Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: The Last Bohemians: the two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBride

The Last Bohemians: the two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBride
by Roger Bristow

Published by Sansom and Company

Reviewed by Richard Canning

This book is both a celebration of the works of two Scottish painters whom Bristow thinks particularly overlooked, and also, inevitably, a human story that is intrinsically sad. ‘The Golden Boys of Bond Street’, as Colquhoun and MacBryde were known in forties London, each looked set to change the face of twentieth-century British art for a time. One of the challenges facing Bristow, in this first joint biography and critical assessment, is to figure out precisely why they are now so forgotten.

Colquhoun was nominally bisexual; MacBryde exclusively gay. But this was a couple whose relationship obviated any need for categorization: they became inseparable; lovers, collaborators, mutual critics, and – progressively and ultimately self-destructively – drinking companions. Both came from Ayrshire from poor stock; both studied at the Glasgow School of Art; both were smitten by the inter-war Parisian bohemia of Montparnasse; both sought fame and renown in London, a city whose values, character and fellow citizens Colquhoun and MacBryde struggled first to understand, then to accept.

Bristow has studied a huge volume of material in building this shared portrait, though it must be said that much of what he quotes – particularly notes taken by the artists themselves – proves rather unenlightening. As observers, they were keen visual artists, but unexceptional wordsmiths. Thus, on a first trip to Italy, Colquhoun reports Michelangelo’s ‘tremendous command over the design of the human figure.’ In Venice, he notes, ‘our first impression was of “water”. It was beneath our feet in the canals and waterways…’ Summing up La Serenissima, he signed off: ‘Venice is indeed a beautiful city… it belongs entirely to the past.’

Admittedly, these words were not intended for publication. Still, both painters luckily prove much more adventurous and idiosyncratic in oils than with words. Influences ranged from Matisse, Gauguin and Rouault to Chagall, Cezanne and Wyndham Lewis, who was not known for tolerating others’ works, let alone praising them. However, Wyndham Lewis – then writing as art critic for The Listener – found much to praise in a 1947 exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery of both Roberts’ works. Yet even this praise finally can be seen to have done for the pair, by yoking them together. Wyndham Lewis initially celebrated Colquhoun as the finest young British artist, but corrected himself, writing: ‘Perhaps I should say Colquhoun and MacBryde for they live together, their work is almost identical and they can be regarded as almost one artistic organism.’ Bristow goes to great lengths to distinguish between Colquhoun and MacBryde’s artistic trajectories. Yet it remains true that in the eyes of critics, art collectors and ‘the Establishment’, their closeness became a confusion and an impediment.

A sense of entitlement coupled with chippiness at English mores and manners did not help. While they began to absorb other influences, closer to home – Sutherland, Nash and Piper – and were certainly capable of producing works as original and distinguished as anything by these three, they lacked the social grace and occasional deference which oils the wheels of any artistic career. Certainly Francis Bacon lacked such grace too. But Bacon - whom they would come to know as a young unknown, and who would before too long find his reputation eclipsing theirs – was an exceptional case, and an exceptional talent. There is a certain justice, for all the fine illustrations included in The Last Bohemians, in considering Colquhoun and MacBryde something no artist wishes to be called: merely very, very good.

They gravitated towards Celtic dissidents in London, so Dylan Thomas was an obvious intimate. Since they all drank to excess habitually, they inevitably stumbled across the roué of Soho roués, penniless writer Julian Maclaren-Ross. Other fellow travellers included the Scottish poet George Barker and the peculiar homosexual artist John Minton, whom Colquhoun and MacBryde generously took in as lodger. But Minton, far from proving a stabilizing influence upon a relationship already characterized by violent extremes, developed an obvious crush on Colquhoun. When it was resisted, he began bringing other men back to stay, enraging MacBryde. As early as 1944, an acquaintance had noted that the pair ‘seemed to carry a violence’ around with them. This very much understates the case. Repeatedly, one or other is found knocking the other one out.
Mysterious Figures, 1960 by Robert Colquhoun

Bristow admirably sketches in how the softly-softly artistic subculture – however relatively tolerant, compared to English society at large – could nevertheless inhibit gay creators. Minton would die of a drug overdose by 1957; Colquhoun and MacBryde responded to their shared failure to achieve a stunning (and financially empowering) breakthrough with recourse to ever larger quantities of alcohol. The situation was always exacerbated by the unstated rivalry within their relationship. Each had a moment of sensing his own imminent breakthrough – notwithstanding Wyndham Lewis’s comments – and, though implicitly each was supportive of the other, it is inevitable in any artist to consider one’s own reputation by way of comparing it to one’s nearest peers.

By 1947, Colquhoun and MacBryde could no longer subsist in London, and took advantage of the offer of free accommodation and studio space in Lewes, East Sussex. A succession of less helpful rural retreats followed – unavoidably, since Colquhoun and MacBryde consistently proved incapable of moderating their drinking and violent outbursts, or showing any sign of gratitude to their progressively put-upon hosts. These - including the writer Elizabeth Smart - were often friends or former friends, who felt a kind of guilt or regret at their diminishing careers, more than any strong personal warmth. Bristow’s final chapters are bathetic more than anything else, with tales of the Scots upsetting English village life, sometimes getting banned from one village pub to another and thus setting out on ever lengthier, ever crazier searches for drink. Whenever money ran out, they would simply insist that others paid.

Colquhoun lived long enough to see a small revival in his career in the form of a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958, which was well-attended and positively-reviewed. But few paintings sold. In an act of bizarre timing, filmmaker Ken Russell then determined to shoot a study of them for the BBC’s Monitor programme, aired in 1959. Russell struggled to animate the pair, or even to catch them sober. More work and more drinking followed, until, in 1962, Colquhoun suffered a massive heart attack, dying in MacBryde’s arms. Four years later, the near-destitute MacBryde was knocked down in a street in Dublin. He suffered a broken back and died shortly afterwards.

Excepting a play about them written by John Byrne and staged at the Royal Court in 1992 (and condemned by Bristow as trading in gossip and folklore), these two artists have, effectively, vanished in the near half-century since their deaths. Bristow is to be credited with telling an important, if self-evidently cautionary tale about two promising careers. As he concedes, however, The Last Bohemians will stand not only as a tribute to what Colquhoun and MacBryde achieved, but also as an indication of what they might have done in very different circumstances.

Richard Canning’s most recent book is Brief Lives: E M Forster (Hesperus Press).

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