Few experiences are more interesting than sitting for a bust. There is
something enthralling in seeing great lumps of clay flung about in a
promiscuous manner, and then gently modelled with finger and thumb into
nose, eyes, and ears.
I had the privilege of sitting, in 1910, to Herbert Hampton, verily a
privilege, for not only is he a sculptor of note, but also a charming
Strangely enough, the first time we met, Hampton, without knowing
anything about previous performances, said he would like to model my
“Oh no,” came in answer, “never again. I have done with studios and
sitting on what you call a ‘throne,’ but what I look on as a chair
of torture.” And so we laughed the matter off, but, after a second
meeting, he wrote such a perfectly charming letter on the subject that
my resolve gave way, and, let it be acknowledged at once, I have never
regretted the weakness.
Hampton has the finest sculptor’s studio in London.
Here are casts of Lord Kelvin, Sir Henry Irving, Sir Luke Fildes, Miss
Geneviève Ward, General Booth, and dozens more, besides plaster models
of the colossal statue of the late Lord Salisbury, now erected on the
stairs at the Foreign Office, and that of the late King Edward, to say
nothing of five of Queen Victoria.
We talked for about a quarter of an hour after my arrival, as he said,
“just to renew my first impressions,” and then, asking me to sit in a
revolving chair on that terrible dais, he went to work. In front, on a
moving table, stood the _armature_, or inside skeleton-support for my
future head. At the bottom was a block of wood, from which three narrow
lead pipes, tied together at the top, were designed to make a support
for my neck and face. It was a simple, amateurish-looking thing, but,
as Mr. Hampton explained, “the lead pipe is pliable, so I can alter the
pose of the head as I go on, as you will see.” I did see.
On the modelling stand were great lumps of dark grey mud, or shall we
call them bricks?—for they were about that size. This was the modelling
clay, known as _la terre_, because it is French. It is more tenacious
for working than our English clay. That is to say, it is firmer, and
is darker to look at. One great block was laid on top of the pipes and
squeezed till it might have been a melon; that was the beginning of my
Half another brick went on in front, and this gradually assumed the
shape of a fat banana, out of which a nose was shortly evolved, and a
chin. Another block was quickly divided and dumped on each side. Out of
this two ears and some neck were manipulated.
Who shall say that such a performance was not fascinating? It reminded
me of the dear, dirty mud-pies of my youth, of the spade-and-bucket
days, and it was quite delicious to hear the “squeege” of the clay as
it was flung on the armature. This took but little longer to do than to
tell, for in a few minutes there was a sort of head and the beginning
of a neck, though it closely resembled a block in a barber’s shop. When
sufficient clay was in place, Mr. Hampton—who was talking all the time,
and kept declaring he did not want me to remain still, but that the
more I talked and amused him the better he should like it—really set to
work. Then one saw the capacity of the man.
In two hours he had modelled my head. Eyes, nose, ears, chin, cheeks,
and hair were all there; what was more, he had got the likeness.
It was a marvellous piece of work, not only as an exhibition of
modelling, for he is a master of his craft, but as a likeness. Also,
it was extremely pleasant to watch him work, to see him create order
out of chaos, and it seemed impossible that we could have been talking
for two hours, or that he could have done so much in two days, when the
time was ended.
As to the manner of work, a few boxwood modelling tools lay upon the
stand. They were like flat wooden knives with pointed ends, but except
to slice off a little extra neck or hair, or to draw a fine line round
eye or nostril, he did the whole thing with his hands.
Covered with a wet cloth, a bust of this kind will remain for months in
a moist condition, fit for working on, but if kept too long, say a year
or two, the wood inside rots and the clay falls to pieces.
On my next visit it was decided I should sit for the neck, and as a
good many solid pounds of clay go to form a modelled human neck and
shoulders, this had been prepared, so I did not have the pleasure of
seeing it lumped on in handfuls.
Taking off my high bodice, I tied up my sleeves like a little girl
of olden days. He walked round me several times, looked at me from
different points of view, and then exclaimed:
“I shall not turn your head quite so much.” Accordingly, he took my
clay face between his hands and twisted the whole physiognomy round.
This was where the pliable pipes proved of use. But I could not help
a little exclamation of horror when I saw a crack had come across the
neck of my second self.
“I have cracked!” I exclaimed.
“That does not matter, we will soon mend you again.” So, with my head
divided from my shoulders till he found the angle he wanted, he gave a
few more friendly pats, seized _la terre_, and in a moment my neck was
swan-like in form.
There was a particular fascination in sitting for this bust. Two more
hours completed the neck and shoulders, and we had finished work
for that day. If it had never been touched again, it would not have
mattered. It was rough and impressionist in style, but I was there. I
could see my very image on the modelling stand.
On my third visit the sculptor decided to add my hands and arms.
“Hands being as expressive as a face,” he said.
This meant more building up. Accordingly, bundle after bundle of
firewood was requisitioned, until nine whole faggots were piled up
inside me. A pretty little waist, truly, to require nine bundles of
firewood as a foundation. However, in they went, and on went the clay
in great dabs, with a nice greasy squish-squish each time it received
a pat from the sculptor’s hand.
Simplicity is his ideal, and it is interesting to hear Herbert Hampton
discourse on this subject, as, indeed, on other matters connected with
The bust to the waist was completed in six sittings of about two
hours each, and a week later my image was placed in the Rotunda of
the Royal Academy, where it smiled on everyone passing the door. “The
impersonation of animation was my first impression of you,” said
Herbert Hampton, “and that is what I tried to get in the bust.” And he
certainly did. In spite of the usual placidity of white clay, the lady
looks as if she were speaking.
One can know too much.
I remember, for instance, Herbert Hampton saying one day to me:
“Only the rudiments of anatomy are wanted for sculpture. If one knows
too much one is apt to emphasise every muscle, every vein, every sinew,
and the result is an anatomical specimen. Simplicity is the greatest
charm of art, suggestion its goal. Why! great and wonderful as Michael
Angelo was, I almost feel he knew too much anatomy.”
Experiences such as this sitting are of the greatest help and value
to a writer, and give an insight into sister arts that widen one’s
mental horizon and ripen one’s judgment. All workers should leave
their own groove and see and know craftsmen in kindred branches of
endeavour. Outside interests and hobbies are the worker’s salvation and
After a bust is modelled it has to be cast in plaster. As a rule, only
one cast can be taken, but there are various ways of getting a second,
or even a third reproduction. The original clay bust on which the
sculptor worked is now so damaged that it is destroyed, the clay often
being used again for a fresh subject, and the bundles of wood being
utilised for lighting the fire.
A young Frenchman once begged me to let him cast a hand and foot for
some work he was doing, explaining that, though amongst the artists’
models there were exquisite heads and forms, that class of woman seldom
had good hands, and a good foot never. Bad boots doubtless accounted
for the latter. He made a pudding of plaster of Paris on a tin tray,
and into the cold, clammy stuff my well-vaselined extremity was
plunged. In a few minutes the cold, wet mud felt hot, almost burning,
and the foot was done; but, oh, the dirty mess and the nastiness of it
Although England possesses some of the finest marble carvers, much
of the work, unfortunately, is sent to Italy to be hewn, and even
finished, because labour is cheaper there. Herbert Hampton always
employs Englishmen, and does the actual finishing of the marble
himself. In that he is a thorough John Bull.
It is an extraordinary thing to see how a bust is “mechanically
pointed” in a rough block. Three fixed points with needles attached to
each can copy the most accurate measurements, which, of course, are
purely mechanical, from the original cast. After it is roughly hewn the
sculptor begins carving and modelling with chisel and hammer. Thus the
process is done in three parts: modelled in clay, pointed in marble,
and then carved to its finished state of perfection.
Figures that are cast in bronze are done differently. The bust or
figure is prepared in exactly the same manner in plaster of Paris,
an exact model of what is wanted, and this has to be sent to the art
foundry to be cast. That is not the work of the sculptor himself, but
of the bronze-workers, and as bronze fetches from seventy to ninety
pounds per ton, and it takes two or three tons to make a large figure,
it is easily seen that five hundred pounds is quite an ordinary bill
for casting a single figure at a foundry.
The huge figure of the late Duke of Devonshire (now in Whitehall) and I
occupied the studio at the same time.
The greatest sculptor England ever produced, to my mind, was
the versatile Alfred Gilbert. He was also one of the strangest
personalities. He was both a genius and wayward. A genius as a
sculptor, and wayward as regards the world. Never, never, in all my
experience, have I known a stranger personality. For years I saw a
good deal of him. He often came and dined, preferably alone, for
dress-clothes irritated him, and humanity in the aggregate bored him.
I do not believe Gilbert knew what time or method meant. He slid
through life. Sometimes he slipped into the right niche, sometimes he
glided into the wrong one—but he was a genius by temperament, a genius
oft-times in execution. He turned up on the wrong day to dinner, or
failed to come on the right one. In fact, he was the most delightful,
irresponsible, brilliant, irresistible human creature I have ever come
across. His life was full of trouble, yet all those who really knew him
loved him, and their hearts went out to him and condoned his muddles as
the escapades of a boy.
Gilbert created the Clarence Memorial at Windsor, and if he had never
done anything else, that would have been enough to stamp him as a
genius. He designed the wonderful iron gates at Eaton Hall, and his
work in metals and precious stones was unsurpassed. He practically
revived the work of Albrecht Dürer and Benvenuto Cellini in this
When he dined with me he talked, he listened, he wept, he laughed by
turns; after dinner he walked about, or passed his hands over the piano
and played awhile, or would strike weird chords of wailing. He was a
bit of a musical genius as well as a master in his own line. How often
music and its sister art are thus twinned! But then, if I mistake not,
he was descended from musicians on both sides. Suddenly he would leave
the piano, attracted by a door-knob, a button, or an idea, and would
then plunge into a dissertation upon art or a lecture on philosophy.
How Gilbert loved art! Every bend and curve meant something to him.
His blue eyes would dilate with pleasure or his heavy jaw become set
and rigid in anger or contempt. When his work really pleased him he
could not bear to part with it; when it dissatisfied him he broke it
up—very honest of him, but hardly remunerative. He was never made for
this world. He was a dreamer, a poet, an idealist; perhaps this very
incongruity of temperament was the source of the beautiful ideals he
conceived and sometimes brought to birth.
Down in that studio in the Fulham Road I spent many pleasant hours
watching him work. He would often forget I was there. Then, rousing
himself to my presence, he would offer me a cup of tea at odd intervals
of half an hour, entirely oblivious of the fact that it was nearing
dinner-time. A certain actor does this sort of thing as a pose—an
impudent pose—but Gilbert did it because he could not help himself.
He wanted to be hospitable, and hours became moments as he worked
and dreamed. There were days and weeks and months when he never did
anything, when hunger stared him in the face. But rather than part with
a work of his creation, or an unfinished dream, he preferred to starve
and, if needs be, die. London was no place for him. He was too utterly
an artist for a great, teeming, bustling city, and away in Bruges—dead
to the world, dead to his friends—the wreck of that great and charming
personality is dreaming his life away amongst his unfinished gods,
without the strength of will or purpose to complete his inspirations.
The complexity of Gilbert was beyond comprehension. His very genius
was his curse. Truly a gifted, wayward child—lovable, but annoying;
exasperating, but delightful.
Bertram MacKennall, an Australian by birth, was poor and unknown as a
student in Paris, when he met Alfred Gilbert. He adored Gilbert and
worshipped his work. One day the latter said to MacKennall:
“Go to London, man, and start there.”
“But I cannot afford it.”
“Never mind, go and try, and you will become my rival. It will do us
both good, spur us both on to better things, perhaps.”
To London he came. He succeeded, and finally stepped into Alfred
Gilbert’s place at the Academy. What irony of fate!
One day I chanced to go to MacKennall’s studio when he was working on
a wax of the head of King George V for the coinage. On a school-slate,
standing up on a small easel, was a little grey wax head in relief,
measuring three or four inches across. Smaller he would not work
because of his eyes; from that plaque a machine would reduce the
silhouette exactly to the size required for the coin.
“Oh, the bother of this work,” he exclaimed. “Stamping one side of the
coin often bumps out the other side in the wrong place, and all sorts
of little annoyances like that constantly occur.”
His love of Gilbert was very touching—and his admiration of Phil May
was only equalled by his surprise at his becoming a Roman Catholic a
week before his death.