16 AUGUST 1930, Page 24

Joseph Pennell

Joseph Pennell. By Elizabeth Robins Pennell. (Rena. 42s.) THE ignorant public has a notion that artists of all sorts can only work when the fit takes them, and connect even inspira- tion with "fits and starts." Hard work and method are often regarded as proofs of artistic mediocrity. Joseph Pennell's whole life contradicts this theory. His industry and energy might be described as fiendish, by which, of course, we only mean that he had those virtues in such an immoderate degree as to resemble vices. He worked at his art as men work at money-making. " He had no use for genius work," he believed "in the genius of industry." He worked like a machine, yet he was an etcher of distinction and originality, with " his own manner of seeing the pattern woven by vivid light and deep shadow, of translating brilliant colour into brilliant black and white." He lived for his art, and when a man does that he is not a very good subject for a biography. Ile becomes an object of criticism rather than a fellow-creature. Yet this book is interesting apart from its critical value, partly no doubt because it is by his wife.

Born in Philadelphia of Quaker parents, his genius was not recognized by his immediate family, nor by his teachers, who indeed regarded art as a mere amusement, which if pursued as anything but a recreation must, in young people, be accounted mischief, found by Satan for idle hands. Money success had however great weight in the Quaker community, and Joseph Pennell did not have to wait long for it. A " tight wad " of bank-notes thrown on to his mother's bed proved more powerful than argument ; she realized that her son was no waster. The illustrated magazines of the 'seventies and 'eighties were absorbing the art of the country, and they soon recognized a new artist of talent and paid him well. While he was still a very young man he met his future wife, and after that he never wanted till the day of his death for sympathy and understanding. The marriage was a sin- gularly modern one, but American marriage customs were in those days far in advance of ours. The two seem to have been intimate companions rather than lovers. She wrote, and he drew for " the magazines." He went to New Orleans and wrote her entertaining letters in a telegraphic style about the delights of the South. Later he journeyed to Italy, where he longed for her companionship.

It was when he came back from his first visit abroad that he " suggested a life partnership " to Miss E.izabeth Robins, because, as she frankly tells us, Philadelphian opinion, while it permitted any amount of comradeship and even short- distance journeys such as to New York and back, would have been greatly shocked had two young unmarried persons travelled together to Europe. It was on her honeymoon that she first realized how wedded Joseph was to his work, though from the first it had been decided that marriage should be no interruption to labour. Still, they were very happy and worked together, she providing the letterpress and he the illustrations. Travels " were the fashion, not adventurous travels but pleasant journeys among great cathedrals and picturesque villages and historic towns. It is strange that the cathedrals of Europe, ecclesiastical architecture altogether, should have become almost an object of worship to an American Quaker, especially as even his wife never knew how far it had for him any spiritual significance :

" He was curiously reticent about the things of the inner life. the things of the spirit. I doubt if anyone ever knew the extent or limitation of his belief, though he held that the ' Friends' best understood what religion is or should be."

Once, she goes on to relate, when they were staying together at Peterborough in order to study the Cathedral, he said to her :—

" I have had such a lovely quiet walk to-night, way out of the town in the moonlight, and every walk of this kind makes one wish not utterly to die but to go on somewhere. Feeling beauty like this I should be only too glad to live here with a little success always."

Were some of the great mediaeval builders like that ?

Mrs. Pennell tells us that all the recreation her husband ever wanted he got on a bicycle " going hard and getting some- where," but nevertheless she gives a very charming account of their social life in London. " To waste one's time card: playing, dancing, listening to music, when one could talk and argue and fight it out was to him incomprehensible."

But to return to Joseph Pennell as artist ; when he did not draw his inspiration from cathedrals he drew it, as it were, straight from the sight of human energy. The sight of the construction of the Panama Canal, the munition works in London at the time of the War, any great piece of organized labour, almost intoxicated him, and in this state of mind his work, now somewhat forgotten, enchanted men of imagination. Henry James declared that if his own work could be all that he sometimes dreamed it, he would willingly give it all up to be able to draw like Pennell. But many as were his friends and widespread as his reputation, his own generation outside his own circle looked upon him as a disagreeable, cantan- kerous man. The fact is emphasized on the paper cover. His " vitriolic, railing, fault-finding, cantankerous spirit " is spoken of. There is comparatively little in the book to justify the words. Immediately after the War he spoke very harshly of his own country, but it was a country out of which he had passed almost his whole life, and after all it was he who revealed to the world the beauty of the sky- scrapers of New York. Indeed, it was he who formed Euro- pean opinion upon the subject of American architecture and forced from Europe first a reluctant respect and then some- thing like enthusiasm. Such a tribute must surely obliterate a few verbal insults. He fell into one or two violent quarrels about thc part that photography might legitimately play in litho- graphy, but there seems to have been nothing petty in his contention. He was a kind friend doing his best to comfort Whistler, whose bitter sorrow at the death of his wife must have made him unusually hard to get on with, and whose presence at dinner three times a week must have called for some self-control. He gave away very freely and so secretly that Mrs. Pennell in speaking of his charity even now feels as though she were breaking confidence. Still the outside world agreed with the words quoted on the jacket. The reader of the book will be inclined to tear it up and forget them, thinking of him only as he appears in his wife's word portrait and in the delightful reproductions of his art scattered throughout her pages.