Men I Have Painted/Arthur James Balfour

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Men I Have Painted by John McLure Hamilton
Arthur James Balfour


Hamilton Men I Have Painted 078f Arthur James Balfour.jpg

ARTHUR JAMES BALFOUR


MY first sight of Mr. Balfour was at the inauguration of Princes' Club, Knightsbridge, playing tennis. His attitude was an attendant one; he seemed to wait for the ball to do something, rather than to attack it and make it do his will. And this has been his attitude throughout life. It is exemplified by a story told by Mrs. Drew:[1] On their way down to dinner, on the great staircase of Mr. Gladstone's house in Carlton House Terrace, Mr. Balfour paused on the top, where the stairs divide, and, turning to Mrs. Drew, said, "Is there any reason why we should go down on the left rather than the right side?"

It will be remembered how he argued upon the silver question, brought forward by William Jennings Bryan, taking the ground that there might be two sides to that, and thereby puzzling the public and prolonging the controversy. In Margot's Autobiography, Dr. Jowett comments critically upon this attitude in one of his letters.

Men who golf much can never make up their minds, usually hold no opinion upon serious things, and assume that life, religion, and politics are like golf, an uncertain and unsteady game. Their mentality is in strong contrast to that of sportsmen who shoot big or small game. This sort of sport requires instant decision and action, and it has everything to do with the formation of character. It is, of course, unnecessary to remark that men are born golfers, and, like poets, they cannot help themselves.

As for the portrait of Mr. Balfour, I cannot say whether I have painted him or not. He appeared to sit reluctantly, almost unwillingly. His manner, attitude, and expression changed from that of ease and charm, which so conspicuously distinguish him in society, to one of abandoned resignation to an unpleasant operation. While admitting that sitting for one's portrait is not so pleasant as many other things, it can be made an opportunity for rest, and even of entertainment, by the exercise of a little goodwill, and particularly by a more considerate disposition towards the painter. Men are too prone to assume that the artist holds an ambiguous position among citizens. When I write "citizens" I wish it distinctly to be understood that the word is not used as the Socialists use it.

Politicians, soldiers, lawyers, and priests consider themselves to be the mainstay of civilization, whereas it will be found, if history be correctly examined, that they are often the instruments of destruction, while artists have ever been the builders of civilization. Lawyers and priests deal with the accidents of life. Art is concerned with realities. History makes too much of the soldier and the statesman, and too little of the artist. A great tapestry is a record of real achievement in the realm of beauty that surpasses the most eloquent tribute of words to the deeds of kings.

I tried hard to paint Mr. Balfour, but somehow he managed to elude me. And a strange thing happened. All painters are conscious of the phases of a portrait as it grows on the canvas, how it resembles in turn each and every member of the family of the person painted. I once knew a man who painted all his sitters with just a suspicion of himself in each. A portrait of a well-known London doctor looked so much like a German that he was asked if he were of German blood. "No," he replied, "but that portrait was painted by a German."

These examples do not explain the strange happening to Mr. Balfour's portrait. It suddenly began to look like his secretary, Mr. Short. The nose, especially, took the form of the secretary's nose. Almost in affright I tried to alter it, but could not, and by dint of looking Mr. Balfour began to look like Mr. Short. The two men were not at all alike—one was short, the other tall. They both wore small moustaches, the only point of resemblance. I have sometimes noticed, however, that a secretary, either consciously or unconsciously, will imitate a man he admires—in gait, manner, voice, and the dressing of the hair or the cut of the collar.

When the sitting was over I went into the adjoining room and talked with Mr. Short, and while I talked examined him closely to see if he might by a rare chance bear any likeness to Mr. Balfour. I found, to my chagrin, that he was not unlike the picture, but not a bit like Mr. Balfour. I have never known where to attach the blame these coincidences—upon myself, or Mr. Short, or Mr. Balfour. But I never returned to finish the work—it remains as it then was.

I have always admired Mr. Balfour for his unchanging conservatism, his persistent unionism, and his British patriotism. The great shock of August 1914 seemed to unhinge most minds among leaders in the nations. The majority, in the peoples themselves, stood the shock and met it with resolution and courage. Mr. Balfour led them eloquently and untiringly until he met Mr. Wilson in America. From that time there rose in front of him a double staircase, and he is still wondering whether he should go down on the left side or up on the right. This was my opportunity to avenge myself for the failure of the portrait, and to express the resentment I harboured against him for his cavalier treatment of the artist, and I wrote him a few letters on the political situation.

Ever since and even before the end of the Napoleonic wars it has been a characteristic of the English race to ignore the possibility of another great war. The colonists of America prior to the Revolution, and after the conquest of the French and their Indian allies in Canada, settled down peacefully to develop the land. In disregard of the murmurs of discontent against the Crown Government, the people remained to the last unprepared for the impending struggle for independence, and it was only when the Government sent over soldiers to enforce a taxation that was thought to be unreasonable, that the colonists hastily armed themselves for an unequal struggle against trained troops. We know that the inefficiency, in every respect save one—the knowledge derived from the Indians of rough, backwoods fighting—in the meagre armies of General Washington, caused that unfortunate campaign to be prolonged for seven years. Had the colonists been prepared as they should have been, the Crown forces would most probably have been driven from the country, without much loss to either side, in a few months, or less.

In the same country, inhabited principally at that time by people of so-called Anglo-Saxon blood, or where the institutions and habits of the English influenced all the others, certain disputes between the Northern and Southern States, concerning commerce and slavery, became so acute, from the years 1850 to 1860, that war between the two factions was almost openly discussed. The Government at Washington had no army or navy sufficient to quell a rebellion of the Southern States, and regardless of the heat of the discussions on the question of slavery, both in public and in private, the Government made no attempt to strengthen its arm. The fatal hour struck, and in an instant two imperfectly equipped armies faced each other and fought a disastrous fight for four long years. If the Central Government had been prepared, as it should have been, with an adequate army and navy, the rebellion could have been crushed in its infancy, and lives innumerable and property saved.

Nature and the Designer of nature may consider these long wars that deplete and desolate necessary to a mysterious and preconceived plan of life. I remember Senator Stewart once telling me that he had said in a speech to the Senate that no nation had ever become great until after it had had a great war, and that no senator present had been able to deny it. Be that as it may, the want of preparation prolongs the misery and increases the disasters of war, and who knows how many conflicts might be averted by a preponderating strength in one or in several allied nations?

In 1870 France thought she was prepared, but was not. But her adversary, Germany, was ready, and the struggle was short and comparatively bloodless.

A few months after the first Boer War I was sitting in the Art Club of Philadelphia with Mr. William Addicks, Mr. Harrison Morris, and two or three other men, who were discussing the short and ineffective conflict that had left President Krüger master of the situation in Africa. Mr. Addicks, brother of the notorious aspirant to represent Delaware in the Senate, had just returned from England, where he had been a guest at several country houses, and he was recounting the various views upon the rights and wrongs of the situation he had heard from his English friends, ending by saying, with great satisfaction, that "Oom Paul had been too clever for the British, who were easily hoodwinked." There was a consensus of opinion that the Boers had rightly won, and that the affair was finished. I rose to go, and said quietly, "It is not settled; there will be and must be another war. It may come in two or in ten years, but England must be paramount in Africa."

My point is this: that if I could foresee another war, why did not the British Government, with all the means at its disposal for obtaining information, foresee it and prepare for it? I am expressing no sympathy and taking no sides, but though we may neither approve nor disapprove of the "flu," when it first shows itself it is as well to provide a nurse and a doctor.

All this has nothing to do with portrait painting. Mr. Balfour would have nothing to do with it, so I determined to challenge him in his own field—to him I was, of course, invisible.

Years after the episode in the club, the second Boer War had begun. A party of men were shooting partridges over the picturesque hills of Pembrokeshire—a member of Parliament, his brother, a local justice of the peace, a retired Indian colonel, a master of foxhounds, and myself. The member said, "This war will not be over so soon as the Government expects." "No," I replied, "they don't know how to fight it, and are not prepared." And continuing, for no one demurred, "If Lord Salisbury would send for Buffalo Bill, and tell him to gather together thirty thousand cowboys, and supply him with plenty of horses, guns, and ammunition, he would settle it in three months." This was received with murmurs of expostulation and dissent, the colonel's voice being the loudest. But after a thoughtful silence he said, "It could not be done, but I believe you are right."

The Boers' tactics were to fight and run; the cowboys would have run after them and probably caught them.

On returning to London I became seriously alarmed at the situation, and saw Edward Clifford, of the Church Army, who was an old and intimate friend of George Wyndham, the Secretary for War. I asked him to see Mr. Wyndham and urge upon him the necessity for sending at least forty thousand men to Africa. I wrote a letter for him to read to Mr. Wyndham, quoting from American history the methods of fighting that sort of guerrilla warfare always adopted by the colonists, and later by the Federal cavalry, when dealing with Indians. Clifford replied that they, the Government, would know their business best. They knew it so well that, in the end, more than three hundred thousand men were sent fourteen thousand miles in ships to conquer, with great difficulty, roving bands of about sixteen thousand farmers.

Between 1870 and 1914 repeated warnings were given that Germany was increasing her army, and perfecting its equipment and drill for a war. She was also building a powerful navy; and it was pointed out that it could only be intended for use against Great Britain's navy. German writers openly avowed this intention. Some one has written that "God made the English navy, and man made the army." As a matter of fact the army was not made at all. When the vain monarch, half-crazed with blinding ambition, attacked Russia, France, and Belgium, the English navy, by God's will, was ready; but the brave little army, type of the best that England had of chivalrous and knightly men, was hopelessly outnumbered on the plains of France and Flanders.

Mr. Balfour was a member of the Government, or sitting on the Opposition Benches all the time!

One is almost forced to the conclusion that English-speaking peoples consider it a virtue to be unprepared for war. Several sentiments may be discovered underlying this almost unique position among the nations—pride, an undue sense of security, pacifism, religious scruples—but, whatever the sentiment may be, it is responsible, as most sentiments are, for many cruel mistakes.

When the Government of the United States tardily decided to enter into the war, an army had to be raised. Mr. Balfour went over to Washington to warn the American Government against the mistakes that had been made in England. His warning did not prevent similar blunders. Unsuitable men were enrolled, camps were located in unhealthy positions, nothing was promptly provided for the comfort of the recruits, many died from exposure and insufficient food. There were neither sheds, nor tents, nor blankets, nor clothing, nor arms. These are the inevitable fruits of unpreparedness.

Ambassadors still live under the impression that the delegates of a democratic and self-ruling people can speak as sovereigns. Mr. Balfour went to Washington and mixed with members of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet, and with the Diplomatic Corps, and other exalted personages. He did not read the newspapers, and he did not gather information from the people themselves as to what they were thinking. The people knew that the Senate of the United States would not agree to the Treaty of Versailles, nor be a party to the League of Nations. I wrote this to Mr. Balfour, and pointed out what Mr. Davis, Mr. Wilson's ambassador to London, did not do, when he addressed the Oxford Union, viz. that the Constitution of the United States gave no power of independent action to the President in making treaties, but defined and limited his power in a short sentence: "The President may make treaties by the advice, and with the consent, of the Senate."[2]

The Senate was not asked for its advice, and—but not for that reason only—refused its consent. The Senate understood the people, and the people acknowledged that understanding by electing a republican to succeed Mr. Wilson. No one in Paris or in London seemed to understand the situation; no one seemed to consider whether Mr. Wilson represented the whole of the American people or not. In all probability they did not know that Mr. Wilson originally was a minority President, that he owed his election to a split in the Republican Party, and to the skilful management of the election campaign by "Colonel" House, who had a large part in its success.

When the League of Nations held its sittings under the presidency of Mr. Balfour, I again wrote him that the Senate of the United States would not accept the League, or ratify the Treaty of Versailles, that the Senate had been flouted, and its privileges challenged. Unlike the House of Lords, that had divested itself of its powers, the Senate was determined to maintain the position granted to it under the Constitution, and to exercise its right of rejecting a treaty; and in view of this any position taken up by the League in council might have to be modified, in case of the advent of a republican President.

The new Government at Washington has already interfered with the mandates of the League, and I may safely say now that it will in the future treat the League, should it set itself up as a super-government, in the same way as it will treat any other government or nation, questioning its orders or mandates, should they appear in any way to affect the interests of the American people.

It may be recalled that Lord Curzon once said, in the House of Commons, that "it was no part of the duty of a Minister of the Crown to anticipate events." But even in that case the privilege may still be permitted to an ordinary pedestrian to carry an umbrella in April!

  1. Some Hawarden Letters
  2. A note from Washington on August 26, 1921, says:—
    "The conclusion of the Treaty of Peace with Germany is a victory for the irreconcilable element in the Senate rather than for the President or Mr. Hughes. It is another impressive lesson to Europe of the working of the American system of government and of the almost insignificant power of the President when opposed by the Senate."