Thursday, 23 February 2017

Nina Hamnett and Boxing

Just before Christmas I bought another addition to the Art Collection, a drawing of a boxing match by Nina Hamnett, a Bohemian artist, born in Wales, who thrived in the Twenties and went into a slow alcoholic decline from the Thirties onward, culminating in a nasty death in 1956 - probably suicide, although not proven.  I've been reading my copy of Denise Hooker's Nina Hamnett Queen of Bohemia (which I've only just noticed has been inscribed by the author).  It's well written and illustrated and tells you all you need to know.  Portrait by Roger Fry (one of her many lovers) above.

Hamnett wrote two volumes of autobiography, the most celebrated of which is Laughing Torso (Constable, 1932), which became the subject of a widely publicised libel case courtesy of our old friend Aleister Crowley, who hoped to make some money out of it.  Hamnett had included a section on the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu in Sicily (I took some exterior photos there a few years ago, see earlier post) where she says, 'He was supposed to practice Black Magic there, and one day a baby was  said to have disappeared mysteriously.  There was also a goat there.'  Crowley claimed that he only performed White Magic.  During the course of the trial Crowley used a suitable analogy, in terms of this post, when describing different forms of magic: 'In boxing you can fight according to Queensberry rules or you can do the other thing.'  'Does that mean', counsel for Constable interposed, 'that his definition of Black Magic is the same as all-in wrestling?'  The judge eventually delivered a damning verdict on the Great Beast: 'I have never heard such dreadful and horrible, blasphemous and abominable stuff as that which has been produced by a man who describes himself as the greatest living poet.'  Crowley lost.

Learning that a friend had arranged  an exhibition at the Claridge Gallery in Brook Street, opening on 13 April 1926, Hamnett returned from an extended period in Paris to live in the very heart of Fitzrovia.  'Nina stayed in the cheap and friendly Hotel de l’Etoile in [30] Charlotte Street, where there were three or four bedrooms above the restaurant, and the French atmosphere and petit dejeuner softened the blow of returning to England.’ (Hooker p.173).  The restaurant remains a renowned dining destination.

Hamnett became interested in boxing in the second half of the Twenties, which makes me think that this drawing dates from the period 1926-30.  Her entrance to this new world was gained after meeting a young boxer called Vernon Campbell at the Fitzroy Tavern.  He took her to a bout at the Comrade's Hall in Camden Town where she was delighted by the 'atmosphere of crude good humour and bawdy repartee'.

Hooker p.190: 'The promoter Johnny Hughes, an ex-flyweight champion, gave Nina a free pass and she took to going to Camden Town every week to draw, relieved to have found a way of killing the boredom of dreary Sunday afternoons, which always held a special horror for her.  Nina quickly got to know the other regulars and when Campbell boxed she joined in the crowd of supporters cheering and shouting "Come on Vernon!"  Sometimes Nina and Campbell went to the big fights at Premierland Olympia and the Albert Hall.  He also took her to Professor Newton's famous Academy of Boxing, off the Edgware Road, where she met the young boxers and drew them while they trained.  The professor took a great liking to Nina and obligingly demonstrated the complexities of right hooks and upper cuts along with the rest of the boxing repertoire so that she became something of an expert on the finer points of the sport.  Nina liked to air her knowledge to her friends and took large parties of up to fifteen people, which often included the poet Roy Campbell, to the Comrade's Hall, "basking in their clamour as if she were the entrepreneur of the event".  After the matches at Camden Town - and later at the Charlton [sic] Ring, Euston - Nina and her friends would bring the heroes of the afternoon back to her room, where they drank tea and beer until the pubs opened.  Nina did many drawings at the matches, some of which were included in the deluxe edition of Laughing Torso [I'll have to track this down] and she also persuaded some of the boxers to pose for her at home.'

My drawing must have been done at one of these bouts.  As it was the major London boxing venue, there's a good deal of information about The Ring in Blackfriars Road (over the Thames in Southwark, bombed in the Blitz, commemorated by a pub today).  Hamnett produced a number of works depicting fights there including The Ring at Blackfriars (watercolour) - sold by Sotheby's in 2002 see here (reproduced above).  There's very little information online about the the Comrade's Hall and the Drill Hall in Camden Town and Chalton Ring (the correct spelling) in Somers Town.  Chalton Street is a long road that runs pretty much the central length of Somers Town, at that time it was a predominantly working class district - suffering extensive damage in World War Two thanks to the three major main line stations close by - and was massively rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly with council flats.

The reverse of the work is also of interest and the next post will be about that.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Decadent London

Yesterday I came across an excellent review from late last year of my apparently 'fabulous' book Decadent London.  It can be found here. More importantly, the reviewer, a regular visitor to our shores named Saxon Henry, used it as a guidebook for visiting sites associated with the artists and writers described therein.  I have done occasional Decadent London walks, but it's great to see the book being used in this way (a very limited early edition contained a route for such a walk along with some other home-produced ephemera).  An old review from the Independent on Sunday can still be found here and another online one here (yes, 'it's title and dust jacket' - depicting Alan Odle - see earlier post here) does 'set out to attract ignorant but respectable [?] readers who would like a vicarious thrill from reading about the antics of the more daring and talented folks in London a century ago.'  An interesting reference from Sotheby's here.

It would appear that it just about remains in print and can be bought on Amazon and can probably still be found in some real-world bookshops.  Maybe I should revise it and republish it myself at some point.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

January Reading

Mark Ellen Rock Stars Stole My Life (2014)
A very funny account of Ellen's life as a music journalist, music magazine initiator and presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test.   I defy any pop or rock music fan to read it all the way through without laughing out loud at least once.  For example a description of NME journalist Nick Kent from Ellen's stint on the paper during its peak years:

'... the magnificent Nick Kent, whose arrival was preceded by great waves of expectation, especially among the girls.  Would he be wearing his ripped leather trousers, and, if so, any pants beneath them?  He'd finally levered himself off heroin but was so enfeebled by his methadone habit that the fine details of his physical appearance weren't a high priority.  His legendary lack of undergarments wasn't a fashion statement: he'd either forgotten to attach any or didn't own a pair in the first place.  Kent would wobble through reception in a stained hat, an off-white scarf that could have done with a wash, a Johnny Thunders T-shirt, jangling biker boots and severely torn trousers, a brace of swinging testicles visible from round the back.  He had the crepuscular pallor of a nine-pint blood donor and legs like a wading bird's, so stick-thin and rickety you thought his knees might bend the wrong way.  One hand brandished a glowing butt, the other several sheets of cardboard from cereal packets with  his latest meisterwerk on them in spidery scrawl.  His overstretched pockets carried two tins of cling peaches, the only solids apart from cornflakes the drug-addicted scribe could stomach.' [pp87-88]

'There appeared to be two types of people in the world, those who liked Van Morrison and those who'd met him.' [p276]

'One of those old-school hippies who found clothes restricting, [Iggy Pop] had rampaged round the [Chrysalis] press office stark naked, startling the girls with the stupendous size of his manhood.  'It was like a penis,' one of them shivered, 'only bigger.' [pp145-6]

Ellen is pretty candid about the drug use of his interviewees - he stopped indulging after a bad experience with The Teardrop Explodes - especially in a very funny description of a debauched night in the company of Roy Harper and Jimmy Page in the backroom of a Lake District pub [chapter 22 - an anecdote which also appeared in Barney Hoskyns' Trampled Underfoot, see earlier post].   The interview for Whistle Test the next morning with the hungover pair can be found here.

Alan McGee Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running a Label (2013)
A (remaindered) birthday present.  Although billed as funny I found this much less entertaining than Ellen's autobiography, mainly because, understandably, it isn't nearly as well written.  It's of more personal interest, however, as I was a regular at the Living Room, McGee's club above the Roebuck on Tottenham Court Road and often met, through my friend, Creation characters like Joe Foster and Jeff Barrett who feature in the book.  One evening I bumped into all four Smiths watching a performance by James.  I remember standing on a table at the back to see the Jesus and Mary Chain's first London appearance at the club.  Like McGee I can recall the moment they walked in to the pub looking every inch the rock stars they were soon to become.  I was also a fan of many of his acts such as House of Love, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride, but I've never been keen on Primal Scream (McGee's favourites) who I've always thought are musically a bit of a joke with a singer who can't sing.  There are a few interesting anecdotes but heavy drug use has rendered some periods vague, worth dipping into though and brought back a lot of memories.

John Fordham The Knowledge: Jazz (2015)
Bought for a couple of quid at the local Works and probably destined for a charity shop, this is an adequate condensed history of jazz, frustratingly short on the areas I was interested in (60s and 70s), but made me listen to people like Charlie Christian who I'd never heard before.