Turtle Point Press (232p) ISBN 978-0-9627987-7-1
Excerpt from Chapter Two, “In My Grandfather’s House”
My grandfather lived in the house next door but one to us. He was the celebrated painter, F.M.B. [Ford Madox Brown]. He was one of the kindest, gentlest, handsomest old gentlemen that ever lived. Everybody loved him. He wore a blue cloth tam-o’-shanter when he was at work, and in the winter sat with his legs in a big bag made of fur inside, like those worn at the North Pole. His cheeks were pink, and he had blue eyes, and his hair fell straight down on both sides of his face nearly to the bottom of his ears, and my grandmother cut it straight and even all the way round behind. It was wonderfully thick and pure snow white, and so was his beard. He wasn’t very tall, but his shoulders were broad, and he looked somehow grand and important. He nearly always smiled when you looked at him, not an empty smile, but a kind, understanding one, though his eyes looked quite sad all the while. His lips jutted out when he was thoughtful, something like Aunt Lucy’s, and then they looked terribly stern. He usually wore a shiny top hat and a black cape, and he used to take my grandmother’s little dog out for a walk on Primrose Hill. He couldn’t walk very fast, because he had the gout, but the little dog was very old and couldn’t go fast either, so it didn’t mind. He would stop from time to time to look behind to see if it was coming, and then it used to stop too, and sit down and look up at him and hang its tongue out and wag its tail, and they went on again.
Sometimes he smiled a different sort of smile—his whole face looked as if it were laughing and his eyes as well. But that was very rarely. Once, when he was having breakfast with a good many people one of his letters said that two very important people were coming to see his last big picture before it left the house. He looked round the table and said, “That will mean quite an expenditure on red carpet.”
And then he smiled the second sort of smile. You felt just as if the sun had come out and begun to shine and made everything warm all of a sudden when you didn’t expect it. Nobody could help laughing. I didn’t know why he was so amused, but I knew he was, because he never smiled like that unless he had heard something really funny.
When I told Helen she was very much upset. She kept popping up and down all through morning preparation time and couldn’t do her lessons. At last she grabbed her tape measure and ran out of the schoolroom and down the stairs into the hall, and she measured the whole distance right from the bottom of the stairs through the hall and down the front steps to the edge of the pavement to see how much red carpet would be needed. She was very angry. She said it would mean thirteen yards at least, and it must be five shillings a yard for a good quality. She couldn’t bear to think that the important persons were going to have so much money spent upon them. But they got ill and didn’t come after all, and it was a good thing they didn’t, or they might have had a dreadful surprise prepared for them in the next house but one.
My grandfather told stories so well that some people said he did it better than anybody else in London, and you never got tired of them because they were a little different each time. When he told them in the studio he would walk up and down and wave his brush or painting stick, and once at dinner he began to wave the carving knife because he suddenly thought of a story just when he was carving the joint. There was an artist there, who was so hungry that he couldn’t stand it any longer. So he made up a little verse and recited it aloud:
When B. carves
Then my grandfather remembered and gave him some meat.
Sometimes he used to be very angry, though not seriously. When the cook sent up some nice pudding at dinner which he couldn’t eat because of his gout he used to fly into a passion and bang his fists on the table and say, “Damn that woman, why does she always go on cooking things I mustn’t eat?”
But the next minute he’d forget about it and smile at us all round the table as much as to say, “Aren’t I silly to make such a fuss about a pudding?” and as if he hoped we might all enjoy the pudding, although he couldn’t eat it. He used to be angry too when he pushed his spectacles on the top of his head and lost them. He would look for them all over the studio, and rummage for them on his great big table, and thump upon it angrily, because he said the housemaid must have moved them when she dusted it. But when I said, “Why, grandpapa, they’re up on top of your head all the time,” he used to smile at once and fetch them down and say, “Why, bless me, little pigeon, so they are.”
Once a gentleman came to the house to bring my mother some money from the Queen, because my father had died too young for her to have a pension and she was very poor. When my grandfather was told about it he flew into a frightful rage. We heard him quite plainly shouting in the studio, “Where are my boots?”
And he put his boots on and stumped down to the drawing room where the gentleman was waiting, who was very much alarmed. And when my grandfather saw how nervous he was he was sorry for him. He refused to take the money, but opened the door for him quite politely, and said as he went out, “Tell Her Majesty my daughter is not a beggar.”
My grandfather always bought our paper—The Torch—and he agreed with us in almost everything. He hated tyrants and proud rich people. When we told him of something that tyrants had been doing he used to frown and look extremely fierce and say, “God bless us, the abominable villains!
He asked to tell him about everything, and we always did. He loved us all exceedingly, but he was kindest of all to me, because my father hadn’t very long been dead. When I ran in to see him in the morning he used to say to me, “Little pigeon, little pigeon, you’re looking very paintable today,” and would let me sit by him in the studio when he was working.
He had a very large studio with a lot of pictures on easels in it, and a weak lay figure with false yellow hair that was nearly always propped up behind the door. It had stupid round glass eyes that were always staring, and no expression at all in its face. It never stood quite straight because its joints were loose. The slightest jolt used to make it jump all over and stand in quite a different position. You looked at it one moment and its head was straight and it was looking in front of it with its arms folded as if it had settled down like that for the day, and when you turned round again it would be staring over its shoulder out of the window with one arm straight down and the other sticking out to the side. That was because a cart had gone past or someone had moved about in the room overhead.
At night I used to fly past the studio, because I knew it was there behind the door ready to move in a moment, and when I was in the studio I used to turn round every minute to see what it was doing. I would not have kept it had I been my grandfather, but he did because it reminded him of one of his friends.
He used to paint on top of a kind of square barrel. It had a big thick screw coming up out of the middle of it, and on the top of the screw there was a chair, and when you turned it round it went up and up till it seemed to be going right through the ceiling. My grandfather used to put his tam-o’-shanter on and climb on to the barrel off a small stepladder and ask somebody to wind him up on the chair. That was when he was painting a very big and high picture. It stretched right across the longest wall of the studio and reached nearly to the ceiling. There was a regiment of soldiers in the picture, and a barge on a canal with a beautiful dark woman sitting in it, nursing twins. They were really only one baby, but when my grandfather had finished painting it in one arm the woman turned it over and held it in the other, and then he painted it as a twin.
He would rather have had real twins, but the proper kind of baby was so difficult to find. He was very particular. First all the babies came in from the mews at the corner for him to look at. He was kind to them, but they did not please him because they weren’t good looking, and their mothers were hurt and took them back again. We used to stop in the street and look at the nicely dressed babies in perambulators, but they were too refined. Then we went to a baby show in Camden Town, where a lot of women were sitting round the room on chairs with babies. Some were screaming and throwing themselves about, but some just looked on and took no notice. One lady in spectacles was weighing babies in scales, and the other was writing about them in a book. She was very pleased to see us, and she said, “Any of the mothers would be honored and delighted.” We went round looking at the babies, and the mothers were anxious and began to put their caps on straight and smooth their bibs and pull their dresses up to show how fat their legs were. But they weren’t really very fat, because they were quite poor babies. But at last we found a very fat and red one sitting in a corner. It was fatter than any of the others, because a well-known lady writer had been kind to it and sent her milkman to its mother every day, so that it could have as much milk as it wanted. My grandfather said, “That’s a remarkable baby,” and it opened its eyes and mouth and stared, and the mother screwed up her face and was pleased and said, “I’m sure you’re very kind,” and jumped the baby up and down. And all the other mothers stared with their mouths open, but the babies themselves were not at all interested.
The fat baby came next day in a mail cart, and it was so fashionably dressed in white that it pricked you wherever you touched it because of the starch. It didn’t cry when its mother left it in the studio, and she said that was the best of cow’s milk from the first. When she had gone we took off its fashionable clothes and put them away in the cupboard very carefully, and we dressed it in a soft little petticoat with short sleeves and a little round cap that my mother used to wear when she was a baby. It turned its head round and opened its mouth and stared hard all the time, and seemed very much surprised, but it didn’t mind. It was delightfully soft and slippery. There was a little girl in the picture too, with long golden hair, stretching up on tiptoe with her arms up begging her mother for a sip out of her glass of wine. I was the little girl, and when I got tired of stretching my arms up for the wine I had them held up on both sides of me, like Moses on the mountain when he was too tired to go on praying any longer.
I used to sit on a footstool beside my grandfather’s chair. He was very high and I was very low, and I used to draw faces on a piece of paper. But I had no talent. When the face seemed to me too ugly that I couldn’t stand it any longer I used to look up and say, “Grandpapa, it isn’t coming nicely.”
And he would look down from his chair and say, “Isn’t it? Let me see what’s wrong with it.”
And he used to wind himself down and take off his cap and push his spectacles on to the top of his head, while I stood on tiptoe and handed up the paper for him to make corrections. He used to say, “Ah, you see, the nose turns up too sharply at the end,” or “Lips don’t twist up so tightly into one another as you’ve made them here,” and he’d take the pencil and put it all straight in a moment, and make it quite a handsome, interesting face. I said, “Thank you, grandpapa, and don’t forget that your spectacles are on top of your head again.”
All sorts of odd people used to come to the studio. Some were models and some were just visitors. The models were generally very proud of some part of their bodies. Some praised their shoulders, and some praised their feet. One lady said she had one of the most beautiful backs the sun had ever shone upon. She was most obstinate about it and didn’t wish to go away. She said my grandfather couldn’t help being delighted with her back if only she were allowed to take her clothes off. But she was not allowed to. Once an ambassador came to tea with a little dog under his arm, and said it would only drink milk with cream in it out of a china saucer. It was quite true, so that we had to send round to the dairy for some cream because there wasn’t any in the house, and when Aunt Lucy heard of it she said that it was criminal extravagance. One extremely dirty old man with very long hair and a white beard arrived in a hansom cab. He said that once he had washed and been painted as King Lear, but it didn’t really pay him, because beggars were much more popular. As a matter of fact, he was not so very poor, but he kept himself dirty on purpose, in order to look like a beggar. He said, if the worst came to the worst he could always earn something as a blind man led by a boy outside the pits of theatres, though he was not blind at all.
Once a poetess came to be painted by a long, nervous artist who was a pupil of my grandfather’s. He wore very big spectacles because he was shortsighted, and he had a curious squeaky voice. His beard was not like an ordinary beard, but looked like separate tufts of hair pasted on all over his chin and beneath his nose. He was very excitable. Once when my grandfather was unable to get a suitable model for Sardanapolus, the artist dragged a barrel organ all the way home from St. John’s Wood Station with the Italian organ grinder running behind him and scolding indignantly, because he thought he would look so splendid as Sardanapolus lying on the sofa. The organ grinder really was the right type, but he refused. He said that nothing would induce him to take off his clothes in such a climate, and that without music no Southerner could stand it. So he went away and wouldn’t come again. My grandfather said he was sure it was because the man was frightened and thought we were all mad.
The poetess [Mathilde Blind] had curly black hair and a hooked nose, and rather a brown face. She put on a black velvet dress to be painted in, and held a big bunch of poppies in her hand. She quarreled with the artist, and they made a great noise. She said he made her face look like a piece of gingerbread, and that the poppies were like dabs of scarlet flannel, and he said he had never been spoken to like that in his life before. They talked so loudly, and were so rude to one another, that my grandfather began to climb down from his painting chair to see what it was all about. And just when he had got up to the picture and was going to look at it the artist put his face down on his shoulder and burst into tears. Grandpapa said, “Be a man now, H., and control yourself,” and was most kind and patient and tried to make them friends. But the poetess would not be reconciled. She cast a furious look at him and swept out of the room and collided with Aunt Lucy, who was coming up the stairs. Sometimes a crowd of fashionable people came all together to look at the pictures, and then my grandfather changed his coat, and that was called a “Private View.”
[Pictured above: A portrait of Juliet’s father by her grandfather, Ford Madox Brown]