Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Show Sunday

The years bring round very quickly the old familiar events. Yesterday was Show Sunday. It scarcely seems a year since last the painters received their friends, and perhaps a few of their enemies. These visits to studios are very exciting to ladies who have read about studios in novels, and believe that they will find everywhere tawny tiger-skins, Venetian girls, chrysanthemum and hawthorn patterned porcelain, suits of armour, old plate, swords, and guns, and bows, and all the other "properties" of the painter of romance. Some of these delightful things, no doubt, the visitors of yesterday saw, and probably some painters still wear velvet coats and red neckties, and long hair and pointed beards. But the typical artist is not what he was. He has become domesticated. Sometimes he is nearly as rich and "apolaustic" as a successful stock- broker, and much more fashionable. Then he dwells in marble halls, with pleasing fountains, by whose falls all sorts of birds sing madrigals. He has an entirely new house, in short, fitted up in the early Basque style, or after the fashion of an Inca's palace, or like the Royal dwelling of a Rajah, including, of course, all modern improvements. This is a very desirable kind of artist to know at home; but, after all, it is not easy to distinguish him from a highly-cultivated and successful merchant prince, with a taste for bric-a-brac. He is not in the least like the painter of romance; perhaps he is better--he is certainly more fortunate; but he is not the real old thing, the Bohemian of Ouida and Miss Braddon. One might as well expect a banker to be a Bohemian.

Another class of modern painter is even more disappointing. He is extremely neat and smooth in his appearance, and dresses in the height of the most quiet fashion. His voice is low and soft, and he never (like the artist of fiction) employs that English word whereby the Royalist sailor was recognized when, attired as a Portuguee, he tried to blow up one of the ships of Admiral Blake. This new kind of artist avoids studio slang as much as he does long hair and red waistcoats. He might be a young barrister, only he is more polished; or a young doctor, only he is more urbane. No doubt there exist men of the ancient species--rough-and- ready men as strong as bargees, given to much tobacco, amateurs of porter or shandygaff, great hunters of the picturesque, such wild folk as Thackeray knew and Mr. Charles Keene occasionally caricatures. These are the artists whom young ladies want to see, but they are not in great force on Show Sunday. They rather look on that festival as a day of national mourning and humiliation and woe. They do not care to have all Belgravia or South Kensington let loose in their places. They do not wish the public to gaze and simper at pieces which will probably be enskied or rejected, or hung at a dangerous corner next a popular picture.

No painter who is not of the most secure eminence can, perhaps, quite enjoy Show Sunday. Many of his visitors know as much about Art as the Fuegians do of white neckties. They come and gaze, and say, "How soft, how sweet!" like Rosey Mackenzie, and have tea, and go away. Other people offer amazing suggestions, and no one who thinks the pictures failures quite manages to conceal his opinion. Poets are said to be fond of reading their own poems aloud, which seems amazing; but then as they read they cannot see their audience, nor guess how they are boring those sufferers. The poet, like the domestic fowl which did not scream when plucked, is "too much absorbed." But while his friends look at his pictures, the painter looks at their faces, and must make many sad discoveries. Like other artists, he does not care nearly so much for the praise as he is dashed and discomfited by the slightest hint of blame. It is a wonder that irascible painters do not run amuck among their own canvases and their visitors on Show Sunday. That, at least, in Mr. Browning's phrase, is "how it strikes a contemporary." Were the artists to yield to the promptings of their lower nature, were they to hearken to the Old Man within them, fearful massacres would occur in St. John's Wood, and Campden Hill, and round Holland House. An alarmed public and a powerless police would behold vast ladies of wealth, and maidens fair, and wild critics with eye-glasses speeding, at a furious pace, along certain roads, pursued by painters armed to the teeth with palette knives and mahlsticks.

This is what would occur if academicians and others gave way to the natural passions provoked by criticism and general demeanour on Show Sunday. But it is a proof of the triumph of civilization that nothing of this kind occurs. Peace prevails in the street and studio, and at the end of the day the artist must feel much as the critic does after the private view at the Royal Academy. The artist has been having a private view of the public on its good behaviour, and that wild contempt of the bourgeois which burns in every artist's breast must reach its highest temperature. However, the holidays are beginning, the working season is over, and that reflection, doubtless, helps the weary painter through his ordeal. But his friends also have to bear a good deal if they happen not to like his performances. They must feign admiration as well as they may, and the sun of Show Sunday goes down on a world rather glad that it is well over.

Lord Beaconsfield once said at an Academy dinner that originality was the great characteristic of English art. So little was he supposed to have spoken seriously that another, of whose ceasing to perorate there is no prospect, characterized his criticism in language so strong that it cannot well be repeated. Let us admit that Lord Beaconsfield was either mistaken, or that, like the Consul Aulus, "he spake a bitter jest." Our artists, when they have found their vein, go on working it. They do not wander off in search of new veins, as a general rule. It would be unkind to draw attention to personal proofs of this truism. He who has done well with babies in fancy dresses will go on doing well with infants in masquerade. There are moments when the arrival of Cronus to swallow the whole family of painted babes, as he did his own, would be not unwelcome; when an artistic Herod would be applauded for a general massacre of the Burlington House innocents. But this may be only the jaundiced theory of a jaded critic. The mothers of England are a much more important set of judges, and they like the babies. Then the bishops, though a little monotonous, must be agreeable to their flocks; while the hunting dogs, and pugs, and kittens, and monks, and Venetian girls--la blonde et la brune--and the Highland rivers of the colour of porter "with a head on it," and the mackerel-hued sea, and the marble, and the martyrs, and the Mediterranean--they are all dear to various classes of our teeming population. The critic may say he has seen them all before, he knows them off by heart; but then so does he know Raphael's infants, and Botticelli's madonnas, and Fra Angelico's angel trumpeters, and Vecelli's blue hills, and Robusti's doges, and Lionardo's smiling, enigmatic ladies. He does not say he is tired of these, but that is only his eternal affectation. He is afraid, perhaps, to say that the old masters bore him--that is a compliment reserved for contemporaries. Let it be admitted that in all ages artists have had their grooves, like other men, and have reproduced themselves and their own best effects. But, as this is inevitably true, how careful they should be that the effects are really of permanent value and beauty! Realistic hansom cabs, and babies in strange raiment, and schoolgirls of the last century, and Masters of Hounds, are scarcely of so much permanent value as the favourite types and characters which Lionardo and Carpaccio repeat again and again. We no more think Claude monotonous than we think "the quiet coloured end of evening" flat and stale. But we may, and must, tire of certain modern combinations too often rehearsed, after the trick has become a habit, and the method an open mystery.


Andrew Lang