Wyndham Lewis – Beau Séjour,1927

h-brodsky_viewing-kermesse-1917

THE POLE. In pre-war Europe, which was also even more the Europe of before the Russian Revolution, a curious sect was established in the watering-places of Brittany. Its members were generally known by the peasants as ‘Poles.’ The so-called ‘Pole’ was a russian exile or wandering student, often coming from Poland. The sort that collected in such great numbers in Brittany were probably not politicians, except in the sentimental manner in which all educated Russians before the Revolution were ‘radical’ and revolutionary. They had banished themselves, for purely literary political reasons, it is likely, rather than been banished. Brittany became a heavenly Siberia for masses of middle-class russian men and women who made ‘art’ the excuse for a never-ending holiday. They insensibly became a gentle and delightful parasite upon the French. Since the Revolution (it being obvious that they cannot have vast and lucrative estates, which before the Revolution it was easy for them to claim) they have mostly been compelled to work. The Paris taxi-driver of today, lolling on the seat of his vehicle, cigarette in mouth, who, without turning round, swiftly moves away when a fare enters his cab, is what in the ancien régime would have been a ‘Pole.’ If there is a communist revolution in France, this sort of new nomad will move down into Spain perhaps. He provides for the countries of Europe on a very insignificant scale a new version, today, of the ‘jewish problem.’ His indolence, not his activity, of course, makes him a ‘problem.’

The pre-war method of migration was this. A ‘Pole’ in his home in Russia would save up or borrow about ten pounds. He then left his native land for ever, taking a third-class ticket to Brest. This must have become an almost instinctive proceeding. At Brest he was in the heart of the promised land. He would then make the best of his way to a Pension de Famille, already occupied by a phalanstery of ‘Poles.’ There he would have happily remained until the crack of doom, but for the Bolshevik Revolution. He had reckoned without Lenin, so to speak.

He was usually a ‘noble,’ very soberly but tactfully dressed. He wore suède gloves: his manners were graceful. The proprietress had probably been warned of his arrival and he was welcome. His first action would be to pay three months’ board and lodging in advance; that would also be his last action of that sort. With a simple dignity that was the secret of the ‘Pole,’ at the end of the trimestre, he remained as the guest of the proprietress. His hostess took this as a matter of course. He henceforth became the regular, unobtrusive, respected inhabitant of the house.

If the proprietress of a Pension de Famille removed her establishment from one part of the country to another, took a larger house, perhaps (to make room for more ‘Poles’), her ‘Poles’ went with her without comment or change in their habits. Just before the war, Mademoiselle T. still sheltered in her magnificent hotel, frequented by wealthy Americans, some of these quiet ‘Poles,’ who had been with her since the day when she first began hotel-keeping in a small wayside inn. Lunching there you could observe at the foot of the table a group of men of a monastic simplicity of dress and manner, all middle-aged by that time, indeed even venerable in several instances, talking among themselves in a strange and attractive tongue. Mademoiselle T. was an amiable old lady, and these were her domestic gods. Any one treating them with disrespect would have seen the rough side of Mademoiselle T.’s tongue.

Their hosts, I believe, so practical in other ways, became superstitious about these pensive inhabitants of their houses. Some I know would no more have turned out an old and ailing ‘Pole’ who owed them thirty years’ board and lodging, than many people would get rid of an aged and feeble cat.

For the breton peasant, ‘Polonais’ or ‘Pole’ sufficed to describe the member of any nation whom he observed leading anything that resembled the unaccountable life of the true slav parasite with which he had originally familiarized himself under the name of ‘Pole.’

Few ‘Poles,’ I think, ever saw the colour of money once this initial pin-money that they brought from Russia was spent. One ‘Pole’ of my acquaintance did get hold of three pounds by some means, and went to spend a month in Paris. After this outing, his prestige considerably enhanced, he came back and resumed his regular life, glad to be again away from the siècle and its metropolitan degradation. In pre-war Paris, ‘Poles’ were to be met, very much de passage, seeing some old friends (en route for Brest) for the last time.

A woman opened a smart hotel of about thirty beds not far from Beau Séjour. I was going over to see it. She advertised that any artist who would at once take up his quarters there would receive his first six months gratis. Referring to this interesting event in the hearing of a ‘Pole,’ he told me he had been over there the previous day. He had found no less than twelve ‘Poles’ already installed, and there was a considerable waiting list. ‘If you like to pay you can go there all right,’ he said, laughing.

The general explanation given by the ‘Pole’ of the position in which he found himself, was that his hosts, after six or nine months, were afraid to let him go, for fear of losing their money. He would add that he could confidently rely on more and more deference the longer he stopped, and the larger the amount that he represented in consequence. Ordinary boarders, he would tell you, could count on nothing like so much attention as he could.

That such a state of affairs should ever have occurred, was partly due perhaps to the patriarchal circumstances of the breton agricultural life. This new domestic animal was able to insinuate himself into its midst because of the existence of so many there already. Rich peasants, and this applied to the proprietors of country inns, were accustomed in their households to suffer the presence of a number of poor familiars, cousinly paupers, supernumeraries doing odd jobs on the farm or in the stables. The people not precisely servants who found a place at their hearth were not all members of the immediate family of the master.

But there was another factor favouring the development of the ‘Pole.’ This was that many of them were described as painters. They seldom of course were able to practise that expensive art, for they could not buy colours or canvases: in their visitors’ bulletins, however, they generally figured as that. But after the death of Gauguin, the dealer, Vollard, and others, came down from Paris. They ransacked the country for forgotten canvases: when they found one they paid to the astonished peasants, in the heat of competition, very considerable sums. Past hosts of the great french romantic had confiscated paintings in lieu of rent. The least sketch had its price. The sight of these breathless collectors, and the rumours of the sums paid, made a deep impression on the local people. The ‘Poles’ on their side were very persuasive. They assured their hosts that Gauguin was a mere cipher compared to them.—These circumstances told in favour of the ‘Pole.’

But no such explanations can really account for the founding of this charming and whimsical order. Whether there are still a few ‘Poles’ surviving in Brittany or not, I have no means of knowing. In the larger centres of villégiature the siècle was already paramount before the war.

The Russian with whom translations of the Russian books of tsarist Russia familiarized the West was an excited and unstable child. We have seen this society massacred in millions without astonishment. The Russian books prepared every Western European for that consummation. All the cast of the Cherry Orchard could be massacred easily by a single determined gunman. This defencelessness of the essential Slav can, under certain circumstances, become an asset. Especially perhaps the French would find themselves victims of such a harmless parasite, so different in his nature to themselves. A more energetic parasite would always fail with the gallic nature, unless very resolute.

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957 Beau Séjour, in, The Wild Body, A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories,1927

Image 1: Horace Brodzky, 1885-1969, Viewing Kermesse 1917, Drypoint, 11 x 9.5 cm. © The Estate of Horace Brodzky; Image supplied courtesy of the Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2011

Image 2: Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957. Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, a self-portrait, 1921. Oil on canvas, 73 x 44 cm. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull City Museums and Art Gallery. © The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Wyndham Lewis describes a particular group of resident ‘artists’ in Brittany, known as the ‘Poles,’ who were political and economic refugees, mostly Little Russians, Finns and Germans, who live modestly in auberges on the charity of the Breton landladies. As well-mannered êmigrês they found a niche in the social structure and are accepted as dilettantes adopting the role of poverty-bound artists.The Soldier of Humour, appeared in its original form in The Little Review (an American publication) of 1917-18. In it the showman, Ker-Orr, is, we are to suppose, at a later stage of his comic technique than in the accounts of his adventures in Brittany. Beau Séjour is the first hotel at which he stops. (This, except for the note at the end, is a new story.)” Foreward, Wyndham Lewis, July 6, 1927. Harcourt Brace,

Wyndham Lewis – Sigismund, 1922,

john-collier-lady-godiva-1897

Some months later, settled in the midst of a very great establishment, Sigismund’s fancy found a new avenue of satisfaction. He resolved to make a collection of pictures. His newly-awakened sensibility where pictures were concerned was the servant of his ruling passion, and admirably single-minded. His collection must be such as a nobleman would wish to possess. And again in this fresh activity his instinct was wonderfully right.

But Deborah grew blacker day by day. The dumb animal from the sacred Past felt by now that there was something exceedingly queer about her husband. The fabulous sums of money that Sigismund got through in the prosecution of his new fad awoke at last her predatory instincts. Solid bullion and bank balances was what she had wedded: not a crowd of fantastic and rather disturbing scenes. She secretly consulted with Lord Victor.

However, Sigismund proceeded to fill the house with pictures, engravings, drawings and pieces of sculpture. They all had some bearing on the Past. Many were historical pieces. They showed you Henry VIII., the king of the playing card, divorcing Catherine. He appeared, in the picture, to be trying to blow her away. They disclosed the barons after their celebrated operation at Runnymede, thundering off with the Charter: or William the Conqueror tripping up as he landed. There were pictures celebrating Harry Page’s doings, ‘Arripay’ : episodes on the Spanish main. There was an early lord earning his book-rights with an excellent ferocity: and a picture of a lonely geneat on his way to the manor with his lenten tribute of one lamb.

A rather special line depicted a runaway labourer being branded upon the forehead with a hot iron, at the time of the Labour Statutes of the fourteenth century: and sailors being bastinadoed after unusually violent mutinies. Stock and thumbscrew scenes. There was a picture of a Kentish churchyard, John Ball preaching to a rough crowd. As Sigismund gazed at this terrible picture, he experienced perhaps his richest thrill.

When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?

He could see these unhallowed words coming out of the monk’s lips and the crowd capering to them.

He had the six English regiments at Minden, mechanical red and accoutred waves, disposing of the French cavalry: and Hawke in Quiberon Bay, pointing with a grand remote pugnacity to the French flagship: the old ceremonious ships, caught in a rather stormy pathos of the painter’s, who had half attempted, by his colouring and arrangement, to find the formula for an event very remote in time from the day of the artist depicting it.

Charles II. dying ‘do not let poor Nelly starve ‘ Sigismund’s model of how to die: * for-

give me, Deborah, for protracting this insignificant scene. 5 He was not sure about ‘insignificant ‘ and sometimes substituted ‘tedious.’ The word ‘unconscionable,’ he felt, was the prerogative of dying princes.

The masked executor holding up the head of Charles I., whose face, in the picture, although severed from the body, still wore a look of great dignity and indifference to the little trick that had been played upon it by the London Magnificos. ‘Eikon Basilike’ drew as many tears from Sigismund’s susceptible lids as it did from many honest burgesses at the time of its publication.

Mary Queen of Scots over and over again: Fotheringay : many perfect deaths: the Duke of Cumberland holding the candle for the surgeon amputating his leg.

Gildas, Kemble’s ‘Saxons in England’ the life of Wilfrid, by Eddi, were three of his favourite books. And pictures dealing with this period he concentrated in a room, which he called the ‘Saxon’ room. In these pieces were seen

The Crowning of Cedric.

Guthlac of Crowland vomiting at the sight of a bear.

The Marriage of Ethelbert with Bertha, daughter of King Charibert.

The Merchants telling Gregory that the angelic slaves came from ‘Deira.’

Constantine on the chalk cliffs, Minster below, knees jutting out, for the first time, in a bluff english breeze ; and Ethelbert, polite, elevated, but postponing his conversion with regal procrastination, or possibly leisureliness.

Burner’s dagger reaching Edwwie through Lilians body.

Coifi, the priest, at Godmanham, making his unexpected attack on an obsolete temple.

Aidan with a bag of hairy converts in the wilds of Bernicia.

Penda looking at the snowy fist blessed by Aidan after he had defeated the Northumbrians. Alfred singing psalms and turning cakes, and Caedmon writing verses in his stable.

These were only a few of the many scenes that Sigismund roamed amongst: standing in front of them (when he could prevail on her to come with him) with his arm round Deborah’s waist.

The pictures that Deborah hated most were those most economically noxious. These were pictures by masters contemporary with the Past. Van Dyck was his great favourite, at once a knight, a Belgian, and a painter. He reflected with uncertainty, ‘a foreign title, obviously’ ? Contemporary painters who were at the same time knights, or even lords, he thought less of, it may be mentioned in passing : though he never grudged them, on account of their good fortune, the extra money he had to pay for their pictures.

His instinct manifested itself more subtly, though, in his choice of modern works. Burne-Jones was perhaps his favourite artist not belonging, except in spirit, to the wonderful Past. He recognized the tendril or twist he had read about in the book found at Bosselwood. Also the unquestionable proclivity to occupy himself with very famous knights and queens struck Sigismund as a thing very much in his favour. But our hero was an incomparable touchstone. His psychic qualities had their part in this. You could have taken him up to a work of art, watched his behaviour, and placed the most entire confidence in the infallibility of his taste in deciding as to the really noble qualities, or the reverse, of the artist. The Man in the Savage State propensity always met with a response. And you would not be surprised, if going further along the gallery with Sigismund, you came upon a work by the same painter of a very tender description, showing you some lady conceived on a plane of rhetorical spirituality. The Animal and the Noble, you would know, are not so far apart: and the savage or sentimental and the impulses to high-falute very contiguous.

Suffocated by this avalanche of pictorial art, Deborah had been constantly sending up S.O.S.’s, and Lord Victor had hurried to her assistance, unknown to Sigismund. This very ‘natural’ female splinter from a remote eruption, grew more violent every day. The more animal she grew the better pleased was Sigismund. One day when as usual he strolled round his galleries, he was only able to examine his acquisitions with one eye, the other having been ‘poached’ overnight by his wife.

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957   Sigismund, 1922.

Sigismund, was first published in Art and Letters, 1922, and in the collection of short stories, The Wild Body, A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories,1927, Harcourt Brace, 1928.

Image: The Honourable John Maler Collier OBE RP ROI (1850-1934). 1. Lady Godiva, 1897, oil on canvas, 56 x 72 inches /142.2 x 183 cms, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. 2. Sacred and Profane Love,1919, oil on canvas, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Wyndham Lewis is in full snarling hunting pink in a satirical anti-establishment story where ‘Art’ and ‘Race’ signify the good-bad breeding of the English quality society. ‘Art’ is a collection of paintings of English history and pictures by masters contemporary with the past.” Lord Sigismund and the Honourable Deborah Libyon-Bosselwood are monolithic representatives of the genealogical relics of ‘Race’, or inbred aristocratic blood lines. The Bosselwood motto: Nunquam ignoscete (Never Forgive) reflects a violent and primitive heraldic feudalism. She is described as a surly, lumpen woman of thunderous stature, hairy and leathery skinned, mute and massive. His pursuits involve the necromancy of researching her astrological pedigree. A passive cast of haw-hawing imbeciles and nincompoops are the more malevolent reflection of the upper classes mirrored by PG Wodehouse. They include Captain Reddie Gribble-Smith, and Tom Fireacres. pronounced Furrakers, a Socialist from an “Awfully good family you know.”, and a genetically defective Bulldog, named Pym. Sigismund reads to Deborah from a book in the library at Bosselwood Chase:

The training of these fortunate people—ancient houses, receding lines of pictures, trophies, books, careful crystallization of memories and forms, quiet parks, large and massive dwellings—all is calculated to make life grow backward instead of forward, naturally, from birth. This is just as pleasant, and in some ways easier. The dead are much nicer companions, because they have learnt not to expect too much of existence, and have a lot of nice habits that only demise makes possible. Far less cunning, only to take one instance, is required to be dead than to live. They respect no one, again, for they know, what is universally recognized, that no one is truly great and good until he is dead: and about the dead, of course, they have no illusions. In spite of this they are not arrogant, as you might expect.

‘I think that is divinely well put, don’t you agree, darling?’ asked Sigismund closing the book. Deborah looked straight at him with genuine hatred: with the look of a dog offered food about which he feels there is some catch.