J.W.NORTH, A.R.A., R.W.S., PAINTER AND POET.
BY PROFESSOR HUBERT HERKOMER, R.A., M.A.
A Lecture delivered in Oxford, 1892
ONE of the most truly original painters of our times is Mr. J. W. North. Of this originality he himself is not aware, and was once greatly astonished to read in a criticism on his work that he had a strongly marked manner. But all originality must approach perilously near mannerism. The danger is chiefly in its proclaiming the identity of the painter too readily. You spot a man’s work at a glance, but do you prize it the less for that? I well remember the excitement in the days of Walker when we enthusiasts rushed into the Old Water-Colour Gallery, and after a hasty glance around the room darted upon the work whose aspect we recognized at a distance. Is it to be supposed that Henry Irving would attract the vast audiences if he were not so strongly marked in his manner? It is his originality that makes him peculiar, for his conventionality is based upon nature.
Much of the convention of the arts of former ages was based upon a true sense of nature, and the desire seemed to be uppermost to make them agreeable to the artistic eye. The different -periods would no doubt demand a different kind of agreeableness, but that brutal realism which has only come into fashion since the advent of photography, is doing its best to cast out all former artistic conventions. Many of these pictures that I am alluding to, when photographed, seem to suggest direct photography from nature, rather than reproduction. This is no merit, far from it; it is the curse of impersonality in art. Let this question of personality be thoroughly understood. The only work of art that possesses the virtue of interpretation of nature emanates from a strongly marked personality. So it is with Mr. North. His work looks strangely out of place in any modern gallery where the dominant note is always the momentary fashion of the period. Mr. North strikes a note that is out of harmony with the noise of modern fashion in art. Strangely enough it has always been out of fashion; therefore it is true to say that he was as much ahead of his times twenty years ago as lie is to-day.
J. W. NORTH, A.R.A. (From the Water- Colour Drawing by Prof.Herkomer, R.A. Engraved by W. Biscombe Gardner.)
The note he strikes is crushed by sentimentalism, and by a type of art brought into this country by English artists who have attempted to graft a foreign manner on to their English natures, a type euphonically called Anglo-French. It is not difficult to drown so sweet a note as Mr. North’s in the din of a modern picture gallery. But wait,—wait until the noise of mechanical, commercial art has subsided, and Mr. North’s art will stand forth like a revelation, like a gospel of tenderness, of truth, and even of love. Thousands may not believe in the tenderness, or in the truth, and may fail to see the love of nature that he inspires through his work; but the man in the thousand may see it all, and he will be the gainer. Was not Turner accused of painting colours that nobody else saw in nature? And was it not an old lady (who has since become famous) who said to Turner that she never saw such colours in nature as he painted? Which provoked the characteristic answer from Turner, “No; don’t you wish you could, ma’am?”
Many a person might look in vain in nature to find all that Mr. North paints, paradoxical as this may sound. Mr. North is a seer, privileged by his natural gifts to open out a secret view of nature, and this is the mission of the poet—the very name of which indicates a “maker,” or a “creator.” He creates a manner of expression, of interpretation; hence lie is removed by special powers from the mechanical or commonplace artist who may be merely clever. .But this “seer” has waited twenty years, and still finds the public rush by him,—rush towards the meretricious work,—rush still, with only here and there a tender mind, who, dropping behind, rinds the treasure ; who sees with him, and understands his note. But Mr. North works, and he waits, and the day will most assuredly come when the public will find out whom they have passed by, and this will only, alas! repeat history. I pray it may come in his lifetime, and if in the appreciation the public overshoot the mark, as they are wont to do, the sin of over-appreciation will certainly be the lesser sin of the two. But the waiting! It needs a strong artistic nature to resist a popular demand, especially when it means to the artist the bread of life. Never had Mr. North hit upon the popular taste, and it needs but a casual glance around an exhibition to see the number of ” time-serving” artists who could attract the public eye long before Mr. North’s transcendental art would do so. I used the term “time-serving” The pity is that the struggle for bare existence puts this kind of thing into a pardonable light. It is not the repetition of method that is the sin, it is the repetition of subject into which the struggling painter has been coerced by the public that causes the weaker artist to become ” time- serving,” and to repeat what has once proved to be a successful subject. Repetition of style or of method of work is seen over and over again in North’s work, but there never was a moment in his career when he gave the public the slightest thought whilst selecting his subjects. According to his inner poetic impulse (in German, “Drang”) has he chosen his subjects, and selected from nature. This has often resulted in work that was as incomprehensible to the public generally as some of Tennyson’s inimitable word-painting of nature has often proved to be. Again, — many and many a time have I watched the public passing by Mr. North’s work,—passing it as not worth looking at. This is not to be excused, even if we own that some new adjustment of “the mental seeing” is required, even as it is with Turner’s or with Watts’s work. I have watched the supposed lovers of water- colour art passing Mi’. North’s work in the Royal Society of Painters in Water- Colours, and settling down to a conventional drawing with loudly expressed approbation. Persons are, curiously enough, prepared to give an opinion upon a conventional work if it happens to have been accepted as the right form in art for a generation or so, and they are even prepared to stand by what they imagine to be their convictions. But there are others, ay and thousands, who are fearful of giving expression to their natural or common sense understanding, and so, either express nothing, or else merely ex press the customary thing upon a customary form of art, so as not to appear peculiar. I am prepared to acknowledge that there never was so much licence given to art, in regard to styles, as in our present times. Perplexing they must be to all but conservative minds, for there is the ” insolence” which is supposed to mark originality, and there is the unconventionality which is supposed to mark a new departure. A perplexed mind moves away from all that troubles it, hence the uninitiated turn with relief and joy to a matter-of-fact picture of a matter-of-fact subject. That is plain sailing—all is clearly told, and the interest of the general public is arrested at once. But follow this same public in the National Gallery into the Turner room, and watch their facial expressions! How their faces lengthen, how their mouths drop and their eyes grow weary, and how soon they subside into a chair, only to dive into their pockets for a biscuit, feeling that that room was the place for a quiet ” snack.” for nobody need trouble about the incomprehensible pictures that cover the walls.
Although Mr. North’s work brings fresh surprises each year to those who look for his work, he has not changed the type of his work since he began his art career. In Walker one can distinctly trace the transitional phases of one manner to another, and not a little curious are his first water-colour drawings, done whilst he was in the employment of the engraver who demanded drawings in the style of Sir John Gilbert—the father of all illustration in this country. The cold colouring of that early period—which did not leave him until he came hit closer contact with Mr. North, is as singular, when one compares it to his ultimate work, as the early colourless indigo drawings of Turner are to big later golden period. As I said, Walker became the good colourist when he came into close contact with Mr. North; of Turner one can say that he became the great colourist by the natural evolution of his unapproachable genius. Mr. North never deviated from his earliest sense of colour, therefore we have in him a remarkable, if not unique example of a painter who had formed his style before he was ripe, and in ripening only added strength to the original direction. Let us dwell a moment on this noteworthy fact. We have first to confront the question of repetition, and we come at once to acknowledge the fact that limitation of range or of mental vision will not explain Mr. North’s tenacity of purpose. Rather say that inordinate modesty, or want of confidence in himself, would reduce his field of experiment. Turner’s abnormal capacity for work has perhaps never been equalled, therefore must not mislead us when judging others. Great Heavens; he actually sketched scenes in rough outline as he passed them in a coach. Ten thousand drawings were, I believe, mounted by Mr. Ruskin alone after Turner’s death, and yet it is generally understood that nobody ever saw him at work.
It must be admitted that Mr. North is a slow worker, and produces little in the year. But the phase of nature that he sees is not only rare in form, but rare in effect. As he is most fastidious in the selection of the things he introduces into his composition, and would rather wait until he sees the thing he really wants in nature,—wait a year or two rather than alter his determination as to what he had in his mind, I am within the mark when I say his work is rare in form; and as he invariably paints effects that belong to transient moments of the day, I speak correctly when I say his effects belong to rare moments in nature. By weighing these facts we can form some idea of the reasons that cause him to produce little in the year. And when we take into consideration his temperament, which can only do one thing at a time— but must complete one work before a fresh work can be started, we have much explained. Let us, however, rejoice rather than deplore this limitation in this age of over-production, for we have from him only the best work he can do. It is nevertheless a torture to him to produce a work—torture when he commences it, torture when half-way through, and torture when finished. His fastidiousness and modesty would always prevent him from estimating his efforts at their true value, and his purity of aim would only add distress to the (to him) unsatisfactory result. His torture is not even over when the work is completed, for he has the still greater pain to suffer when he is compelled to confront the work in an exhibition. I say we should rejoice that his idiosyncrasy is not of that order to lead him into art vagaries or over- production, but of a calibre that holds the highest aim steadfastly ahead, which neither want of time, of money, nor any other want or necessity, can obliterate or decoy.
We can scarcely quote a single artist, of at least the present century, who has not produced some commonplace art at the commencement of his career. But Mr. North is the exception. Even in his early wood-drawings we see the coming artist. Take as an example his drawings to the Poems by Jean Ingelow (1867) and Picture Posies (1874). All future tendencies are already determined in these drawings, not here and there only, as we see in many other men whose greatness we catch a glimpse of in occasional spurts of genius amidst the commonplace efforts. No, they are there, throughout, fixed, and soberly continuous. And in those very wood- drawings, despite their visible reserve of manner, we find the utmost cleverness of handling, a cleverness that would stand out now as much as it did twenty years ago. And this is saying much, for we are surrounded now by an extraordinary number of clever young wood-draughtsmen. But cleverness has, in all the arts, become such a common attribute that we are no longer surprised at it. Take music alone; why, when Liszt was young it was considered a great feat to play from an orchestral score on the piano. Difficult as this will ever be, it is done by almost every successful pupil of any musical academy throughout Europe at the present time.
The early batch of wood-draughtsmen—say of twenty years ago, to which I belonged, could have been of little use for such rapid work as we now see done in the Daily Graphic. But then we had higher aims. Not more than one in ten of these draughtsmen of to-day care to become painters, and it will run pretty hard with the tenth man to succeed in painting with that habit of haste upon him. He begets this fatal cleverness (Dr. Hans Bichter calls it “unheimliche Fertigkeit”—in musicians, “uncanny dexterity”) that kills all the more sensitive fibre of the mind, and deadens the critical faculties, thus for ever eliminating the chances of self-reproach and of introspection. But every age has its fashion of cleverness. If some of the young spirits of to-day had lived twenty years ago with their present art, they could only have been considered worthy of a lunatic asylum. But eccentric work in my early days came only from lunatics. Now it comes from cool, calculative, circumspect minds, who do the outrageous thing in a calm, businesslike way. There is so much repose in such methods. We have it in literature quite as much as in art. In art, of course, it supplies us with a good deal of unconscious humour. But to be serious again, art is a terribly serious thing, and not to be dealt with lightly, a lesson which the youngest generation has yet to learn, and from none can this fin de siecle personage learn it better than from the consistent and eminently sane genius of Mr. North.
To those who are primarily attracted by big planning and robust composition Mr. North’s work will often prove disappointing. One must look to painters like Cecil Lawson for such qualities. His work is so large and daring that it takes hold of the spectator with a grip that shakes him to the soul. But Mr. North’s art possesses a vein of poetry that would often be missed at a casual glance. It is his attention to “little things “that hits, in one way, given his work a singular charm of sensitive beauty, even by a loss, at times, of strength. (Cecil Lawson’s powerful cast of mind coerced nature into its own form of thinking, whereas Mr. North’s humility,—which is at once his strength and his weakness,—would bring about a different relationship with nature. But I verily believe that Mr. North will be discovered and re-discovered from time to time. It would be hardly safe to say this of many painters now living.
His work may be less interesting to the public at large from the absence of the human element. Still the hand of man is invariably visible in his selection of subject. But it is his prediction of fact rather than the realisation of fact that makes me unhesitatingly declare Mr. North’s art to be one of the future
His art is neither captious nor forced, nor his labour ever inadvertently applied. The “indefinite beauty of nature “(his own phrase) has never been so well rendered except by Turner. There is a “measure” too in his work, that takes the place of order, but not sufficiently so as to make it intelligible to the mind that needs a plan to a picture or a glossary to a book. But who so well can give the perfume of nature, or the gentle divinity that underlies nature? There is just mysticism enough to proclaim him prophet and there is just selection enough to proclaim him a realist of our times. His work bears quotation, and will get into our artistic vocabulary. Although he never startles you, he also never starves the imagination of the spectator, as so many clever artists do. There is a curious sense of leisure about his work, that in this manufacturing age is highly conducive to thought and reflection. Hence the lasting joy of his work— through the true depth of his interpretation of nature. And this interpretation brings with it certain attributes that raise the reality into poetic fancy. Hardly ever is there enough animation in his manner to make us sit up. He is not a John the Baptist—he is a gentle seer who would sit and worship nature silently, unseen,—being afraid of hearing his own voice. Thus it is that his work receives strength towards the end. There is never a subduing or a cutting down—all is augmentation, filling up, and strengthening. Strength obtained through the channels of delicacy never resembles the strength that a first blow gives, which crushes quite as often as it prepares boldness of style.
In Mr. North’s work the strength, though sparingly given, is never misplaced, and it never denudes. His work ascends as it progresses, and I think of all the painters of our day one can say that he has worked to no model. To use Emerson’s words: “By experiment, by original studies, by secret obedience, he has made a place for himself in the world.”
His works are the best of companions, for they embody tranquility—arrived at through his method of handling masses, and by the secret attention to detail. Although his work is full of fascinating (technical) manipulation, he is nevertheless too little of the mechanic by nature to give a materialistic value to the aspect of his art. Indeed, the peculiar kind of ingenuity of his water- colour manipulation, and treatment of colour in that medium, are such as would never have come to a well-trained painter, or to a strong draughtsman. All nature is to him first a bouquet of colour which finally diverges and converges into distinct forms. He is apt to under-draw in his anxiety to retain the bloom of nature’s colour, just as many of us who pique ourselves on good drawing are apt to lose colour by over-drawing. Definition destroys mystery, and without mystery there can be no charm of colour. Extreme sensibility may be counted as genius—it is only a matter of degree; and if it be not over-strong in one direction, the many claims from the temperament will most certainly lower it to mediocrity. Mr. North’s colour- sensibility overpowers all his other qualities, and as a great colourist he stands side by side with Turner. It is this sensibility to colour that makes him linger over insignificant passages for the sake of colour-quality, and makes him disinclined to engage himself on the more prosaic necessities of mere drawing. Again, by an overpowering mental continuity in his character, it is difficult—nay impossible—for his mind to turn into new channels until the immediate work on hand has been practically completed. From the same cause he finds it difficult to turn from colour to drawing, having first started on colour thoughts. In most works of art of a spontaneous kind do we find some touch of petulance, or of indifference,— somewhere; it may be in a corner, or it may be in half the picture—but whatever torture Mr. North endures in the process of a production, these decomposing blots are never to be found in his work.