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Authors: Sebastian Faulks

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In November Wood approached Diaghilev with an idea for a ballet called
English Country Life
, to be based on a story by Victor Spencer. Diaghilev encouraged him and Wood worked at some initial designs. He thought it would be both a great honour and an excellent advertisement for his work. The music was to be written by a then unknown English composer called Constant Lambert, who had worked on another ballet with designs by Augustus John. However, Spencer’s work was disappointing. Diaghilev was first indecisive, then discouraging. Wood blamed Spencer and Lambert for the reverse. His fragile new pride was seriously hurt by the rebuff and he wrote to his mother a letter of considerable
de haul en has
condescension about Constant Lambert. He concluded: ‘All the pictures I paint now will be fatal one way or another to my career. They must be personal, quite different to everyone else’s and full of English character.’

Lambert, much to Wood’s irritation, came to stay with him in Paris in January. He had been commissioned by Diaghilev to write the music for
Romeo and Juliet
and consequently considered himself, according to Wood, a ‘perfect little genius’. However, he sat for a very satisfactory portrait, so Wood felt he had to some extent served his purpose. Lambert was portrayed with bold assurance; the simplified lines and colours owed more to modem French painting than to the school of Augustus John. It was not a deep painting, but it was a confident one, and incidentally fulfilled Wood’s own idea that a painting should be a portrait of the artist: it showed both his irritation and his agitated self-belief.

For some time Cocteau, Gandarillas and Picasso himself had been saying they would arrange for Picasso to come and see Wood’s work. This laying on of hands by the high priest of modem art, which had acquired a vatic significance in Wood’s mind, eventually happened in an informal way. Picasso was
lunching with Mme Errazuriz in early February 1926 and asked what she was doing afterwards: ‘Visiting Kit Wood’s studio,’ she answered, and so left herself no choice but to invite Picasso too. He seemed to like what he saw; he ‘said a lot by his standards’, according to Wood, who was greatly encouraged by Picasso’s approval. His emotion was less one of exhilaration than one of relief: he had received the visitation and had not been found wanting.

The other major development in Wood’s life at the start of 1926 was that, for the first time, he acquired a girlfriend. She was not the kind of sensible girl Clare Wood might have hoped for; she had no potential as a wife or mother. Her name was Jeanne Bourgoint and she was the sister of the muscular boy in army uniform, Jean Bourgoint, who had been such a source of pleasure to Cocteau at the Hotel Welcome. Jeanne and Jean were to be the models for the main characters in Cocteau’s novel of disaffected youth,
Les Enfants Terribles.
They lived in isolation, sharing a bedroom in their mother’s flat. Jeanne had a twin brother who disapproved of the closeness of the
enfants terribles;
she had once been married for a year to a businessman, but her bond with Jean proved too strong for an outsider and she found her way home. Their emotional closeness and the similarity of their names sometimes made them seem like two halves of the same person, but Jeanne’s distinctive female grace was what attracted Wood. She worked as a mannequin; she had a much-admired body and a powerful erotic presence of a feline, bisexual kind. Wood kept their relationship quiet for some time and made no record of how it began.

In February Wood and Gandarillas once more headed south to Monte Carlo, where Gandarillas resumed his preferred nocturnal rhythms, sleeping all day, and drifting from party to casino and back again through the night. Wood mixed with the dubious company that was on offer, though with a more hard-headed sense of purpose than before. He was bored by Lady Cunard, but she did buy a harbour view for 2,500 francs. He rationalised the situation by promising himself that one day he would have no further need of these people; meanwhile he needed (like Picasso and others before him) to get on. His parents thought the beau
monde was the enemy, a dangerous distraction, but it was not as simple as that. Although the effort of keeping a balance drove Wood almost to distraction, he was often successful in having it both ways.

Diaghilev was also in Monte Carlo, and began to flirt again with the idea of using Wood as a designer, this time for his
Romeo and Juliet.
Although the
English Country Life
project had foundered, Wood had not come out of it too badly. His sketches had been widely seen and appreciated, and by the time he saw Diaghilev again in Monte Carlo he was able to swallow his disappointment sufficiently to make himself amenable.

Diaghilev, typically, toyed with him. There was the possibility that he might use Augustus John for the designs; then again he might use someone else altogether. Back in Paris, Wood had lunch with Diaghilev and Tony Gandarillas. They seemed to talk about everything except
Romeo and Juliet.
It was only over coffee, after considerable prompting from Gandarillas, that Diaghilev revealed his decision: in a line of designers that included Bakst, Matisse, Picasso, Rouault, Utrillo and Derain, his new ballet would be designed by … Christopher Wood.

It was only five years since Wood had left his golf bag in the clubhouse at Woodhall Spa; and of those five years almost three had been spent travelling. For an Englishman who was supposed to have been working at Thornley and Felix, filling in dockets for the import of Syrian prunes, it was a triumph he was entitled to feel in a quite personal way.

And so he did, though he did not forget what he owed to others. His good manners compelled him to admit how much he was indebted to the support and friendship of Tony Gandarillas and to the influence of Jean Cocteau. In the succeeding days Wood learned how the commission had come about. It was Picasso, apparently, who recommended him to Diaghilev, after coming to his studio. Diaghilev had intended to use Augustus John, but was persuaded that John, although a greatly superior draughtsman, was too old-fashioned.

The collaboration between Wood and Diaghilev was not, alas, a happy one. Diaghilev was a great figure, but no one had ever suggested that he was easy to work for. He had been unable to
pursue his chosen career as a singer because his voice was too harsh; he had had no success as a composer, and therefore brought a sense of grievance and disappointment, as well as vision and energy, to his third choice of career, as an impresario. One of his favourite injunctions to performers was ‘Astound me’; and he had himself astounded Paris by introducing to it previously unknown Russian composers such as Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov. The dancers he brought – Fokine, Pavlova, Nijinsky – opened new worlds to the French, whose own ballet, despite the loving chronicle made of it by Degas, had long been artistically stagnant.

Christopher Wood was not really sufficiently developed as an artist to take on such a trying commission. Diaghilev had decided to set his
Romeo and Juliet
in the rehearsal room of a ballet company preparing a performance of
Romeo and Juliet.
Wood’s scope for design was drastically limited, and within days he was emitting signals of distress. Cocteau helped him considerably with the designs; both he and Picasso advised Wood to stand up for what he believed and not to compromise. (This was easy enough for Picasso to say, but in 1920 when Diaghilev had ripped up his designs for
and ground them beneath his foot, Picasso had meekly started again.)

Wood took their advice. He told Diaghilev he must have a free hand or nothing. Diaghilev was astounded, though not in the way he preferred. He told Wood in a rage that if that was how he felt he would have no scenery at all. Wood resigned, and Diaghilev commissioned Joan Miró and Max Ernst in his place.

Wood’s reaction to this setback was much tougher than his pettish response to the
English Country Life
episode the previous year. He ground his teeth and pressed on. The ability to do so came from his increased self-belief, which was based on the good opinion of such people as Picasso, Frank Dobson and Augustus John. Dobson and Gandarillas told him he had done the right thing. Wood had the strength of mind to digest his disappointment and convert it into something like resolve.

In London and Huyton the General Strike got under way. Troops appeared on the street; Winston Churchill, with the help of
other believers, including a keen young man called S.R. (Roy) Pawley, brought out a magazine called the
British Gazette;
most working men obeyed their trade union leaders as unquestioningly as they had obeyed their officers at Arras, Beaucourt and Passchendaele.

In Paris Christopher Wood saw more of Picasso by day and Jeanne Bourgoint by night. ‘I have a charming little girl friend to amuse me,’ he confided in his mother. Picasso paid him the honour of showing him all the paintings in his studio. Diaghilev’s
Romeo and Juliet
at last opened to the public. The Surrealists Louis Aragón and Andre Breton had organised a demonstration against the involvement of two of their number, Ernst and Miró, with the gangster-capitalist Diaghilev. Stamping and booing greeted the final scene in which Romeo, in flying goggles á la Roland Garros, swept Juliet off to elope in an aeroplane.

Wood reported joyfully that the production was a complete disaster, but in fact the interruptions gave it a certain

In London volunteers from the universities offered to drive the trams and buses; in Paris Tony Gandarillas ordered a new Delage for £350. The General Strike eventually collapsed, with the miners returning to work in similar, or in some cases worse, conditions. ‘How glad I am to hear,’ wrote Wood on 16 May, ‘that the strike is over and that everything will be normal again in England.’

It was from England that his principal encouragement was coming. Frank Dobson told him he had the greatest talent of any painter since the young Augustus John and Wood believed as much of the praise as his superstitious self-defences would allow. In Paris he had come to terms with the Diaghilev disappointment and was feeling happy with his domestic arrangements. Gandarillas did not feel threatened by Jeanne Bourgoint, and Wood valued Gandarillas’s friendship, which was still worth more to him than the considerable delights of his new girlfriend. Wood identified steadiness of domestic life as a prerequisite for hard creative work: he was seldom able to acquire tranquillity, and if he had had to struggle with small children as well as with love affairs, opium and parties, he might never have got to the easel at all.

His work in fact stagnated briefly in the summer of 1926. On a visit to London he allowed himself to accept a tiresome commission from Lady Cunard to paint some drawing-room panels. His mother came to visit him and told him that Dr Wood had been offered a practice near Salisbury. Kit urged them to leave the North West as soon as possible; ‘Huyton,’ he told her with grave but apparently unconscious understatement, ‘has no natural attractions.’

Then everything moved forward again. In August Wood went to Cornwall with Tony Gandarillas. There was a small but undistinguished artists’ colony already established at St Ives, a town Wood thought beautiful but austere. For six weeks he painted continuously, and the results were recognisable as an early version of his mature style. He learned how to finish a picture properly, and he had the feeling of illumination: much that had previously confused him was made clear. The sensation filled him with confidence. ‘I was born an artist,’ he wrote, ‘and have not just become one.’

Meanwhile he wrote passionately to Jeanne Bourgoint. He called her his ‘adorable little hare’, his ‘dearest little friend’, his ‘dear little Jeanne’. ‘I love you terribly,’ he wrote, ‘I do not hesitate to tell you that you are the only woman for me.’ For all the talk of her body, ‘so perfect and firm’, however, Wood felt he had to make it clear that he was not in a position to make what Huyton would have called an honest woman of her. ‘I prefer to tell you frankly that it will be several years before I can really support two people’, and therefore, ‘to prove my limitless love I do not want you to hesitate for a moment if by chance you find someone who can make your life more beautiful or easier’.

The obvious, i.e. mildly paradoxical, interpretation is that Wood was unconsciously signalling the limits of his devotion. In view of the guileless, literal way he wrote, however, it may be that he meant no more than he said: that he was short of cash.

On his return to London in the autumn Wood was taken by Cedric Morris, a painter he had encountered in Cornwall, to a flat in Chelsea that belonged to two then almost unknown English painters: Ben and Winifred Nicholson. It was a decisive moment. If the drift in Christopher Wood’s life towards drugs, danger and
frivolity could be exemplified in his acquaintance with Luisa Casati and Violette Murat, then the Nicholsons could be said to offer an exact counterweight – personal austerity, country living and a puritanical dedication to work. Ben was the son of the painter William Nicholson and Winifred also came from an artistic family. Their own work, and their marriage, were at a fragile point of development.

From the outset, Wood’s friendship with them appeared momentous. Winifred Nicholson recalled the first meeting in almost apocalyptic terms: ‘I was dressing in a little white room I had at our flat in Chelsea… and somebody was talking with Ben and Cedric down in Ben’s studio. I had no idea who it was but they went on talking and talking, with a voice that moved me strangely…And I sat and cursed-for half an hour-and I cursed and cursed. I did not want something to come into my life, as big as my love for Ben, and to come like this with fire …’

Winifred Nicholson, who was pregnant at the time, was a woman of powerful religious and emotional convictions. She formed a passion for Christopher Wood that was the more harrowing for being chaste. Self-sacrifice was at the core of her life, and the scope for it in the triangular relationship that developed between Wood, her husband and herself only strengthened her feelings for him. She was a Christian Scientist with firm beliefs in purity and the after-life; she seemed to see in Wood from the first day some intoxicating spiritual innocence.

BOOK: The Fatal Englishman
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