CONCLUSION

Uneventful times in the studio — "Black and white" artists and "stock" drawings — My fondness for France — Le Guilvinec — I paint a religious subject — Cheapness of living in the village — Ending of my Bohemian days — What brought about the change — The Wiggins Expedition to Northern Siberia — Mr. Ingram suggests my accompanying it as his "special artist" — Sir Frederick Leighton's friendship — Mr. Ingram's generous policy — I start on my big journey through the Arctic regions — Siberia, Mongolia, and China — My eighteen months' absence from England — I return to London — Enough of "roughing it" for the time — I move from St John's Wood into the West End

AS may be imagined, studio life, whilst occasionally providing incidents of a sufficiently interesting character to bear recounting, is not entirely made up of "events," therefore in endeavoring to recall the happenings of the years of which I have been writing, it is obvious that there were times when for months all was singularly colorless. Episodes, even of a tender nature, have always seemed to me to come about in cycles. I was, as it turned out, on the eve of one of the big "events" of my career, as will be seen, and for the moment I was marking time, as it were.

Meanwhile I was not idle in my studio. A "black and white" artist could, in those days, generally manage to fill in his time. "Stock" drawings — i.e., not for immediate publication — were in demand, and if I struck a good subject it was pretty nearly certain that the Illustrated would take it. The "stock" drawing is, alas, practically a thing of the past in these days of photography.

My fondness for France and anything French generally lured me across the Channel for my summer outing. A little place called Le Guilvinec, on the coast of Finistère, attracted me just then, and strange as it may have seemed to those who were interested in my work, and who knew my temperament, I painted a religious subject there called "The Viatique," and the village priest was so interested in it that he actually posed for me on the seashore, so there was no difficulty in getting my other models.

I exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy and the Salon, and it eventually received a Medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1900. I always recollect Le Guilvinec as the cheapest place to live in I ever struck. They charged me four francs a day en pension, which included excellent white and red wine and coffee and cognac after lunch and dinner. Fresh sardines were a standing dish, and langoustes were so plentiful that one could have them every day. I don't suppose that in these motor days any place like this exists anywhere at anything like the price.

I now come to the period which I have always considered practically marked the conclusion of my real Bohemian days in London. Although the bachelor artist is always more or less a Bohemian, in my case at this particular stage there was, as will be seen, a big break in the continuity of my career as a painter, that so completely severed my connection with studio life that when I returned to it after an absence of nearly eighteen months it was to settle down in the West End under quite different conditions. I will, however, briefly narrate what brought about this change.

The celebrated voyage of Captain Wiggins in 1887, when he successfully accomplished the feat of navigating a steamer (the Phœnix) across the Kara Sea and up the River Yenisei to the city of Yeniseisk, is too well remembered for it to be necessary for me to recapitulate an exploit which was destined to become historic, solving as it did the much-vexed question of the practicability of establishing commercial relations between England and Siberia viá the Arctic Ocean and the Kara Sea.

I Painted A
              Religious Subject...

This successful expedition, opening up such immense possibilities, naturally encouraged its financial promoters to follow it up by another and much more important one. Towards the end of July in the following year, therefore, the Labrador, a powerful wooden steamer specially built for Arctic work, was dispatched to the mouth of the Yenisei with a cargo of "all sorts" with which to try the Siberian market; the Phœnix, which had been laid up for the winter at Yeniseisk, being commissioned to proceed down the river and fetch back the cargo brought out by the Labrador, the latter vessel being too large to be able to get such a distance from the estuary. For all this special permission had naturally to be got from the Russian Government; but so far from making objections or putting any obstacles in the way of the scheme, the officials, advised, of course, from headquarters, lent every assistance in their power and showed a most friendly spirit.

Through a diversity of causes, into which it is not necessary to enter here, the expedition failed to accomplish its purpose, and the Labrador returned to England without having crossed the Kara Sea at all. An ordinary man would have been discouraged, at any rate for a time, by such a failure; but Wiggins was not of that stuff. Nothing daunted, he at once began trying to raise " the sinews of war " for a fresh expedition, and was so successful (such confidence had his friends in him), that the following year the Labrador once again started for the far north-east, but only to meet with another failure, though this time the failure, it was proved afterwards, could have been easily averted. In fact, so conclusively was this proved, that, emboldened with the knowledge of how near it had been to being a success, a syndicate of rich and influential London men was without difficulty got together, and it was at once decided that two ships should be sent out the following year, and that everything possible should be done to ensure success. This time there were no half-hearted measures; money was forthcoming, and with it a renewed enthusiasm in the scheme which, I may add parenthetically, helped not a little to bring about its eventually satisfactory result; this, notwithstanding the fact that the expedition started handicapped by the untoward absence (owing to his having met with shipwreck on his way to join us) of Captain Wiggins, the leading spirit of the project.

Talking about Russia one morning with Mr. Ingram at the office of the Illustrated London News, he suddenly suggested my going out as their "special artist " with this expedition. The love of travel and the spirit of adventure are so strong in me, that, without the slightest hesitation, I eagerly caught at the idea; in fact, had he proposed my riding across the Sahara on a bicycle, I should probably have jumped at it with just as much alacrity.

Well, to cut a long story short, after a lot of correspondence had passed between us, the "Anglo-Siberian Trading Syndicate" agreed to take me, subject to certain restrictions as to publication of sketches and matter relating to the expedition, and to land me eventually, if all went well, at the city of Yeniseisk, in the heart of Siberia.

Sir Frederick Leighton proved himself an invaluable friend at this juncture, as there was some difficulty in a press-man entering Russia, as it were, by the back door. He interceded personally on my behalf with Sir Robert Morier, our Ambassador in St Petersburg, so I had no difficulty in getting my passport from the Russian Government.

On my taking a map of my route down to the office, and asking Mr Ingram where I was to go if I ever found myself there, "You can go wherever you like, so long as you send us plenty of interesting sketches for the paper," was his generous reply. With liberty, therefore, to roam all over the world, so to speak, and with unlimited time and plenty of means at my disposal, I started on a journey which kept me away from England, as I have said, nearly eighteen months, and during the course of which I traversed the whole of Siberia from north to south, Mongolia, and China.

In the wildest dreams of my youth I could not have imagined a more wonderful journey.

This practically ended my Bohemian days in London, for on my return to London, after so long an absence, I found, as might have been expected, that my ideas were much changed, and that somehow the free-and-easy life of St John's Wood no longer offered the same attraction to me as of old, perhaps because I had had enough of roughing it for the time. Anyhow, my tenancy at No. 3 Blenheim Place having expired, I thought I would try what living under less "artistic" conditions meant, so decided to move into the West End, and took a small studio and flat in Glasshouse Street.

I well recollect the curious impression I had when, on the day after moving into my new quarters, I found myself in Piccadilly Circus at 10 o'clock in the morning. It was practically a new world I found myself in as compared with the rural quietude of the Wood, and I realized how completely I had severed with my old Bohemian life in London.


 

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