By Charles Douglas

Pallas Athene (Publishers) Ltd.  353 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-84368-153-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s useful to spend a little time looking at the origins of this book. It was first published by Faber in 1941, and the author’s name, Charles Douglas, was made up from the names of the two writers involved, Charles Beadle and Douglas Goldring. The latter may be reasonably-familiar to anyone interested in English literature in the period between the two World Wars. He was a prolific novelist, poet, and critic, and his memoir, The Nineteen Twenties, is still worth reading. 

But who was Charles Beadle? There isn’t a lot of easily-available information about him, and I’m indebted to Neil Pearson’s scholarly Obelisk: Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press (Liverpool University Press, 2007) for the details I’m listing here. Beadle was born “around 1880” and had led an active and varied life in different parts of Africa and elsewhere, which included participating in the Boer War. He published several adventure novels, some of which are still in print, and short stories in pulp magazines. He had lived in Paris before the First World War, spent some time in the United States, and returned to Paris in the mid-Twenties. A couple of his novels from the 1920s are set among the expatriate community in the French capital.

A third, Dark Refuge (1938), could only have come from the Obelisk Press. Pearson says: “In earlier books Beadle denounced the Paris-based expatriates for a bohemianism he deemed so insipid as to scarcely merit the name. In Dark Refuge he spells out how it should be done properly, and does so without paying any heed to what was considered publishable at the time. Beadle’s ticket to the dark side is opium, and in his world ‘dark’ has no negative connotations, but refers instead to the side of the self that sees too little llght”. Mix that with what appears to be an open approach to matters of sex, and the language to describe it, and no publisher in America or Britain would have dared to put Dark Refuge into print. It’s a pity that no-one has seen fit to re-print it in recent years.

It is difficult to work out exactly who wrote what in Artist Quarter. Goldring had lived in Paris and knew artists there, but I would guess that most of the reminiscences and anecdotes relating to Modigliani and others, as opposed to the historical information about the development of Montmartre and Montparnasse as centres of artistic ferment, were probably supplied by Beadle.

Anecdotes are at the core of Artist Quarter, many of them about Modigliani, but most of them generally highlighting the activities of the artistically inclined but often impecunious. Utrillo is seen in his usual alcoholic haze, avoided by others in the bohemian community because of his behaviour when drunk. He wasn’t a happy drunk, likely to lapse into silence or even sleep, but instead tended to shout, break glasses, and generally misbehave. Utrillo’s paintings of Montmartre became popular, though the increased income they brought only enabled him to drink more. His work did have a certain charm, the kind that would appeal to tourists, though I recall seeing an exhibition in Paris some years ago which had his paintings alongside those by his mother, Suzanne Valadon, and thinking she was the more-talented and interesting artist. It was most likely Beadle’s opinion that Utrillo “talks and sees like a child and therefore paints like one”.

Picasso was, of course, very much a notable figure in Montmartre in the pre-1914 period, living at the Bateau-Lavoir, a tumble-down building which served as a gathering-place for painters and poets, such as André Salmon, Kees Van Dongen, Vlaminck, Derain, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, and associated models and mistresses.  Fernande Olivier was with Picasso in those days, and “he was so jealous of her that he would not let her go out, but trotted out himself with the market bag every morning to the rue de Abbesses, just below the studio, to buy the day’s supplies”. A view of Picasso’s studio refers to it as “dirty, curtainless, and in disorder. Unfinished canvases are propped against the dusty walls……..A towel and a bit of yellow soap lie on a table among tubes of paint, brushes, and a dirty plate containing remnants of a hasty meal……On the floor there is another litter of paints, brushes, bottles of paraffin”. It’s a colourful description and perhaps intended to confirm everyone’s suspicions regarding how bohemians lived.

It was during this period of Picasso’s career that he painted a portrait of one of the Montmartre bohemians, an oddball called Bibi-La-Purée, a one-time drinking companion of the poet, Verlaine: “Bibi was an authentic relic of the period of Trilby and Henry Murger, true to type in every particular”. He knew all the tricks of surviving with a little dishonesty and deviance, but came to a sad end when, having obtained some money, “he killed himself by an excess of alcohol”. I recall that the paInting of Bibi was in an exhibition about Picasso’s early days in Paris at the Courtauld in 2013. It conferred a kind of immortality on someone who might otherwise have been forgotten as those who knew him left their bohemian days behind or died off. 

I was intrigued to see that, on the opposite page to the notes about Picasso’s studio, there is an  illustration of the Passage Cottin in Montmartre taken from a lithograph by Rowley Smart. He is an artist I’ve long been curious about. Born in Manchester he served in the First World War and afterwards gravitated to Paris, where he was said to have enjoyed the bohemian life. It probably didn’t do him any good as he suffered from tuberculosis which eventually killed him in 1934. Did Beadle or Goldring know him? Or is it just a coincidence that one of his illustrations is in their book? I don’t suppose that Smart’s name means much to many art-lovers these days, but I have seen some of his small, but pleasant Paris scenes in galleries in Manchester and Rochdale.

According to the account in Artist Quarter, the poet and painter Max Jacob lived by a form of voluntary poverty. Beadle, or was it Goldring, once told a gallery owner that Jacob, then domiciled in the provinces, was still poor, to which she replied, “Oh, that’s only because he wants to be”.  When he lived in the Bateau-Lavoir, Jacob got high on ether, as did others, including Modigliani, at least until opium became easily available. Jacob, a Jew, was arrested in 1944 and died in the Drancy transit camp.

Bohemia had its characters, some talented, others simply remembered for their eccentricities and sometimes their bad behaviour. Modigliani had skills as a sculptor and painter, but was also noted for his tendency to become noisy, angry, and disruptive when under the influence of drugs and alcohol. There are numerous anecdotes and observations in Artist Quarter about his escapades and occasionally destructive actions. Interestingly, when he first arrived in Paris, he was quiet, shy, and soberly dressed and well-behaved. After a time, the bohemian life appears to have exerted its influence on him and that, together with his failure to sell his work to any great degree, no doubt caused him to feel bitter and neglected, and to turn to stimulants of one kind or another to compensate for the lack of success he thought he deserved. His resultant life-style, with its emphasis on alcohol and hashish, and a lack of regular meals, exacerbated his tubercular condition.

The Polish poet, Leopold Zborowski, sacrificed a great deal of his time, energy, and money, trying to help Modigliani, though he was often abused and exploited by the artist, and when Modiglani died he was accused of profiting from the sale of some of his paintings that he had. But it’s documented how dealers descended on anyone who had a Modigliani work in their possession and bought and resold them for ever-increasing prices. It took Modigliani’s death, and that of his last female companion, the ill-fated Jeanne Hébuterne, to bring him the fame he never had in his lifetime. Their story became the basis for novels and films, and any number of supposedly-factual accounts.

Modigliani had several affairs, one of them with a woman the book refers to as “The English Poetess”, presumably because the person concerned was still alive in 1941 and wouldn’t have wanted her name made public. It’s now known that she was Beatrice Hastings. Their intense but tumultuous relationship lasted for around two years before she brought it to an end. She eventually returned to England, but doesn’t seem to have made an impact on the literary scene. It’s difficult to know what her poetry was like, very little of it being available, though there have been attempts in recent years to acclaim her as “a lost modern master”. Hastings, suffering from cancer, committed suicide in 1943

The English artist Nina Hamnett also knew Modigliani in the years before the First World War and seems to have liked him. Reminiscing about her time in Paris, she thought that some of the accounts of his misbehaviour may have been exaggerated, though it’s hard to accept that was the case when reading the parade of anecdotes about his escapades. But there may be something in her suggestion that “A man may live quietly for months without anyone noticing it; but if he breaks out and get roaring drunk, as of course Modi often did, then everyone remembers it and records it”.  Hamnett herself can be said to be a victim of that sort of treatment. She’s probably best-known now for stories about her days around Soho and Fitzrovia in the 1930s to the 1950s when, alcoholic and short of money, she could be seen in the pubs and clubs of the area, often the worse for wear and cadging drinks. But her paintings are rarely discussed or seen anymore.

Artist Quarter is full of the names of painters and poets who failed to survive the bohemian scene. The artist Jules Pascin “destroyed himself at the height of his fame, when his work was in great demand and he had no financial worries. Perhaps that was a reason for his suicide: he was surfeited with success, physically worn out with years of riotous living, and life had nothing more to offer him”. And there was the poet, Ralph Cheever Dunning, who was published in expatriate magazines like Ford Madox Ford’s The Transatlantic Review and Ezra Pound’s The Exile. Pound was an advocate for his poetry, though it’s difficult now to know why. It must have seemed old-fashioned even then, especially when Pound’s clarion call, “Make it New”, could still be heard. Dunning was an opium addict and died of tuberculosis and starvation in Paris in 1930. Curiously, a short story, “Tony”, that he had published in The Exile, did seem quite modern as it told, in near-monologue form, about a young lesbian’s unrequited love for another girl.

Beadle and Goldring don’t have much to say about the influx of Americans in the 1920s, though they do mention Harold Stearns, an intellectual who wrote a book called America and the Young Intellectuals and edited another called Civilisation in the United States, and then went to Paris, where in “Montparnasse the ‘antilectual’ toxin took so well that he became ‘Peter Pickem’ for the Chicago Tribune – and afterwards the Paris Daily Mail – and for years, from the top of a stool in The Select, picked winners with uncanny accuracy”. Kay Boyle’s 1938 novel, Monday Night, features a character closely based on Stearns.

There is so much packed into the pages of Artist Quarter that it’s impossible to mention all the painters, writers, and others who were around Montmartre or Montparnasse at one time or another. The anecdotes come thick and fast, some funny, some sad, but all helping to present a vivid picture of bohemian Paris in its heyday. It’s gratifying to know that someone thought it worth reprinting. There are numerous books dealing with aspects of artists in Paris, and some undeniably analyse the art more closely than Beadle and Goldring did. They make a few references to Cubism and not much else. But their book can’t be beaten for its evocation of the spirit of a time and place.