It was one o’clock, and many of the students in the National Gallery had left off work and were refreshing themselves with lunch and conversation. There was one old worker who had not stirred from his place, but he had put down his brush, and had taken from his pocket a small book, which was like its owner–thin and shabby of covering. He seemed to find pleasure in reading it, for he turned over its pages with all the tenderness characteristic of one who loves what he reads. Now and again he glanced at his unfinished copy of the beautiful portrait of Andrea del Sarto, and once his eyes rested on another copy next to his, better and truer than his, and once he stopped to pick up a girl’s prune-coloured tie, which had fallen from the neighbouring easel. After this he seemed to become unconscious of his surroundings, as unconscious, indeed, as any one of the pictures near him. Any one might have been justified in mistaking him for the portrait of a man, but that his lips moved; for it was his custom to read softly to himself.
The students passed back to their places, not troubling to notice him, because they knew from experience that he never noticed them, and that all greetings were wasted on him and all words were wanton expenditure of breath. They had come to regard him very much in the same way as many of us regard the wonders of nature, without astonishment, without any questionings, and often without any interest. One girl, a new-comer, did chance to say to her companion:
“How ill that old man looks!”
“Oh, he always looks like that,” was the answer. “You will soon get accustomed to him. Come along! I must finish my ‘Blind Beggar’ this afternoon.”
In a few minutes most of the workers were busy again, although there were some who continued to chat quietly, and several young men who seemed reluctant to leave their girl friends, and who were by no means encouraged to go! One young man came to claim his book and pipe, which he had left in the charge of a bright-eyed girl, who was copying Sir Joshua’s “Angels.” She gave him his treasures, and received in exchange a dark-red rose, which she fastened in her belt; and then he returned to his portrait of Mrs. Siddons. But there was something in his disconsolate manner which made one suspect that he thought less of Mrs. Siddons’s beauty than of the beauty of the girl who was wearing the dark-red rose! The strangers, strolling through the rooms, stopped now and again to peer curiously at the students’ work. They were stared at indignantly by the students themselves, but they made no attempt to move away, and even ventured sometimes to pass criticisms of no tender character on some of the copies. The fierce-looking man who was copying “The Horse Fair” deliberately put down his brushes, folded his arms, and waited defiantly until they had gone by; but others, wiser in their generation, went on painting calmly. Several workers were painting the new Raphael; one of them was a white-haired old gentlewoman, whose hand was trembling, and yet skilful still. More than once she turned to give a few hints to the young girl near her, who looked in some distress and doubt. Just the needful help was given, and then the girl plied her brush merrily, smiling the while with pleasure and gratitude. There seemed to be a genial, kindly influence at work, a certain homeliness too, which must needs assert itself where many are gathered together, working side by side. All made a harmony; the wonderful pictures, collected from many lands and many centuries, each with its meaning and its message from the past; the ever-present memories of the painters themselves, who had worked and striven and conquered; and the living human beings, each with his wealth of earnest endeavour and hope.