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CONFESSIONS OF A PICTURE-DEALER'S HACK
I AM going to make a clean breast of it, for the repose of my conscience, if
I may be supposed to have any, and as some sort of laggard justice to that very
numerous class towards whom a necessity has compelled me to play the impostor. I
was once a student of nature, and enthusiastic in my studies - nourishing dreams
of reputation and celebrity, with all the pleasant and agreeable accompaniments
attendant upon them. Long years of painful experience have at length brought
home to my consciousness the slow and unwillingly-acknowledged conviction, that
I have wasted the thread of life in the pursuit of a vocation never intended for
me ; that, though once profoundly imbued with the sentiment of art, I never
really possessed the "faculty divine," without which success in the
profession is hopeless. I say I once possessed the sentiment of art -
because I don't pretend to it now ; even that is gone, clean gone - frittered
and fooled away by the conventional and technical din of the studio and the cant
of connoisseurship. It is a wretched fact, that to me the whole world of art, so
far as its aesthetic influence is concerned, is nothing but a blank, unless
perhaps something worse. The once magic creations of Raphael, Correggio, Titian,
and Rembrandt, are resolved, through the detestable process my mind has
undergone, into mere masses of oil and varnish, canvas and colour. Where others
behold with awe the expression of a god-like idea, the embodiments of intellect
and passion, or the incarnations of physical or mental loveliness, I see nothing
but paint - reds, [-161-] browns, and yellows,
madders and ultramarines, with the scumblings, and draggings, and glazing's, and
scrapings, and pumice-stonings, and the thousand artifices employed in getting
up an effect. It were well if this were all. I could be well content never to
look on picture more, if the face of nature would return to me again under the
aspect it wore in the days of my boyhood. But alas it cannot be. To me the
"Meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,"
are but suggestive of paint iii its myriad mixtures and combinations. The gleam of sunshine upon a field is but a dash of Naples yellow the dark gloom of evening closing o'er the distant mountains, speaking of infinite space and distance to the unsophisticated eye, is nothing to me but a graduated tint of indigo, red and white the impenetrable depth of a yawning cavern, dimly discernible amid the sombre shades of a mountain gorge, though it may tell a tale of romance and mystery to others, is nothing upon earth to me but a dab of Vandyke brown. Nay, the boundless sky, the overarching canopy that wraps us up in brightness or in gloom is in my view, according to circumstances, but a tube of diluted cobalt, or a varied combination of greys and reds, and yellows and whites ; while the glorious sun himself figures in my imagination, precisely as he does in the pictures of Claude Lorraine, as a one-shilling impression of a flame-coloured tint.
How this came about perhaps my history will show. I shall make it as brief as I honestly can may it prove a warning to the youthful aspirant for artistic fame, and incite him to a candid and timely investigation into the reality and extent of his creative faculty! One thing I know - it will prove a revelation of some value to collectors and connoisseurs of all ages and grades, provided only that they have yet modesty enough remaining to doubt the infallibility of their judgment.
[-162-] I was born in one of the suburbs of the metropolis, and my earliest recollections are associated with the palette and the studio. My father, whose sole child I was, was an artist of very considerable talent, who, with a real love of nature, combined a ready hand and a facility of practice which enabled him to produce a multitude of pictures, though he died young. My mother, who worshipped him with a devotion that knew no bounds, relieved him of every care unconnected with his pursuit. It was her business to dispose of his productions, which, being all of small size, rarely exceeding twenty inches in length, she carried to town, and sold to the dealers for as much as they would bring. In these perambulations, when I was big enough to take the long walks, I sometimes accompanied her, and when the sale was successful, generally got a cake or a toy for my share. Besides my mother, my only playmate was a small lay-figure, which it was the quiet delight of my childhood to cherish and fondle with an affection which I cannot, now comprehend. My father's pictures never realised much during his life. They were chiefly landscapes of a very simple style of composition, and scores of them had no other figures than a woman and a child, of which my mother and I were the models ; and I remember distinctly that when a pair of them realised five pounds, it was the occasion of a rejoicing and a hot supper, which I was allowed to sit up and partake of. My poor father died before I was eleven years of age; and then his performances rose into sudden repute, selling rapidly for ten times the sum he had ever received for them. By degrees they all disappeared from public view, being bought lip by the best judges, who during his life never condescended to notice the artist. My mother followed my father to the grave before her year of mourning had expired; and I, for the time heartbroken, was transferred to the care of my father's only brother, also an artist, though of a very different stamp. He sent me for two years to school, where, in [-163-] the society of children of my own age, I soon forgot my griefs. Before I was fourteen my uncle bound me apprentice to himself, to make sure, as he said, of some sort of recompense for the trouble he would have in teaching me. He was a portrait-painter, at least so said the brass-plate on the door of the house in Charlotte Street ; but very few and far between were the sitters who came to be limned. His principal occupation was that of cleaning and restoring old and damaged pictures, and in this he was employed mainly by the dealers, who allowed him but a sorry remuneration. He had, too, a small connection of his own, to whom he occasionally sold pictures, bought at the sales in a woful condition for a few shillings, and carefully got up by himself. With him I worked hard from morning to sunset for seven years, in the course of which period I copied an immense number of pieces, nearly all the copies being sold to country dealers, who came periodically to town and cleared them off. I learned thoroughly the difficult art and mystery of picture-cleaning; acquired of necessity some skill in portraiture ; and prosecuted, whenever opportunity offered, the pursuit of landscape, in which I was resolutely determined upon gaining a reputation.
With this view, when the term of my indentures had run out, I bade adieu to my uncle, who made no attempt to alter my purpose, and commenced the world on my own account, devoting my whole time and energies to my favourite pursuit. I first painted a couple of pieces of a small size, and sent them to the ----- Street Exhibition, paying the then customary fee, which a wiser policy has since abolished. I felt overjoyed to hear that my pictures were hung, and hastened to look at them as soon as the doors were opened to the public. My hopes were dashed away by the sight of my two little productions, hardly covering more than a square foot of canvas each, suspended as telescopic objects high aloft beneath the gloom of the ceiling; while whole fathoms of the [-164-] "sight line" were choked up with the "unmitigated abominations" as the reviewers justly styled them, of one of the members of the committee, whom nature had cut out for a scavenger. I had gone in debt for my frames, which were returned to me at the close of the exhibition smashed to fragments. I could never afterwards afford to repeat the experiment.
I now began to paint for the dealers, thinking, as I had but myself to maintain, that I might get on with frugality, and in time tread in the steps of my father. The dealers shook their heads at my performances ; and one, with more candour than the rest, produced one of my father's pieces, bought of my mother for thirty shillings, which he pronounced "a little gem" - showed me how crisp was the touch, how pure and sparkling the colour ; how vigorous, and yet how playful, was the handling ; and how simple and graceful was the composition. I endeavoured to profit by the lesson; but necessity drove me to the market with my work unfinished, and for three years I maintained a hapless struggle with privations of all sorts, buoyed up only by the fervid ambition of excellence in my art. When the dealers would not buy my productions, I often left them in their hands to be sold on commission. When they did sell, I rarely discovered what they sold for ; but from information accidentally obtained with regard to some few, I found that the average commission was about seventy-five per cent., leaving the other twenty-five for the artist.
I grew tired of starving in pursuit of improvement, and in the hopes of mending my fortune started a portrait club. The members were the frequenters of a Free-and-easy, who subscribed a shilling a week each, and drew lots for precedence ; but they believed in beer, and had no faith in honesty. As each one received his portrait, he discontinued his subscription towards the rest, and I received next to nothing for painting the last half-dozen. The landlord, too, wished me at Jericho, as his customers took to bemusing [-165-] themselves elsewhere, to avoid my eloquent appeals for the arrears. I bade a final adieu to their ugly faces, with a feeling of profound contempt as well for the department of art they encouraged as for the patrons of it, and returned to my garret, to cogitate some new mode of renewing my exhausted funds. I made a couple of sketches which occupied me a week, and took them to a pawnbroker, who lent me fifteen shillings upon them. I thought, as I threw the duplicates into the Thames that though this would hardly do - taking the cost of canvas and colours into account - I might manage it by a little contrivance so I procured half-a-dozen canvases of the same size, traced one subject - comprising a windmill, an old boat, and a white horse - upon them all, and making one palette do for all, got up the whole six in ten days. These I pawned for an average of eight shillings a piece. It was long since my pockets had been tightened with such a weight of silver ; but with the new feeling of independence arose one of shame and degradation, which, however, I soon stifled. I repeated the same subject again and again ; and grew so expert at length with my one picture, that a few hours sufficed to finish it. I kept a register of my numerous "uncles," taking care never to appear twice at the same place with the same picture. But this trick could not last. At the annual sale of unredeemed pledges the walls of the auction-room were covered with a whole regiment of repetitions, amidst the jeers and hootings of the assembled bidders. My plan was blown, and I dared not show my face to a pawnbroker. It was vain to send pictures to be pledged by another hand, the fellows knew my touch too well to be deceived. I tried again with original sketches, but it was of no use everybody believed that I had a score of reduplications in store and I was forced at length to abandon the pawnbrokers to their discrimination. I returned again to the dealers, but each and all had a copy of my windmill, old boat, and white horse hanging upon [-166-] hand ; and, pronouncing my productions unsaleable, declined to purchase. In this dilemma I was driven to the "slaughter-houses,'' or nightly auctions which are opened weekly at the West End, and constitute the last wretched refuge and resource of destitute daubers. Here I figured for some time, wasting my days in unprofitable attempts to meet the demands of a miserable market. I grew shabby and dispirited, and sank into the depths of poverty. Often I could not meet the expense of canvas, and painted on paper or millboard, or even on an old shirt stretched upon a worm-eaten strainer, begged or bought for a few halfpence from the liners' journeymen. Sometimes, aroused to exertion by a rekindling love of art, I would walk up to Hampstead or out to Norwood, and bringing back a subject, paint it up with all my old enthusiasm ; but it availed me nothing : the picture was generally sacrificed for a few shillings; and even though it were afterwards sold for a fair price, the profit had been shared in the knock-out, and I was none the better.
In this exigency I gladly complied with an offer made me by Mr. Grabb, a carver and gilder, with whom it had been my wont at times to exchange pictures for frames. In addition to his regular business, he dealt in pictures to a great extent, had a large country connection, and, living himself in Soho, kept an extra shop in the city, where he always made an extraordinary show of colour and gilding on dividend days, with the especial design of catching the "country gabies," as he called them, cash in hand. With him I boarded and lodged, and received a small weekly salary, in return for which I was to occupy myself ten hours a day in making new pictures or restoring old ones, according to the demand. He had picked me up just in time for his purpose. A day or two after I entered upon my duties, he encountered a country baronet at a sale which had lasted for nearly a week. The man of title had bought between 200 and 300 lots, with the view of decorating a mansion [-167-] which he was then building in Sussex and having no place at hand to contain his numerous purchases, had accepted the ready offer of my patron to warehouse them for him for a season. The purchases arrived on the day of clearance, and with them the delighted owner, who had bought a whole gallery-full for about ?500. They were all stacked in the silvering-room, and my employer was commissioned to select such of the number as he judged would do credit to the taste of the possessor, to restore them to a good condition, to regild the frames of such as required it, and to dispose of the rejected pieces for what they would fetch, carrying the proceeds as a set-off against his bill. Mr. Grabb knew perfectly well what to do with such a commission. The next day I was summoned to a consultation. and having locked the doors, the whole batch was gone over, and carefully scrutinised with the aid of a bowl of water and a sponge. All the large pictures (some were as big as the side of a room), many of which I felt bound to condemn as worthless, were set aside for repair and framing ; while a select collection, amounting to about thirty of the smallest, best, and most saleable cabinet sizes, were thrown into a corner as unworthy of attention. For these, which were nearly worth all the rest of the collection put together, he ultimately made an allowance of ?15 off his bill, amounting to several hundreds, the cost of gorgeous frames and gilding for trumpery of no value. It took me four months to prepare such of the pictures as wanted cleaning for their gilded jackets, and it would have taken as many years had proper care and leisure been allowed for the operation but I was admonished to follow a very summary process - to get off the dirt and old varnish from the lights, and to leave the shadows to shift for themselves, trusting to a good coat of varnish to blend the whole. One immense sea-fight, which defied all our solvents to disturb its crust, Grabb undertook himself. Stripping it from the stretcher, he laid it flat on the silvering- [-168-]slab, and splashing water on its surface, seized a mass of pumice-stone twice as big as his fist, and scrubbed away with bare arms, like a housemaid at a kitchen-floor, until admonished by the tinge of the water that he had done enough. The canvas was then re-strained, and turned over to me to paint again what he had scoured away. As the whole rigging of a seventy-four was clean gone, I began the slow process of renewing it; but he would not hear of that, but bade me bury everything in a cloud of smoke as the shorter way of getting over the business. When the whole were ultimately carted home and hung up in his new residence, the baronet was delighted with his gallery, and with this picture in particular, which certainly differed more than any of the others from its original appearance.
The baronet's commission being now settled and done with, the rejected pictures were withdrawn from their hiding-place and confided with many precautions to my most careful treatment. I laboured con amore in their restoration, and Grabb reaped a little fortune by their disposal. He kept me well employed. Every picture which came in to be framed or repaired, if he judged the subject saleable, was transferred to me for copying, and surly indeed should I be to swear that the original invariably found its way back to the owner.
Soon after my domiciliation at Grabb's my uncle left Charlotte Street, and with a large cargo of English pictures emigrated to New York, where he sold his venture to good advantage. In one of the southern cities he found patronage and a wife, and grew into consideration ere he died.
I remained seven years with Grabb, and during that period attained a wonderful facility in the production of copies, and so close an acquaintance with the method and handling of some of the living London artists, as occasionally perplexed even themselves. This talent my employer turned to good account by selling forgeries of mine as the original [-169-] sketches of painters of note and reputation ; and at the decease of any one of them he supplied me with canvas and panels procured from the colourmen they had dealt with and set me about the manufacture of sketches and unfinished pictures, which were readily bought up as relics of celebrated geniuses.
At the close of my seventh year business fell short. True there was plenty for me to do, but owing to distress in the manufacturing districts, the sale of pictures, as is invariably the case at such seasons, very much declined. Still my principal managed to get rid of his stock, though not in the regular way of business: he packed off a portion of his best goods to country agents, and to old customers on approval, and crammed the shop in the city to overflowing, where also he took to sleeping at night, leaving me and the shop-boy sole guardians of the house in Soho. One morning about two o'clock, while soundly sleeping in my garret, I was aroused from my rest by a thundering noise at my room door, and the affrighted cries of the boy, calling upon me to arise and save myself, for the house was on fire. I dashed out of bed, contrived to huddle on a portion of my clothes, and opened the door. The room was instantly filled with smoke ; the boy had already escaped through the trap-door in the roof which, being left open, acted as a flue to the fire, the flames of which were rapidly ascending the stairs. I had no time for reflection, nor sufficient presence of mind to snatch, as I might have done, the few pounds I had hoarded from my drawer ; but scrambling after him as I best might, found myself in a few minutes shivering on the roof of a neighbour's house, in my shirt and trousers, now my sole worldly possessions. A servant-girl let us in at the garret window, and I immediately despatched the boy for his master, whom, however, I did not see till the morning, when he coolly informed me that he was a ruined man, and that I must look out for some other employer. He paid me a small [-170-] arrear of wages due, arid gave me a faded suit of his own to begin the world afresh. I may add that Grabb subsequently received two thousand pounds insurance money; that in two years after he was so unfortunate as to be burned out again, and received fifteen hundred ; that he was overtaken by the same calamity twice afterwards in New York ; and returning again to London, was again burned out : whereupon the office in which he had insured politely informed him that he might recover the money if he could in a court of justice - they should not else pay it. He never instituted any proceedings, but carried on business for ten years without insurance and without accident.
I could not afford to remain long idle ; and being now pretty well known to a certain portion of the trade, I was not long of obtaining employment. My next engagement was with Sapper, who kept a shop for the sale of pictures, together with large warehouses, in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden. I thought myself pretty well versed in the art and mystery of picture-making, and conceived that after my long experience under Grabb I had little if anything left to learn. This worthy undeceived me effectually. In my former place I had been the only hand; here I found three companions, each far more experienced and more clever than myself. One, a gentleman-like old fellow, painted nothing but Morlands from one year's end to the other. He had been a contemporary of that eccentric genius, and had mastered his style so effectually that he would have deceived even me had I met with his forgeries elsewhere. He was provided with a complete portfolio of every piece of Morland's which had ever been engraved, besides a considerable number of his original chalk drawings ; he had, moreover, pentagraphed outlines of the known size of the original paintings, which outlines were transferred to the canvas us a few minutes by means of tracing-paper, and painted in from the prints, which were all slightly tinted after the originals [-171-] for his guidance. A man of about five-and-forty, a Manchester artist, of thorough training and admirable skill in his department, did duty every morning from eight till twelve o'clock as the celebrated Greuze after that hour he disappeared, to attend to his own practice as a portrait-painter. I recognised at once in his work the source of the numerous admirable transcripts of that master which I had been for years in the habit of occasionally encountering both in sale-rooms and private collections. The third was a Dutchman, whom Sapper had picked up on a picture-tour in Holland, and engaged from admiration of his marvellous imitations of Teniers, whose works with other of a similar school, he was constantly employed in imitating with astonishing fidelity and success.
Among these companions I was directed to set up my easel and commence operations and a small picture of Patrick Nasmyth was put into my hand to be copied in duplicate. I was directed to mix a certain substance with every tint that was laid on with any thickness to insure its drying speedily "as hard as a brick," lest the finger-nail of a wide-awake customer should detect the softness of new colour. The panels put into my hands, though snow-white with the prepared ground on the one side, were black with age on the other, and spotted over here and there with the cracked sealing-wax impressions of well-known connoisseurs, to intimate that the picture I was about to commence had already passed through the hands of several collectors of repute. When I had finished them, both being done within a week, they were, after a few days' drying, slightly glazed with a weak solution of liquorice to give them tone ; one was varnished, framed, and readily sold from the window the other laid by in a garret, to await, with a hundred more, its turn for exportation. My next job was a magnificent Cuyp which had, not many weeks before, been knocked down by auction for eight hundred guineas, and [-172-] which was confided to Sapper for the purpose of removing the old varnish and substituting new, and for framing. As nothing else was required to be done, the picture might have been returned to the proprietor within a week or ten days but Sapper determined from the moment he saw it to possess a facsimile, and I was set about the manufacture of one forthwith. A panel was prepared of the precise age, from three oak planks selected from the stores of a dealer in old houses, and dyed to the required tint by a strong infusion of tobacco. By means of new bread kneaded in the hand, the two broad burgomaster's seals on the back were counterfeited beyond the possibility of detection and I commenced upon the surface with all the industry and skill I was master of, stimulated to the task by the prospect of an extra guinea. The picture had been promised to the owner in a week, my employer knowing well enough that it would take me four or five weeks at least to make the copy. It was in vain that one message after another came to urge the return of the picture, and that the owner himself drove up in his carriage, and remonstrated in no measured terms with Sapper, and threatened him with the interference of the law. The knave had a reply ever ready upon his lips: "He was determined, to do justice to so exquisite a work of art, and he would not, he could not, be induced to hurry it; his reputation would suffer should any mischief happen to the painting, which he would prevent, in this case at least, even at the risk of disobliging his patron." At length, after nearly six weeks delay, I had completed the copy and then Sapper himself, in less than an hour, licked off all the old varnish with a wisp of wadding steeped in the doctor, gave it a new coat of mastic, clapped it into an elegant and appropriate frame, and despatched a note to the proprietor requesting his attendance and approval. He came, and was delighted with the aspect of his picture while the dealer, with a thousand modest apologies for the [-173-] delay, assured him that the task had been one of great labour and anxiety, both to him and me, and that he could not, consistently with justice to the master, have accomplished it sooner. The wealth connoisseur swallowed his lies with evident relish and satisfaction, reiterated his thanks again and again for the marvellous manner in which the picture had been got up, and paid at the same time a bouncing bill for a process which a crown would have amply recompensed. There remained now nothing to be done to the copy in order to render it a tolerable facsimile of the original, but to imitate the close reticulation of cracks - the ineffaceable work of time - which covered every square inch of the surface. This was accomplished in the following manner: - After the copy had stood to dry for a fortnight, by which time, thanks to certain nostrums ground up with the colours, the whole had grown as hard as a pantile, it was taken down, slightly toned with a warm brown to give it age, and when again dry, carefully coated with size ; the composition of which, as it is already too well known among the knaves of the profession, and can be of no manner of utility to any honest man, I may be excused from explaining. This was no sooner tolerably dry, than it was followed by a liberal coating of varnish floated over the surface, and left to harden in a room free from dust. The inevitable result from such a process is, that the varnish is no sooner set than it begins to crack, owing to the expansion of the understratum of size and this cracking may be regulated by an experienced hand, in varying the proportions of the ingredients used in compounding the size, and in other ways, so as to give rise to fissures of all widths, from the thickness of a hair, as exhibited on the panels of the Dutchmen, to that of a crown-piece, as they are beheld in the present condition of most of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. With the width of the cracks the size of the reticulations also varies, ranging from the diameter of a small shot to that of the palm of the [-174-] hand. When very fine, the cracks are not visible until made so by rubbing impurities into them, for which purpose the dust which settles upon a polished table, wiped up with an old silk handkerchief slightly oiled, is usually preferred. The difference between a picture thus cracked by artifice and one cracked by the operation of years or centuries cannot, other things being equal, be possibly discerned by the closest inspection. The only way to get at the imposture would be to remove the varnish, either by friction or solvents, when the fissures would be found in the true picture to extend through the paint, while from the manufactured copy they would disappear with the varnish - a rule however, which would not be without exceptions.
One morning our old Morland found himself standing still, not from any want of subjects or demand for them, but because the young fellow whose business it was to line canvases and prepare panels for us all to work upon, had been out on one of his periodical drunken bouts, and had nothing ready for him. Sapper, coining up and seeing him idle, requested him to go to a broker's in Red Lion Street and "crab" a picture for him, as he wanted to buy it. When the old fellow had gone off on his errand, I asked the Greuze what he was gone after. "Oh,'' said he, "the broker wants ?10 for a bit of Gainsborough, and the governor wants it for fifty shillings-that's all." I soon found that "crabbing" is the art of putting a man wanting judgment in the article he deals in out of conceit with his goods. Two or three accidental inquiries, with demonstrations of amazement at the "enormous'' price asked, are found materially to lower the demands of the seller. In this instance Sapper eventually succeeded in getting the picture he wanted at his own price, and after disposing of several copies in various quarters, ultimately sold it again for its full value.
He sold pictures on commission ; and these he managed, [-175-] when it was worth his while, with a complex kind of adroitness which is worth recording. I shall chronicle one instance a gentleman who had given ?800 for a famous production of one of our first living artists, grew discontented with its too great size, and sent it to Sapper to be disposed of, professing himself willing to lose ?100 by the sale, but not more. Sapper offered it for ?1000, and at length obtained a bidding of ?700, which, as he observed, would have left nothing for himself, he immediately wrote to the owner, informing him that he had an offer of ?200, and a fine Claude, which he requested him to come and inspect, as he did not like to refuse the offer without the owner's sanction. Meanwhile, one of Hofland's beautiful transcripts of Claude, procured in exchange at the nominal price of sixty guineas, was mounted on the easel, and, covered with a curtain, awaited the inspection of the victim. He came, and deceived by the really fine execution of the picture, the counterfeited cracks of age, the palpably Italian style of lining, in which Sapper was skilled to a miracle, and the Roman frame and gilding, concluded the transaction, giving the rogue a small commission for his trouble, who, in addition to that, pocketed the difference between ?500 and the value of the pretended Claude, which would have been well sold at ?50.
Though Sapper's house was filled with works of art of every imaginable description, overflowing with pictures from the cellar to the garret, including every species of' rubbish gathered from the holes and corners of half Europe, yet the contents of his dwelling afforded but an inadequate idea of the extent of his stock. He had "plants" in this hands of numerous petty agents, the owners of small shops in suburban highways, who sold for a trifling percentage. He had here a Madonna and there a Holy Family, in the keeping of a lone widow or decayed spinster, whispered about as pieces of great value which the holders were com- [-176-]pelled to part with from the pressure of domestic misfortune or embarrassment ; he had traps and baits lying in wait for the inevitable though though long-deferred rencontre of customers whom bitter experience had rendered wary, and who had long ceased buying in the regular market and he had collections snugly warehoused in half the large towns of the empire, waiting but the wished-for crisis of commercial prosperity to be catalogued and sold as the unique collection of some lately defunct connoisseur, removed to ----- for convenience of sale.
Among the acres of what he called his gallery pictures was one with an area of some hundred square feet, upon which he had bestowed the names of Rubens and Snyders. It had hung for years upon hand, and was at length disposed of by the following ingenious ruse :- A gentleman who had appeared at different times desirous of treating for it - now negotiating all exchange, now chaffering for a cash price - hovering on the edge of a resolution, like Prior's malefactor on the gallows-cart - at length absented himself, and withdrawing on a visit to B---- , appeared to have relinquished the idea of dealing. Sapper, knowing that a picture-sale was shortly coming off in the town to which his dallying customer had flown, and knowing, too, that he could do as he chose with the auctioneer, who was an old chum, followed close upon the heels of the tardy bidder, taking the enormous picture with him. As the cunning rogue had calculated, the instincts of the would-be-buyer led him to the sale-room, where his astonishment was un-bounded at beholding the picture he had so long coveted at length condemned to the hammer. On the following day, when the sale came on, Sapper, who had not shown his face in the town, lay ensconced in a snug box behind the fence over which the lots were consecutively hoisted, and here, concealed from view, he ran up the picture against the eager bidder to the full sum he had offered for it in London, [-177-] and bought it in against him in the name of an Irish noble-man. So soon as the doors were shut, the picture was again off to London, and the next day appeared in its usual place on the wall of the staircase. In a fortnight after the gentleman walks into the shop, exclaiming "Ha, Sapper, so you have parted with the picture - you might as well have closed with my offer.'' "I don't understand you," said the other - "I have parted with no picture that I know of which you had any inclination for."
"I mean the Rubens and Snyders," replied the gentleman ; "it was sold at B----- about a fortnight ago, and fetched about what I offered for it. I must know, for I was there myself, and bid for it."
"I don't pretend to contradict you, sir," retorted Sapper ; "all I know is, that the picture you speak of has never been out of my house, and, what is more, is not likely to go, unless I get my price for it. Now I think of it, there was a young fellow from B---- up here last summer, who gave me ten pounds for permission to copy it ; and a capital copy he made : had I known he was so good a hand I should not have let him do it for the money. You will find the picture in its place if you like to step and look at it.''
Up walks the bewildered gentleman, and can scarcely believe his eyes at beholding the old favourite in its old place. Sapper follows with a sponge and water, and cleaning down the face of the painting, expresses his astonishment that any one should mistake a copy, however cleverly done, for such a fine work as that adding, that if the copy brought so good a sum under the hammer, what must be the actual value of the original ? The inference was inevitable, and the speedy result was the consummation of the purchase, not without some show of unwillingness on the part of Sapper, who appeared impressed with the notion that he was submitting to a tremendous sacrifice.
I cannot, nor need I, continue these details. I have said [-178-] enough to warn the unwary, and to arouse the watchfulness of the wise. Is it wonderful that the moral atmosphere in which I have lived, and moved, and had my being, should have had the effect upon my mind which I have described at the commencement of this paper ? When connoisseurs and critics stand gasping with breathless raptures in contemplation of slimy mixtures of megilp and burned bones ; when they solemnly invoke the shades of the mighty dead, and ejaculate their maudlin rhapsodies in reverential whispers, as though hushed to silence by the spirit of departed genius, in the presence of a rascally forgery perpetrated for a wage of thirty shillings - what marvel if one whom hunger and necessity have driven to deceit should lose all capacity for the proper appreciation of art or nature either, and should at last be able to look at both only through the prostituted means and materials which during a whole lifetime have been the daily instruments of deceit?
What I would inculcate is not far to seek : he who buys a picture should never speculate beyond his judgment ; and if he would encourage living art, should do so in the studio of the artist.
source: Charles Manby Smith, The Little World of London, 1857