CHAPTER XI

"Show Sunday" — Then a great event — Importance of exhibiting at the Royal Academy — Not a hallmark of talent — Significance of Show Sunday — The dealers' visits — The social crowd — Critics — What the artist has to put up with — Doubtful praise — Success in art not judged by financial results — Show Sunday stories — I send in my large picture — Sir Frederick Leighton 's encouragement — I have no luck — Not hung "for want of space" — My dejection — Thoughts of enlisting — My girl pal — A real comforter — I gradually recover — Picture purchased by Walker Art Gallery — Katie's illness — Sad ending

"SHOW Sunday," as the day before sending in one's pictures to the Royal Academy was called, was one of the great events of the year amongst artists, and every one who had anything like a studio, who was going to try his luck, would send out invitations to his friends to come and see his pictures before they went in. This was done to avoid disappointment to the friends, in case the works were not accepted, and they had no opportunity of seeing them outside the studio.

St John's Wood, which on Sunday afternoons usually presented an air of unruffled sanctimonious calm, was invaded by visitors "going the round of the studios, "as it was called, and every one who happened to have a friend who knew a friend who knew an artist would try and get an invitation to one or other of the studios.

From the artist's point of view, the importance at that time of exhibiting at the Royal Academy was incalculable, for it was the principal exhibition of the year, the mere fact of having one's name in the catalogue carried weight and seemed to entitle the artist at once to a certain consideration which he did not receive otherwise. "He exhibits at the Royal Academy" was the highest encomium the ordinary bourgeois could think of when describing an artist friend. In fact, at one time it was thought in certain suburban sets that a painter was entitled to put F.R.A. after his name if he had ever exhibited at Burlington House.

How many lives, which might have been otherwise profitably employed in commerce or elsewhere, have been wasted by the mere chance of being once hung at the Royal Academy, for it is needless to insist on the fact that the catalogue of that august institution does not necessarily convey the hallmark of talent.

"Show Sunday" nowadays has lost most of its significance in consequence of the number of outside societies that have come into existence, and the reluctance of many painters to run the risk of not being "hung" if they send their chief works to the Royal Academy. But at the time of which I am writing it was almost a social function, and the big men especially had to be prepared for numbers of visitors, most of whom were complete strangers to them. Carriages and cabs and streams of well-dressed people woke up the echoes of quiet streets where not a soul would be seen on Sunday at other times of the year, and gave an importance to certain artists of those days which in many instances was not merited by the works they exhibited. Still all this movement and popular interest was a healthy sign, and there was no doubt that "Show Sunday" was, perhaps, the one day of the year when one could almost be sure of receiving a visit from one of the big dealers if you had something important to show him, for the reason that they knew they were certain to find their man at home all day. Dealers and publishers would generally endeavor to pay their visits before the arrival of the social crowd, and I knew many an artist who would reckon to sell every picture he had on show, before the first ring at the bell after lunch. Those were indeed the good times for modern artists. Of course, it was not all honey, and sometimes it happened that a man had "spread" himself on some special subject all the year, only to be told by the dealer he was hoping to sell it to that it was not what he wanted after all; for the dealers were purely commercial, and only looked on the material side.

I remember Yeend King used to tell a funny story of a buyer coming to see his Academy pictures one day. They all represented spring and summer scenes up the river. He just glanced at them, then walked round the studio three times and turned to go out, saying to King as he did so: "I'm sorry I can't do a deal with you this time, but we have a growing demand for autumn tints, so these are no good to me. Good afternoon."

But if the candid criticisms of the dealers were hard to bear by reason of the fact that they represented an opinion of success or failure, what the poor artist had to put up with from amateur critics who came on the pretext of a friendly visit was maddening at times. Not the least irritating was often the ambiguous character of the praise one received.

A friend told me of a very influential person coming on one of his "Show Sundays," when he had quite an important picture on view. As he left he went up to the artist, and shaking him warmly by the hand, said: "I like your picture very much, it is so different from the work you usually do."

As a rule enthusiasm and praise were the order of the day, for Society folk are indulgent, and it costs so little to say nice things, never mind what one thinks. There were, however, some people who didn't attempt to disguise their feelings; one man in particular, he was so outspoken that he was quite a terror, but his opinion was the more valued in consequence. On one occasion he had been invited particularly to go and see some pictures. He arrived, had a glance round, then said tersely: "What a beastly lot! Good afternoon," and walked out.

I think it will be conceded that the artist's is the only one of the professions where success cannot be measured by financial result. Many of the cleverest painters and sculptors I have known were as poor as church mice, yet they had made names for themselves, their work was highly spoken of in the Press, but their studios were full of unsold pictures, all of which had attracted much notice when on exhibition.

In other professions, as, for instance, that of medicine or the law, success is gauged by banking accounts and the position a man can afford to keep up, and what his will is proved at, at his death. A poor doctor, or a poor solicitor, however clever, can never be considered to have been successful, as success in their case is always paid for in solid coin of the realm.

It has been said that an artist may not make a deal of money out of painting a picture, but the pleasure he derives whilst painting it is compensation far beyond gold. This may be so, but it doesn't pay his rent or relieve him of all the petty worries after the picture is painted.

With this idea continually in one's mind, it may be imagined with what anxiety one wanted to know the result of months of hard work; as it often meant comparative affluence or dans la purèe — anglicized, "stony-broke" for some time to come. I always thought that this explained the peculiar condition of Bohemianism that is always associated with Art, and is always more or less condoned.

Amusing stories occur to me in connection with "Show Sunday." One in particular of a landscape painter, who married a very vulgar, jealous, but good-looking woman. He never dared to have a "Show Sunday" in consequence, but on one occasion quite a lot of friends, several ladies included, turned up during the afternoon. His wife happened to be out at the time, but the visitors were still in the studio when she returned. In she walked and stood with her arms akimbo, as though transfixed at the sight of so many people in the place. Her husband, a mild little man, was about to introduce her, when she rapped out in her coarse voice: "What's the meanin' of this? What are all these devils doin' 'ere?" Needless to add the visitors did not stay on!

A great many of the people who went round the studios of that day did it more because it was the thing to do rather than from any particular interest in painting, which reminds me of a remark made by a fashionable beauty to her attendant cavalier, as they came out of one of the studios, "I like water-color drawings better than oil paintings." "Why?" was the natural query. "Because one can see oneself so nicely in the glass!"

Here's something that happened to me. A man whose opinion I particularly wanted to have on a picture came and saw it, and after looking at it for some minutes whilst I stood by expectantly, he turned to me and said: "That's the best frame, Price, I've ever seen in your studio."

"Show Sunday" was from 3 till 6 o'clock, but it would generally last till dark. In some studios they gave tea, but not often, too many uninvited guests would turn up with one's own friends for this to be possible. As a rule, you were generally glad when you saw the last of your visitors, as it would frequently happen that some useful suggestion in regard to an alteration had been made to you during the afternoon, and you were in feverish haste to carry it out before the van came in the morning to fetch the picture away.

The studio always seemed terribly empty for the next few days after the pictures had gone, they had almost got to be part and parcel of the furniture, and there seemed to be no excuse for starting on another canvas at once, so one would often have a bit of a holiday in the shape of a saunter round the neighborhood, smoking one's pipe and looking up one's friends, which was rather a fascinating way of passing a fine spring morning, when St John's Wood was looking its very best.

One was full of hope for one's pictures during the first week of sending them in, for you had had so many compliments paid you.

Then came the inevitable reaction, and gradually you worked yourself into a state of nervous tension waiting for the result, and every postman's knock sent a thrill through you, till at last your whole future career and welfare seemed to be absolutely dependent on the decision of the Hanging Committee at the Royal Academy. It seems very puerile when one looks back on it all through the mist of time.

That year I was having my first shot at getting "hung," and a very big and ambitious shot too. I had sent in the large 10-feet canvas I had painted in the Sicily Islands, as Leighton had come up to the studio to see it and had given me encouragement for risking it, by expressing the opinion that "it stood a chance." But although he was ipso facto always on the Hanging Committee, his friendship for one was not of much avail, the President only exercising the casting vote when necessary.

Well! My lucky star was not in the ascendant that year so far as the Academy was concerned, for my great work was not hung "for want of space," and I felt very dejected about it, and thought the world was coming to an end in consequence. I went and saw Leighton, and he was very sympathetic, but I fancy he was surprised that I should take it so much to heart, for I was so young then! He said he had put in a good word for it, but its size was against it, and advised me to try it again the following year, since it had not been actually rejected. But to me it was a distinction without a difference, and I was in no mood to think of resuming painting yet awhile, and so depressed was I by this temporary set-back, that I brooded over it to such an extent that I actually had serious thought of throwing up art and enlisting, and went and had a chat with a recruiting sergeant with a view to joining a cavalry regiment.

It was at this time I first realized what a comfort it was to have a girl pal. I was somehow on a different footing with the petites amies I had had when living in Paris, for the reason, perhaps, that I was not then working for my living, and had a little income coming in regularly, so there was nothing to worry about. Here in London all was changed, and it was a pretty serious matter if I could not make things go right every time ; at least, so I thought, for to employ an Irishism, everything seemed to appear black when I was in one of my blue moods, and this is where the female element came in as against the masculine. Men friends, as I have always found, must generally have some sort of compensating self-satisfaction for their sympathy and help, however much they are with you in your trouble. There generally crop up time-worn platitudes which often help to undo the good feeling. "If you had only taken my advice," they will probably ejaculate, or, "I am very sorry for you, old man, but I warned you what would happen," and so forth. Little nothings, perhaps, but the fly in the ointment, all the same.

Curiously enough, in Bohemia, if a woman of the right sort is really fond of a man, there is none of this; there is nothing to temper her sympathy with him when trouble comes. Anyhow, that has been my experience, as doubtless it is that of many other men. In studio life one realizes this perhaps more than elsewhere, for in spite of the apparent light-heartedness and absence of family cares, the bachelor artist Bohemian often lives a wretchedly isolated and solitary existence. Of course, the artistic temperament may have a deal to do with this, but this is no fault of the individual, as will be admitted. 

The Very Embodiment...


So it happened, fortunately for me as it turned out, that I had a dear little girl friend at the time, and she proved the very embodiment of all that was sweet and human and sensible, when I was in the depths of despair. I have often thought over those days when, had it not been for her, I should have probably done something foolish; and with it all, her affection and her sympathy were absolutely disinterested, for she knew I was not in affluent circumstances; that was the charm of it, and made me appreciate her the more.

It was then that I first realized that in the unconventional life of Bohemia one can find attachments every whit as sincere, and often more so, from what I have seen since, than those which are made binding by the law. However, enough of moralizing.

Katie was employed in one of the big shops, so could only see me after she left business. We would then, perhaps, if it was a fine evening, stroll up to Hampstead and wander about the Heath, which we had all to ourselves at that hour; and I could be as miserable as I liked, for I felt she was heart and soul with me, and if I laughed she would laugh, and if I cried she would cry also, so we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Gradually, as may be imagined, it dawned on me that my life was not ended simply because this beastly picture had not been hung, and I actually found myself after a time coming to the conclusion that perhaps it was all for the best, because it must have been a poor work after all, and wouldn't have done me any good even if it had been hung, and my little friend agreed with me in this, as, in fact, she would have done in anything I might have advanced.

And it came about that one morning I woke up with the feeling that the clouds had lifted and that I had to pull myself together, so I went down to the Illustrated and was lucky enough to catch Mr. Ingram in. He seemed pleased to see me, and I sold him a drawing, and as I came out into the Strand things seemed to me to look different and brighter. Although it had commenced to rain, and I hadn't got an umbrella, somehow I didn't mind if I did get wet, and I met a friend and he asked me to go into Short's, where we had a couple of glasses of port, and — well! that was the last of my attack of the blues.

What a jolly evening Katie and I spent together; I sent her a wire, I remember, and we went to a little Italian restaurant just off the Edgware Road, and had quite a feast on the strength of my good luck at the office.

It may be of interest to mention here that the picture which had caused me so much heartburning was eventually purchased for the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where it now hangs.


The Picture...

I had taken the studio at No. 10 on a three years' agreement and my time was nearly up, so I started looking around, as I wanted something more convenient in the way of accommodation, when Katie, who had been out of sorts for some time and not at all strong, was taken ill and had to give up business and go home to her people in Somersetshire. There was to me a certain mystery as to the nature of her ailment, so when she came to see me to say good-bye the morning she left, I plied her with questions, when at last she burst into tears and I elicited the truth. The doctor had told her that one of her lungs was affected — her father, it appeared, had died of consumption — and that she must get away at once from the crowded workroom and vitiated atmosphere and go to live in the open air as much as possible, which meant, of course, she must not come back to London for a long, long time. "Very hard luck, isn't it?" she added plaintively. I need scarcely say how affected I was. The sadness of it all struck me as being too terrible, for she was so young and so full of the joie de vivre, but I did my best to disguise my feelings and cheer her up. "If every one believed what the doctor said, we should be dead long ago," I told her, with an attempt at hilarity I little felt. It was "only a slight cold" on her chest she had got, and a few days in the country would no doubt put her right — "right as rain," and so forth, but I'm afraid my voice belied my words. However, she tried bravely to curb her tears and said that she had made up her mind to do exactly what the doctor said she had to, and take all the nasty medicine he ordered, and then she would get well very quickly and come back to London, and we should be ever so happy together once more. Poor little Katie, I never saw her again.

Her sister called on me some time afterwards and told me that from the first it was more serious than the doctor had said, how she had wasted away and gradually got weaker and weaker until she was a mere shadow of her old self, and then the end came — mercifully, no doubt. They say that "those that the gods love die young," but this is but poor consolation to those who mourn their loss.




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