The Great Portrait Mystery and Other Stories

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Descripción editorial

As a collection of human oddments, the National Gallery on copying day surpasses even the Reading Room of the British Museum, and almost equals the House of Commons. The spectacle that it afforded was a source of perennial interest to Mr. Joseph Fittleworth, as were also the productions of the professional copyists, humorously described in official parlance as students. For Joseph Fittleworth was himself a painter, with a leaning to the methods of the past rather than to those of the future, a circumstance which accounted for his professional failure. Which illustrates the remarkable fact that in these days, when even indifferent Old Masters sell at famine prices, while the unsold work of contemporary genius grows mouldy in the studios, an artist’s only chance of popularity is to diverge as far as possible from the methods of those great men of the past whose productions are in such demand.

Hence it had happened that Fittleworth had accepted with avidity a not very lucrative supernumerary post at the National Gallery where he could, at least, have his being amidst the objects of his worship, which we may remark included an exceedingly comely young lady, who came regularly to the gallery to copy pictures, principally of the Flemish school.

On this particular Thursday morning Mr. Fittleworth walked slowly through the rooms, stopping now and again to look at the work of the copyists, and dropping an occasional word of judicious and valued criticism. He had made a tour of the greater part of the building and was about to turn back, when he bethought him of a rather interesting copy that he had seen in progress in a small, isolated room at the end of the British Galleries, and turned his steps thither. The room was approached by a short corridor in which a man was seated copying in water-colour a small Constable, and copying it so execrably that Fittleworth instinctively looked the other way and passed hurriedly to the room beyond. The work in progress here interested him exceedingly.

The original was a portrait of James the Second by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and the copy was so perfect a reproduction that Fittleworth halted by the easel lost in admiration of the technical skill displayed. The artist, whose name appeared from an inscription on his colour box to be Guildford Dudley, was seated, looking at his picture and the original, as he deliberately mixed a number of tints on his palette.

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