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.

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