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1 February 2022

From the NS archive: Wonders

25 November 1922: All the artists today are ladies or teetotallers.

By New Statesman

In this article from 1922, we are invited to spend an evening at a local public house that has long been popular with artists. The author, who signs the piece with the initials YY, meets with an array of curious characters including pub landlords, merchants and farmers, and listens as they recall “with sparkling eyes the days that are no more”. As these characters recount stories of the inn’s previous inhabitants, they engage in debates around the lives of artists – who “in those days… could both drink and paint: now they can do neither” – and the value of contemporary art.

Men cannot meet without dipping into their memories in search of wonders. On entering an inn the other day in a part of the country that has long been popular with artists, I found the landlord and some of the oldest inhabitants recalling with sparkling eyes the days that were no more. The talk lingered especially around the name of a dead painter who had once lived there and whose work I had known since I was a boy. “He was a marvel,” the landlord said tenderly; “he never sold his work. I mean to say, he never worked for money. Never painted a pot-boiler in his life.”

“In those days,” chimed in an egg-merchant, “artists could both drink and paint: now they can do neither. Gee, to watch Arthur Roe drinking was an education. Double cognacs every time. He would never drink anything else, and his allowance was two bottles a day. I remember saying to him, ‘Why don’t you try whisky for a change, Roe?’ and he said to me: ‘I daren’t. I’m too fond of it. I don’t like the taste of brandy. That’s why I drink it, because I can drink it in moderation.’ Gee, Roe was a caution. And he meant it – absolutely. Two bottles a day. Gee, there was some life in the place in those days. They used to be waiting outside in queues, didn’t they, William? If you didn’t get here before 11 in the morning, you couldn’t get in for the crowd at the bar.”

“I have seen Arthur Roe,” the landlord took up the tale, “slipping over here from his studio at six in the morning before he had had his breakfast. Just for something to steady him. His hand would be shaking that much, he couldn’t lift the glass to his mouth without spilling it. I remember seeing him tying a handkerchief round his wrist like this,” and the landlord made a sling with his handkerchief for his right hand. “Then he would take the ends of the handkerchief in his left hand and use it like a crane to raise the hand holding the glass to his lips. After two double cognacs, he would feel a bit steadier, and hurry back to his studio, and paint, paint, paint” – and the landlord waved an imaginary brush across an imaginary canvas – “and it might be 10 or 11 o’clock before you would see him again. Then he would come across with one of his pupils for a drink. He had a lot of pupils, and he always brought them out one at a time. A regular procession it used to be – one pupil drinking with Roe, and the rest left behind to go on working. You couldn’t help laughing sometimes. Reminded you of the animals going into the Ark. Poor chap, it broke him up in the end. But he never seemed to paint the worse for it. Poor Roe, he was an artist. Never sold his work. He would rather not sell a picture than paint one he didn’t like.”

“Arthur Roe was a marvel,” repeated the egg-merchant; “where’s his match today? All the artists today are ladies or teetotallers.” And he drowned his face with a sigh in a pint of beer.

“Ah, there’s still artists,” said a man in a broken-down wide-awake and three days’ stubble of beard, who looked like a herd. “I hear that young fellow Noakes that lodges with Mrs. Powson sent up a picture to London last week that’s worth 50 pounds.” “Fifty shillings, you mean,” said the landlord’s wife, speaking for the first time, as she held her husband’s arm and leaned against him. “Fifty pounds, I mean,” retorted the unshaven one indignantly. “You mean,” sneered the landlord’s wife, “that he said it was worth 50 pounds. Nobody’s going to pay 50 pounds for a picture.”

“Now, look here, Mrs. Rennett,” said the herd, doing his best to keep patient with her, “what would you say is a fair price for a picture?” She did not hesitate a moment. “I never saw a picture,” she said heartily, “that I would give five shillings for.” “I want a serious answer to a serious question,” he told her; “how do you think an artist could pay for his rent and his frames and his paints and his models, if he sold his pictures for five shillings?”

She looked round at a framed atrocity on the wall representing a volcano in eruption and nodded towards it. “How much did that cost, William?” she asked her husband. “Five shillings,” said the landlord, chuckling. “There, now,” said his wife, tossing her head in triumph. The herd waved his hand in a gesture of annoyance. “Put it this way, Mrs. Rennett,” he said in a voice that seemed like a groan torn from the depths of his being. “Suppose you wanted a photograph made of yourself – in paint – a photograph taking you all in from top to toe – dressed in your finest – a silk dress, necklaces, jewels, buckles on your shoes – all as like life as you would find it in the looking glass, down to your finger-rings – how much do you think a painter would charge you for it?” She did not answer immediately. She smiled as though she were seeing with her mind’s eye a picture of herself positively ablaze with necklaces, jewels and shoe-buckles, and were considerably pleased with it.

She was evidently tempted to raise the wages of so wonder-working a painter, but she checked herself on the edge of raising them out of reason. “Five pounds,” she said, coming back to hard earth out of her dream. The herd thumped the bar with his hand. “Five hundred, you mean,” he said. “Five pounds,” she repeated more firmly. “I say, five hundred,” he almost shouted. “Oh, if it was the King or Queen,” she said airily, while the landlord winked at me as much as to say that the herd was a little bit touched in the head. “If it was Mrs. Rennett,” insisted the herd. “Ask any artist you like how much he would take to paint your photograph, and he’ll say five hundred pounds if he says a penny. Isn’t that so, sir?” he said, turning to me.

I told him that I understood some artists would charge even a thousand pounds or more. “That’s sense,” declared the herd; “that’s sense, Mrs. Rennett.” “Catch me having my photograph painted,” said Mrs. Rennett with a laugh, and set to wiping the beer marks off the bar.

As I listened to the herd talking, his imagination full of necklaces and shoe-buckles, I could not help recalling a similar figure who had once drifted into an inn in a remote country-place at which circumstances compelled me to pass the night. Two ladies, one dark, one fair, and both young, had been marooned like myself in the same village and in the same hotel, or rather public-house. While we were having a meal, the landlady warned us that we should likely have a visit from a curious character before the night was out. “A quare card,” she called him. He was a ne’er-do-well who had inherited a small farm and was letting it go to ruin. He used to come into the village in the evening to drink, and the only work the four policemen who were stationed there ever did was seeing him on his way home. “Oh, he’s a quare card!” she repeated, laughing, and she told us that no strange girl ever came into the village without his hearing of it.

Sure enough, he came in the course of an hour, the picture of a music-hall tramp. His face was fringed with stubble; his clothes, like his farm, were a ruined inheritance; he bared his teeth in grins under his unshaven lip; he had small, cunning, laughing eyes. He apologised for not wearing a collar; he said he had only heard of the young ladies after he left home. “Ah,” said the landlady, chaffing him, “what would a man wear a collar for unless he’s in love?” “That’s true,” said the queer card, with a knowing grimace at one of the ladies; “you can always tell if a man’s in love with a girl, because, if she comes into the house where he’s sitting, he’ll slip out of the room and oil his hair and put on a collar.” “Ah, get out, Jimmy,” said the landlady, “what do you know about love? Jimmy thinks he knows a lot about women,” she explained to us in order to incite him, “but he’s as innocent as a child.”

Jimmy leaned back in his chair grinning self-satisfaction up to the ceiling. “Did ever I tell you, ma’am,” he asked, “how I once won a gallon of porter in a bet by answering a question that no other body could answer?” “What was that?” she said. “I met a man in Scotland one day,” he told us, “who said to me: ‘Tell me this, now, and if you answer right I’ll give you a gallon of porter. What are the seven points of beauty in a woman?’ Now which of you could answer that?” We confessed our utter ignorance. “Well, here’s what I told him,” he said, fixing the dark-haired lady with his gimlet eyes. “Wisdom and a fair countenance and good looks, black eyes, a black head of hair, well set-up and well stepped-out.”

The landlady clapped her hands, laughing. “And was that right?” she asked. “It was,” he said with a nod, “and when he paid for the gallon of porter, he said he didn’t think there was another man in the world could have answered that question.”

“But why black hair?” I asked him. “Don’t you think a fair-haired woman may be beautiful?” He looked from the dark-haired lady to the fair-haired one, and again bared his teeth in a grin. “Black hair,” he said with his eyes on the dark one, “is more standing, but,” swivelling his eyes to the fair one, “fair hair is more enticing. And I’ll tell you,” he went on, warming to his reminiscences, “about another time I won a gallon of porter for answering a riddle!” We appealed to him to go on.

“One day,” he said, “a man came up to me and betted me a gallon of porter that I couldn’t tell him how to tell where a girl you didn’t know lived without asking her.” “And were you able to tell him?” “I was that. This is what I told him. I told him that I would walk after her till it came to a lonely part of the road, and then I would go close up to her and pretend to be a little bit intoxicated. Then I would look up into her face” – he was a small man – “and say, ‘I wisht I was in gaol for stealing you.’ And then, if she liked the looks of me, we’d get talking, d’ye see, and she’d tell me where she lived without my ever having asked her.” “And that was the right answer, too?” “I won my bet,” said Jimmy proudly.

“Ah, Jimmy, if only you had money, all the girls would be running after you, not you after them.” “If I had money,” said Jimmy, his face glowing as far as dirt can glow at the happy thought, “do you know what I would do? I would buy a big black horse and I would get ribbons in the colours of all the nations and I would tie them in his mane and in his tail. And I would put on a new black coat and oil my hair and get on his back and ride into the village. That would be the thing to bring the girls to the doors and the windows. Every woman, old and young, would come out to see me.” “Ah, one of them will catch you yet, Jimmy,” said the landlady.

There was a rapturous look on his animal face as he let his imagination dwell on the picture of himself on the black horse with the ribbons in its tail. It was the same look that I had seen on the face of Mrs. Rennett when she thought of that portrait of herself in silks and buckles. For, of all the wonders on which the mind fondly lingers, there is none to surpass the wonder of a man’s or a woman’s own self as he or she might be if only the money would run to it.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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