THE LAY FIGURE. ARE WE
STILL OBSESSED BY THE
The old Reviewer is seldom present in the
studio, and when he is present he rarely takes
part in the friendly conflicts of opinion. Short
of leg, and exceedingly long of body, he sits quietly
and bolt-upright all the evening, with a comical self-
satisfaction akin to that of a sleek penguin digesting
its food. But every man has a hobby, and a hobby
is a thing which will out, like truth and murder.
A few days ago the Reviewer turned up un-
expectedly, carrying in his hand a large packet
of new books. He looked full of worry and self-
"Is it the coal tax?" asked the Journalist.
" There is a doleful epitaph in your face. What's
the meaning of it ? "
" Meaning enough," replied the other, with a
snarling snap of the teeth. " Look at this packet
of books. I've read every one of them from the
apologetic preface to the last word of the last page,
and, believe me, every one not only deals with
the Italian Old Masters, but, worse luck, is a
repetition of what has been well written hundreds
of times during the last sixty years. Is not that
enough to sour the gay good temper of a Mark
Tapley ? "
"Perhaps so," said the Journalist. "But why do
you read the things ? Why not glance at them
here and there, and then damn them with too
much praise, or make them attractive by too much
fault-finding ? "
"I can't do it," replied the Reviewer. "I've
inherited a conscience very difficult to live with.
Unless I read every word in a book concerning
which I have to scribble, I'm as wretched as
I used to be as a child after stealing biscuits and
lump sugar. As a consequence, I have made
my weary way through all these superfluous books
on the Italian Old Masters. That is why I weep
" Are they all superfluous ? " asked the Critic.
" That depends upon your point of view," said
the Reviewer. "If you think that the arts of the
Italian Renaissance can be brought nearer to the
business and the bosom of modern life by means of
such a literature of echoes as may be found in this
parcel of new books—if you think that, then I am
ready to squabble with you from this moment till
breakfast-time to-morrow morning. But if you feel
sure that the arts in question have appealed already
far too often and too much to the irrepressible
vanity of loquacious scribblers, who prefer words
to a silent enjoyment of forms and colours, then
you and I are fellow skirmishers in a common
cause. No good was ever yet done by over much
writing about a great subject. Is not that perfectly
true ? "
" True as the flavour ot good tobacco !" cried
the Man with the Briar Pipe. " Human nature
revolts against anything which is cried up in-
cessantly. Take Charles Reade as an example.
This man of real genius, the author of ' The
Cloister and the Hearth,' studied not only with
delight but with astonishing success the infinitely
varied life of Europe in the days following the
death of Hubert and John Van Eyck. He
possessed what most historians lack—an imagina-
tion that saw the far-off past as a great drama,
and not merely as a dead thing fossilised in
scattered documents. Yet even this thorough
student of the past grew sick and tired of the end-
less chatter in superlatives about the Italian Old
Masters. 'It got on his nerves; then it appealed
to his sense of the ridiculous, seeming as unreal in
its strain of culture as was the Bunthorne wildness
of the /Esthetes."
" But that is not all," said the Reviewer.
" Those who can realise to themselves, vividly and
truthfully, what any period of the past was like,
learn thereby many a thing that gives interest and
value to the aims and the hopes of their own time
and country. They learn, for instance, that the
art of the past must be studied at first-hand, in its
legacies of good and bad work, and not in books
written by modern enthusiasts, who (as a rule) are
more or less at odds with the spirit of their
" Besides," remarked the Critic, " the present
has a just claim on the talents of its more gifted
children. Why write about Cimabue and Giotto,
or the later men who travelled so far from their
predecessors' young methods, when the arts of
the present day need all the artistic enthusiasm
that can help to make them better and more
popular ? "
"The answer to that is easy," said the Reviewer.
"To write about the Old Masters needs but a
practised habit of paraphrasing, whereas the arts
of to-day require a thorough first-hand knowledge
of the thousand and one conditions governing
their character and their various means of expres-
sion. It is one of the most difficult things to
write well about modern art subjects."
The Lay Figure.