Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Museum Piece

Thanks to AbeBooks I've just read Museum Piece by James Laver, mentioned in an earlier post. He seems to have enjoyed an extraordinarily fortunate life, combining work as a poet, novelist and screenwriter, together with writing a number of books on fashion, biographies of Whistler, Tissot and Huysmans while holding down a job as keeper of the department of engraving, illustration, design and painting at the V &A. He got his job there without having any qualifications in art history - but then again, he did go to Oxford. As he says of his time there: "Certainly at Oxford one soon learned to distinguish the types: the earnest, carefully-courteous Wykhamists, the elegant Etonians, the noisy Carthusians and Rugbeians, the frank Philistines from Fettes and similar schools" [p.60] - plus ca change.

Unfortunately in 1926, "the busy but agreeable life I had been leading was suddenly interrupted by the General Strike". Despite the fact that he was, in his opinion, "an utterly unpolitical animal" he volunteered as a special constable: "If there were going to be barricades, I knew that I wanted to be on the side of Law and Order". He was, however, "a little disconcerted" by the "strange collection of Black-and-Tans and proto-Fascists who had flocked together for the saving of Society" [p.126].

He seems to have been a reasonably decent chap, but the book is pretty much a litany of name dropping - for example, he met Cole Porter when his successful novel Nymph Errant was turned into a musical; in his studio the songwriter "picked out the tunes [on the piano] which I thus heard for the first time, and which were afterwards to become famous". As is often the case, though many of the names dropped are impressive, he has little of any interest or insight to report. He says nothing about why he felt impelled to write a biography of Huysmans, which is disappointing.

One incident in particular stretches credulity. Laver is drinking in a Munich beer hall in the twenties when suddenly, "the music was interrupted by a little man with a falling lock and a toothbrush moustache who jumped on a table and began a speech denouncing the Jews. If only I had known - I would have stayed and listened."

A particularly indulgent chapter is devoted to his taste in fine wines and exquisite foods, including the menus for some of the more sybaritic examples. He does, however, mention that he was present at a number of banquets held by the Corvine Society presided over by Rolfe's biographer A J A Symons [pp.165-168, see earlier post] where, "around the room were displayed the original manuscripts of Corvo's books in his extraordinary Elizabethan script"; the whole lavish event was funded by Maundy Gregory, an equally colourful figure in his day who was probably a murderer.

He developed a massive interest in the occult and even travelled to Hastings to meet Aleister Crowley after having received an invitation - AC had enjoyed Laver's biography of Nostradamus. Laver's conclusion: "That he was a blackmailer is, I think, more than likely; that he was a fraud is certain. But was he nothing but a fraud?" Museum Piece was published in 1963 - would any mainstream publisher bring it out today? Laver died in a fire at his Blackheath home in 1975.

No comments: