Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Visitors' Book

Jon Lys Turner The Visitors’ Book, In Francis Bacon’s Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller (2016).  After a shaky start the book gains momentum and I found it very interesting, but then I would, as it features the usual  Soho and Fitzrovia suspects - many mentioned in these posts - such as John Minton,  Nina Hamnett (a good friend of Wirth-Miller) and the Two Roberts, who  frequently stayed with them.  Jankel Adler’s name keeps cropping up in many of the biographies I’ve read recently – he seems to have been influential on many of the London artists of this period and his reputation may be in need of resuscitation.   His influence on the Two Roberts, for example, is clear.  See here and here.

Wirth-Miller was from a very humble background and suffered in early life for his German ancestry – the book hints that his artistic influence on Francis Bacon may have been greater than previously recognised, the two certainly worked together in the Wivenhoe studio.  Lucian Freud hated him (he referred to him as ‘Worth Nothing’) see here.  Nevertheless, Wirth-Miller and Chopping mixed in highly privileged circles and had influential friends and acquaintances (not least Ian Fleming in Chopping’s case), one of whom was avid social climber and interior designer David Hicks, who included Wirth-Miller’s art in his designs - financially useful, but this made him perilously tied to fashion, that inevitably changed.

There is an entertaining account of Hicks’ wedding to Lord Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela:  the weather was freezing blizzards – fortunately for the many guests, they had the use of a private Pullman train back to London.  Chopping narrowly saved one of the guests from being run over by a skidding bus – it turned out to be Noel Coward, who became a friend.  Hicks and his wife had a honeymoon cruise on the QE2, the only passengers apparently, which seems incredible.  Winston Churchill’s son Randolph comes across as a truly horrible individual and as with many wealthy people expected the artists to produce work for him for nothing.

Wirth-Miller was probably Bacon’s best and most loyal friend.  There is a terrible episode where WM has an exhibition in a local gallery - Bacon arrives drunk and proceeds to go round savagely criticising every picture.  This had such an effect on WM that he gave up painting from that point.  The book says that this traumatic incident didn’t affect their friendship, which again is hard to believe.  In later life WM seems to have been a drunken monster and the kind of foul-mouthed outspoken boor you would avoid sitting close to in a restaurant or pub.   His artistic reputation is not high these days.  Looking at the auction prices for his paintings, they are not valuable and are almost in my price bracket.  Despite some strange neologisms (infirmed?) and misspellings (tenor Peter Piers?) the writing carries you along and I enjoyed reading it.

Postscript:  I've since visited the Queer British Art 1861-1967 show at Tate Britain and one of the exhibits is mentioned in the book: Wirth Miller and Chopping's tin where they kept a button from the uniform of every member of the armed forces with whom they had a sexual liaison - it's a very full tin, with almost two hundred buttons.

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