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.

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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