Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 26
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There was not a shadow of declamation in his reading. For the time being he was just Andrea talking to his wife, the "Faultless Painter" as they called him, who knew his own faults but had not the strength to battle with them. It was Andrea himself we were in touch with, his dreamy sadness that we shared. His yearnings for requited love, his longings for the unattainable in art, drew us to him, and we would have helped him had we been able. That sorry business with the King of France was disgraceful--there was no denying it. He admitted himself that he had abused the king's friendship and misused his moneys, but surely for such a man as was Del Sarto, something could be done to settle matters, and once more to turn his genius to account.
And that Lucretia, his wife! his "serpentining beauty, rounds on rounds!" Why _will_ she not answer? The right words from her spoken now might yet make of him the good man and the great artist that a God may create, but that a woman must consecrate. One just felt as if one could give her a good shaking, if only to make her break the aggravating silence she so imperturbably maintains whilst he so pathetically pleads.
As for the cousin, one would have liked to go out and give him a sound thrashing to stop his whistling once for all.
We were so impressed at the close of his reading that for a moment we remained hushed in a silence which none of us cared to break. He looked round at us, anxious lest he should not have brought home his meaning, and said, "Have I made it clear?"
It is rather a sudden transition from Del Sarto to myself, and from "sober pleasant Fiesole" in the background, to the Royal Academy in Piccadilly; but all artists of all times, the little ones as well as the great ones, have their grievous disappointments, and one place is as good or as bad as another to crush some of their fondest hopes.
Annually then, towards the end of April, when the judges at Burlington House had spoken, Browning had his visits of condolence to pay. How helpful and encouraging he would be, none of as, I am sure, could forget. I thanked him on one occasion, telling him that I valued his good opinion more than any other man's, and reminding him of his own words:--
"And that's no way of holding up the soul, Which nobler, needs men's praise perhaps, yet knows One wise man's verdict outweighs all the fools."
The one wise man always found a word of encouragement--
"Beware of despairing thoughts," he answered. "The darkest days, wait but till to-morrow, will have passed away."
In his ever simple, unassuming way he compared himself to me, recalling his failures, and telling me how for many years not a poem of his was read or could boast of a publisher willing to take it, and how now 3500 copies of the new edition of his works had been sold in a month. "To be sure, one must live long enough," he added, and quoted Philip von Artevelde's first speech, in which he says so many die before they've had a chance, and--
"Then comes the man who has the luck to live, And he's a miracle."
Unvarying kindness too he showed me when, as he put it, I "entrusted him with a piece of business." Such a piece was my preface to the Mendelssohn Letters. In this he made six or eight corrections, suggestions he insisted on calling them, when he brought the paper back himself that he might explain verbally why he had substituted a word here and added another there. At the end he had pencilled: "Excellent.
R. B.," and I felt as proud as a peacock and as happy as a schoolboy.
When the book finally came out he was in Italy, and I sent him a copy of it.
It was characteristic of him that his kind heart prompting him, and his unlimited powers of expression aiding him, he would, even on the most trivial occasions, write in the warmest and the most affectionate terms.
So he did when he answered acknowledging the receipt of the book, and mentioning the photo of a picture which I had painted for A. P.
Rockwell, a dear friend of mine and a great fur-merchant in New York. It showed a life-size female figure stretched on a tiger-skin and frankly nude, but for the white Mongolian and other furs thrown around and about her.
He dates from Casa Alvisi, Canal Grande, Venezia, October, 29, '88, and after a few introductory sentences, he says:--
"I concluded that on leaving Scotland you would proceed elsewhere than homewards, and it seemed best to wait till I was sure of finding you.
Even now--I am sorry exceedingly to be still far from sure that this will go to you safely housed within the old easy reach of De Vere Gardens--for there shall I live and probably die--not in the Rezzonico, which is not mine but Pen's: I am staying here only as the guest of a dearest of friends, Mrs. Bronson, who has cared for the comfort of my sister and myself this many a year. No; once missing my prize of the superlatively beautiful Manzoni Palazzo, I have not been tempted to try a fresh spring unbaulked by rascality. So much for the causes of my tardiness in thanking you most heartily for the charming Lady of the Furs: why not give her that title? Everybody here paid the due tribute to her beauty and your skill. You promised I should witness the beginning and ending of such another picture--and it is not to be--if things are as I apprehend. Wherever you go, may all good go with you and your delightful wife; my two precious friends!
"And now here is a second occasion of sincere thanksgiving. Your letter arrived yesterday--and I supposed that the gift referred to had been consigned to the Kensington house: whereas, while I sat preparing the paper whereon to write, came the very book itself--the dearest of boons just now. The best way will be to thank you at once, and be certain of finding plenty more to thank you for when I have read what will interest me more than anything else I can imagine in the way of biography. Let me squeeze your hand in spirit, over the many miles, this glorious day--a sun floods the room from the open window, while an autumnal freshness makes it more than enjoyable, almost intoxicating. In half-an-hour I shall be on the Lido--perhaps in a month I may cower by the fireside in Kensington. Meanwhile and ever, my dear Moscheles, believe me, gratefully and affectionately yours,
He was with me one day when a distinguished German officer, Graf D., unexpectedly came in. The count was in London to attend some grand military pageant organised for the benefit of the German Emperor. His Majesty, on a visit to his royal grandmother, was being entertained with a right royal show of death-dealing ships and other instruments of warfare. He seems to have enjoyed it thoroughly, and in return for attentions shown him, he was graciously pleased to raise the aforesaid grandmother to the dignity of "Colonel of the First Regiment of Dragoons, stationed in Berlin." As a specimen of the officers to serve under her, Graf D. was ordered to London. He told us that he had dined twice at the royal table, and that he had found the ceremonial on such occasions rather less exacting than in Germany; the Queen herself was somewhat reserved, but the rest of the company were pretty free to talk or to laugh as they liked.
I had questioned him on the subject, recollecting how indignant Rubinstein was at the hushed silence prevailing in the presence of her Majesty. He could not and would not stand it, he said, and spoke out as he would have done elsewhere.
When D. had gone, I told Browning that the count was not only a gallant soldier, but a man to be held in great esteem, on account of his moral courage. It was a bold thing for a man in his position to side with the Jews at a time when the antisemitic movement was at its height. That an officer and a scion of a noble family should associate with bourgeois of the Jewish persuasion as he unhesitatingly did, was an unheard-of thing. No wonder it should be commented upon amongst his brother officers. Whatever their prejudices may have been, he had once for all checked their utterance by stating in unmistakable language that he would tolerate no disparaging remarks on any one of those whose houses he frequented.
Browning was naturally in sympathy with the count's broader views and his chivalrous conduct. "Is it possible," he said, "that men should seek to sever themselves from those who are as _they_ are--all made of mortal clay!"
When I alluded to the difference in appearance, and especially in manners, so marked in Germany between the Christians and the Jews of a certain class, and sought thereby to explain the repugnance these so often inspire, he said--
"Naturally; their characteristics would become more intensified through long exclusion from other groups of men; their manners would be unlike those of others with whom they were not allowed to mix. No wonder if, hedged in as they were, those peculiarities took offensive shapes. Does not every development, to become normal, require space? Why, our very foot, if you restrict and hedge it in, throws out a corn in self-defence!"
On the 7th of May, it was in 1889, Browning came in after luncheon. "It is my birthday to-day," he said, "and so I came to sit with you and your wife for a while, if you'll let me."
I rejoiced, and at once thought of work in his presence, always a source of double pleasure to me. My wife thought of the pleasure it would give her to offer him some little present by way of marking the happy day.
"I have been out model-hunting this morning," I told him, "and have caught the very specimen I wanted for the boy lolling against the door of the public-house in the 'Drink' picture. I was in luck; for I went to Victoria Station with the definite purpose of finding a typical 'Cheeky,' and I found him. He is just having a square meal as an introduction to business, and I am burning to paint him and his cheek.
Will you come in with me and let me start?"
"The very thing I should like to see you do," said Browning, and we adjourned to the Studio. Little Cheeky, the veriest young vagabond, uncombed and untamed, cap over ear and cigarette-stump in mouth, was happily transferred to canvas in an hour or two, and his effigy has ever since remained with me in memory of the friend who sat by me on that day. In the meanwhile my wife had bethought herself of a little piece of antique embroidery framed and under glass, which, but lately, we had picked up in Rome; that seemed worthy to be offered to Browning, and she pressed him to accept it, but in vain. Warmly she persisted, firmly he resisted. At last, and lest he should displease or pain her, he said--
"Well, my dear friend, let us make a compromise. You keep it for me for a year and give it to me on my next birthday."
We have it still! He was never to see that next birthday!
He died on the 12th of December in the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice.
When Pen's telegram with the fatal news reached me I was standing by another deathbed.
On the last day of the year 1889 he was buried in Westminster Abbey. It had been proposed to transfer the remains of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from Florence to be laid by the side of her husband, but the idea was abandoned as not being likely to meet with the approval of the municipality and the English colony of that city. Browning himself had never expressed any wish on the subject of his resting-place, further than mentioning on one occasion the Norwood Cemetery as a fitting place, and saying that, if he died in Paris, he wished to be buried near his father.
Shortly after his death I painted a water-colour of his study in De Vere Gardens. Everything had remained intact. "All here--only our poet's away," as he says in "Asolando." The empty chair by the writing-table which bears his initials, the desk which he looked upon as a relic. His father had used it when a lad, and had taken it with him on his voyage to the West Indies. The poet possessed it from his earliest boyhood, and used it all his life; everything he wrote in England, so his sister told me, was written on that desk. The little dumb keyboard I have already mentioned in the first of these pages; it had five notes over which he would mechanically run his fingers. He had a way too of beating a tattoo on his knee, or he would just for a few seconds mark time, moving his arm backwards and forwards. Sometimes he would squeeze up his eyes and look out of the window, or he would take up some little object and scrutinise it closely, whilst his thoughts were busy elsewhere.
On his table lay a book he had shown me as one he treasured: a little Greek Bible. On the last leaf was written: "My wife's book and mine."
Pictures by his son hung on the walls; so too a portrait of his wife when a little girl, by Hayter; one of Hope End, the house in which she lived, and one of the tomb in the English Cemetery in Florence where she lies buried. Another reminiscence of her is the low chair to the right of the table; she at all times liked low seats, and this chair was a favourite with her.
Among the things on the walls was a pen-and-ink drawing of Tennyson by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. On the back of it Browning wrote--
"Tennyson read his poem of 'Maud' to E. B. B., R. B., Arabella, and Rossetti on the evening of September 27, 1855, at 13 Dorset Street, Manchester Square. Rossetti made this sketch of Tennyson as he sat reading to E. B. B., who occupied the other end of the sofa.--R.
B., March 6, 1874, 19 Warwick Crescent."
On the drawing is written in Mrs. Browning's hand--
"I hate the dreadful hollow Behind the little wood."
The larger bookcase which made up the background for my drawing, he designed himself. The fine old oak-carvings he had bought many years ago in Florence, where they had adorned the refectory of some old monastery; when he got them home, he put them together, with the assistance of an ordinary carpenter, according to his own design, chalked out on the carpet, and ever after he took great pride in the result. The bookcase held to the end of his days the many rare and beautiful volumes he prized so highly.
Another bookcase he wanted to accommodate piles of books he had brought from Warwick Crescent when he moved to De Vere Gardens. I suggested a certain one that had belonged to Sheridan and was now for sale at Joshua Binns's, then the king of dilapidators. But he preferred a severely useful piece of furniture in mahogany which we found close to my studio at Taylor's Depository. Books he would always handle very carefully. He would never leave a book open or place it face downwards--or, worst of all in his eyes, deface it by turning the corner of a page. His strong dislike of the imperfect was characteristic. Anything mended he objected to, and he would rather a thing he valued were broken outright than chipped or cracked.
The manuscript of "Aurora Leigh" was a treasure he guarded lovingly. It had been lost with other things in a trunk forwarded from Italy to England, but, when search already seemed hopeless, it was found in Marseilles. I have heard him say, referring to the incident: "She thought more of Pen's laces and collars than of that book." He wanted to have the manuscript bound, but could not make up his mind to part with it even for that purpose. Three times he replaced it on the shelf before he let it go. It is now in Pen's possession, as is the MS. of "Asolando," both eventually to be left to Balliol College, Oxford, as others already bequeathed to that institution.
After his wife's death, Browning took the house in Warwick Crescent, originally to find a place for the furniture which he had had forwarded from Florence; the neighbourhood was selected because a sister of Mrs.
Browning's, Arabella Moulton Barrett, lived in Delamere Terrace, but he strongly disliked the house, and always had a wish finally to settle in the Kensington district. It was, however, only towards the close of his life that he left Warwick Crescent and made his home in De Vere Gardens.
Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 26
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Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 26 summary
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