Mother had been in poor health for some time and now she had taken to her bed and doctors came and went. One morning she said to me with her usual smile 'You must not come too near me anymore. The doctors say I have got T.B.' I remembered an exhibition of housing that Mother had taken me to in which there were reconstructions of the kind of dwellings that encouraged T.B. They looked terrible and I would not go inside. An ambulance came and took her away to a sanatorium. Aunt Agnes came to keep house for a while and I started work at the School of Art.
I had looked forward to mixing with other students having heard stories of their doings from the Pearsons when they talked about their student days. So I was puzzled when I found that there was no other student who wanted to be an artist, i.e. one who paints pictures. They were all studying 'commercial art'. They designed posters and labels for boot boxes, book jackets and some book illustrations. I had never thought of this side of art before and I certainly did not like it. The Principal informed me that it was impossible to make a living by painting in these days and that I had better turn my attentions to commercial work and leave playing about with paints for my spare time! Fortunately I had no ideas or any talent for the frippery I was expected to do. I found that the others surrounded themselves with copies of Vogue and other journals and imitated the current fashions. Lovat Fraser was the most popular for boot boxes and the like and illustration was based on Aubrey Beardsley. I tried a little illustration but I was informed that the results were not 'decorative'. So I tried being decorative for a while but it was no good I am glad to say. Meanwhile I was of course being put through the antique class. For some reason we were expected to fill a half Imperial sheet of paper with a drawing. I enjoyed drawing from the antique as I liked sculpture. My drawings may have been indifferent but it drew my attention to the art of the sculptor which otherwise I would not have experienced. The shape of a piece of stone cut away from a block must be as good a shape as that left otherwise the cubic content is unbalanced. This led me to make a copy of one of Michelangelo’s slaves. I worked by myself but as I required some help I turned up in the evenings. The modelling master was considerably impressed and turning to me said, 'Where’s your scale?' I couldn’t think what he meant at first but, not being good at mathematics I had avoided any measuring and he was astounded, when he began making calculations, to find that my proportions were correct.
The Principal was still pestering me about commercial art and, knowing my Father was a doctor (and he probably thought of doctors as being wealthy) he let fall a remark which gave me the clue to be followed if I wanted to be left in peace: 'Perhaps it is not necessary for you to earn a living?' etc. so I gave him to understand that this was the case. After that he took some pride in showing me off to visitors as 'our artist'. But it was not very long before an ex-serviceman turned up who had some ideas about painting and I began to learn a little about what was going on. There was also a young man modelling in the evenings who had a reputation as a wit and I listened to the talk about sculpture and music and books with great interest. Here was something at last but these men were all much older than I was and being very shy I did not like to thrust my company on them. But gradually by degrees a chance remark or two showed them I was ripe for a little encouragement. To start with I found that John Bickerdike, the sculptor, was a great admirer of Mestrovic and had a book on his work. So at last I had found someone who knew what this sculpture was about and he showed me photographs of early Greek carvings and Chinese and Indian sculpture of which I had not known the existence and I realised that this was the Royal line of descent, the feeble imitations of later Greek work being all I knew. I wasn’t even sure that Michelangelo was quite as fine now that I had seen these works of earlier civilisations. I continued to draw from life but I got heartily sick of seeing the same model in almost the same pose day after day and began to lose interest.
I was told to paint some still life in watercolour. This was most unsatisfactory. So one day I brought my oil paints along, stretched some sacking over an old stretcher and started a painting of the Belvedere Torso. Painting an antique was something quite new and it caused a lively interest. Later I painted a large still life of a baking bowl and some potatoes and these were the only paintings I tackled at school.
I weaned myself away from illustration gradually and began some small compositions in watercolour of industrial subjects. I found also that brush and ink produced a forceful effect. One day the instructor who was looking through my work said, 'Have you been studying Wyndham Lewis?' I had never heard the name but soon it was to become familiar. Charles Rutherston, the elder of the three Rothenstein brothers, lived in Bradford and he invited a few of us to go and see his collection. He had a fine self-portrait by Wyndham Lewis and a lot of his drawings. This collection was an eye-opener. The early John portraits are now famous and these were the first I had seen. Early Paul and John Nash drawings and a Sickert painting of an interior were all new and a bit strange. When I remembered the Rembrandt Old Woman Weighing Money at Dresden I found it even more difficult to accept what was now being called 'modern art'.
I have always liked drawing animals and I made a design I called The Mad Elephant which for some reason caused the other students to view me with respect. But shortly after this and when I had been nearly a year at the school of art, we moved our home to Ilkley in Wharfedale.
It was thought very unwise for Mother to come back to Bradford. The treatment for T.B. was not in those days what it is now. Her age was on her side but nevertheless, she spent ten years off and on in sanatoriums and when she was finally ‘cured’ she only had one lung and that was badly scarred. I went to visit her during the first year she was away. Father suggested that I took my violin to play to her. The visit was not a great success as I developed an abscess under a tooth which was agonising and the piano at the lodgings of one of the nurses who had offered to play for me, was about three tones lower in pitch than my violin. So that was a failure.
Now the only house we could get in Ilkley was on the edge of the moors and very small. But it had the advantage of having been designed for an invalid with bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor. So we had to get rid of a considerable quantity of furniture and a still greater quantity of private possessions. My carpenter’s bench had to go and lots of books and all the toys left over from childhood. It was all quite ruthless but when we realised that Father was going to sell his treasure the Steinway grand, as there was no room for it in the new house, we made few objections, though I made one strong one. I was most sorry to leave Bradford, I loved it, and when I was told that Big Ben would not be able to come to Ilkley I was furious. One of the very few times if not the only one, when I nearly lost my reason with fury (and what is more expressed it) was on this occasion. So when the removal took place I took Big Ben in a hamper by train to Ilkley myself. A kind of dog kennel was found for him to live in and when I gave him his first taste of freedom in the garden he could hardly believe it. After our back yard a vegetable garden full of growth and fruit trees and bushes in plenty was paradise. He nibbled a few mouthfuls of real grass, then sat on his haunches, nearly toppled over with surprise at what he saw, gave a bound in the air with joy and set off exploring, barging the cat aside who had come to stare at him. I had to give chase, as I didn’t want to lose him in a neighbour’s garden or have him caught by a dog. He lived several years in his new home being about seven when he died.
The smallness of the house persuaded Father to purchase a second-hand hut to stand in the garden. This he allowed me to use as a studio and bedroom combined. I soon had it fitted up and decided I would almost live in it as far as possible. I may have regretted leaving Bradford but the change had one overwhelming influence on my future.
There was one painting in Charles Rutherston’s collection which impressed me more than the others. I do not mean that I thought it better than any other. No, it was one of those things that sometimes catch one at the receptive moment and then some urge to do likewise seizes me and a start is made. The painting was of a tree almost bare, a few autumn leaves still clinging to the ends of the branches. It was in bright sunlight, its shadow being cast on the ground in a fan-like pattern behind it. The painting was by Charles Rutherston’s brother, Will Rothenstein.
There was a stunted oak tree in our garden at Ilkley. I bought a canvas and laboured in the open air during that summer on a painting of it. I painted several smaller pictures on the moors and made pastel and pencil drawings of the quarries, which I fancied would provide me with enough subject matter to last me for years. Father remembered that he was giving me a year’s trial at the art school and accordingly invited my instructor to come and see us and to hear what he had to say. I was not present at the conversation that took place between him and Father but I gathered that, somewhat belatedly, it was suggested that I should go in for teaching. I had none of the examinations in general education to my credit necessary for further qualifications in art. Father appeared somewhat depressed so that I wondered what had occurred. However, I invited my instructor to come and see my studio in the garden and showed him the tree picture. He looked at it for some time without saying a word. Then I showed him some of the other work I had been doing and he began to point out certain qualities in the design which I was quite unaware of, but it had the effect of making me observe nature more closely in subsequent explorations. As we emerged from the studio we found Father hovering about in the garden. He came to meet us evidently surmising that something was afoot owing to our long session together. The instructor just looked up and said 'Well, that knocks teaching on the head'. I am sure Father looked intensely relieved. So that was settled. Twenty years later, after I had been elected an associate of the Royal Academy of Arts, Father wrote to my old teacher and reminded him of his decision on that fateful afternoon and thanked him for it.
Seeing the work of students to-day, I am surprised that anyone could have had the audacity to suggest, with the evidence before him that I had much chance of becoming a good painter and what is more, earning a living by painting. Mother, who was more or less bedridden and had overmuch time in which to turn things over in her mind, had grave doubts about the wisdom of the decision.
And so landscape claimed my attention more and more to the detriment of my life drawing. But I began studying composition. Charles Rutherston was very generous in lending both pictures and books to the school. Among the books was Blake’s Job and his engravings for Blair’s The Grave. This I found engrossing and I made what I thought were analytical drawings from them. Giotto’s work also suffered this fate but I certainly began to learn something about the rudiments of design. I also began reading, mostly biographies of painters which I still think better and more instructive to artists both young and not so young, than books about modern movements by authors who are not painters. I discerned that most painters were not particularly interested in their contemporaries but studied the old masters. It was also very plain that they studied nature relentlessly and with love and affection, that few of them achieved worldly success but were sustained in their efforts by one or two friends who may not have been great connoisseurs of painting but had that instinct which is given to few to recognise true worth when they see it.
It was then that I discovered the presence of Farnley Hall which I could see from the moors above our house. I went to see the wonderful collection of Turner watercolours, which had been purchased from the painter, many of them depicting Farnley itself and the surrounding country. Turner became my hero and I bought an old bicycle and explored Wharfedale trying in many cases, to locate the exact spot where he must have sat to make his drawings.