Authors: Sebastian Faulks
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General
Don’t tell him so … Wood’s exile to Paris, and the difference of opinion it revealed between his parents, caused tension at home in Huyton.
Wood worked on throughout the hot summer, standing stripped to the waist and cooled by an electric fan. In September he and Gandarillas went to London, from where they planned to motor up to Scotland with a friend called Jack Gordon. Although they went past Liverpool they did not stop at Huyton. They played golf at Inverness but gave up after nine holes, because even with his limp, Wood was too good for his companions: it is hard to imagine that a man of Gandarillas’s indoor habits was much of a force on the links. From Glencoe Wood wrote to his mother: ‘I am longing to see you, but I do hate Huyton.’ She had to make of this what she could, knowing that he had driven almost past her door.
They returned to London, where Wood met Luisa Casati’s daughter Christina, who struck him as being a more attractive version of her mother. He was beginning to be drawn to women, though he still preferred male company because women, he claimed, always kept him waiting and then required too much attention and reassurance. Gandarillas was his true friend and benefactor: they had an excellent arrangement which allowed Wood to do as much painting as he liked and, to a large extent, live the life he chose. Wood could not imagine any marriage providing such latitude. The trouble with Gandarillas was that he was so dedicated to parties: they were not a youthful indulgence, they were the love of his life.
Christopher Wood by now struck a curious figure in London. Friends of his insisted that he retained an English public school manner throughout his life. One friend, Gerald Reitlinger, said it was always possible to imagine Kit as a golfing, shooting Savile Row gentleman and that only some quirk had made him an artist; but such people knew little of his inner fury and fitful self-discipline. Meanwhile the company he kept had also left its mark
on his manners, and his behaviour briefly took on a tart, impatient edge.
On 11 November he went to Westminster Abbey for the Armistice Day service. The queues were such that he could not get in; they stretched up Whitehall into a great mass in Piccadilly Circus and thronged over Westminster Bridge. T.S. Eliot had seen the same crowd and described it in
The Waste Land
, which had just been published by the Hogarth Press: ‘So many, I had not thought death had undone so many.’
Wood made little of it, or of the General Election in December, which ended in a stalemate when Baldwin’s Conservatives lost ninety seats to Labour and the Liberals. On Election night Wood went to a party at Selfridge’s; he did not vote.
By now the shape of Wood’s immediate problem was clear. He had somehow to find a way to improve as a painter, with all the toil and self-questioning that would take, while at the same time trying to keep the demands and side-effects of his social life within bounds. As he became known for his own charm and good looks and not merely as Gandarillas’s accessory, the demands became greater. The potential for destruction was typified in the person of Princesse Violette Murat, an enormous drug-addicted lesbian with a hunger for company. She owned a white rat, which she believed to be reincarnated, and had a fetish for cleanliness. If she arrived to stay at the Ritz she would tie her hair up in a scarf, ask room service to send up a pail and some brushes and start scrubbing the bathroom. She had some society reputation for ‘good taste’ but, unlike Mme Errazuriz, left no proof of it.
With Violette Murat came drugs, though Wood had already been introduced to opium by Tony Gandarillas, and it played a crucial part in his life and death. Opium is the milk from the green capsule of the poppy indigenous to Indo-China and parts of Turkey. The European centre was Smyrna, which was possibly one reason Gandarillas and Wood made their ill-advised detour there in 1922. By the time the opium reached Paris it had the consistency and colour of treacle. A pin was dipped into it to pick up a blob of opium which was held over a small flame until it bubbled and expanded to about the size of a large pea; it was then plunged into the pinhole opening of an 18-inch pipe. The pipe
was reversed over the flame while the smoker inhaled, preferably taking the entire contents in one draught.
Opium did not disable the smoker physically, like strong cannabis, or leave him feeling mentally befuddled; it gave, on the contrary, a sensation of controlled euphoria. All things seemed possible: the intellect, far from being impaired, felt regally empowered. Conversations, books, pictures and the natural world appeared charged with profound meaning and interest, all of it made magically available to the mind of the smoker; food, particularly the flavours of Far Eastern cooking, became more intriguing and more intensely enjoyable. Compared either to cannabis or to its own derivative, heroin, opium was refined, civilised and intellectual.
Above all opium lived up to its Homeric name –
, the destroyer of grief. Graham Greene recorded that after four pipes, ‘unhappiness and fear of the future became like something dimly remembered which I had thought important once.’ Thomas de Quincey, who took opium in alcohol as laudanum, wrote: ‘Here was a panacea … for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle.’ Opium was a princely drug – flattering, powerful and enriching. While many native Chinese had learned how to live with it over generations, nervous European types like Christopher Wood found it difficult to control the euphoric genie they had released from the pipe.
The morning after, he would be back in his studio in the rue des Saints Peres. In the spring of 1924 he was working on a large nude in oils as well as copying drawings by Raphael, Leonardo and Titian. He was struggling also with what he called the ‘almost suffocating influence of modern art’. He both appreciated what had been done, and knew, as a proper artist, that he had to make some accommodation with it; yet his own strength was not in Cubism, Dada or Surrealism. He had to find a way of absorbing the modern without disturbing the originality of his own distinctive, but essentially old-fashioned talent. And this in turn
had to be achieved with Violette Murat laying out lines of cocaine in the bathroom.
At this time, despite the drugs and the bad company, the tensions of Wood’s life still resolved themselves as comedy. He sat on the Louis XIV
lit de repos
in his little apartment within Gandarillas’s house on the Avenue Montaigne and looked about him. There was a big open fireplace in which a fire burned all day. The room was panelled, with one wall entirely taken up by books. Outside there was a courtyard from which he could hear the splashing of a fountain; it made him think of home, and how happy he had been as a child, before everything was spoiled by the War years. He did not pine for England any more; he believed that the only possible life there for a young man was to ‘stagnate or become a merchant and the owner of a small villa on the outskirts of some provincial town’. While he regretted that he had had no choice but to separate himself from his family, he did not doubt that he had made the right decision.
In February Tony Gandarillas was offered the Chilean ambassadorship to Paris. He refused, much to Wood’s relief, on the grounds that the entertaining would cost him too much. In March the two of them set off once more on their travels. Wood had wanted to return to Rome because he felt he would be inspired there, and Gandarillas was happy to oblige. They travelled by way of Corsica, Leghorn and Pisa, and once in Rome Wood found himself thrilled by the Coliseum, the via Appia and the Villa d’Este. He enthused about almost all the places that he visited with Gandarillas, but Rome was the one with which he had the truest affinity.
He noticed that a man called Mussolini was much admired by the Italians; in fact they knelt down when he went past them in the street. One morning as Wood and Gandarillas were driving through Rome their car was stopped in the traffic. Wood looked out of his window and found himself face to face with II Duce, whose car was going in the opposite direction. It was a momentary glimpse, a single tableau, before their cars rushed onwards into the Roman traffic, but it was typical of the way Wood glimpsed politics and public affairs as they worked themselves out into history. The process by which world events
in their turn eventually affected his private, self-absorbed life was longer and more subtle.
The stay in Rome was again shorter than Wood might have wished, and after a visit to Florence, where he saw paintings by Titian, Leonardo and Botticelli, they returned to Paris. Wood’s sister Betty was visiting, and although her parents had made other arrangements for her accommodation she was allowed to see Kit a couple of times: he in turn spared her the attentions of Violette Murat.
In May Wood visited Princess Radziwill at her chateau near Paris, in the grounds of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau was buried. She told him how she had witnessed the death of Rasputin, and how neither poison nor the revolver bullets that thudded into his body seemed able to kill him. There were a number of Rasputin bores at large in Europe at this time, though the Revolution had also driven to Paris some of the most cultured and attractive White Russians, as Wood later discovered to his delight.
Neither he nor Gandarillas had fully recovered their health since the malaria episode; Wood complained that he had been ill constantly since the age of fifteen. He was receiving injections for anaemia while Gandarillas was having problems with his lungs. In the early summer Wood tried to escape the demands of society by reading in the evenings. He found it hard to remember in detail what he read and wondered whether this was a sign of a basic intellectual weakness – the side-effect of his abandoned education. Something he had read which did remain with him was an epigram from Lamartine:
‘La vie doit avoir un courant, l’eau qui ne coule pas se corrompt’
– ‘Life should have a current; water which doesn’t flow becomes stagnant.’
The current of his own life swept him down to the south of France in the summer, to Le Canadel, a resort in the Var, where Jean Cocteau and Moise Kisling were also staying. Wood was so tired by Paris that he showed little interest in either of them, though both were substantial figures. Kisling had come from Poland but acquired French citizenship by fighting in the Foreign Legion. His painting had developed from his early days with Bonnard and Vuillard through his membership of the Picasso-Braque-Max
Jacob group, and had had enviable commercial success.
At the end of August, Gandarillas took Wood down to Spain, where he was impressed by the Goyas in Madrid and a bullfight in Malaga, the birthplace of Picasso. But they then returned to Le Canadel, which Wood thought a ‘godforsaken little spot’. Although he claimed to be uninspired by it, his painting did progress there. He was set on further simplification of colour in the manner of Van Gogh, who became a visible influence at this stage. His confidence began to seep back. ‘I know I can be a great artist,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘because I understand and feel the things I like so much if I can only be left with them.’ The paintings by now had style and feeling, but they were still awkward: the influences of other painters were not fully assimilated.
The coming of autumn softened the colours of the countryside and Wood’s hostility to it, but at the end of October they moved to Villefranche, a fishing port on the Riviera, whose modest quayside inn, the Hotel Welcome, became for a few years in the mid-twenties a legend of tawdry glamour. Villefranche was a medieval town with small streets and big stone archways, with a bay in front and mountains behind, whose steep slopes were covered with olive and cypress trees. The Hotel Welcome was dominated by the figure of Jean Cocteau, who had a comer room with balcony on the first floor. He attracted many artists and musicians from Paris who were delighted to be joined by the rougher trade from the American naval ships and the prostitutes from Marseille and Nice who came down to service them.
Among the visitors to the hotel were the musicians Honegger and Milhaud (two of the group known as
that also included Poulenc and Georges Auric), Picasso, Stravinsky, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. The corridors stank of opium and the dining room was filled with the sound of self-conscious artistic conversation. The elements of talent and pretension were, as in Paris, indissoluble. Isadora Duncan, who had first prompted Diaghilev to bring his Russian Ballet to Paris, now just made scenes. The English writer, Mary Butts, a devoted opium smoker
with tangled red hair, wrote regional novels of the English West Country with mystic overtones.
In addition to the creative, the narcotic and the ridiculous, the Hotel Welcome could offer more: religion. A sinister young seminarist called Maurice Sachs was the subject of frenzied ogling when he danced on the table in cassock and pink socks. Max Jacob, the poet and friend of Picasso, found that his new Catholic faith was not enough to keep him from the terrible draw of the Hotel Welcome and its troupe of handsome young men, most of whom had been brought down for the delectation of Jean Cocteau. One of these youths, called Jean Bourgoint, habitually wore the uniform of the French army. Other regulars were the delicate artist and decorator Christian Bérard, known as Bébé for his cherubic expression, and the writer René Crevel. It was a circus of dubious taste whose clashing elements were united by sexual self-interest.
It was not Huyton. Even after three years in Paris Christopher Wood seemed gauche. He had brought some watercolours to show Cocteau, and another English visitor, Sir Francis Rose, himself only a teenager at this time, described Wood’s anxiety about his work. To Rose he appeared a ‘lame and timid young man, with his strange, handsome English schoolboy’s face’.
Wood was overwhelmed by Jean Cocteau. He believed him to be a genius in drawing, writing and conversation: he was simply the arbiter of what was elegant or worthwhile. Wood believed he had made friends with him and was proud to have done so.