Men I Have Painted/Herbert Spencer
WHEN I was at Hindhead, painting John Tyndall, the conversation often turned upon Herbert Spencer. On expressing a desire to make his portrait, Mrs. Tyndall said she would ask for sittings for me. She received from Spencer a long letter in reply, giving an infinite number of reasons for refusing to have the portrait done—among others, that some one might want to buy the portrait, whereby he would be unwittingly the cause of financial embarrassment to the purchaser, and of profit to some profligate artist! Mrs. Tyndall would not give me the letter, and I believe has destroyed it, thereby depriving readers of a gem in Spencerian prose and unconscious wit.
I now forget the means I employed to obtain the sittings, but his consent was finally given, and what happened is recorded in the letters I wrote to my wife.
My dear Clara
I am to commence Herbert Spencer to-morrow at eleven, so the trip to Hawarden must be put off until after the 19th.
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I had a very good sitting from Spencer yesterday, and I go again to-day. The light is very bad now, and there is a prospect of a black fog, but I keep hoping that it will clear sufficiently to enable me to finish this afternoon.
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You can have no conception of the annoyance which this plague of fleas is giving me. If the powder which Mrs. Evans has scattered on the floors does not soon kill the pests, I shall be driven out of the house by them. Even in the streets I am not safe from their attacks, for they harbour in my clothes, and if I put my hand in my overcoat pocket it is nibbled at once. Yesterday, while painting Mr. Spencer, one of the voracious insects commenced an attack on my wrist, under my cuff, and where I could not dislodge him. I hardly dared to make a great effort to catch him because I was afraid Mr. Spencer would detect me in the act, so I had to suffer the wretch to nip me in twenty places before I could drive him away. Between these vermin and a bad toothache I have had a wretched time since Saturday, but I am better now, so do not mind telling you of my past misfortunes.
Mr. Spencer is old. He strikes me as being a vain man, and though like Professor Tyndall in features, he differs from him very materially in character. He selected Burgess to paint his portrait because Burgess was not a portrait painter; and he explained this apparent inconsistency by saying that he thought the portrait would be more carefully carried out in its details by a man who was not accustomed to paint portraits.
He is formal and precise in manner and speech, but he has a pleasant though not familiar smile. I asked him if he thought the size of the head had anything to do with ability or success in life, and he replied, "No," that I had fallen into a common error of supposing that the brain was the seat of the intellect, whereas it was the seat of the emotions. I was staggered, and asked him what he considered the organ of intelligence, and wondered whether he would name the liver, the lungs, or the heart, but he reassured me by answering that the intelligence resided, of course, in the brain, but that it occupied a very insignificant part as compared with the emotions; and then he stopped me, saying that he could not discuss anything of a serious nature because of his ill-health, that our conversation must be entirely gossipy. After an interval of silence, during which he asked whether he might be permitted to close his eyes, he reverted to the question by saying, "You, of course, do not mean that a large head is always a sign of intellectual capacity, and that a small one is not," and on my replying in the negative, he added, "No doubt size has something to do with the quantity or quality of the intellect, but achievement depends upon the emotions!" "Then I was right," said I, "when I once said to my doctor that I believed that the affections and all the moral faculties had their origin in the sense of touch." Looking at me quickly and sharply, he said, "What a heterogeneous idea!" and then, impatiently, "But I must not discuss. You have no idea how sensitive my mind is to all outside influence. I have ear-stoppers which I sometimes use to prevent the noise of conversation. I cannot see even my most intimate friends because of my illness." I painted on until half-past twelve, when he asked to be relieved, promising to be ready earlier the next morning. He left the room with a formal bow, but after a time returned to ask a question concerning my stay in town, and then shook hands with me in a more cordial manner.
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My sitting with Spencer yesterday was amusing and irritating. It appears that he had looked at the portrait and discovered that I had made the upper lip too long. On sitting down to work he commented on this, admitting that his lip was unusually long, and, according to the rule, too long, but that I had made the nose also too short, which only aggravated the matter. "It is also unduly convex and prominent, and although my lip may not be concave and curved inwards, as it should be, it is not so unusually pronounced as you have indicated; in fact—in a final burst—"you have made it look like a gorilla's!"
This almost unnerved me, but I went to work, and, seeing that I had made the nose a trifle too short, I lengthened it, but it was not enough for the savant. He, at the end of the sitting, insisted on having a quarter of an inch of flesh colour added to the nose, so that it might be dry to work over on Monday, and I mildly but firmly refused to do this outrageous thing.
On the previous sitting we had been conversing about painters losing their health by overwork: at least Spencer mentioned that Frank Holl had died from overwork, that Leighton was now broken down from over-attention to his work, as were several others, like Calderon and Burgess. I admitted that it might be so, although there had been many instances of painters reaching a very ripe old age under the stimulus of work, and that it was generally through avarice that they broke down, and consequently were not to be pitied.
We touched, then, upon Millais and his wealth and his house, which reminded Spencer of a remark of Carlyle's, on entering the hall of Millais' house: "What! has all this been produced by painting pictures? Then men are greater fools than I thought them." "Yes, I have sometimes thought as Carlyle," I replied, "for in some of my moods I have said that the daubing of little spots of paint on canvas, in imitation of the things around us, is the most foolish of all the foolish ways of spending a life. Yet, on the other hand, is not Art—sculpture, architecture, painting, etc.—the ultimate aim of existence, the grandest and most entrancing of all our pursuits? The wealthy and the leisured classes go to Art as the highest and final enjoyment of existence, even those who do not understand it."
"Not so," said Spencer; "it is only another means of distinction. When men fail to make themselves celebrated, they think to make themselves distinguished by their possessions." "But," said I, "referring again to Carlyle, is not literature a form of art?" "That," he replied, "depends on the kind of literature." "Is not Sartor Resartus an artistic work?" I asked. "Yes," he answered, "it is an artistic rendering of a philosophic idea."
Then he fell foul of the Old Masters, on my referring to Franz Hals and his style, saying that every age thought the preceding one better, and that even the Iliad was full of complaints of the degeneracy of man. Spencer had led up to this by expressing a regret that there existed no means of marking a picture so as effectually to prevent imitation and forgery, referring, I believe, to the portrait of himself by Burgess. I had replied that the style was the only true indication of the authenticity of a work, and even that could not be depended upon when the style was obscure, undecided, or commonplace.
Yesterday he reverted again to the Old Masters, with more than usual bitterness, accused them of puerility and many other faults, said they never made reflections in their shadows, but carried them around a limb or an object with increasing darkness, until in the end they were blacker than black. In fact, that they did not understand reflected lights.
I said that I had been taught to ignore reflections in the shadows, and that once, having made a drawing with transparent shadows, the professor rubbed them out, telling me that I must not see them. "What incompetent fool was that?" Spencer demanded. I went on to say that the result of this teaching had been to make me a painter of reflected light, and that I painted nearly all my portraits in shadow with the face illumined by a book or paper. This amused him, and he laughed heartily.
He went on to say that his opinion was considered a heresy, but that Calderon had in part upheld him, for he (Calderon) had once said that men went daft when they talked of the Old Masters. I suggested Velasquez. Spencer announced that he was "stiff, strained, and awkward"; that Raphael owed his reputation to the religion in his works—that always took; that Van Eyck's John Arnolfini and Wife was an ugly thing; that photography had helped men to perceive the just relation and proportion of shadows, etc., etc. The drapery of the old Greeks was a farce, Spencer declared, adding that it looked as though it had been dipped in water to make it cling around the form. On my replying that it had, he seemed surprised, and laughed again. I then told him that it was a common custom for modern sculptors to do the same. "Then that was an imitation of the Greeks," he commented. I told him that I knew a man (referring to Alfred Gilbert) who rolled his clay out into thin blankets with a piecrust rolling-pin, and then put them around his nude figures, adapting the folds to the body and limbs, as wet cloths would fall into the hollows and cling to the rounded surfaces. All this was nuts for him to crack.
"If that statuette in marble, of Foley's," said Spencer, pointing to the mantel, where something covered with a silk pillow-case stood, "were found now in broken fragments in the Tiber, or in some ruins of ancient Greece, it would be upheld to the world as a miraculous gem." "Did Foley do much work in Rome?" I asked, not venturing upon an opinion as to the merit of his Art compared to that of the ancients.
Finally Spencer expressed surprise at the great reputation which Du Maurier had made for himself by his novels. I admitted that Trilby had had a great success, more particularly in America, where certain of the clergy had attacked it in the religious Press, which only advertised it the more. He then said that it was the habit with a certain set of faddists to assert that men were either all good or all bad, that no good man could do wrong innocently, and so on, which seems a contradiction to what we must perceive by an examination of our own personal desires, motives and actions, and so on. He wondered whether Trilby had been translated into French. I thought it would not suit the French taste, or be understood by the public, that it was too entirely English to be appreciated by that very precise people. Daudet, of course, might understand some of it.
During the sittings Spencer made some ingenious suggestions concerning measurements and tone, by the use of glass screens, which might prove to be of value.