Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Drawing of Kenneth Grahame by John Singer Sargent (1922)

Though it takes us by complete surprise, this week is Thanksgiving; and with that means the holidays are upon us, ready or not.

I wanted to start the season with something that resonated with the child within us all, without yet fully embracing the holidays.  Who better than Kenneth Grahame to meet the need?

We here at The Jade Sphinx think one of the greatest classics of English literature is a novel for serious children and frivolous adults, the magisterial Wind in the Willows (1908), by Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932).

Willows, like most of Grahame’s oeuvre, focuses around ideas of escape: Rat and Mole spend their boyish bachelorhood picnicking along the riverbank, simply “messing around in boats.”  His book the Pagan Papers (1893), is about the joyous sense of freedom he had in his youth (and, by comparison), the lack of such freedoms he had in adulthood.

This is not surprising considering Grahame’s tumultuous life.  He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His mother died when he was five, and his alcoholic father gave young Kenneth and his brothers and sister to the children’s grandmother, in Cookham in Berkshire.  Grahame loved the countryside there, and it was there that he was introduced to the pleasures of boating.  These years in Cookham would be remembered as the happiest of his life.

Following his years at St. Edward’s School in Oxford, Grahame wanted to attend Oxford University.  He could not do so, his guardians claiming that it was too expensive.  Instead, this sensitive and introverted boy was sent to work at the Bank of England in 1879, where he rose through the ranks until retiring as its Secretary in 1908.  The reason for his retirement was that an anarchist broke into the bank and shot at Grahame three times, missing each shot.  The incident forever shattered his nerves; he would move back to the country in an effort to find peace.

Grahame published his first book, The Pagan Papers, in 1893.  He would follow this with his first two great novels about children, The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898).  He would not write again until after marrying Elspeth Thomson in 1899.  They had one child, a son named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born blind in one eye and plagued by various mental problems.  Grahame would tell Mouse stories about the woodland denizens around them.  These stories would eventually morph into Wind in the Willows.

Sadly, the stories provided only a limited amount of succor to Alastair, who would commit suicide by lying on a railway track two days before his 20th birthday.  The train would completely sever the boy’s head from his body, and Grahame was called to identify the remains.  The sight would haunt him for the rest of his life.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

We will look at Sargent’s life in a little more detail tomorrow, but for now: after a lifetime of painting some of the finest portraits of his generation, Sargent painted less and drew more as he grew older.  He found drawing a release from painting; providing him with much the same sense of freedom Grahame had sought all his life. 

Sargent was able, with a stick of charcoal, to capture the essence of his sitter in a few hours (sometimes … a few minutes), relieving him of the burdensome process of multiple sittings and coloration. There are dozens of Sargent portrait drawings … and after the holidays, we’ll look at a few more.

But now, look at how Sargent masterfully captures Grahame.  Drawn in 1922, just two years after the suicide of Alistair, here is a man who was shot at in more ways than one.  His face has an austere quality, which is not surprising as he was reported to be emotionally distant … but what Sargent captures more than distance is disguise.   Grahame’s mouth is large and sensual, his chin strong and resolute.  But both of these features are hidden by an enormous walrus mustache; these were not uncommon in Edwardian men, but one feels that Sargent knew that the point was concealment and not fashion.  Half of Grahame’s face is in shadow, as if he would hide from us, if he could.

In terms of technique, it’s amazing what Sargent can accomplish with a few simple strokes.  His drawing is never fussy or overdone; the scattered quality of Grahame’s hair is suggested with some powerful strategic strokes, his shirt and jacket survive as just the barest outlines.  The planes of his face have been roughed-in with some hatching on the side of his charcoal, but the wonderful (and evocative!) lower lids of his eyes have been caught out with eraser. 

The entire picture is a little master’s class in quick portraiture, and it tells us a great deal about the genius behind The Wind in the Willows.  A sad and tragic man is here, revealed by Sargent’s incomparable skill.

Another Sargent drawing tomorrow!

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