Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 38

Painter of the heroic — I’ll go! — A modest peep — Who is this? — A capital Pharaoh — Disproportionably short — Imaginary picture — English figures.

The painter of the heroic resided a great way off, at the western end of the town. We had some difficulty in obtaining admission to him; a maid-servant, who opened the door, eyeing us somewhat suspiciously: it was not until my brother had said that he was a friend of the painter that we were permitted to pass the threshold. At length we were shown into the studio, where we found the painter, with an easel and brush, standing before a huge piece of canvas, on which he had lately commenced painting a heroic picture. The painter might be about thirty-five years old; he had a clever, intelligent countenance, with a sharp gray eye — his hair was dark brown, and cut a-la-Rafael, as I was subsequently told, that is, there was little before and much behind — he did not wear a neck-cloth; but, in its stead, a black riband, so that his neck, which was rather fine, was somewhat exposed — he had a broad, muscular breast, and I make no doubt that he would have been a very fine figure, but unfortunately his legs and thighs were somewhat short. He recognised my brother, and appeared glad to see him.

‘What brings you to London?’ said he.

Whereupon my brother gave him a brief account of his commission. At the mention of the hundred pounds, I observed the eyes of the painter glisten. ‘Really,’ said he, when my brother had concluded, ‘it was very kind to think of me. I am not very fond of painting portraits; but a mayor is a mayor, and there is something grand in that idea of the Norman arch. I’ll go; moreover, I am just at this moment confoundedly in need of money, and when you knocked at the door, I don’t mind telling you, I thought it was some dun. I don’t know how it is, but in the capital they have no taste for the heroic, they will scarce look at a heroic picture; I am glad to hear that they have better taste in the provinces. I’ll go; when shall we set off?’

Thereupon it was arranged between the painter and my brother that they should depart the next day but one; they then began to talk of art. ‘I’ll stick to the heroic,’ said the painter; ‘I now and then dabble in the comic, but what I do gives me no pleasure, the comic is so low; there is nothing like the heroic. I am engaged here on a heroic picture,’ said he, pointing to the canvas; ‘the subject is “Pharaoh dismissing Moses from Egypt,” after the last plague — the death of the first-born; it is not far advanced — that finished figure is Moses’: they both looked at the canvas, and I, standing behind, took a modest peep. The picture, as the painter said, was not far advanced, the Pharaoh was merely in outline; my eye was, of course, attracted by the finished figure, or rather what the painter had called the finished figure; but, as I gazed upon it, it appeared to me that there was something defective — something unsatisfactory in the figure. I concluded, however, that the painter, notwithstanding what he had said, had omitted to give it the finishing touch. ‘I intend this to be my best picture,’ said the painter; ‘what I want now is a face for Pharaoh; I have long been meditating on a face for Pharaoh.’ Here, chancing to cast his eye upon my countenance, of whom he had scarcely taken any manner of notice, he remained with his mouth open for some time. ‘Who is this?’ said he at last. ‘Oh, this is my brother, I forgot to introduce him.’ . . .

We presently afterwards departed; my brother talked much about the painter. ‘He is a noble fellow,’ said my brother; ‘but, like many other noble fellows, has a great many enemies; he is hated by his brethren of the brush — all the land and water scape painters hate him — but, above all, the race of portrait-painters, who are ten times more numerous than the other two sorts, detest him for his heroic tendencies. It will be a kind of triumph to the last, I fear, when they hear he has condescended to paint a portrait; however, that Norman arch will enable him to escape from their malice — that is a capital idea of the watchmaker, that Norman arch.’

I spent a happy day with my brother. On the morrow he went again to the painter, with whom he dined; I did not go with him. On his return he said, ‘The painter has been asking a great many questions about you, and expressed a wish that you would sit to him as Pharaoh; he thinks you would make a capital Pharaoh.’ ‘I have no wish to appear on canvas,’ said I; ‘moreover he can find much better Pharaohs than myself; and, if he wants a real Pharaoh, there is a certain Mr. Petulengro.’ ‘Petulengro?’ said my brother; ‘a strange kind of fellow came up to me some time ago in our town, and asked me about you; when I inquired his name, he told me Petulengro. No, he will not do, he is too short; by the bye, do you not think that figure of Moses is somewhat short?’ And then it appeared to me that I had thought the figure of Moses somewhat short, and I told my brother so. ‘Ah!’ said my brother.

On the morrow my brother departed with the painter for the old town, and there the painter painted the mayor. I did not see the picture for a great many years, when, chancing to be at the old town, I beheld it.

The original mayor was a mighty, portly man, with a bull’s head, black hair, body like that of a dray horse, and legs and thighs corresponding; a man six foot high at the least. To his bull’s head, black hair, and body the painter had done justice; there was one point, however, in which the portrait did not correspond with the original — the legs were disproportionably short, the painter having substituted his own legs for those of the mayor, which when I perceived I rejoiced that I had not consented to be painted as Pharaoh, for, if I had, the chances are that he would have served me in exactly a similar way as he had served Moses and the mayor.

Short legs in a heroic picture will never do; and, upon the whole, I think the painter’s attempt at the heroic in painting the mayor of the old town a decided failure. If I am now asked whether the picture would have been a heroic one provided the painter had not substituted his own legs for those of the mayor — I must say, I am afraid not. I have no idea of making heroic pictures out of English mayors, even with the assistance of Norman arches; yet I am sure that capital pictures might be made out of English mayors, not issuing from Norman arches, but rather from the door of the ‘Checquers’ or the ‘Brewers Three.’ The painter in question had great comic power, which he scarcely ever cultivated; he would fain be a Rafael, which he never could be, when he might have been something quite as good — another Hogarth; the only comic piece which he ever presented to the world being something little inferior to the best of that illustrious master. I have often thought what a capital picture might have been made by my brother’s friend, if, instead of making the mayor issue out of the Norman arch, he had painted him moving under the sign of the ‘Checquers,’ or the ‘Three Brewers,’ with mace — yes, with mace, — the mace appears in the picture issuing out of the Norman arch behind the mayor, — but likewise with Snap, and with whiffler, quart pot, and frying-pan, Billy Blind and Owlenglass, Mr. Petulengro and Pakomovna; — then, had he clapped his own legs upon the mayor, or any one else in the concourse, what matter? But I repeat that I have no hope of making heroic pictures out of English mayors, or, indeed, out of English figures in general. England may be a land of heroic hearts, but it is not, properly, a land of heroic figures, or heroic posture-making. Italy . . . what was I going to say about Italy?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32