From The Studio, July 15, 1898

In any consideration of the development of an artist's capacity there is no matter of more moment and of greater significance than the nature of the early training by which his preferences have been directed and his tastes matured. The influences by which, at the outset, he has been surrounded have an unquestionable bearing upon his after practice. They help to fix his opinions and to define his convictions, and to some extent they contribute to the formation of the habits with regard to the use of technical devices which mark his work throughout his life. The productions of all schools show plainly how much surroundings have to do with the evolution of a particular style, and how familiarity with a certain artistic atmosphere will cause an appreciable unanimity of aim in a group of individuals. What an artist strives after is not only to express his own personal view of Nature, but also to accommodate his manner of stating his opinions to the fashion in art with which he finds himself most in sympathy. No matter what may be the strength of his personality, or the greatness of his power of imitation, he will almost insensibly be guided by the work of others into a certain manner of putting down what appeals to him as worthy of record. He may have an idiom of his own, or characteristics of method which will apparently set him apart from his contemporaries; but these distinguishing marks of himself will not disguise the fact that he has based his theories and his performances upon an older creed which has been formulated by those of his predecessors whom he is willing to accept ab infallible guides. He may be original, inventive, daring in his departures from tradition or convention, but the more sincere he is in his wish to experiment, the more attentive will he be in his examination of what has been. done before, and the more anxious to understand and analyse the secret of the success that has attended the efforts of the men whom he admires most.

It is natural, then, that there should be a direct relation between the sensibility of a clever artist to early impressions and the extent of the influence exercised over him by the work of the leaders of the profession. If he has been fortunate enough to acquire his first experiences in a good school, he escapes many of the dangers which beset a youth at the outset of his career, and begins his period of production without having to struggle to free himself from fallacies which he has innocently accepted because he lacked the experience necessary for proper discrimination. Having nothing to unlearn, he need waste no time in casting about to find the right road. That is already marked out plainly for him, and he can follow it without hesitation or doubt, confident that the education of his judgment has taught him, even before his hand was capable of response to his mind, to choose the material which he can deal with in the way that suits him best. He is not likely to waver in his course, and he will not fail for want of knowledge.

How early associations will help a young artist to understand what is essential in the practice of art, and will save him from mistakes that would be likely to delay the maturing of his power, is very significantly shown in the case of Mr. Bertram Priestman. He is essentially a painter who takes an intelligent view of his professional responsibilities, and aims at something more than the literal interpretation of fact with which so many men are seemingly content. Obvious realism, without poetry and without sympathy, is the last thing which appears to commend itself to him as suited for pictorial treatment. What he desires, and what he gains, is a far more subtle and abstract quality: the charm of poetic suggestion, delicately implied and thoughtfully hinted at. In his pictures there is no bald assertion, no emphatic insistence upon commonplaces which are easy to appreciate, because they make no demand upon the intelligence; and, best of all, there is no shirking of the obligation which lies upon every artist to make his work a sincere expression of his own personal conviction. His preference is for pictorial romance, for that view of Nature which will allow him scope for fancy without leading him into bombastic exaggeration or theatrical display; but he is completely controlled by the best considerations of style.

The real secret of his artistic power lies in the fact that he knows exactly what to select and what to leave out. In a professional career of barely ten years, he has grasped the importance of subduing that inclination which usually marks the young painter, to crowd on to a canvas more detail than the subject needs, and to sacrifice reticence and discretion for the sake of proving that he has been an assiduous and laborious student. He has learned in one decade what impresses itself on most men only after the experience of half a lifetime; and his knowledge has come to him mainly as a result of what may be called education by habituation. It was his good fortune to pass his childhood among artistic surroundings of an unusual type; and to find in his father's house not only encouragement for his aesthetic inclinations, but as well a fine collection of examples of other men's work. With pictures all about him, and these pictures well selected and representative ones, the formation of a clear conviction about the merits of style became almost an unconscious process; and the influence of an artistic atmosphere was strong upon him from the moment when his first childish dabbling in art began. Although at first the possibility of his making painting his profession was not considered, he was helped and encouraged by his father to study systematically and to practice methodically. During his school days, spent at Bootham in Yorkshire, his spare time was almost entirely devoted to art work. Between 1883 and 1886 he was a pupil of Edwin Moore, the eldest of the remarkable group of artist brothers, of whom the most famous were John, Henry and Albert Moore, and by this excellent teacher the foundations of the skill which he has since developed were laid.

When his school work ended, Mr. Priestman went, in 1886, for a tour through Italy, Egypt, and Palestine, sketching; and while in Italy he made opportunities to visit most of the chief art galleries, and to study there the works of the greatest masters of the world. On his return he spent about a year at the Bradford Technical College, with the intention of making engineering his occupation, but soon decided to abandon what must have been an uncongenial pursuit, and to devote himself to the profession for which both by inclinationand capacity he was obviously fitted. In 1888 he came up to London to the Slade School, influenced, perhaps, in his choice of this place of study by the fact that he had, while at Bradford, been under the tuition of Mr. Durham, who had been one of the masters of the school. In this year, too, he made his first appearance in a public gallery, and showed at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition a picture which he painted during the summer in Norfolk. From the Slade School to a private studio was the next step in his educational course, for he joined, in 1889, Mr. W. Llewellyn, and worked for a while under his direction, both in the studio and out of doors at Padstow. A picture finished the year before represented him at the Grosvenor Gallery, and brought him first before the London public. Next year, however, he was in evidence both at the Grosvenor and the Academy, for he contributed one canvas to the former show, and had two, In Dock for Repairs and An Old Soldier from Chelsea at Burlington House. By way of enlarging his experience, he visited the Paris Exhibition with Mr. Llewellyn and some other artists to see the great collection of the productions of many schools which had been brought together there; and after his return he painted another picture, Condemned, a study of old boats, which is now in the collection of Mr. Mark Oldroyd, M.P. Etching fascinated him in 1891, when he was working with Mr. J. Walter West, and he made sufficient advance with this branch of art practice to bring out a small book of plates. He did not exhibit at the Academy.

From 1892 onwards his record has been steady and satisfactory, marked by continuous progress in technical power and by consistent development of his appreciation ot artistic refinements. He established himself in this year in a studio at Chelsea, where he came in contact with that admirable artist, the late C. E. Holloway, whose robust method and sturdy directness were well calculated to influence beneficially a young painter aiming at great things. This influence is, perhaps, seen in the force of brushwork and fearless use of masses of rich colour which are now characteristic of Mr. Priestman's pictures. There is certainly a distinct kinship between what he has done in the last half dozen years and the later performances of the painter whose recent death deprived the British school of one of its most able members. As often happens, the growth in Mr. Priestman's power was not marked by the same successes which attended his earlier effort. Until 1896 he did not again secure acceptance at the Academy, and had to content himself with exhibiting at other shows. But he was by no means idle, and relaxed nothing of his striving after what seemed to him to be the right kind of expression. His Breezy Upland and a large river subject which appeared at the Suffolk Street Galleries and at Manchester and Leeds, were painted in 1892; his Hazy Day on the Rochester River in 1893; various pictures of cattle in 1894; and Swollen Waters and Under a Thundercloud in 1895. In this last year he sold his Hazy Day on the Rochester River to the Bradford Corporation. About the same date he was elected a member of the New English Art Club, and paid his first visit to Holland, two events which are of moment in the history of his progress. By the first his position among the younger artists of the present day was clearly defined, and by the second certain tendencies which had always been observable in his art were made more active and more plainly perceptible.

His next appearance at the Academy was in 1896, when he exhibited Swollen Waters, which was, though badly hung, bought by Mr. William Harvey and presented to the Leeds Corporation; but in the following year he showed two canvases there, An Upland Wood and A Mile from the Sea, and he has two hung this spring, Grazing and Ebb Tide. Since 1896 he has been well represented at other galleries also, by Under the Chestnuts, Captured, A Following Sea, Sheep Salving, and several more canvases at the New English Art Club; by The Mist Bank and A Shore Wave at the New Gallery; and, most recently, by Meadowlands and An Autumn Afternoon, at the New International Exhibition at Knightsbridge. In all these he has asserted that faith in romanticism, and that belief in abstract suggestion of Nature, which are the fundamental principles of his artistic creed; and he has never allowed himself to forget the obligations imposed upon him by his early training. He has a high ideal, and a very sincere intention to be true to it dominates him. He is to be accounted fortunate, perhaps, in the opportunities offered him of establishing his beliefs before he began his training in the mechanical side of his work; but none the less is credit due to him for the firm resolution which has kept him from wandering, in a spirit of thoughtless experiment, into paths which are dangerously fascinating to artists of less sincerity.

It is worth while noting, too, that his decision to follow a particular line has not in any way led him into fixity of practice. There is nothing like monotony in manner, and there is no sign of narrowness in choice of subject, to be perceived in the pictures which he has produced during the last ten years. Between the reality of Cutting Worsels and The Old Chalk Pit, and the subtle suggestion of On the South Coast and Waiting for the Ferry, there is the widest possible distinction; and the study of Nature revealed in A Hazy Day on the Rochester River and Towing Home is quite unlike, in its expression, what appears in such exhibited works as his Meadowlands and Captured. He has, in fact, done what an artist who hopes for permanent fame should always do, provided himself with a set of principles that are susceptible of adaptation to the treatment of the widest range of material. His manner of looking at Nature will serve him well whatever may be the subject he chooses to regard; and nothing, within reasonable limits, that he selects will baffle him in his ambition to grasp and record her elusive charm. And the reason of this lies in the fact that he has so saturated himself with considerations of style that nothing would commend itself to him as paintable which did not present those characteristics which belong especially to the type of art in which he believes.