John Noble’s money came from his art. He did art because it compelled him from within, and he sold it “to make a living.”
“Sue and I burnt our bridges,” he said, looking back at the time after sailing on the Annie C. Ross and doing salvage with William Van Frank, he decided to pursue a career solely as an artist. “Burning your bridges means if you can’t play Carnegie Hall, you’re going to play the local saloon. That’s what I mean. Stay. Stick it. We burnt our bridges. We stuck it.” The process of developing a work of art, from drawing to painting to print, came naturally to Noble, and, for he and Susan, it coincided with their need to support themselves.
The first step was inspiration. Struck by a scene, like the Getty refinery glittering at night he’d do a drawing—and if it worked, then a finished piece in pencil, charcoal, or both. If a suitable composition emerged, with it came the idea of following up with a lithograph.
Having grown up in “a rich Bohemia,” Noble was keenly aware that he would need a wealthy patron to survive as an artist, as his father had. Fine art was available only to a small group of wealthy connoisseurs in those days, and the fine artist was isolated from larger audiences. But as lithography emerged as a legitimate fine art form in this country after World War II, he realized his prints could bring his ideas to the people whose work was their subject.
“A print has power just like something you write on a piece of paper has power,” he said. “I can send a piece of paper to Melbourne, Australia for just a few cents. I can make social comments.” He reveled in expressing his ideas through what he called “the most democratic and yet the most aristocratic” of mediums. Though it cost money to produce, a print would sell readily and enlarge his influence as it expanded his audience.
He had personal, aesthetic reasons for making lithographs. He was an accomplished draftsman, sensitive to the nuances of black and white. He accumulated over 600 plein air drawings over the years and though many are exquisite, unique, and historically valuable, he was often reluctant to sell them. They were his point of reference, and they inspired him. Unlike these spontaneous works, he “fussed over” the carefully constructed, formal drawings he did in preparation for drawing on a stone.
As a young man, before he took up lithography, Noble painted. His early works done out of doors show the influence of the command of color that made his father’s work so distinctive. Late in life he returned to painting more regularly. His large, unfinished Watchman of the Dead painting was on the easel in his studio at 270 Richmond Terrace when he died.
As his reputation grew, Noble attracted patrons who commissioned them, and sometimes even suggested them to him. If someone liked a particular print, they might ask if he would “make it into a painting.” In the case of Dying in the English Kills, from the Mast and Man series, when his pal and partner in crime, Jim O’Malley, an Irish customs officer with a flair for poetry and drama, asked him to do a painting of the print, Noble agreed. O’Malley stopped by as the work was in progress and suggested he “stop right there.” O’Malley contended that the rigging would obscure the background and told Noble to forego it. The figure in the lithograph is repairing the rat lines at the top of the rigging of a schooner, but in the painting he is floating in space. Thus Dying in the English Kills (without rigging) came into being. It still provokes inane comments, like “is he dying because he is falling off the mast?” Such questions must have put grins on the faces of the two conspirators.