Goodbye to Motcomb Street

 

One day at the beginning of 1972 I drove down Motcomb Street and as they say, the sun was shining and even if the birds weren't singing, one remembered the joy of Lord Berners dyed doves at Farringdon and of course Elgar's 'Enigma Variations' was on the car radio. I noticed renovations, new paint and a 'For Sale' notice advertising a lease in Halkin Arcade just off Motcomb Street.Whether it was Mr Marsh and Parsons or Mr Knight Frank, before he said goodbye to Rutley, I cannot remember, but I had certainly caught the art bug twenty five years before and during the time that followed I built up a small collection of Modern British and a decent small library of relevant books. Little did I think then that I would only be there til the end of the next year before moving 100 yards to Motcomb Street for the next twenty seven years until the end of the lease.

 

Like the Victorians, I have always believed that every picture has a story to tell but I was also convinced that most people didn't enquire enough about the pictures they acquired. To me it seemed that satisfaction was to be earned from a non-stop inquiry into the history of British Art and its artists. That is why I have placed such importance in well researched catalogues. Through my then background of television, Audience Research, Radio Caroline and independent Radio and Film production I already knew a large circle of artists and writers, like Tom Pocock,who I think approved of my No 1 Hero James McNeill Whistler. Even then the price was rising for etchings and the occasional drawing so my attention was directed into discovering more about Whistler's pupils-the two Greaves brothers, Henry and Walter, the Australian Mortimer Menpes and the Munich born Walter Sickert. Stock in the bookshops of the Kings Road, Colnaghi's and Agnews seemed reasonable enough and I believed they thought me a pleasant punter.

 

I had no intention of starting an art gallery but to return to the Estate Agent I said something like why not? and in April 1972 opened with Four For Whistler-the master and his four followers with an absolutely wonderful Whistler oil that I would sell for my great friend Louise Pleydell Bouverie-a portrait of her great-aunt, Louise Kinsella,entitled Rose and the Iris which came with numerous love letters from Whistler and proved to be the start of nearly thirty years of documentary story telling by exhibition. During this period and even forgetting about Winter, Spring and Summer Exhibitions, it totals up to two hundred and forty separate exhibitions. Surprisingly they all seemed to lead into each other-from 'Whistler in Chelsea ' to ' the Café Royalists' 

 

  I had always enjoyed great restaurants and their history and so it was natural to mount 'The Café Royalists' to recreate the atmosphere of that Edwardian age. The added generosity of Sir Charles Forte with twenty three remaining bottles of pre 1914 Absinthe from the Café Royal Cellars not only made for a great evening but caused several of mature age to think that they were going out into Regent Street with a 'Hanson' waiting. a remark made that evening "great idea but you cant repeat it." caused me to look from the Café Royal to its environs-Fitzrovia and down Dean Street to Soho. At its centre was Gaston Berlemont's York Minster, known as the French Pub because it came a centre for free French servicemen during the war and after, with Nina Hamnett sitting on a rexine seat damp of her own making, or worse still being sick in her handbag. Repeated discoveries have given great pleasure :one was Augustus Lunn ;close to eighty, he had lived in the same house for forty-five years and I discovered him through the telephone directory  I flew to Vancouver,Canada,to meet Sybil Andrews only to find that I had a further two hundred miles to get to Campbell River where she had lived since 1945-this established a wonderful friendship with this mentally strongest of ladies from Hardy country.

 

  Looking back, this period seems to have shot by in an aura of happiness, laughter, admiration and discovery. The idea of so many exhibitions was helped by that art historian's aid, a tiny Sony tape recorder. Most people took no notice, thinking I had merely removed it from the car for safety. however one who did notice was the heavenly Ithell Colqhoun who said"switch it off if it wasn't for the fact that I sense you love cats I'd of thrown you out" then there was Horace Brodsky who was a true friend and had an important part in the wild, brilliant Gaudier-Brzeska's short life-a patient friend and an affectionate Boswell. We often talked through the night about Gaudier and other artists like Bevan, Gore, Ginner and Gilman, Nevinson recalling for him the Slade Gang with their Black Jerseys and Scarlet Mufflers, the respectable Wyndham Lewis in his tight black suit and Ezra Pound wearing trousers made of billiard table green baize. It was all so fantastic-David Hockney in the Café Royal, the deputy chairman of Forte's  asking what he would like to begin with "a couple of ounces of those black fish eggs ,pliz"was his immediate reply. then Henry Moore turning up with side of smoked salmon wrapped in the News of the World -much cheaper in Billingsgate.- The accent sometimes a bit like Sir John Rothenstein who always stated that he came from Bratford. Back to David Hockney and Mick Jagger at Reddish House with Cecil Beaton at the age of seventy paralysed, learning to draw again with his left hand-Eileen Hose (his confidant) and me making him laugh.

 

  The Cafe Royal  reminds me of identifying one day some of the characters in the painting by Adrian Allinson of 1916 including Augustus John, Dorelia, Nancy Cunard,the practical joker Horace de Vere Cole, a severe Iris Tree, art critic D.G.Konody and the artist and his mistress Mollie Mitchell Smith. "did someone mention my name?" Several times over the years I have put on exhibitions of the English futurist Claude Flight, one of these with the help of the British Council toured six venues. One can imagine my horror when in Bologna I saw from the billboard that Claude Flight was now called Claudio Vollo.Then there was the horror of a 'Flight and his Circle' lecture in Manchester when most of the audience thought I was lecturing on Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead Revisited, then on television -a pregnant silence followed 'any questions' then there was the Banker who wanted C.R.W.Nevinson's Banking at 4000 feet. The price was  pound a foot; he offered less but I pointed out that the bi-plane in the painting was not flying at 3000 but 4000 feet!

 

Moments of pleasure-Sir Peter Ustinov asking if he could help with his mother's ( Nadia Benois) exhibition " Yes please come and stand in the Gallery" He did and all his mother's pictures sold. At one opening at the Minories, Colchester William Gaunt turned to me and said " I think Kitty ( his wife) has had a drop too much"-she had fallen backwards into the fire; I pulled her out and poured on water.

 

My greatest admiration was for Wendela Boreel who had been Sickert's mistress in 1915 and who had been one of the most beautiful women of the thirties. I visited her frequently in the south of France, sometimes having lunch with not only her but her neighbours John Skeaping and Jean Hugo. There were still contemporary artists then but there were other younger artists, but stars all the less. John Pawle, whose first exhibition was at 65, has gone on, year after year of success.Roland Collins born in 1918,whose first exhibition with me at even a later age is painting away in Dieppe and London.Ann Shrager, Jessica Gwynne and Virginia Powell all had wonderful shows. The two recent younger bright lights have been Francis, Michael Wishart's son and a star of the Royal College of Art Damien O'Brien.

 

MICHAEL PARKIN 

 

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