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    I HOLD that a man’s work should take colour from his surround-
ings, so writing as I do from the painting room of the—
Theatre, I start out on these meditations with a title flavouring
of their origin. ’Tis noon, and the air is laden with the peculiarly
horrible smell of burnt size that Tommy, in a moment of absent-
mindedness, has allowed to boil over on to the stove. Before me
is my morning’s work, the apparently hopeless mess that distemper
painting always looks when it is half wet and half dry. There is
nothing to be done for the moment but hope for luck in the dry-
ing, and it is clearly the time to turn to a pile of sandwiches at my
elbow and, like an honest British workman, take my dinner as a
right. There is a charm about this informal feeding in front of
one’s work, like that of looking out on the storm from a sheltered
anchorage, and for myself I shall always prefer it to the more pro-
tracted repasts of the upper-class Englishman, to whom by a slip
of spelling dinner has come to be a rite, a stately ceremonial, dig-
nified and slow, to which coffee is a kind of “Lord, now lettest
Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” Yet on us also who eat sand-
wiches without such benediction descends the after-dinner calm,
and it is in this mood, my dear Baillie, that I call to mind my
promise to send you a bundle of the meditations, bitter or sweet,
of a poor artist condemned by the impecuniosity appropriate to
his profession to remain in town during August.

    Wrapt in a digestive peace I now perceive that all is for the
best. “Hath not old custom (and long drainage) made this town
more sweet” than the average village in Normandy? “Are not
these courts more free from peril than the rheumatic woods?”
Above all, are not one’s thoughts freer to roam when one is sur-
rounded by the type of scenery that one is so accustomed to as to
have quite left off seeing it? “Travelling lulls the imagination to
sleep, and by the clumsy device of carting the spectator about
bodily (a device discarded in the theatrical world for many cen-
turies) achieves at best but the hollow pretence of a change of
scene: for after all, go where you will it is the habitual surround-
ings of your past life that dictate what you shall see. Take
my own case, for example. The public building with which
I was most intimately associated for the longest period of my
youth is probably Chalk Farm station. When I try to call to
mind the style or decoration or structure of this monument I fail

completely: passing it by I simply do not see it. None the less
does it enter in a subconscious fashion into everything I see and
paint. For observe that all other buildings having similar charac-
teristics have a share in this, on the whole, happy oblivion, and it
will be just the qualities “complementary,” so to speak, of the
Chalk Farm station qualities that will appeal to me, and that I
shall express in art to the best of my ability. IfI should travel in
Italy, Spain or Kamschatka, the one constant quality in my work,
the personal factor that art critics assure us is alone valuable, would
be the shadow, dimly felt, but gigantic and ever present, of Chalk
Farm station.

    The appetite for travel would seem, therefore, to have its
origin in mere shallow craving for variety, the result, probably, of
that ill-regulated dramatic instinct that troubles all of us who pos-
sess any vitality. Tommy, the labourer who grinds our colours
and boils (so noticeably) our size in this painting room, possesses
this instinct in most robust quality, and is universally beloved for
his untiring efforts towards doing something to break the mono-
tony of existence. He loves to carry a rude message. Sent just
now to borrow a straight-edge from one of my confréres, he comes
back to me beaming with delight. “Mr X, he says, sir, you may
go to blazes, sir, but you have to wait till he’s finished wiv it.”
Now no doubt something to this effect was said in the heat of
artistic creation, but it is equally certain that Mr X, the politest of
men, never intended it to be repeated to me; it is a clear case of
that appetite for dramatic events that, could we but know it, is at
the bottom of almost all domestic quarrels. “Happy (perhaps) is
the woman whose history is dull”; it is very certain, though, that
her husband’s isn’t, not if she knows it. Think of a wife conscious
of latent dramatic power, who never has any better lines to say
than “My lord, the dinner waits,” or by way of variet “The din-
ner waits, my lord.” Surely it is the part of wise husbands to fur-
nish, even at the cost of a little invention, occasions for declama-
tion of more colour and volume, as “Little did I think, when you
asked me to be yours, that the day would come, etc.” An out-
break of this sort, or a scene of passionate upbraiding with the
cook, gives to a woman’s life that pleasing variety that to a man is
usually supplied by outside events, like knighthood or being put
on the Black List or being made Master of his Lodge: indeed the


recent knighthood conferred on Sir Charles Holroyd was, I be-
lieve, deliberately designed by the powers that be as an alterative.
His always frail physique was giving way under the strain of liy-
ing with the Chantry pictures. The mention of knighthood leads
naturally to another aspect of this subject of “scene-shifting” to
which the essayist is adhering with so classic a constancy. I must
confess to a sense of disappointment in meeting several of my
friends recently so honoured, at finding them so very like the plain
Misters of yesterday; and I would plead that we should be vouch-
safed some physical sign, some changement de décor, to indicate
the inner and spiritual transformation. Suppose, for example, after
the accolade, a perpendicular tuft of hair should grow spontane-
ously from the middle of the head, what a beautiful corroboration
it would be of the reality of that change! What a confounding of
the scoffer! It would be like that touching law governing the be-
haviour of the hair of the female of our species which, hanging down
the back for the first fifteen years or so, manifests first a gradual
tendency to curl up at the ends, and then suddenly, with a flip, coils
up on the neck and announces to all and sundry the coming of
womanhood. When I was a little chap in knickerbockers, with a
boy’s precocious curiosity I ardently desired to witness this trans-
formation, and used to haunt the society of ladies in whom the
change was foreshadowed with as much assiduity as I could with-
out raising in their breasts hopes not destined to be realised (in
those days I had no pocket-money to speak of and strong opinions
on the wickedness of marrying on an insufficient income). Well!
never did I accomplish that desire. There was no visible transition
between the companionable girl of one day and the unapproachable
young woman of. the morrow. Here, as in all the crucial mo-
ments of our physical life, the instinct is for secrecy. It probably
occurs at night, the girl herself not knowing, except from a vague
feeling of unrest, when the thing will happen.

    I have since found reason to believe that for certain of my
elders the change was the other way, and it was the woman who
became approachable for the man that as a girl she hated. The
important point is that we neither had reason to complain of her
inconsistency; the inward change was visibly expressed. Now
more and more our powers of expressing ourselves by our ex-
ternal appearance tend to be curtailed, and I contend that many

of what we call the faults and vices of our fellows would become
harmless if we were thus duly warned of their existence. The
curse of the uniformity of male costume and carriage falls of course
with a very varying weight on different people, for the principle
of “one man one vote” has not been followed in the distribution of
individualities. On the one hand we find whole hordes of people
who have to all intents and purposes only one personality among
them, while others more fortunate or unfortunate have two or
three individualities apiece, each of which he has to take out in
turn and exercise like a man who has three horses and only one
pair of legs to bestride them, and each of which, when it is in the
ascendant, demands a special diet, different surroundings and a
different wife. This in some respects superior being, of whom the
bigamist is the typical example, is at present accused of inconsis-
tency, infidelity and the like; but I look forward confidently to the
day when, instead of tamely pleading guilty and being execrated as
a scoundrel, he will bring boldly forward the plea of dual identity.
When he does so the enlightened judge will undoubtedly recognize
this fact—that what is objectionable in the accused is—not the variety
that is charming—but the deception, and there will speedily be in-
troduced into Parliament “a Bill for the better regulation of bigamy,”
which shall permit a plurality of wives on condition that the mercu-
rial husband shall indicate his change of identity by a corresponding
change of attire, wearing now large checks, now pepper-and-salt,
and anon the suit of terra-cotta cashmere that Mr Bernard Shaw’s
heroes affect. This singularly, or rather plurally, blest individual
will then no longer be expected when he puts off his big check
suit to be faithful to his big check wife (my married friends assure
me that all wives approximate to this category). Why should he
be faithful to her on it was not he that wooed her, and she pro-
bably wouldn’t care about him? All will be peace and love.

    If this reform of male costume be not speedily carried out,
the alternative is painful to every modest man. Our clothes, de-
liberately made insignificant, monotonous and unmeaning, will
become as invisible as Chalk Farm station is to me. We shall un-
consciously train ourselves to observe nothing but the infinitesimal
variations that show the body beneath, and before that penetrating
gaze clothes will become transparent, and we shall walk the
London streets each mother’s son of us naked to every eye.


Always eager for the public good, I made a commencement of
reform the last two summers by wearing a low-necked cycling
jersey, but the other day the heinousness of my conduct was
revealed by a passage that I chanced on in a religious paper.
Describing an extreme example of the class attacked by the City
Missionary were these words: “He was idle, vicious—good for
nothing—he had never worn a collar.” This was the comble, and
yet the case of a man brought up to wear a collar who of his own
motion renounces it would seem to be even worse.

    It is unfortunate that just as my meditations are culminating
in conclusions of some value to the race, a devastating catastrophe
forces me to lay aside my pen. Tommy has got the sack, and in
the excitement of the moment has upset on the stove a whole pot
of size, of an excruciating odour, that makes the room untenable.
Holding my nose with one hand, with the other I hastily record
the sorrowful details. It was some days back that Tommy, balanc-
ing on his head a palette as big as a small dining table, as-
cended the stairs hating from the stage door just as Miss Susie
Blank, the leading lady, was coming down. They passed with beam-
ing smiles, for Tommy is a bit of a dog with women, and Susie is
not proud. Arrived at the top Tommy turned and cocked his
head with an appreciative wink. As he did so the palette—how
shall I tell it?—described a graceful curve and discharged its
sloppy contents on the glorious creature below. Enough that
Susie retired into the privacy of her rooms, where for some hours
she maintained the shrinking privacy of a damaged cruiser in a
neutral port. But she didn’t disarm. When she sallied forth it was
to fly to her most powerful admirer demanding vengeance on the
man whom she referred to with quick reversion to the idioms of
her youth and absolute disregard for accuracy as “that stinking
He painter.” My lord appealed to the manager, and the blow has

     Tommy says he doesn’t care a damn. He is, it appears,
engaged to marry a buxom widow who, moreover, owns a public
house. To her bar parlour will he retire, there to pass the
remainder of his days in dignity and intoxication: let beauty
heal the wounds that beauty has caused.

    His loss to the painting-room is irreparable. He was the
only man who really knew how to handle the straight-edge. For

think not that the only use to which a straight-edge can be put is
to rule straight lines. No, it has another and higher, so to speak
an esoteric, use. One of the principal expenses of a painting-
room is the gas, and the amount consumed is recorded inexorably
on a dial, full in view of the unfortunate scenic artist. Nowit has
been found that by tapping smartly the face of this dial with some
flat instrument, e.g., a straight-edge, the fingers may be made to
fly backwards to the great economy of gas. In this act Tommy
had a touch that was unique, and with the enthusiasm of the
artist he gave the thing vich a whack last week that the fingers
spun back and registered a much less consumption of gas than
last time the inspector called. We’ve been burning gas night and
day ever since to make up the deficit.

    My painting after the manner of distemper has “dried out
beautiful.” It is not what I meant, but so much better that I
mask my surprise.


MLA citation:

E. “Scene-Shifting.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 56-61. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,