In War Impressions, Menpes who had been sent to Africa to record the Boer War by Black and White, draws an admiring portrait of Lord Roberts. — George P. Landow]

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Left: Lord Roberts watching the Battle of Osfontein. Right: Lord Roberts and staff watching the Battle of Osfontein. Click on image to enlarge it.

I was first introduced to Lord Roberts at Bloemfontein, where I sketched him in his own study. But it was by no means the first sketch I had made of the Commander-in-Chief. I had sketched him many times on the march from Klip Drift to Bloemfontein, on the top of a kopje watching the preparations for a battle, lunching by the side of his Cape cart, having tea in a Free-Stater's garden; in fact, I had opportunities of making sketches of him in every conceivable position. But it was at Bloemfontein that I had my real chance. There I had the privilege of being introduced to him by Admiral Maxse, who arranged a series of sittings at which I had the opportunity of coming in touch with him and of studying his delightful individuality.

I was greatly helped also by Colonel Chamberlain, Lord Roberts's military secretary, who is an artist himself and took a great interest in my work. It was he who received me on my first visit to the Presidency, at nine o'clock one lovely morning, and escorted me into the presence of the Commander-in-Chief. This house had been the residence of President Steyn; now it was Lord Roberts's headquarters in Bloemfontein a building hopelessly vulgar both inside and out, filled with intolerable French statuary and rosebud -bedecked walls everything of the Early Victorian, antimacassar period. Lord Roberts's own sanctum was just saved by its sombreness. It had evidently been used by President Steyn as a library. At any rate, it was stacked with books large dusty volumes lay everywhere. It was a great bare room with a good-sized desk and tall windows looking out on rather a dreary garden. In short, the whole place was remarkable for its irredeemable ugliness.

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Left: Two studies of Lord Roberts Lord Roberts in his study at Headquarters Bloemfontein. Click on image to enlarge it.

This is where I found myself on the morning of Lord Roberts's first sitting, very shy and much amazed at my own boldness in taking Lord Roberts at his word and daring to appear paint-box in hand. He was so busy that I felt I should not have been there. It seemed scarcely the moment to trouble him with so trivial a thing as this sitting when the attention of the world was concentrated on his action. "It seems a presumption in me to ask you to sit, sir," I said. "Ah, Mr. Menpes, don't talk of presumption," he answered with wonderful sweetness and charm: "it is a great privilege to sit to you, and I am delighted that we have you with us to secure a colour record of what will be a historic war." So all my tremors went for nothing! These few courteous words, this simple, friendly greeting from the great Commander-in-Chief, put me at my ease at once, and gave me just the courage that I needed to start my portrait. In this room everything and everybody was in a whirl of business; there was no pretence, no outward show, no decoration, no sword. Here was this little man simple as a child, working for dear life, economising every moment; every one seemed to have caught the fever for work from the chief, the busiest man in South Africa. There he sat, a small man in a very large room yet filling it with his presence, very simply dressed in khaki; everything upon him was khaki and brown leather, devoid of decoration of any sort: he had no ribbons, no shoulder straps, nothing to show that he was a Field-Marshal or a General nothing to show that he was an officer at all; everything was as simple as it could be. His moustache and hair were quite white; his complexion was as clear and fair as a baby's; he had keen bright eyes, eyes that looked at a man steadily while talking, without embarrassing even the shyest person. The figure might belong to a boy, so upright was it and so compact; and the hands, by their strength and power, might belong to a man of great physique.

Lord Roberts, when standing, is always to be seen with one hand linked in his belt his characteristic attitude. How every one loves him! You can detect devotion in each look and act of the men about him. The secretaries and A.D.C.s that flit about his desk reverence him; the very scouts that come in with despatches are won over by his gentle bearing. Needless to say that before the sitting was over I too had entered to swell the ranks of his enthusiastic admirers. He was courteous and considerate doing everything in his power to make me feel perfectly at home, pretending to have unlimited time at my disposal, so that I should not be hurried, when in reality every moment was of value; talking in a natural, sympathetic way all through the sitting, touching lightly on various subjects with all the enthusiasm of a boy. And then he was such a splendid sitter! He took natural, easy poses, and kept them all through, entering thoroughly into the spirit of the thing and taking a keen interest in the work. When called away to interview a scout or to write a despatch, he never, I noticed, allowed the interruption to break the continuity of his conversation. In short, his conduct was marked by a consideration for the artist which went far to ensure the success of the portrait. O si sic omnes!

Lord Roberts is a master of detail, although detail never confuses him. I might liken him to the painter who, though his subject be full of detail and com- plicated, never loses sight of the broad effect of colour. That is the masterly work; and that is where Lord Roberts is a master. But perhaps Lord Roberts's greatest charm is his voice musical, sympathetic, yet at times full of authority :I have heard him rap out clear ringing words of command in a tone that implied immediate obedience. [68-72]

Portraits of Lord Roberts

References

Menpes, Mortime. War Impressions Being A Record in Colour. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1901. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 13 December 2014.


Last modified 14 May 2015