Nancy Mitford – Highland Fling, 1931

conroy maddox cloak of secrecy

Chapter 20

  Albert had decided that the private view of his pictures should take the form of a giant cocktail-party at the Chelsea Galleries, where they were being exhibited, the afternoon before they were to be opened to the public. Guests were invited from half-past three to seven, and at three o’clock Albert and Jane, supported by the Monteaths and Mr Buggins, with whom they had all been lunching, arrived at the Galleries in a state of some trepidation.

Walter and Sally, who had not seen the pictures before, gasped with amazement as they entered the room, and for several moments were left quite speechless. The pictures were indeed, at first sight, most peculiar and Albert appeared to have employed any medium but the usual. Some of them stood right out like bas reliefs, while various objects such as hair, beards, buttons and spectacles were stuck on to them. Others were executed entirely in string, newspaper and bits of coloured glass.

The first picture — Child with Doll — had a real doll stuck across it. The child also had real hair tied up with blue ribbons. The next on the catalogue, ‘No. 2. Fire irons, formal design’, represented a poker and tongs and was executed in small pearl buttons, varying in shade from dead white to smoke-grey. This was framed in empty cotton-reels.

The most important picture in the exhibition was ‘No. 15. The Absinthe Drinker’. This was tremendously built out, the central figure — that of a woman — being in a very high relief. On her head was perched half a straw hat with black ostrich feathers. In one hand was a glass filled with real absinthe. This was felt by Albert himself to be his masterpiece.

The only painting in the ordinary sense of the word, was his portrait of Sally, which, hung between two huge still-lifes with surgical limbs, stuffed birds and ukuleles stuck all over them, hardly showed up to its best advantage.

Mr Buggins was rather shocked at this travesty of painting, but was nevertheless obliged to admit that there was a great deal of force in the pictures, while the Monteaths, when the first sensation of surprise had left them, pronounced themselves in raptures.

Albert was evidently in a state of nerves and hardly listened to what was said, but went from picture to picture, adjusting the feathers of The Absinthe Drinker at a slightly less-tipsy angle, retying one of the Child with Doll’s hair-ribbons and borrowing Jane’s comb with which to tidy its hair. Finally he ran round combing all the hair and beards he could find.

The others stood about rather gloomily wishing that the party would begin. Albert’s nervousness had imparted itself to them and especially to Jane, who was terrified that the pictures (much as she personally admired them) might be a most dreadful failure.

If this happened, she thought selfishly, a gloom would certainly be cast over their whole wedding.

Albert, from having always before been perfectly indifferent as to what people might think of his work, now that the pictures were about to be exhibited had become almost childishly anxious for them to have a success.

The first guest appeared in the shape of Ralph, who was received with exaggerated cries of joy.

‘Ralph dear, how nice of you to come so early! We were hoping someone would come soon. You will try and make the party go, Ralph, won’t you? We’re all simply terrified, and it’s sure to be sticky at first, so promise to help?

Ralph smiled sadly.

‘So these are your pictures Albert,’ he said, and very slowly walked around the Gallery, carefully examinlng each one from varlous angles. Having completed the tour he went up to albert and said earnestly ‘Go on painting, Albert I mean that. Go on with it and one day you will be a very considerable artist indeed. Goodbye, my dears, I must go to bed.’

‘Don‘t go!’ they cried in disappointed voices, but he look no notice of their protestations and left the Gallery.

Albert wiped his eyes. He was more than touched and flattered by this attitude of Ralph’s and followed his friend out into the street to tell him so.

Jane broke into rather an awkward silence hy wondering who the next visitor would be. It was felt that Ralph had not exactly proved the life and soul of the party.

‘I think this is quite awful.’ said Walter ‘I’m not easily frightened myself, but the beginning of a party is always apt to upset me; and now in addition to the social fear I’m suffering, there is the enormous empty room with Albert’s terrifying pictures. The whole atmosphere is painful to a degree. Not that I don’t think the picture very clever, mind you, Jane, because I do, and they will certainly cause a great sensation, but you must admit that they are terrifying, specially for that child. Sally, darling, I beg you won’t look at it for too long, because if Morris-Minerva even faintly resembles it I shall commit infanticide on the spot.’

Sally now had a brainwave.

‘Why don’t we begin the cocktails?’

This brilliant idea was immediately acted upon, and when Albert came back a more cheerful atmosphere was pervading the whole place. He felt glad of a drink himself after an emotional scene with Ralph in the street.

The next arrival was Admiral Wenceslaus, who came in rather jauntily, saying:

‘And don’t offer me a cocktail; l never touch the things How are you?

How are you all?’

He took the cocktail which Albert was rather diffidently holding out towards hlm and drank it off at a single gulp.

. . . .

At this moment, as so often happens at parties, about twenty people all came in a lump together and the admiral, deprived of his audience, settled down to some more cocktails.

Soon the room was buzzing and humming with talk. The pictures, as Walter had foreseen, were causing a real sensation. People were, for the most part, very guarded in their criticism, asking each other rather anxiously what they thought about them.

Not so, however, Lady Prague, who, imposing but dowdy in a coat of Paisley pattern with brown fur, was accompanied by General Murgatroyd and Lady Brenda Chadlington.

She walked round the gallery rather flat-footedly, pausing here and there to inspect the more outstanding pictures rather closely with her nose almost touching them, and then at an exaggerated distance (a trick she had learnt while visitng the Royal Academy).

. . . .

The Dacres, or course, thought Albert’s pictures perfectly raving mad, although they were too polite to say so. They had come with every intention of buying one, but decided in whispers that they were to dreadful – even for a lavatory, so they ordered copies of ‘Recent Finds at Dalloch Castle’ instead. While they were doing this, they noticed that Mrs Fairfax had arrived, and Lady Dacre, remarking that she refused to shake hands with that woman, left the gallery, taking Sir Hubert in tow.

. . . .

Isaac Manuel, the art critic and collector, now put in an appearance, and Albert spent nearly an hour going round the pictures with him. He was greatly soothed and comforted by the older man’s intelligent appreciation of his work.

‘You are very young,’ he said to Albert as he was leaving, ‘and your style is often crude and bombastic, but all the same, Mr Gates, I must admit that I am very favourably impressed. I have not enjoyed an afternoon so much for some time. I predict a future for you if you realize, as I can see you do, that these methods are, in themselves, far from satisfactory and only a means to an end. Keep the end always in view and you may become a very good artist indeed. I shall certainly see that you have an excellent notice in my paper, and shall most probably present one of your pictures to the nation. Good day.’

Chapter 21





  Mr Albert Gates (herewith) has astounded the art critics and half social London with his exhibition of amazing pictures (now on view at the Chelsea Galleries). They are composed in many cases round real objects stuck to the canvas, such as, for instance, eyeglasses, buttons, hats, and even surgical limbs; and are of a brilliance and novelty impossible to describe, particularly No. 15, The Absinthe Drinker, which it is rumoured has been bought for the nation by Mr Isaac Manuel. Another interesting picture is entitled: Impression of Lady P – and executed entirely in bits of tweed cut into small squares. This is framed in beige mackintosh.

Mr Gates who left Oxford four years ago, and has since been studying art in Paris, is a tall, good-looking young man of a modest disposition. When a Daily Runner representative called on him after the private view of his pictures yesterday, he seemed unaware of the sensation his work has caused in art circles. “I think it was quite a good party.” He said, referring to the private view.

Nancy Mitford, 1904-1973.  Highland Fling, 1931

Image: Conroy Maddox,1912-2005. Cloak of Secrecy,1940, Mixed media, including mannequin parts, plastic lobster, painted bottle, netting, sequins, doll’s head and wire. 173.00 x 38.00 x 38.00 cm. National Galleries Scotland

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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