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Certain old women's faces filled me with horror, faces that are no
longer there, or if they are pass before me unnoticed: the fat blotched
faces, rising above double chins, of women who have drunk too much beer
and eaten much meat. In Dublin I had often seen old women walking with
erect heads and gaunt bodies, talking to themselves with loud voices, mad
with drink and poverty, but they were different, they belonged to romance.
Da Vinci had drawn women who looked so and so carried their bodies.


XVI

I attempted to restore one old friend of my father's to the practice of
his youth, but failed, though he, unlike my father, had not changed his
belief. My father brought me to dine with Jack Nettleship at Wigmore
Street, once inventor of imaginative designs and now a painter of
melodramatic lions. At dinner I had talked a great deal--too much, I
imagine, for so young a man, or maybe for any man--and on the way home my
father, who had been plainly anxious that I should make a good impression,
was very angry. He said I had talked for effect and that talking for
effect was precisely what one must never do; he had always hated rhetoric
and emphasis and had made me hate it; and his anger plunged me into great
dejection. I called at Nettleship's studio the next day to apologise, and
Nettleship opened the door himself and received me with enthusiasm. He had
explained to some woman guest that I would probably talk well, being an
Irishman, but the reality had surpassed, etc., etc. I was not flattered,
though relieved at not having to apologise, for I soon discovered that
what he really admired was my volubility, for he himself was very silent.
He seemed about sixty, had a bald head, a grey beard, and a nose, as one
of my father's friends used to say, like an opera-glass, and sipped cocoa
all the afternoon and evening from an enormous tea-cup that must have been
designed for him alone, not caring how cold the cocoa grew. Years before
he had been thrown from his horse, while hunting, and broke his arm, and
because it had been badly set suffered great pain for a long time. A
little whisky would always stop the pain, and soon a little became a great
deal and he found himself a drunkard, but having signed his liberty away
for certain months he was completely cured. He had acquired, however, the
need of some liquid which he could sip constantly. I brought him an
admiration settled in early boyhood, for my father had always said,
"George Wilson was our born painter, but Nettleship our genius," and even
had he shown me nothing I could care for, I had admired him still because
my admiration was in my bones. He showed me his early designs, and they,
though often badly drawn, fulfilled my hopes. Something of Blake they
certainly did show, but had in place of Blake's joyous, intellectual
energy a Saturnian passion and melancholy. "God Creating Evil," the
death-like head with a woman and a tiger coming from the forehead, which
Rossetti--or was it Browning?--had described "as the most sublime design
of ancient or modern art," had been lost, but there was another version of
the same thought, and other designs never published or exhibited. They
rise before me even now in meditation, especially a blind Titan-like ghost
floating with groping hands above the tree-tops. I wrote a criticism, and
arranged for reproductions with the editor of an art magazine, but after
it was written and accepted the proprietor, lifting what I considered an
obsequious caw in the Huxley, Tyndall, Carolus Duran, Bastien-Lepage
rookery, insisted upon its rejection. Nettleship did not mind its
rejection, saying, "Who cares for such things now? Not ten people," but he
did mind my refusal to show him what I had written. Though what I had
written was all eulogy, I dreaded his judgment for it was my first art
criticism. I hated his big lion pictures, where he attempted an art too
much concerned with the sense of touch, with the softness or roughness,
the minutely observed irregularity of surfaces, for his genius; and I
think he knew it. "Rossetti used to call my pictures pot-boilers," he
said, "but they are all--all"--and he waved his arm to the
canvasses--"symbols." When I wanted him to design gods, and angels, and
lost spirits once more, he always came back to the point "Nobody would be
pleased." "Everybody should have a _raison d'Ítre_" was one of his
phrases. "Mrs ----'s articles are not good but they are her _raison
d'Ítre_." I had but little knowledge of art for there was little
scholarship in the Dublin art school, so I overrated the quality of
anything that could be connected with my general beliefs about the world.
If I had been able to give angelical or diabolical names to his lions I
might have liked them also and I think that Nettleship himself would have
liked them better and liking them better have become a better painter. We
had the same kind of religious feeling, but I could give a crude
philosophical expression to mine while he could only express his in action
or with brush and pencil. He often told me of certain ascetic ambitions,
very much like my own, for he had kept all the moral ambition of youth, as
for instance--"Yeats, the other night I was arrested by a policeman--was
walking round Regent's Park barefooted to keep the flesh under--good sort
of thing to do. I was carrying my boots in my hand and he thought I was a
burglar and even when I explained and gave him half a crown, he would not
let me go till I had promised to put on my boots before I met the next
policeman."

He was very proud and shy and I could not imagine anybody asking him
questions and so I was content to take these stories as they came:
confirmations of what I had heard of him in boyhood. One story in
particular had stirred my imagination for, ashamed all my boyhood of my
lack of physical courage, I admired what was beyond my imitation. He
thought that any weakness, even a weakness of body, had the character of
sin and while at breakfast with his brother, with whom he shared a room on
the third floor of a corner house, he said that his nerves were out of
order. Presently he left the table, and got out through the window and on
to a stone ledge that ran along the wall under the windowsills. He sidled
along the ledge, and turning the corner with it, got in at a different
window and returned to the table. "My nerves," he said, "are better than I
thought."

Nettleship said to me: "Has Edwin Ellis ever said anything about the
effect of drink upon my genius?" "No," I answered. "I ask," he said,
"because I have always thought that Ellis has some strange medical
insight." Though I had answered no, Ellis had only a few days before used
these words: "Nettleship drank his genius away." Ellis, but lately
returned from Perugia where he had lived many years, was another old
friend of my father's but some years younger than Nettleship or my father.
Nettleship had found his simplifying image, but in his painting had turned
away from it, while Ellis, the son of Alexander Ellis, a once famous man
of science, who was perhaps the last man in England to run the circle of
the sciences without superficiality, had never found that image at all. He
was a painter and poet, but his painting, which did not interest me,
showed no influence but that of Leighton. He had started perhaps a couple
of years too late for Pre-Raphaelite influence, for no great
Pre-Raphaelite picture was painted after 1870, and left England too soon
for that of the French painters. He was, however, sometimes moving as a
poet and still more often an astonishment. I have known him cast something
just said into a dozen lines of musical verse, without apparently ceasing
to talk; but the work once done he could not or would not amend it, and my
father thought he lacked all ambition. Yet he had at times nobility of
rhythm--an instinct for grandeur, and after thirty years I still repeat to
myself his address to Mother Earth--

"O mother of the hills, forgive our towers,
O mother of the clouds forgive our dreams."

And there are certain whole poems that I read from time to time or try to
make others read. There is that poem where the manner is unworthy of the
matter, being loose and facile, describing Adam and Eve fleeing from
Paradise. Adam asks Eve what she carries so carefully, and Eve replies
that it is a little of the apple-core kept for their children. There is
that vision concerning _Christ the Less_, a too hurriedly written ballad,
where the half of Christ sacrificed to the divine half "that fled to seek
felicity" wanders wailing through Golgotha, and there is _The Saint and
the Youth_, in which I can discover no fault at all. He loved
complexities--"Seven silences like candles round her face" is a line of
his--and whether he wrote well or ill had always a manner which I would
have known from that of any other poet. He would say to me, "I am a
mathematician with the mathematics left out"--his father was a great
mathematician--or "A woman once said to me, 'Mr Ellis, why are your poems
like sums?'" And certainly he loved symbols and abstractions. He said
once, when I had asked him not to mention something or other, "Surely you
have discovered by this time that I know of no means whereby I can mention
a fact in conversation."

He had a passion for Blake, picked up in Pre-Raphaelite studios, and early
in our acquaintance put into my hands a scrap of notepaper on which he had
written some years before an interpretation of the poem that begins

"The fields from Islington to Marylebone,
To Primrose Hill and St. John's Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem's pillars stood."

The four quarters of London represented Blake's four great mythological
personages, the Zoas, and also the four elements. These few sentences were
the foundation of all study of the philosophy of William Blake that
requires an exact knowledge for its pursuit and that traces the
connection between his system and that of Swedenborg or of Boehme. I
recognised certain attributions, from what is sometimes called the
Christian Cabbala, of which Ellis had never heard, and with this proof
that his interpretation was more than fantasy he and I began our four
years' work upon the Prophetic Books of William Blake.



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