Chapter 28 - Mrs Green and the Goupil Gallery

The next four months were spent painting.  The large window overlooking the gardens at the back provided magnificent light.  I purchased a studio easel for ten shillings and embarked on some large works.  I struggled along the streets with these offerings to the mixed exhibitions and they were duly rejected.  So I got in touch with the Goupil Gallery as they had sold some of my work. I was rather surprised after the director had been to see me to hear that Eric Gill was coming along to give his opinion regarding my work.  The strange figure in beard and knickerbockers arrived and was quite affable.  I was very shy.  At length he said he didn’t like my paintings and asked some questions about them which surprised me as they were the sort of questions a layman might ask, such as 'Why is that man wearing a hat?' and 'What is he doing?'  So I was disappointed after his visit but a few days later the director wrote saying they would give me a one-man exhibition in 1929 …. of drawings

This was something to look forward to and to work for as I had no stock left.  I had about six months in which to prepare the work and this was going to be tough going as I had to allow a week for each drawing and no allowance for failures.  When I announced this minor triumph in my letter home Mother suggested it might be a good idea if I came home and shut up my flat so that I could be looked after properly.  Mother had some doubts about my cooking and she was quite correct in her surmise that I wasn’t bothering very much as cooking a meal for oneself isn’t particularly entertaining when there is so much else to be done.  I think they got a little bit worried about my Spartan life and Father gave me an armchair which was a great luxury, and Mother ordered a mattress with internal springs.  I had managed to get a chest of drawers for five shillings and Mother also ordered an oak table to be made for me by a carpenter who had a large family.  Her illness had not lessened Mother’s activities of trying to help people in difficulties.  She was a tireless letter writer as it was her only means of communication; so much of her time was spent in bed.

I succumbed to the invitation to go home.  It really was rather nice to be looked after again and the sight of the moors and wild life after London was restful and I had so few distractions that I could get on with my work.

This year was the first of three years which must have been the hardest that artists were to go through.  The great Wall Street crash came next year and even though prices of pictures were halved it was difficult to sell.  Ilkley seemed a long way from all this and Father was as busy as ever.

When we first left Bradford, Father was persuaded to buy a small two-seater car.  He was a terrible driver so I used to act as chauffeur quite a lot particularly at night time.  He could not see well at night and other car lights dazzled him.  So I sometimes had to take him drives at night which landed us back home in the small hours of the morning.  

I enjoyed these trips as we resumed the talks we used to have on the moors about art and music.  But now I found that it was almost impossible to talk with either Mother or Father about painting.  I spoke a language they did not understand and they thought the paintings I admired were done by lunatics and vagabonds.  They did not understand my subject matter and tried to persuade me that if I only painted pictures of places people knew they would buy them.  'But' I said 'If you see a picture of a place you know, you don’t buy it!'  It was all rather disappointing and I then remembered a remark made to me by Mr. Pearson when he found out that painting was going to be my life:  'You will have to paint now and disappoint your friends'.

© The Fine Art Society

Young Man With a Horse (1928)

The fact that I had to get together thirty drawings by October had the effect of making me work to regular hours and not just when I happened to feel like it.  The work had to be done and I soon learned that 'the appetite comes with eating' was just as true, probably more so, where inspiration is concerned.  A really tough problem put me on my mettle and I enjoyed overcoming difficulties.  I had always been given to understand by students that a commissioned work didn’t stand any chance of being a success because the artist had to please the person or group of persons who had ordered it.  But most of the great works of art were commissions and had to conform to restrictions and yet the artist responded to the challenge and gave his finest work. 

Ever since that year I have stuck to this working plan.  That is that painting must have office hours like any other job.  A visitor is not welcomed as an excuse to down tools and any domestic job that requires attention must wait.  This I am sure, is the only way by which progress and positive achievement can be attained.

I arrived back in London in the autumn and as a final fling drew two large drawings, one of them must have been about four feet high, a single figure of a woman.  The other was of two figures in which the shapes made by crossed limbs was explored.

Several friends who were curious to see what I had been up to in my retirement invited me to go to see them and others paid me a visit.  A very gifted and charming woman sculptor and painter with whom I had become acquainted in Ilkley had come to London so as to try to get commissions and be nearer the centre of the artistic world.  She invited me to her home from time to time to meet some of the people she had got to know as she thought they might be useful acquaintances for me.  I quite enjoyed meeting some of them.  They were entertaining and their conversation was something new to me and as long as I was left out of it and not expected to make cynical comments, I was content.  I could never think of the words in which to answer a question.  It always took me about a week to think of the correct reply by which time it was somewhat out of date.  So one day at this house I was taken to task by my hostess.  She was quite exasperated.  She looked at me and asked me how old I was.  I told her I was twenty-six.  She went on to say that she couldn’t make me out.  I looked like a boy of eighteen:  I had no conversation:  I made no attempt to follow up the introductions she had given me:  I was awkward and (I am sure she was going to say ‘rude’) and no-one would suspect me of having any talent.  This talent was my only virtue.  She could not understand how I came to draw pictures full of amusing and comic ideas and yet be so stupid.  I didn’t go to parties where I would get to know people who might be useful to me but instead was content to be friendly with socially inferior people who were no use to me, etc. etc.

I was astonished at this outburst and of course could give her no satisfactory answer concerning my behaviour.  I think she overestimated my talent.  If she had realised that I had no facility and that an apparently light hearted composition was the result of very close application and hard work she might have understood much that was incomprehensible.  When she had a preview of my drawings she said that I would be a rich man after my show.

It was about now that I first made the acquaintance of the letters of Mozart and his father Leopold.  These wonderful documents of an artist’s life and times have remained with me as an inspiration and example ever since.  These, and the story of Handel’s fortitude and humanity, and John Constable’s very ordinary domestic life are in my opinion, the best reading for any student.

Meanwhile Mother had gone to a sanatorium in Somerset to try some new treatment and get a little sun during the winter.  She told me in one of her long letters that the doctor in charge was very musical and as he was frequently in London would like to meet me.  This meeting took place and he invited me to his sanatorium as his guest for a few days.  He told me he had a clavichord as well as a grand piano, a gramophone and hundreds of records.  The clavichord was the greatest draw of all the blandishments.  I had never heard one but a description of the instrument and the various praises concerning its merits from Bach to Beethoven excited my curiosity.

The only thing it has in common with the organ is that it has a keyboard.  The clavichord is the softest voiced instrument like the humming of bees.  The organ is the loudest and most spectacular whereas the former is the most intimate and its tone is too gentle to accompany any other instrument.  The organ has no ‘touch’ but the clavichord is ‘touch’, the varying pressure of the fingers affecting the quality of the sound produced, even to playing out of tune.

Mother was very depressed when I arrived and perhaps for the first time I realised what fortitude was necessary on her part to overcome the disease.  It was winter now and she was in a small room by herself with a high mullioned window and no fireplace.  It was just a part of what had been partitioned into several smaller ones.  Before, when I visited her at other sanatoriums it had been summer and deck chairs out on the lawns with plenty of company seemed on a casual visit to be as pleasant as such a place could be.   But now, far from home and all the activities she loved, all there was to employ her was knitting, writing letters and reading, the latter having its limitations as her eyes tired easily.

Girl Sitting Up in Bed (1928)
A young girl reclining on heaped pillows similar to his later portrait of the sick Mrs. Green

She told me about some of the patients whom she saw at meal times and some cases who were bedridden whom she was allowed to visit at special times.  Among these was a Mrs Green who was a hopeless case in the last stages of the disease.  Her husband had been a patient here and had died quite recently.  Mother had spoken to her about me and I had been particularly requested to go to see her.  I think Mother fully realised that I might find it hard to visit Mrs Green who was only a girl, not an old lady with nothing to look forward to.  She told me that she was so gay and interested in everything.  She had one day managed to get out of bed and go down into the men’s common room and had started a fierce argument, which was so unusual that one of the nurses had to go and see what it was all about.  Mrs Green was scolded like a naughty child and carried back to bed.

So I left Mother’s room to see the recalcitrant patient but as I turned to say goodbye to Mother, she smiled more serenely than she had during my visit and said 'She’s bonny'.

Now Mother had a strange idea that looks did not matter or at least, she wouldn’t admit it.  She never remarked that any girl was pretty or any young man good looking. My sisters were not allowed to ‘make the most of themselves’ and were kept in the tomboy state as long as possible; in fact until they kicked over the traces.  So this remark was seemingly out of character and I wondered as I walked along the corridor what I was going to see.

The room was very different from Mother’s.  It was light and airy and had a view of landscape from a low window.  There were flowers given her by other patients, a gramophone and a print of a Van Gogh landscape.  But it was rather like a pet canary’s cage and the wounded bird was lying in the bed her thin arms stretched out over the bedspread ending with hands that looked rather large and long.  But her face, though emaciated and her hair cut short like a boy’s, was certainly bonny.  There was so much she wanted to talk about but her breathing limited her part of the conversation and unfortunately I was no conversationalist.  She could talk about music and literature with many of the patients but not many of them had much experience of painting so would I please talk about it.  I didn’t know where to start so she helped me by saying 'Well, how do you start a painting?' so I began to try to marshal my thoughts as I had never been asked this before and it is never very clear even to myself quite where an idea starts and when it becomes urgent enough to become a painting.  

One gets a number of very good ideas which for some reason hard to explain never get to the stage of becoming a painting, whereas some paintings are based on the flimsiest of ideas and the battle of realisation is as serious as any major battle can be. Then, coming down to hard facts, she asked me if I painted from drawings.  I said 'Yes, sometimes'.   'But' she said 'don’t you have to make a lot of studies before you begin to paint?'  No' I replied. 'But don’t you have to enlarge a drawing or study by squaring it up to transpose it to canvas?'  I said some painters did but I didn’t even know how to ‘square up’ if I had a drawing suitable for such treatment.  I noticed she was becoming somewhat elated and I began to suspect she had been having an argument with someone about ‘painting procedure’.   'Well then' she continued 'you must draw the whole thing out on your canvas before you start painting.'  'No' I said. 'I never do.'   She was delighted!  I told her even the largest paintings I had tackled were painted straight off with only the elementary indications with a brush, of some proportion or horizon or the eye level to be kept in mind.  She said 'But surely you have to make lots of alterations or changes of mind painting that way?'  I said that this was not the case usually. On rare occasions something drastic had to be done, but the feeling of organisation growing under my hand (one form leading to another as one brush stroke seemed to demand another and one colour another next to it) was the only guide I needed.  I think someone had been telling her that all art was a process of cold and careful calculation, whilst it is disappointing in some ways to those with an instinctive sense of form and proportion to have a much loved picture reduced to mathematical formulae. We had several short talks and I promised her that I would write to her and also send illustrated catalogues of exhibitions.  I kept my promise and I wrote in the margin of catalogues all I could remember concerning the colour, size and general effect of the pictures illustrated.  Having to transmit something of the original to someone who had not seen it made me look at the old masters as I had never looked at them before and I was surprised at the paintings I had overlooked and how empty were some of the pictures I had admired before.

The great exhibition of Dutch paintings was on at the Royal Academy and when I found myself in front of Rembrandt’s great picture of the Bridal Couple, sometimes known as The Jewish Bride I was quite at a loss what to say about it.  But Mrs Green apparently appreciated my efforts as she wrote quite regularly, and our talking about music led her to order a gramophone record for me of a very old French song of which she was particularly fond.

Mrs Green (1930)
The portrait of the ‘bonny’ Mrs. Green

In one of my latest letters to her I told her I was painting a small portrait of her from memory.  I wasn’t at all sure what her reactions would be but she seemed to feel nothing but pleasure at the idea and expressed the hope that when I came again I would bring it to show her.  She perfectly understood my feelings about it as she must have known that we would not meet again.  Not long after this I had a letter from Mother who had gone home again, telling me she had heard from another patient that Mrs. Green had been removed from the sanatorium as she was an ‘obstreperous patient’ to a nursing home where she died shortly afterwards.