all over with figures. His early death certainly spared him much trouble that he was hardly qualified to meet. He had that dislike to physical exercise which often accompanies delicate health, though there was no appearance of weakness till the beginning of his fatal illness.
I well remember my uncle's last visit to his sisters. He did not say that it was his last, but left some clean linen in the house, saying he would want it when he came again. In this way there was a little make-belief of hope; but I doubt if my aunts were really deceived, and I did not quite know what to think. My uncle seemed flushed and excited, and contradicted me rather sharply because I happened to be in error about something of no importance. It was a hard moment for him, as he loved his sisters, and had the deepest attachment to Hollins, where he was born, and where he had passed the happiest days of his life. His last visit has remained so distinct in my memory that I can even now see clearly his great stalwart figure in the chair on the right-hand side of the fireplace. Then he left us and passed the window, and since that day he never was seen again at his old place. I can imagine what it must have been to him to turn round at the avenue gate, and look back on the gables of Hollins, knowing it to be for the last time.
His wife and the rest of his family went away without inflicting upon themselves and us the pain of a farewell. I was present, however, at Featherstone when my cousin Hinde left for New Zealand. One of his sisters accompanied him out of pure sisterly devotion. She thought he would be lonely out in the colony, so she would go and stay with him till he married. He did not marry, and she never returned.
The colonial strength of England is founded upon these family separations, but they are terrible when they occur, especially when the parents are left behind in the old country. To us who remained this wholesale emigration in our family produced the effect of a great and sudden mortality. For my part I have received exactly one letter from the New Zealand Hamertons since they left. It was a very interesting letter, interesting enough to make me regret "there was but one."
My uncle's property sold well, and on leaving England he had still a balance of ten thousand pounds in his pocket, which was more than most emigrants set out with; but he built a good house on the estate he purchased, and it was ruined in the war. His wife was a woman of great courage and wonderful constitutional cheerfulness, both severely tested by three months of incessant sea-sickness on the outward voyage. They met with one terrible storm, during which the captain did not hope to save the vessel, and my uncle and aunt sat together in their cabin clasping each other's hands, and calmly awaiting death.
After their departure my guardian and her sister remained at Hollins as tenants of the new proprietor. We still clung to the old place, but it did not seem the same to us. On the night of the sale by auction my aunt said to me, sadly, as we took our candlesticks to go to bed: "It is strange to think that we positively do not know under whose roof we are going to sleep to-night." The change was felt most painfully by her. My guardian had a more resigned way of accepting the evils of life; she had a kind of Christian pessimism that looked upon terrestrial existence as not "worth living" in itself, and a little less or more of trouble and sorrow in this world seemed to her scarcely worth considering, being only a part of the general unsatisfactoriness of things. Her sister had intense local attachments, and the most intense of them all was for this place, her birthplace, where she had passed her youth. This attachment was increased in her case by a strong, deep, and poetic sentiment that I hardly like to call aristocratic, because that word will have other associations (of pride in expensive living) for most readers. My aunt had the true sentiment of ancestry, and it was painful to her to see a place go out of a family. I have the same sentiment, though with less intensity, and there were other reasons that made me love Hollins very much. At that time the natural beauty that surrounded it was quite unspoilt. We were near to the streams and the moors that I delighted in, and the idea of being obliged to leave, as we might be at any time by the new proprietor, was painful to a degree that only lovers of nature will understand.
Even now, in my fifty-fourth year, I very often dream about Hollins, about the old garden there, and the fields and woods, and the rocky stream. Sometimes the place is sadly and stupidly altered in my dream, and I am irritated; at other times it is improved and enriched, and the very landscape is idealized into a nobler and more perfect beauty.
I need only add to this account of my uncle's emigration, that when he landed on the shores of New Zealand in much perplexity as to where he should go to find a temporary lodging, a colonist met him, and said that he had been told by the Masonic authorities to receive him fraternally. This he did by taking the whole family under his roof and entertaining them as if they had been old friends, thereby giving my uncle ample time to make his own arrangements. In a later chapter of this autobiography I intend to give a short account of what happened to the emigrants afterwards.
Resignation of commission in the militia.—Work from nature.—Spenser, the poet.—Hurstwood.—Loch Awe revisited.—A customer.—I determine to learn French well.—A tour in Wales.—Swimming.—Coolness on account of my religious beliefs.—My guardian.—Evil effects of religious bigotry.—Refuge in work.—My drawing-master.—Our excursion in Craven.
After returning to the country I went through another militia training, and soon afterwards resigned my commission. According to my present views of things I should probably not have done so, as it would be a satisfaction to me now to feel myself of some definite use to my country, even in the humble capacity of a militia officer; but in those days the militia was not taken seriously by the nation, so the officers did not take it seriously either, and, after a brief trial, a great many of them resigned. The recognized motive for going into the militia was a social motive, and as I never had any social ambition it mattered nothing to me that there were a few men of rank in the regiment. I had not any real companions in it, for I was much younger than most of my brother officers, and it is likely enough that the society of an inexperienced youth could offer no attraction to them. My love of my chosen studies was accompanied by a complete indifference to amusements, so that the cards and billiards after mess were not an attraction for me, and my ignorance of field sports has always made me feel rather a "muff" and a "duffer" in the society of country gentlemen.
The Colonel was always kind to me, and as I looked older than my age, he quite forgot how young I was and procured for me a captain's commission. As a matter of fact, I believe that a minor cannot hold a militia captaincy, because it requires a property qualification. Somehow, the Colonel was afterwards reminded of my age, and then thought he had made a mistake; however, my resignation rectified it. In fairness to myself it may be added that my military work was always done in a manner that gained the approval of our real master, the adjutant.
One cause that certainly influenced me in leaving the regiment was the necessity for appearing to be either a member of the Church of England or a member of the Church of Rome. As I belonged to neither, I felt it a hardship to be compelled to march to church every Sunday, and go through the forms of the service. It will, of course, seem absurd to any man of the world that such a trifle should have any weight whatever. Nobody endowed with what men of the world call "common-sense" ever hesitates about going through forms and ceremonies, when he can maintain or increase his worldly position by doing so. As for me, I make no claim to superior virtue, but cannot help feeling an invincible repugnance to these shams. My own line had been chosen when I refused to go to Oxford and sign the Thirty-nine Articles; the forced conformity in the militia was a deflection of the compass, but it has pointed straight ever since, and may it point straight to the end!
When free again, I set to work from nature, applying what Pettitt had taught me. I drew and painted studies of rocks with great fidelity, and as rocks are hard things, and my work was as hard as possible, there can be no doubt that so far it was like nature. Pettitt had strengthened the positive and scientific tendency that there is in me, so that I was quite ardent in the pursuit of the rigid and measurable truths, neither knowing nor caring anything about those more subtle and less manifest truths that the cultivated artist loves. However, I painted away diligently enough from nature, giving two long sittings each day, and writing only in the evenings. My readings at this time were chiefly in Shakespeare and Spenser.
I may have been attracted to Spenser partly by the belief, greatly encouraged by the local antiquaries, that the famous Elizabethan poet lived for some time with relations of his at Hurstwood,—a hamlet by the side of the same stream that passes by Hollins and a mile or two above it. The old houses at Hurstwood remained as they were in Spenser's time, and the particular one is known where his reputed family lived. [Footnote: The presumptive evidence in favor of the theory that Spenser stayed at Hurstwood is very strong, and of various kinds. The reader who takes any interest in the subject is referred to the "Transactions of the Burnley Literary and Scientific Club," vol. iv., 1886, where he will find a wood-cut of the house that once belonged to the Spensers of Hurstwood.] As you ascend the stream beyond Hurstwood, you approach the open moors, which were always a delight to me. The love of the stream and the hills beyond frequently led me to pass the little hamlet where Spenser is said to have lived, and in this way he seemed to belong to our own landscape, since he must have wandered by the same river, and looked upon the same hills. So as a boy whose daily wanderings were by the Avon might naturally think of Shakespeare more frequently than another, my thoughts turned often to the author of the "Faerie Queene." I never read that poem steadily and fairly through, but I strayed about in it, which is the right way of reading it.
My own pursuit of poetry at that time led me to think of a poem founded on the legends of Loch Awe. To penetrate my mind more completely with the genius of the place, I went there in the summer of 1854, and worked at the poem, besides drawing some illustrations, of which a few were afterwards engraved. Notwithstanding a great liking for Loch Awe, my stay there was not particularly agreeable. I lived, of course, at the inns, which were not very good, and having no companion, not even a servant, I felt rather dull and lonely, especially on the wet days. A well-known London banker was staying at the inn of Cladich at the same time with me, so we became acquainted, and he wished to purchase one of my studies; but as I intended to keep them all, I declined. This was very foolish, as it would have been easy to do another of the same subject for myself, and the mere fact of selling would have been a practical encouragement, especially as that purchase would probably have been followed by others. The very smallest beginnings are of importance. It is much for a young artist to get a few pounds fairly offered by a customer who knows nothing about him except his work, and is actuated by no motives of friendship.
Another visitor at the same inn exercised upon me an influence of a very different kind. He had a young daughter with him, and to keep the girl in practice he constantly spoke French to her. I had studied the language more than most English boys do, and yet I found myself totally unable to follow those French conversations. This plagued me with an irritating sense of ignorance, so I looked back on my education generally, and found it unsatisfactory. Being conscious that my classical attainments were not very valuable, I determined to acquire some substantial knowledge of modern languages, and to begin by learning French over again, so as to write and speak it easily. This resolution remained in my mind as irrevocably settled, and was afterwards completely carried out.
As I shall have a good deal to say about Loch Awe in future pages of this book, I omit all description of it here. Many of the days spent there in 1854 were rainy, and I sat alone writing my poem in a little bedroom on the ground-floor of the inn at Cladich. Of all literary work versification is the most absorbing, and if it is good for nothing else, it has at least the merit of getting one well through a rainy day.
On my return from Scotland, I accompanied my guardian and her sister on a tour in Wales. We revisited Rhyl and some other places that I had seen with my father, including Caernarvon. This tour was of no importance in itself; but as from Scotland I had brought the resolution that made me seriously study French, so from Caernarvon I brought a resolution to master the art of swimming. Being in the water one morning, I suddenly found that I could swim after a fashion, and this led to more serious efforts. Our stream at home was delightful for mere bathing; but the rocks were an impediment to active exercise. I afterwards became an accomplished swimmer, and could do various tricks in the water, such as reading aloud from a book held in both hands, or swimming in clothes and heavy boots, with one hand out of the water carrying a paddle and drawing a canoe after me. I have often carried one of my little boys on my shoulders; but they are now better swimmers than myself, and the eldest has saved several men from drowning. It is an immense comfort, if nothing else, to be perfectly at home in the water, and it has increased my pleasure in boating a hundred-fold.
There is nothing further of importance to be noted for the year 1854, except that I began to perceive a certain coolness, or what the French call eloignement, in our friends, which I attributed to my religious opinions. I never obtruded my opinions on any one, but did not conceal them beneath the usual conventional observances, so that our neighbors became aware that I did not think in a strictly orthodox manner, though they were in fact completely ignorant of the true nature of my beliefs. I remember one interesting test of my changed position in society. There was a certain great country house where I had been on the most intimate terms from childhood, where the boys called me by my Christian name, as I called them by theirs, and where my guardian and I were from time to time invited to dine, and sometimes to spend a day or two. When our militia regiment was in training, the owner of this house invited the officers to a grand dinner, and I, an old intimate friend, was omitted. It was impossible that this omission could have been accidental, and it was impossible not to perceive it. I afterwards learned that my religious views were regarded with disapproval in that house, and there, of course, the matter rested. At the same time, or soon afterwards, I noticed that invitations from certain other houses also came to an end, a matter of little consequence to me personally; but I thought that it might indirectly be injurious to my guardian and her sister, and began to feel that I had become a sort of social disgrace and impediment for them.
It was probably about this time that my guardian bought for me some religious books, in which heterodox opinions were represented as being invariably the result of wickedness. I said it was a pity that religious writers could not learn to be more just, as heterodoxy might be due to simple intellectual differences. My guardian answered that she could perceive no injustice whatever in the statement that I complained of. This was infinitely painful to me, as coming from the person I most loved and esteemed in all the world. Another incident embittered my existence for some time. I had an intimate friend in Burnley, and my guardian said that she regretted this intimacy, not for any harm that my friend was likely to do me, but because with my "lamentable opinions" I might corrupt his mind. My answer to attacks of this kind has always been simple silence; when they came from other people I treated them with unfeigned indifference; but when they came from that one dear person, whose affection I valued more than all honors and all fame, they cut me to the quick, and then I knew by cruel experience what a dreadful evil religious bigotry is. For what had I ever said or done to deserve censure? I had as good a right to my opinions as other people had to theirs, yet I kept them within my own breast, and avoided even the shadow of offence. My only crime was the negative one of nonconformity. Even in my latter years, the same old spirit of intolerance pursues me. The nearest relation I have left in England said to my wife that she hoped my books had not an extensive sale, so that their evil influence might be as narrowly restricted as possible. As for her, she would not even look into them. [Footnote: In writing this autobiography I often suddenly remember some forgotten incident of past times. Here is one that has just occurred to me. When walking out in 1853, I met a boy who shouted after me, "You're the fellow that thinks we are all like rats!" He had probably heard my opinions discussed in his family circle—how justly and how intelligently his exclamation shows.]
My refuge in those days was that best of all refuges—occupation. I was constantly at work on my different pursuits, and led a very healthy life at Hollins. The greatest objection to it was an evil that I have had to put up with in several different places, and that is intellectual isolation, especially on the side of art. I had nobody to speak to on that subject, except my old drawing-master, Mr. Henry Palmer. He had inevitably fallen into the usual routine of futile teaching, which is the fault of an uneducated public opinion, and of which the drawing-masters themselves are the first victims, so I did not take lessons from him; but he felt a warm and earnest interest in the fine arts, and we talked about old masters and modern masters for hours together in my study at Hollins, and in our walks. We once made a delightful sketching excursion together into the district of Craven, and I remember that at Bolton Abbey we met with a wonderful German who could sit in the presence of nature and coolly make trees according to a mechanical recipe. He might just as well have drawn the scenery of the Wharfe in the heart of Berlin.
Publication of "The Isles of Loch Awe and other Poems."—Their sale. —Advice to poetic aspirants.—Mistake in illustrating my book of verse.—Its subsequent history.—Want of art in the book.—Too much reality.—Abandonment of verse.—A critic in "Fraser."—Visit to Paris in 1855.—Captain Turnbull.—Ball at the Hotel de Ville.—Louis Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel.
My volume, "The Isles of Loch Awe and other Poems," appeared the day I came of age, September 10, 1855. It was published at my own expense, in an edition of two thousand copies, of which exactly eleven were sold in the real literary market. The town of Burnley took thirty-six copies, from a friendly interest in the author, and deserves my deepest gratitude—not that the thirty-six copies quite paid the expenses of publication!
Perhaps some poetic aspirant may read these pages, and if he does, he may accept a word of advice.
The difficulty in publishing poems is to get them fully and fairly read and considered by some publisher of real eminence in the trade. It is difficult to appreciate poetry in manuscript, and there is such a natural tendency to refuse anything in the form of metre, that it is well to smooth the way for it as much as possible. I would, therefore, if I had to begin again, get my poems put into type, and a private edition of one hundred copies should be printed. A few of these being sent to the leading publishers, I should very soon ascertain whether any one of them was inclined to bring out the work. If they all declined, my loss would be the smallest possible, and I should possess a few copies of a rare book. If one publisher accepted, I should get an appeal to the public, which is all that a young author wants. [Footnote: A single copy clearly printed by the type-writing machine would now be almost as good for the purpose as a small privately printed edition.]
I committed a great error in illustrating my book of verse. The illustrations only set up a conflict of interest with the poetry, and did no good whatever to the sale, whilst they vastly increased the cost of publication. Poetry is an independent art, and if it cannot stand on its own merits, the reason must be that it is destitute of vitality.
The subsequent history of this volume of poems is worth telling to those who take an interest in books. It was published at six shillings, and as the sale had been extremely small, I reduced the price to half-a-crown. The reduction brought on a sale of about three hundred copies, and there it stopped. I then disposed of the entire remainder to a wholesale buyer of "remainders" for the modest sum of sixpence per copy. Since I have become known as a writer of prose, many people have sought out this book of verse, with the wonderful and unforeseen result that it has resumed its original price. I myself have purchased copies for five shillings each that I had sold for sixpence (not a profitable species of commerce), and I have been told that the book is now worth six shillings, exactly my original estimate of its possible value to an enlightened and discriminating public.
Emerson wrote that the English had many poetical writers, but no poet, and this at a time when Tennyson was already famous. The same spirit of exclusion, in a minor degree, will deny the existence of all poets except three, or perhaps four, in a generation. It would be presumptuous to hope to be one of the three; but I do not think it was presumptuous in me to hope for some readers for my verse. As this autobiography approached that early publication, I read the volume over again, with a fresh eye, after an interval of many years, exactly as if it had been written by somebody else. There is poetry in the verse, and there is prose also, my fault having been, at that time, that I was unable to discriminate between the two. I had not the craft and art to make the most of such poetical ideas as were really my own. These defects are natural enough in a very young writer who could not possibly have much literary skill. Amongst other marks of its absence, or deficiency, must be reckoned the facility with which I allowed the mere matter-of-fact to get into my verse, not being clearly aware that the matter-of-fact is death to poetic art, and that nothing whatever is admissible into poetry without being first idealized. Another cause of inferiority was that my emotions were too real. The consequence of reality in emotion is very curious, being exactly the contrary of what one would naturally expect. Real emotion expresses itself simply and briefly, and often quite feebly and inadequately. [Footnote: Amongst the uneducated genuine emotion is often voluble; but poets usually belong to the educated classes.] The result, of course, is that the reader's feelings are not played upon sufficiently to excite them. Feigned, or artistic emotion, on the contrary, leaves the poetic artist in the fullest possession of all his means of influence, and he works upon the reader's feelings by slow or by sudden effects at his own choice. [Footnote: Two diametrically opposite opinions on this subject are held by actors, some of whom think that in their profession emotion ought to be real, others that it ought to be feigned. I know nothing about acting; but have always found in literature and art, and even in the intercourse of life, that my own real emotions expressed themselves very inadequately.]
The failure of "The Isles of Loch Awe" occasioned me rather a heavy loss, which had the effect of making me economical for two or three years, during which I did not even keep a horse. I also came to the conclusion that nobody wanted my verses, and (not having either the inspiration of Shelley and Keats, or the dogged determination of Wordsworth) I gave up writing verse altogether, and that with a suddenness and completeness that astonishes me now. Young men are extreme in their hopes and in their discouragements. I had expected to sell two thousand copies of a book of poetry by a totally unknown writer, and because I did not immediately succeed in the hopeless attempt I must needs break with literature altogether! It did not occur to me to pursue the art of prose composition, which is quite as interesting as that of verse, and ten times more rewarding in every sense.
My book had been, on the whole, very kindly received by the reviews, and a very odd incident occurred in connection with a well-known periodical. At that time "Fraser's Magazine" was one of the great authorities, and a contributor to it was so pleased with my poems that he determined to write an important article upon them. One of his friends knew of this intention, and told me. He revealed to the contributor, accidentally, that he had given me this piece of information, on which the contributor at once replied that since the author of the volume had been made aware that it was to be reviewed, it was evident that his knowledge of the fact had made it impossible to write the article. Does the reader perceive the impossibility? I confess that it is invisible for me. However, by this trifling incident my book missed a most important review, which, at that time, might have classed it amongst the noticeable publications of the period.
My commercial non-success in poetry threw me back more decidedly upon painting, and this in combination with the resolution to learn French well, of which something has been already said, made me go to Paris in the autumn of 1855. I was at that time so utterly ignorant of modern languages, as they are spoken, that in the train between Calais and Paris I could not be certain, until I was told by an Englishman who was more of a linguist than myself, which of my fellow-travellers were speaking French and which Italian. I made such good use of my time in Paris that when returning to England on the same railway, after the short interval of three months, I spoke French fluently (though not correctly) for the greater part of the way, and did not miss a syllable that was said to me.
I had no knowledge of Paris and its hotels, so let myself be guided by a fellow-traveller. We went to the Hotel du Louvre, then so new that it smelt of plaster and paint. In those days, big, splendid hotels were almost unknown in Europe. The vast dining-hall, with its palatial decoration, impressed my inexperience very strongly. During my stay in the Hotel du Louvre, I made the acquaintance of some English officers. One was a splendid-looking man of about twenty-eight, physically the finest Englishman I was ever personally acquainted with, and another was a much older and more experienced officer on leave of absence from India, where he ruled over a considerable territory. His name was Turnbull, and I have been told since by another Indian officer, that Captain Turnbull was the original of Colonel Newcome. Certainly, he was one of the kindest, most amiable, and most unpretending gentlemen I ever met. These two officers were invited to the ball at the Hotel de Ville that was given by the Parisian municipality to the Emperor and King Victor Emmanuel, and it happened that the young military Adonis had not his uniform with him, whilst the idea of going to the ball without it, and appearing only like a commonplace civilian, was so vexatious as to be inadmissible. He therefore refused to go, and transferred his card to me; so I went with Captain Turnbull, who had a cocked hat like a general, and was taken for one. Some French people, by a stretch of imagination, even took him for Prince Albert!
The Hotel de Ville was very splendid on a night of that kind, and when, long afterwards, I saw it as a blackened ruin, the details of that past splendor all came back to me. The most interesting moment was when the crowd of guests formed in two lines in the great ball-room, and the Emperor and King took their places for a short time on two thrones, after which they slowly walked down the open space. I happened to be standing near a French general, who kindly spoke a few words to me, and just after that the Emperor came and shook hands with him, asking a friendly question. In this way I saw Louis Napoleon very plainly; but the more interesting of the two souvenirs for me is certainly that of the immortal leader of men who was afterwards the first King of Italy. As for Louis Napoleon, the sight of him in his glory called to mind an anecdote told of him by Major Towneley in our regiment. When an exile in London, he spoke to the major of some project that he would put into execution quand je serai Empereur. "Do you really still cherish hopes of that kind?" asked the sceptical Englishman. "They are not merely hopes," answered Louis Napoleon, "but a certainty." He believed firmly in the re-establishment of the Empire, but had no faith whatever in its permanence. This uneasy apprehension of a fall was publicly betrayed afterwards by the unnecessary plebiscitum. In a conversation with a French supporter of the Empire, Louis Napoleon said, "So long as I am necessary my power will remain unshakable, but when my hour comes I shall be broken like glass!" He believed himself to be simply an instrument in the hands of Providence that would be thrown away when no longer of any use.
We who saw the sovereigns of France and Sardinia walking down that ball-room together, little imagined what would be the ultimate consequences of their alliance—the establishment of the Italian kingdom, then of the German Empire, with the siege of Paris, the Commune, and the total destruction of the building that dazzled us by its splendor, and of the palace where the sovereigns slept that night.
Now they sleep far apart,—one in the Pantheon of ancient Rome, in the midst of the Italian people, who hold his name in everlasting honor; the other in an exile's grave in England, with a name upon it that is execrated from Boulogne to Strasburg, and from Calais to Marseilles.
Thackeray's family in Paris.—Madame Mohl.—Her husband's encouraging theory about learning languages.—Mr. Scholey.—His friend, William Wyld.—An Indian in Europe.—An Italian adventuress.—Important meeting with an American.—Its consequences.—I go to a French hotel.—People at the table d'hote.—M. Victor Ouvrard.—His claim on the Emperor.—M. Gindriez.—His family.—His eldest daughter.
Captain Turnbull knew some English people in the colony at Paris, so he introduced me to two or three houses, and if my object had been to speak English instead of French, I might have gone into the Anglo-Parisian society of that day. One house was interesting to me, that of Thackeray's mother, Mrs. Carmichael Smith. Her second husband, the major, was still living, and she was a vigorous and majestic elderly lady. She talked to me about her son, and his pursuit of art, but I do not remember that she told me anything that the public has not since learned from other sources. I soon discovered that she had very decided views on the subject of religion, and that she looked even upon Unitarians with reprobation, especially as they might be infidels in disguise. My own subsequent experience of the world has led me to perceive that, when infidels wear a cloak, they generally put on a more useful and fashionable one than that of Unitarianism—they assume the religion that can best help them to get on in the world. However, I was not going to argue such a point with a lady who was considerably my senior, and I was constantly in expectation of being examined about my own religious views, knowing that it would be impossible for me to give satisfactory answers. I therefore decided that it would be better to keep out of Mrs. Carmichael Smith's way, and learned afterwards that she had a reputation for asserting the faith that was in her, and for expressing her disapproval of everybody who believed less. For my part, I confess to a cowardly dread of elderly religious Englishwomen. They have examined me many a time, and I have never come out of the ordeal with satisfaction, either to them or to myself.
Thackeray's three daughters were in Paris at that time. I remember Miss Thackeray quite distinctly. She struck me as a young lady of uncommon sense and penetration, and it was not at all a surprise to me when she afterwards became distinguished in literature. Thackeray himself was in London, so I did not meet him.
I went occasionally in the evening to see that remarkable woman, Madame Mohl. She was the oddest-looking little figure, with her original notions about toilette, to which she was by no means indifferent. In the year 1855 she still considered herself a very young woman, and indeed was so, relatively to the great age she was destined to attain. After I had been about six weeks in Paris, her husband gave me the first bit of really valuable encouragement about speaking French that I had received from any one.
"Can you follow what is said by others?"
"Very well; then you may be free from all anxiety about speaking—you will certainly speak in due time."
An eccentric but thoroughly manly and honest Englishman, named Scholey, was staying at the Hotel du Louvre at the same time with Captain Turnbull. He was an old bachelor, and looked upon marriage as a snare; but I learned afterwards that he had been in love at an earlier period of his existence, and that the engagement had been broken off by the friends of the young lady, because Scholey combined the two great defects of honesty and thinking for himself in religious matters. So long as people prefer sneaks and hypocrites to straightforward characters like Scholey, such men are likely to be kept out of polite society. A dishonest man will profess any opinion that you please, or that is likely to please you, so long as it will advance his interest. If, therefore, a lover runs the risk of breaking off a marriage rather than turn hypocrite, it is clear that his sense of honor has borne a crucial test.
"I had not loved thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more!"
Scholey spoke French fluently, and, as he lived on the edge of England, he often crossed over into France. I deeply regret not to have seen much more of him. One of his acts of kindness, in 1855, was to take me to see his old friend William Wyld, the painter, with whom I soon became acquainted, and who is still one of my best and most attached friends. Wyld lived and worked at that time in the same studio, in the Rue Blanche, where he is still living and working in this present year (1887), an octogenarian with the health and faculties of a man of fifty.
There was, in those days, an Indian staying at the Hotel du Louvre, who spoke English very well, but not French, so he was working at French diligently with a master. This Indian was always called "the Prince" in the hotel, though he was not a prince at all, and never pretended to be one, but disclaimed the title whenever he had a chance. He lived rather expensively, but without the least ostentation, and had very quiet manners. He progressed well with his French studies, but did not stay long enough to master the language. I was very much interested in him, as a young man is in all that is strange and a little romantic. He talked about India with great apparent frankness, saying, that naturally the Indians desired national independence, but were too much divided amongst themselves to be likely to attain it in our time. The Mutiny broke out rather more than a year afterwards, and then I remembered these conversations.
"The Prince" had some precious and curious things with him, which he showed me; but his extreme dislike to attracting attention made him dress quite plainly at all times, especially when he went out, which was usually in a small brougham. Now and then an English official, from India, or some military officer, would call upon him, and sometimes they spoke Arabic or Hindostanee.
There was a lady at the hotel who has always remained in my memory as one of the most extraordinary human beings I ever met. She was an Italian, good-looking, yet neither pretty nor handsome, and, above all, intelligent-looking. She dressed with studiously quiet taste, and used to dine at the table d'hote with the rest of us. Besides her native Italian, she spoke French and English with surprising perfection, and her manners were so modest, so unexceptionable in every way, that no one not in the secret would or could have suspected her real business, which was to secure a succession of temporary husbands in the most respectable manner, and without leaving the hotel. Her linguistic accomplishments gave her a wide field of choice, and representatives of various nations succeeded each other at irregular but never very long intervals. As I shall be dead when this is published, perhaps it may be as well to say that I was not one of the series. The reader may believe this when he remembers that I was very economical for the time being, in consequence of the loss on my book of poems. After a while my French teacher informed me that "the Prince" had been caught by the fair Italian, who established herself quietly somewhere in his suite of rooms. People did not think this very wrong in a Mahometan, but after his departure from Paris I happened to be studying some old Italian religious pictures in the Louvre, and suddenly became aware that the same lady was looking at a Perugino near me. This time she was with the Prince's successor,—a most respectable English gentleman, and so far as absolute correctness of outward appearance went, there was not a more presentable couple in the galleries. It is my opinion that she succeeded more by her good manners and quiet way of dressing than by anything else. She must have been a real lady, who had fallen into that way of life in consequence of a reverse of fortune.
After a while I came to the conclusion that I was too much with English people at the Hotel du Louvre, and an incident occurred which altered the whole course of my future life, and is the reason why I am now writing this book in France. I had been up late one night at the Opera, and the next morning rose an hour later than usual. An American came into the breakfast-room of the hotel and found me taking my chocolate. Had I risen only half-an-hour earlier, I should have got through that cup of chocolate and been already out in the streets before the American came down. To have missed him would have been never to know my wife, never even to see her face, as the reader will perceive in the sequel, and the consequences of not marrying her would have been incalculable. One of them is certain in my own mind. The modest degree of literary reputation that makes this autobiography acceptable from a publisher's point of view has been won slowly and arduously. It has been the result of long and steadfast labor, and there is no merely personal motive that would have ever made me persevere. Consequently, the existence of this volume, and any meaning that now belongs to the name on its title page, are due to my getting up late that morning in the Hotel du Louvre.
The American and I being alone in the breakfast-room, and shamefully late, were drawn together by the sympathy created by an identical situation, and began to talk. He gave some reasons for being in Paris, and I gave mine, which was to learn French. We then agreed that to get accustomed to the use of a foreign language the first thing was to surround ourselves with it entirely, and that this could not be done in a cosmopolitan place like the Hotel du Louvre.
"I have a French friend," the American said, "who could give you the address of some purely French hotel where you would not hear a syllable of English."
After breakfast he kindly took me to see this friend, who was a merchant sitting in a pretty and tidy counting-house all in green and new oak. The merchant spoke English (he had lived in America) and said, "I know exactly what you want,—a quiet little French hotel in the Champs Elysees where you can have clean rooms and a well-kept table d'hote." He wrote me the address on a card, and I went to look at the place.
The hotel, which exists no longer, was in the Avenue Montaigne. It suited my tastes precisely, being extremely quiet, as it looked upon a retired garden, and the rooms were perfectly clean. There was only one story above the ground-floor, and here I took a bedroom and sitting-room looking upon the garden. The house was kept by a widow who had very good manners, and was, in her own person, a pleasant example of the cleanliness that characterized the house. I learned afterwards (not from herself) that she had been a lady reduced to poor circumstances by the loss of her husband, and that her relations being determined that she should do something for her living, had advanced some money on condition that she set up an establishment. Having no experience in hotel-keeping, she soon dissipated the little capital and lived afterwards on a pittance in the strictest retirement.
When I took my rooms the small hotel seemed modestly prosperous. There were about a dozen people at the table d'hote, but they did not all stay in the house. We had an officer in the army who had brought his young provincial wife to Paris, a beautiful but remarkably unintelligent person, and there were other people who might be taken as fair specimens of the better French bourgeoisie. The most interesting person in the hotel was an old white-headed gentleman whose name I may give, Victor Ouvrard, a nephew of the famous Ouvrard who had been a great contractor for military clothes and accoutrements under Napoleon I. Victor Ouvrard was living on a pension given by a wealthy relation, and doing what he could to push a hopeless claim on Napoleon III. for several millions of francs due by the first Emperor to his uncle. I know nothing about the great contractor except the curious fact that he remained in prison for a long time rather than give up a large sum of money to the Government, saying that by the mere sacrifice of his liberty he was earning a handsome income. The nephew was what we call a gentleman, a model of good manners and delicate sentiments. He would have made an excellent character for a novelist, with his constantly expressed regret that he had not a speciality.
"Si j'avais une specialite!" he would say, as he tapped his snuff-box and looked up wistfully to the ceiling—"si j'avais seulement une specialite!" He felt himself humiliated by the necessity for accepting his little pension, and still entertained a chimerical hope that if the Emperor did not restore the millions that were due, he might at least bestow upon him enough for independence in his last years. There had been some slight indications of a favorable turn in the Emperor's mind, but they came to nothing. Meanwhile M. Victor Ouvrard lived on with strict economy, brushing his old coats till they were threadbare, and never allowing himself a vehicle in the streets of Paris. He was an excellent walker, and we explored a great part of the town together on foot. He kindly took patience with my imperfect French, and often gently corrected me. The long conversations I had with M. Ouvrard on all sorts of subjects, in addition to my daily lessons from masters, got me forward with surprising rapidity. I observed a strict rule of abstinence from English, never calling on any English people, with the single exception of Mr. Wyld, the painter, nor reading any English books. When M. Ouvrard was not with me in the streets of Paris, I got up conversations with anybody who would talk to me, merely to get practice, and in my own room I wrote French every day. Besides this, for physical exercise, I became a pupil in a gymnasium, and worked there regularly. One thing seemed strange in the way they treated us. When we were as hot as possible with exercise, at the moment of leaving off and changing our dress, men came to the dressing-rooms to sponge us with ice-cold water. They said it did nothing but good, and certainly I never felt any bad effects from the practice.
The ice-cold water reminds me of a ridiculous incident that occurred in the garden of the Tuileries. M. Ouvrard and I were walking together in the direction of the palace, when we saw a Frenchman going towards it with his eyes fixed on the edifice. He was so entirely absorbed by his architectural studies that he did not notice the basin just in front of him. The stone lip of the basin projects a little on the land side, so that if you catch your foot in it no recovery is possible. This he did, and was thrown violently full length upon the thin ice, which offered little resistance to his weight. The basin is not more than a yard deep, so he got out and made his way along the Rue de Rivoli, his clothes streaming on the causeway. Some spectators laughed, and others smiled, but M. Ouvrard remained perfectly grave, saying that he could not understand how people could be so unfeeling as to laugh at a misfortune, for the man would probably take cold. Perhaps the reader thinks he had no sense of humor. Yes, he had; he was very facetious and a hearty laugher, but his delicacy of feeling was so refined that he could not laugh at an accident that seemed to call rather for his sympathy.
A French gentleman who was staying at the hotel had a friend who came occasionally to see him, and this friend was an amiable and interesting talker. He had at the same time much natural politeness, and seeing that I wanted to practise conversation he indulged me by patiently listening to my bad French, and giving me his own remarkably pure and masterly French in return. His name, I learned, was Gindriez, and he was living in Paris by the tolerance of the Emperor. He had been Prefect of the Doubs under the second Republic, and had resigned his prefecture as soon as the orders emanating from the executive Government betrayed the intention of establishing the Empire. As a member of the National Assembly he had voted against the Bonapartists, and was one of the few representatives who were concerting measures against Napoleon when he forestalled them by striking first. After the coup d'etat M. Gindriez fled to Belgium, but returned to Paris for family reasons, and was permitted to remain on condition that he did not actively set himself in opposition to the Empire. M. Gindriez looked upon his own political career as ended, though he could have made it prosperous enough, and even brilliant, by serving the power of the day. A more flexible instrument had been put into his prefecture, a new legislative body had been elected to give a false appearance of parliamentary government, and an autocratic system had been established which M. Gindriez believed destined to a prolonged duration, though he felt sure that it could not last forever. Subsequent events have proved the correctness of his judgment. The Empire outlasted the lifetime of M. Gindriez, but it did not establish itself permanently.