Friday 1 May 2015

Queer Saint : Peter Watson and 'a sort of pamphlet'

The son of a man who owned a thousand-store chain called Maypole Dairies (selling milk, eggs, cheese, butter and - pronounced with a hard 'g' - margarine), Peter Watson was educated at Eton where he developed a taste for flogging. After public school came two academically undistinguished years at St. John's College Oxford, where he failed repeatedly to pass his first-year examinations and left unencumbered by a degree. He is the subject of a new biography, Queer Saintby Adrian Clark  &  Jeremy Dronfield.

Watson was very rich indeed thanks to a million-pound trust fund generating interest of £50,000 a year, a stupendous sum at a time when (according to his fellow Old Etonian George Orwell), "the real bourgeoisie, those in the £2,000 a year class and over, have their money as a thick layer of padding". Evelyn Waugh spitefully dubbed Watson 'a pansy of means'; Watson sliced back with 'Catholic fascist'.

As one of Britain's wealthiest young men and the most ineligible of bachelors, Watson was  footloose, self-absorbed, erratically generous and a bit of a silly ass, an unlikeable version of Bertie Wooster. He was tall and skinny with a rather frog-like expression, but his clothes were widely admired for their exquisite cut. In the 1920s he owned a coral pink Rolls-Royce with fur-trimmed seats and spent his time travelling between the chic European watering holes that attracted the British ruling classes. Any spare time was spent breaking Cecil Beaton's heart.

Beaton adored the man who would remain the love of his life, and the first third of this biography contains many of Beaton's diary entires recording their multiple rifts and reunions. One gets the impression that Watson was rather a cold fish with a low sex-drive, or perhaps that's just how he felt about Cecil ("Peter is so devoted to me. But the outward forms are never shown"). There were boyfriends galore, and Watson diligently worked his way through all the inter-war German night clubs, attracted, like many of his class and generation, to Weimar low-life. He apparently kept no diary, wasn't much of a correspondent and his co-biographers admit there's not much to be learned about a man who remains spectral and insubstantial, less real than his fortune.

It is a challenge to give an endless succession of jaunts to Paris. Venice, Monte Carlo, Le Touquet, Cannes and Palma, and New York any kind of structure or significance, let alone urgency. We are regularly told that Watson was variously impatient to be somewhere, or desperate to be somewhere else, or keen to move on - but his life had no real drivers, no imperatives, no challenges, no deadlines. It's the free-wheeling sybaritism, of course, that makes this book such a compelling page-turner, plus our own prurience. Is this really how big money behaved?

Watson is hardly extravagant by today's hip-hop bling-laden standards. He bought a succession of superb properties in chic districts of London and rented a spacious apartment in Paris, filled them all with books and artworks and expensive gramophones, installed a trophy lover (including the sulkily beautiful and epically unreliable Denham Foutts, 'the best-kept boy in the world'), travelled abroad again, bought another apartment - and so the years went by.

His main interest, which arrived quite late in life, was art. He began to collect paintings and reinvented himself as a dealer, rapidly becoming a well-connected expert on European modernism and acquiring works by Picasso, Max Ernst. Paul Klee. Joan Miro, Matisse, Leger  and many others. His magnificent art collection was lost when Nazis looted his rue du Bac apartment It was the outbreak of the second World War that seems to have given him a real sense of purpose and direction. 

During the Blitz he could have sought refuge in any number of country retreats but instead moved into a relatively modest Kensington apartment building and bravely - or obtusely - sat it out. At the outbreak of the war he financed Horizon magazine (which he described to a friend with typical self-effacement as 'a sort of pamphlet') Co-edited by Cyril Connolly and (anonymously) Stephen Spender, Watson bankrolled it to the tune of £33 a month, enough to cover the production and postage of 1,000 issues. This was peanuts to Watson but made a world of difference to the magazine, which had a modest circulation for the time (never above 10,000). It remains a cultural high-point of the last century.

About ten years ago I bought a complete set of Horizon from the late Peter Joliffe, who ran the wonderful Ulysses bookshop in Museum Street, Bloomsbury. It cost me £450 and he kindly let me pay in instalments. It took me nearly five years to read the whole run of 102 issues, from 1940 to 1949, rationing myself to one or two issues each month. It was an education. Horizon had a unmatchably illustrious list of contributors from Auden to  . . . well everyone.

It's a commonplace view but misleading to imagine that the values of Horizon represented what we were fighting for, and if the Nazis loathed Entartete Kunst so much there was surely much to be said in its favour. Watson was the magazine's de facto arts editor and in a position to encourage new talent. Issue 4 (April 1940) published a gauche and unnerving monochrome sketch portrait by a teenage artist introduced to Watson by Stephen Spender - it was Lucian Freud's first appearance in print. When Ernst Freud urged his son to give up studying art Watson promptly paid Lucien's art school fees, explaining to the boy's headmaster that he was doing so "because I am very fond of him and believe in him". This is almost supernaturally prescient as young Freud had yet to show any signs of talent. Through the years that followed Watson repeatedly made Freud's career possible, smoothing is way into the highest cultural echelons. Watson adopted and supported many young male artists, not always disinterestedly. Among another protégés were John Craxton and the two Roberts. Colquhon and McBride.

Soon after the war ended Watson threw a party to mark the return from America of his then-lover Foutts (who didn't show up). The 18-year-old painter Michael Wishart was present and described 'a large salon filling up with men and their expensive looking toy-friends' [sic]. The biographers take up the story in a cherishably hilarious paragraph:

Among them he recognised Baron Alexis de de Rédé [sic, although that first accent is unnecessary] - the darling of Marie-Laure de Noailles and Étienne de Beaumont's saloniste circle - and his keeper Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, the art-collecting son of an Argentinian guano tycoon; also present were the nineteen-year- old Olivier Larronde, protégé of Cocteau and Jean Genet, with his inseparable partner Jean-Pierre Lacloche, offspring of the Lacloche jewellery family […], the artist Maurice Van Moppès and actor Jean Marais, among others . . .

Such densely-populated paragraphs (which may entrance or repel, accordion to taste) occur more frequently in the post-war years as Peter's friends are seemingly without number. The main lovers - Cecil Beaton, Denham Foutts, Waldemar Hansen and Norman Fowler - surely not the same Norman Fowler who was Margaret Thatcher's Secretary of State for Transport, alas - come and go, and here are many others.

Horizon continued to appear monthly until the end of the 1940s but the later issues lack the energy and urgency of the wartime numbers as Connolly became increasingly disenchanted and disengaged. The postwar Labour settlement and the radical democratisation of the arts left Watson adrift, despite his energetic role in the creation of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. His life gradually reverted to the sybaritic aimlessness of his twenties.

His death was lurid and his co-biographers, in a lamentable lapse of taste, begin and end the book with an atrociously over-written account of the night in question - my advice is to skip all that and, come to think, skim the first twelve chapters because it's all lovers' tiffs and wagons-lits.

Watson was an enigma, a riddle without  sphinx. He was a leading member of what Auden referred to as 'the Homintern', a network of powerful gay men involved in the arts as painters,  art gallery owners, ballet directors, movie producers, record label executives, and photographers. Was he, as Beaton described him, a Queer Saint? We are keen these days, and with good reason, to canonise dead gay men such as Alan Turing,  but this may lead us to belittle their achievements which were in spite of, not because of, their necessarily covert sexual identities.

Stephen Spender said, with some acuity, that Watson was  "essentially made for honeymoons and not for marriages". Things went awry when a lover became in any way emotionally committed or dependent when he would be promptly dropped, although an enduring friendship was often the result. In a rare moment of self-awareness Watson said in a letter to Waldemar Hansen that his "greatest need [was] to love rather than be love"'. He found self-worth in the dispensation of his affections, but could not it seems endure their reciprocation. Whether this was through feelings of unworthiness or masochism is hard to say. So he found some consolation in art.

Relationships aside there is little in his life to vex or distress him - the loss of his marvellous art collection in Paris and its slow recovery; juggling simultaneous lovers; currency export regulations that put a curb on his spending when abroad and recurrent bouts of severe jaundice. His life in the late 1940s became increasingly ascetic, to Cyril Connolly's disgust; he lived in a very comfortable but tiny London flat and he didn't even own a car.

A few grating infelicities aside ("In that year John Craxton transitioned from his student phase"; while relationships between Watson and Hansen "transitioned into a strange, frostily civil friendship"; "Lys obliged his needs in every respect"; that sort of thing), Queer Saint is a compelling reminder of a time when wealthy, cultivated homosexuals could devote themselves to art without the associated celebrity, before cultivated taste was displaced by populist and oligarch values and before the commodification of art as tax-avoiding shadow currency. Despite Beaton's overwrought description Watson was no 'Queer Saint' but, if anything, all too human,

QUEER SAINT: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson by Adrian Clark  &  Jeremy Dronfield
288 pp.    John Blake Publishing     £19.99