“The Temptation of Harringay” is a short story by H. G. Wells, first published in the 9 February 1895 edition of the St. James’s Gazette and subsequently in The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895). It tells of an artist, Harringay, who paints a man’s head that comes to life and criticises his work.
The story is told in the third-person by a narrator who is evidently dubious about the truth of the account he is about to relate: “It depends entirely on the word of R. M. Harringay, who is an artist”.
About 10 o’clock one morning Harringay goes into his studio to complete the portrait of an Italian organ-grinder he had started the day before. Dissatisfied with his work, he begins to dab at the painting, slightly altering an eyebrow, adding a little to the lobe of an ear, but still the portrait doesn’t feel right, if anything becoming more satanic. Accidentally retouching the eye with vermillion when he had meant to use brown, it seems to Harringay that the now red eye rolls in its socket and glares at him. In a moment of panic he strikes the brush full of bright red across the painting, at which the face smiles and says “That was rather hasty of you”.
“Don’t go hitting me with paint again”, the face continues, “Really, you haven’t an idea what your picture ought to look like … you never have with your pictures.” The devil, who has taken possession of the painting, explains to Harringay that a painting must flow from inspiration, not experiment and chance, as is Harringay’s way. “The true artist”, says the devil, “is always an ignorant man. An artist who theorises about his work is no longer artist but critic.”
The devil offers Harringay a deal, his soul for two masterpieces, but the artist refuses, and attempts to paint over the face. The devil resists, wiping off the paint as fast as Harringay can apply it. Having run out of paint he rushes to his wife’s boudoir to fetch a large tin of enamel, Hedge Sparrow’s Egg Tint, and a brush.[a]Women used enamel for cosmetic purposes during the late Victorian period. Just before Harringay paints over the last of the canvas the devil ups his offer to five masterpieces, but to no avail; all that remains is a small canvas enamelled a pale green. The narrator ends by observing that Harringay “never has produced a masterpiece, and in the opinion of his intimate friends probably never will.”
The devil offers Harringay the composer Richard Wagner as an example of an artist who, wrongly, chose to theorise.
- H. G. Wells bibliographyA list of publications written by H. G. Wells during the more than fifty years of his literary career.