Lurching up to bed with the champion of Cubism

Nicholas Penny

  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper by John Richardson
    Cape, 320 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 224 05056 7

John Richardson is one of those gossips who knows – or at least knows about – everyone. For example (on page 118, to be precise), Marie-Laure (1), Maurice Bischoffsheim (2), the Comtesse de Chevigné (3), the Duchesse de Guermantes (4), the Marquis de Sade (5), Jean Cocteau (6), the Vicomte de Noailles (7), an anonymous gym instructor (8), Igor Markevitch (9), Diaghilev (10), Nijinsky (11), Maurice Gendron (12): I was the daughter of 2, an immensely rich Belgian banker, and the granddaughter of 3, who was said to be the model for 4, and was also – would you believe it? – the great-great-granddaughter of 5. She contemplated marriage with 6, opted for 7, but discovered him in the arms of 8 – whose sex is unspecified in the haste to explain that she was herself soon in the arms of 9, the ‘somewhat feral-looking composer’ who had been the ‘last great love’ of 10 and later married the daughter of 11. The ‘feral-looking’ composer (9) was expensive but gave her a taste for musicians, which explains her imprudent elopement in the middle of the war with the ‘faun-like’ cellist (12).

Marie-Laure was a neighbour and – er – friend of John Richardson when he lived with Douglas Cooper in Provence. Uzès was merely a neighbouring town. But it prompts, as from a garrulous taxi-driver, a rapid stream of lurid facts. The Duchesse Anne d’Uzès squandered millions on studs and hounds and her lover General Boulanger and his attempted coup which triggered his suicide (‘on the grave of yet another of his mistresses’), while her dissolute son wasted most of what was left on a courtesan ‘who did conjuring tricks with rabbits’. He had to be exiled to Africa. Before we are able to ask when this happened (Boulanger’s suicide was in 1891) Richardson has jumped to the latest Duc, who married Peggy Bedford, a ‘Standard Oil heiress’. The marriage did not ‘prosper’ – a remarkable discretion on Richardson’s part which suggests the intervention of a lawyer. There-upon the Duc opted for Morocco, ‘where the local women were to his taste’. But the local women, like the rabbits, are left in the air, for the Duc’s cousin is of more relevance to Uzès and he married a sardine heiress ...

This suggests that Richardson is forever skating at high speed, which is unfair. In the case of his friends the Pope-Hennessy brothers the portrait is quite detailed. We are even given Beaton’s photograph, which perfectly matches his claim that they were ‘dismissing Proust’ when ‘barely out of nursery’, while also prompting the suspicion that they may only ever have pretended to leave it (the nursery I mean). The photograph also illustrates the Oriental aspect of their faces, which was pronounced in their military father, who was known as ‘Puffadder’. This was the legacy of a Malaysian great-grandmother. (Neither the exotic ancestor nor the nickname is mentioned by Sir John in his autobiography.) We are regaled with details of James Pope-Hennessy’s fatal passion for rough trade. I was taken aback when, later in the book, Lord Weidenfeld is rebuked for recounting events at which he wasn’t present.

When John Richardson was present one often has to wonder why or how he got where he was. We find him ‘putting up’ at La Fiorentina – that’s ‘the famously fashionable villa at the tip of Cap Ferrat, which belonged to ... Rory Cameron and his mother, Enid, Countess of Kenmare, the dazzling Australian adventuress who had married and supposedly murdered Mabel Cooper’s first cousin “Caviar” Cavendish’. He is careful to note that life at this social altitude could be dangerous for ordinary folk. He is also keen to let us know that he sometimes felt ‘overdosed’ by great art and was relieved to escape from grand hotels and three-star restaurants to the straight freeways of the Midwest or the austerities of Auden’s house on Ischia. And at the ‘Klee-filled château-de-poche, Schlössli Belp’, he tires of Rolf and Kathi’s fondue with kirsch, and even finds the Klees irritatingly whimsical.

It was as Douglas Cooper’s companion that Richardson had to endure the Fondue Belp. Cooper had inherited a small fortune when he came of age in 1932 – it derived from Australia (but not, as was maliciously rumoured, from sheep dip). His eyes had already been ‘opened to Modernism’ by a show of Léger’s work in Paris in 1930. Now he was free to study art history in both France and Germany (he was an excellent linguist), and after a brief spell dealing in modern art (he had a share in the Mayor Gallery), he devoted himself to collecting and writing. By the outbreak of World War Two he owned more than a hundred Cubist pictures. This gave a special authority to his scholarship. He wrote his monograph on Léger as the chief collector of that artist’s work. His catalogue raisonné of Juan Gris is admired (even by Richardson) but had anyone else tried to write it he could have stopped them.

As an independent scholar Cooper may be compared with Denis Mahon, who was building up his collection of Italian Baroque painters in the same period. Both personal collections were established in the shadow of public ones. Mahon bought the paintings the National Gallery should have acquired: Cooper collected the artists whom the Tate Gallery obstinately ignored. However, Mahon proposes to give his pictures to the National Gallery and other public collections, whereas Cooper made one bequest to the Prado and another to Basel and the rest has been dispersed. Mahon became an influential trustee of the National Gallery and successfully pressed the establishment to support the arts, whereas Cooper failed in his great campaign to control the Tate Gallery, although he was allowed to buy a couple of Picassos by the chairman. There was a chance, too, that the Château de Castille, Cooper’s beautiful 18th-century home in Provence, would go, together with the pictures, to the Courtauld Institute – this was much discussed, we learn here, over whisky late at night with Anthony Blunt (the Headmistress of the Courtauld School for Girls, as he was addressed in violet ink on Cooper’s postcards) but nothing came of it.

Since this memoir is about his life with Douglas Cooper, Richardson has to tell us something about how it began and how it ended. He would have been well advised to omit the more intimate moments. ‘Out of courtesy and curiosity’ he lurches up to bed with the champion of Cubism.

Alcohol overcame my initial revulsion. A kiss from me, I fantasised, would transform this toad into a prince, or at least a Rubens Bacchus. However, Douglas turned out to be as rubbery as a Dalí biomorph. No wonder he was mad at the world. This realisation triggered a rush of compassion, which enabled me to acquit myself on this ominous night.

The higher mission and saintly sentiment Richardson detects in himself – together with the alcohol – are hard to reconcile with the motives it is possible to imagine him now, soberly, entertaining as he insists on dwelling on this episode. There were to be many years with the rubbery toad. Other lovers are mentioned. Jimmy Schuyler, who had a ‘fresh, American sailor-boy look’, captivated Richardson on Ischia. They made frenzied love on the terrace. Later Jimmy went mad. Then he became a poet. ‘He also became exceedingly fat. I never met Jimmy again.’

The end comes when Richardson discerns that an American collector friend has bought fake Légers. ‘There was a terrible silence, during which Douglas’s pink face turned the colour of a summer pudding. “What a little expert we’ve become.” And then came a shriek like calico ripping – comical but also alarming. “How dare you pontificate to me about Léger.” ’ Richardson realised that Cooper knew they were fakes. Fine, so far, and there is ample evidence that Cooper did not like any competition as an expert. But do we believe that Richardson, realising that things would never be the same again, ‘could hear Dukas’s maddeningly catchy l’Apprenti Sorcier scherzo’? As with the references to Rubens and Dalí, the embellishment suggests colourful replay rather than frank recall. He goes on to explain how much more profound a connoisseur he had become than his more academic mentor. The testimony of the divorced is especially dodgy when he or she is an accomplished raconteur. It may be, of course, that Cooper’s version (he was a copious correspondent) will one day be published.

Cooper comes back to life on page after page with his broad checks and wasp-coloured Rolls-Royce, as he barges his way to a seat at the Coronation to boo the new Queen, barges his way to his seat late at the Salzburg Festival abusing the ‘fucking Nazi regulations’, boasts of keeping the ‘Onassis woman’ away from his house. Richardson also manages some dispassionate analysis of the limitations of his work as a scholar, critic and pundit, and a convincing glimpse of the corruption to which he was eventually lured by vanity and greed. But major problems remain. Most notably, Basil Mackenzie, Lord Amulree, known to Cooper as ‘Our Lord’, who long after he ceased to be Cooper’s lover remained a supporter and friend. Richardson concedes that he was dutiful, thoughtful, loyal, but then turns him into a ridiculous repressed Scot with a stutter: ‘In an effort to mouth words beginning with b (“bugger” was apt to be a problem), Basil would turn pink and shake until the monocle popped out of his eye socket.’

The numerous vivid, detailed, shrewd, uncensorious accounts of Picasso’s homes and studios, his hoarding and superstitions, his charm and cruelty, will presumably find their way into the author’s multi-volume biography of that artist. There are also fascinating accounts of César, Nicolas de Staël and Renato Guttuso – once much greater names than they are today – and a highly prejudiced portrait of Graham Sutherland (improbably bonded with Cooper in the campaign against John Rothenstein, the director of the Tate). The account of Guttuso is especially interesting. Richardson depicts himself as a judicious admirer of some of the early work and Cooper as utterly infatuated with all of it, convinced that ‘Renato was a modern Delacroix.’ Eventually Cooper saw the light and ‘sold his extensive holdings’. The Tate, had Cooper controlled it, would not only have filled up with Picassos.

These entertaining pages are full of evidence showing how reputations were promoted and sustained or assailed. That Cooper’s decision to concentrate on collecting Gris, Braque, Picasso and Léger seems unremarkable today merely testifies to the influence of his choice. But it was not really Cooper’s decision: it reflected, according to Richardson, the priorities of a ‘shadowy German called G.F. Reber’ who lived ‘lavishly, if somewhat precariously, in a château outside Lausanne’ and sold much to Cooper between 1932 and 1939. It isn’t clear why Reber is disparaged as an ‘art investor’. He sold from his collection, but so did Cooper and so did Richardson. No one who reads this book will conclude that the merits of modern painters are assessed in the same way as those of poets or composers. Money is always involved. The final arbiter in the case of the fake Légers was ‘the canny old dealer’ Kahnweiler, and he also chose the organiser of the Gris retrospective at Dortmund (Richardson rather than Cooper).

Whether chivalrically ‘acquitting himself’ with Cooper or making frenzied love by moonlight in Ischia, embarrassed by his exhibitionist companion or eager to be ‘as free as tumble weed’, Richardson’s self-portrait is calculated to appeal to his readers. Only at one moment is he less circumspect. Intent on making the cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein, known as ‘Madame’, grotesquely funny as she fails to resist the ‘fresh green smell of newly minted [sic] banknotes’ and repeatedly counts them out on her ‘unmade lucite bed’ while giving out odd little noises, he perhaps fails to reflect on the impression made by his own part in this. ‘Whenever I was able to raise some money, I would go around to Madame’s enormous triplex apartment, wave bundles of fifty-dollar bills at her, raise my eyebrows quizzically, and point to one of the Picasso drawings, which her first husband, a Greenwich Village intellectual called Horace Titus, had acquired in Paris in the Twenties.’ It is rare indeed in a memoir to find the author handling, let alone waving, banknotes.