Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 17

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"To whomsoever it may concern.

"I have received such extraordinary kindness from Americans, and number so many of them among my friends, that it would seem invidious if I selected those whom I ventured to believe would oblige me were it possible. I shall therefore say, in the simplest of words, that should my dear friend, the Painter Moscheles, meet with any individual whose sympathy I have been privileged to obtain, whatever favour and a.s.sistance may be rendered to him, or his charming wife, will const.i.tute one more claim to the grat.i.tude of

ROBERT BROWNING."

One of my first visitors was Dr. Fordyce Barker, the eminent physician, and more particularly the idol of the fair s.e.x, which owes him so large a debt of grat.i.tude. He ignored the given time above mentioned, and, calling at some unearthly hour before I was fairly presentable, he was away again before I could find my boots.

"What have you come to America for?" was his first shot. The question coming suddenly upon me, I found no better answer to it than, "Well, just to have a look round--wanted to see the latest thing out in the way of civilisation."



"But you are a portrait-painter, I understand?"

"Yes, I am."

"Then you have come here to paint portraits?"

"Well--certainly," I hummed and hawed--"in case the opportunity should present itself--and if I should find that"--but he cut me short (beating about the bush is not popular in the States).

"How much do you charge?" he asked bluntly, and without the least regard for the sensitive nature of a British artist, so I had to make a plunge and tell him; so much for head-size and so much for a three-quarter canvas.

"All right," he said, and was off.

Later on I painted him, and he was ever a good friend to me.

It took me some time to get accustomed to the outspoken ways of the American. With us the artist is a privileged being, unlike any other producer or vendor, but there everybody takes it for granted that he is quite ready to accept dollars in exchange for his work. The waiter in the cafe, the artist who shampooed me, or the clerk in the hotel, wanted to know my charges, and it once or twice happened that they turned their knowledge to good account.

"Now, sir," said a clerk in the Hotel Richelieu, Chicago, where I was staying, to a wealthy senator, also a guest at the hotel--"now, sir, this is Mr. Felix Moscheles, the celebrated English artist, and I guess you had better have your portrait and your wife's portrait painted, whilst he is here to fix them up." That introduction led to commissions as acceptable from the artistic point of view as they were remunerative, and to the most cordial relations between client and artist.

But I am drifting away from New York, where I want to remain for a while. I had not been there many hours before I went for a ramble on Broadway (the American walks _on_ the street, not _in_ it, as we do). I always loved to explore the busy, bustling thoroughfares of a big city; it is there you can feel the throbbing feverish pulse of an active community; in the Park or on the Corso you only get that languid fas.h.i.+onable-doctor sort of pulse, which takes its airing in a landau or a victoria, a correct and well-regulated pulse that knows its duty to itself and to the society it is privileged to beat in.

With such predilection for high-pressure and a rattling pace, I soon found myself making friends with the Broadway. I always had a weakness, too, for shops, and there were miles of them; stores they call them, and every mortal thing is stored behind their immense panes of plate-gla.s.s, or in those outposts of business, the show-cases, that go dodging about the footpath, and look as if they were on their way to some international exhibition. Anything and everything man can desire to smooth the th.o.r.n.y path from the cradle to cremation, he will find in the Broadway.

Talking of the th.o.r.n.y path, I was much struck by the liberty, not to say licence, accorded to the paving stones, each of which acted quite independently of his neighbour. The noise, as the vehicles ploughed their way along the road, and as it was echoed by the ma.s.sive stone buildings, was really appalling. Infernal, I should say, but that adjective is too good in this case, for the Inferno was at least paved with good intentions, whereas that road meant mischief and strife, and revelled in the purity of its own cussedness.

I could not help speculating as to what dear old mother Regent Street would think of it all; how she would be shocked at the way in which that transatlantic upstart hands up his goods from the bas.e.m.e.nt, and pushes them just under your nose, or piles them up sky-high and block deep, before he consents to put a roof on them. Father Oxford Street, too, would be scandalised, and so would his time-honoured brother-streets, that fancy themselves arteries, as they wind their crooked way from the fas.h.i.+onable brick piles of the west to the golden-calf temples of the east. They do their best, suffering as they are from chronic congestion, and I have loved them since the days of my boyhood. No, I certainly mean no disrespect to the British lion and his partner the unicorn, nor to the griffin at Temple Bar, nor to the bulls and bears farther on, nor to the turtles and plovers' eggs at the Mansion House; least of all to the bank-notes opposite, good company as they always are.

America is a country of contradictions; that is a safe way of putting it, as the same can be said of all countries. Wherever he goes, the stranger sees with his own eyes, feels with his own heart, and above all, judges according to the state of his own liver. One man practises his b.u.mp of veneration on all he meets; another travels on the _nil admirari_ principle. Golden threads traverse the road of either, and so do rotten threads. The first man seizes the golden ones and is happy; the second picks up the rotten ones and makes himself equally happy with those. Both come home triumphantly to show their threads, and to say, "Behold, that is what I found!" It must be difficult for the same hand to pick up both sorts of thread, and to present them impartially, weighing one set against the other and judging dispa.s.sionately. There are some strong men who can do it, and there would be more of them, I believe, if it were not for that liver. In my case, that organ may have been in a satisfactory condition, and have prompted me to be sociable.

So I was rather disappointed when I found that there was more formality in the great Republic than under the old Monarchy, and that if I wanted to talk to somebody, I had to be introduced first.

Day after day I have sat with my wife in various hotels at some little table laid for four, sharing it with some other Mr. and Mrs., without exchanging a word. Elsewhere we should soon have been playing that stimulating parlour-game of inter-social hide-and-seek, or we might for the time being have formed a pleasant little _partie carree_. Sometimes my heart went out to my neighbours, I think in a true Christian spirit, but I could have seen them starve, and yet not have dared to hand them the mustard or pa.s.s them the b.u.t.ter. I knew they would have looked upon me with suspicion; yet I flatter myself that, with a little discernment, they could have seen that I was not a shady character, and that neither I nor that most artless and guileless partner of mine was capable of playing off the confidence trick on the clergyman opposite, or on the charming elderly lady with the white hair and the two golden-locked grandchildren.

We English are often reproached with our respect for caste. We emphasise the difference of position in the social scale, whereas the American--unless, to be sure, he be a Bostonian--takes every opportunity to emphasise his indifference for such distinction. We think we know a gentleman when we see him; he rather mistrusts his judgment, perhaps because he has seen fewer generations of the species than we have; so he sometimes mistakes a sheep for a wolf in disguise, and only recognises his error when the sheep is formally introduced, and thus guaranteed as the genuine article. Perhaps it is that, by dint of proclaiming that one man is as good as another, the citizen of the Great Republic finds himself arriving at the conclusion that one man is as bad as another, and so it is for the stranger to show cause why he should be allowed to pa.s.s the hotel mustard or b.u.t.ter.

All that, I must admit, applies, as far as I know, only to the few cities I visited; I had much too good a time in each of them, painting and lecturing, studying and learning, to go away in a hurry; so I cannot speak of the boys on the ranches or the girls in California; nor can I say whether the fifty or sixty odd millions of Americans to whom I was not introduced would have taken kindly to me or I to them, had we met.

My first visit to the United States was not the mere excursion I had expected it to be. I remained six months, mostly in New York. First I made myself a temporary studio at the Park Avenue Hotel, but soon finding that I wanted more easel and elbow-room, I took a flat and a studio in "The Chelsea," furnished and decorated it _right-away_, and settled down to a winter's work. When the spring came, I just locked my door, told the clerk in the office to set the burglar alarm, and went off to the other Chelsea, my home in London. So, for three years, I divided my time pretty equally between the two countries.

I look back with pleasure to many an incident connected with the portraits I painted in America. So, too, to my experiences on the platform. Not only was I allowed to lecture, but I was even listened to. To be sure, my lectures were only announced as "Studio-talks," and I took care they should be very much varied according to my audiences. The inexhaustible subject of Art had to be presented in one way when addressing the students in Philadelphia or Chicago, in another when speaking to the select circle of the Thursday Evening Club in New York.

Considerations that would be appropriate to put before a large gathering of beautiful and gifted young ladies at one of their great colleges, were not the same that would appeal to upwards of a thousand Negroes and Indians, students at the famous Hampton Schools in Virginia. In each case, however, I ill.u.s.trated my lecture by painting a life-size head from nature, my subject being mostly selected from the audience.

I cannot refrain from mentioning one instance of the warmth with which my efforts were occasionally rewarded. "Thanks!" said one of the gentlemen officially connected with the Hampton Schools, at the close of my lecture, "a thousand thanks! You cannot realise what pleasure you have given to those young men and women.--Understood it? I should think so. Why, I can a.s.sure you, they have enjoyed it as much as if they had been to a circus."

I have often wondered where I found the courage to undertake what I had never attempted before, and whence came the capacity which saved me from discomfiture. I can only imagine that I took my colour from my surroundings, and that where everybody was going ahead, I could not lag behind. I certainly never knew what I really was, till I had been to America. The gentleman at the schools was right; it was clear to me: I was a circus-horse, and America the man with the whip in the middle of the arena. As he urged me on I could clear bars and barriers as never before; the people all around, I knew, were keen judges of horseflesh, and could not be hoodwinked. I must do my best. And then, when sympathetic friends applauded, it was an easy matter to march boldly along on two legs and to hold up my head with the best; my nostrils dilated, and I felt as proud as a man. And when, to reward me, some of the loveliest women of the great Republic patted me on the back and fed me with sweets and kind words, I reciprocated with all my heart, and felt as if I could once for all shake off the yoke of the slow-coaches in the old countries, and start afresh on life's big race in the new one.

I was, from the first, much struck by the cordiality with which a stranger is received. Hospitality is a virtue inherited by the American from his ancestors, a tradition handed down to him. It has not yet had time to become blunted, as it has with us much visited Europeans. One can quite fancy how delighted the first settlers must have been to welcome friends from the old country and to get the latest news, to say nothing of the latest fas.h.i.+ons, from home. Now, to be sure, messages get from house to house before they are cabled (as the clocks go); and as for the fas.h.i.+ons, it takes a fleet to convey them across the seas. Who can tell how much horse-power is annually needed to convey the creations of a Worth or a Virot to those I would call the loveliest women in the world, were I not afraid of being misunderstood by other sets of loveliest women nearer home. Anyway I do not hesitate to a.s.sert that the best productions of the great Parisians become worthier of the fair s.e.x for which they are conceived, by being subjected to the chastening influence of the American lady's taste, and to the subtle touches which she knows how to add.

But however up-to-date the hyper-civilisation imported in dress-baskets and handboxes may be, and however high the hothouse temperature under which the New Englanders force the growths they receive from foreign soil, their good old times are still within easy reach, and many an ancient custom has survived, foremost amongst which, the practice of hospitality.

One of the most practical forms in which it is dispensed is called a Reception, and I most gratefully remember the pleasure and the advantages derived from such gatherings. Introductions are there dealt out wholesale to the individual in whose honour they are held. When a stranger to Chicago, I had delivered a letter to a prominent citizen and his wife from a mutual friend in New York. They knew everybody worth knowing, and kindly offered to introduce me to their circle of friends.

On the evening appointed, I stood next to the hostess, and as one after the other of the guests arrived, each was introduced to me by name. "Mr.

So-and-so," she said, "Mr. Felix Moscheles." Whereupon I had to shake hands and say blandly, "Mr. So-and-so," whilst he had to repeat "Mr.

Felix Moscheles." If he had not caught my name, or had any doubt about its p.r.o.nunciation, he would make a stand and inquire: "_How_ was that?

How do you spell it?" and when once enlightened on those points they would be fixed once for all in his mind. It was there he had the advantage over me, for after a short interval I was sure to have forgotten whether Mr. So-and-so's name spelt Homer D. V. Smith or Plato V. D. Brown, and whether Homer and Plato were men at all, or ought to have been connected in my mind with a Mrs. or a Miss.

But notwithstanding such imperfections of my memory, I had no difficulty in retaining the names of many good friends I made in Chicago. Foremost amongst these is Robert Morse.

I had got very busy in the studio I had taken in Chicago, where I was spending the winter of 1887, when a very pleasantly-worded letter reached me, inviting me to transfer my studio to Omaha, two days'

journey farther west. I could not accept the invitation, and so it was arranged that at least one of my intending models should be brought to me, to be dealt with according to the severe laws of the portrait-painter's art. Robert Morse was four years of age, and had a distinct objection to be thus dealt with, and out of that circ.u.mstance arose a series of difficulties. But, oh, how beautiful he was! I see him now as he was handed out of the carriage on his arrival at the Hotel Richelieu, his golden curls escaping from beneath his Phrygian cap of liberty, and cascading over his shoulders. We were in the depth of winter, and his st.u.r.dy little figure was warmly clad in the ample folds of the toboggan costume--a sort of ulster made of a deep-toned red flannel; collar and cuffs of the same material, but dark blue, and the cap to match. His mother led him upstairs--or I should more correctly say, speaking of this typical American child, was led upstairs by him.

After forty-eight hours' travelling, that lady stepped out of the train much as if it were one of those boxes marked "Worth--Paris." She was a lovely woman, as I soon learnt; lovely not only in outward appearance, but in that moral and intellectual sense which the American language connects with the word.

My stay in Chicago was limited, and I had written to say that I could only undertake to paint one picture--that to be a head of the boy. When we met, however, I at once felt I _must_ paint him full-length, life-size, toboggan costume, cap, snowscape, and all; and as for the mother, to be sure, as she wished it, we must find time for a head-portrait of her too. There was that in her that seemed to call for a picture from the artist's brush, and so I soon enthusiastically set to work, painting on the two canvases alternately.

But it was not long ere troubles came thick and fast, growing out of Robert's determination not to sit for his portrait if he could in any way help it, and further, on no account to leave the studio when I was painting his mother. I tried various subtle devices to make work possible. With a piece of white chalk I designed a most scientific frontier, separating his territory from mine, and that was capital fun as long as I joined in the game and we repulsed one another's attacks, but it fell flat as soon as I returned to the easel. I fed him from an unlimited supply of "candy," and succeeded after a while in bringing about indisposition of a marked character; but he speedily recovered, his animal spirits rising with returning vitality. I sometimes flatter myself that I possess a faculty of inducing docility in my sitters. More especially in the treatment of children I pride myself on a series of minor accomplishments, mainly connected with a free transcription of Nature's noises, pleasant and unpleasant, such as the animal kingdom furnishes to the observant ear. But such talents were of little avail.

That infinite source of a.s.sistance which I usually speak of as "a lady attached to the establishment," also failed on this occasion. She who accompanies me through life for better and for worse, and whose blandishments European children have ever acknowledged to be irresistible, could gain but momentary influence over this American child. But--well, I could not help it--I loved that boy; I admired his spirit. How should he, at his tender age, know that an artist is a superior, privileged being, to be treated accordingly? At all hours of the day Robert was delightfully bright, but his _'cuteness_ seemed sharpened as bedtime approached. Not that he objected, as most children do, to going to bed, but, however sleepy he was, his spirit of resistance seemed somehow to revive when the moment came to recite his simple prayer. On one occasion all went smoothly as long as he prayed for his father and mother, his brothers and sisters, but when it came to his uncles and aunts and to their numerous offspring, he made a decided stand, putting it plainly to his mother, "I say, _mamma_, why can't they pray for their own crowd?" Another time, there had been in the course of the day a distinct difference of opinion between Robert and his mother on the advisability of his going out sleighing. He gave in with unwonted docility, but when the evening came and the fond mother folded her hands and knelt by his bedside, he shook his head, and said, "No, _mamma_; no sleigh--no prayers!"

It was with some impatience that I expected the arrival of Mr. Morse, for whenever Robert was particularly untractable during what, by courtesy, was called the sitting, his mother would say, "Wait till his father comes; he knows how to manage him." After a fortnight that father came, and he and I at once struck up a friends.h.i.+p which promised to last, and which ever since has kept its promise. He was a fine and prepossessing specimen of the free-born American citizen. Six feet something in height, strong and straight as they are reared under the guiding brightness and the protecting shadow of the Stars and Stripes.

Under his eye I was to put the final touches to Robert's portrait. I hopefully started work, but, alas! where was the paternal authority I had relied upon to get a view of that hand that was dragging the toboggan across the snow, and that foot on which rested the main action of the figure? Robert _would_ perch on his father's shoulder, and thence look down upon me and the world in general. Difficulties finally reached a climax. I protested in the name of correct drawing and the eternal laws of perspective, and, fairly roused by my pleading, the father sternly motioned the son to follow him into the next room.... At last, I thought, the "right of the strongest" will be vindicated, and that child will be thrashed.

But if I expected howling and gnas.h.i.+ng of teeth, I was to be disappointed. Nothing broke the silence, until, after some time, the door opened, and father and son reappeared. Robert took his place, clutched the cord attached to the toboggan, and listened with rapt attention to his father's words; these were spoken slowly and impressively, giving me time to apply whatever faculty for correct drawing I might possess. As he sought to spin out his words, so will I, for obvious reasons, seek to curtail them, only adding that, to do them justice, they should be read with the characteristic American accentuation which seems to give importance to some words that we should slide over.

"Sir," he began solemnly, "Robert wishes me to communicate to you what has pa.s.sed between us during our absence from this room. It did not take me long to elicit from him the fact that he has no desire to see his portrait finished. He has even a.s.sured me that, as far as he was concerned, it need never have been painted at all. He further stated that he at no time had formed a desire to visit Chicago, and that he much preferred Omaha to that city. Also, he said--and, I think, with some show of reason--that, having no playmates here, he would like to return to those he has left behind, more especially to his brothers and sisters. Now, sir, you are aware that I, on the other hand, wished him to make it possible for you to finish that portrait, and I could see no cause why I should recede from that position; so I politely but firmly requested him to do as I desire. There are, no doubt, some boys who, when thus thwarted and opposed, would not have hesitated to strike their fathers, but Robert is not a boy of that description, he would at all times respect his father's independence. Still, you see, we were at what you might call loggerheads. We had gotten fixed like in a dark place with no door behind us, the windows left out, and a stone wall in front.

Under these circ.u.mstances I cast about in my mind, and it occurred to me we should do well to make straight for arbitration. Now Robert said he did not know the precise meaning of the word arbitration, so I explained to him that when two parties could not agree it was usual to call in a third to decide which way things were to be settled. I wanted to nominate you, sir, but Robert put in his opinion that you might not be the right person for our purpose; he said that I myself should do better, so, after giving the matter careful consideration, I decided that Robert should come in and take friendly to that toboggan and that cord, and that he should make himself generally portraitable; I further decided that, as long as it lasted, I should sit here patiently and wait; but that, as soon as you had finished, I might go and procure a horse to have a ride on the road to Omaha, and that I should also hire a pony, so that Robert might accompany me on that ride."

Robert listened intently. I painted ditto.

They say in Omaha, where the portrait hangs, that it is good. So, "All's well that ends well."

Of that I am glad, and, as I recall the incident, I am once more lost in admiration of the American child that, from its earliest days, is ever ready to elicit the n.o.blest qualities of patience and forbearance in the parent it is training. And what a training, too, for the boy! Will not Robert, who is now growing into manhood, be a staunch supporter of International Arbitration, and help us, if need be, to rescue the Anglo-American treaty from destruction, or, should that be achieved, to uphold and to strengthen it?

But the mightiest advocate of International Arbitration, I found amongst the friends I made in Albany. For him I must turn over a new page.

[Ill.u.s.tration]

Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 17

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