Book 3 ­ My Artistic Career

Chapter VIII

Unlike the nine lives popularly attributed to the feline species and which run, we suppose consecutively, mine, rather fewer in number it is true, ran concurrently. The periods of my childhood and my girlhood were coincident with my social and my musical life, with my glimpses of the theatrical world and with my short, not very remarkable, artistic career, but every one of these periods was a stepping-stone towards the destiny which the Will of God had from the beginning of my life mapped out for me. I suppose that it is very arrogant to say that, even to think that God bothered about me to the extent of desiring me to conceive the Scarlet Pimpernel but, believe me, I say it in all humility.

I have so often be asked the question: "But how did you come to think of the Scarlet Pimpernel?" And my answer has always been: "It was God's Will that I should." And to you moderns, who perhaps do not believe as I do, I will say: "In the chain of my life there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfilment of my destiny." And nothing can be quite so wonderful as the workings of a man's or a woman's destiny. Mine certainly evolved in a spasmodic way.

I came from a country where in that generation at any rate (I don't know what things are like now over there) girls were not allowed to go anywhere unchaperoned, and my dear father was not yet under the influence of progressive England; what he called female emancipation was anathema him. So it was not a bit of any use my eating out my heart in all sorts of vain longings and dreams of glory and fame to be attained, goodness alone knew how.

The only career in which I could have got encouragement and even help from him would have been the musical profession. If I had had the slightest talent, if I had had a voice--or an ear--he would have given me such training as seldom falls to the lot of budding genius. But it was not to be. I had absolutely no talent, nor that passionate love for an art which was the breath of life to my father, whom I loved more than anyone else in the world.

And there was dear, dear old Liszt with his kind eyes and his soft voice, calling me "Ma poésie" and patting my shoulder with his lovely slender hand. When I touched the piano and put my whole heart and soul into the rendering of those wonderful adaptations of his from Wagner's operas he shook his head and said with a tone of regret, "Non! Ce n'est pas cela" (that isn't it), meaning of course that I for one would never 'make the piano sing'.

Anyway, there it was. It was no use thinking about it too much. All that was left to me were my dreams and vague stirrings of something I could not explain even to myself. They certainly did not tend then in the direction of fiction writing, nor did they prompt me to put some of my thoughts--some of my dreams--on paper. I was not yet twenty and very young for my age. Nowadays, girls only just in their teens are publishing novels, verses, writing plays, and what not. I was just storing up experiences more or less interesting in my mind, a jumble of inspirations and glimmerings of all sorts of knowledge.


Then, suddenly, like a bolt from the blue there came the time when these vague stirrings took on a definite form and I really and truly believed that at last I was on the way of finding my true vocation. My cousin, who had been in the convent school with me in Paris, sent me from Budapest a picture painted by herself. It was a study of a group of flowers in the open air with the light of the sun behind them. With it there came a letter from her telling me that she was going to join her brother who was studying painting in Munich, and that she, too, intended to follow an artistic career in earnest. I don't remember whether the picture was good or not. It certainly would be a difficult subject to tackle and I remember my mother and one or two English friends who came to look at it giving it unstinted praise and praising also the energy and high spirits of the young artist which caused her to turn to something useful in life rather than to idle it away as so many girls did who failed to find a husband--the only vocation open to women in those days.

The incident was a revelation to me. I hardly slept at all that night and the next for thinking and thinking and planning what I could do to attain what had suddenly become an all-consuming desire: to follow an artistic career. I knew, of course, that that desire would be difficult of attainment. I hadn't got a brother who was studying painting in Munich or elsewhere, and I knew that my parents would never consent to my careering about Europe to learn painting any more than they had allowed me to complete my studies by going to Cambridge.

Little did I guess that the sending of my cousin's picture from Budapest was yet another link (and a very strong one at that) in the chain of my life which was to lead me not only to the satisfaction of my vague ambitions but to happiness such as seldom falls to the lot of any human being. If my cousin's picture had not been sent from Budapest. . . . If this had not happened . . . or that . . . if . . . if. . . . Were not these 'ifs' the dominant factors throughout my early life which brought about my ultimate destiny? They cropped up again now with the arrival of that blessed--blessed picture.

If the picture had not been sent, I would not have been obsessed all of a sudden with the mad desire to adopt an artistic career. I don't know how or why this desire took possession of me. I had never dreamed before of an artistic career. I loved to look at pictures in the way that I loved listening to music, in a calm, comfortable way, but suddenly the idea that one day I would paint pictures which would be hung in the Royal Academy exhibitions or in the salons of Paris and Munich became a perfect obsession. The whole thing was a beautiful day dream.

I imagine that this fixed idea affected my temper and that I worried my poor dear mother to death with my constant requests for permission to attend an art school. In the end I succeeded, thanks chiefly to kind words spoken on my behalf by Sir Frederick (afterwards Lord) Leighton, the then President of the Royal Academy, one of the most charming, most fascinating men in late Victorian society. My mother had met him at one of Countess Károlyi's receptions; he had invited her to come and see his pictures which he was showing that year in the Royal Academy. She took me with her.

The studio with its multiplicity of sketches and studies by the master hand was nothing short of a revelation. I was dumb not only with shyness, I was dumbfounded with admiration and enthusiasm. I think the dear man was amused by this school-girlish tribute to his genius. He was so kind, so understanding. Before I knew where I was I had told him of my fervent desire to become a great artist--nothing less than great--and I suppose that I said something about my parents' reluctance to allow me to attend an art school.

Nothing much happened for many days after that momentous visit; Sir Frederick who was passionately fond of music and a great concert goer, heard some of my father's works and . . . and . . . well, I don't really remember how it all happened--things always had a way of happening in my life--certain it is that presently I found myself entered as a student at the West London School of Art, a branch of South Kensington.


The South Kensington School of Art is an institution which owes its foundation to the Prince Consort (the husband of Queen Victoria). Soon it threw out branches in London and in many provincial towns. I think I am right when I say that its object was decorative art rather than pictorial, and was for many young artists merely the stepping-stone for admission to the Royal Academy Schools and the Slade. I certainly began my short artistic career at the West London but never distinguished myself sufficiently to obtain admission to other more important schools.

But there was always 'Heatherley's'. Heatherley's in Newman Street where so many fine, if perhaps not great, English artists served their apprenticeship. Heatherley's demanded no special qualifications for joining the life class, i.e. working from the living model. One paid one's two guineas a month and was at liberty to work either from the nude or the costume model every day from 9 a.m. till dusk, with an interval for luncheon. All this I learned from fellow-students at the West London, and it all sounded very attractive. It suggested freedom for the exercise of one's special talents (if one had any) and I was bound to admit that the tuition which I was receiving at the time was on the dull and uninspired side, for it only meant drawing from plaster casts in charcoal or in chalk, and I hated drawing. I wanted to paint. I wanted to run before I had learned to walk. I wanted to go to Heatherley's and paint pictures. I saw pictures floating like visions before my mind, pictures were hung on the walls of the Royal Academy, and this I should never attain by making representations of plaster casts in charcoal and in chalk.

Happily I encountered no opposition from my parents when I broached the question of Heatherley's by way of a change. I imagine that the poor darlings looked upon me now as an emancipated product of English education and felt that 'in for a penny, in for a pound' of this emancipation was the best course to pursue in the interests of peace in the home. And I was allowed to go to Heatherley's. There one could, if one was so minded, continue to draw in chalk or charcoal from the plaster casts--there was a very fine one of the Apollo Belvedere, more groupings of coloured pottery and metal ornaments with the addition of graceful draperies and flowers. One might work in oils or water-colours or pastel. The model was there for the student to exercise his genius in portraiture, but there was no real teaching.

'Old Heatherley', as he was familiarly called, went round the studios once in the mornings and once in the afternoons. He would make sarcastic remarks or criticize the work if it was worthy of criticism, and left one entirely to one's own devices. The rest of the day he spent upstairs in his private apartments playing the flute, practising scales and exercises on that delectable instrument. He was a funny old boy, in appearance like Faust in the first act; he wore a long sort of velvet garment, down to his heels, very much the worse for wear and shuffled about in faded red leather slippers. His face was really very noble both in features and in expression, with light blue eyes and a transparent pale skin. His hair was snow-white and scanty, and he wore a straggy kind of beard.

Three or four times a year a distinguished Royal Academician--an old Heatherley-ite--kindly gave up an hour or two of his valuable time and came to his old art school to criticize the work of the students. These were red letter days for us all, for these great gentlemen said very kind and encouraging words to those who deserved it. I am sure I never did, and though I loved the life in the studio and worked regularly and enthusiastically it soon began to dawn upon me that I had not the real feu sacré which would one day carry me to the pinnacle of fame.

Soon I realized that it was going to be mediocrity for me. Mediocrity, again, my bugbear, my nightmare! Oh! how I loathed the very word and how it haunted me! All the same this artistic side of my life was a happier one than the musical one.

The atmosphere of the studio was more congenial to my temperament than the concert halls and the fashionable opera. The students were for the most part simple girls and boys, most of them from the City of London or St. Paul's school; some were possessed of ambition as I was, others just content to look upon the craft of the brush as a likely means of earning a livelihood. As a matter of fact not one of these aspirants to fame or fortune who passed in and out of 'Heatherley's' during the three or four years I worked there, achieved greatness. I certainly did not. We all made pictures; oh yes! pictures which we would hopefully send in to the Royal Academy every year, looking forward to seeing them hung and possibly sold to an art patron, and more often than not had them returned 'unhung for want of space' the little bit of sugar to disguise the bitterness of the pill.

As a matter of fact pictures of mine were accepted and hung in the Royal Academy three successive years. One of these now hangs in the dining room of my home in Monte Carlo; the other two were sold to unknown patrons who I am sure have no idea that these masterpieces (?) were perpetrated by a humble artist who mayhap has pleased them in another branch of art. It was during my studentship at 'Heatherley's' that I earned the friendship of two very distinguished artists who remained my sincere friends throughout their lives.

Edwin Long, R.A., was then an elderly man and a great popular favourite. He was not a portrait painter but his huge pictures in the Royal Academy or other exhibitions always attracted a crowd of admirers then. His was a popularity very like that of the French artist, Gustave Doré (who had a gallery in Bond Street devoted exclusively to his works). The pictures of both these artists would be called 'hopelessly old-fashioned' now: huge canvasses which could never find a place in modern exiguous houses and flats; biblical and oriental subjects for the most part; elaborate compositions crowded with life-size figures composed and grouped together in a way that would be far beyond the power of any artist of to-day even to attempt.

Edwin Long's name which in the '90's was as well-known as is that of a popular writer of fiction in this twentieth century is forgotten now; only in the provincial and colonial galleries, in the Tate or Jones collections can a student stand before those 'old-fashioned' masterpieces and give grudging admiration to the genius that conceived and the knowledge and power of expression that accomplished these Herculean tasks.

I was first introduced to him one day at 'Heatherley's', when he came to criticize the students' work. He had attended the life classes there in his youth and was most kind and encouraging to us all. He was a dear old thing: simple and unaffected. We became great friends then and there, and he asked one or two of us to come one day to his studio and bring our work with us for closer criticism. Three of us did muster up courage and did go to the Labyrinth, his lovely house on top of Fitzjohn's Avenue. Oh joy oh rapture! I was actually allowed to be one of the three privileged ones.

How vividly stands that visit before my mind's eye as I write! There was a finished picture on the easel, one which he had completed for the forthcoming Royal Academy Exhibition. We three humble students gave a simultaneous gasp of admiration in face of this truly amazing work. It really was amazing: it simply glowed with colour and there was something real and essentially vital in every one of the life-size figures that filled the huge canvas. They all seemed alive somehow. The artist stood by, enjoying I am sure in his quiet way our silent tribute to his genius.

I don't know what went on in the minds of my two friends, but I do know and for many years afterwards continued to feel the fascination of that picture. It represented a scene in ancient Egypt, 'The trial of the dead'. In the centre of what looked like an immense hall, open to the sky there stood an upright human figure swathed in white wrappings and through which the features of the face were discernible..

All around were several tiers of stone seats placed in a semi-circle each side of a tall throne on which propped up with cushions a gorgeously attired figure--The Pharaoh--reclined and to right and left of him men and women in picturesque attire and glowing headgear sat, each holding a lotus blossom in their hand, in various attitudes. Next to the central figure stood a man robed in white and wearing a wide belt of a brilliant lapis-lazuli colour on which were engraved what looked like hieroglyphics. With one hand outstretched he was pointing upwards, and with the other to the swathed human figure and to a woman who was crouching at its feet embracing its knees.

While I was gazing in rapt attention at this extraordinary picture, I heard, in a semi-conscious way, the voice of the artist talking in his soft gentle voice--he had not the Oxford accent--explaining the historical fact on which his conception had been built.

"The mode of administering justice," I remember him saying--and his words have often rung in my ears since then-- "is the surest keynote in every country to the character of its people. These ancient Egyptians sat in judgement sometimes over the living but always over the dead, to decide if he or she was worthy of the holy rites of burial. The man standing beside my central figure is recounting the sins of the deceased. Those figures in dark draperies are his widow and his children. They may speak for or against him, as could his friends and enemies also. Ever since I first became a student of Egyptology," the artist went on, "I was impressed with this idea of a pleading for one who was so silent and so still. He could neither defend nor incriminate himself but just stood in awesome majesty hearing accusation and defence with the same contemptuous solemnity, the same dignity of eternal sleep. The woman crouching at his feet is the principal witness for or against him. One the belt of the accuser the words carved thereon in cuneiform are 'Mercy' and 'Justice'."

And so he continued to talk on that absorbing lore--the story of ancient Egypt seven thousand years ago. His knowledge of the subject was prodigious, he was historian and archæologist at the same time, and above all he was a poet and an artist and something of a mystic too. I little guessed that the time would come when that picture would rise with intense vividness before my mind's eye and that it would fall to me to give with pen, ink, and paper in my romance By the Gods Beloved, a picture of that scene which so impressed me in my kind friend's studio.


And it was also at 'Heatherley's' that I first met David (afterwards Sir David) Murray: such a dear, kind, hearty, canny Scot. He and W. B. Leader and J. Farquharson were the best known and most admired landscape painters of the epoch. Their pictures not being of such gigantic proportions as those of Edwin Long, Lord Leighton and others, they found their places in private collections and in many provincial and colonial galleries as well as in the Tate and Jones collections. I remembered hearing these three artists chatting together one evening at the Royal Academy soirée, I making a humble fourth in a very interesting discussion.

As it happened, both David Murray and Joseph Farquharson were exhibiting works that were different from their usual choice of subjects. David was showing three or four sea-scapes which he had never done before. He was essentially a landscape painter, but with that unrestrained artist's conceit which I always admire for its perfectly natural and undisguised blatancy (why indeed shouldn't an artist be conceited?) he just wanted to show Henry Moore and those other fellows that he could paint the sea just as well as they did. As for Joe Farquharson he had painted sheep in snow year after year till he was sick of them, so this year he was exhibiting pictures which had nothing to do with either snow or sheep.

Of the three distinguished artists W. B. Leader alone had stuck to his ever popular rendering of leafy summer in England. The amicable discussion between them interested me enormously. All three were men who made a large income by the sale of their pictures. Dealers fought for the privilege of securing their R. A. pictures year by year, knowing that they could sell them to art patrons at a considerable profit. But it seems that these dealers were rather doubtful as to fresh incursions by popular artists in subjects hitherto evaded by them.

"Yes! very fine, Mr. Murray," one Philistine had said to David; "but I am afraid that your admirers don't want any sea-scapes from you. They love your moors and your Scottish hills . . . you understand . . . but very fine . . . very fine . . . but I, for one, could not venture to buy . . . I know your admirers . . . etc. etc . . ." David was furious and said some very rude things about dealers in general, for it seems that with one accord they all began to make the same excuse: "Yes, very fine Mr. Farquharson . . . the trees . . . the Spring of the year . . . but I am afraid your admirers don't want spring and summer from you. . . . Sheep, you know, Mr. Farquharson . . . in the snow . . . you understand . . . but very fine . . . very fine. . . . Only I, for one, could not venture to buy . . ." and so on, and so on. And the two great Scots, being Scots, would not see the humour of the situation which appealed very strongly to W. B. Leader. The latter was smiling quietly inside himself congratulating his own sound English sense which had made him stick to his usual popular subject, 'Spring and Summer in leafy England'.

How many artists, how many writers have had to suffer in the same way in their career? the demand of the public--of their admirers for what they were accustomed to receive from their favourites--a sort of slavery in fact. Fetters which will always require an almost superhuman effort to break a kind of set down in artistic aspirations, above which only a transcendent genius is strong enough to rise. I suppose that these days if an artist (?) accustomed to painting naked ladies with green thighs and faces like acidulated pumpkins were to offer to his patrons a beautifully drawn female figure of classical proportions, it would be rejected by them as not quite . . . quite . . . what was expected of him; and if he persisted in following his new inspiration, his income would go down to zero and the number of his admirers vanish from out his ken.

Let me confess at once that though my incursions into an artistic career are not worth recording and my attempts at pictorial art were anything but glorious there is a thing for which I shall always be profoundly grateful, and that is that my artistic training enabled me to see pictorially what later on I attempted to describe with my pen. Quite apart from that wonderful experience in Edwin Long's studio when he made me visualize those glowing presentations of ancient Egypt, I obtained through my training in pictorial art the faculty of seeing the scenes, the characters, the movement of what my imagination was evoking for me.

In the same way as I originally saw my Sir Percy Blakeney on the platform of a railway station, so did I see the seething mobs in the Paris of the Revolution, the tumbrils, the guillotine, the prisoners in the Conciergerie, the Scarlet Pimpernel plotting and planning for their release; I saw him in his various disguises, I saw him feigning sleep at midnight at Lord Grenville's ball with Chauvelin vaguely puzzled at first, then with the dawn of comprehension lighting up his thin sallow face. Pictures! Yes! they were all pictures before me, real vivid pictures! to transcribe them with my pen was a comparatively simple matter.

Readers have so often said to me, "How you can think of all these things, I don't know. How you can describe those scenes that happened years and years ago--and make them so real that one can almost see them." And that is my answer. "They are real to you--Bless you!--because they were real to me, because I saw them as pictures before I put pen to paper."


But above all things (and one for which I can only thank God on my knees) which came to me during the none too glorious years of my artistic career, it was during that time that my life was turned from darkness into light. It was in the studio at 'Heatherley's' that I met the man who from that day became and remained all the world to me. The subject is secret and sacred to me so I will not speak of it except to say this, that the whole of my life, every step in my career has been bound up with what Swinburne glorifies in such exquisite words: Love that keeps all the choir of lives in chime. . . . My marriage was for close on half a century one of perfect happiness and understanding, of perfect friendship and communion of thought. The great link in my chain of life which brought me everything that makes life worth the living.

©Blakeney Manor, 2001