By Amy Licence

Amberley Publishing. 255 pages. £18.99. ISBN 978-1-4456-7064-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Bohemianism was once, according to Amy Licence, “a philosophy of opposition”, and not just the almost-meaningless concept that has now been hi-jacked by the fashion industry, pop cultural commentators, and other current arbiters of taste. Going hungry in a garret while creating is no longer the necessary or desirable thing to do in a world where instant success is sought after. And it would probably be difficult these days to find a garret at a price a struggling poet or painter could afford.

Amy Licence’s Bohemian Lives looks at the trials and tribulations of three women who, by accident or design, found themselves in a bohemian environment in the years before the First World War. What does become obvious is that, for them, as opposed to the men they were involved with, the experience was not often a satisfactory one. At best, they perhaps got to know some engaging personalities and, for a time, may have been able to share in the excitement of a fervent and fertile artistic period. At worst, they watched their own potential decline as the demands of looking after male artists took precedence over anything they had planned to do.

Ida Nettleship was a talented student at the Slade when she met the swaggering and highly-regarded Augustus John. Born in 1877 into a respectable middle-class family, she was encouraged by her parents to develop the skills she had for drawing and painting. Her father was an artist and Amy Licence says that: “For generations, Ida’s family had been advocates for personal freedom. They were among the first Victorian bohemians”. Ida grew up in a house where “artists and poets including Walter Sickert, William Rothenstein, Max Beerbohm, the Yeats brothers, and Robert Browning” were among the visitors. It needs to be noted, though, that the bohemianism in evidence was of a restrained and polite kind, and wasn’t that of cheap cafes, near-destitution, shabby rooms, and dubious relationships.

When Augustus John came into her life she no doubt knew of his reputation, both as an artist and as a womaniser, but she was starry-eyed enough to think that marrying him would lead to a situation where her own work would thrive alongside his, and she would be able to curb his excesses outside the studio. She should, perhaps, have looked for examples of women artists marrying male painters, and studied what became of them. It was difficult enough for a woman to make her way in the male-dominated art world, and even more so if her male partner insisted that his work take precedence over whatever she had in mind to do.

Once they were married, Ida began to realise just what sort of trap she’d fallen into. John was never going to be a homebody of any kind, He continued as before, drinking with friends, pursuing various women, and expecting Ida to look after the domestic side of things. Pregnancy added to her dilemma, and she was unable to find time to apply herself to painting or producing anything artistically creative. And money problems soon embroiled her in the kind of bohemia – of debts and life in dreary lodgings – she wasn’t used to.

More pregnancies and John’s insistence that another woman, Dorelia, come to live with them in a ménage-a-trois arrangement, caused Ida a great deal of pain, both mental and sometimes physical. The “family”, Ida, Dorelia, John, various children (their maid had left because John had also got her pregnant), shuttled around England and France, until Ida, pregnant again, fell ill, and died from peritonitis in 1907. I’ve given a very sketchy account of Ida’s life, and Amy Licence provides a much more detailed version, but whichever way it’s looked at, Ida’s brief encounter with bohemia was a sad one, and an example of how someone from a sheltered background could so easily be drawn into circumstance that she just wasn’t prepared for. Ida was worn out with child-bearing, and the vicissitudes of certain aspects of bohemianism, when she died at the age of thirty. 

A tougher-minded woman, one who had not known a happy and comfortable upbringing, might have been more equipped to assert her individuality and leave Augustus John before it was too late, or at least learn how to survive in bohemia. Fernande Olivier, who was to live with Pablo Picasso for some years, had never had it easy in life before she met him. An illegitimate child, brought up by mostly unsympathetic relatives, married young to an insensitive and sometimes violent husband, she lived until she was eighty-five, despite having to struggle to make a living most of the time.

When Fernande left her husband and moved into bohemia she initially had a series of affairs while earning money modelling for various artists in Montmartre: “she derived pleasure from her friendships, associations with art students, and developing her own painting”. As someone said: “Once past Rue Lepic, normal behaviour was thrown overboard. Everyone did just as they pleased, not giving a damn”.  She met a young sculptor, Laurent Debienne, and lived with him, though the relationship ended when she discovered that, while she worked, he did little to bring in any money, and spent most of the time in bed, which is where she found him one day with a young girl.

According to Licence, Debienne’s response to her objections to his behaviour was to tell her that his life-style was essential to his creativity, and that “I could have created a masterpiece, but you stifle me completely”. It was a typically male bohemian’s excuse for acting badly. Augustus John no doubt used it when he neglected his wife and pursued other women, though he did at least also produce numerous admired paintings.

They had been living at the Bateau-Lavoir, a “rambling, ramshackle complex,” housing a number of artists and writers. And it’s where. after leaving Debienne, she met Picasso, though in between she had short relationships with other men. She may have been promiscuous, but Licence says that she “longed for stability”. Not everyone took advantage of her. Fernand Cormon, an artist she modelled for, told her: “marry a young man who’s rich. Think of your future. Don’t get sucked into this Bohemia”.

Fernande did manage to establish a degree of stability with Picasso, though possibly like Ida Nettleship, she may have had some idealistic notions about bohemia and life with an artist : “Here, life is preserved by hope, love and intellect……..I really have been won over by the madness of the people I’m going to be living with now”. She would eventually learn that high hopes could easily be brought low by the day-to-day demands of even a basic domesticity, and that most male artists expected women, on the whole, to support them in various ways. There were very few women artists who were respected for their achievements. Licence mentions Suzanne Valadon, Berthe Morisot, and Marie Laurencin as among them.

Life with Picasso seemed to proceed smoothly at first, though being poor brought its problems.  And there were different difficulties. Picasso had fears of her faithlessness and tried to keep her away from other men, though it’s more than probable that he was still seeing other women. And, though she had ambitions to make a name for herself as an artist, she lacked the drive and determination to succeed. Was it the bohemian life that distracted her from the hard work of producing a painting? If so, she would not be the only one affected by “riotous nights and opium smoking”, and time spent at the Lapin Agile, the club where “Derain, Matisse, Jacob, Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, and Modigliani” were frequently seen unwinding from the hours in their studios.

It was inevitable that the relationship between Fernande and Picasso would eventually come to an end. It had often been tempestuous, and as Picasso’s fame increased and he began to earn more money, and explore different areas of art, he started to lose interest in Fernande: “As would be the case with his life-long artistic development, a new style required fresh inspiration and Fernande’s influence belonged to the flourish that had led him out of the rose period. She was a muse of the past; now he was looking in a different direction”.

Fernande’s life after the break with Picasso found her mostly doing mundane jobs and eventually eking “out a living as a teacher of drawing, French and elocution”. In later life, she contacted Picasso to ask for help, and she began to write her memoirs of life with him. He tried to stop them being published and came to an agreement with her to provide financial assistance provided she accepted that the memoirs would not appear until they were both dead. She died in 1966.

Sophie Brzeska, though she had ambitions as a writer, would probably not be remembered today had it not been for her association with the ill-fated young sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. They had what was, to put it mildly, an unconventional relationship, which largely involved her, as a woman twice his age, declaring her love for him while at the same time refusing to have any sort of sexual involvement with him. She often referred to herself as his “mother” or “sister”, and encouraged him to frequent prostitutes to satisfy his needs in that direction. He seems to have been obsessed with her.

Bohemian Lives probably gives as full an account as we need of Brzeska’s life. She was born in 1872 into a Polish aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times, and when young immersed herself in literature, so much so that her own “fiction later came to cloud her reality”.  She “had constantly fought against the expectations of her family and society, determined to live life on her own terms, making her a bohemian in aspiration and practice”. She refused to follow her parent’s wishes and engage in a marriage to someone with money. She had positions as a governess, but wasn’t happy in them, and her “intense and sensitive responses often elicited the opposite reaction in those whom she most wished to provoke love”. 

She was in Paris in the late-1890s, went to New York as a governess, was in Philadelphia for a time, and back in Poland in 1908. She did have relations of a sort with several men, though none of them seemed to have involved complete sexual activity, and there are references to illnesses which resulted from emotional stress. She sometimes thought of suicide as a way out of her problems. It might be relevant to quote Katherine Mansfield’s opinion of Brzeska, who she saw as “neurotic and disturbing”. And Enid Bagnold thought her “treacherous, suspicious, easily affronted, violently hurt”.

It was in Paris in 1910 that Sophie met Henri Gaudier, then a nineteen-year old thinking of himself as “in the midst of Bohemia, a queer mystic group but happy enough, there are days when you have nothing to eat, but life is so full of the unexpected that I love it as much as before I used to detest the stupid regular life of employment”. Licence refers to the “unlikely friendship” that developed between them. It was a friendship perhaps destined from the beginning to move into a closer relationship with attached problems, neither party being of a practical enough frame of mind to ensure any kind of day-to-day ability to deal with basic matters like food and rent. This was to become obvious when he moved to London. She followed him, and they struggled to find places to stay and earn enough to buy meals. Both were ill because of lack of food and poor living conditions. They also had violent arguments because Henri was finding it difficult to do any creative work. A routine clerical job he had taken meant that he could only paint in the evenings and at weekends. And the lack of sexual contact between them further exacerbated their delicate situation.

Gaudier-Brzeska, as he became even though they never married, was very much a part of the London art scene before the First World War, and involved with the Omega Workshop and the Bloomsbury circle, and with Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists. His work showed great promise, with people like Joseph Epstein speaking well of him as “a picturesque, slight figure with lively eyes and a slight beard” who had “any amount of talent and great energy”. But he also said that he was “confrontational” and got into fights. He was less impressed with Sophie and thought that her “outbursts of frenzied jealousy and hatred of anyone who approached Gaudier” were indications of mental instability. She was suspicious of Nina Hamnett, for example, when she appeared to become too friendly wIth Henri.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Henri, after some hesitation, went back to France and enlisted. He was killed in action in 1915. Sophie’s behaviour after his death became increasingly erratic as she sought to obtain some recognition for her writing. but often rejected offers of help from well-meaning friends. She also fought with Henri’s family regarding ownership of his work. A few people, such as Nina Hamnett, tried to keep in touch with her, but even she eventually thought it impossible “to stay with a lunatic”. Sophie’s condition deteriorated and she was taken to a mental hospital in 1922 and died there in 1925.

There are, perhaps, many differences to be drawn between the experiences of the three women dealt with in Bohemian Lives, though all three clearly suffered from male dominance in relation to their artistic aims. Ida and Fernande might have been able to achieve more had they been prepared to stand up to Augustus John and Pablo Picasso and assert their right to some independence. When it comes to Sophie Brzeska, however, I have my doubts, and suspect that her personality was such that she would have found it difficult to be more than she was and do more than she did, even given different circumstances. The examples of her literary work provided in the book don’t convince me that she was of any great consequence as a writer.

Amy Licence has written an intriguing and informative book. She writes well about Paris and London in the years leading up to 1914, and provides a convincing backcloth to the stories of her three subjects.