Chapter 2 St. John’s Wood School of Art

On setting out for London, Frank received a letter from his great-grandmother, Louisa Peat :
“Now Frank you are undertaking a long journey” it said, and exhorted him, in the difficulties he was about to encounter, not to embark on any new undertaking without God’s guidance and blessing. The letter ended

“you know there is one just Friend for us i know that he has kept me from all harm and allowed me a very many blessings for witch i am truly thankful first he gave me my health and strenth and always willing to work thank God for that blessing now i am over fourscore and got the use of my limbs my eyesight and my hearing are not those more blessings thank God for them all now frank i send you ten shillings for your pocket as i know you cannot have to much but i know your Mother would almost sacrifice her life for you may God help you to repay her sometime from your Great Granmothe as i know you will often think of her so farewell for the present good night and may God bless us all. Amen
Louisa.

Her reference to going to London from Derby as a ‘long journey’ is curious since her own mother had crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship several times, back and forth, to visit her numerous children who had emigrated to America and were spread across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Perhaps though she was not thinking of the geographical distance but of her great-grandson’s journey through life.

In contrast to this anxious plea one cannot help being astounded at the casual yet expeditious way Frank set out to become a student at the St. John’s Wood School of Art. On the 30th May (1900) he wrote to make an appointment with the Principal, Mr. Calderon, announcing that he was thinking of coming to London on Thursday June 7th and if convenient he would show Mr. Calderon some of his work and if things were satisfactory would look for lodgings and start school the following Monday. He did just that.

On the Sunday he fitted in visits to St. Paul’s Cathedral and Dr. Cox, who was now living in Sydenham. In both he was disappointed. Although St. Paul’s was eventually to assume great importance in Frank’s career and affection, on this first visit, when he attended Holy Communion, Matins and an ordination service that lasted to 1.15 p.m., all he could find to say was that St. Paul’s seemed all jumble – people always knocking about, and there was only one bit he really liked.

Dr. Cox, he reported to his mother, seemed pleased to see him but he had changed. This must have been the moment when mother and son finally realised that the patronage they had hoped for would never materialise – and they were undertaking a long course of study ‘single-handed’, as she expressed it. They were convinced though that they had made the right decision, for St. John’s Wood School of Art boasted that out of 394 students admitted to the Royal Academy since 1880. 250 had been prepared by the school and out of 86 prizes for Drawing and Painting awarded by the Academy since 1886. 62 were taken by old pupils.

Fees were 18 guineas a year. In reading the syllabus Frank thought it would be a very strict school ; he soon found out that the rules and regulations were a farce and might as well have been at the bottom of the sea. He had his first shock the day he called to keep his appointment. He was expecting to see a stately porter and found “a rather small thickish man with an unsettled face and piercing eyes and a scrappy air about his personage.” On asking for the Principal, he was told that he was speaking to him. Frank was struck too by the smallness of the building after the spacious rooms of the Derby School of Art, and horrified at the preponderance of girl students.

However he found good lodgings nearby at Ordnance Road : 7/- a week for his room, breakfast 6d. (couldn’t be done for less) Dinner 1/- or perhaps 10p. and a combined tea and supper, in all £1 a week. Frank asked his mother whether this was too much. His mother replied that she had hoped he could have got board and lodging for 17/- a week but advised him to stay.

To begin with he was very homesick and lonely. The ugliness of the Euston Road so overwhelmed him that he cried. A summer storm occasioned the diary entry “In the storm one feels one’s loneness.” Even the following year a present of Snowdrops brought to the surface his suppressed but ever-present longing for Derbyshire. “The snowdrops” he writes “were very nice indeed, and I thought more of them than I used to do or have ever done – they brought thoughts of home. and I put them in water quite tenderly. I should think the orchard looks lovely.”

Gradually Frank began to feel more settled. The school, just behind Lord’s cricket ground in Elm Tree Road was in a most beautiful suburb of London. Charming early Victorian houses were set well back in their own gardens from which flowed, he said, ‘the peace and serenity of a country village.’ In spring the gardens were full of the blossom of old fruit trees, lilacs, laburnums, hawthorn and magnolias. It was truly rus in urbe , for in the road lived a horse-dealer who not only kept geese and hens but a cow. In Acacia Road not far away was Weston’s dairy where 50 or 60 cows were housed. Frank lost no time in getting to know Mr. Weston and painting the cows. He sent the picture to the Academy the following year but it was not hung. He even milked a cow but felt stiff and out of practice. At the end of Lisson Grove was the GCR goods depot and there the great cart horses pulled the huge drays which went in and out all day long.

Equally massive horses plodded step by step on the towpath of the Regent’s Canal pulling the long narrow boats. A goat came out of the mews behind the shops in St. John’s Wood High Street and ate the cabbage leaves strewn on the ground outside a greengrocer’s shop. At night owls hooted. The parks too were a source of delight with their sheep, swans and ducks and incredibly tame wood pigeons. Frank very soon obtained an artist’s ticket to sketch at the Zoo. Since the permitted hours clashed with his school hours he got permission from a superintendent to start at 6 a.m. Such zeal was not appreciated by the superintendent’s wife who was roused out of sleep to let him in and the privilege was withdrawn.

There was, however, a great deal to do at the school. Mr. Calderon very soon told Frank he would be all right in a year’s time, and impressed on him the necessity of being able to copy anything in reality before you so as to be able to record your movable thoughts and ideas. Mr. Ward, the under-master, was somewhat more astringent. Even after Frank had got into the R.A. Schools he wrote “I often think of Ward’s teaching (excellent man) and the way he would find out and point out such subtleties and often say to myself ‘now what would old W. say if he looked at that line ?”. It was though Frank’s misfortune that entry to the Academy depended on doing studies from the antique and in stippling (“stumping”) the drawings. It is hard to imagine a more useless and time-consuming discipline for an ardent young student. Dame Laura Knight maintained that it took her years to regain her freedom of expression after such study from plaster casts.

Fortunately there were also classes in drawing from life, including his first drawing from the female nude. “It was rather a coincidence” he wrote : “it was the first time she had posed and she was a bit shy. The others, in full force, had to fetch Ward, as her sister, who had come with her, could not induce her to come out, and it took Ward a tidy while.” Other notable models included a negress (the first he had ever seen), a Prussian vegetarian, who to prove his strength lifted my father up by his teeth, and a girl who seemed slightly mad, talking to herself and laughing at the wall.

But by far the most important thing that happened to my father at the school was his meeting with a fellow-student, Charles Edmund Brock, the youngest son of the sculptor Thomas Brock, who was shortly to design the Queen Victoria Memorial that stands outside Buckingham Palace. Brock was deaf, due either to measles or a box on the ears by a schoolmaster. My father had been taught the finger alphabet for the deaf by his sister and immediately could talk to Brock who “seemed” he said “to give me great satisfaction”. The two young men criticised one another’s work ; visited all the most important museums and art galleries and many of the lesser-known ones too ; had meals out, fenced and swam in the baths together. Even when Brock left to rough in canvases for Sargent at £3 a week, he still found time to come back for his outings with Frank.

Brock had no patience to do the work required for entry to the R.A. Schools ; instead he eventually studied at the Slade, after which he became an extremely successful artist, particularly renowned for his portraits of children including the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, as well as his study of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Brock and Frank remained friends for half a century and it was one of the saddest days in my father’s life when Brock took exception to a letter my father had written, and the friendship came to an end.

This period of my father’s life is documented very fully in two little diaries : the first for 1900 measuring only 3”x3.75” and the second for 1901 a little larger. It is amazing the number of facts Frank managed to squeeze in by adopting a code of abbreviations. Nearly a century afterwards we know the hour Frank rose each day and when he went to bed, and whether he had slept well or badly ; the state of his health, the weather and outstanding national events, his school work, the churches he attended together with the preachers and the subjects of their sermons ; visits made by him and visitors received ; letters written and letters received ; what he spent each day down to the nearest penny and the source of his income, which was of course almost entirely from his mother. Week by week she sent him 25/- or 30/- from the takings of the haberdasher’s shop. Often she and Frank’s sister Lilian would stay up until the early hours of the morning trimming the elaborate hats that were then the fashion. When trade was bad Frank had to owe his landlady money. He moved several times and one cannot help feeling that he must have been a somewhat exacting lodger.

It is tempting to quote freely from the diaries and the hundreds of letters that passed between London and Belper. The remedies he dosed both himself and anybody who was ill with whom he came into contact would make a study in themselves. Sometimes one is astonished he managed to survive after swallowing mercury, aconitum, pulsatilla, arsenic, bryonia alb., belladonna (for toothache), nux vomica and electuary of senna – in very haphazard doses and without going near a doctor. He felt some qualms on passing on a gypsy remedy for consumption or weakness as it had been imparted to his great-grandmother on terms of utmost secrecy. This potent medicine contained ½ gallon of home-brewed ale, 2 handfuls of ‘santuary’, 1oz. ginseng root and 1lb. honey. It was essential, his great-grandmother emphasized. not to cork the bottle or it would burst. A wineglassful was to be taken at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning (rather an inconvenient time one would have thought).

But to return to the diaries. One page must suffice for all the days he spent at the St John’s Wood School of Art and perhaps Wednesday, 11th July 1900, although not a school day, gives the flavour as well as any.

“5.25 (hour of rising) 12.25 (time of going to bed)
Ma A Queen Saw Holiday
Green and Hyde Parks Eggs Mall M&C
Went to St. Pancras (by Regent’s Park) to meet Mama Underground from Baker St. Horrid. Got there 7 a.m. but missed her and when I got back she was here. Mama said was looking well. Went round Smith’s House to St John’s Wood Station for parcel left. To Academy 12 to 2,30 or 3.30? ABC shop Piccadilly thence to S.K. Museum (saw the Queen God Bless Her) twice first in Constitution Hill & then in Hyde Park by Serpentine . Ma with me latter time. Hundreds of carriages were in Hyde Park tidy while.(Maskelyne & Cooks evening) went round RC Oratory (Ch) Brompton (hurt foot coming out of M&C’s) Had booked to SKM and seeing People in the Park asked what it was & got off to see the Queen. Rd Hamper which Ma had sent. 3 Rabbits 4 jars jam 2 honey Medicines own make 5 Heralds. Ma brought eggs clean clothes white shoes & stuff to clean mounts & calico to make portfolios (3/- worth of eggs sold Mrs. B 1/- on 12th) went to station to see Ma off saw several Belper folk. Holiday from S. Ma gave me £5
(?) 1½d. Ch1d. Fruit 3d. Eggs 2/- R.2/6 H 2/- Carr. 1/8 Wash 7d.
Busses 1d 1d 2d 1d 1d 2d 1d 1d Refs 1 ces Lem.9 555 @1/- :c1/- Paper 1d.”

An eight page letter described the Queen’s funeral procession in February of the following year. So moved was Frank that in writing to his mother he broke into verse, the 2nd person singular and the historic present.

“I take my stand near Hyde Park Corner…. The dawn breaketh, more policemen, more people, more soldiers and still they come, company after company,…as though they had no end, already the cold has pricked the weakly ones out – now the Lancers looking splendid in their various colours and pennons flying – and now the crowd behind is 30 or 40 deep. The procession comes, its splendour and variety you will read all about, but the crowd is hushed, and when the bier hove in sight an awed silence comes over all, hats are all off, and one can scarcely realise it, the great and good Queen her mortal remains enclosed in that bier the greatest of woman –
Her soul to rest
Has winged its flight ;
But,
The glory of her might still lingers.”

Within a fortnight he had also seen the procession of the new King and Queen to open Parliament, and had commented “Such sights as these fill me with a longing and a desire to be able to paint and describe the glorious feast of colours”.

Thus his mother began to live vicariously the life of the great capital, compensating for her own marriage when for weeks at a time her husband, as she often had occasion to remark, was ‘not himself’. Nevertheless, when Frank was accepted as a probationer for the Royal Academy Schools two telegrams sped to London, one from his father and one from his mother ; and to his great surprise he received 20/- from his grandfather Beresford. Frank had to write in haste to remind them that he might get kicked out in probation : fortunately all was well and at the end of July 1901 he was accepted as a full-time student, to start work in the autumn. Meanwhile he went to Hope Cove, near Kingsbridge in S. Devon, and was joined by Brock who had already been on holiday in Devon. They had a strenuous fishing and painting holiday until Brock was recalled by his father to work. In a letter twenty-eight pages long Frank wrote of their activities.

“Tuesday I went out to see the smack which calls for the fishermen’s shellfish (catching crabs, lobsters and crawfish is their chief occupation) it is a queer craft having a space in the middle of the vessel with holes in it at the bottom in which the sea is in, this keeps continually changing as they sail along and preserves these fish alive. They are all taken to France – Paris though you can get for between 2/- and 2/6 crabs lobsters and crawfish almost any size postage extra. Some of the latter are 9 or 10 lb.”

And on another occasion :

“as we were landing we saw thousands and thousands of brit, little fish in the cove near the shore and such a commotion mackerel were after them they were jumping out of the water in thousands within a few yards of the shore, shoals of them, it was a marvellous sight.”

One thing perturbed him : namely Brock’s inability to walk straight if there was no light. He knew nothing about the function of the cilia in the fluid of the esr balancing the body : “I felt sort of responsible for him somehow or other when he was here, and was glad to hear he arrived home all right, he had one great peculiarity wh: I could not at all understand or account for, in the dark or dusk he could not at all walk straight & one night especially when we had been out to the Bolstail (he had been fishing from the rocks & I’d been painting near him) he made my heart jump many times when coming back along the coastguard’s path…[where] you can only walk one abreast in places .. well to hear him slipping and tumbling about as he followed me that night (I went first to show him the way) I can tell you gave me some proper starts a many times, why even one night when we had come back from fishing he had to catch hold of my arm when coming on the road and he often had great difficulty in getting out of boats.”

Brock also upset the fishermen who when they asked Frank where his mate was if they saw him going to church or by himself on Sunday and were told Brock was an atheist, could not understand anyone not believing in God; they used to shake their heads & say ‘Oh dear ! Oh dear ! I shouldn’t like to die like that’. Whilst Frank was worrying about Brock, his mother, who had feared he might be eaten by a lion when he had been painting at the Zoo, was more understandably fearful that he would be drowned at sea ; but “as Jack Argent says” he wrote “the sea is just as safe or dangerous as the land – look at the no: of people killed yearly in London crossing roads etc”. Hardly so reassuring as he had intended for he was shortly to return to the capital and on 1st October wrote in his diary “started R.A.”

A live model in the morning was followed by the Antique for the rest of the day – the Discobulus in the afternoon and the Silenus and young Bacchus in the evening. Brock wrote to him “How do you like the R.A. schools ? I start at the Slade on Tuesday. I hope I won’t have to study at the antique if I do I shall soon leave.” Later he wrote “I am glad you are learning something at the R.A. The Slade school is the R.A.’s greatest enemy or vice versa. If the Slade school chap sees a finished drawing or painting, they say ‘Oh that is an awful academy thing’. I am working mid-way between the two”. An observation borne out by a conversation Frank had with Horace Canty, the Academy Curator, about the proposed Victoria Memorial shortly to be sculpted by Brock’s father. Frank had mentioned that Thomas Brock’s younger son, his friend, was at the Slade. Late at night he wrote down Canty’s remarks in his Art Diary. Canty “said he didn’t believe in the place (bother my lamp it is going lower and lower now a dim religious light)”.

For better for worse though Frank was at the R.A. schools and October 1st was to prove a momentous day in his life. When attending his probationer examinations at the end of July he had copied down the list of all the other students making an attempt. A name only two after his own was ‘Clague, Daisy Radcliffe’. On his first day, amidst the copious notes on his painting of the model’s head we find :

|———————————————|
|Miss Clague did a very good |
| one |
|———————————————|
The next day, “Miss Clague & Hope talking to me”. It was not until October 1st 1907 that Miss Clague wrote in her diary “Six years to-day since I first spoke to Frank.”

© Copyright James Bartholomew