The Aspiring Artist
By Hazel West
Charlotte Applebee had never been what one could call an artist. Of course she was an accomplished young lady as is to be expected: she could play the piano, and sew and be a good hostess and everything else that was expected of a young woman in the 18th century. But her one failing had been that she had never been able to hold a straight line in her sketching. Trees looked like celery stalks, rocks turned into such shapes nature never could have formed, and we shall not even discuss what the poor baby rabbits that had been her last attempt turned out to look like. This was a continuous annoyance and frustration for Charlotte, for she wished nothing more than to out-sketch her rival, Gwyneth Cumberfinch and she was determined to become an accomplished artist or was sure to perish trying.
Her mother decided, after trying and failing to help her daughter herself, to get her a tutor, the best in the land, one Harold Herselbert, a man of modest means who had made his way in the world by his skills as an artist as well as a teacher. Mrs. Applebee knew that if anyone could teach her hopeless daughter, it would be he.
So finally came the first meeting, one lovely spring day. Mr. Herselbert came to the Applebee estate and met with Miss Applebee for the first time. Charlotte was nervous for the meeting and nearly spilled tea in his lap, anxious to show him her portfolio and really learn how atrocious it was.
“Do promise to tell me the truth, Mr. Herselbert,” Charlotte pleaded as she reluctantly handed him her sketchbook. “I must know how bad they really are.”
“I’m sure they are not as bad as you think. We are usually our own worst critics,” Mr. Herselbert assured her with a smile before he flipped open the sketchbook.
That was when he realized that she might have not been jesting after all. The first picture might have been a still life, but it might also have been a horse, he couldn’t tell for certain. The next one was even more indecipherable; there was surely no hope in telling what that was. The next one showed incomprehensive blobs on a background that might possibly have been grass if one had a good imagination.
“May I ask what this is supposed to be, Miss Applebee?” Mr. Herselbert inquired in all politeness.
“Oh, that is supposed to be some baby rabbits that I found in the garden,” Charlotte told him, clasping her hands. “Is it very awful?”
“It’s not that your drawing is…bad as such…” Mr. Herselbert said, trying to be as tactful as possible. “It’s just very…obscure. I am having a bit of difficulty in deciding what the subject matter is.”
“That does seem to be a common problem,” Charlotte nodded in resignation. “Oh, and find even I cannot tell what some are, I have no recollection of that one!” She was pointing to the current page with a horrified finger, which held something that, if Mr. Herselbert didn’t know any better, he would say was some sort of mythological creature only to be found in the Ninth Circle of Hell.
“Well, I would say that you at least have an imagination, and you do seem eager,” he said, quickly shutting the sketchbook. He had seen enough. “I am willing to teach any student who is willing to work at it, so I shall show you a few techniques that may help you find lines better, and then we shall go out and sketch some.”
Days passed and Mr. Herselbert did his best to show Charlotte a few tricks to make her craft easier, and her work more legible. She did work very hard, but in all truth, she was still utterly horrible—there really was no other way to put it.
He tried to show her how to draw an egg, but that was obviously too complicated. In truth a chicken would likely perish from laying an egg that shape, and then they ventured outside to the garden to see if flowers suited her any better.
They did not, as it turned out, in fact, they looked like something from a nightmarish land. The same thing happened with the trees, which went from looking like celery to carrots with rocks that looked like potatoes and birds that looked like worms eating all the vegetables. He was almost afraid to move on to living things after those failed attempts, but he had to do something, as Miss Applebee was not improving any other way.
“Perhaps, instead of drawing a living person, you should try one from a painting,” he suggested to her as they sat in the Applebees’ drawing room where there was a mural on the wall of a statue and some landscape.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for that, Mr. Herselberg, I haven’t quite gotten the hang of drawing inanimate objects yet,” Charlotte said uncertainly.
“Technically, it’s still an inanimate object,” Mr. Herselbert told her. “I just think it might help you to understand the process by drawing from someone else’s work.”
“Well, alright, if you think I can do it,” she replied, not completely assured in herself, and flipped to a new page in her sketchbook as she sharpened her pencils, dutifully setting to work.
The next day, Mr. Herselbert came at his usual time to see what his student had finished. He actually had high hopes for this one, but those hopes were hopelessly dashed as Miss Applebee put the paper in front of him.
“Oh my…” He was unable to help himself.
“Is it very awful?” Charlotte asked anxiously.
“It is certainly…abstract,” he replied.
“I’m afraid I didn’t really understand the picture. It looks like a father refusing to embrace his son but I don’t really understand why.”
“You don’t have to understand the subject that you are drawing,” Mr. Herselbert assured her as he put the picture on the table gingerly, and almost hesitantly pointed out a very oddly shaped spot. “Is this a hand?”
“It is a foot.”
“Then why is it up here?”
“Because that’s the ground. And these are the heads, and this is a tree.”
He listened intently as she pointed these things out, her guide doing nothing to help him better see what was in front of him. Finally, he sat back with a sigh.
“My dear, I’m afraid we might have to face the fact that you might not ever be able to sketch. I feel it just isn’t for you. Perhaps another pursuit will suit you better.”
“Oh, but how will I ever compete with Miss Cumberfinch now?” Charlotte bewailed. “It is just that she is so very good, and I am so very awful. I don’t know what to do, she is so very tiresome, you see.”
Mr. Herselbert thought a moment, then said, “Perhaps you should offer to draw a portrait of her.”
“But you just said yourself that I am not very good at all!”
“Oh, I see!” Charlotte said, a new light in her eyes. “I will do so as soon as I can.”
Two days later, Mr. Herselbert came back one last time more for the sake of Mrs. Applebee than for her daughter, only to find a very disgruntled Charlotte sitting in the drawing room with her sketchbook.
“What’s the matter, Miss Applebee?” he asked her.
“Look at this portrait of Miss Cumberfinch, it is terrible!”
Mr. Herselbert took the sketchbook and was shocked to be greeted by a picture that, while not entirely skilled, was actually distinguishable as a young woman. He was so surprised, in fact, that he allowed himself a gasp.
“Why, Miss Applebee, this is actually very good. You should not be disappointed in it.”
“I know it’s good, that’s the problem!” Charlotte huffed. “I wanted to draw her badly and then this happened!”
“Perhaps that is your secret then,” Mr. Herselbert told her and handed back her sketchbook. “You might simply have been trying too hard all this time.”
“You think so?”
“I think you should try again.”
“Oh, well, I don’t think I’m going to,” Charlotte told him. “You see, I have given up on drawing, I have actually decided to take up writing instead! I have already started a story. It’s rather gothic, I’m afraid. I was actually inspired by some of my own drawings! They are just so beastly I couldn’t help myself. Would you like to read it?”
Mr. Herselbert smiled his best smile and accepted the ink-blotted papers that she handed to him, resigning himself to his fate.
Copyright© 2015 by Hazel B. West