Philip Roth – American Pastoral,1997

Orcutt had married the granddaughter of one of his grandfather’s law partners at Orcutt, Findley, the Morristown firm that he had been expected to join. After graduating from Princeton, he had declined, however, to accept a place at Harvard Law School—Princeton and Harvard Law had for over a hundred years constituted the education of an Orcutt boy—and breaking with the traditions of the world he’d been born to, he moved to a lower Manhattan studio to become an abstract painter and a new man. Only after three depressive years feverishly painting behind the dirty windows over the truck traffic on Hudson Street did he marry Jessie and come back to Jersey to begin architecture studies at Princeton. He never relinquished entirely his dream of an artistic calling, and though his architectural work—mostly on the restoration of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses out in their moneyed quarter of Morris County and, from Somerset and Hunterdon counties all the way down through Bucks County in Pennsylvania, the converting of old barns into elegant rustic homes—kept him happily occupied, every three or four years there was an exhibition of his at a Morristown frame shop that the Levovs, always flattered to beinvited to the opening, faithfully attended.

The Swede was never so uncomfortable in any social situation as he was standing in front of Orcutt’ss paintings, which were said by the flier you got at the door to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy but looked like nothing much to him, not even Chinese. Right from the beginning Dawn had found them “thought-provoking”—to her they showed a most unlikely side to Bill Orcutt, a sensitivity she’d never seen a single indicator of before–but the thought the exhibition most provoked in the Swede was how long he should continue pretending to look at one of the canvases before moving on to pretend to be looking at another one. All he really had any inclination to do was to lean forward and read the titles pasted up on the wall beside each painting, thinking they might help, but when he did—despite Dawn’s s telling him not to, pulling his jacket and whispering, “Forget those, look at the brushwork”—he was only more disheartened than when he did look at the brushwork. Composition #16, Picture #6, Meditation #11, Untitled #12 . . . and what was there on the canvas but a band of long gray smears so pale across a white background that it looked as though Orcutt had tried not to paint the painting but to rub it out? Consulting the description of the exhibition in the flier, written and signed by the young couple who owned the frame shop, didn’t do any good either. “Orcutt’s calligraphy is so intense the shapes dissolve. Then, in the glow of its own energy, the brush stroke dissolves itself. . . .”

Why on earth would a guy like Orcutt, no stranger to the natural world and the great historical drama of this country—and a helluva tennis player—why on earth did he want to paint pictures of nothing? Since the Swede had to figure the guy wasn’t a phony—why would someone as well educated and as self-confident as Orcutt devote all this effort to being a phony?—he could for a while put the confusion down to his own ignorance about art. Intermittently the Swede might continue to think, “There’s something wrong with this guy. There is some big dissatisfaction there. This Orcutt does not have what he wants” but then the Swede would read something like that flier and realize that he didn’t know what he was talking about. “Two decades after the Greenwich Village years, Orcutt’s ambition remains lofty: to create” the flier concluded, “a personal expression of universal themes that include the enduring moral dilemmas which define the human condition.”

It never occurred to the Swede, reading the flier, that enough could not be claimed for the paintings just because they were so hollow, that you had to say they were pictures of everything because they were pictures of nothing—that all those words were merely another way of saying Orcutt was talentless and, however earnestly he might try, could never hammer out for himself an artistic prerogative or, for that matter, any but the prerogative whose rigid definitions had swaddled him at birth. It did not occur to the Swede that he was right, that this guy who seemed so at one with himself, so perfectly attuned to the place where he lived and the people around him, might be inadvertently divulging that to be out of tune was, in fact, a secret and long-standing desire he hadn’t the remotest idea of how to achieve except by oddly striving to paint paintings that looked like they didn’t look like anything. Apparently the best he could do with his craving to be otherwise was this slull. Sad. Anyway, it didn’t matter how sad it was or what the Swede did or did not ask or understand or know about the painter once one of those calligraphic paintings expressing the universal themes that define the human condition made its way onto the Levov living room wall a month after Dawn returned from Geneva with her new face. And that’s when things got a little sad for the Swede.

It was a band of brown streaks and not gray ones that Orcutt had been trying to rub out of Meditation #27, and the background was purplish rather than white. The dark colors, according to Dawn, signaled a revolution of the painter’s formal means. That’s what she told him, and the Swede, not knowing quite how to respond and with no interest in what “formal means” meant, settled lamely on “Interesting.” They didn’t have any art hanging on the walls when he was a kid, let alone “modern” art—art hadn’t existed in his house any more than it did in Dawn’s. The Dwyers had religious pictures, which might even be what accounted for Dawn’s having all of a sudden become a connoisseur of “formal means”: a secret embarrassment about growing up where, aside from the framed photos of Dawn and her kid brother, the only pictures were pictures of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus’ heart. These tasteful people have modern art on the wall, we’re going to have modern art on the wall. Formal means on the wall. However much Dawn might deny it, wasn’t there something of that going on here? Irish envy?

She’d bought the painting right out of Orcutt’s studio for exactly half as much as it had cost them to buy Count when he was a baby bull. The Swede told himself, “Forget the dough, write it off—you can’t compare a bull to a painting,” and in this way managed to control his disappointment when he saw Meditation #27 go up on the very spot where once there had been the portrait of Merry that he’d loved, a painstakingly perfect if somewhat overly pinkish likeness of the glowing child in blond bangs she had been at six. It had been painted in oils for them by a jovial old gent down in New Hope who wore a smock and a beret in his studio there—he’d taken the time to serve them mulled wine and tell them about his apprenticeship copying paintings in the Louvre—and who’d come to the house six times for Merry to sit for him at the piano, and wanted only two thousand smackers for the painting and the gilt frame. But as the Swede was told, since Orcutt hadn’t asked for the additional thirty percent it would have cost had they purchased #27 from the frame shop, the five grand was a bargain.

His father’s comment, when he saw the new painting, was “How much the guy charge you for that?” With reluctance Dawn replied, “Five thousand dollars,” “Awful lot of money for a first coat. What’s it going to be?” “Going to be?” Dawn had replied sourly. “Well, it ain’t finished . . . I hope it ain’t. . . . Is it?” “That it isn’t ‘finished,’” said Dawn, “is the idea, Lou.” “Yeah?” He looked again. “Well, if the guy ever wants to finish it, I can tell him how.” “Dad,”said the Swede, to forestall further criticism, “Dawn bought it because she likes it,” and though he also could have told the guy how to finish it (probably in words close to those his father had in mind), he was more than willing to hang anything Dawn bought from Orcutt just because she had bought it. Irish envy or no Irish envy, the painting was another sign that the desire to live had become stronger in her than the wish to die that had put her into the psychiatric clinic twice. “So the picture is shit,” he told his father later. “The thing is, she wanted it. The thing is she wants again. Please,” he warned him, feeling himself—strangely, given the slightness of the provocation—at the edge of anger, “no more about that picture.” And Lou Levov being Lou Levov, the next time he visited Old Rimrock the first thing he did was to walk up to the picture and say loudly, “You know something? I like that thing. I’m gettin’ used to it and I actually like it. Look,” he said to his wife, “Look at how the guy didn’t finish it. See that? Where it’s blurry? He did that on purpose. That’s art.”

Philip Roth, born 1933                               American Pastoral,1997

American Pastoral is a novel of social documentary recounting the personal narrative of families in the succesful post-1945 American Jewish business community of Rimrock, New Jersey. The exhibition and purchase of Bill Orcott’s ‘modern’ painting indicates the unsettling veneer of education and aesthetic sophistication presented by modern art to people who find it’s coded language and images incomprehensible. Modern art is accepted as a liberal element of society, although the dialogue and framework of contemporary art, like politics, is established elsewhere in inaccessible institutions. The personal stories of social dysfunction underlying the American Pastoral, are set in the 1960s and 1970s against the background of the military involvement in Vietnam, and domestic issues of racism, radicalism and politic corruption epitomized by President Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

Will Self – The Book of Dave,2006

The Book of Dave

October 2000

     Achilles was getting off his plinth; first one big foot then the other tore
from its base with a tortured screech. He cut at the rags of mist with his
short sword and brandished his shield at the Hilton Hotel. A couple of
early-bird tourists who had been posing for a snap in front of the statue ~
male pecking with camera, female with wings neatly folded — were struck
to the ground by one of Achilles’s bulldozing greaves, as he clunked by
them heading for Apsley House. He did not waver — he had no quarrel
with them. He took no issue either with the cars he kicked as he strode
across the roadway and on to the traffic island. Seven metres of bronze
against two-millimetre thicknesses of steel — there was no contest; in the
statue’s wake smashed vehicles lay on their sides, their engines racing and
     Lit by the rising sun, fingernails of opalescent cloud scratched contrails
on the sky. Achilles stood beneath Constitution Arch and beat shield with
sword. With a bang, then a spatter of stony fragments, the four horses
atop the arch came alive, tossing their leaden heads. The boy holding the
traces struggled to control them. Peace, erect in her chariot, her robe
coming off her shoulder in rigid folds, flicked the reins and the whole,
mighty quadriga rose, banked sharply and came munching down. Peace
threw her laurel wreath like a frisbee, and Achilles caught it on his sword.
     The other statues on the traffic island were animating: the Iron Duke
spurred down his horse, Copenhagen; the bronze figures that attended
him — Guard, Dragoon, Fusilier and Highlander — wrenched themselves
free from the polished granite and fell in behind their commander-in-chief.
     On the Royal Regiment of Artillery memorial the dead gunner rose up
from under his petrifed greatcoat and joined his comrades. Together they
unlimbered their stone field gun. David, tall, svelte and naked, shimmied
from the Machine Gun Corps memorial — sword in one hand, Bren gun
in the other. These terrible figures stood apart, turning to face down
Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Grosvenor Place and Park Lane, undecided
what to do now movement had been bestowed upon them. The few
pedestrians who were abroad at this early hour scattered like rabbits,
tearing between the trees of Green Park, discarding briefcases and
umbrellas as they ran, while those drivers not violently impinged on
remained oblivious, their heads clamped in their own metal tumult. The
company of statues formed up, with Achilles in the van and Peace to the
rear. They marched of down Constitution Hill, feet striking sparks as
they clanked over the kerbs.
      All across London, as the statues came to life, they were at first bemused
— then only with reluctance purposeful. Clive of India jumped from his
plinth and took the stairs down to Horse Guards skipping. Lincoln at first
sat down, surprised, then, struggling up from his chair in Parliament
Square, crossed over to the menhir bulk of Churchill, took his arm and
assisted him to walk. Earl Haig led his mount alongside Montgomery, who
was preposterous in his dimpled elephantine trousers. In Knightsbridge,
Shackleton and Livingstone stepped out from their niches in the Royal
Geographical Society. Golden Albert squeezed between the gilded stan-
chions of his memorial, and those blowzy ladies Europe, Africa, Asia and
America formed a stony crocodile in his train. In Waterloo Place, Scott
strolled up and down the pavement, striking a few attitudes, modelling
his Burberry outfit.
      In Chelsea, Thomas More stood up abruptly, his golden nose flashing;
while across the river the droopy-eared Buddhas were stirring in their
pagoda. Up in Highgate Cemetery the colossal head of Marx wobbled,
then rolled downhill over the mounds of freshly dug graves. They were all
heading for Trafalgar Square, where five-metre-high Nelson was gingerly
shinnying down his own column, while Edith Cavell tripped past St Martin-in-the-Fields, her marble skirts rattling against the pedestrian barriers.
Not only human figures were on the move but animals as well: packs
of stone dogs and herds of bronze cattle. Guy the Gorilla knuckle-walked
out of London Zoo and around the Outer Circle; the dolphins slithered
from the lamp-posts along the Thames and flopped into town. Mythical
creatures joined the throng closing in on Trafalgar Square: riddling
sphinxes, fying griffins and even the ill-conceived Victorian dinosaurs
came humping overland from Crystal Palace. The whole mad overwrought
bestiary arrived ramping and romping. The Landseer lions rose up to meet
them, stretched and soundlessly roared.
     Multiples of monarchs: doughty Williams, German Georges, dumpy
Victorias. Presses of prime ministers, scrums of generals and colonial
administrators, flying vees of viceroys, gaggles of writers and artists,
cohorts of Christs – from façades and niches, plinths and pediments,
Crucifixes and crosses, the statues of London tore themselves free, until the
whole centre of the city was a heaving hubbub of tramping bronze,
clanking cast-iron, grating granite and marble. These graven images, these
tin-pot gods! They had no more uniformity of purpose than they did of
style, substance or scale — giant warmongers and diminutive deities, they
were distorted embodiments of their creators’ confused and ever-changing
priorities. They didn’t mean to cause any damage or distress — but they
just did. They left pediments bare and cornices crumpling, domes imploded,
porticos and bridges slumped, colonnades collapsed. They didn’t mean to
hurt the soft little people, but they were so big and hard that skins were
split and skulls were crushed wherever they went.
     Standing on the steps of Nelson’s Column, Achilles beat sword on
shield, trying to gain the statues’ attention. It was pointless — these hunks
could make no common cause, they knew nothing, felt nothing — only the
rage of eternal sleepers robbed of their repose. Greek gods and goddesses
stood about in profile; Saint Thomas à Becket writhed in his death agony;
Baden-Powell scouted out the terrain. Slowly — lazily even — the statues
began to fight one another. Marble clanged on iron, granite on bronze, as
the maddened effigies battled with the incomprehensibility of their own
sentience. What were they? Nothing. So sightlessly stared through for so
very long that they had no more significance than a dustbin or a postbox
— less perhaps.
     Then there was a diversion — some dumb cabbie had managed to wrestle
his vehicle free from the jam on the Charing Cross Road, and now he was
trying to turn around in the roadway beneath the National Gallery. He
backed and filled, knocking fauns, cherubs and caryatids over like ninepins.
Achilles leaped down from his vantage and strode over. He leaned down,
and his disproportionately tiny cock rasped along the cab’s roof shattering
the ‘For Hire’ sign . . .


Will Self, born 1961.        The Book of Dave, 2006

“Lest this seem too recherché, too recondite, too elitist, I would go further, and argue that as the aesthete was to the late nineteenth-century writer, so the ordinary man’s perception of the visual arts is to the twentieth. Joyce, as ever, stands at the crossroads of futurity. In Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom may be obsessed with the marble statues of the Greek goddesses in the Irish National Gallery for motives as much prurient as aesthetic, but the fact remains that he is obsessed by them. A pudendum is as good a way into a thing as any other.  In my own new novel, The Book of Dave (2006), I take this democratisation of the aesthetic a few steps further. My protagonist, a London cabbie called Dave Rudman, is a collector of statues: the entire city is his private gallery, its monumental works are his bibelots.”

Art for fiction’s sake: The Art of Writing, by Will Self. 1 September 2006. Tate etc. issue 8. Autumn 2006.

Richard Aldington-Death of a Hero,1929

“Do you think she is beautiful?”
“Beautiful? Yes, in a way, but she isn’t one of those horrid regular beauties. You notice her at once in a room, but you’d never see her on the walls of the Academy. It isn’t her beauty so much as her personality, and that you feel more by intuition than by observation. And yet the effect is beauty.”
“Are you very much in love with her?”
“Why, aren’t you? Isn’t every one?”
“In love with her?”
George was silent. He was not sure whether the question was naif or very much the reverse. Elizabeth changed the conversation.
“What do you ‘do’?”
“Oh, I’m a painter, and I write hack articles for Shobbe and such people to earn a living.”
“But don’t you sell your pictures?”
“I try to; but you see, people in England aren’t much interested in modern art, not as they are on the Continent or even in America. They want the same old thing done over again and again with more sugar. One thing about the British bourgeois — he doesn’t know anything about pictures, but very stoutly stands for what he likes, and what he likes is anything except art. The newest historians say that the Anglo-Saxons come from the same race as the Vandals, and I can well believe it.”
“Surely there are some up-to-date collectors in England.”
“Why, yes, of course, probably as many as anywhere else, but too many of them collect pictures as an investment and so only take what the dealers advise them to buy; others are afraid to touch English art, which has gone soggy with Pre-Raphaelitism and touched imbecility with the anecdotal picture. There are people with taste and enthusiasms, but they’re nearly all poor. It’s much the same in Paris. The new painters there are having a terrific struggle, but they’ll win. The young are with them. And then in Paris it’s rather chic to know the latest movements and to defend the rebel artists against the ordinary mass ignorance and hostility. Here they’re still terrified by the fate of Oscar, and it’s chic to be a sporting imbecile. The English think it’s virile to have no sensibilities.”
“Are you English or American?”
“English, of course. Should I care about them if I were not? In a way, of course, it doesn’t really matter. The nationalist epoch of painting is over — it’s now an international language centred in Paris and understood from Petersburg to New York. What the English think doesn’t matter.”

Richard Aldington, 1892-1962                        Death of a Hero, 1929

Described by George Orwell as “the best of the English war books” and by Aldington as a threnody, a death dirge, a lamentation, Death of a Hero, is a semi-autobiographal account of George Winterbourne, an idealistic artist who enlists in the army at the outbreak of World War I. The narrator is pessimistic about the presence of art in Britain, and perceptively understands that art will become an international language.

Sax Rohmer – The Yellow Claw,1915


A number of visitors were sprinkled about Olaf van Noord’s large and dirty studio, these being made up for the most part of those weird and nondescript enthusiasts who seek to erect an apocryphal Montmartre in the plains of Soho. One or two ordinary mortals, representing the Press, leavened the throng, but the entire gathering—”advanced” and unenlightened alike—seemed to be drawn to a common focus: a large canvas placed advantageously in the southeast corner of the studio, where it enjoyed all the benefit of a pure and equably suffused light.

Seated apart from his worshipers upon a little sketching stool, and handling a remarkably long, amber cigarette-holder with much grace, was Olaf van Noord. He had hair of so light a yellow as sometimes to appear white, worn very long, brushed back from his brow and cut squarely all around behind, lending him a medieval appearance. He wore a slight moustache carefully pointed; and his scanty vandyke beard could not entirely conceal the weakness of his chin. His complexion had the colour and general appearance of drawing-paper, and in his large blue eyes was an eerie hint of sightlessness. He was attired in a light tweed suit cut in an American pattern, and out from his low collar flowed a black French knot.

Olaf van Noord rose to meet Helen Cumberly and Denise Ryland, advancing across the floor with the measured gait of a tragic actor. He greeted them aloofly, and a little negro boy proffered tiny cups of China tea. Denise Ryland distended her nostrils as her gaze swept the picture-covered walls; but she seemed to approve of the tea.

The artist next extended to them an ivory box containing little yellow-wrapped cigarettes. Helen Cumberly smilingly refused, but Denise Ryland took one of the cigarettes, sniffed at it superciliously—and then replaced it in the box.

“It has a most… egregiously horrible… odour,” she commented.

“They are a special brand,” explained Olaf van Noord, distractedly, “which I have imported for me from Smyrna. They contain a small percentage of opium.”

“Opium!” exclaimed Denise Ryland, glaring at the speaker and then at Helen Cumberly, as though the latter were responsible in some way for the vices of the painter.

“Yes,” he said, reclosing the box, and pacing sombrely to the door to greet a new arrival.

“Did you ever in all your life,” said Denise Ryland, glancing about her, “see such an exhibition… of nightmares?”

Certainly, the criticism was not without justification; the dauby-looking oil-paintings, incomprehensible water-colours, and riotous charcoal sketches which formed the mural decoration of the studio were distinctly “advanced.” But, since the centre of interest seemed to be the large canvas on the easel, the two moved to the edges of the group of spectators and began to examine this masterpiece. A very puzzled newspaperman joined them, bending and whispering to Helen Cumberly:

“Are you going to notice the thing seriously? Personally, I am writing it up as a practical joke! We are giving him half a column—Lord knows what for!—but I can’t see how to handle it except as funny stuff.”

“But, for heaven’s sake… what does he… CALL it?” muttered Denise Ryland, holding a pair of gold rimmed pince-nez before her eyes, and shifting them to and fro in an endeavour to focus the canvas.

“‘Our Lady of the Poppies,'” replied the journalist. “Do you think it’s intended to mean anything in particular?”

The question was no light one; it embodied a problem not readily solved. The scene depicted, and depicted with a skill, with a technical mastery of the bizarre that had in it something horrible—was a long narrow room—or, properly, cavern. The walls apparently were hewn from black rock, and at regular intervals, placed some three feet from these gleaming walls, up rose slender golden pillars supporting a kind of fretwork arch which entirely masked the ceiling. The point of sight adopted by the painter was peculiar. One apparently looked down into this apartment from some spot elevated fourteen feet or more above the floor level. The floor, which was black and polished, was strewn with tiger skins; and little, inlaid tables and garishly coloured cushions were spread about in confusion, whilst cushioned divans occupied the visible corners of the place. The lighting was very “advanced”: a lamp, having a kaleidoscopic shade, swung from the centre of the roof low into the room and furnished all the illumination.

Three doors were visible; one, directly in line at the further end of the place, apparently of carved ebony inlaid with ivory; another, on the right, of lemon wood or something allied to it, and inlaid with a design in some emerald hued material; with a third, corresponding door, on the left, just barely visible to the spectator.

Two figures appeared. One was that of a Chinaman in a green robe scarcely distinguishable from the cushions surrounding him, who crouched upon the divan to the left of the central door, smoking a long bamboo pipe. His face was the leering face of a yellow satyr. But, dominating the composition, and so conceived in form, in colour, and in lighting, as to claim the attention centrally, so that the other extravagant details became but a setting for it, was another figure.

Upon a slender ivory pedestal crouched a golden dragon, and before the pedestal was placed a huge Chinese vase of the indeterminate pink seen in the heart of a rose, and so skilfully coloured as to suggest an internal luminousness. The vase was loaded with a mass of exotic poppies, a riotous splash of colour; whilst beside this vase, and slightly in front of the pedestal, stood the figure presumably intended to represent the Lady of the Poppies who gave title to the picture.

The figure was that of an Eastern girl, slight and supple, and possessing a devilish and forbidding grace. Her short hair formed a black smudge upon the canvas, and cast a dense shadow upon her face. The composition was infinitely daring; for out of this shadow shone the great black eyes, their diablerie most cunningly insinuated; whilst with a brilliant exclusion of detail—by means of two strokes of the brush steeped in brightest vermilion, and one seemingly haphazard splash of dead white—an evil and abandoned smile was made to greet the spectator.

To the waist, the figure was a study in satin nudity, whence, from a jeweled girdle, light draperies swept downward, covering the feet and swinging, a shimmering curve out into the foreground of the canvas, the curve being cut off in its apogee by the gold frame.

Above her head, this girl of demoniacal beauty held a bunch of poppies seemingly torn from the vase: this, with her left hand; with her right she pointed, tauntingly, at her beholder.

In comparison with the effected futurism of the other pictures in the studio, “Our Lady of the Poppies,” beyond question was a great painting. From a point where the entire composition might be taken in by the eye, the uncanny scene glowed with highly coloured detail; but, exclude the scheme of the composition, and focus the eye upon any one item—the golden dragon—the seated Chinaman—the ebony door—the silk-shaded lamp; it had no detail whatever: one beheld a meaningless mass of colours. Individually, no one section of the canvas had life, had meaning; but, as a whole, it glowed, it lived—it was genius. Above all, it was uncanny.

This, Denise Ryland fully realized, but critics had grown so used to treating the work of Olaf van Noord as a joke, that “Our Lady of the Poppies” in all probability would never be judged seriously.

“What does it mean, Mr. van Noord?” asked Helen Cumberly, leaving the group of worshipers standing hushed in rapture before the canvas and approaching the painter. “Is there some occult significance in the title?”

“It is a priestess,” replied the artist, in his dreamy fashion….

“A priestess?”

“A priestess of the temple.”…

Helen Cumberly glanced again at the astonishing picture.

“Do you mean,” she began, “that there is a living original?”

Olaf van Noord bowed absently, and left her side to greet one who at that moment entered the studio. Something magnetic in the personality of the newcomer drew all eyes from the canvas to the figure on the threshold. The artist was removing garish tiger skin furs from the shoulders of the girl—for the new arrival was a girl, a Eurasian girl.

She wore a tiger skin motor-coat, and a little, close-fitting, turban-like cap of the same. The coat removed, she stood revealed in a clinging gown of silk; and her feet were shod in little amber coloured slippers with green buckles. The bodice of her dress opened in a surprising V, displaying the satin texture of her neck and shoulders, and enhancing the barbaric character of her appearance. Her jet black hair was confined by no band or comb, but protruded Bishareen-like around the shapely head. Without doubt, this was the Lady of the Poppies—the original of the picture.

“Dear friends,” said Olaf van Noord, taking the girl’s hand, and walking into the studio, “permit me to present my model!”

Following, came a slightly built man who carried himself with a stoop; an olive faced man, who squinted frightfully, and who dressed immaculately.

“What a most… EXTRAORDINARY-looking creature!” whispered Denise Ryland to Helen. “She has undoubted attractions of… a hellish sort… if I may use… the term.”

“She is the strangest looking girl I have ever seen in my life,” replied Helen, who found herself unable to turn her eyes away from Olaf van Noord’s model. “Surely she is not a professional model!”

The chatty reporter (his name was Crockett) confided to Helen Cumberly:

“She is not exactly a professional model, I think, Miss Cumberly, but she is one of the van Noord set, and is often to be seen in the more exclusive restaurants, and sometimes in the Cafe Royal.”

“She is possibly a member of the theatrical profession?”

“I think not. She is the only really strange figure (if we exclude Olaf) in this group of poseurs. She is half Burmese, I believe, and a native of Moulmein.”

“Most EXTRAORDINARY creature!” muttered Denise Ryland, focussing upon the Eurasian her gold rimmed glasses—”MOST extraordinary.” She glanced around at the company in general. “I really begin to feel… more and more as though I were… in a private lunatic… asylum. That picture… beyond doubt is the work … of a madman… a perfect… madman!”

“I, also, begin to be conscious of an uncomfortable sensation,” said Helen, glancing about her almost apprehensively. “Am I dreaming, or did SOME ONE ELSE enter the studio, immediately behind that girl?”

“A squinting man… yes!”

“But a THIRD person?”

“No, my dear… look for yourself. As you say… you are … dreaming. It’s not to be wondered… at!”

Helen laughed, but very uneasily. Evidently it had been an illusion, but an unpleasant illusion; for she should have been prepared to swear that not two, but THREE people had entered! Moreover, although she was unable to detect the presence of any third stranger in the studio, the persuasion that this third person actually was present remained with her, unaccountably, and uncannily.

The lady of the tiger skins was surrounded by an admiring group of unusuals, and Helen, who had turned again to the big canvas, suddenly became aware that the little cross-eyed man was bowing and beaming radiantly before her.

“May I be allowed,” said Olaf van Noord who stood beside him, “to present my friend Mr. Gianapolis, my dear Miss Cumberly?”…

Helen Cumberly found herself compelled to acknowledge the introduction, although she formed an immediate, instinctive distaste for Mr. Gianapolis. But he made such obvious attempts to please, and was so really entertaining a talker, that she unbent towards him a little. His admiration, too, was unconcealed; and no pretty woman, however great her common sense, is entirely admiration-proof.

“Do you not think ‘Our Lady of the Poppies’ remarkable?” said Gianapolis, pleasantly.

“I think,” replied Denise Ryland,—to whom, also, the Greek had been presented by Olaf van Noord, “that it indicates… a disordered… imagination on the part of… its creator.”

“It is a technical masterpiece,” replied the Greek, smiling, “but hardly a work of imagination; for you have seen the original of the principal figure, and”—he turned to Helen Cumberly—”one need not go very far East for such an interior as that depicted.”

Sax Rohmer (Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward), 1883-1959  The Yellow Claw,1915.

Image: Cécile Paul-Baudry, Fumeuse d’opium, Salon de 1912. ©Paris, agence photo RMN-Grand Palais, fonds Druet-Vizzavona (exposé au Salon des Artistes Français de 1912)

The Yellow Claw is a 1915 crime novel originally serialised in Lippincott’s Magazine.  The story is notable for the description of a decadent opium smoking bohemian set, and an exhibition of “advanced” art in the studio of Olaf van Noord in London’s Soho. However, we learn in Chapter XXXIII that,  “Following the lead set by “H. C.” in the Planet (“H. C.” was Helen Cumberly’s nom de plume) and by Crocket in the Daily Monitor, the London Press had taken Olaf van Noord to its bosom; and his exhibition in the Little Gallery was an established financial success, whilst “Our Lady of the Poppies” (which had, of course, been rejected by the Royal Academy) promised to be the picture of the year.” The tale features glamorous international characters and intrigue including Gaston Max, a Parisian criminal investigator, who searches for the East End opium den of the mysterious Mr. King, a master criminal with similarities to Fu Manchu, an earlier creation of  Rohmer. The popular detective story display a casual racism, typical of the era, in descriptions of Oriental, or indeed any non-British, characters.

Sir Alfred Munnings – Ichabod Rubens. Ballads and Poems or a Rhyming Succession of Rhyming Digression,1957

“What a muddle.’ Not to cuddle!
A stupid way to paint the nude.”


In a travelling circus years ago,
A boy was born upon a tour;
And when he reached the age of two,
His mother dropped him on the floor.

Because she dropped him on his head,
A screw got loose inside his brain:
He loved to spend the day in bed,
And hated getting up again.

And when the youth was twenty-one,
From any task he used to shrink;
No job of work he’d ever done;
He drove his poor Mama to drink.

He was the Prince of bearded freaks:
He got a bastard child, and so
He started wearing corduroy breeks,
And took to Art at twenty-two.

Because he couldn’t draw or paint,
He ran a painting class in Town;
Where bedlamites without restraint
Created abstracts upside down.

The females were seductive dears,
All out for love and wine and song:
They couldn’t squeeze or box his ears,
His hair and beard had grown so long:

His sophistries on Art appeared
In Sunday Press, with columns three;
They televised him with his beard;
He lectured on the B.B.C.

Then, after many abstract talks,
His chance of chances came along!
One morning after pulling corks,—
Not feeling quite so bon vivant,—

Not feeling as he’d like to be—
Not feeling quite so bon vivant,—
To cool his brain he’d go and see
The paintings of that crazy throng,—

That suicidal, jolly throng
Whose pictures caused such wide debate,
With legs and necks a mile too long,
That puzzle people in the Tate.

And there inside the Tate he met
That precious Vet.—Sir Piebald Park-
A leader of the cultured set
Who vetted pictures for a lark.

Before Sir Piebald did depart
He’d pumped him full of every name
That ever was in modern Art,
The ’Inskys and the stars of fame.

And then Sir Something Something came,
Tiptoeing through a further door;
Sir Piebald Park he introduced them,
And left them talking on the floor.

Sir Something Something, fraternising,
Began to tell him what to do;
Catechising and advising,
He gassed away till half—past two.

“Forget the beauty nature yields:
If you today would win success,
Away with silly sunlit fields ;
Redeem your soul with Ugliness!

“The Critics seek for Ugliness!
’Tis they who run the show today!
Impress the Press, and then, God Bless!
Your name is made, sir, right away!”

The talking man, he was so keen,
He grew more hotted up and hotted;
No single object had they seen,
No inspiration had they spotted;

With sculptured monsters all about,
And wire all twisted up and knotted,
Although the walls around did shout,
No single picture had they spotted;

In running rhyme, and all the time,
His voice resounding through the place;
He rattled on in lively rhyme
As fast as any trotting race!

“Tiddy-um ti-um-ti-um,
It may seem rather rum,
The great Sir Something Some-
thing said :—

The only thing for you
Is to think of something new
And put ’em in a stew
And knock ’em dead ! ! !

“If you want to be reviewed
By The Times with promptitude,
You do a monster nude
To weigh a ton;

With a belly to protrude
Of genetic magnitude
And leave it crude and rude
And half begun!

“Make the bottom large and round
Like a prehistoric mound,
All solemn and profound
To cultured eyes.

And chuck your weight around
And you’ll be with glory crowned,
And with twenty thousand pound
As a prize!!!”

.       .       .       .       .

Imagine then the closing scene;
The time was nearly half-past four;
They did not know how long they’d been
Upon the shiny, parquet floor.

And when the two had said “ Adieu ”
The long-haired fellow he returned;
And there inside his studio
His abstract passions blazed and burned.

He needed something to excite
His inner man and make him glad,
To fire his soul—to see the light—!
A special drink to make him mad.

He fancied Orange Curacao;
A brand that wasn’t spurious!
When mixed with gin it made him glow;
It made him feel luxurious! ! ‘

Down went the gin and Curacao,
It livened up his lassitude!
He’d drink a bottle just to show
These fellows how to paint a nude!

His inner fury all at work,
A lovely model then he found,
In whom no sauciness did lurk,
Although she was so soft and round.

And as he couldn’t paint or draw,
And as she wouldn’t let him cuddle,
Although not painting what he saw,
He got in such a bloody muddle!

What a muddle! Not to cuddle!
A stupid way to paint the nude!
And the patient posing model
She sat for days with fortitude.

One day at last she begs and begs
That she may be allowed to see,
If he had made her lovely legs
As lovely as they ought to be!

And after all her fortitude,
And patient posing for the picture,
When she beheld the monster nude,
She stood there rooted like a fixture!

Alas, her feelings! Who can tell?
Her heart was wounded to the core.
She screamed aloud and then she fell
And lay unconscious on the floor!

And as he went to lift her up,
And as his body came in contact
With lovely soft and rounded limbs,
He quite forgot about the abstract.

Filled with drink and indecision,
Upon a sofa then he laid her,
And gazing on the lovely vision,
Thought how lovely God had made her.

Then, watching her, he heard a sound
Of someone coming through the door.
He looked around and there he found
A “stranger” standing on the floor!

“I’m here! I’m William Etty’s* ghost!
I was a painter of the nude:
Of goddesses ! a mighty host,
In every kind of attitude,

“I strove to paint the forms I saw.
What Venus’s! And Juno’s too!
But there’s no need to paint or draw
For abstract mongers—fools like you!

“When all the crazy minds are loosed,
When Art is rushing down the drain;
When Art directors rule the roost.
A Nation’s soul is on the wane.

“I’m but a ghost, and you’re an ass,
A twentieth-century bearded goat:
You couldn’t paint that comely lass.
Go cut your hair or cut your throat! ”

Then as he spoke the model stirred
And opened one dark, lovely eye;
Then gave a scream that might be heard
From here to all eternity.

And like a violent mare that reared,
The wrathful, raging Venus rose,
And seized the painter by the beard,
And hit him bang upon the nose!

A raging Venus seeing red—
His red blood streaming to the floor:
And then she seized her robes and fled
And out she went and slammed the door!

And stamping round the studio,
The painter mopped his bloody nose.
Those ghostly eyes, they looked him through.
His evil passions then arose.

Spitting like a venomed adder,
And jeering at the fading ghost:
“You step again up Jacob’s ladder,
And go and join your Heavenly Host.

“And here’s a message you can give
To those old Masters in the sky:
Our modern Art is going to live
And their old junk is going to die!”

The ghost had fled, the model gone:
And then he switched on all the lights.
He faced his monster all alone:
Indeed it was a sight of sights!

And then he stood upon his head,
And viewed the monster upside down:
His nose and beard all bloody red ;—
A Master-piece! He’d won the crown.

.       .       .       .       .

Before he slept, one long, last glance
At his clear, abstract, swollen Dolly :—
He’d beaten all the lads in France.
At last, an English abstract folly! !

Next morning, lying late in bed—
His char had left him all alone—
A summons came as from the dead :—
A ringing of the telephone! !

’Twas Sir Herbert and Sir Something!
They wished to know if he’d be there!
And could they come and could they bring
A double multimillionaire?

And could they bring the President
Of the Con-tem-por-rary Arts ?
’Twas some mistake! An accident!
The message gave him fits and starts:

The meeting happened on a Sunday;
They met and talked and then they bought
His monster nude, and then on Monday
The artist found that he was sought

By many writers full of vigour,—
All precious critics one and all;
And soon his monster abstract figure
Hung in the centre of a wall

Of purple damask, in the Tate,
And people came from far away,
And all the folk who came too late
Were there at ten o’clock next day.

And the multitude applauded
When they were told it was profound;
And the painter was awarded
The prize of twenty thousand pound.

The critic on The Times was spiteful;
He thought the bottom far too square,
And not profound enough, and frightful,
But still the Judges didn’t care!

*William Etty—famous painter of the nude in early Victorian days.

Sir Alfred Munnings,1878-1959.  Ichabod Rubens. Ballads and Poems or a Rhyming Succession of Rhyming Digression,1957

Richard Aldington – Death of a Hero,1929

Needless to say, Mr. Upjohn was a very great man. He was a Painter. Since he was destitute of any intrinsic and spontaneous originality, he strove much to be original, and invented a new school of painting every season. He first created a sensation with his daring and brilliant

Christ in a Bloomsbury Brothel”, which was denounced in no unmeasured terms by the Press, ever tender for the purity of Public Morals and the posthumous reputation of Our Lord. “The Blessed Damozel in Hell” passed almost unnoticed, when fortunately the model most unjustly obtained an afliliation order against Mr. Upjohn and thus drew attention to a neglected masterpiece, which was immediately bought by a man who had made a fortune in intimate rubber goods. Mr. Upjohn then became aware of the existence of modern French art. One season he painted in gorgeous Pointilliste blobs, the next in monotone Fauviste smears, then in calamitous Futuriste accidents of form and colour. At this moment he was just about to launch the Suprematist movement in painting, to which he hoped to convert George, or at any rate to get him to write an article about it. Suprematist painting, which has now unfortunately gone out of fashion, was, as its name implies, the supreme point of modern art. Mr. Upjohn produced two pictures in illustration (the word is perhaps inaccurate) of his theories. One was a beautiful scarlet whorl on a background of the purest flake white. The other at first sight appeared to be a brood of bulbous yellow chickens, with thick elongaged necks, aimlessly scattered over a grey-green meadow; but on closer inspection the chickens turned out to be conventionalized phalluses. The first was called Decomposition-Cosmos, and the second Op. 49, Piano.

Mr. Upjohn turned on both electric lights. in his studio for George to study these interesting productions, at which our friend gazed with a feeling of baffled perplexity and the agonized certainty that he would have to say something about them, and that what he would say would inevitably be wrong. Fortunately, Mr. Upjohn was extremely vain and highly nervous. He stood behind George, coughing and jerking himself about agitatedly.

“What I mean to say is,” he said, puncturing his discourse with coughs, “there you’ve got it.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“What I mean is, you’ve got precise expression of precise emotion.”

“Just what I was going to say.”

“You see, when you’ve got that, What I mean is, You’ve got something.”

“Why, of course!”

“You see, what I mean to say is, if you get two or three intelligent people to see the thing, then you’ve got it. I mean you won’t get those damned block-headed sons of bitches like Quijasso and Caesar Frank to see it, I mean, it simply smashes them, you see.”

“Did you expect them to?”

“You see, what you’ve got is complete originality and The Tradition. One doesn’t worry about the hacks, you see, but what I mean to say, one does mildly suppose Quijasso had a few gleams of intelligence, but what I mean is they won’t take anything new.”

“I get the originality, of course, but I admit I don’t quite see the traditional side of the movement.”

Mr. Upjohn sighed pettishly and waved his head from side to side in commiserating contempt.

“Of course, you wouldn’t. What intelligence you have was ruined by your lack of education, and your native obtuseness makes you instinctively prefer the academic. I mean, can’t you SEE that the proportions of Decomposition-Cosmos are exactly those of the Canopic vase in the Filangieri Museum at Naples?”

“How could I see that,” said George, rather annoyed, “since I’ve never been to Naples?”

“That’s what I mean to say,” exclaimed Mr. Upjohn triumphantly, “you simply have no education what-so-ever!”

“Well, but what about the other?” said George, desiring to be placable; “is that in the Canopic vase tradition?”

“Christ-in-petticoats, No! I thought even you’d see that. What I mean is, can’t you see it?”

“They might be free adaptions of Greek vase painting?” said George tentatively, hoping to soothe this excitable and irritated genius. Mr. Upjohn flung his palette knife on the floor.

“You’re too stupid, George. What I mean is, the proportion and placing and colour-values are exactly in the best tradition of American-Indian blankets, and what I mean is, when you’ve got that, well, I mean, you’ve got something!”

“Of course, of course, it was stupid of me not to see. Forgive me, I’ve been working at hack articles all day, and my mind’s a bit muzzy.”

“I mildly supposed so!”

And Mr. Upjohn, with spasmodic movements, jerked the two easels round to the wall. There was a short pause in the conversation. Mr. Upjohn irritatedly cast himself at full length upon a sofa, and spasmodically ate candied apricots.


Richard Aldington, 1892-1962                        Death of a Hero, 1929

Described by George Orwell as “the best of the English war books” and by Aldington as a threnody, a death dirge, a lamentation, Death of a Hero, is a semi-autobiographal account of George Winterbourne, an idealistic artist who enlists in the army at the outbreak of World War I. The narrative is deeply pessimistic depiction of the pointlessness of war, the complacency of English bourgeois society, and the moral hypocrisy of the new woman, whose attitude and behaviour shows little compassion towards soldiers at war, living or dead. The painter Frank Upjohn, who invents a new style of painting every season, is a satirical portrait of modernist artists and poets, suggested by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound.

Noël Coward – The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe,1939

She remembered once saying to Cecil, Marjorie’s husband, who after all was supposed to be a painter, when they were standing in the garden one summer evening before dinner, that sunset and sunrise were God’s loveliest gifts to mortals if only they were not too blind to be able to appreciate them. Cecil had laughed, that irritating, cynical laugh of his, and replied that many thousands of people would appreciate them more if they were edible. She recalled how annoyed she had been, she could have bitten her tongue out for betraying a fragment of her own private self to someone who was obviously incapable of understanding it. On looking back, she realized that that was the first moment that she really knew that she disliked Cecil. Of course, she had never let Marjorie suspect it for an instant, and never would. What was done, was done, but still it was no use pretending. ”Know thyself,” was one of the cornerstones of her philosophy. Poor Marjorie. Poor willful, disillusioned Marjorie. That Marjorie was thoroughly disillusioned by now, Mrs. Radcliffe hadn’t the faintest doubt. Nobody could be married for seven years to a man like Cecil with his so-called artistic temperament, his casualness about money, her money, and his complete inability to earn any for himself, without being disillusioned. Mrs. Radcliffe sighed as she turned into Station Road. What a tragedy! Marjorie Radcliffe had met Cecil Garfield at a fancy-dress ball at the Albert Hall in 1950. She was up in town for a few days visiting a married school friend, Laura Courtney. There had been a buffet dinner before the ball, in Laura’s house in St. John’s Wood, and Marjorie, dressed as Cleopatra, a very effective costume that she had designed and made herself, was escorted to the Albert Hall by Roger Wood, a cousin of Laura’s who was in the air force. Roger was not dressed as anything in particular. He was a hearty young man and balked at the idea of tidying himself up; the most he had conceded to the carnival spirit of the occasion was a false moustache and a dark blue cape lined with scarlet which he wore over his ordinary evening clothes. Marjorie had been rather bored with him and was much relieved when, upon arrival at the ball, they ‘had been accosted in the foyer by a group of hilarious young people none of whom she knew, but all of whom seemed to know Roger. They were whirled off to the bar immediately to have a drink before even attempting to find Laura and the rest of their party. Among the group, was Cecil Garfield, and Cecil was dressed as Mark Antony. This coincidence provided an excuse for a great deal of playful comment from everybody. It would be useless to deny that Cecil looked very attractive as Mark Antony. His physique, much of which was apparent, was magnificent. He had a quick wit and a charming smile and Marjorie danced several dances with him.

At about three in the morning everybody, Laura and her husband included, adjourned to Cecil’s studio in Glebe Place to cook eggs and bacon. it was there that Marjorie first realized that he was an artist. How the word “Artist,” to Marjorie, held an imperishable glamour. She had long ago decided that a life such as her mother would have wished her to lead with a conventional husband, a cook and a baby, was out of the question. Marjorie wholeheartedly detested her suburban existence and, if the truth were known, was none too fond of her mother. Of this unnatural state of affairs, Mrs. Radcliffe was mercifully unaware, and if Mr. Radcliffe occasionally had an inkling of it,, he was wise enough to keep his suspicions to himself. Marjorie’s predilection for the artistic life had originally started when she was in her teens. Miss Lucas, her drawing mistress at school. had, perhaps unsuitably, lent her The Life of Van Gogh. Profoundly impressed by this, Marjorie had gone from bad to worse. My Days with the French Romantics, The Beardsley Period, Isadora Duncan’s Autobiography, and The Moon and Sixpence, had followed each other in quick succession. By the time she was twenty, she had assimilated a view of life so diametrically opposed to her mother’s, that existence at home became almost insupportable. She was an intelligent girl, however, wise beyond her years and practiced in deceit. A certain proficiency in’this direction being essential with a mother like Mrs. Radcliffe, and with a secretiveness that could only be described as downright sly, she kept her own counsel.

. . . . . .

Cecil and Marjorie had sat in a corner together that night after the ball and talked. A few days later they met by the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and talked a lot more. They talked of literature, music, religion and morals and agreed on all points. Of painting they talked more than anything. Cecil’s gods were Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Manet. He considered Picasso an intrinsically fine painter, but misguided. Cecil, when he talked of painting, betrayed his heart. Marjorie watched him fascinated. She noted the way his body became tense, the swift, expressive movements of his hands, how, when he was describing some picture that meant much to him, he would screw up his eyes and look through her, beyond her, beyond the trees of the park and the red buses trundling along on the other side of the railings, beyond the autumn sunshine and the people and the houses, beyond the present into the future. It was himself he was staring at through those half-closed eyes, himself having painted a successful picture, several successful pictures. Not successful from other people’s points of view, perhaps, but from his own.

It was when she first saw him like that, unselfconscious, almost arrogant, demanding so much of life and of himself and of anybody who had anything to do with him, that she knew she loved him. More than this, she knew that she could help him and comfort him and look after him. At last she had found someone in whom she could sublimate her passionate, unresolved yearning for creativeness. Five months later she had crept out of the house early on a bleak wet morning in February, traveled to London by the seven-forty-five train, met him under the clock at Victoria Station and married him at nine-thirty at a Registry Office in Fulham.

. . . . .

All this had taken place six years ago. Since then the allowance had been raised, on the stubborn insistence of Mr. Radcliffe, to almost double. Consequently, the Garfields were enabled to live in comparative comfort in a small house behind Sloane Square with a studio at the back converted, at certain expense, from a conservatory.

The fact that Cecil only very rarely managed to sell a picture was a source of great irritation to Mrs. Radcliffe. Having at last, soothed by the passage of time, consented to bury the hatchet and accept her artistic son-in-law, it was extremely frustrating not to be able to refer to his work with any conviction. To say ”My son-in-law is quite a well-known painter, you know,” was one thing, but it was quite another to say, “My son-in-law is a painter,” and upon being asked what kind of a painter, to be unable to explain. If only he would do portraits that had some resemblance to the sitter, or landscapes which gave some indication, however faint, of what they were supposed to be. lt was all very fine to argue that a painter painted through his own eyes and nobody else’s, and that what was green to one person might very possibly be bright pink to another. All that sort of talk smacked of affectation and highbrowism. What was good enough for Landseer and alma Tadema was good enough for Mrs. Radcliffe, and, she would have thought, good enough for anybody who had their heads screwed on in the right way.

. . . . .

“How is Cecil?”

“Bright as a button. He’s been working like a dog for the last two weeks.”

“Really?” The vision of Cecil working like a dog did not impress Mrs. Radcliffe. In the first place she didn’t believe it. She didn’t consider that painting away in that studio constituted work at all. It was just dabbing about. Cecil, as far as she could see, spent his whole life dabbing about. She naturally didn’t say this to Marjorie. Marjorie was inclined to be overvehement in defense of her husband’s activities.

“Has he managed to sell any more pictures lately?” she inquired. The ”any more” was purely courtesy. As far as she could remember Cecil had only sold one picture in the last eighteen months and for that he had received only twenty pounds.

An expression of irritation passed over Marjorie’s face, but she answered amiably enough. “He’s planning to have an exhibition in June. Lady Bethel is lending him her house for it.”

This caused Mrs. Radcliffe to sit up as Marjorie had intended that it should.

“ls that the Lady Bethel who organized that charity pageant just before Christmas?”

“Yes,” said Marjorie. “She’s a darling, there was a lovely picture of her in the Tatler last week: going to a Court ball,” she added wickedly.

“Mrs. Radcliffe was clearly puzzled. Lady Bethel was certainly an important figure. If she was willing to lend her house for an exhibition of Cecil’s paintings it might mean—here her reflections were disturbed by Cecil himself coming into the room. He had washed and tidied himself for lunch, but for all that he looked ill-groomed. His hair was too long, he wore no tie and there were paint stains on his very old gray flannel trousers. He bent down and kissed Mrs. Radcliffe on the cheek and then poured himself out some sherry.

“How are you, Marm?” he said breezily. He always addressed her as “Marm” and there was a suggestion in his tone of mock reverence which never failed to annoy her. “You look shining and beautiful.”

Mrs. Radcliffe deplored extravagance of phrase. She answered rather tartly, ”Very well indeed, thank you, Cecil.”

Cecil came over and leant against the mantelpiece, looking down at her. She was forced to admit to herself that he was hand- some in a loose, slovenly sort of way, but she could never be reconciled to that hair, never, if she lived to be a thousand.

“l’ve been telling mother about Lady Bethel promising to lend her house for your exhibition,” said Marjorie a trifle loudly.

Was it Mrs. Radcliffe’s fancy or did Cecil give a slight start of surprise?

”Yes,” he said with marked nonchalance. “It’s sweet of the old girl, isn’t it?”

Something in Mrs. Radcliffe revolted at Lady Bethel, The Lady Bethel, being referred to as an old girl, but she didn’t betray it.

“lt certainly is very nice of her,” she said. “But she has a great reputation, hasn’t she for giving a helping hand to struggling artists?”

Cecil, disconcertingly, burst out laughing. ”Touché, Marm,” he said. “Come along and let’s have some lunch.” He helped her out of her chair with elaborate solicitude and led the way into the dining room. Lunch passed off without incident. The conversation, although it could not be said to sparkle, was at least more or less continuous. Cecil was in the best of spirits. He was extremely attentive to Mrs. Radcliffe, always it is true with that light overture of mockery, that subtle implication in his voice and his gestures that she was a great deal older than she was, and had to be humored at all costs.

. . . . .

After lunch was over and they had had their coffee (lukewarm) in the drawing room, Mrs. Radcliffe expressed a desire to see Cecil’s pictures. This request was made merely in the spirit of conventional politeness. She had no real wish to see his pictures, as she knew from experience that there was little or no chance of her admiring them. Cecil and Marjorie were also perfectly aware of this, but nevertheless, after a little humming and hawing Cecil led the way into the studio. Marjorie walked behind with rather a lagging tread. The untidiness of Cecil’s studio always struck Mrs. Radcliffe with a fresh shock of distaste. It was inconceivable that anyone, however artistic, could live and breathe amid so much dirt and squalor. The table alone, which stood under the high window, was a sight to make the gorge rise. On it were ashtrays overflowing with days’ old cigarette ends, two or three used and unwashed teacups, a bottle of gin, a noisome conglomeration of paint tubes of all shapes and sizes, many of them cracked and broken so that their contents was oozing out and all of them smeared with a brownish substance that looked like glue, a pile of books and magazines, countless pencils and crayons and pieces of charcoal and, most disgusting of all, a half-full glass of milk, round the rim of which a fly was walking delicately. The rest of the room was equally repulsive. There was a model throne draped with some dusty material, a gas-fire with a bowl of water in front of it, in which floated several more cigarette ends, two easels, several canvases stacked against the wall, a large divan covered in red casement cloth and banked with paint-stained cushions and a pedestal supporting a sculpture in bronze of a woman’s breast. It was only by the greatest effort of self-control that Mrs. Radcliffe repressed a cry of horror.

The picture on which Cecil was working stood on the bigger of the two easels in the middle of the room. It represented a man, or what passed for a man, sitting in a crooked rocking chair without any clothes on. His legs, which were fortunately crossed, were enormously thick. Upon a slanting table at the right-hand side of the picture was what appeared to be a guitar together with a vase of flowers, a bottle and a fish. The paint on the canvas looked as though it had been flung at it from the other side of the room. There was not a trace of what Mrs. Radcliffe had been brought up to recognize as “fine brush work”. In fact there didn’t appear to be any brush work at all. She regarded in silence for a moment and then shook her head. “lt’s no use,” she said, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice. “I don’t understand it.”

“Never mind, Marm,” said Cecil cheerfully. “lt’s not really finished yet, anyhow.”

“But what does it mean?”

“It’s called ‘Music,”’ said Marjorie as though that explained everything.

“I still don’t understand what it means,” said Mrs. Radcliffe.

Cecil exchanged a quick look with Marjorie, who shrugged her shoulders. This annoyed Mrs. Radcliffe. “I’m sure you think I’m very ignorant and old-fashioned,” this time making no attempt to control her irritation, “but I don’t approve of this modern futuristic art and I never shall. To my mind a picture should express beauty of some sort. Heaven knows, there is enough ugliness in the world without having to paint it—”

“But we don’t think that picture is ugly, mother,” said Marjorie with an edge on her voice. Cecil looked at her warningly. Mrs. Radcliffe sniffed.

“You may not think its ugly and your highbrow friends may not think so either, but I do,” she said.

“Our friends are not particularly highbrow, Marm,” he said gently. “And as a matter of fact, nobody has seen this picture yet at all. You’re the first, you should feel very honoured,” he added with a disarming smile. Unfortunately, however, the smile was not quite quick enough and failed to disarm. Mrs. Radcliffe was by now thoroughly angry. The Chianti at lunch had upset her digestion as she had known it would and, having endured that inferior, badly cooked food and done her level best to be pleasant and entertaining into the bargain, to be stood in front of a daub like this and expected to admire it was really too much. In addition to this, both Cecil and Marjorie had a note of patronage in their voices which she found insufferable. All very fine for them to be patronizing when they were living entirely on her money, or rather Mr. Radcliffe’s which was the same thing. All very fine for a strong, healthy young man of Cecil’s age to fritter his time away painting these nonsensical pictures when he ought to be in some steady job shouldering his responsibilities and supporting his wife in the luxury to which she had been accustomed. All very fine to allude to Lady Bethel as an “old girl” and “darling” in that casual intimate manner and boast that she was going to lend her house for an exhibition of Cecil’s paintings. If Lady Bethel considered that that sort of nonsense was worthy of being exhibited she must be nothing short of an imbecile. In any case, she strongly doubted that Lady Bethel had promised any such thing. She recalled the swift look that had passed between Cecil and Marjorie before lunch, and the rather overdone nonchalance of Cecil’s tone.

The whole thing was nothing but a lie in order to impress her. The suspicion of this, which had lain dormant at the back of her mind throughout the whole of lunch, suddenly became a conviction. Of course that was what it was. A deliberate lie calculated to put her in the wrong, to make her feel ‘that her criticisms of Cecil’s painting in the past had been unjust, and to try to deceive her into the belief that he was appreciated and understood by people who really knew, whereas all the time he was nothing more nor less than the complete and utter failure he always had been and always would be. Mrs. Radcliffe decided to speak her mind. .

“Cecil” she said in an ominous voice, ‘’I have something to say to you that I have been wishing to say for some time past.”

The smile faded from Cecil’s face, and Marjorie walked across purposefully and slipped her arm through his.

‘Fire away, Marm,” he said with a certain bravado, but she saw him stiffen slightly.

“I want to suggest,” went on Mrs. Radcliffe, ”that you give up this absurd painting business once and for all and find some sort of job that will bring you in a steady income—”

“Give up his painting, mother, you must be mad!” said Marjorie angrily.

“Cecil patted her arm. “Shut up, darling,” he said.

Mrs. Radcliffe ignored the interruption and continued: ‘’I have talked the matter over with my husband.” This was untrue, but she felt that it solidified her position. “And we are both in complete agreement that it is nothing short of degrading that a young man of your age should be content to live indefinitely on his wife’s money.” There was dead silence for a moment. Mrs. Radcliffe’s face was flushed and the corners of Cecil’s mouth twitched.

Noël Coward,1899-1973   The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe, in, To Step Aside, Seven Short Stories,1939

Tennessee Williams – In Memory of an Aristocrat,1940

John McCrady,1911-1968

By this time she had painting for several years and had accumulated enough canvases to cover the walls of a room. She packed all her paintings and shipped them down to New Orleans where she heard an artist could subsist on practically nothing. She had hitch-hiked down there (last winter it was) and set up the studio and lived the life of an artist with that particular modification, if it really is a modification, which her desparate need of money had imposed.
As for her paintings, I thought they were really surprisingly good. They were very raw and terrific. Pictures of pregnant women in soiled cotton dresses and bums sleeping in doorways. Screaming strikeworkers, hideous scabs and bosses. There was one that was quite indecent but powerful as hell: a policeman nude except for his cap and his badge, beating a woman striker with a club while his sex organ stood in complete erection. This sounds like very bad painting but surprisingly it wasn’t. Each of the pictures packed a tremendous wallop, they hit you right smack between the eyes with the force and precision that only comes from the fury of a first-rate talent. Irene was a furious girl, she was possessed of a demon, but more than anything else I think, Irene was an artist.

. . .

I wanted, she said –(and this is something that I will always remember)-I wanted, she said, to stretch out the long, sweet arms of my art and embrace the whole world!

She said this at the end of everything else and it was, I think, what she had been trying to say all the time and hadn’t till then found the perfect utterance for.

Now she was silent. I turned over and saw that now at last Irene had fallen asleep. And her face as she slept was white and lovely and tender, the face of a sleeping child.

This was Irene.

Two or three weeks after Mardi Gras there was held what was known as the Annual Spring Display of Paintings by New Orleans artists. It was sponsored, of course, by a select private group of the more successful painters, the ones who if they had lived in the Quarter lived there only because it had atmosphere and whose studios were sparsely furnished with very beautiful things, great oval gilt-framed mirrors and inch-thick Oriental carpets and the kind of vases that the tragic protagonist knocks over when sneaking home late at night in two-reel comedies.

That is how I imagine them to be without, I must admit, having entered more than a couple.

Irene had submitted ten of her best canvases and for some time before the display she went around white and excited in a new black crepe dress with a silver and rhinestone buckle. She shaved her heavy legs, now, and wore some neat black slippers and even affected an ivory cigarette holder. She had a quick nervous smile for everyone in the Quarter. I would wake up some mornings and hear her voice on the street and think she was calling me but when I stepped out on the balcony I could see she was merely holding a casual conversation with the woman who sold perfume at Hové King’s or a tangerine vendor or one of the prostitutes at the corner bar. The Union organizers who had disappointed and betrayed her, the gallant workers in the garment shops, the mean-souled bosses and the sadistic policemen, all of these had receded from the surface of her mind. Art stood out above everything else, it bathed the landscape in a radiant, heavenly glow. Her eyes were lit with it, it trembled on her lips when she spoke, magnified her voice to a trumpet and filled the bigness of her body with a new kind of universal passion. She wanted to stretch out the long, sweet arms of her art – (I keep remembering that speech!)-and embrace the whole world . . .


I didn’t see her for several days and then she suddenly burst into the restaurant one Sunday while I was clearing the tables after the midday meal.

Something has happened she panted.


I can’t tell you! How long will you be?

About ten minutes.

Okay, I’ll wait till you’re through.

But Irene couldn’t sit still. She paced tigerishly up and down the Bohemian dining room with its charcoal nudes on the walls.

I want a job, she said.

Doing what?

Painting this kind of stuff! She said. I want to decorate somebody’s bathroom with scatological sketches, I want to draw obscene images on the ceilings of bedrooms!


Because I’m finished, she said, I’m all washed-up and I’m tired of being a whore!

It was sunny that day, terrifically bright on the streets, and Irene’s face was like a wound that should have been wrapped up. The bandages were torn away, the gentle humour, the tolerance and the good will so that nothing was visible but the raw, bleeding hurt, the fury and the terrific frustrated bitterness.

Rejected! She said. Every one of them completely rejected!

As we approached the artists’ salon I could see that something special was going on that afternoon. The curbs were lined with the kind of motors that the negro woman had told Irene she should ride down Canal Street in with a man in a full-dress suit.

We’d better not go in there now, I advised.

I got to, said Irene, before they burn my pictures!

Burn them?

Yes, she said, they’re planning to destroy my work!

It was the society crowd making a gracious bow to respectable art. Elegant people were standing around with little demitasse cups and frosted cakes and the air was pregnant with polite exclamations.

Irene was shaking terribly now and her face was chalk white. I could see that she was determined to make some kind of a scene and I began to make mental notes of ways to get out quickly.

What she did was to go in the back room where they had piled the rejected canvases like spare pieces of lumber after a house has been built. Their backs were outward, their faces were turned to the wall as though they stood there in shame. Irene, breathing heavily, stooping awkwardly, snatched among them until she had found her own. Then she lifted the largest and stalked with it into the bustling brightness of the the little spring salon. As I looked at the persons and objects that she was moving amongst I had a warning sense of something desparately irreconcilable in the air. These delicate vases, these little china cups, these blossoms, these nicely chiseled bits of terra cotta, and also these people with their fastidious clothes and their reserved little voices, they were all too fragile and Irene was something too fierce. There could be no peace between them. I saw her moving straight forward, black and terrible as a thundercloud in all the pale spring brightness, I saw the people before her dividing politely, murmering and giving way. I heard their nice exclamations, their Ohs and Ahs. And I thought to myself, If one were conducting a tour of battlefields in action, one might say, Here on the left is a gorgeous specimen of a twentieth-century man with the top of his skull blown off, and that one, the stout dowager with the violets at her bosom, would point delicately with her littlest gloved finger and say, How very nicely it’s done!

This was bitterness, not truth, but expressed my feelings.

Irene had moved over to the middle-aged man in frock coat and pince-nez standing beneath the leathery green fronds of a large potted palm. At first she seemed to be speaking without very much agitation. He was gently, politely warding off her objections. I could see him making fatherly little faces and touching her shoulder with the tip of one finger, just enough to establish contact without the risk of any contamination, while the saliva dribbled ever so slightly from the corner of his mouth.

Then Irene started raising her voice. There was a stir all around her. Coffee cups were set down with tiny click-clicks, a very faint spsss-spsss-spsss began to be heard under or above the ordinary chatter, eyebrows climbed higher, spruce little men craned their necks, roosterwise, debutantes shimmered and giggled with little breathless spasms, large women waggled their bottoms the way that they do when a disturbance is pending.

Is this the floor show? Someone asked.

The girl with the orchids giggled.

At this point Irene’s voice rose abruptly to shouting proportions. Something like pandemonium was then beginning to be let loose at the Annual Spring display, though it was still on a fairly small scale compared to later developments. You know how it is when a crowd of our best people discover all at once that something on the order of the Bubonic Plague has suddenly reared its hideous face amongst them. The social pattern, which is everything, is suddenly disrupted. There is no longer any logical motion so that they swarm without reason. The head is cut off the chicken, as it were, and she is flying about the yard spouting blood in complete abandon while her frenzied companions cackle in useless sympathy and dismay. Why doesn’t she put her head on? What can be done to stop it? The answer is nothing, nothing! On a stage you could bring down the curtain, in a bar you could summon the bouncers, but here amongst our nicest people there is no preparation for anything outrageous to happen. Suppose the police were called? The papers would be full of it tomorrow, a disorderly scene at the Annual Spring Display, it would completely crowd out the references to who served coffee and who was the chairman of what. It would constitute a regular scandal. But could this person be allowed to continue? No, she could not!

Who is she, anyhow? Does anyone know?

What? I can’t hear you!



Some Quarter Rat who paints disgusting pictures that couldn’t be shown.

Of the actual altercation I could see very little. When I heard the loud impact, the sound of rippping canvas, I said to myself, christ, she’s busted that picture over somebody’s head!

Hysteria broke loose at this point. Women who had been exclaiming in little pussycat voices abruptly learned how to scream in the way that swimming is learned by suddenly falling in water. Something loud crashed, a window I think it was. I was alarmed, unable to see but full of the wildest conjectures.

Irene! I shouted. Could she have been thrown out?

There was a brief contortion among the tight group of people who now surrounded Irene. The white-haired official was frenziedly spewed from amongst them. He shot straight forward across the floor to the phone on the opposite wall and shouted into its mouth such words as disturbance, Riot, Police!

But it was too late, this action too tardily taken. Irene was beyond restraint. As the wall of backs divided I had caught a glimpse of her face. My God, what a sight! Her face was no longer colourless, it was livid. Her dress had been torn loose in the struggle and one of her large white breasts was exposed. She was pinioned for that short moment by two stout gentlemen but they could not possibly hold her. She stamped on the toes of one and jabbed her knee into the other’s groin so they both fell away with desparate looks of anguish.

Then she was out. Nothing on earth could stop her, not even the Maginot line. Like a human tornado she swept around the four walls, plucking the nice pictures down and tossing them on the floor, hurling them at her pursuers or at the tea table. The glittering percolator went over, the cut-glass bowl full of pale green sherbert followed right after it. Millions of voices seemed to be shouting together, but over them all, all of the other voices, was always Irene’s. Such words as she screamed the nicer ladies had never heard whispered before. Dykes she called them, bitches and son of bitches and-


Tennessee Williams,1911-1983   In Memory of an Aristocrat, c.1940

Image: John McCrady,1911-1968.  The Parade, 1950. The artist paints a portrait of a nude woman in his studio in the French Quarter while a Mardi Gras parade passes in the street.

A short-story written in the Winter of 1939-40. The story describes Irene, who had studied painting in New York in a night class at the WPA, and moved to New Orleans, living and supporting herself as an artist by working as a prostitute in the artistic Quarter of New Orleans. Irene was based on a character in New Orleans whom Williams described as “an Aristocrat of the Spirit”, a bohemian artist and prostitute, who exhibited a freedom and joie de vivre in her art and her sexuality, “who painted the marvellous pictures and disappeared”.

Edith Wharton – The Custom of the Country,1913

Chapter 14

It was one of the distinctions of Mr. Claud Walsingham Popple that his studio was never too much encumbered with the attributes of his art to permit the installing, in one of its cushioned corners, of an elaborately furnished tea-table flanked by the most varied seductions in sandwiches and pastry.

Mr. Popple, like all great men, had at first had his ups and downs; but his reputation had been permanently established by the verdict of a wealthy patron who, returning from an excursion into other fields of portraiture, had given it as the final fruit of his experience that Popple was the only man who could “do pearls.” To sitters for whom this was of the first consequence it was another of the artist’s merits that he always subordinated art to elegance, in life as well as in his portraits. The “messy” element of production was no more visible in his expensively screened and tapestried studio than its results were perceptible in his painting; and it was often said, in praise of his work, that he was the only artist who kept his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress.

Mr. Popple, in fact, held that the personality of the artist should at all times be dissembled behind that of the man. It was his opinion that the essence of good-breeding lay in tossing off a picture as easily as you lit a cigarette. Ralph Marvell had once said of him that when he began a portrait he always turned back his cuffs and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, you can see there’s absolutely nothing here,” and Mrs. Fairford supplemented the description by defining his painting as “chafing-dish” art. On a certain late afternoon of December, some four years after Mr. Popple’s first meeting with Miss Undine Spragg of Apex, even the symbolic chafing-dish was nowhere visible in his studio; the only evidence of its recent activity being the full-length portrait of Mrs. Ralph Marvell, who, from her lofty easel and her heavily garlanded frame, faced the doorway with the air of having been invited to “receive” for Mr. Popple.

The artist himself, becomingly clad in mouse-coloured velveteen, had just turned away from the picture to hover above the tea-cups; but his place had been taken by the considerably broader bulk of Mr. Peter Van Degen, who, tightly moulded into a coat of the latest cut, stood before the portrait in the attitude of a first arrival.

“Yes, it’s good — it’s damn good, Popp; you’ve hit the hair off ripplingly; but the pearls ain’t big enough,” he pronounced.

A slight laugh sounded from the raised dais behind the easel.

“Of course they’re not! But it’s not HIS fault, poor man; HE didn’t give them to me!” As she spoke Mrs. Ralph Marvell rose from a monumental gilt arm-chair of pseudo-Venetian design and swept her long draperies to Van Degen’s side.

“He might, then — for the privilege of painting you!” the latter rejoined, transferring his bulging stare from the counterfeit to the original. His eyes rested on Mrs. Marvell’s in what seemed a quick exchange of understanding; then they passed on to a critical inspection of her person. She was dressed for the sitting in something faint and shining, above which the long curves of her neck looked dead white in the cold light of the studio; and her hair, all a shadowless rosy gold, was starred with a hard glitter of diamonds.

“The privilege of painting me? Mercy, I have to pay for being painted! He’ll tell you he’s giving me the picture — but what do you suppose this cost?” She laid a finger-tip on her shimmering dress.

Van Degen’s eye rested on her with cold enjoyment. “Does the price come higher than the dress?”

She ignored the allusion. “Of course what they charge for is the cut — ”

“What they cut away? That’s what they ought to charge for, ain’t it, Popp?”

Undine took this with cool disdain, but Mr. Popple’s sensibilities were offended.

“My dear Peter — really — the artist, you understand, sees all this as a pure question of colour, of pattern; and it’s a point of honour with the MAN to steel himself against the personal seduction.”

Edith Wharton,1862-1937    The Custom of the Country,1913

Image: John Singer Sargent,1856-1925. Portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon, 1904. Private Collection