Dick French: On The Town – May 2020

Dick French
May/June 2020

It’s interesting to read the letters of John Ruskin alongside those of Vincent van Gogh. Most people are aware that Ruskin became rather unbalanced with age, but from reading his correspondence with Euphemia (Effie) it seems to me he was quite mad from the start. It’s the manic density that impresses as much as the content. Writing from Switzerland … “Coming down from the high snows my face burned literally scarlet, you may well talk of the Kalydor [A kind of early patent sun cream. Ed] but it must be for me there – that it wanted. Then the costume. Fancy – first – me with a huge pair of dark blue double glassed spectacles. Over there – over the whole face, a green gauze veil – doubled and fastened down in the waistcoat ¬ then a broad straw hat on the top of all – tied down tight with its flaps over my ears – by a handkerchief over the crown of it – tied under my chin! Many a hard days walk have I had so accoutred and enough to frighten anything in the world.”

Effie herself was rather odd. She wrote about the eldest son of Earl Somers, who is a beautiful drawer, but also rather fond of queer things, such as he wanted to see a massacre and went some months ago to Algiers where he saw two or three really good ones and has come back quite satisfied.”

Van Gogh’s letters, in contrast, are models of sanity … “One can never study and toil too much from nature. The greatest most powerful imaginations have at the same time made things from nature which strike one dumb.” His descriptive powers are superb: “Flemish sailors eating mussels and drinking beer happens with a lot of noise and movement, while in contrast a tiny figure in black with her little hands against her body comes stealing noiselessly along the grey wall. Framed by raven black hair a small oval face, brown, orange yellow, I don’t know. For a moment she lifts her eyelids and looks with a sideways glance from a pair of jet black eyes. It is a Chinese girl mysterious as a mouse, small bug-like in character. What a contrast to the greys of Flemish mussel eaters.”

Before the plague I managed to see two very good exhibitions and a dreadful one at the White Cube gallery, which I won’t bother you with. Up the glass staircase at the Royal Academy you can see the works of Leon Spilliaert, of whom I’d never heard. A mysterious painter mainly of Ostend after dark. I’m fond of Ostend. In the ’70s they held an annual open exhibition. I always did rather well in it and one year they awarded me

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a medal inscribed ‘Europrix – French Dick’. It occupies pride of place just beneath my turntable. I enjoyed the Spilliaert show, as did the Scrapyard Queen and Mrs Cravat. Dirty Harry, on the other hand, didn’t like it at all and sloped off to the pub. He didn’t believe the story of the artist’s insomnia and thought him more likely a shirtlifter on the cruise.

There are very dark pictures in chalk and watercolour, vague lights here and there, beach scenes and figures on the promenade. A nice one of a girl showing her bloomers as the wind whips up her dress. I think perhaps he was a bit of both. His portrait of an absinthe drinker inspired the Scrapyard Queen to do a picture of a cider drinker as soon as she returned to her lair in the West Country.

I wonder if the Beardsley expo will be extended after the plague… It’s certainly worth seeing. I vividly remember the Beardsley show at the V&A in ’66 arranged by Brian Reade. It quite turned my head around. Before seeing Beardsley I had been doing wildly over-praised paintings which were a mixture of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Some of them were enormous and weirdly shaped. As I’m not much of a carpenter they always fell to bits. I’d been a raving Modernist since schooldays but now I


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decided I wanted to be a decadent (or day cadong as it was pronounced).

I switched to pen and ink for a few years before I started painting again after a visit to the Gustave Moreau museum in Paris. I came to dislike artists who drew habitually with lots of lines. Don’t be precious, dive in, have a go, it doesn’t matter if you make a mess, you can always do another one. Mistakes are for learning. Look properly at the thing in front of you and don’t square it up, it gives the game away.

Poking around in my library you never know what you might find. I discovered seven books on Beardley, one of them by Brigid Brophy. Marvellous woman, married to Michael Levey, the director of the National Gallery in the ’60s. Kingsley Amis wrote a humorous limerick about her:

The first chap to fuck Brigid Brophy

Was awarded the Krafft-Ebbing Trophy

And ten thousand quid

Which for what the chap did

Was regarded as rather a low fee.

Stephen Calloway’s Beardsley book is the best. I first met him about twenty years ago in the V&A. He seemed to emerge out of a wall, a vision of Victorian loveliness (it was the concealed door in the museum’s print and drawing room). Off he strode in a white linen suit and, I think, button boots, antique gold specs, floppy hair and a long beard. I mentioned this to David Rodgers, an old friend. They both had the most amazingly posh voices and, along with Brian Sewell, were said to make the Queen sound common. Dave was a great fan of the Rolling Stones, who he referred to as the ‘Railing Stains’. After I’d described my Victorian vision he said ‘Oh that’s Stephen Calloway, he’s extraordinary isn’t he? I was at a meeting at the V&A a few weeks ago and people were setting up their computers when Stephen walked in, put his writing case on the table and brought out a bottle of ink and quill pen.”

I first met Dave when he gave a lecture on Aubrey Beardsley at the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. His first job in London was curator of Old Battersea House, a magnificent ruin on the river, full of second division Pre-Raphaelite paintings and the most splendid dry rot I’ve ever seen. Some of the ‘flowers’ of dry rot on the staircase were two or three feet in diameter. Vandalism and break-ins were frequent and led him to leave after a year. I think it’s been renovated now but it would have been lovely to preserve it as it was in ’67. Maybe it could have been “plastinated” and double as a fairground attraction.

There was a strong link between the Graves and the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in the 1890s. The gallery was run by John Rothenstein whose father William knew everybody from Oscar Wilde, Beardsley and Ernest Dowson to Leonard Smithers, who became extremely important to Beardsley after the Yellow Book dispensed with his services due to his association with Wilde, who was just then embarking on his hard labour.

Smithers was a Sheffield solicitor who came to London and set up as a purveyor of rare books, which included a variety of ‘under-the-counter material’. He was very successful for a time with a shop in the Royal Arcade off Bond Street. He had a plump but attractive wife with many admirers with whom he would occasionally agree a price. There used to be a Leonard Smithers Society but I don’t know if it’s still going. Along with Beardsley 404 Not Found and Arthur Symons he launched a new magazine, The Savoy, a rival to the Yellow Book, which was becoming rather tame. Many considered Smithers a disgraceful fellow, a bit of a cad, but I wish there were more like him around nowadays. I might be able to display more of my pictures. He died in mysterious circumstances in a small room in Fulham with no furniture and hardly any clothes.

If you were an art school creature in the ’50s and early ’60s you would most likely be a follower of Sickert, a mild Modernist, or a Cézanne still-life merchant. Underneath all this was a curious current mostly ignored but sometimes referred to as Neo-Romanticism  … dark figures in long smocks (they couldn’t do legs) leading white horses to dark pools is how I remember it. Perhaps it was the legacy of the late 19th century. I think every small provincial art school had a crusty old decadent on the strength.