Dirty Artists & The Clean Rich
Just then the Beeders came in, Sir William and Lady. Big man with a bald head and monkey fur on the back of his hands. Voice like Liverpool dray on a rumbling bridge. Charming manners. Little bow. Beaming smile. Lady tall, slender, Spanish eyes, brown skin, thin nose. Greco hands. Collector's piece. I must have those hands, I thought arms probably too skinny but the head and torso are one piece. I should need them together.Lady Beeder was even more charming than her husband. "I'm delighted, Mr. Gulley Jimson --- I know you hardly ever pay visits, did not dare to ask you --- but I hoped," and she asked me to tea. People like that can afford it. Nothing to them to send their cushions to the cleaners.What I like about the rich is the freedom and the friendliness. Christian atmosphere. Liberty hall. Everything shared because there is too much. All forgiveness because it's no trouble. Drop their Dresden cups on the fireplace and they smile. They are anxious only that you should not be embarrassed, and spoil the party. That's their aim. Comfort and joy. Peace on earth. Goodwill all round.... For of course the rich do find it hard to get through the needle's eye, out of heaven. And to spend all your life in paradise is a bit flat. Millionaires deserve not only our love but our pity. It is a Christian act to be nice to them.
When Lady Beeder asked me if my tea was all right, I said, "Yes, your ladyship. Everything is all right. I am enjoying myself so much that you will have to throw me downstairs to get rid of me. I think you and Sir William are two of the nicest people I've ever met. You have lovely manners and lovely things, a lovely home, and very good tea. I suppose this tea costs four and sixpence a pound, it is worth it. Genius is priceless."
The Professor kept coughing and making faces at me, but I wasn't afraid of embarrassing nice people. I knew they would be used to unfortunate remarks. Rich people are like royalty. They can't afford to be touchy. Richesse oblige. And, in fact, they kept on putting me at my ease; and paying me compliments all the time. And when I told them how I had been turned out of my studio by the Cokers they said they hoped that I would come and stay over the week-end, to keep the Professor company while they were away.
"I'm sorry we can't offer you a bed beyond Monday, but we have only two bedrooms."
"I could sleep on the sofa," I said.
"Oh, Mr. Jimson, but we couldn't allow you to be so uncomfortable."
"Then why shouldn't Sir William sleep with the Professor and I'll sleep with her ladyship. You can count me as a lady --- at sixty-seven."
Alabaster turned green and coughed as if he was going into consumption. But I knew I couldn't shock cultured people like the Beeders. They get past being shocked before they are out of school, just as they get over religion and other unexpected feelings.
"A very good idea," said Sir William, laughing.
"I am greatly complimented," said the lady, "but I'm afraid I should keep you awake. I'm such a bad sleeper."
"Perhaps," said Sir William, getting up. "Mr. Jimson would like to see some of your work, my dear."
"Oh no, Bill, please."
"But Flora, that last thing of yours was really remarkable --- I'm not suggesting that it was up to professional standards. But as a quick impression ---"
"Oh no," said her ladyship, "Mr. Jimson would laugh at my poor efforts."
But of course they both wanted me to see her work and say that it was wonderful. And why not. They were so kind, so good. "Why," I said, "amateurs do much the most interesting work." The Professor began to hop about like a dry pea on the stove. He coughed and made faces at me, meaning "Be careful, be tactful, remember these people are used to luxury of all kinds."
But I laughed and said, "Don't you worry, Professor, I'm not pulling her ladyship's leg. I wouldn't do such a thing. I have too much respect for that charming limb."
Sir William got out an easel and a big portfolio, in red morocco with a monogram in gold. And he took out a big double mount, of the best Bristol board, cut by a real expert, with a dear little picture in the middle. Sky with clouds, grass with trees, water with reflection, cows with horns, cottage with smoke and passing laborer with fork, blue shirt, old hat.
"Lovely," I said, puffing my cigar. "Only wants a title --- what will you call it? Supper time. You can see that chap is hungry."
"I think the sky is not too bad," said she. "I just laid it down and left it."
"That's the way," I said. "Keep it fresh. Get the best colors and let 'em do the rest. Charming."
"I'm so glad you like it," said she. And she was so nice that I thought I should tell her something. "Of course," I said, "the sky is just a leetle bit chancy, looks a bit accidental, like when the cat spills its breakfast."
"I think I see," said her ladyship, and Sir William said, "Of course, Mr. Jimson, you do get skies like that in Dorset. It's really a typical Dorset sky."
I saw the Professor winking at me so hard that his face was like a concertina with a hole in it. But I didn't care. For I knew that I could say what I liked to real amateurs and they wouldn't care a damn. They'd only think, "These artists are a lot of jealous stick-in-the-muds. They can't admire any art but their own. Which is simply dry made-up stuff, without any truth or real feeling for Nature."
"Yes," I said, "that is a typical sky. Just an accident. That's what I mean. What you've got there is just a bit of nothing at all --- nicely splashed on to the best Whatman with an expensive camelhair ---"
"I think I see what you mean," said her ladyship. "Yes, I do see --- it's most interesting."
And she said something to Sir William with her left eyelash, which caused him to shut his mouth and remove the picture so suddenly that it was like the movies. And to pop on the next. A nice little thing of clouds with sky, willows with grass, river with wet water, barge with mast and two ropes, horse with tail, man with back.
"Now that's lovely," I said. "Perfect. After de Windt. Look at the wiggle of the mast in the water. What technique."
"My wife has made a special study of watercolor technique," said Sir William. "A very difficult medium."
"Terrible," I said. "But her ladyship has mastered it. She's only got to forget it."
"I think I see what Mr. Jimson means," says she. "Yes, cleverness is a danger----"
And she looked at me so sweetly that I could have hugged her. A perfect lady. Full of forbearance towards this nasty dirty old man with his ignorant prejudices.
"That's it." I said. "It's the jaws of death. Look at me. One of the cleverest painters who ever lived. Nobody ever had anything like my dexterity, except Rubens on a good day. I could show you an eye --- a woman's eye, from my brush, that beats anything I've ever seen by Rubens. A little miracle of brushwork. And if I hadn't been lucky I might have spent the rest of my life doing conjuring tricks to please the millionaires, and the professors. But I escaped. God knows how. I fell off the tram. I lost my ticket and my virtue. Why, your ladyship, a lot of my recent stuff is not much better, technically, than any young lady can do after six lessons at a good school. Heavy-handed, stupid-looking daubery. Only difference is that it's about something --- it's an experience, and all this amateur stuff is like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble. What I say is, why not do some real work, your ladyship. Use your loaf, I mean your brain. Do some thinking. Sit down and ask yourself what's it all about."
And both of them, looking at me with such Christian benevolence that I felt ready to tell them almost the truth, went off together.
"But Mr. Jimson, don't you think --- of course, I'm not a professional --- that the intellectual approach to art is the great danger?"
"Destructive of true artistic feeling," Sir William rumbled. "Don't you think, Mr. Jimson, that the greatness of the French impressionists like Manet and Monet was perhaps founded on their rejection of the classical rules."
"Oh Lord," I said. "Listen to them. Oh God, these poor dears --- and didn't Manet and Monet talk about their theories of art until the sky rained pink tears and the grass turned purple --- didn't Pissarro chop the trees into little bits of glass. And Seurat put his poor old mother through the sausage machine and roll her into linoleum. What do you think Cézanne was playing at, naughts and crosses, like a Royal Academy portrait merchant, fourteen noble pans in exchange for a K.B.E. Jee-sus." I said; for they were so nice and polite, the lambs, that they didn't care a damn what I said. It passed right over them like the brass of a Salvation band hitting the dome of St. Paul's. They were so rich and Christian that they forgave everybody before he spoke and everything before it happened, so long as it didn't happen to them. "Jeeminny Christy," I said. "What you think I been doing all my life --- playing tiddly winks with little Willie's first colorbox. Why friends," I appealed to their better halves, "what do you see before you, a lunatic with lice in his shirt and bats in his clock (this was for her ladyship on the maternal side), a poodle faking crook that's spent fifty years getting nothing for nothing and a kick up below for interest on the investment (this was for Sir William on the side of business commonsense), or somebody that knows something about his job."
Her ladyship and Sir William both smiled and laid their hands on my arm.
"Dear Mr. Jimson," said she, "don't think I don't agree with every word. I can't say how grateful I am ---"
"A great privilege," Sir William rumbled, "and believe me, we know how to appreciate it. Yes, most valuable and illuminating."
"But dear me," said her ladyship, "it's nearly half-past eight."
"Good God," I said, "I haven't got in the way of your dinner."
"Not at all," said Sir William. "We dine at any time."
"Perhaps Mr. Jimson will stay to dinner," said she.
And I stayed to dinner. I knew it would be good. The rich, God bless them, are supporters of all the arts, bootmaking, dressmaking, cookery, bridge, passing the time of day. We had seven courses and six bottles. But Sir William, poor chap, was a teetotaler and his wife drank only hock for the figure. A half bottle for half a figure. So the Professor and I shared the rest. He had a glass of claret and a suck of port, I had wine.--- From The Horse's Mouth
©1944 Harper & Brothers