Painter and poet
A short portrait by Herbert Alexander
I am writing these notes on the life and work of my old friend John William North on my return from a visit to his painting grounds in that loveliest region of England which lies between the Quantock Hills and the Severn sea; undulating country that slopes from uplands of pasture and furze common down through orchards and crops to fall into wooded valleys where, wind the sweetest fern-fringed streams. Intricate lanes burrow their way in deep grooves between banks of red earth Which are overhung with canopies of greenwood festooned with sprays of honeysuckle, dog-rose, and the wild clematis. These cool, shaded ways lead down to thatched farmsteads and hamlets, where in the sheltered gardens grow roses, giant hollyhocks, and all the old-world flowers in a profusion such as elsewhere I have never seen. Here live and toil “amid the peaceful noises of the farm” a sturdy folk of healthy mien, gentle speech, and a most courteous address.
I went on this little pilgrimage with my friend Richard Tuckett, solicitor, of Bristol, who was also an old friend of North’s, and far better acquainted than I with the “North” country. I, therefore, put myself for guidance in his hands, and it was proved that I made a wise choice. He arrived in the evening at Withycombe, the pretty village where North spent the years 1904-1914, and stayed the two nights of our visit in his old dwelling, which is now a guest-house. It stands opposite the little church that forms the subject of one of his last watercolours (now the possession of the Bristol Art Gallery). What wonder, after weeks of rain and sunlessness, to wake the first morning to a cloudless sky and the warm earth exhaling the scent of new-mown hay!
From my window I could trace the cottage roofs and rising meadows, now in summer dress, which, under a winter cloak of white, form the subject of a little drawing of North’s which I possess, called Snow. We spent the morning in the Luxborough Valley, where North worked for fifteen years. Every way we turned the scene appeared enchanted by the spirit of its departed poet. The landscape hung motionless in a breathless air; the blue vault of heaven was a muted, creamy tone. No dial-sharp shadows marked the tide of the hours, but a velvet sunlight softly powdered the billows of the woods and filled their troughs with stippled shade. In the deep of the valley we visited his painting hut, now derelict in the undergrowth, brambles barring the door, and bracken blinding the view. Here we met an old woodman, wise in the ways of nature and well versed in Bible lore. When we spoke of North his face lit up and he became communicative. North stood out in his memory as a great gentleman and a sturdy champion of the poor. Wasn’t it Mr. North that with his letters to the papers and leaflets throughout the country killed the old game laws Didn’t he stop the common lands being taken from the poor, and help as much as anyone to keep the beautiful free stretches in the Quantocks open for the people? As it was with the woodman, so with all the old people to whom we spoke of him. Yes, one said, and a rare great painter too by all accounts, and didn’t Professor Herkomer come and live down here to learn of him, and more great artists from London? And there was great talk, said another, that Queen Victoria was going to make him Lord – North for what he’d done to art, but then she made him a royal ” acamedician ” instead. We supposed that the rank of nobility was prompted by the precedent of a former prime minister of the name! We next visited Stanborough, a pleasant farmhouse standing high before a fine view across a valley to open downs. It was here that North died. From Stanborough we went through the Roadwater Valley, where we were given tea by the kind owners of St. Pancras, an old house dating from the eleventh century, which North died possessed of. He had taken great interest in the little property, believing it to be, Mr. Tuckett tells me, the earliest example of a worker’s dwelling in England. But local tradition says that it was a chapel under the ancient Abbey of Cleeve, and dedicated to St. Pancras, the Roman Christian martyr. North at one time must have accepted this story, for I find he calls the place a hermitage in a letter of 1906. I have not yet been able to identify it with the drawing, but it seems to me likely that it formed the subject of a watercolour exhibited at the Royal WaterColour Society in 1891 under the delightful title
‘A little lonely hermitage it was
Down in a dale hard by a forest’s side.’
Our brief survey of the place inclined us to a belief in its sacred origin. The masonry is far too solid to look like the walls of a hind’s home of those early times, and the structure too small for the dwelling of one of higher degree. Moreover, its position does not fall in comfortably with the lines of the valley, but suggests its being orientated; and there is a “squint” in the western wall. And I must not forget the holy well hard by, whose bright, never- failing waters the saint has blessed with healing powers that we were told work to this day. On our way back to Withycombe in the evening we called at “The White Horse” to talk with the landlord, Joseph Dudderidge, who from boyhood for many years had driven North’s horse and trap to his painting- grounds. He spoke of the early times when North only painted in watercolours from his seat in a covered cart; then of his many little painting huts at different view- points in the valley for work in winter; of the coming of Professor Herkomer and Mr. Robert and ” Lady Macbeth “- a fine big lady who was the first they’d ever seen ride to hounds like a man: of the hay-wain that Mr. North bought to paint in his big picture of the water meadows, and of his planting the wild woods with bulbs to flower in the spring. Our road homeward passed the Abbey of Cleeve, and we paused to admire its ancient gateway and romantic rooflines. As it was Sunday the place was not open and we could not explore, but I think it must have been here that North found the subject for his watercolour, The Monks’ Fishpond-early spring.
John William North was born at Walham Green on New Year’s Day 1842. He was the second son of Charles North, a draper by trade. Of his mother’s family his great-grandfather, one Knight, was a silversmith of the City of London, who became a master worker about 1780; and there is in the present possession of the family a silver jug of his making, engraved M.K., the initials of his daughter Martha. Charles North failed in his London business about 1852 and made a fresh start at Worthing. About two years later, failing a second time, he, with his wife and younger son Alfred, emigrated to Ottawa. After this event John William appears to have divided his time until earning enough to be independent between his uncle Alfred North, a clothier of Fulham, and a great-uncle, one Gathard, who had a farm in Hertfordshire. The boy was at the farm in 1854-5, as a great many very- talented drawings and colour sketches show, and it is likely that his life in these surroundings first awoke his sympathy for the wretched lot of the farm labourers of those days, on whose behalf he successfully devoted much energy and time in after years. Here it is interesting to observe that he has already begun to prepare himself for his career as an artist with great diligence at the early age of twelve. At thirteen he left school, and his family have no record of any art training, but I have read in some obituary notice that he was for a short time at “The Marlborough House School of Art.” Considering these slender foundations, when we recall his dignity of person and address, his wide knowledge and love of literature. and read again some of his own notes on art or letters on social subjects to the Press, we might well be astonished at his development. And yet we have not touched upon his art and the influence it has had upon the painting of his time! From 1856 to 1866 he lived at Walham Green, Brixton, and Dartford with his uncles Alfred and John North, and it seems probable it was at this period that he attended a drawing school; but before 1860, in which year he was apprenticed to J. W. Whymper, the wood engraver. It was in these circumstances that he met and worked side by side with Fred Walker, Boyd Houghton, and George Pinwell. forming with them a little group of wood engravers who were perhaps the finest that England produced in that great period of the art; and of the four North was by far the most original. While his three fellow- workers were stronger and more experienced figure draughtsmen, none approached him in the interpretation of landscape. I have by me a book of verses, called “Wayside Posies,” published in 1867, and illustrated with woodcuts by Walker, Pinwell, and North. It was given to me by North. Where the level of accomplishment is so high it is difficult to choose an outstanding example, but I think that the picture to a poem called “The Visions of a City Tree,” as an expression of sunlight and colour playing over a spacious landscape, is upon the crest of North’s achievement as a draughtsman on wood. Down the road that runs unseen in this little picture the boy on horseback, passing the old shepherd who drives his flock afield, stir in the mind of the beholder the breeze of adventure and romance, and the crossing lines of movement evoke a sensation of pleasant sounds that seem to be echoed by all the sweet country noises from the valley below. Masterly handling draws all this music from the wood.
The discipline of drawing for wood- engraving was undoubtedly the finest training for North, the future poet- painter; for, setting ideas expressed in formal words to an accompaniment of light and colour and significant form, which in their turn can only be expressed within the limitations of line and mass, just as emotional impressions are transmuted to music by a formal arrangement of sounds, is an exercise that strengthens the subjective mind which is the poet’s attitude.
This was North’s way of life during the years from 1862 to 1866 when he was working for Dalziel’s. His industry must have been great and commissions plentiful, for we find him helping to support his parents who returned from Canada during this time, taking a cottage for them in Essex. And in 1866 his means enabled him to place his brother Alfred at Rawdon Baptist College to train for the ministry. It was in the same year his brother Charles died in his care at Brixton, John North paying the heavy expenses of his illness. This is his record at twenty-four years of age. What industry! What rigid self- denial of the indulgences of youth must he have practised! These are the foundations upon which was built the unselfish, provident, and most modest character which was known to the companions of his youth and the nearest friends of his later years. It is no wonder that his hard experience gave him an ancient and Socratic air even in these early days, and we find Fred Walker, although nearly two years his senior, frequently referring to his friend in his letters home as ” old North “!
“Old North is very nice, quiet, and considerate in small things, which is to me very refreshing.”
” I and taking care of myself, especially changing my boots, etc. North would make me if I didn’t of my own accord.”
In the letters, too, North is always the arbiter and the critic whose favourable judgment is the greatest solace to Walker’s doubts
“Feb. 1870 – Done a splendid day’s work on the big picture . North said, ‘Well, I suppose you’ve made £100 to-day.’ He was looking at the picture along time. I feel much more hopeful, I need not say.”
” Thus morning had a long consultation with North over the picture, and it is already much better.”
“North here is doing capital work , he is most sincere over it. I hope he’ll get into our Society this time; if his health is spared I believe he’ll do important things.”
It was in 1860 that North first visited Somerset, when he made a walking tour with Edward Whymper through the beautiful scenery, which was to become the chief source of his inspiration during the rest of his life. They stayed at Halsway – Manor Farm, where we find North settled in 1868, and Walker coming to live and work with him. It was here that the latter found his subject for his picture, The Old Gate.
The year 1869 was marked by North’s having a picture, The Orphans, hung at the Royal Academy; later he left Halsway for Woolston, where Walker again joined him. In 1871 he was elected an Associate of ” The Old Society,” having failed at two previous elections. At the very time of his last failure the Academy- had treated him well. Writing to him, Walker reports G. F. Watts as saying: ” I beg you’ll tell him that we, the Council, President, and hangers, were unanimously charmed with his work.” In the same year he took a studio in town at 119 Charlotte Street, and in the spring of I873 had a gratifying success, selling his picture, Rushes, at the Royal Watercolour Society, to Agnew’s for £220. In the autumn he was at Woolston, but left for London at the urgent entreaty- of his friend who, partly on account of serious signs of ill-health and partly in the hope of finding a more fitting landscape for his picture, The Unknown Land, wished to discuss with North the idea of spending the winter abroad. With his usual solicitude for his friend’s health North approved of the plan and agreed to accompany him, and on Christmas Day the friends arrived in Algiers, in ecstasies over the flowers and fruitful greenness of the land. By 25th February Walker, homesick and foreboding illness, was on his way back to England in the company of friends; but North stayed, and finding the life much to his liking and making great friends with his neighbour. Ali Cherif, he bought a piece of land and designed and built himself a house which he named ” Dar el Ouard,” or ” The House of Roses,” where he spent several months every year for the following six years.
On the death of his mother in 1880, his father came to live with him at Woolston and remained in his care until his death at Beggearnhuish in 1880. In 1890 North married Selina, third daughter of Abraham Weetch, a former owner of Little Halsway Farm. Home now claimed him and ” Dar el Ouard ” was sold: but he still held a piece of land in Algiers in the hope of some day building another house, but this also came to be sold in 1895.
Between 1884 and 1898 ‘North lived at Beggearnhuish, and it was sometime during this period that Herkomer came to live in the neighbourhood in order, I believe, to get in touch with North and learn all he could from him about the Walker tradition, of which so many of the Professor’s pictures show him to have been an ardent follower. This event was to make a great change in ‘North’s circumstances, as I shall presently show. When Herkomer went to live in Somerset I fancy he must have been surprised to discover that ‘North was not only a more original painter than Walker, but having been granted a longer life, had been enabled to steer the ship of discovery far nearer to the source of the knowledge that they had set out together to explore, and by laborious experiment had perfected a technique of painting which was entirely his own. Herkomer, by his extraordinary acquisitive powers, soon possessed himself of all the secrets of his craft that ‘North had taken half a lifetime to extract from promptings which were the reward of the minutest study of nature and experiments in the action of every kind of material. The effect was to revolutionize Herkomer’s technique, and in return for his gift of knowledge he set himself to obtain for ‘North recognition worthy of his talent. It was doubtless due to his influence that in 1891 North’s poetic masterpiece, The Winter Sun. was bought by the Chantrey Trustees. I cannot remember any picture that had a greater influence upon the landscape painters of my youth. In the poetry of Winter it is the robin’s song. A little while ago I went to the Tate Gallery to see it once again. After along search I found it in an upper room which appeared to be hung for the greater part with pompous platitudes in paint. It was in the darkest corner of the Gallery, masked by the light from level windows, and although the day was bright, it was impossible to see its very gentle tones. It looked sadder than a caged and blinded bird, for he at least can sing. It was then a little more than two years since North died. Contemporary criticism in valedictory appreciations had been unanimous in giving him a high place of lonely grandeur in English art, and this is his treatment by its custodians’. But such is the meed of nearly all great artists. Few go straight to heaven in a chariot of fire like Sargent. The majority must descend into limbo till upstart fashion that kills is dead itself. I hope to live to see North’s resurrection.
Herkomer, in his capacities of Slade Professor and Principal of Bushey School, lectured and talked on ” The Art of J. W. North, Poet and Painter ” on every possible occasion: nor did he hesitate to tell his fellow academicians that a blot would rest on their annals so long as the art of J. W. North was unrecognized by them. His eloquent evangel had its effect and North was elected A.R.A. in 1893 and found himself well started on the road to prosperity and fame. The record of the next ten years is one of great industry and high accomplishment that more than justified the recognition he had received, as a glance at the lists of his exhibited works will show. Such happy titles as The Vale of Avalon, Little Rivers rising in the West revive in the memory landscapes that are visions of pure delight.
Herkomer, in his lectures and in an article on North in the July number of The “Magazine of Art ” for 1893, maintained that Walker was strongly influenced by North, that while Walker passed from the Gilbertian type to that of William Hunt, North remained fixed in his own revealed type of art, and that however much further Walker carried his art through his greater power of drawing and composition, North, nevertheless, stood as the originator of the “Walker School.”
Now I think this is an overestimate of North’s influence. Walker never changed his poetic vision. He sought expression of his theme through the action of his figures, which he set with rare taste in landscapes that were finely harmonized accompaniments. Take his Spring, Autumn, A Street Cookham, The Bathers. Wayfarers, are they not most typical of his genius ~ And they were all painted before 1868, the year he went to live with North in Somerset. It would I think be more accurate to say that while Walker’s feverish energy for creation (almost as if he had an intuition of the short time before him) could not stay to grapple with problems of methods and materials, North, inarticulate, slow, with a mind for minuteness as if he were creating the universe, was gradually perfecting a water-colour technique which eliminated the use of body colour, at the same time giving pure colour greater depth and range of tone. Walker was convinced of the value of North’s discoveries and had begun to use his system when death cut short his activities. These are my recollections from talks I had with North about Walker’s use of body colour. Walker always recognized its great disadvantages, but found that it gave him a more reliable surface to work on than the very inferior paper of those days. Had there been a grain of truth in Herkomer’s claim that North was the originator of the Walker tradition, I feel sure that my old friend in the talks I had with him on this subject would have acknowledged it, for so pure and detached was his artistic honesty-, and so innate his modesty, that he could and would have told the truth even though it was in his own favour.
It is a melancholy fact to record that the friendship between North and Herkomer after such close comradeship and generous self- bestowal on either part, came to an abrupt ending. It was Herkomer’s great ambition to become President of the Old Society, and at the election of 1897 the issue lay between him and Waterlow. From the outside view there would have seemed to be no doubt of his choice. His water-colour work upheld the English tradition and possessed extraordinary charm.; he had a practical knowledge of all the arts; his enthusiasm was infectious, his energy boundless; he was at once painter, composer, actor, orator, and a skilled worker in many crafts, in fact, this versatile genius was akin to the giants of the Renaissance. But in spite of his manifold gifts he was not elected. And then it came to his knowledge that ‘North had actively opposed his election. He was stunned by the discovery. It cut him to the heart to find that the friend for whom he had done so much had failed him, and to banish the unhappy memory he gave away everything he had that could remind hint of their friendship. And that is how Southampton. a town he was connected with in early days, became possessed of the beautiful watercolour, The Pear Tree. North told me the story, with many sighs, years afterwards. He added little, beyond saving that although Herkomer was by far the more gifted artist he did not possess the tactful manner necessary for the office, and that he thought it only right an English society should have an English president.
North appeared to me to labour under a hypersensitive idea of his public duty. He so mistrusted his soft heart that friends were always suspect when they came to be the subjects of his public decision, even their minor failings were serious stumbling-blocks. I myself experienced the effects of this peculiarity of his nature. On the other hand, where he was in ignorance of a person’s character, he was prone to be a reckless optimist.
I wish I could erase the date 1895 from North’s calendar, for it was in that year that he engaged in a venture which hampered his artistic development, wasted his substance, sapped his strength, strained friendships, and undoubtedly hastened his death with its burden of disillusionment and financial distress. In 1895 North went into business as chairman of “The O.W. Paper and Arts Company.” But we must go back to the year 1868 to find the origin of this enterprise. In a letter of that date Fred Walker writes: “A little water- colour I began yesterday I had to destroy because the paper was so impossibly bad.” The poor quality of the paper of those days was such a constant source of trouble that North used often to discuss with his friend the possibility of obtaining for watercolour painters a paper that would be practically imperishable and in every way fit for their work. Now, this idea was admirable, but surely in the way North went about it, the object was gained at too great a sacrifice! I remember telling him that I would gladly give all the watercolours others had ever painted on O.W. paper to restore the peace of mind he had lost and gain for art all the pictures he had not painted owing to his luckless venture. Having conceived the idea of producing a strong and pure paper, I think he would have done a sufficiently great service to art had he formed a body of painters to back him and then placed their requirements in the hands of paper- makers of high repute on mutually advantageous terms. But, alas! He believed that he had in himself the makings of a super businessman who added to administrative capacity creative imagination. Perhaps he had, but his imagination ran away with him. As far back as 1905 a successful businessman, who was a friend of ‘North’s and a liberal patron besides, told me that the scheme, run on North’s lines, was bound to fail. Another pointed out that the staff required to work it was as large as his own doing more than six tines the amount of business. With more hands to help him the harder did North work to supervise, for his anxious temperament would never allow him to leave details to subordinates. His correspondence Became enormous, and to cope with it he employed the early hours, rising at 6 a.m., and again he devoted to it the night hours, working till 1 a.m. His Letters to me from 1907 to 1914 show him becoming more and more enmeshed in the toils. His exertions were heroic, his optimism unquenchable, his faith pathetic. More frequent were the visits to town. He was always about to meet a magnate with the Midas touch, who would turn the wonderful possibilities of his enterprise to gold. Fewer were the hours he could give to his painting, and they followed on weariness. His craftsmanship never faltered, but his themes became less urgent. His muse attended, but with a drooping mien. Then comes a time when in his letters more often recur variations of this depressing refrain: ” May 1908- I look in rain for any real business man who will interest himself, so it is becoming a fearful burden to me in every way.” With this great anxiety always shadowing his mind it now was inevitable to find it reflected in his daily thoughts. His talk with fellow members at the Club, which had heretofore covered a wide range of interests, became narrowed to the one topic and its ramifications. Friends, hardly realizing what they were doing, for their thoughts were always kind towards the venerable old man, began to leave him too often to himself.
I recall an occasion when North was staying with me, and I, coming upon a party of twenty or more American art- students, swarming in our town and sketching the “pretty bits,” invited them to my home because they told me they had never seen the interior of any of the old houses they so much admired. Their appreciation was very vocal as they passed through the rooms, admiring the massive oak beams and panelling, and the pictures, of which I was careful to point out the very English landscapes by my old friend, whom I described as ” the poet-painter of our West country.” Their surprise was great when I opened the parlour door and ‘North’s distinguished presence confronted them; the apple- bright complexion, forgetme-not blue eves, the white leonine mane. As he rose and bowed one lady turned to me and said: ” What a darling! Why, he’s just like our own Walt.” The leading lady of the troupe engaged him and the stage seemed set. How effective, had he put on the proffered bays. Would he not develop a theme from his own beautiful aphorism, ” Pictorial art is a translation of a poem in the language of nature which cannot be written in words ” ? But no, what he said was, ” I don’t suppose you have any good water- colour paper in America. Now, O.W. paper,” etc., producing samples and handing them round, and before my guests departed he had extracted a promise from their organizer to push O.W. in her native town.
I think a difficulty in the way of a business success, which North had not anticipated, was that other manufacturers, when they became aware of the superiority of ” O.W.” paper, were forced to raise the quality- of their own makes, and soon the average user found little cause to be dissatisfied with the best-known papers on the market. Moreover, ” O.W.” being nearly- 100 per cent. pure linen, and therefore hard and resistant, does not suit every- painter’s technique, for thereby flat washes are rendered very difficult to manage. In this respect I observed that North found his greatest trouble in the treatment of a large sky. On the other hand, the almost indestructible surface was ideal for his elaborate technique, by which his work was very much wrought with a sharp knife and submitted to all kinds of processes, such as re-sizing and burnishing and even the fine linen in its paper metamorphosis often suffered again the ordeal of the box-iron! A very valuable improvement which he introduced into the making of art paper was the use of purified and sterilized size, for this reduced its liability to mould-spots. But strangely enough, sometimes in his own work a little thing discounted this advantage. Now my experience leads me to the conclusion that mould, when it appears in a pure paper, is almost always caused by human contamination. This starts the fungoid growth which is culturable in the gelatine when softened by the influence of damp. North was sometimes seen to lick his brush! This is the only way I can account for some very large patches of mould that I have been at pains to remove in several of his drawings. But to return to my subject. I have shown how in the years preceding the war his preoccupation with his commercial enterprise was wearing his life away. His art was growing less effectual; retirement and death were thinning the ranks of his friends. He seemed to have lived such a very- long time ago he was almost legendary.
Then came the war. I wondered how it would affect him, for although his love of England was passionate his point of view was likely to be peculiar. In the South African War his devoted sympathy for the agricultural labourer had made him an ardent champion of the little nation of farmers, so that his popularity locally in Somerset suffered for the time. I remembered also that when, in 1911, 1 startled his incredulity with convincing proof from my own experience that Germany was even then preparing for ” the day,” he had said “And if Germany were to conquer England I don’t see that it would matter, for if, as you say, she is so splendidly organized she might improve the state of England’s agricultural labourers, which could not be worse than it is now.” But if he were as indifferent to the issue as his words made him appear (which I really did not believe), Germany’s trampling of Belgium changed all that and the Kaiser was revealed to him as the Prince of Darkness, for he was ever the loyal champion of the weak. With the war his business activities came to an end and he retired to his home in Somerset. He had no private means, and there was nothing between himself and starvation but a timely, pension of £200 a rear from the Academy. When his younger son, Colin who came home with the Australians and fought in France, was lying wounded in a London hospital, he wrote in a letter to his elder son in Hong Kong: ” There is absolutely no sale for my- pictures just now, and I have not the money necessary or I would have run up to London to see him.” But although the war hastened his financial ruin, it strangely revivified and spiritualized his art, which now was touched by mysticism, and he used his lyrical note as a voice for England. A glance at the list of his work in these years shows how his thoughts were centered in the war. England in September 1914 (an allegory), England’s green and pleasant land, England 1914- 1917, and the quaintly humorous titles to groups of early sketches: Old Contemptibles and Scraps of Paper! And above all, the watercolour here reproduced with inscription from Pindar “And in meadows of scarlet- roses shall be their dwelling place.” I regard this as his masterpiece, and among the few sublime memorials that rose from the ruin of the war. It should be acquired for the nation. As I read its message there has been a great battle in France, and on this autumn morning in England a girl, who has been gathering apples, has just pushed her cart through the orchard gate when she is confronted by the ghost of her lover, who holds the death emblem, the scythe. In the distance is seen the stricken home, and jewelling the meadows there are little ghostly- lights that symbolize other homing spirits from the fight. On the horizon grey cirrus clouds are passing away, and over the lover a little roseate cloud suggests the form of an angel of light. In the clear sky above the girl trembles the morning star, and the rich yellow and blue of her dress, the red of the poppy- she holds, the auburn of her hair and the burning gold of the autumn leaf surrounding her, bathe her in a glory of transfiguration. North’s failure to draw- her arms is forgiven, for he has painted her broken heart. The continuity of the line running from the ghost down the blue steel of the scythe, along the cart, and through the girl conveys the sensation of a supernatural shock. The landscape, which is heaped up with beauty of dew- bright meadows set with flowers, sweet- sounding waters, and paths winding deep under brooding trees, tells the tremendous sacrifice made by England’s youth. On a bar of the gate in minute writing North has pathetically set his own memorial. It runs: ” This picture was produced at a cost to the painter of £3,647 and twenty years of his life.” He means to say- that the perfect paper necessary to produce the qualities of this painting cost him that sacrifice of money and time.
Another picture painted in this method is the one called Morning, but the reproduction fails to give the endlessness of the distances that fade fold on fold into the silver light of the winter dawn. In both pictures the composition is so finely ordered that the eye is attuned to the poetic pitch. Transparent colour, impalpable tone, illusive form under the subtle alchemy of flatness (the last secret, as North used to say, vouchsafed unto the painter and comparable to the perfectly weighted phrasing of a violin bow producing a riband of sound) distil a quintessence from life’s beauty that dissolves like great music into the breath of the eternal spirit.
Watercolour was North’s chosen mediun. I think it was G. F. Watts who first encouraged him to experiment in oils. North told me that his ” oil ” technique was an endeavour to get as near as possible to the effect of watercolour, which he considered a less encumbered means of expression. Having prepared his canvas with a ground of Chinese white he rubbed in with warm colour the masses of his composition, then with a very liquid medium of his own called ” papoma ” he washed in the sky and gave atmosphere to his forms with powder colours, finally glazing the full passages as though he were enamelling. In watercolour and oil an effect of intricate detail is found on examination to be quite illusive – multitudinous form is conjured by finding and losing it in endless hide- and-seek till the eye accepts infinity.
North’s interpretation of nature was like that of the poet. He did not sit down like the average landscape painter, in picturesque scenery and arrange it improvingly: but living his life full of varied interests he waited until an entrancing moment in the passage of light or some human episode happily related to its surroundings awoke in his heart the ecstasy which is the poetic state. Then no sacrifice of time or labour was too great in the searching of nature to aid his revelation. The production of a picture was one long agony, and so little was he satisfied with his achievement that it was always painful to him to view his work again.
Often an inspiration evoked a literary parallel from his well- stored mind, and sometimes its presentation gained added riches therefrom. To verify the origins of his titles and descriptions would be a liberal education in the poets! But some lines in inverted commas might baffle us, for when his memory did not yield the apt quotation wherewith to attune the beholder’s mind, he himself invented one! So we have the charming description
“When old year’s leaves meet new year’s flowers, And catkins hang on the hazel boughs.”
And the capricious reflection, attached to a picture of a sweet sylvan solitude
“No bulls no bears, no stocks no shares, The free and simple life.
North told me that, as far as he was aware, this was the first use of the term ” the simple life,” which later became so hackneyed.
The famous watercolour now called The Pear Tree was first shown under the title, Cupid in the Pear Tree, and there were then two or three ” amorini ” hovering among the branches. The idea is found in Spenser’s ” Shepherd’s Calendar-4th eclogue,” where Cupid is described by a young shepherd as:
Entangled in a fowling net
Which he for carrion crows had set
That in our peere tree haunted.
I think North found that his treatment of the cupids did not harmonize with the crisp realism of the tree, and so they have been dissolved in little pink puffs which are still faintly discernible.
The beautiful words to his ” ghost ” picture are from the fragmentary funeral orations of Pindar, developing the idea that immortality for athletes, or soldiers, who bring glory to their cities and homes, is to take their eternal rest amid the things they dearly loved in life. Strangely enough these most fitting words came in a translation made by his son Arthur at the moment he was at work on the theme of his picture.
Space does not allow me to do more than allude here to the lifelong service he gave to social questions affecting the conditions of the small farmer and agricultural worker. So keen was his sympathy that fighting their battles was a labour of love, and he called it his recreation.
Another interest was old English furniture, and he had some fine pieces which were a joy to him, but unhappily he was obliged to sell them in the days of his distress. A note on old furniture, which reveals his habitual unselfishness. appears in one of Walker’s letters of 1870.
” The chair we are going to see is of oak with flat carved back, etc., very quaint; and if better than one here I have it, if not N. does! By this you understand that North insists upon my having the better of the two chairs.”
‘No biography of North should leave unrecorded the splendid act of devotion he did for Richard Jefferies, whose writings on nature and English rustic life are so at one with North’s own work. When Jefferies lay dying at Goring, after six years of fighting poverty and the tortures of a wasting disease, North made haste to reach his side, but only to find that his friend had just breathed his last. There was none there to help the widow and two children, and not ten shillings in the house. North, on his journey to London the following day, wrote a letter to the ” Pall Mall Gazette ” describing the death-bed scene and the family’s distress. As literature his letter is sublime, every word distilled from the great pity in his heart. The response to its appeal was instant, and in a letter to me long years after he writes: ” My letter produced a subscription of about £2,000 and an annuity to the widow of £120, not a bad return for an hour’s work.” But though he only mentions an hour’s work I have learnt that he was at infinite trouble to administer the fund to the best advantage. Now, owing to his extreme modesty, there is hardly a soul, outside his, family, who has heard of this beautiful act of charity. He only told me of it because I had once expressed my great admiration for Jefferies. I think it was the one personal thing in his memory that brought him pure content.
For some time before his death, which took place at Stanborough on 20th December 1924, North’s health was failing, but he refused to see a doctor. However, his daughters’ solicitude contrived that a friend. Dr. Killick, of Williton, called to see him as if in passing. The doctor’s diagnosis was a shock for he could hold out no hope of recovery. Then three weeks passed without much suffering. He got up daily and still took interest in the newspaper and the things about him, and he was looking forward so very much to his son’s homecoming in the spring. On the last day that he came down stairs he was worrying and at work all day going through papers to do with a trusteeship, and he retired to rest excessively exhausted. For the last three days of his life he was in great pain and unable to speak, but the end came very quietly. It was 5 o’clock in the morning when he opened his eyes, as though he tried to focus something afar; then closing them again, as if to sleep, he was gone. There is a story by Laurence Housman, called ” A Chinese Fairy-tale,” which tells of a great painter who, having finished his life’s masterpiece, summoned his friends to view it. As they stood spellbound by its beauty, beckoning to one of them to follow him, he stepped into his picture. But the one who was the emperor dared not because he was no artist. Then all beheld the painter traverse the far distances and disappear from their sight. And so, wherever we come upon the sweet rusticity of Shakespeare’s England still clinging to our countryside, we shall see North because of his sincere and purely English art pass forever into the picture.
Here are a few of North’s judgments on painters: ” Probably no one would quite agree with me when I name a painter as perhaps our greatest glory, and this man, still remembered by some now living-Turner. I do not assert that Turner is greater than Shakespeare, but I do confidently assert that Turner stands more absolutely above all competitors. Hogarth, and here we have a man more nearly- approaching Turner in isolated eminence than any other. In his own way Hogarth stands head and shoulders above his nearest competitors. For over 100 years, including, unhappily, his own lifetime, his painted work has been sneered at by fashion. The foolish who can see, or affect to see, great merit in so commonplace a mind and hand as those of Romney are naturally incapable of appreciating Hogarth. His Taste in High Life, curiously quaint as it is in subject, is worth all that Romney ever produced. Millais, whose picture. The Blind Girl, is one of the finest pictures in the whole world, is now unfairly dealt with, and a painter far inferior in intellect, poetry, and workmanship, Jean Francois Millet, unduly praised.” From an address before the Bristol Academy, 1905.
Once, speaking to me of Sargent, he said: ” Probably no painter has ever been born with a more perfectly developed organ of vision or hand more sensitive to obey.” Of other painter friends he expressed warm admiration for Lionel Smythe; they wrote to each other regularly, and Smythe’s death in July 1918 was a great loss to him.
I give below a few extracts from North’s ” A Theory of Art.”
” A true worker in any art is a minister of the very oldest form of religious worship, a worship which has never caused blood to be shed or cruel deeds to be done, a worship which is the essence of humility before the great Creator, and of which the ministry ceases to exist the instant that humility is lost.”
“Originality in Art is the expression of unaffected emotion, and is inevitably individual because of man’s limitation: those countless fairy- tales told in trees and hills and streams and skies by our Father which we try to spell to our little brothers more or less painfully.”
“The sum of it is that Art is a consequence of the finite capacity of man and the proof of the existence of a higher power.”