Review: ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Temptation of Harringay’ is a short story by the British author H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in the 9 February 1895 issue of the St. James’s Gazette and subsequently reprinted 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.

Here is a brief summary of the plot. R. M. Harringay, an artist, is painting a picture of a man who is modelled on an Italian organ-grinder Harringay observed looking up at a window. He is dissatisfied with it, and confesses to himself that he struggles to paint lifelike people in his paintings.

As he is regarding his work and trying to figure out how to fix the painting, he notices that the expression on the face of the Italian man he has painted appears to be changing. The figure in the portrait looks to be sneering at him:

The face on the canvas seemed animated by a spirit of its own. Where the expression of diablerie came in he found impossible to discover. […] The eye seemed now to have rolled in its socket, and was glaring at him an eye of fire. In a flash of passion, possibly with something of the courage of panic, he struck the brush full of bright red athwart the picture; and then a very curious thing, a very strange thing indeed, occurred – if it did occur.

Then, all of a sudden, the Italian in the painting shuts his eyes, purses his mouth, and wipes the colour off his face with his hand.

The man then chastises Harringay for his inability to paint him right. Harringay responds by upbraiding the figure for moving about and sneering and squinting while he’s trying to paint him. The Italian then accuses Harringay of lacking inspiration, arguing that that is the reason he cannot finish the portrait.

Then, the Italian makes Harringay an offer. If he sells his soul to the devil, the painting will be a masterpiece. Harringay scoffs at this offer and threatens to paint over the man, so the Italian doubles it, telling the artist he will be able to paint two masterpieces if he gives his soul away.

This offer, too, is rejected, and when Harringay fetches a tin of Hedge Sparrow’s Egg Tint paint from his wife’s bedroom, the Italian panics and offers three masterpieces. As he is being painted over, he makes one final offer: four masterpieces. The mouth of the man emerges from the canvas – now a uniform shade of Hedge Sparrow – to offer five, but Harringay continues to paint him over.

The narrator concludes the story by saying that he heard it from Harringay himself, who produced the Hedge Sparrow canvas as proof that the tale was true, although he also expresses regret that he didn’t photograph the devil in the canvas before he painted over him, so he’d have the ultimate proof.

In his critical biography of H. G. Wells, the academic and SF author Adam Roberts calls ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ a ‘Faustian exercise’. This description is accurate, although we might, I suppose, consider it an anti-Faustian narrative, since Harringay summons the devil quite by accident, and rejects the idea of selling his soul for worldly success. (He presumably summoned him inadvertently when he mentioned ‘Mephistopheles’ while considering potential subjects for the work-in-progress on the canvas.)

‘The Temptation of Harringay’ is a light story, humorous and even frivolous, and is best categorised as a fantasy, given the idea of a painting being possessed by the devil, who then tries to tempt the artist into giving him his soul. But Wells did this sort of tale very well, alongside his more serious science fiction, and the story, at just a few pages, is well worth reading.

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