Men I Have Painted/My Father

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Men I Have Painted by John McLure Hamilton
My Father
Portrait bust of George Hamilton.


MY FATHER


AMONG all the men I have known intimately, my father stands out as a positive, straightforward, and inflexible nature. I owe him not only my life but the manner of my life, for it was he who inclined the tree by studying the bent of the twig. Against opposition, mostly silent I imagine, for he was self-willed and determined, he not only encouraged but guided me in the direction of my tastes, placing me, at an early age, under the care of the painter, George W. Holmes, where I met Henry Thouron.

My father's love of Art was innate, but whence derived is not evident, unless two or three drawings in pencil by his cousin, Alexander Hall Hall, are evidence of artistic talent in his mother's family. From what I have heard I am led to believe that this particular Hall Hall was a dilettante who passed most of his life in Rome, content to admire Art, without seriously pursuing it. With this exception, there is no trace of either talent or taste for Art in the Hamiltons or Hall Halls, who lived in the north of Ireland prior to the trouble of '98, and afterwards in Canada and in Pennsylvania. What pictures there may have been in Tully Hall, Betty Hall's house, near Ballymena, were probably disposed of to help defray the expenses of the family's migration to America. I may have derived from my French ancestry, the Delaplaines, through my mother, some of that love for Art which survives in the old Latin civilizations.

My father's early professional life was spent among the picturesque hills and valleys of northern Delaware, where he dashed along the by-roads on his fast pacing ponies, from village to village, from farm-house to farm-house, healing the sick and comforting the sorrowing, day and night, in summer's heat and winter's cold, the counterpart of many a country doctor who sacrifices himself to relieve suffering, generously, uncomplaining, and usually but poorly rewarded.

But my father had his reward. Nature had enriched him with many gifts—a strong and active physique, a mind open to any and every simple pleasure and joy that a bountiful Providence could offer, and above all, and greatest of all, a rare appreciation of beauty. Nothing escaped his observant eye, as his horse bore him along in swift stride over hill and dale; the purple shadows of snow-white clouds passing over fields of golden corn, a blue-bird flickering into a cherry-tree in bloom, a daisy here, a violet there—all that Nature possessed, both great and small, he gathered into the storehouse of his memory, where he kept them unfaded, to recall at his pleasure. And in that place, at that time, nearly one hundred years ago, Nature was rich in the small things she cultivates for her adornment.

From the first an ardent botanist, the young doctor found a fertile field for study; and much of his time was given to the collection of flora he had commenced, when a student of medicine, on the banks of the Wissahickon. And so his mind grew in the love of beauty. Nature here inspired him, schooled him with loving care, as a preparation for his future devotion to Art.

But what contrasts his life presented! In the hot summers, battling with disease and pain in close and fetid rooms, beneath roofs on which a sun blazed with such intense fury during the day that the dews of night never cooled them, or in winter fording the Brandywine and Red Clay Creeks on horseback, through snow and ice, through hail and blinding sleet and rushing winds, he rode to save a woman's life.

And then the scene changes to long streets of bricks and mortar and white marble steps, at that time relieved by rows of maple-trees, whose pretty leaves cast their flickering shadows on the hot brick sidewalks and streets paved in cobble-stones. Here, in the old Quaker City, he began, so far as his limited resources would permit, to collect books and engravings, to gratify his taste for music and the theatre, and to frequent the exhibitions of pictures, chiefly of the Barbizon School, for there were then, in the city, several patrons of modern Art. Daubigny was one of his great favourites, and side by side were examples of Corot, Diaz, Jean François Millet, Boldini, and Alfred Stevens.

But, as I have said, books became his great hobby, and his library grew, from day to day, to the alarm of my mother, who, in the end, had to care for the thousands for which there were no shelves or cases, and find places to stow them away under the beds and chairs, or packed in high columns two or three deep, against the walls of the unoccupied rooms. I can remember one room, where I have sometimes slept, having a path only from the door to the bed, between walls of musty volumes—a disposition of books that reminds me of John G. Johnson's method of disposing of his surplus masterpieces of ancient Art in closets, bathrooms, and under the beds of his house in South Broad Street.

These books were not rare first editions or in tooled bindings that the Grolier Club would have cherished, for the collector had no means for such luxuries; but although the paper may not have been so thick or so fine, or the edges gilt, the printed word was there, and the reader could walk in Greece with Homer, in Rome with Tacitus and Cæsar, in Florence with Dante, in France with Montaigne and Racine and Molière, in England with Chaucer and Shakespeare, and in Germany with Goethe, and commune with them as intimately and freely in humble dress as in fête-day finery. The possession of a few rare books by the great authors would have had all the advantages, without the drawbacks, of the many; but collecting for its own sake was part of the attraction. No sale of books at Thomas and Sons' auction rooms, in South Fourth Street, was ever missed; and here my father came into intercourse with men of like tastes, and competed with them for the possession of coveted volumes. The fascinating habit grew until at last no available space for more volumes could be found.

When the opportunity presented itself, he increased his collection of engravings, contenting himself with prints and proofs after letters of examples of the masters of the engravers' art—Wille, Edelinck, Audran, and Drevet—whose reproductions of the portraits of the period surpass the original paintings.

His love of Art was deeper and greater far than my own, and I may also say blinder, for study and a wider experience made me conscious and critical of defects, or, more accurately speaking, intolerant of all but the highest and noblest, while his more catholic tastes, led somewhat by his books, accepted Art in general as the one thing to be admired. Had he been wealthy, he would have been a princely patron of every form of Art.

And to this affection for the beautiful, this love of il pane degli spiriti gentili, I owe the supreme happiness of my life. Without his encouragement and assistance I might have been a slave of one of the professions—a slave as he was, in a sense, to duty. To be as free as I have been is rare, and I have gloried in freedom.

He was conservative to the backbone. He lived in the past and in the present, and he based his conduct and his thought upon the best traditions that he could find in literature. He believed in manhood, in womanhood, in childhood, and in Godhood; in patience and good-will, in faith and charity. An uppermost thought in his mind was "Will my neighbour be hurt by this, my act?" As a citizen he was loyal to the right, and intolerant of wrong. He had no doubt at all about what was right and what was wrong; that had been determined long ago by the sages. He was no friend of "progress," often miscalled nowadays, for he knew that human nature was deep-rooted, and could not be uprooted by visionaries and demagogues.

He was a strange man, very impressionable, with prejudices—but his prejudices were confined to Art and literature, never directed against people. Rachel, the great tragédienne, once visited Philadelphia, appearing at the Walnut Street Theatre. My father found her acting so perfect that he never went to the theatre again, for fear that the impression he had received might be effaced.

He was an unusually sane and just man. After Art he loved horses, and they returned his affection. He petted, coaxed, and teased them, and when in the country often groomed them himself, winning them by the choicest clumps of clover he could find, and by his manner, that was both firm and fond. Like all tactful men, he was extremely sensitive to every touch of nature, and would respond willingly to the call of both pleasure and pain—to enjoy the one and relieve the other—but he had too much faith to resent the will of God in misfortune.

The day I last saw him is recalled over the years with constantly increasing frequency as I approach the time when I too must say good-bye to the charm of earthly beauty. He came to stay at a cottage I had taken, on that delightful plateau above the Delaware Water Gap, at Swiftwater. The trees had changed their dull-green summer dress for a score of gay vestures, each one surpassing the other in richness, and under the soft radiance of an early autumn sun the mountain-sides seemed to be carpeted in fantastic designs. We drove down the valleys and up the hills through the maze of colour, our admiration increasing at every turn, until the enthusiasm of my father became so great that he rose from his seat and stood in the carriage, in order to enjoy more actively the entrancing panorama moving around us. I gazed at him with delight—it was a joy to know that neither length of years nor the deeps of sorrow had dulled one string of a mind attuned to beauty.