Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 25

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"ROBERT BROWNING."

The aspirations he speaks of he had in former years sought to satisfy.

When living in Florence he had arranged the large corner room on the first floor of the Casa Guidi as a studio. There he used to make life-size drawings of the human figure from casts, working on a specially prepared canvas, which enabled him to rub out his studies and to replace them by others. He never painted; form had more attraction for him than colour. When in Rome he worked several hours daily in Storey's studio, and when he returned to England he intended taking up modelling seriously. He did indeed begin in Warwick Crescent, but he eventually abandoned the attempt, carried away by mightier impulses. The regret that he had not been able to cultivate his taste for the plastic art, would however often find expression in words.

What he might have done as an artist is a matter of speculation, but he certainly made a most obliging and excellent sitter, as I can vouch for, having been one of those who had the privilege of painting him. He sat for me in 1884, and my portrait has found a permanent place in the Armour Inst.i.tute in Chicago.

As my sh.e.l.l-picture advanced, I became ambitious to find a better name than the one I had given it temporarily, and as usual Browning was consulted. Isaac Henderson, the novelist of "Agatha Page" fame, happened to be at the Studio, and between them the matter was at first facetiously discussed. On this occasion my name had the proud distinction of drawing from Browning the only pun I ever heard him make.



"Why not call it _more sh.e.l.ls_ by _Moschels?_" he said.

Later on he quoted various pa.s.sages from poems that seemed to fit my subject, but he felt himself that they were only partially suited to it.

In the evening, recalling our conversation, I wrote to him that, knowing as I did exactly what I was trying to express on canvas, I felt sure it would be difficult to find lines quite adaptable to my meaning. "Why not," I asked, "in default of a real poet, sign an imaginary name, Grelice di Napoli, for instance?" Grelice was meant for an Italian version of the name which I had composed when I first met the _Gre_-te who was to link her name to that of Fe-_lix_. The pseudonym was adopted, and we are best known to our friends in every part of the world as "The Grelix."

I suggested then that Grelice di Napoli should have said something of this kind:--

"And as I walked along those lovely sh.o.r.es, and breathed the air of balmy climes, I waking dreamt of living forms that wedded opalescent sh.e.l.ls; of peace, and rest, and blissful harmonies."

I was at work the next day when the post brought Browning's answer, and as I read it I broke into a hearty fit of laughter. _He_ had written five lines of poetry, and signed them: _Felix Moscheles_. They ran thus:--

"And as I wandered by the happy sh.o.r.es And breathed the sunset air of balmy climes, I waking dreamt of some transcendent shape, A woman's--framed by opalescent sh.e.l.ls, Peacefully lulled by Nature's harmonies."

A day or two later he came to bring me another version which, he explained, he thought I should "like better." This was adopted, and the picture was christened, "The Isle's Enchantress," and described by the following lines:--

"Wind-wafted from the sunset, o'er the swell Of summer's slumb'rous sea, herself asleep, Came sh.o.r.eward, in her iridescent sh.e.l.l Cradled, the isle's enchantress. You who keep A drowsy watch beside her--watch her well!"

The day was approaching when, with other work, I was to show that "Isle's Enchantress." Picture show-day they call it. Soft-soap day would be more correct, for every artist expects his friends to give him as much of flattery as they can find it in their consciences to give. And as a rule consciences are elastic; a little encouragement from the artist goes a long way, and, once he satisfies his friends that he is of an unsuspecting nature, they will lay it on thick in the pleasantest of ways.

To be sure the day brings its little trials too, but of those another time.

It had occurred to me that some of the friends I had invited to meet my Enchantress, might like to have a copy of Browning's lines; so I went round one evening to 29 De Vere Gardens to ask whether he had any objection to their being printed.

"None whatever," he said, in answer to my question.

I thanked him and added, "To be sure I want to put your name to them."

"Oh, you can't do that," he said; "they are not mine, they are yours."

"Mine! Why, you know, _I_ couldn't write verse to save my life."

"Ah, but you did; you sent me the substance and put it into blank verse."

"Blank verse!"--Blank was my astonishment, and I felt like the man in Moliere when he was told he had been speaking prose all his life.

Well, we sat by the fireside in that drawing-room of his and discussed the matter, and he would have it that I was the author and that he had only put my idea into shape.

"If I had suggested alterations in your picture," he said, "or if I had advised you to introduce a coral-reef here and a dolphin there, would that have justified me in signing _your_ picture?"

"No, perhaps not," I agreed, "but if you had laid on the last coat of paint, the one the public was to see, you certainly could have done so."

And so the skirmis.h.i.+ng went on with varying fortunes, till, by some happy fluke, I hit upon an argument which settled the matter in my favour.

"Well," I said, "I can't give you a reason for it--in fact I have never been able to understand why it is so--but it is an undeniable fact that the public _will_ make a marked difference between your style and mine, and if your version is to be adopted, it must stand in your name."

"Very well, then," he said, "have it your own way. I am sure you are welcome to anything I can do for you."

"Truly kind you are, and truly grateful am I, and plucky too I beg you to believe, for I don't care a pin if people do say: 'There goes Moscheles hanging on to the tail of Pegasus!'"

I meant it then, and I mean it to-day. You may laugh if you like, but I have the best of it; it isn't everybody who can boast of having written five lines of poetry _together with Robert Browning_.

The picture I have now. It just fits a recess in my dining-room, measuring about five feet by seven. I daily sit opposite it at meals, and when I watch the golden rays of the sun as they come pouring through the garden-window, and steal across the canvas, I see a beautiful picture which I certainly never painted.

First the light plays on the flowing hair where it dips into the water, and gives it just the aureate tints I tried in vain to mix; then steadily creeping on, it illuminates, first the closed eyes and the parted lips, then the body and the seaweed straggling across it, and presently it reaches the urchin in the Concha, and would fain make me imagine that I could paint an iridescent sh.e.l.l and a child of flesh and blood.

Those are moments of happy delusions and I acknowledge it gratefully, for it is not vouchsafed to every one to paint his pictures together with the blessed sun, any more than it is to write his poems together with Robert Browning, or indeed to sit down daily to a square meal, and to have before him a canvas into which he can weave pleasant memories of the Past.

A portrait I was painting of Sir James Ingham, the Bow Street magistrate, led to the following incident. I was telling my sitter how great were the difficulties I had to contend with as a host and an impresario when I had a musical At home at the Studio.

Which of one's talented friends should be asked first? Should Signora Cantilena come before or after Madame Pianota? Singers to be sure are ent.i.tled to most consideration. They are invariably affected by the weather, whilst the pianists are only out of practice. If I want la Signora to sing at about eleven o'clock, I begin asking her to favour us at a quarter-past ten, allowing her from forty to fifty minutes to get over the insurmountable difficulties which, just to-day, stand in the way of her acceding to my request. But then, in the kindness of her heart, when once she begins, she is inclined to go on till she has successfully ill.u.s.trated the wonderful variety of her talent. And there is Heir Thumpen Krasch, who is waiting all the while to get to the piano, and when he is there, he is naturally disinclined to play his best pieces first, and reserves his Monster-Rhapsody on Wagner's Trilogy, the success of the season, for what I call the after-end. As for myself, I forget my duties and go into raptures, delighted as I am to think that my friends sing and play their best in the genial atmosphere of the Studio. But oh, the other virtuosi who are waiting to be heard! "_Ote-toi, que je m'y mette_" is the motto of every true artist, and my friends are all true artists.

"Yes," said Sir James, "those troubles are as old as the hills. Don't you recollect the lines Horace wrote two thousand years ago?" and he quoted them.

"Splendid! I wish you would write them down for me; my Latin is rather rusty, and I should like to remember them."

So he wrote:--

HORACE, 3RD SATIRE.

"Omnibus hoc vitium Est cantoribus, inter amicos Ut nunquam inducant Animum cantare rogati Injussi nunquam desistant."

The same day Browning came in, and seeing the lines, he took up a pen and wrote without pausing to think--

"All sorts of singers have this common vice: To sing 'mid friends you have to ask them twice!

If you don't ask them, that's another thing: Until the judgment-day be sure they'll sing!

--_Impromptu Translation_, July 10, '83."

How rapidly his mind worked I had occasional opportunities of witnessing. He would let us give him a number of rhymes, perhaps twenty or thirty, to be embodied in an impromptu poem. This he would read to us just once, and, as he spoke the last words, he would ruthlessly tear it up into small fragments and scatter them to the winds. Nothing would induce him to stay his iconoclastic hand, and on such occasions it only remained for me to regret that I was not some sensitive plate, some uncanny Edisonian Poetophone, to preserve the spontaneous creation of his mind.

"Do you ever listen to Reciters?" my wife asked him one day; "I mean to Reciters of Browning's poems?"

"Oh, I do the Reciting myself," he said, "when I am amongst a few sympathetic friends. I will read to you with pleasure. What have you got?"

The few sympathetic ones were not wanting that Sunday afternoon; I gave him the volume of "Selections" from his poems, and turning over the pages he said, "As we are in an artist's studio, I will read 'Andrea del Sarto.'"

Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 25

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Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 25 summary

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