‘I’m afraid I cannot give any narrative of a humorous or touching nature. My life has been, as is necessary for the art I follow, an unexciting one. Perhaps it has been just as well; for art requires a measure of calmness if not of isolation for its higher manifestations. Perfection was never achieved amid the silent tumult of conflicting thoughts.’
‘Pip-pip’ came again from the young man from Oxford. The Tragedian started to his feet – in his momentary passion he forgot to be slow.
‘I protest against this unseemly interruption. This intrusion into the privacy of our artistic life of hooligans without soul: this importation to the inner heart of refinement, of the coarser vulgarisms of the world of decadent ineptitude. And when, in addition, the perpetrators of this ignoble infamy seem to be ignorant of the very elemental basis of the respect due to recognised personal supremacy in a glorious art and an honoured calling. Bah! Never mind, Turner Smith. I suppose all the fine arts are to be assailed in turns. Your time will come, however. You can, later, turn this painful episode to professional advantage. I understand that you are doing the scenery of the panto at Poole; why not take for the subject of your opening scene, the gloomy one, The Home of the Hooligan. The audience will show at once their detestation of that offensive class. Doubtless the Costumier will rise to the occasion, and show a peculiarly offensive fiend with a marvel of ill manners. The Musical Conductor, too, can enhance the satirical effect by introducing into his score as a motif the Pip-pip whereby the Hooligan proclaims himself.’ Then the Tragedian retired into himself with a victorious air. In the constrained silence that followed the Wardrobe Mistress was heard to whisper to the Sewing Woman:
‘Mister Wellesley Dovercourt giv it him in the neck that time. It’ll be a lesson to Cattle what he won’t forget.’ Cattle was the nickname of the young man from Oxford, given to him soon after his joining the company. The occasion had been his writing his name in a landlady’s ‘book’ and putting after it, Oxon. This was looked on by his comrades not as cheek but as bad spelling. The Scene Painter saw his chance to continue, and so resumed his narrative:
‘I was Scenic Artist at one time to old Schoolbred, the impresario. It was a special engagement, and just suited me, for at that time I had undertaken a lot of work of various kinds, and was looking about for a painting room. Schoolbred had then a long lease of the Queen’s Opera House, which had, as some of you may remember, a magnificent atelier. Old Schoolbred paid me a good salary – that is, he promised it, for he never paid any one if he could help it. I daresay he suspected that I mistrusted him, for he also put it in the agreement that I was to have full use of the painting-room for my own purposes from the time of my signing until I should start at his work. It was then that my solicitor did a wise thing. He, too, knew from old experience that there was sure to be some trouble with Schoolbred, and insisted that I should have a lease of the painting rooms. “Otherwise,” he said, “your own property is not safe. If he goes bankrupt the creditors will seize all of yours that is on the premises.” When I objected he said:
‘”Surely it is all the same to you. You will give him each week a quittance for salary, and he will give you one for rent. It is as broad as it is long; and you wouldn’t touch money anyhow.” As he found all materials and paid wages I was on velvet, for I should have no expenses. All I risked was my time; and against that I had the use of the finest frames in London. Schoolbred’s work was only touching up the old scenes belonging to the Opera House and painting the new opera by Magnoli, Il Campador. My assistant, whom he paid, could do most of the re-painting, and as I knew that his work did not come on till September I had nearly six months rent free, and my time my own.
‘When I had moved in my traps I got to work at once. It took me half a day going over the scenery book with Grimshaw, who was then the Stage Carpenter, and off and on a couple of days more examining the scenes before we could get to work. The scenery was old-fashioned – nearly all flats; hardly a cloth, let alone a cut-cloth, in the lot. Heavy old framed stuff that wouldn’t fold; and as much messy old timber about it as would furnish a ship-yard. Old Schoolbred had ordered the scenes to be made workable, so that when the time should come of bringing the operas on the road they should be all ready. There would, I saw, be a fine old job for Grimshaw to cut and hinge that mass of scenes so that they would double up for transport. However, Grimshaw was a good man, and work was no terror to him. He got his coat off, and once he was started with his own men I couldn’t overtake him. Schoolbred was in a hurry to have the work done – in such a hurry that he didn’t even grumble when I had to get a second assistant and two more labourers. Mind you, that meant a lot to him, for weekly wages means ready money; and out-of-pocket expenses have to be paid every Saturday. There were seventeen operas, so that it was no slouch of a job to get them all into moving trim. But there is, I must say, this about a carpenter’s job that when the “production” is simplified it means saving labour afterwards. But the more scenes there are – not built scenes, but flats and cloths, wings and borders – to keep in order for nightly use and travel, and the taking to and from the storage, the more the poor scenic artist gets it in the neck.
‘However, when we had once got started and I had explained to my assistants what I wanted and roughed out sketches to guide them I was able to get a bit of my own work in hand. I had a whole batch of such at the time. As you know, it was just when I was starting on my own, and every scene that was done was just so much in my pocket. I tell you I worked hard to get a bit ahead and give myself room, so that I wouldn’t have to be always pulling the devil by the tail. We all worked day and night; as old Schoolbred didn’t grumble at overtime the men were content to do twenty-four hours in the day. Our work has long waits; and as the labourers have to be on hand whenever they are wanted they did themselves well in the way of sleep. At first they had old sacks and such like to lie on; but presently they got luxurious, and nothing would do them but ticking and fresh hay and army blankets to cover them. I didn’t mind. Indeed, I never even let on that I noticed.
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