Literature Reading practice 2: THE PORTRAIT OF MR. W. H.


A reading practice for literature.

Before you read

  1. Have you ever read any original work of literature in English?
  2. If yes, did you finish reading it? How long did it take you to read it all? Did you often use a dictionary while reading it?
  3. If no, would you like to try to read a piece of short story or novel?

The text for reading literature practice : THE PORTRAIT OF MR. W. H. (the first chapter)

I had been dining with Erskine in his pretty little house in Birdcage Walk, and we were sitting in the library over our coffee and cigarettes, when the question of literary forgeries happened to turn up in conversation. I cannot at present remember how it was that we struck upon this somewhat curious topic, as it was at that time, but I know that we had a long discussion about Macpherson, Ireland, and Chatterton, and that with regard to the last I insisted that his so-called forgeries were merely the result of an artistic desire for perfect representation; that we had no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an æsthetical (aesthetical) problem.

THE PORTRAIT OF MR. W. H for literature reading practice
THE PORTRAIT OF MR. W. H for literature reading practice

Erskine, who was a good deal older than I was, and had been listening to me with the amused deference of a man of forty, suddenly put his hand upon my shoulder and said to me, ‘What would you say about a young man who had a strange theory about a certain work of art, believed in his theory, and committed a forgery in order to prove it?’

‘Ah! that is quite a different matter,’ I answered.

Erskine remained silent for a few moments, looking at the thin grey threads of smoke that were rising from his cigarette. ‘Yes,’ he said, after a pause, ‘quite different.’

There was something in the tone of his voice, a slight touch of bitterness perhaps, that excited my curiosity. ‘Did you ever know anybody who did that?’ I cried.

‘Yes,’ he answered, throwing his cigarette into the fire, —‘a great friend of mine, Cyril Graham.  He was very fascinating, and very foolish, and very heartless. However, he left me the only legacy I ever received in my life.’

‘What was that?’ I exclaimed. Erskine rose from his seat, and going over to a tall inlaid cabinet that stood between the two windows, unlocked it, and came back to where I was sitting, holding in his hand a small panel picture set in an old and somewhat tarnished Elizabethan frame.

It was a full-length portrait of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age, and was of quite extraordinary personal beauty, though evidently somewhat effeminate. Indeed, had it not been for the dress and the closely cropped hair, one would have said that the face with its dreamy wistful eyes, and its delicate scarlet lips, was the face of a girl. In manner, and especially in the treatment of the hands, the picture reminded one of François Clouet’s later work. The black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and the peacock-blue background against which it showed up so pleasantly, and from which it gained such luminous value of colour, were quite in Clouet’s style; and the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy that hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal had that hard severity of touch—so different from the facile grace of the Italians—which even at the Court of France the great Flemish master never completely lost, and which in itself has always been a characteristic of the northern temper.

‘It is a charming thing,’ I cried, ‘but who is this wonderful young man, whose beauty Art has so happily preserved for us?’

‘This is the portrait of Mr. W. H.,’ said Erskine, with a sad smile. It might have been a chance effect of light, but it seemed to me that his eyes were quite bright with tears.

‘Mr. W. H.!’ I exclaimed; ‘who was Mr. W. H.?’

While you read (literature reading comprehension tasks)

True/ False

  1. The discussion about the literature forgeries had come into conclusion before they talked about Cyril Graham.
  2. Erskine was smoking while speaking with writer on the portrait.
  3. Erskine is a little bit older than writer.
  4. Before talking about the literature forgery, they were discussed about
  5. According to Erskine, Cyril Graham is one of his best friends.
  6. In the picture, the writer thought the portrait’s face would have belonged to a girl if there had not been a man’s fashion and hair style
  7. The portrait reminded one of François Clouet’s work.

Fill in the summary gap

long                manly             beautiful                    woman             background               treatment                   severity                      full-length

It was a (1) _________ portrait of a young (2) ______ man in late 16th century fashion. Without the dress and closely cropped hair, his face with its wistful eyes would have been said to be the one of a (3) ______. In manner, and especially in the (4) ______ of the hands, the picture reminded one of François Clouet’s later work. The black velvet doublet with gilded points, and the blue (5) _______ were quite in Clouet’s style. The two masks of Tragedy and Comedy that hung somewhat from the marble pedestal had that hard (6)  ____ of touch.

For more practice of resources of reading literature: please visit: Practice reading: Literature (

For After you read section (vocabulary practice and reading literature practice), please follow the link:

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