Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 35

Mr. Phoebus had just finished a picture which he had painted for the Emperor of Russia. It was to depart immediately from England for its northern home, except that his imperial majesty had consented that it should be exhibited for a brief space to the people of England. This was a condition which Mr. Phoebus had made in the interests of art, and as a due homage alike to his own patriotism and celebrity.

There was to be a private inspection of the picture at the studio of the artist, and Mr. Phoebus had invited Lothair to attend it. Our friend had accordingly, on the appointed day, driven down to Belmont and then walked to the residence of Mr. Phoebus with Colonel Campian and his wife. It was a short and pretty walk, entirely through the royal park, which the occupiers of Belmont had the traditionary privilege thus to use.

The residence of Mr. Phoebus was convenient and agreeable, and in situation not unlike that of Belmont, being sylvan and sequestered. He had himself erected a fine studio, and added it to the original building. The flower-garden was bright and curious, and on the lawn was a tent of many colors, designed by himself and which might have suited some splendid field of chivalry. Upon gilt and painted perches, also, there were paroquets and macaws.

Lothair on his arrival found many guests assembled, chiefly on the lawn. Mr. Phoebus was highly esteemed, and had distinguished and eminent friends, whose constant courtesies the present occasion allowed him elegantly to acknowledge. There was a polished and gray-headed noble who was the head of the patrons of art in England, whose nod of approbation sometimes made the fortune of a young artist, and whose purchase of pictures for the nation even the furious cognoscenti of the House of Commons dared not question. Some of the finest works of Mr. Phoebus were to be found in his gallery; but his lordship admired Madame Phoebus even more than her husband’s works, and Euphrosyne as much as her sister. It was sometimes thought, among their friends, that this young lady had only to decide in order to share the widowed coronet; but Euphrosyne laughed at every thing, even her adorers; and, while her witching mockery only rendered them more fascinated, it often prevented critical declarations.

And Lady Beatrice was there, herself an artist, and full of aesthetical enthusiasm. Her hands were beautiful, and she passed her life in modelling them. And Cecrops was there, a rich old bachelor, with, it was supposed, the finest collection of modern pictures extant. His theory was, that a man could not do a wiser thing than invest the whole of his fortune in such securities, and it led him to tell his numerous nephews and nieces that he should, in all probability, leave his collection to the nation.

Clorinda, whose palace was always open to genius, and who delighted in the society of men who had discovered planets, excavated primeval mounds, painted pictures on new principles, or composed immortal poems which no human being could either scan or construe, but which she delighted in as “subtle” and full of secret melody, came leaning on the arms of a celebrated plenipotentiary, and beaming with sympathy on every subject, and with the consciousness of her universal charms.

And the accomplished Sir Francis was there, and several R. A. s of eminence, for Phoebus was a true artist, and loved the brotherhood, and always placed them in the post of honor.

No language can describe the fascinating costume of Madame Phoebus and her glittering sister. “They are habited as sylvans,” the great artist deigned to observe, if any of his guests could not refrain from admiring the dresses; which he had himself devised. As for the venerable patron of art in Britain, he smiled when he met the lady of the house, and sighed when he glanced at Euphrosyne; but the first gave him a beautiful flower, and the other fastened it in his button-hole. He looked like a victim bedecked by the priestesses of some old fane of Hellenic loveliness, and proud of his impending fate. What could the Psalmist mean in the immortal passage? Three-score-and-ten, at the present day, is the period of romantic passions. As for our enamoured sexagenarians, they avenge the theories of our cold-hearted youth.

Mr. Phoebus was an eminent host. It delighted him to see people pleased, and pleased under his influence. He had a belief, not without foundation, that every thing was done better under his roof than under that of any other person. The banquet in the air on the present occasion could only be done justice to by the courtly painters of the reign of Louis XV. Vanloo, and Watteau, and Lancres, would have caught the graceful group and the well-arranged colors, and the faces, some pretty, some a little affected; the ladies on fantastic chairs of wicker-work, gilt and curiously painted; the gentlemen reclining on the turf, or bending behind them with watchful care. The little tables all different, the soups in delicate cups of Sevres, the wines in golden glass of Venice, the ortolans, the Italian confectionery, the endless bouquets, were worthy of the soft and invisible music that resounded from the pavilion, only varied by the coquettish scream of some macaw, jealous, amid all this novelty and excitement, of not being noticed.

“It is a scene of enchantment,” whispered the chief patron of British art to Madame Phoebus.

“I always think luncheon in the air rather jolly,” said Madame Phoebus.

“It is perfect romance!” murmured the chief patron of British art to Euphrosyne.

“With a due admixture of reality,” she said, helping him to an enormous truffle, which she extracted from its napkin. “You know you must eat it with butter.”

Lothair was glad to observe that, though in refined society, none were present with whom he had any previous acquaintance, for he had an instinctive feeling that if Hugo Bohun had been there, or Bertram, or the Duke of Brecon, or any ladies with whom he was familiarly acquainted, he would scarcely have been able to avail himself of the society of Theodora with the perfect freedom which he now enjoyed. They would all have been asking who she was, where she came from, how long Lothair had known her, all those questions, kind and neighborly, which under such circumstances occur. He was in a distinguished circle, but one different from that in which he lived. He sat next to Theodora, and Mr. Phoebus constantly hovered about them, ever doing something very graceful, or saying something very bright. Then he would whisper a word to the great Clorinda, who flashed intelligence from her celebrated eyes, and then he made a suggestion to the aesthetical Lady Beatrice, who immediately fell into enthusiasm and eloquence, and took the opportunity of displaying her celebrated hands.

The time had now arrived when they were to repair to the studio and view the picture. A curtain was over it, and then a silken rope across the chamber, and then some chairs. The subject of the picture was Hero and Leander, chosen by the heir of all the Russias himself, during a late visit to England.

“A fascinating subject,” said old Cecrops to Mr. Phoebus, “but not a very original one.”

“The originality of a subject is in its treatment,” was the reply.

The theme, in the present instance, was certainly not conventionally treated. When the curtain was withdrawn, they beheld a figure of life-like size, exhibiting in undisguised completeness the perfection of the female form, and yet the painter had so skilfully availed himself of the shadowy and mystic hour, and of some gauze-like drapery, which veiled without concealing his design, that the chastest eye might gaze on his heroine with impunity. The splendor of her upstretched arms held high the beacon-light, which thew a glare upon the sublime anxiety of her countenance, while all the tumult of the Hellespont, the waves, the scudding sky, the opposite shore revealed by a blood-red flash, were touched by the hand of a master who had never failed.

The applause was a genuine verdict, and the company after a time began to disperse about the house and gardens. A small circle remained, and, passing the silken rope, approached and narrowly scrutinized the picture. Among these were Theodora and Lothair, the chief patron of British art, an R. A. or two, Clorinda, and Lady Beatrice.

Mr. Phoebus, who left the studio but had now returned, did not disturb them. After a while he approached the group. His air was elate, and was redeemed only from arrogance by the intellect of his brow. The circle started a little as they heard his voice, for they had been unaware of his presence.

“To-morrow,” he said, “the critics will commence. You know who the critics are? The men who have failed in literature and art.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19