Sunday, February 6, 2011

Portrait of Admiral Lord Beatty

Cecilia had approached each of her three commissions differently. Her approach was to accommodate her subject as far as possible. Her goal was to capture not only their appearance, but their character as well. Today we find her painting the English Navy hero, Admiral Lord Beatty.

"The American Committee on War Portraits, setting about to choose representative figures from England's Army and Navy, rested their decision upon Field Marshal Haig and Admiral Lord Beatty. They were approached through our Ambassador, Mr. Davis. Both kindly consented and kept their engagement with the readiness and 'sense of duty' that is part of their code.

Beatty was young, in the early forties, a gallant man; and in his spirit and conduct had fully measured up to the stern tradition of the British Navy. Of course, it was a simple matter for anyone to have a general idea of the appearance of any and all of the heroes of the day;shop windows, newspaper, and magazines displayed photographs and reproductions liberally. The well-known figure of Admiral Beatty in cap or Panama, slightly tipped, I had often wondered over, feeling that more than that must be found in the real man, and when I called at Hanover Lodge on an October morning,the soft English quiet of Regent Park, the lawn, big trees, and pretty yellow house seemed a strange introduction and contrast to the personality I was in search of.

A middle-sized, unsmiling man in a blue serge suit shook hands with me. I, too , could be business-like, prompt and short, and he soon relaxed a good deal as we paced the deck. I explained exactly what my object was, which he did not really know, being only concerned to accommodate the American Ambassador.

Early in our interview he had said that he would give me one or two sittings, on which I did not comment. He now took out a small notebook and asked me when I wished to begin. Of course, I said whenever it suited him, I had no other engagements. 'How about tomorrow?' said he, adding politely, 'It's just as well to get disagreeable things over, eh?' With this appeared his first smile and a nice one.

Lord Beatty was prompt for his appointment, as might have been expected, and I asked for only time enough to make a few decisions in regard to position and lighting. The direct light of the studio brought out bold forms. I saw that it was a falcon face; the nose broad at the base, unbelievably fine at the end, the brows bending toward it, eyelids heavy and full, over-large, far-seeing grey eyes. A falcon ready for the chase.

After I had seen Lord Beatty, I never had any doubt as to the type of painting that, if successful, would best present him. Tradition being the mainspring of his life, it must be the starting point of his portrait. It must be something seized, not thoughtfully accumulated and built up.

Before the next sitting, I had made the composition on a small panel of the exactly desired shape. The stretcher was made and the canvas mounted. The background was rubbed in. A blank space was left for the head and a few other indications gave the canvas that look of promise. I thought it would be wise to begin without disturbing the canvas, and so prepared a board and paper on another easel for a charcoal drawing to be transferred. A drawing must be made which must contain all the elements of the head and which would be my only material, if I should never have another sitting.

Concerning the next visit, I have little to report. Lord Beatty looked at the two easels, the blank paper and partly covered canvas and made no comment. I said, 'I have to draw the head first,' and we began. Little was said, at least that I can remember. Neither of us was obliged to rest, although I stopped long enough to offer mercy to the model. I found the forms of the very original face before me intensely absorbing.

The drawing turned out to be the most comprehensive as well as the most direct drawing I ever made, just less than life-size and easily transferable. The clarity and simplicity of the sitter seemed to take possession and pervade everything. If this had been Lord Beatty's only visit, a painting could have been made from it. To one accustomed to innumerable sittings of three hours each, the enterprise was strenuous hunting, and could not have been carried out on continuous days. How thankful I was for the quiet studio, for the absence of calls or engagements. I could be as slow and reflective as an owl appears to be. I was literally alone the entire day.

When Lord Beatty came to his third appointment, which he was kind enough to do without protest, the drawing still stood beside the canvas, on which the head was now drawn and lightly massed in, in monochrome upon a background which was likely to 'fit' with very slight adjustment. In this instance, it seemed best to prepare the palette beforehand, ignoring a superstition which prohibited doing this until after the arrival of the subject.

When the hour was over, the Admiral came behind to look 'Oh, you've done the hair and the forehead.' 'Yes,' I said, indicating the three main divisions of the head. 'Next time it will be the middle space, eyes, etc., to the base of the nose, and the time after that, the lower division.' The Admiral made no objection.

A little Cockney actor was an essential support. Always ready, cheerful, glad of the fire, where he might even dry his soaked shoes, build up the greying coals, and fill the kettle. With his help I could proceed upon certain spaces in the canvas requiring careful adjustment, without strain. What was important in gold braid and buttons could never have been found with any zest between two lights, if Lord Beatty had been wearing them. Even the hands could be done (for the first and only time in the experience of the artist) from the model. They held the sword and in some way, Lord Beatty's smooth fine fingers appeared in the end.

The more I saw of the Admiral, the more I was aware of that childlike, earnest quality that all great performers have - along with all the conscious ones, which must be reckoned with. Absurd as it sounds, it is the quality which can only be called 'innocence' as a child is innocent. I have recognized it in such men as Roosevelt and Cleveland. Undoubtedly Lincoln possessed it, and I believe it can be found in all outstanding characters and is one of their most winning assets. Napoleon had it; Anatole France called him 'un enfant, mais un enfant grand comme le monde' (A child, but a child as big as the world).

After two months of uninterrupted work, and having reached my furthest limit in it, it was perhaps well that my separation from the picture should be brusque. I was summoned to Paris, and as kind friends looked after it and all affairs concerning it, I did not see it again for some time.

What I remember as the final episode took place on the next to the last of Lord Beatty's visits to the studio. He had been standing before the drawing, and said something that manifested his appreciation of it. I expressed a desire to give it to him - he had been so kind about posing. A slight shade of doubt crossed his face, and I at once went on to explain that the drawing was not mine, as Mr. Pratt, the chairman of the committee had stipulated that all studies and sketches made for the portraits were to be his. There could be no doubt that he would be delighted to present the drawing to Lord Beatty, if he cared to have it. The Admiral turned quickly and said like a true Briton, 'Tell him to come over and fight me for it.' Then we laughed, and the drawing was his."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

Tomorrow: Cecilia Goes to l'Academie Julian in Paris

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