LIKE SO MANY OTHERS HE HAD TO DIE TO BECOME GREATCategory: Architecture + Painting
On an April afternoon in the year 1937 a man, to be exact, an elderly clergyman, and a boy in a long blue coat, yellow stockings and buckle shoes, descended from a bus at the north end of Vaux-hall Bridge, turned off into Grogvenor Road, and by way of the Embankment entered the quiet precincts of Millbank. It was a lovely day. The air, fresh yet mild, smelled deliciously of spring. In Westminster Gardens daffodils waved and tulips stood gaily at attention; upon the trim green lawns the chestnut trees, in snowy flower, had spread a soft white carpet. The Thames, shimmering in the sunshine, glided beneath its bridges, silent and stately, as from time immemorial. Against the blue, flecked by a fleece of clouds, the Abbey stood out in exquisite tracery, beyond were the Houses of Parliament. Glinting in the distance, amidst a constellation of Wren’s churches whose spires and steeples ennobled the skyline of the city, was the major orb, the dome of St. Paul’s. The Palace, though not visible, lay within bowshot. The standard flew, the royal family was in residence. Slowly Big Ben chimed the hour: then three deep notes. And the Rector, walking with young Stephen Desmonde, strangely stirred, lifted, despite the weight of years, by the beauty of the day, the vagrant primrosescented airs of spring, a .prey to many memories, thought to himself. Here beats the pulse of England, less strongly than of old perhaps, yet still it beats.
As the two came along the Embankment, at a leisurely pace, for Bertram, although his tall spare figure held fairly erect, was slowed by rheumatism, one sensed in their movements an air of custom, made manifest more particularly by a suggestion of polite sufferance on the part of the boy. Some fifty yards from the end of the street they crossed over and climbed the steps of a large building that stood behind railings and a small ornamental garden. Removing his hat, Bertram turned, stood for a moment at the entrance recovering his breath and viewing the sweeping panorama of sky, river and majestic edifices. Then the turnstiles clicked and they were both inside the Tate Gallery.
Few people were about, the long, high-ceilinged rooms held that echoing quietude which pleased Bertram most, and making their way, still with that sense of habit, through the central gallery, past the glowing Turners and silvery Whistlers, the Sargents, Constables and Gainsboroughs, they bore to the left and finally sat down in a room, fretted by sunshine, on the west side. Upon the wall, directly opposite, exquisitely framed and hung, were three paintings. At these, silently, the boy as in duty bound, his elder with remote and meditative vision, gazed. [...]
A party of schoolgirls entered the room, under the escort of their mistress.
There were about a dozen of them, in dark green skirts and blazers of the same colour with a badge on the pocket, straw hats with a green ribbon, kept on by an elastic under the chin. All wore brown kid gloves, black stockings and shoes. The mistress in restrained tweeds and flat-heeled shoes, was pale and earnest, bare-headed, bespectacled, and carried a little sheaf of notes, to which, as the cicerone conducting the tour, she referred from time to time. Exactly opposite Bertram and Stephen, but without taking any notice of them, she drew up.
“And now, girls,” she announced, “we come to the Desmondes, three respresentative paintings purchased in 1930. The first, entitled Circus, distinguished by a marvellous sense of colour and composition, is of the artist’s early French period. Note in particular the grouping of the clowns in the foreground and the manner in which a sense of movement is given to the figure of the young woman on the bicycle.
“The second painting, The Blue Wrapper, which I am sure you have seen reproduced many times is a portrait of the artist’s wife. Here you will find the freedom of arrangement :and unconventionality of design which characterized all Desmonde’s work. As you see, the subject is neither pretty nor young, yet by subtle colouring and a rhythmic flow of simple lines an extraordinary feeling of beauty is created. Observe, too, that through the window at which she sits, there is an exquisitely suggested vista of the street outside, with some poor children engaged in a game of ball. This, incidentally, was the subject of another well-known Desmonde known as Children at Play, which may be seen in the Luxembourg, Paris.
“The third, and the largest painting, was the last work accomplished by the artist, and is considered to be his finest. It is, as you see, a large composition of the estuary of the Thames, showing all the crowded turbulent movement of the river.” She began here to consult her notes. “Observe, girls, that it is no mere pictorial representation. Note the skilful deformations, the audacity and subtlety of the colouring, the expressive divided tones, the projection upon the canvas of an interior drama of the spirit. See also how the light seems to emanate from the canvas, gleaming and vibrant, a lumi nosity that gives great intensity to the work. In a way it is reminiscent of the radiance of expression found in the great paintings of Rubens. Desmonde was not altogether a revolutionary painter.
Just as the impressionists drew from Turner, he drew in his early years, from Manet, Degas, and Monet. There are some, indeed, who have contended recently that the Spanish period of his art stems from the painter Goya. But although he studied the masters, he went beyond them. He knew how to recognize beauty in all its forms, and his conscience forced him to reject any technique but his own. He was in every sense of the word an individualist whose work, even when most specialized, seemed to cover the whole span of life, a great original artist who, resisting every temptation to be repetitious, opened up a new era of expression. When we look at these works we know he has not lived in vain.”
Here the mistress discarded her notes and became human again, Looking around her pupils, she asked briskly:
“Any questions, class?”
One of the girls, who stood close to the teacher, spoke up, in the manner of a favourite pupil:
“Is he dead, Miss?”
“Yes, Doris. He died as quite a young man, rather tragically, and almost unrecognised.”
“But, Miss, didn’t you just tell us he was a great painter?” “Yes, Doris, but like so many others he had to die to become great. Don’t you remember what I told you about Rembrandt’s poverty, and Hals, buried in a pauper’s grave, and Gauguin, who could scarcely sell a single picture when he was penniless, and Van Gogh…” .
“Yes, Miss, people didn’t understand, were mistaken about them.”
“We can all make mistakes, dear… Gladys, do stop sniffing.” “Please, Miss, I have a cold.”
“Then use your handkerchief… as I was saying, Doris, England may have erred over Stephen Desmonde, but she has made up for it handsomely. Here are these paintings in the Tate for all of us to admire. Now come along, follow me, don’t lag behind, girls, and we’ll take the Sargents.’7
When they had gone, clattering down the long gallery, Bertram, still immobile, maintained his baffled contemplation of the pictures. How often, in these last few years, had he heard from its small beginning, yet ever growing, and swelling to a chorus, that panegyric of his son, the same fulsome words and phrases used a moment ago by the young art mistress to her class. All the evidence of failure that had seemed so certain, the cut-and-dried opinions of those who presumed to know, finally disproved; Stephen, his son, a great artist… yes, even the word genius was now being used without reserve.
There was no pride in him at the thought, no belated triumph, but rather a strange bewildered sadness, and thinking of the pain and disappointment of a lifetime crowned too late, he wondered if it had all been worth it. Was any picture worth it — the greatest masterpiece ever wrought? What was beauty, after all, that men should martyr themselves in its pursuit, die for it, like the saints of old? It seemed to him that the conflict between life and art could never be resolved. Peering hard at the canvases, he tried to discern virtues in them not apparent to him before. Slowly regretfully he shook his head. He could not do so. He bowed again to the opinion of the experts as he had bowed before, yet in truth they remained to him indecipherable, as great an enigma as had been his son in every action of his life, most of all, in the utter, incomprehensible, careless unrepentance of his end. That last scene of all, he could never contemplate without a dull ache in his heart, when, in the grey morning, summoned by Glyn to the small back bedroom in Cable Street, he had found his son in extremis, ghostly pale and barely breathing, his speech completely gone, the larynx so destroyed as to make swallowing impossible, but still with a pencil and a sketchblock at the bedside and, as if that were not enough, a long cane tipped with charcoal, with which, while supine and helpless, he had only the day before been tracing strange desings upon the wall. Bertram had tried, his breast rent, to speak words of affection and consolation, striven, at the eleventh hour, to lead this wayward soul back to the Lord, but as he was uttering a prayer, Stephen writing weakly, had handed him a note: Too bad, Father… I have never drawn you… you have a fine head. And then, incredibly, sunk in the pillows, he had begun to outline Bertram’s profile on his block. A final portrait… for presently the pencil slipped from his grasp, the fingers sought it feebly, instinctively, then, like all the rest of him, vere still.
Then, while Bertram sat bowed and broken, Glyn, with a hard, set competence, had begun immediately to make a death mask of the gaunt passionless face.
“For God’s sake,” he cried out, “must you do that?”
“Yes,” Glyn answered, sombrely, “for art’s sake. In the future this will be for many a source of faith and perseverance.”
(From. Crusader s Tomb by A. J. Cronin)