Colin Wilson – Adrift in Soho,1961


F N Souza-self portrait 1949

The record came to an end. Propter was asking Robby if he could come and see some of his poetry. I was glad that his visit been of use to somebody. I called over to James (who had cornered a bottle of burgundy) to ask if we should take Sir Reginald up to see Ricky Prelati. Vera roused herself sufficiently to say: ‘He’s in one of his anti-social moods today. Says he’s painting the mansions of eternal peace. He’ll probably throw you out.’

‘We’ll try him, anyway,’ James said. ‘Will you come on up, Sir Reg?’

‘I went out of the room first. Doreen followed. I knocked on the door. No one answered. I opened it cautiously, afraid of being greeted by the same roar that had met me this morning. But Ricky was standing six feet away from the easel, staring into the room. I realized he had a model. A small, brown Hindu was squatting, quite naked, in the middle of the rug, his legs crossed. He also continued to stare blankly in front of him without moving a muscle. It was like walking into a waxworks. James and Sir Reginald followed us in. James was not at all disconcerted. He said: ‘Ah, the master is in samadhi.’

He went and stood beside Ricky, and stared at the painting. After a moment, I went over too. I could see then why Ricky looked hypnotized. The painting was an incredible, abstract-looking effort, that might have been a luminous white jellyfish trailing nerve-like antennae through black water lit with red and yellow lights. But the white blob in the middle of the canvas concentrated the attention; everything seemed to lead back to it. After staring at it for a moment, I began to feel hypnotized myself.

James clapped Ricky on the back ,saying: ‘Master, you’ve produced a masterpiece. Don’t you think so, Sir Reg?’

Ricky seemed to come out of his trance. He looked at us curiously, but without hostility, wondering how we got there. Propter said: ‘A most remarkable work – most remarkable. Er . . . what do you call it?’

Ricky pointed to the naked Hindu. ‘It’s Narendra.’

Sir Reginald glanced at Narendra as if he might turn out to be the Thing from Outer space. James introduced Propter to Ricky; they shook hands. Propter said: ‘Tell me, sir, would you consider selling that painting?’

Ricky shook his head vaguely. ‘Oh no. No.’

We waited for further explanation, but none came. James interposed tactfully: ‘It’s not finished.’

Propter began to wander around the room. James obligingly turned on the spotlights and directed them at the pictures. I could see that Propter was as impressed as I had been that morning. He asked: ‘Have you had any exhibitions?’

Ricky shook his head. He was still staring at the painting. At last he took up his palette again and added more paint. He said finally: ‘I’ve only been painting for five years.’

‘Indeed. What did you do before that?’

‘Built bridges.’

‘These are really quite astounding.’ Propter added. He turned to James. ‘I’m very grateful to you for bringing me here.’

James came over to him and spoke in a low voice. Since I was standing next to them, I could just overhear.

‘Don’t ask him about buying them now. He hates to sell his pictures. Wait until you know him better.’

I couldn’t help admiring James’s knack of creating ‘sales interest’. Propter nodded briefly, and then contented himself with examining the painting without speaking. I noticed that Doreen was looking at Ricky with more interest than at the paintings. And felt a flash of jealousy. In the glare of the spotlights he was one of the most impressive-looking men I have seen. Between the domed, bald forehead and the black beard, the face showed power and character; but it also made an immediate impression of decency and good humour. I realized that I could hardly blame Doreen if she preferred him to me.

Colin Wilson,1931-2013. Adrift in Soho,1961. Chapter 5. Published by Victor Gollancz,1961

Image: Francis Newton Souza, 1912-2002. Self Portrait,1949, Gouache on Paper

Adrift in Soho describes the lives of a group of the English Beat generation set in Soho and Notting Hill in 1955. The central character, nineteen year-old Harry Preston, echoes Colin Wilson’s experience, as a would-be writer who moves to London from a provincial town and pursues adventures with out-of-work actor, James Street, in the Bohemian world of artists, poets and writers, including the Notting Hill studio of artist Ricky Prelati. The novel was rewritten from an unperformed play, The Metal Flower Blossom, 1951

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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