By Louise de la Ramee

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Public Domain Books


A poor black paint lay very unhappy in its tube one day alone, having tumbled out of an artist’s color box and lying quite unnoticed for a year. “I am only Lampblack,” he said to himself. “The master never looks at me: he says I am heavy, dull, lustreless, useless. I wish I could cake and dry up and die, as poor Flake-white did when he thought she turned yellow and deserted her.”

But Lampblack could not die; he could only lie in his tin tube and pine, like a silly, sorrowful thing as he was, in company with some broken bits of charcoal and a rusty palette knife. The master never touched him; month after month passed by, and he was never thought of; the other paints had all their turn of fair fortune, and went out into the world to great academies and mighty palaces, transfigured and rejoicing in a thousand beautiful shapes and services. But Lampblack was always passed over as dull and coarse, which indeed he was, and knew himself to be so, poor fellow, which made it all the worse. “You are only a deposit!” said the other colors to him; and he felt that it was disgraceful to be a deposit, though he was not quite sure what it meant.

“If only I were happy like the others!” thought poor, sooty Lampblack, sorrowful in his corner. “There is Bistre, now, he is not so very much better-looking than I am, and yet they can do nothing without him, whether it is a girl’s face or a wimple in a river!”

The others were all so happy in this beautiful bright studio, whose open casements were hung with myrtle and passion-flower, and whose silence was filled with the singing of nightingales. Cobalt, with a touch or two, became the loveliness of summer skies at morning; the Lakes and Carmines bloomed in a thousand exquisite flowers and fancies; the Chromes and Ochres (mere dull earths) were allowed to spread themselves in sheets of gold that took the shine of the sun into the darkest places; Umber, a sombre and gloomy thing, could lurk yet in a child’s curls and laugh in a child’s smiles; whilst all the families of the Vermilions, the Blues, the Greens, lived in a perpetual glory of sunset or sunrise, of ocean waves or autumn woods, of kingly pageant or of martial pomp.

It was very hard. Poor Lampblack felt as if his very heart would break, above all when he thought of pretty little Rose Madder, whom he loved dearly, and who never would even look at him, because she was so very proud, being herself always placed in nothing less than rosy clouds, or the hearts of roses, or something as fair and spiritual.

“I am only a wretched deposit!” sighed Lampblack, and the rusty palette knife grumbled back, “My own life has been ruined in cleaning dirty brushes, and see what the gratitude of men and brushes is!”

“But at least you have been of use once; but I never am–never!" said Lampblack, wearily; and indeed he had been there so long that the spiders had spun their silver fleeces all about him, and he was growing as gray as an old bottle does in a dark cellar.

At that moment the door of the studio opened, and there came a flood of light, and the step of a man was heard: the hearts of all the colors jumped for joy, because the step was that of their magician, who out of mere common clays and ground ores could raise them at a touch into splendors of the gods and divinities immortal.

Only the heart of poor dusty Lampblack could not beat a throb the more, because he was always left alone and never was thought worthy even of a glance. He could not believe his senses when this afternoon–oh, miracle and ecstasy!–the step of the master crossed the floor to the obscured corner where he lay under his spiders’ webs, and the hand of the master touched him. Lampblack felt sick and faint with rapture. Had recognition come at last?

The master took him up, “You will do for this work,” he said; and Lampblack was borne trembling to an easel. The colors, for once in their turn neglected, crowded together to watch, looking in their bright tin tubes like rows of little soldiers in armor.

“It is the old dull Deposit,” they murmured to one another, and felt contemptuous, yet were curious, as scornful people often will be.

“But I am going to be glorious and great,” thought Lampblack, and his heart swelled high; for never more would they be able to hurl the name of Deposit at him, a name which hurt him none the less, but all the more indeed, because it was unintelligible.

“You will do for this work,” said the master, and let Lampblack out of his metal prison house into the light and touched him with the brush that was the wand of magic.

“What am I going to be?” wondered Lampblack, as he felt himself taken on to a large piece of deal board, so large that he felt he must be going to make the outline of an athlete or the shadows of a tempest at the least.

Himself he could not tell what he was becoming: he was happy enough and grand enough only to be employed, and, as he was being used, began to dream a thousand things of all the scenes he would be in, and all the hues that he would wear, and all the praise that he would hear when he went out into that wonderful great world of which his master was an idol. From his secret dreams he was harshly roused; all the colors were laughing and tittering round him till the little tin helmets they wore shook with their merriment.

“Old Deposit is going to be a signpost,” they cried to one another so merrily that the spiders, who are not companionable creatures, felt themselves compelled to come to the doors of their dens and chuckle too. A signpost! Lampblack, stretched out in an ecstasy upon the board, roused himself shivering from his dreams, and gazed at his own metamorphosis. He had been made into seven letters, thus:–


This word in the Italian country, where the English painter’s studio was, means, Do not trespass, do not shoot, do not show yourself here: anything, indeed, that is peremptory and uncivil to all trespassers. In these seven letters, outspread upon the board, was Lampblack crucified!

Farewell, ambitious hopes and happy dreams! He had been employed to paint a signboard, a thing stoned by the boys, blown on by the winds, gnawed by the rats, and drenched with the winter’s rains. Better the dust and the cobwebs of his old corner than such shame as this!

But help was there none. His fate was fixed. He was dried with a drench of turpentine, hastily clothed in a coat of copal, and here he yet was fully aware of all his misery, was being borne away upon the great board out of doors and handed to the gardener. For the master was a hasty and ardent man, and had been stung into impatience by the slaughter of some favorite blue thrushes in his ilex trees that day, and so in his haste had chosen to do journeyman’s work himself. Lampblack was carried out of the studio for the last time, and as the door closed on him he heard all the colors laughing, and the laugh of little Rose Madder was highest of all as she cried to Naples Yellow, who was a dandy and made court to her: “Poor old ugly Deposit! He will grumble to the owls and the bats now!”

The door shut, shutting him out forever from all that joyous company and palace of fair visions, and the rough hands of the gardener grasped him and carried him to the edge of the great garden, where the wall overlooked the public road, and there fastened him on high with a band of iron round the trunk of a tree.

That night it rained heavily, and the north wind blew, and there was thunder also. Lampblack, out in the storm without his tin house to shelter him, felt that of all creatures wretched on the face of the earth there was not one so miserable as he.

A signboard! Nothing but a signboard!

The degradation of a color, created for art and artists, could not be deeper or more grievous anywhere. Oh, how he sighed for his tin tube and the quiet nook with the charcoal and the palette knife!

He had been unhappy there indeed, but still had had always some sort of hope to solace him–some chance still remaining that one day fortune might smile and he be allowed to be at least the lowest stratum of some immortal work.

But now hope was there none. His doom, his end, were fixed and changeless. Never more could he be anything but what he was; and change there could be none till weather and time should have done their work on him, and he be rotting on the wet earth, a shattered and worm-eaten wreck.

Day broke–a gloomy, misty morning.

From where he was crucified upon the tree-trunk he could no longer even see his beloved home, the studio; he could only see a dusky, intricate tangle of branches all about him, and below the wall of flint, with the Banksia that grew on it, and the hard muddy highway, drenched from the storm of the night.

A man passed in a miller’s cart, and stood up and swore at him, because the people had liked to come and shoot and trap the birds of the master’s wooded gardens, and knew that they must not do it now.

A slug crawled over him, and a snail also. A woodpecker hammered at him with its strong beak. A boy went by under the wall and threw stones at him, and called him names. The rain poured down again heavily. He thought of the happy painting room, where it had seemed always summer and always sunshine, and where now in the forenoon all the colors were marshaling in the pageantry of the Arts, as he had seen them do hundreds of times from his lone corner. All the misery of the past looked happiness now.

“If I were only dead, like Flakewhite,” he thought; but the stones only bruised, they did not kill him; and the iron band only hurt, it did not stifle him. For whatever suffers very much has always so much strength to continue to exist. And almost his loyal heart blasphemed and cursed the master who had brought him to such a fate as this.

The day grew apace, and noon went by, and with it the rain passed. The sun shone out once more, and Lampblack, even imprisoned and wretched as he was, could not but see how beautiful the wet leaves looked, and the gossamers all hung with raindrops, and the blue sky that shone through the boughs; for he had not lived with a great artist all his days to be blind, even in pain, to the loveliness of nature. The sun came out, and with it some little brown birds tripped out too–very simple and plain in their costumes and ways, but which Lampblack knew were the loves of the poets, for he had heard the master call them so many times in summer nights. The little brown birds came tripping and pecking about on the grass underneath his tree-trunk, and then flew on the top of the wall, which was covered with Banksia and many other creepers. The brown birds sang a little song, for though they sing most in the moonlight, they do sing by day too, and sometimes all day long. And what they sung was this:–

“Oh, how happy we are, how happy! No nets dare now be spread for us, no cruel boys dare climb, and no cruel shooters fire. We are safe, quite safe, and the sweet summer has begun!”

Lampblack listened, and even in his misery was touched and soothed by the tender liquid sounds that these little throats poured out among the light yellow bloom of the Banksia flowers. And when one of the brown birds came and sat on a branch by him, swaying itself and drinking the raindrops off a leaf, he ventured to ask, as well as he could for the iron that strangled him, why they were so safe, and what made them so happy.

The bird looked at him in surprise.

“Do you not know?” he said. “It is YOU!”

“I!” echoed Lampblack, and could say no more, for he feared that the bird was mocking him, a poor, silly, rusty black paint, only spread out to rot in fair weather and foul. What good could he do to any creature?

“You,” repeated the nightingale. “Did you not see that man under the wall? He had a gun; we should have been dead but for you. We will come and sing to you all night long, since you like it; and when we go to bed at dawn, I will tell my cousins, the thrushes and merles, to take our places, so that you shall hear somebody singing near you all the day long.”

Lampblack was silent.

His heart was too full to speak.

Was it possible that he was of use, after all?

“Can it be true?” he said timidly.

“Quite true,” said the nightingale.

“Then the master knew best,” thought Lampblack.

Never would he adorn a palace or be adored upon an altar. His high hopes were all dead, like last year’s leaves. The colors in the studio had all the glories of the world, but he was of use in it, after all: he could save these little lives. He was poor and despised, bruised by stones and drenched by storms; yet was he content, nailed there upon his tree, for he had not been made quite in vain.

The sunset poured its red and golden splendors through the darkness of the boughs, and the birds sang all together, shouting for joy and praising God.


The Nurnberg Stove  •  The Ambitious Rose Tree  •  Lampblack  •  The Child of Urbino  •  Findelkind