John Lavery

John Lavery on ‘Art and its Association with Literature’

From the Whitefriars Journal,vol. IV, no. 1, January 1904, p. 43-5.

On 24 October 1913 the Whitefriars Club Guest, Mr John Lavery ARA, RSA, RHA, spoke on ‘Art and its Association with Literature’. Prior: Friar A.E. W. Mason

Rounds of hearty applause greeted the rising of our guest, whose speech, in opening a discussion on ‘Art and Its Association with Literature’, was a veritable triumph of personality, thought, and authority over mere form of verbal expression. He had some hesitation in accepting the ‘association’ implied in the topic set down for debate. There was a time when he was interested in literature, but his present attitude was that of the artist, who dealt with life through the medium of the eye, whereas literature made its appeal, he supposed, through the medium of the ear. It was a difficult thing in an assembly such as that in which he found himself to say much about the critic, but he doubted if the critic knew more about a picture than the man who painted it. In treating of art, he assumed, of course, that art meant painting.

The painter, in the silence of his studio, was apt to feel that words lacked the significance of his thoughts. As a portrait painter, he was sometimes asked by his sitters if it was easier to paint the portrait of a man he knew very well or one whom he had met for the first time. He thought himself it was easier to paint the portrait of anyone he had met for the first time. It really seemed that any knowledge that came to him, except through the organ of sight, was a hindrance rather than a help to the artist. It interfered with his special vision. This fact even hampered the artist in the enjoyment of the sister art of music. When at the opera he sat and listened to a voice that might have come down from- heaven, and looked at the person whose voice he heard, and especially at the incongruity of the costume worn, the vision sometimes killed the sense of hearing.

There was always bound to be misunderstanding between the artist and his literary interpreter, because they looked at a thing from different sides. It was a question whether the work of art did not gain when titles and subjects were forgotten, and all you had to judge by was the work of the painter, when the eye got all that was to be got. He gave some examples and contrasted them with Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, the value of which had, he thought, been greatly exaggerated by what had been written about it. Here our guest paused for a moment and confessed that he felt as if he had been talking for a week. And this reminded him that our Prior had informed him that he (Mr. Mason) was retiring from public life, so far as speaking was concerned, and had confessed to him that he was not interested in speaking or in hearing other people speak.

Continuing, our guest said he felt that he was doing himself an injustice in talking in ‘this fragmentary manner’. He thought he might get over the difficulty by telling a story. ‘Nothing I have said already “reminds me”, I may say.’ Here is the story: ‘A great many years ago – it must have been twenty or thirty years ago – I was a student in Paris. I worked at a certain studio for two years or so. The system was somewhat rigorous. We worked from eight o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon. We worked from living models. The studio was not large, and as it became filled with hot air was far from pleasant. At times, when we got exhausted, we ran away to the country for a day or two to recuperate.

‘On one of these occasions I had decided to go to a place where I had been told there was a delightful little hotel where one could live very comfortably for five francs a day, which suited the condition of my purse very well. When I got into the train at Montparnasse I found the compartment already occupied by another passenger – a very beautiful girl. She appeared to be an artist also. She had with her a sketching umbrella and other apparatus of the kind. When the train had started I thought I might introduce myself by telling her I also was a painter. And in the best French I could muster I did so. She replied in English. She was an American, knew some of the students whom I knew, and was also going to the destination I had decided upon. We arrived in time for dinner. There was a delightful afternoon on the river. On our return, she went into the drawing-room reserved for lady visitors. I stayed outside with the old concierge. The evening was rather oppressive. The concierge plied me with most exciting details of the Commune. Hours passed, and it was almost midnight when I went to my room. I was half undressed when I heard someone creeping along the corridor or lobby outside. I opened the door, and saw, coming towards me, looking white, nervous, and distraught, the American girl. She told me in a whisper that someone was in her room. I got the candle, picked up a stick or some weapon of the kind, and followed her.

‘When we reached her room she stepped behind me, and we entered. Immediately she closed the door. I was naturally in a very nervous condition. In a voice that was harsh and hardly recognisable, she said to me: “You are in my room. I will take what money you have or alarm the house!” I felt I had been fairly caught. The question was how to get out of the room. I had a sovereign purse with five or six napoleons in it – all the money I had – but this was in my own room. When I told my companion this she did not seem to be put out. ‘We will go to your room and get it,’ was all she said. I put down the candle and was just going to open the door, when I saw that she had a pistol in one hand. And that seemed to pull me back at once. Whether it was that, being an Irishman, I was fond of a fight of not, I do not know, but I jumped for her hand and twisted the weapon from its grasp. She must have had a finger on the trigger. The pistol went off, and I jumped. Then I awoke!’