Before going to Bradford Grammar School I went to a tutor for a while but even here I somehow failed to grasp what I was supposed to be learning. Was I just dreaming? I seem to remember making frantic efforts to understand what was before me and a feeling of hopelessness came over me, but being at home after four years was liberation indeed.
My younger sisters had been keeping rabbits and guinea pigs for some time and now it was my turn. I kept mice too. In the market hall down in the town there was a man with a fur cap and a flowing beard. We always referred to him as The Russian Man. We purchased our bunnies from him at the price of sixpence to two shillings. And then we bred them and sold the offspring to him. Mother didn’t really care for animals but she understood those who did and thought it good for us.
So she gave us fourpence a week pocket money on which we had to feed our animals. This was no joke in a town in war time but we managed it somehow, putting them on to the struggling grass to feed when stocks were low and occasionally stealing a hunk of stale bread from the kitchen.
I found that mice were tremendously entertaining and kept them on the mantelpiece in my bedroom. Mother objected to this because of the smell but I rather liked it and somehow overruled her objections. I had made a large dwelling for them with duck-boarding running up to a bedroom and part of the door was of glass so I could see the inmates at their games. Also they did not require great quantities of food and it was easily procured. One day on opening the door of the bedroom two small sausages fell out on to the hearth below. They were the unconventionally small family of the female mouse. I hoped they were not hurt by this fall from a skyscraper and put them back in the cotton wool bedding. They thrived in the most astonishing way and appeared to be as large as their parent at a fortnight old. They became adventurous and naughty children, their Mother lugging them back to the nest by the ear up the ladder, bundling them into bed with little pushes and prods. The female child became one of my greatest pets and in a month or two had a family of her own. She was quite tame and I would leave the door of her cage open so that she could roam about. She liked sitting on my shoulder and it was then that I discovered that when she was happy she sang or hummed and this minute music in my ear was most pleasant. Once when I was ill I had her cage by my bedside allowing her to explore among the bedclothes and find any crumbs or other morsels. I must have fallen asleep as I gradually woke to the sound of her music in my ear which was also being tickled by her whiskers. I was horrified to find that our large tomcat was curled up asleep on the bed fortunately oblivious of other company.
As our menagerie increased we were given a shed lined with hutches and Mother eventually ruled that Mrs Moo, the mouse with her numerous families, must take up her abode there. I had her for three years and then one morning I went to feed her and the cage containing the whole family had gone. It had been stolen in the night through the window. I was nearly frantic but nothing could be done. Father questioned a few of the boys who frequented our road but nothing came of it. But fortunately another character had come on the scene a year or so before this catastrophe.
My sisters had made friends with a corn merchant who bred rabbits and one day they came home with tales about a Flemish Giant buck which he possessed which was six months old. So next time they went along with the excuse of purchasing a few pounds of bran I went with them. We entered the large room behind the shop, lined with hutches, and the door of a hutch on the floor was opened and we were told to wait quietly as the animal was nervous. After a moment there was a terrific thud which startled us. It was only the buck stamping! And then a large blunt nose appeared out of the gloom, two enormous ears then came forward turning this way and that and at last the Flemish buck with broad paws like a puppy, came out and had a look round. I had never seen anything like it and fell in love there and then with this magnificent animal. The corn merchant was asking a pound for him. It was a huge sum of money and none of us had ever possessed so much. When we got home I talked about nothing else and pestered Mother and Father to buy this prodigy for me. I had never before so besought them to get anything. We were very contented children and never asked to be given things which had taken our fancy. How long the pestering lasted I can’t remember but they gave in. But I do remember the agitation and anxiety we felt as we almost ran to the corn merchant’s shop, as to whether the buck would still be there. He was. We struggled home with the basket containing a rabbit weighing ten pounds and unveiled the monstrous treasure before Mother and Father. Big Ben soon became tame and took his place on my bed. He didn’t sing but he pushed his muzzle under my neck, breathing heavily. Unfortunately if I didn’t take any notice of his blandishments he would commence to chew the bedclothes with great ferocity. Mother was never really angry about it and once when I was ill, she actually went and fetched the monster to keep me company. She dropped him on the stairs but after a breathless struggle she got the animal safely in my arms.
Father had bought me a small box of oil paints after I had told him of my initiation into the mysteries of painting on that last day at boarding school. So it was quite natural that my first efforts in the new medium were centred on portraits of our pets. I had already done quite a number in watercolours and some permanent-looking boards on which to lay the thick paint gave some promise of their likeness being perpetuated.
The boards I painted on were very small and it would have been more satisfactory and easier to have worked on a larger scale. I was a bit depressed with the results and, as I was starting to go to the Grammar School I had very little time at my disposal, so the paints lay idle for some time.
It was fortunate that I went into the Modern side at school, which meant that I didn’t take Latin. Instead I took German. I was a year behind the rest of the class but having heard it spoken I soon picked up and though the grammar was too complicated I knew by ear whether a sentence was correct or not.
History and Geography were well taught as live things and English at last became a pleasure and, contrary to so many people’s experience, gave me a taste for Shakespeare.
In Science I took pleasure in drawing the apparatus and I was remembered long afterwards by my Geography master for my maps.
We had one drawing lesson a week. These were dreaded by some of the boys as much as I dreaded arithmetic. The drawing master could be quite ferocious with his T square and ruler, and ways and means were explored for diverting the attention from the business in hand to wider subjects. If it became apparent that a bucket was going to be the subject of our studies, some bright lad who had gathered that the drawing master’s motto was 'There’s always a reason for everything' piped up 'Please sir, Why does the rim of the bucket turn outwards instead of inwards?' We all agreed that the bright lad had got something there and supported him wholeheartedly in the pursuit of knowledge. As time began to run out and organized study was out of the question, the harassed master handed out large sheets of beautiful white cartridge paper saying 'Go on, dirty it!'
One English master who evidently liked painting, instituted an outdoor sketching club. Unfortunately these Saturday afternoons, so precious during term time, turned out to be a rag. I painted a watercolour of a bridge at Bingley and I still have a photograph I took of the English master seated on his camp stool attempting to draw while his high-spirited pupils emptied his painting water over him and performed other jocularities. I never went again but small things sometimes have far reaching effects and this excursion was one of those insignificant events which set wheels in motion.
The English master took my little painting to the staff room and showed it to the gym master, Mr. Pearson, who was also a painter. He sought me out and told me he had seen my painting and, evidently thinking I was conceited about it, told me it was 'no good at all'. He must have soon realized his mistake about my attitude for he invited me to his house where I found that his wife too was a talented painter. Mr. Pearson shared my passion for the sea and was engaged on what seemed to me to be a large canvas of a wave breaking against rocks with a rainbow in the sky.
I was amazed at all this activity and was delighted when he suggested that I should bring my paints and a small canvas which I had kept for inspiration, to his house and paint a still life. I must admit I was not particularly thrilled at the sight of a pan and some onions which I was to tackle but Mr. Pearson made a start for me, echoing the words I had heard at my first lesson nearly two years before 'Put the paint on and leave it.' He painted one of the onions and then left me to it. When he came back he was astonished to see the remainder of the two onions painted in such a way that no one would have thought two hands had been involved in the execution.
This was my second and last lesson. It gave me the impetus I required and I begged Father to buy me another canvas or two. He had evidently had a conversation with Mr. Pearson, who told him the one thing I had to learn was to clean my brushes properly. Father purchased a couple of canvases and I set to work in my bedroom at once on a marine painting. I did not show it to anyone at the time and started on another. The first attempt was in rather a low key but the second one I pushed up into as high a key as possible with the result that I achieved some passages of considerable delicacy. I decided I would give this painting to Father and Mother and with the help of Aunt Agnes, Mother’s eldest sister, I got it framed. The framer told me to call for it in about a week or ten days. Before this time was up Mother came to me and said 'Mrs .... says there is a picture by you in a shop window in Oak Lane. Is it yours?' I said 'Perhaps' and then told the whole story. She went herself to the framer’s window and there it was, my sea picture in a shiny black frame with a label under it with my name in plain black and white for all to see. Father and Mother were very pleased with this picture and it hung on their walls to the end of their days.
One of our maids was most impressed with my work and suggested that I might take the results of my labours down to the Art Shop in Manningham Lane. She assured me they would certainly give me seven and sixpence for one!
I then asked Father for more canvases. He wanted to know what had happened to the other one so I showed him the first painting. He evidently thought I was using too much material too quickly but when he saw how serious I was about it he relented and gave me some cash to buy more.
The third effort was a dazzling affair with touches of pure colour put on with a painting knife. There followed a little one of Manningham Lane under snow with a tram making its way through the slush under a heavy leaden sky.
It had evidently begun to be rumoured about that I was taking an interest in painting and only a few doors away I had seen a large studio in the back garden of the house in the next road to ours. We used to run along the walls and knew the geography of our neighbours’ gardens quite well. The owner of this studio was known to me by sight. He was a very tall hairy man dressed in knickerbockers and jacket of heavy tweed. He was always pushing a bicycle up and down Manningham Lane. I never saw him ride it. I received a message from Arnold Priestman that he would be pleased to show me his paintings if I would go round. I had seen a large painting of his in the Art Gallery of a moorland with a white storm cloud overhead. Comparing it with the other pictures I thought it was a little amateurish. But I went to see him and he showed me more enormous paintings, all very much the same. He indicated that this one had been round the world and that one had been exhibited at the Royal Academy and so on. They all had their individual dust sheets and the studio looked rather like a lumber room. There was little sign of work in progress and looking round the studio I noticed a small painting hanging by the stove which had that quality that draws me to it to get a better look. It was just a painting of a turnip or swede cut open; that was all. Arnold Priestman walked over to it with me explaining that it wasn’t his work. I had never seen anything like it before. I was enchanted. He went on to say that it had been given to him by a friend of his who didn’t care for it! So Arnold had offered to exchange it for one of his which was accepted. He liked it and for the first time I experienced that feeling of complete understanding between two minds admiring a work of art. There is nothing to say; one smiles and is silent. I do not know who painted this little picture, but when I see it again in my mind’s eye I think of Manet or Courbet, names not known to me at the time. When I told Mr. Pearson I had been to see old Arnold Priestman he said 'You aren’t going to have lessons from him, are you?' There was a mixture of horror and jealousy in his voice which I remembered long afterwards. He seemed relieved when I replied in the negative and perhaps that decided him to invite me to stay with him and his family at Sandsend near Whitby a year or so later. I remembered the Mestrovic carvings which had made their impact on me. I asked Mr. Pearson about them as I looked up to him now to give me a lead as to what I ought to like or at least take a good look at. His reply puzzled me as he gave it as his opinion that only artists possessed of a powerful intellect could really understand such works.