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A False Start

( Originally Published 1914 )



THE passion for "collecting" must correspond with some deep-seated instinct in man. Children of tender age often fall under its sway, and it is the last passion that still masters the very old. I once knew an aged collector who was suffering all the ills that nature accumulates on the last years of some nonagenarians. His sight was feeble ; he was deaf ; he was often racked with pain. It seemed evident that his end was at hand. His days and nights had to be spent in an armchair, and each gasping breath seemed likely to be his last. To him entered a dealer of his acquaintance with a splendid K'ang Hsi Famille verte vase, which the old man had long wished to possess. The sight of it revived his forces ; his breathing cleared ; he sat erect in his chair, and presently, in the excitement of bargaining, was upon his feet striding about the room. The struggle and the victory revived him, and he lived on for several years before death finally won him, and the British Museum entered upon its inheritance.

Naked and owning nothing, we enter into the world, and the fewer material things we have to house and guard the freer we remain ; yet upon most of us a necessity seems to be laid, not merely to acquire that kind of wealth which is strength, but to obtain possession of objects, not always beautiful, by which our lives thenceforward are conditioned, and our goings out and comings in suffer a daily fettered freedom.

As a child, I passed through the stages of collecting stamps, butterflies, and fossils in a more than usually vague and unscientific manner ; and it was not till after I had been pursuing the study of art-history many years that I yielded to the spell and became a collector of works of art. I can even fix the date when I caught the infection. It was in the early part of the month of May, 1887. I was spending two or three months in Milan. The famous Giovanni Morelli, the great connoisseur of Italian Art, was then living, and mine was the good fortune to be brought much in contact with him and with his scarcely less distinguished friend and follower, Dr. Gustavo Frizzoni.

Morelli was no mere dry-as-dust student, but a fully equipped man of the world, active in politics, socially gifted, and with a force of character that could not but impress itself upon a youthful admirer. One day, when I was in his apartment and he was discoursing upon painting, and illustrating his remarks by reference to his own collection of pictures, now the property of the city of Bergamo, he suddenly broke off to say : " The only way really to get a thorough knowledge of the old painters is to collect pictures. You ought to begin at once."

"Collect pictures," I said ; "that's very easy to recommend ; but how am I going to pay for them?"

That's not difficult," he replied ; "they are cheap enough, if you know how to look for them and where to find them. It's not so much money as an educated eye that a collector needs. If you were to find a previously unknown Raphael, the chances are you could buy it for a hundred francs. Anyhow, you must begin collecting at once."

" And, please, where and how am I to begin ? " I asked.

"Well," he answered, "I will tell you how to begin. You have been studying the Milanese School very closely during the last few weeks, and by now you know the paintings and style of most of the artists. There is Vincenzo Foppa, for instance. Very few pictures by him are known, and yet he must have painted plenty, and probably several exist which have not yet been identified. Begin by going to all the small dealers' shops in Milan, and see if you can't find a forgotten Foppa in some dark corner ; and, by way of stimulus, I will now bet you twenty francs that you don't find one, though I think it quite possible that you may."

We went away from Morelli's that afternoon, my wife and I, with our heads full of Foppa and the determination to win that twenty francs. The very next day I began that pilgrimage amongst the dealers' shops, which, except when I have been exploring mountains, has continued till the present time. We bent our steps at once to a café and asked for the local directory. It provided us with a list of dealers, and I remember that there were some fifty or more of them scattered over all parts of the city. Milan in those days was very different from Milan today, not merely in all the large and obvious differences, but quite as markedly from the point of view of a col-lector. Then the passionate hunt for old works of art was

only beginning. In Florence and Venice it had well begun, but it had scarcely extended to Milan, still less to the smaller cities. The number of little dealers was legion, because there was an abounding material for their trading. They were all loaded up with goods. The pavements in front of the shops, the shops themselves, the back premises, their own sitting and bedrooms, and all manner of neighbouring lofts, stables, and warehouses, were crammed with old stuff of many sorts, which was patiently awaiting buyers. In all this accumulation, of course, good things were astray amongst bad. If a man had an eye to distinguish, it was a mere question of labour before search was rewarded.

So I took the Milanese dealers in order, and religiously visited them all in rotation, and examined each one's stock completely before I went on to the next. It was a work of many long and tiring days. I think it was in the first of the smaller dealers I went to that we made our first purchase. It was a Venetian Virgin and Child with saints—one of those small altar-pieces, wider than they are tall, with a series of half-length figures about life-size. If I live to be a hundred, I shall not forget the enthusiasm of that purchase. It was, I believe, the first time I had seen a real " Old Master out of a picture gallery or some famous private collection. Such objects had seemed inaccessible treasures of priceless value. And here was one that could be ours for a mere ten pounds. It was clearly a genuine old picture, certainly Venetian, not by me assignable to any special artist, but with the great Giovanni Bellini shining, if somewhat dimly, through. And then it had obviously been all painted over. Who could say, but that underneath that later painting a genuine Bellini might not he hid? Without hesitation, we paid our money, hired a cab, and carried the treasure off at once to our apartment.

It was a glorious homecoming ! and adds lustre even now to the memory of that agreeable abiding-place. It stood in ,a remote corner of Milan, in the Porta Venezia direction, where was then much open land, with spacious gardens surrounding comfortable houses. Ours belonged to a peculiar Baronessa, a great dancer in her time, almost contemporary with Taglioni, but fallen upon less fortunate days, and compelled to let off part of her house. Besides our rooms, we had a large terrace stretching out beyond them and looking down upon the garden on two sides, and over a wall into a quiet lane on the third. Here, in fine weather, we used to dine, and such was our infatuation with the wonderful picture that we carried it out to the terrace for dinner and back to the salon when we went in. I rather think it was propped up in my bedroom at night. I could not bear to be separated from it for a moment. We were always finding new beauties in it—its splendid colour, its wonderful blues and reds. No Titian had ever seemed to us more rich. Such is the glorifying effect of ownership !

A second-rate picture that is one's own is finer than all the great galleries of the world that are public property. It is easy to tell us that we, you and I, share the ownership of the National Gallery ; but that is mere talk. To own a picture is to be able to do what you please with it : to hang it where you please, to change it about, to look at the back of it, to show it to your friends, and to shut it up from people you don't like. A picture in a gallery belongs in any effectual fashion only to the director of the gallery for the time being. He has the fun of it, and no one else. He can have it lifted about, the glass taken off it, the back turned round, the frame removed. No other kind of ownership is worth a rap. Whether a picture is in the Louvre or the Uffizi or the National Gallery is all one to a visitor ; it is only by conscious pretence that he can make himself imagine a kind of proprietorship in one more than in the others. In a gallery, you are looked after by a guardian ; you are kept away from close vision by a horrid bar. You can't sit where you please and smoke in comfort, while you enjoy for hours together the object of your delight. To own a single work of art is pleasure of an altogether different kind from looking at objects in a museum or public gallery. Hence the extraordinary blindness of owners to the real merits of their possessions: "A poor thing, but mine own," looks to its possessor so much finer than a far better thing belonging to someone else or to the public. It is difficult for an owner to imagine how little merit someone else may be able to find in what, to him, is so keen a source of delight. The glamour of possession is a reality. It enforces all beauties; it clouds over defects. There is nothing like it for awakening sensibility to what an artist intended to convey. It is at once stimulus and anaesthetic. It helps the eye to see what is there of beauty ; it blinds the eye to faults and failures that would otherwise be glaringly apparent.

Such was our first experience of the effect of possession. We thought our poor picture was the finest thing on earth, —for the first day or two. It was better to sit at home and gaze at it than to spend our time before the master-pieces in the Brera. But presently the effect began to wear off. The over-painting became unpleasantly prominent. We attributed to it all the faults of drawing and modelling, of which we began to be only too conscious. As the hours went by we became more sensible to these drops of bitter in our cup of sweetness. At last the suggestion was made that we should clean off the repaints from one little corner and see what the real picture underneath was like. I ran out for some turpentine and spirits of wine, and, with a bit of cotton-wool in each hand, saturated with the one and the other, I made tentative dabs at the extremity of the Child's foot down at the bottom of the panel. A beautifully drawn toe emerged from under the later smearing of paint, then another, finally the whole foot. It was damaged ; but the whole was promising. The toes were excellently drawn. Our latent enthusiasm burst forth once more. We magnified the merit of what we had revealed, and imagination spread the like over the whole picture. We assigned every fault to the restorer, and every merit to the beclouded artist. The foot was like a certain foot by Cima; perhaps the picture was by him after all, and some horrid botcher had brought it- to the pass from which we would now rescue it. Our decision was soon made. We would strip off the whole of the repaints and see our picture, for better or worse, as it actually was.

In a few minutes the deed. was done. What a horrible experience ! One more frightful detail after another emerged from beneath the kindly veil of modern paint. The only tolerably good feature was. the little foot we had first revealed. The backs came off the heads. Wretchedly drawn ears appeared in strangely false positions. on illshapen skulls. Unpaired eyes looked this way and that. Large patches of bare panel occurred, where all the - old paint had fallen or been bruised away. In one corner was the brown mark of a burn, where apparently a hot poker had been in contact with the picture. It was, indeed, a frightful daub. Our house of cards fell to the ground with a crash, and we sat silent and disgusted amid the ruins.

Thus it was that we bought, and very cheaply, an invaluable experience. We learnt what restorers can do. We realised that, in the great days, there had been bad painters as well as good, and that all Old Masters are not fine merely because they are old. We learnt that appearances may be very deceptive, and we plumbed with startling suddenness the immense depth of our also wide ignorance. A few days later a very differently laden cab carried us and our picture back to that little dealer's shop. There was enthusiasm on board that journey, no glorious pride of possession. We hid the thing from the public gaze, and smuggled it across the pavement as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. The dealer was quite hospitable to the idea of taking it back. He could easily have it restored once more, and would allow us credit for what we had paid, less the ridiculously small sum we now learnt would suffice to pay for bringing the poor picture back to the condition in which we had acquired it. I wonder where that picture is now, and what it looks like ? It can scarcely again have given to anyone even the brief delirium of joy we had from it ; nor, perhaps, was there anyone both so green and so adventurous likely to come around and receive from it the priceless and enduring lesson which it yielded to us.

I am not going to pretend that this was the last time I have been taken in by forged or cleverly "restored " works of art. Forgers and semi-forgers are an inventive tribe. As connoisseurship advances, so does their skill and initiative. Each new field of collecting opens up a new area for the forger's activities. The omnivorous collector must often buy his experience as he ventures into a fresh category of antiquities. But if we were once and again in future years to be victimised by specious " treasures," we never had so dramatic an emergence from so joyous a cloud of dreams, nor did we ever again make so headlong a plunge into wild and extravagant imaginings. Unfortunately, as the years pass, so passes the power of ecstasy. No moonlight any more is like the moonlight on the waters of our youth. No mountain panorama in all the splendour of clearest mid-day can be like the first views from mountain summits that greeted our wondering eyes, when, all glorious with a difficult ascent safely accomplished, we gazed forth in the passion of youth on a world actually fairer than any old prophet's vision of an imagined paradise.



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