Art and Men

Michael Shelden

  • Bachelors of Art: Edward Perry Warren and the Lewes House Brotherhood by David Sox
    Fourth Estate, 296 pp, £18.99, September 1991, ISBN 1 872180 11 6

Rich and eccentric, Edward Perry Warren was used to indulging his whims. After seeing Rodin’s The Kiss in 1900, he was determined to have a replica carved by the sculptor himself. It was to be exact in every respect except one. He asked Rodin to provide a full view of the nude man’s genitals. Four years later the piece was completed and delivered to its new owner. But Warren was disappointed. As his biographer reports, ‘the man’s genitals though visible were hardly distinct.’ The sculpture eventually went to the Tate, but not before it had spent some months gathering dust in a corner of Edward Perry Warren’s stables.

Ned, as he was called by friends and family, considered himself a connoisseur of male beauty in art as well as life. Like Pater, he was particularly drawn to the celebration of such beauty in Greek art, and there were some notable sculptures of the male form in his large collection of Classical antiquities. Much of his annual income was devoted to building up this collection, and for help in the enterprise he relied on several young men who were companions as well as paid assistants. He made his home at Lewes House, an elegant Georgian building in East Sussex, where he spent his time surrounded by art and men.

His wealth came from America. Born in Massachusetts in 1860, Ned Warren was the son of a millionaire who made his money from a large paper mill. Ned was brought up in Boston’s fashionable Beacon Hill district, where his family owned an enormous house filled with furniture and art imported from Europe. His parents gave him every advantage, including an excellent education at Harvard, but little was asked of him in return. He was not pressured to enter the family business – an older brother was happy to assume the father’s burdens – so he was free to continue his education abroad.

He read Classics at New College, Oxford, taking only a pass degree. Feeling more at home in Oxford than in Boston, he set himself to shed his American identity and acquire the appearance and accent of an English gentleman. Here his efforts were largely successful – perhaps to a fault. One friend contended that Ned spoke ‘perfect, too perfect English’.

At Oxford his admiration for all things male intensified. He was happy to inhabit a world from which women were largely excluded, and he became Convinced that no woman could tempt him with her love. As he later argued in a privately published work of autobiographical fiction, women were intellectual inferiors and could not arouse true love, because ‘one could only worship that which was above one’s self.’ Such foolishness was reinforced by the Dean of New College, whose sermons were poisoned by misogyny. In a sermon delivered during Ned’s second year, the dean said of women: ‘Inferior to us God made you, and inferior to the end you will remain.’

David Sox does not try to disguise the ugliness of his subject’s attitude towards women, nor does he shy away from highlighting other faults. Ned was arrogant, possessive, gullible and hopelessly unrealistic. But his devotion to art makes his story worth telling, and Sox provides a fascinating account of the rapid series of events which established him as one of the great collectors of modern times. It was in his last year at Oxford that Ned became wealth enough to begin collecting art on a grand scale. His father died in that year (1888) and left him a large annual income from a family trust set up in Boston. Almost immediately he began buying art treasures from all parts of Europe, acquiring works not only for himself but also for two major institutions in America – the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan in New York. He acted as their purchasing agent, and his diligent efforts helped both museums to build extraordinary collections of Greek and Roman art.

Ned’s chief assistant in this enterprise was the great love of his life, John Marshall. The two met at Oxford, where Marshall was an outstanding student. Many of his contemporaries believed that the young man might become a great Classical scholar, but he chose to serve as Ned’s secretary. He received a regular salary, but he was motivated by his heart rather than his pocketbook. When he took the job, he confessed his feelings. ‘You were to me at first a quality, then a collection of qualities, and at last ... well! you were Warren: and now everything you say and do seems inseparable from you and my love to you.’

The two spent so much tune together, working as well as playing, that they soon began to look and talk alike. Ned wanted someone who could be his mirror image, and John was only too happy to play the part. He became his beloved ‘Puppy’. One of then friends remarked: ‘When they were pacing arm-in-arm on the lawn at Lewes House they presented a pair of indistinguishable backs, so that one could hardly tell one from the other.’ It is difficult to believe that their love was not physical as well as spiritual, but Sox cites evidence that Ned may have cared more for the concept of homosexuality than for its actual practice. He certainly enjoyed talking about it in the abstract, engaging in long-winded discussions about the purity of ‘Uranian love’, to use his favourite term for it. He liked to claim that such love was clearly superior to ‘a Christian feminine ideal’ which placed women on an equal level with men.

His ambition was to form a brotherhood of aesthetes who would live in harmony at Lewes House, demonstrating to the world the refined state of existence which a close group of men could achieve. Young acolytes joined him at his estate, but the spiritual closeness which he craved was present only in his relationship with Marshall, and even that eventually disappointed him. His friend had too much intelligence and self-respect to play the part of ‘Puppy’ indefinitely.

For Ned, the best years at Lewes House were the 1890s. There were frequent guests, and valuable art objects seemed to arrive from the Continent almost constantly, Ned, John and their assistants were kept busy caring for the collection and arranging for the shipment of works to the museums in America. Not everything Ned acquired was a genuine work of art. In his eagerness to spend money, he bought a good many fake antiques, and Sox throws doubt upon the authenticity of several important pieces currently housed in the museums which originally acquired them from Warren. Sox skilfully shows that the so-called Boston Throne, which some consider the counterpart of the Ludovisi Throne in Rome, may be a fake.

In their spare time the residents of Lewes House read poetry, engaged in long discussions and went riding. Ned reportedly ran the place like ‘a tiny German court’. He wanted to live in a world of his own making, and he took little interest in the major events of public life. ‘Ned’s great map of Sussex symbolised the attitude.’ Sox writes. ‘So large was it that when folded it required a leather case. When Ned had the case embossed it was with the words, ‘The Country round Lewes House’.

This dream world began to lose its charms when Marshall showed signs of restlessness. Gradually, he grew away from Ned, finding excuses to spend more time on the Continent searching for art treasures on his own. In 1907 he committed the ultimate act of betrayal – he married.

The blow was softened by the fact that the woman was Ned’s cousin, but both men knew that their relationship could never be the same again. They went ahead with their separate lives, though they seemed vaguely lost without each other When Marshall died in 1928, Ned apparently decided that a world without his friend was not worth living in. Sox believes that he ‘willed himself to die’. Whatever the case, he lived only a year beyond his friend’s death. Ned’s ashes were placed in the same tomb as the remains of Marshall and his wife.

Essentially, Sox is finished with the story he tells after only 130 pages, which is roughly half the length of the book. The remaining pages are devoted to a series of rather dull chapters on the characters who were associated with Ned’s group at Lewes House. Once Sox has killed off his two leading characters everything else in the book seems anti-climactic. His problem appears to have been a simple one. Instead of carrying on with his research and finding out more about Ned and John, he decided to make his book a general study of the Lewes House brotherhood. But the group as a whole is not important enough to merit such a study. Ned and John are the only truly interesting characters.