Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sargent Thrashes a Farmer

John Singer Sargent's (1856-1925) biographer Evan Charteris tells the story of one of the oddest episodes of the artist's career, which occurred while he was staying in England shortly before Christmas, 1891.

Towards the end of the day he was riding homeward. He found himself in a field of winter wheat, a part of which he had to cross in order to reach a bridle path.

He was no agriculturist; he probably would have found it difficult to distinguish between a field of potatoes and a field of turnips. In all ignorance and innocence, therefore, he continued his way. His movements had been observed; through the twilight the owner of the winter wheat advanced upon him and without preliminaries launched out into a torrent of low abuse. Sargent was completely surprised. 

He dismounted, and as the man drew near, [Sargent] began to apologize for his mistake, offering to make good any damage he had done. Far from being pacified by his courtesy, the farmer became more incensed. He worked himself into a frenzy of rage and loaded Sargent with every variety of threat and malediction. 

He was well known in the neighbourhood as a surly and foul-mouthed fellow, and Sargent, deeply agitated, mastered his temper and moved away, mounted his horse and rode home. That evening he described what had happened; Mrs. Abbey states that he was obviously in the grip of an agitating distress. At intervals he would return to the subject and discuss what he ought to do. 

For two days he was uneasy and silent and could do no work. Late on the second day he went out. Towards evening of that day Mrs. Abbey was returning from a walk. Her road led past the gate of the house where the farmer lived. As she approached, a figure walked rapidly down the path; drawing nearer she saw in the dusk that it was Sargent. When he joined her he exclaimed: "I've done it — I've done it." 

He was calmer than he had been at any time since the adventure. He went on to tell her that after looking at the thing from every side and turning it over and over in his mind he had settled what he ought to do; he had gone to the farmer's door, knocked, and when the farmer appeared, had said:

"Come outside and defend yourself, I am going to thrash you."

The farmer called on his household to witness the assault, and then, answering the challenge, engaged in a struggle in the course of which Sargent appears to have carried out his threat. Such was the amazing story told as he and Mrs. Abbey walked home.

The farmer at once sought the help of the law. It was doubtful at first whether he would proceed by summons before a magistrate or by a civil action for damages. Sargent put the matter in the hands of Sir George Lewis. On January 21 Sir George wrote that the farmer had issued a writ for damages.

He advised payment into court. £50 was considered adequate. The farmer accepted the sum, and proceedings went no further; and there, so far as Sargent was concerned, this curious episode ended. 

Later an unexpected turn was given to it by an invitation from the farmer to Sargent asking him to dine. Sargent declined, but as a reconciliation was in the air [Sargent's friends] de Glehn and Finn took his place, and found the farmer if not ready to forgive, at any rate determined effectually to achieve forgetfulness by conviviality. Legend has it that Sargent spent the interval between the insult and the assault in taking lessons in boxing. This scarcely needs denial; he spent the interval, it is true, in deep perplexity.

His sense of justice, always lively, but balanced, had been outraged, but his indignation had cooled and had been replaced by a reasoned view of what under the circumstances it was right to do. He acted in a manner which was unspeakably distasteful to him, driven forward by the conviction that no other course was honourably open to him. It was in no spirit of revenge that he acted, it was probably with no sense of personal grievance, but on a conclusion of judgment arrived at on a point of honour. 
John Sargent by the Hon. Evan Charteris
Free download of ebook


scruffy said...

All i hear in my head is John Cleese saying, "What a strange person!" :D

i cannot imagine settling an issue in this manner anymore. Calmly, rationally calling a man out on a point of honor two days after the offense. A hold over of dueling i suppose.

Unknown said...

Well, Sargent had his sense of justice, so that's how he reacted. I doubt I'd do that, but I can certainly imagine it.

arturoquimico said...

We can wish it weren't so; but sometimes you do have to fight... In this circumstance I'd have written a check and learned my lesson... however, if it had involved my wife or kids, I'd have thrashed him on the spot...

Tom Hart said...

I think Scruffy has it right. Sargent's actions seem to be a holdover from a sense of honor that we now find dated (fortunately). He obviously felt that he had initially backed down from a challenge, and needed to prove his masculinity and defend his honor, even after the fact. I suspect that there was a desire to prove his masculinity as well, given that Sargent's sexuality has been a matter of speculation.

David Webb said...

An interesting story, and insight into a day in the life of J.S. Sargent.
I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall at that dinner.

Andy said...

As an aside, though remotely related, I am interested to know how artists approach the prospect of entering an unknown property with an intent to paint.

I'd never simply jump a farm fence but am also loathe to approach the home and ask permission, no matter how tempting a closer look at a scene might be. So I often just let it go unpainted.

I have knocked and asked on occasion and it always turns out fine and often very friendly. And yet my hesitation remains every time I see a new property I'd like a closer look at.

Perhaps this is something you could write about James? Is it just me, or is it a common problem?

Terry said...

I'm not an artist, but as a former state environmental agency employee with some experience of requesting access, I'm thinking maybe it would help to say that even if a polite request for access to a landowner's property is turned down - even if it's rudely - it may have nothing at all to do with the artist asking. It might have to do with property disputes between neighbors of long standing, which has made the owner suspicious of anyone entering their property, or it could be suspicion that some "Them" is wanting info about what's on the property. So don't take it personally if your request is denied. You can't know what's going on there that has nothing to do with letting a painter onto the property.

Joseph Miller said...

The artist as pugalist. How Victorian.

Mark Martel said...

In a time of no farm insurance or social safety nets, damaging a farm field could have dire consequences. Who had more at stake?

Gavin said...

I remember reading this recently, and thinking he must have been a character!
There's a version of the book complete with coloured paintings (rather than monochromatic reproductions) online : John Singer Sargent

Dan said...

Obviously the times were very different. Based on the description, Sargent's actions were not the actions of a violent man. I admire how he came to the decision to call the man out after careful deliberation, not in the heat of the moment.

This was an era in which a man generally took responsibility for defending himself and his family, something that we would nowadays view as "taking the law into your own hands." In that context, a man might feel that justice needed to be served, and that it was his own duty to serve it. In this case, it was a duty that Sargent obviously didn't relish, but he did it anyway, on the moral conviction that it was the right thing to do--another reason I admire his action.

Was it really morally necessary for the other fellow to be physically punished for the verbal abuse he heaped on Sargent? In our society we have a lot of difficulty with that. I think in some ways that this is a very good thing. On the other hand, manners have all but disappeared in society at large. People treat thugs politely out of fear, but they don't treat honest people politely because they feel there are no consequences to being rude. In my view this has led to a lot of problems.

Did John Singer Sargent live in a society in which honest men were always beating one another up over any little thing? I don't think so. In some ways communities were probably much more friendly and people much more predictable in their behaviors.

And what about the wrong done to the farmer? Well, didn't Sargent offer to pay for the damage himself up front, before the man heaped abuse on him?

Just a few observations . . .