The Newcomes, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XVII

A School of Art

British art either finds her peculiar nourishment in melancholy, and loves to fix her abode in desert places; or it may be her purse is but slenderly furnished, and she is forced to put up with accommodations rejected by more prosperous callings. Some of the most dismal quarters of the town are colonised by her disciples and professors. In walking through streets which may have been gay and polite when ladies’ chairmen jostled each other on the pavement, and linkboys with their torches lighted the beaux over the mud, who has not remarked the artist’s invasion of those regions once devoted to fashion and gaiety? Centre windows of drawing-rooms are enlarged so as to reach up into bedrooms — bedrooms where Lady Betty has had her hair powdered, and where the painter’s north-light now takes possession of the place which her toilet-table occupied a hundred years ago. There are degrees in decadence: after the Fashion chooses to emigrate, and retreats from Soho or Bloomsbury, let us say, to Cavendish Square, physicians come and occupy the vacant houses, which still have a respectable look, the windows being cleaned, and the knockers and plates kept bright, and the doctor’s carriage rolling round the square, almost as fine as the countess’s, which has whisked away her ladyship to other regions. A boarding-house mayhap succeeds the physician, who has followed after his sick folks into the new country; and then Dick Tinto comes with his dingy brass plate, and breaks in his north window, and sets up his sitters’ throne. I love his honest moustache, and jaunty velvet jacket; his queer figure, his queer vanities, and his kind heart. Why should he not suffer his ruddy ringlets to fall over his shirt-collar? Why should he deny himself his velvet? it is but a kind of fustian which costs him eighteenpence a yard. He is naturally what he is, and breaks out into costume as spontaneously as a bird sings, or a bulb bears a tulip. And as Dick, under yonder terrific appearance of waving cloak, bristling beard, and shadowy sombrero, is a good kindly simple creature, got up at a very cheap rate, his life is so consistent with his dress; he gives his genius a darkling swagger, and a romantic envelope, which, being removed, you find, not a bravo, but a kind chirping soul; not a moody poet avoiding mankind for the better company of his own great thoughts, but a jolly little chap who has an aptitude for painting brocade gowns, a bit of armour (with figures inside them), or trees and cattle, or gondolas and buildings, or what not; an instinct for the picturesque, which exhibits itself in his works, and outwardly on his person; beyond this, a gentle creature loving his friends, his cups, feasts, merrymakings, and all good things. The kindest folks alive I have found among those scowling whiskeradoes. They open oysters with their yataghans, toast muffins on their rapiers, and fill their Venice glasses with half-and-half. If they have money in their lean purses, be sure they have a friend to share it. What innocent gaiety, what jovial suppers on threadbare cloths, and wonderful songs after; what pathos, merriment, humour does not a man enjoy who frequents their company! Mr. Clive Newcome, who has long since shaved his beard, who has become a family man, and has seen the world in a thousand different phases, avers that his life as an art-student at home and abroad was the pleasantest part of his whole existence. It may not be more amusing in the telling than the chronicle of a feast, or the accurate report of two lovers’ conversation; but the biographer, having brought his hero to the period of his life, is bound to relate it, before passing to other occurrences which are to be narrated in their turn.

We may be sure the boy had many conversations with his affectionate guardian as to the profession which he should follow. As regarded mathematical and classical learning, the elder Newcome was forced to admit, that out of every hundred boys, there were fifty as clever as his own, and at least fifty more industrious; the army in time of peace Colonel Newcome thought a bad trade for a young fellow so fond of ease and pleasure as his son: his delight in the pencil was manifest to all. Were not his school-books full of caricatures of the masters? Whilst his tutor, Grindley, was lecturing him, did he not draw Grindley instinctively under his very nose? A painter Clive was determined to be, and nothing else; and Clive, being then some sixteen years of age, began to study the art, en regle, under the eminent Mr. Gandish, of Soho.

It was that well-known portrait-painter, Alfred Smee, Esq., R.A., who recommended Gandish to Colonel Newcome, one day when the two gentlemen met at dinner at Lady Anne Newcome’s table. Mr. Smee happened to examine some of Clive’s drawings, which the young fellow had executed for his cousins. Clive found no better amusement than in making pictures for them, and would cheerfully pass evening after evening in that diversion. He had made a thousand sketches of Ethel before a year was over; a year, every day of which seemed to increase the attractions of the fair young creature, develop her nymph-like form, and give her figure fresh graces. He also of course drew Alfred and the nursery in general, Aunt Anne and the Blenheim spaniels, and Mr. Kuhn and his earrings, the majestic John bringing in the coal-scuttle, and all persons or objects in that establishment with which he was familiar. “What a genius the lad has,” the complimentary Mr. Smee averred; “what a force and individuality there is in all his drawings! Look at his horses! capital, by Jove, capital! and Alfred on his pony, and Miss Ethel in her Spanish bat, with her hair flowing in the wind! I must take this sketch, I positively must now, and show it to Landseer.” And the courtly artist daintily enveloped the drawing in a sheet of paper, put it away in his hat, and vowed subsequently that the great painter had been delighted with the young man’s performance. Smee was not only charmed with Clive’s skill as an artist, but thought his head would be an admirable one to paint. Such a rich complexion, such fine turns in his hair! such eyes! to see real blue eyes was so rare nowadays! And the Colonel too, if the Colonel would but give him a few sittings, the grey uniform of the Bengal Cavalry, the silver lace, the little bit of red ribbon just to warm up the picture! it was seldom, Mr. Smee declared, that an artist could get such an opportunity for colour. With our hideous vermilion uniforms there was no chance of doing anything; Rubens himself could scarcely manage scarlet. Look at the horseman in Cuyp’s famous picture at the Louvre: the red was a positive blot upon the whole picture. There was nothing like French grey and silver! All which did not prevent Mr. Smee from painting Sir Brian in a flaring deputy-lieutenant’s uniform, and entreating all military men whom he met to sit to him in scarlet. Clive Newcome the Academician succeeded in painting, of course for mere friendship’s sake, and because he liked the subject, though he could not refuse the cheque which Colonel Newcome sent him for the frame and picture; but no cajoleries could induce the old campaigner to sit to any artist save one. He said he should be ashamed to pay fifty guineas for the likeness of his homely face; he jocularly proposed to James Binnie to have his head put on the canvas, and Mr. Smee enthusiastically caught at the idea; but honest James winked his droll eyes, saying his was a beauty that did not want any paint; and when Mr. Smee took his leave after dinner in Fitzroy Square, where this conversation was held, James Binnie hinted that the Academician was no better than an old humbug, in which surmise he was probably not altogether incorrect. Certain young men who frequented the kind Colonel’s house were also somewhat of this opinion; and made endless jokes at the painter’s expense. Smee plastered his sitters with adulation as methodically as he covered his canvas. He waylaid gentlemen at dinner; he inveigled unsuspecting folks into his studio, and had their heads off their shoulders before they were aware. One day, on our way from the Temple, through Howland Street, to the Colonel’s house, we beheld Major-General Sir Thomas de Boots, in full uniform, rushing from Smee’s door to his brougham. The coachman was absent refreshing himself at a neighbouring tap: the little street-boys cheered and hurrayed Sir Thomas, as, arrayed in gold and scarlet, he sate in his chariot. He blushed purple when he beheld us. No artist would have dared to imitate those purple tones: he was one of the numerous victims of Mr. Smee.

One day, then, day to be noted with a white stone, Colonel Newcome, with his son and Mr. Smee, R.A., walked from the Colonel’s house to Gandish’s, which was not far removed thence; and young Clive, who was a perfect mimic, described to his friends, and illustrated, as was his wont, by diagrams, the interview which he had with that professor. “By Jove, you must see Gandish, pa!” cries Clive: “Gandish is worth the whole world. Come and be an art-student. You’ll find such jolly fellows there! Gandish calls it hart-student, and says, ‘Hars est celare Hartem’— by Jove he does! He treated us to a little Latin, as he brought out a cake and a bottle of wine, you know.”

“The governor was splendid, sir. He wore gloves: you know he only puts them on on parade days; and turned out for the occasion spick and span. He ought to be a general officer. He looks like a field-marshal — don’t he? You should have seen him bowing to Mrs. Gandish and the Miss Gandishes, dressed all in their best, round the cake-tray! He takes his glass of wine, and sweeps them all round with a bow. ‘I hope, young ladies,’ says he, ‘you don’t often go to the students’ room. I’m afraid the young gentlemen would leave off looking at the statues if you came in.’ And so they would: for you never saw such guys; but the dear old boy fancies every woman is a beauty.

“‘Mr. Smee, you are looking at my picture of ‘Boadishia?’’ says Gandish. Wouldn’t he have caught it for his quantities at Grey Friars, that’s all.

“‘Yes — ah — yes,’ says Mr. Smee, putting his hand over his eyes, and standing before it, looking steady, you know, as if he was going to see whereabouts he should hit Boadishia.

“‘It was painted when you were a young man, four years before you were an associate, Smee. Had some success in its time, and there’s good pints about that picture,’ Gandish goes on. ‘But I never could get my price for it; and here it hangs in my own room. Igh art won’t do in this country, Colonel — it’s a melancholy fact.’

“‘High art! I should think it is high art!’ whispers old Smee; ‘fourteen feet high, at least!” And then out loud he says ‘The picture has very fine points in it, Gandish, as you say. Foreshortening of that arm, capital! That red drapery carried off into the right of the picture very skilfully managed!’

“‘It’s not like portrait-painting, Smee — Igh art,’ says Gandish. ‘The models of the hancient Britons in that pictur alone cost me thirty pound — when I was a struggling man, and had just married my Betsey here. You reckonise Boadishia, Colonel, with the Roman elmet, cuirass, and javeling of the period — all studied from the hantique, sir, the glorious hantique.’

“‘All but Boadicea,’ says father. ‘She remains always young.’ And he began to speak the lines out of Cowper, he did — waving his stick like an old trump — and famous they are,” cries the lad:

“When the British warrior queen,
Bleeding from the Roman rods”—

“Jolly verses! Haven’t I translated them into alcaics?” says Clive, with a merry laugh, and resumes his history.

“‘Oh, I must have those verses in my album,’ cries one of the young ladies. ‘Did you compose them, Colonel Newcome?’ But Gandish, you see, is never thinking about any works but his own, and goes on, ‘Study of my eldest daughter, exhibited 1816.’

“‘No, pa, not ‘16,’ cries Miss Gandish. She don’t look like a chicken, I can tell you.

“‘Admired,’ Gandish goes on, never heeding her — ‘I can show you what the papers said of it at the time — Morning Chronicle and Examiner — spoke most ighly of it. My son as an infant Ercules, stranglin the serpent over the piano. Fust conception of my picture of ‘Non Hangli said Hangeli.’’

“‘For which I can guess who were the angels that sat,’ says father. Upon my word, that old governor! He is a little too strong. But Mr. Gandish listened no more to him than to Mr. Smee, and went on, buttering himself all over, as I have read the Hottentots do. ‘Myself at thirty-three years of age!’ says he, pointing to a portrait of a gentleman in leather breeches and mahogany boots; ‘I could have been a portrait-painter, Mr. Smee.’

“‘Indeed it was lucky for some of us you devoted yourself to high art, Gandish,’ Mr. Smee says, and sips the wine and puts it down again, making a face. It was not first-rate tipple, you see.

“‘Two girls,’ continues that indomitable Mr. Gandish. ‘Hidea for ‘Babes in the Wood.’ ‘View of Paestum,’ taken on the spot by myself, when travelling with the late lamented Earl of Kew. ‘Beauty, Valour, Commerce, and Liberty, condoling with Britannia on the death of Admiral Viscount Nelson,’— allegorical piece drawn at a very early age after Trafalgar. Mr. Fuseli saw that piece, sir, when I was a student of the Academy, and said to me, ‘Young man, stick to the antique. There’s nothing like it.’ Those were ‘is very words. If you do me the favour to walk into the Hatrium, you’ll remark my great pictures also from English istry. An English historical painter, sir, should be employed chiefly in English istry. That’s what I would have done. Why ain’t there temples for us, where the people might read their history at a glance, and without knowing how to read? Why is my ‘Alfred’ ‘anging up in this ‘all? Because there is no patronage for a man who devotes himself to Igh art. You know the anecdote, Colonel? King Alfred flying from the Danes, took refuge in a neaterd’s ‘ut. The rustic’s wife told him to bake a cake, and the fugitive sovering set down to his ignoble task, and forgetting it in the cares of state, let the cake burn, on which the woman struck him. The moment chose is when she is lifting her ‘and to deliver the blow. The king receives it with majesty mingled with meekness. In the background the door of the ‘ut is open, letting in the royal officers to announce the Danes are defeated. The daylight breaks in at the aperture, signifying the dawning of ‘Ope. That story, sir, which I found in my researches in istry, has since become so popular, sir, that hundreds of artists have painted it, hundreds! I who discovered the legend, have my picture — here!’

“‘Now, Colonel,’ says the showman, ‘let me — let me lead you through the statue gallery. ‘Apollo,’ you see. The ‘Venus Hanadyomene,’ the glorious Venus of the Louvre, which I saw in 1814, Colonel, in its glory — the ‘Laocoon’— my friend Gibson’s ‘Nymth,’ you see, is the only figure I admit among the antiques. Now up this stair to the students’ room, where I trust my young friend, Mr. Newcome, will labour assiduously. Ars longa est, Mr. Newcome. Vita ——’”

“I trembled,” Clive said, “lest my father should introduce a certain favourite quotation, beginning ‘ingenuas didicisse’— but he refrained, and we went into the room, where a score of students were assembled, who all looked away from their drawing-boards as we entered.

“‘Here will be your place, Mr. Newcome,’ says the Professor, ‘and here that of your young friend — what did you say was his name?’ I told him Rigby, for my dear old governor has promised to pay for J. J. too, you know. ‘Mr. Chivers is the senior pupil and custos of the room in the absence of my son. Mr. Chivers, Mr. Newcome; gentlemen, Mr. Newcome, a new pupil. My son, Charles Gandish, Mr. Newcome. Assiduity, gentlemen, assiduity. Ars longa. Vita brevis, et linea recta brevissima est. This way, Colonel, down these steps, across the courtyard, to my own studio. There, gentlemen,’— and pulling aside a curtain, Gandish says ‘There!’”

“And what was the masterpiece behind it?” we ask of Clive, after we have done laughing at his imitation.

“Hand round the hat, J. J.!” cries Clive. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, pay your money. Now walk in, for the performance is ‘just a-going to begin.’” Nor would the rogue ever tell us what Gandish’s curtained picture was.

Not a successful painter, Mr. Gandish was an excellent master, and regarding all artists save one perhaps a good critic. Clive and his friend J. J. came soon after and commenced their studies under him. The one took his humble seat at the drawing-board, a poor mean-looking lad, with worn clothes, downcast features, and a figure almost deformed; the other adorned by good health, good looks, and the best of tailors; ushered into the studio with his father and Mr. Smee as his aides-de-camp on his entry; and previously announced there with all the eloquence of honest Gandish. “I bet he’s ‘ad cake and wine,” says one youthful student, of an epicurean and satirical turn. “I bet he might have it every day if he liked.” In fact Gandish was always handing him sweetmeats of compliments and cordials of approbation. He had coat-sleeves with silk linings — he had studs in his shirt. How different was the texture and colour of that garment, to the sleeves Bob Grimes displayed when he took his coat off to put on his working jacket! Horses used actually to come for him to Gandish’s door (which was situated in a certain lofty street in Soho). The Miss G.‘s would smile at him from the parlour window as he mounted and rode splendidly off; and those opposition beauties, the Miss Levisons, daughters of the professor of dancing over the way, seldom failed to greet the young gentleman with an admiring ogle from their great black eyes. Master Clive was pronounced an ‘out-and-outer,’ a ‘swell and no mistake,’ and complimented with scarce one dissentient voice by the simple academy at Gandish’s. Besides, he drew very well. There could be no doubt about that. Caricatures of the students of course were passing constantly among them, and in revenge for one which a huge red-haired Scotch student, Mr. Sandy M’Collop, had made of John James, Clive perpetrated a picture of Sandy which set the whole room in a roar; and when the Caledonian giant uttered satirical remarks against the assembled company, averring that they were a parcel of sneaks, a set of lick-spittles, and using epithets still more vulgar, Clive slipped off his fine silk-sleeved coat in an instant, invited Mr. M’Collop into the back-yard, instructed him in a science which the lad himself had acquired at Grey Friars, and administered two black eyes to Sandy, which prevented the young artist from seeing for some days after the head of the ‘Laocoon’ which he was copying. The Scotchman’s superior weight and age might have given the combat a different conclusion, had it endured long after Clive’s brilliant opening attack with his right and left; but Professor Gandish came out of his painting-room at the sound of battle, and could scarcely credit his own eyes when he saw those of poor M’Collop so darkened. To do the Scotchman justice, he bore Clive no rancour. They became friends there, and afterwards at Rome, whither they subsequently went to pursue their studies. The fame of Mr. M’Collop as an artist has long since been established. His pictures of ‘Lord Lovat in Prison,’ and ‘Hogarth painting him,’ of the ‘Blowing up of the Kirk of Field’ (painted for M’Collop of M’Collop), of the ‘Torture of the Covenanters,’ the ‘Murder of the Regent,’ the ‘Murder of Rizzio,’ and other historical pieces, all of course from Scotch history, have established his reputation in South as well as in North Britain. No one would suppose from the gloomy character of his works that Sandy M’Collop is one of the most jovial souls alive. Within six months after their little difference, Clive and he were the greatest of friends, and it was by the former’s suggestion that Mr. James Binnie gave Sandy his first commission, who selected the cheerful subject of ‘The Young Duke of Rothsay starving in Prison.’

During this period, Mr. Clive assumed the toga virilis, and beheld with inexpressible satisfaction the first growth of those mustachios which have since given him such a marked appearance.

Being at Gandish’s, and so near the dancing academy, what must he do but take lessons in the terpsichorean art too? — making himself as popular with the dancing folks as with the drawing folks, and the jolly king of his company everywhere. He gave entertainments to his fellow-students in the upper chambers in Fitzroy Square, which were devoted to his use, inviting his father and Mr. Binnie to those parties now and then. And songs were sung, and pipes were smoked, and many a pleasant supper eaten. There was no stint: but no excess. No young man was ever seen to quit those apartments the worse, as it is called, for liquor. Fred Bayham’s uncle the Bishop could not be more decorous than F. B. as he left the Colonel’s house, for the Colonel made that one of the conditions of his son’s hospitality, that nothing like intoxication should ensue from it. The good gentleman did not frequent the parties of the juniors. He saw that his presence rather silenced the young men; and left them to themselves, confiding in Clive’s parole, and went away to play his honest rubber of whist at the Club. And many a time he heard the young fellows’ steps tramping by his bedchamber door, as he lay wakeful within, happy to think his son was happy.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07