Read CHAPTER XII - A YOUNG ARTIST’S EXPERIENCE of A Houseful of Girls , free online book, by Sarah Tytler, on

Rose respected Hester Jennings. She could not help respecting her a creature so much in earnest, so indefatigably industrious, so indifferent to all the distractions of the outer world which might have taken her out of herself and away from her work, while she was not above three or four years Rose’s senior. If Hester would have let her, the respect would have deepened to reverence, when Rose discovered what the elder girl neither hid nor boasted of, that she was not only paying for her art lessons at the art school, and in other respects freeing her mother from the burden of her maintenance, she was steadily earning a small independent income by working incessantly at every spare moment snatched from her studies. She worked at all sorts of designs for the most insignificant and obscure cheaply illustrated books and periodicals which cannot exist entirely on old plates excavated from forgotten stores, bought by the thousand at trade sales, procured by transfer from America, or even now that national costumes are dying out from France and Germany. These attempts at art were intended to pass into the hands of children not the favoured children reared on the charming fancies of Caldecott and Kate Greenaway; but homelier, more stolid, and easily satisfied children. Such art was also for the masses of the people who cannot pay for original art, save in its first uncertain developments, when the stagier it is, the blacker, the bolder, the more meretriciously pretty or fantastically horrible, the better it is relished by its public. Even the stereotyped representations of the coarser fashion-plates, and the eccentric symbols and arbitrary groups employed in the humbler trade advertisements which the magnates in such advertising have left far behind, were food for Hester’s unresting pencil. She might have injured herself irreparably by such illegitimate practice had she not studied as faithfully as she designed, with something of a stern, merciless severity, hunting out and correcting in her studies the errors of her crude work.

Stress of circumstances had lent what the French would have called a brutal side to Hester’s natural candour and sincerity. It was one comfort that she was still more brutal to herself than to the rest of the world.

When Rose Millar showed her sister-artist some of Rose’s sketches, Hester gave them a glance and a toss aside one after the other.

“There is nothing in that,” she said coolly, “though I can see you have taken some trouble with it. This is not so bad. No, don’t show that thing to anybody else it will do you harm.” Her highest praise was the “not bad” of mildest negative approval. “When you go to the class to-morrow morning,” predicted the slashing critic, “you may depend upon it you will be turned back to a course of free-hand, or to copying from the round again. I don’t mean that Mr. St. Foy will be as plain-spoken as I have been; he is a great deal too much afraid of hurting your feelings and his own, and of losing a pupil, though he is not what I should call either a bad man or a bad teacher. He is just like the rest; but wait and see if he does not politely turn you back to very nearly the beginning.”

“I have had good teachers before,” said Rose, crumpling up her nose and her forehead tightly, and swelling a little with wounded self-respect as well as wounded vanity. “It is queer, to say the least, if all my teachers were in a conspiracy to push me on to what I was not fit for, and to give me work altogether beyond my powers.”

“You asked my opinion,” said Hester Jennings, with inflexible calmness, “and I am not surprised that you do not like it when you have got it few people do. The truth is not generally palatable. Not that I go in for infallibility of judgment. Wait and see what Mr. St. Foy does not says to-morrow.”

“But why were the others one of them an exhibitor at the Academy and the Grosvenor so much mistaken?” inquired Rose, with natural indignation.

“How can I tell? But I hope you do not imagine that exhibitors are necessarily geniuses, or not as other men, or that they must be able to do a little bit of tolerable teaching when it pays them to condescend to it? Mr. St. Foy never exhibits very likely for the good reason that his pictures are not accepted; but it does not follow on that account that he cannot paint a fairly good picture better even than some which are hung on the line and teach very tolerably to boot.”

This was a new, bewildering doctrine, and a thoroughly disheartening state of matters, to which Rose, extinguished as she was on her own merits, did not make any reply.

“What I think, if you care to hear further what I think,” said Hester, with a dry smile, “is that in not taking time and in being wild to paint a complete picture something which everybody could recognize as a picture, and your friends admire as if such a thing can be done to any good purpose for years and years you have fallen into the disastrous habit of forgetting, or of only half remembering, what you learnt before, as you went on learning more. At least, that is the only way in which I can account for the wretchedness of some of your drawing, and the badness of your perspective, when you have got so far as to have a feeling for a scale of colour and the tone of a picture.”

“Well, I suppose I can learn it all over again,” said Rose, with a mixture of spirit and doggedness, forcing herself not to betray further resentment, and to swallow a little girlish weakness at the uncompromising treatment she was receiving. What would May and Dora say? But she durst not trust herself to think of them.

“Of course,” answered Hester, opening widely a pair of singularly clear keen eyes. “Do you think I should have taken the trouble to say as much if I had thought otherwise?”

It was the one dubious compliment which Rose extracted, without meaning it, from the fault-finder.

Hester’s openly expressed desire was to be an artist out and out, to live like an artist, not to be troubled with the hindrances and petty restrictions of an ordinary woman’s life, which she was tempted to despise, to which, if she yielded at all in her mother’s house, it was with scarcely concealed reluctance and aversion. Very likely she had only the most one-sided conception of the life she would have chosen. Certainly her notions of Bohemianism were about as ingenuous as “little May’s” might have been; to go where art called her, to do what art demanded of her, to be art’s humble, diligent, faithful servant all her days, without being held back and fettered on every hand by set meals, obtrusive servants, changes of dress, the obligation to pay and receive visits. The dream of her life was to get to Paris and have lessons in one of the French studios, where she was led to believe women have as good a chance of being well taught as men possess. She would prefer to live with some young women students like herself en fille a modified much modified version of en garcon. They would hire an étage in some cheap, convenient quarter, get the wife or daughter of the conciergerie to prepare breakfast and supper for them, dine at one of Duval’s restaurants work all day, and sleep the sleep of the labouring woman at night. She said she knew quite well how such artists were considered in Paris, that they were regarded as vauriennes, to whom there was no occasion to pay the respect and consideration which were reserved for the potent mesdames and the jeunes filles ingenues of society. But what had she to do with society? She belonged to the great republic of art, and had infinitely more to occupy her than to listen for what society would say. As to not being able to take care of herself and behave so that the slightest indignity to her would never be ventured upon, the bare mention of such a possibility was received by Hester with a wrath which bordered on fierceness, and for the most part silenced her opponents effectually. Any displeasure which Annie Millar had displayed on a similar supposition was mild by comparison.

Hester was not an only child. Mrs. Jennings had sons, all in the army or navy, the mother was proud to say; but none of them in those days of competitive examinations and expensive living was high enough up in the service to be able to help his mother. On the contrary, grown men, with men’s callings, as they were, they found themselves under the necessity of taking help from her. There were also other daughters besides Hester married to men in professions as unexceptionable as those of their brothers-in-law, but neither were they in circumstances which could make them feel justified in granting the smallest subsidy to Mrs. Jennings. Only Hester toiled for her mother at every moment which she could take from her studies and her natural rest. Yet the two women, who had dwelt under the same roof since Hester’s babyhood, who were united by the strongest and most sacred tie, were without one taste in common, were irreconcilably different in every mode of thought and impulse of feeling, were only alike in each being well-intentioned and desirous of fulfilling her intuitions and justifying her beliefs. Being wise, the pair agreed to differ. But oh! the pity of it where aims, ideals and standards, hopes and fears, were all equally wide apart.

Mrs. Jennings did not interfere with Hester’s freedom farther than she could help. Hester had her own engagements, her own circle of friends.

It may not surprise those who are acquainted with the various versions of Hester Jennings to be met with in this generation, that she was a red-hot radical in contrast to her mother’s conservatism well-nigh a communiste, to whom woman’s rights and wrongs meant a burning question of the day, which, next to her love of art, came very near to her heart. She was almost powerless to assist her sister women, so overworked was she on her own account, but whenever she could snatch a moment half a dozen clubs and societies claimed her for their own. She had really a wide personal knowledge of the working-women of London, employed and unemployed.