AN ANNUAL APPOINTMENT

with

CHARLES SPENCELAYH



Evelyn Waugh lived at Piers Court from 1937 to 1939 and then from 1945 to 1956. That's thirteen years in all. Today is August 2018, and my first visit to Piers Court was in 2005. So I've been there just as long. As it were.

Today I've come back to revisit the 1946 to 1948 phase, during which time Waugh kept a diary. I've come to look at that time of Evelyn's again via the paintings of Charles Spencelayh, who I mention in the
Vintage Evelyn essay.

From 1946-48, Spencelayh showed two or three paintings each year at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition which ran from early May to the beginning of August. That was a regular date in Waugh's calendar. I don't suppose he missed a year from 1945 to 1956, though I can't say so for sure. The Royal Academy was - and still is - located at Burlington House on Piccadilly. A stroll from White's Club or the Hyde Park Hotel. In other words, smack in the middle of Waugh's London.

On the 14th of June, 1946, Waugh wrote in his diary that he travelled to London and that he bought some charming nineteenth century books from a 'Jew' in Cecil Court. What he doesn't say is that he went to see the Royal Academy's Summer show. I know he did, as he wrote to Diana Cooper on June 15th, telling her he was off to Spain for a fortnight (
Scott King's Modern Europe came out of the trip). The letter was written from White's and mentions that Ed Stanley and he went to examine the year's Spencelayhs.

'All are sold or in our after luncheon mood we would have celebrated the great inflation by buying you one. All three are exquisite.'

OK let's take this step by step. First, Evelyn and Ed would have obtained a catalogue.

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Then he would have reminded himself where the 'Architectural Room' was (bottom right of diagram below). That's where Spencelayh's pictures were usually to be found.

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By the time Evelyn got to the Architectural Room he would have turned to the relevant pages of the catalogue. Would Evelyn have looked at the 600-odd pictures hanging on the walls up to this point in the exhibition? No. Why not? Because life is too short. He and Ed would have tracked down and concentrated on the three Spencelayhs.

As he wrote in his letter to Diana:
'One just junk called Grandfather's Treasures.' In fact, the catalogue shows it was called Grandfather's and Grandmother's Treasures. And so I believe it may have either been the picture below, or one very like it. The elderly couple can be seen in the mirror. 'Junk' is everywhere. Paintings, clocks, childrens' toys, musical instruments, bellows, bottles, teapots, a copper jug, stuffed animals, religious icons, a photo of Dickens. Nothing more or less than the stuff of lives lived.

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Back to Evelyn's letter:
'The other two of the old man who features so often in his later work, with the familiar red bandana handkerchief. One, 'The Passing of Time' with a photograph album, grandfather clock in the background, apples ripening on top of the door-case.'

Let's have a look at
The passing of Time via the only - fairly poor - reproduction of it to be found on the net.

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Imagine the pleasure with which Evelyn would have drank in the details of this picture. The grandfather clock ticking out time in the background. The apples ripening over days on top of the mirror (Evelyn says 'door-case'). One apple has been peeled and eaten as the subject of the picture has flicked through the pages of a photograph album covering how many years? The mirror playing on the word 'reflection'. The wall behind him is as busy with pictures as the walls of the Royal Academy itself. How exquisite is this painting? One could look at it for minutes, months, a lifetime. I feel sure that Evelyn looked at it for minutes that felt like months. Why not?

'What do you think, Ed? Fancy an apple?"

"We don't have that many left."

"They need to be eaten while they're still ripe. And before ripe turns to rot."

"And while we've still got teeth for the job."

In due course, the pair would move on to the third and final Spencelayh. When Waugh wrote to Diana Cooper, he described it like this:

'Not Alone. The masterpiece of nomenclature and symbolism is the old man seated with hands folded on calf-bound bible, look of earnest faith in his eyes, an oleograph of Christ behind his head, AN EMPTY BIRD CAGE. I would dearly have liked to have that.'

Below is the picture that Evelyn would have bought (for himself or Diana) if it hadn't already been sold. Again, the only reproduction I could find. Note the red and white spotted handkerchief from
The Passage of Time. Ignore the stickers on the bird cage and top right which someone must have placed on the print before it was photographed.

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Ed: "Do you think his wife has left him?"

Ev: "Possibly. But Christ is sticking by him."

Ed: "May we all be so lucky."

Intrigued and inspired by these three pictures, as Waugh most certainly was, let's consider his diary over the following months.

30 August 1946:
'I went to a junk shop and bought a lion of wood, finely carved for £25, also a bookcase £35, a painting of the baptism of a Jewess £15, a charming Chinese painting £19, a regency easel £7; all good things at reasonable prices.’

Sounds like Evelyn was trying to recreate
Grandfather’s Treasures at Piers Court.

'Then I lost my reason. Among a pile of old paintings was a very pretty watercolour and gouache of Durham Cathedral. I asked the price. £150 said the aged shopkeeper. I bought it.'

Well, pick a special spot at Piers Court and hang it there. In due course it can be relegated to a back room.

As a way of showing where he was in life on his 43rd birthday (28th of October, 1946) Waugh summarised the seven items that had arrived in that morning’s post. Those were: estate agent details of a house in Ireland that he was thinking of moving to; an offer from the BBC to introduce a program which would involve a three-week tour of European capital cities; the latest issue of a French magazine containing an unauthorised translation of an extract from his forthcoming travel book; a thank-you note from a nun for the gift of two of his more Catholic books; a communication from one of his London clubs; an illuminated book from a Birmingham bookseller; and a copy of
The New Yorker.

Chuck it all in the room full of life's treasures, Evelyn. Someone will trawl through these papers one day. Looking for the thank-you note from the nun. Looking to see who had signed the note from the BBC. Looking for the essence of your 43-year-old self.

The diary entry from 10 November, 1946, in particular seems to invoke the Spencelayh figure resting his hands on the Bible:

‘I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible. None of the threatened developments of building and road-making have yet taken place. Why am I not at ease? Why is it I smell all the time wherever I turn the reek of the Displaced Persons Camp?'

Presuming you've given that empty cage a good cleaning, Ev, it must be the Bible. Throw the musty old Bible into the trash 'n' treasure room. But, no, you can't, can you? That's the one thing you can't do.

Hang on a minute, it's not the Bible. It's the special edition of
Brideshead Revisited, the one bound in calf. I have a copy myself. To pick up the book and smell it is one of life's most sensual pleasures. But when I do that, it's not a Displaced Persons Camp that fills my nostrils. It's Turkish cigarettes and dry-stone walls in the English countryside. The bookmark allows the book to open automatically at a special place:

"Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Sebastian. '"I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."

Just two years since Waugh had written that. How quickly he had become old and ugly and miserable. Or do I speak too soon?

Perhaps the trip to America in late 1946 to discuss Hollywood options on
Brideshead came at a good time. And when Waugh returned to Piers Court in the spring of 1947, he brought home with him the inspiration to write The Loved One.

But first things first. It was that time of year again. On May 10, 1947, he wrote to Diana Cooper:
'Three Spencelayhs at the Academy. Up to standard but not remarkable.'

As in the previous year, he says a little about each of the pictures.

''The Bread Ration' an elderly artisan looking quizzically at his loaf. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ on the chimney piece.’

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Note the red bandana in the pocket, yet again. And the calendar on the wall to symbolise the passing of time. Though the framed 'Give us this day our daily bread' is hung on the same wall, not against the chimney piece as Evelyn suggested. Or have I got that wrong?

Back to Evelyn who had the advantage of looking at the full-size original paintings.


Rather a poor 'The Telegram'. Impossible to tell whether it is good news or bad news – one assumes on general grounds, but the face is downcast and the line of moustache hides the line of the mouth. It could hardly be a son killed in the war. It might be a football-pool success.

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Ironically, Waugh wrote in his diary on the 2nd of July, 1946, as follows: 'A telegram awaiting me to say Laura was delivered of a son.' Can't tell whether that news was greeted with joy or despair either.

"That's the one called James."

Still no flicker of smile or frown. Though plenty signs of smiles and frowns in times gone by.

Back to Evelyn's summing up of the 1947 Spencelayhs:

'The best 'The Empty Chair' – not Dickens’s.'

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I see why Waugh liked this picture. Grandfather clock standing for the passage of time. Portraits reflecting Waugh's religious conviction and his loyalty to the monarch. Plus, the sitter is closer to Evelyn's own class.

Not sure he'd be so keen on the cap hung on the side of the picture though. That doesn't show enough respect for culture. Ah, but that's part of the subtlety of the work. The cap is hung there because the woman of the house is no longer around to keep such things in order. Hence the title.

But witness too, one ruffled tablecloth roughly placed above another - presumably dirty - one. And what is the man doing? He's stirring his tea. There is milk and what can only be a lemon. Isn't that an either/or situation? And is that a bowl of brown sugar? In which case the bowl is too large. And is that a pat of butter resting on the loaf? Not at all a well-laid table, I'd surmise. But then it is, sadly, tea for one, not two. Tea for him without her.

Hang on a minute. Don't say Bridey has lost his Beryl!

Looks like he has lost his Brideshead as well. Or perhaps he's done up a room in the castle to look like the parlour of a Blackpool boarding house.

Oh, these glorious pictures do stimulate the imagination. I suppose that's why Waugh liked them so much.

On Wednesday, May 21, 1947, Evelyn announced in his diary that he's made a start on
The Loved One. A very slow start. Two days later he wrote that it was 'snakes and ladders progress.'

But by the 6th of July he was able to say that he'd finished the first draft of
The Loved One. Now there is a particularly funny scene in the novella that I feel may have been inspired by Waugh’s love of Charles Spencelyah paintings. Indeed, I will top and tail the quote with relevant pictures:

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The scene I have in mind is when the Californian mortician, Joyboy takes his assistant, Aimée, round for a meal at the house he shares with his elderly mother.

"Let's go see what surprise the little old lady has been cooking up for us."

"Just what you always have. I ain't got time for surprises."

Mrs Joyboy turned in her chair towards a strangely veiled object which stood at her elbow. She drew the fringe of a shawl, revealed a wire cage, and in it an almost naked parrot. "Sambo," she said winningly, "Sambo". The bird put its head on one side and blinked. "Sambo," she said, "Won't you speak to me?"

"Why, Mom, you know that bird hasn't spoken in years."

"He speaks plenty when you're away, don't you my Sambo?"

The bird put its head on the other side, blinked and suddenly ruffled his few feathers and whistled like a train. "There," said Mrs Joyboy. "If I hadn't Sambo to love me I might as well be dead."

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Poor old Joyboy. Mocked by his ancient mother in front of his would-be girlfriend. Never mind, when Mrs Joyboy died he would take the opportunity of killing and stuffing the parrot. He may or may not use the services of The Happier Hunting Ground.

Here are some more diary entries from 1947 that, at a stretch, put one in mind of the Spencelayh paintings Waugh had seen in May at the Academy.

May 15, 1947:
'Ascension day never passes without my thinking of the day now thirty years ago at Lancing which was the most miserable of my life.'

That's partly a reference to not having enough to eat. So it's the old bloke staring at what's left of a loaf that seems apposite.

July 29, 1947. Waugh talks of how he feels on his return from a trip to London.
'The symptoms are constant; insomnia, a disordered stomach, weakness at the knees, a trembling hand which becomes evident when I attempt to use the pen. They are at their worst on the day after my return home. I tell myself I have drunk too much, smoked too much and kept late hours. But I grow sceptical of this glib excuse.'

And later in the same self-critical diary entry:

'Guilt is beginning as my memory grows feeble. I suppose I was at least five hours at the ball. How did I spend the time? My memories all pieced together would not fill an hour, There is this intellectual problem that still frets me six days later. What did I look like? I have plain memory of countless faces, particularly of my contemporaries, looking red and damp, with their ties askew and their shirts disordered.'

These could be the thoughts of the gent taking his afternoon tea. He might well be suffering from insomnia, a disordered stomach, weakness of the knees and a trembling hand which becomes evident when he tries to transfer sugar from bowl to tea cup. But is the cause of his symptoms a trip to London where he has smoked too much, drank too much and kept long hours, or because his wife has left him?

On 15 August, Waugh wrote the following. But on behalf of which Spencelayh protagonist was he writing?:

'I arrived at Paddington at 10.45 and went straight to St James's Club to leave my luggage, then to Trumper's to have my hair cut, then to Burlington Arcade having resolved in the train to buy the silver-gilt cabbage leaf dessert service which excited me some weeks back, but to my disappointment I found it sold.'

These two Spencelayhs come to mind:

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"I've come to buy the silver-gilt cabbage leaf dessert service which I saw here on my last visit to London."

"Gone, sir."

"Damnation."

"Can I interest you instead in this gold-leaf camel and owl dropping dessert service which only came in today."

"How much?"

"£150."

Let us remove Evelyn from temptation and move swiftly on with his diary.

October 2-8, 1947: '
Alone and low-spirited. I dug the garden and became so painfully stiff that I was obliged to stop.' A few days later he went with friends to Mells, slept in a room so cold and damp that his stiffness turned to torture and was later diagnosed as fibrositis. 'Since then I have lived as an invalid.'

Next comes the usual birthday summary of his preceding year. At 44, he describes himself as a very much older man than on his 43rd birthday, physically infirm and lethargic. Mentally he had reached a state of detachment that he thought would be edifying if it was combined with a high state of praying, which it wasn't. He had written two good novellas, Scott King's Modern Europe and The Loved One. He had added a number of beautiful books to his collection and a few valueless pictures. No mention of the silver-gilt cabbage leaf dessert service that got away.

November 23, 1947.
'A sale at an old house in Tetbury. Laura and I spent two frigid, happy days there and at the cost of £100 acquired some worn curtains and carpet, a fine urn and hall seats, and a variety of battered toys and odds and ends.'

Good work, Evelyn! Chuck it all in your
Grandfather's and Grandmother's Treasures room. Then one day when you're even older, uglier and more miserable than you are now, come back and dig it out and remember. Or is that a bit cruel?

1948 started dimly for Evelyn. But he perked up a bit in April and wrote to Diana Cooper as follows:

'I have bought such a lot of odd things. The trouble is in London I saunter out with folie de grandeur and a cheque book. I now have a grey bowler hat, three tie pins, a quantity of Victorian radiators, a gigantic clock, a solid silver candelabrum as tall as myself, all the result of four days in London.'

Some of it goes straight into the junk 'n' Jesus room. But the candelabrum as tall as himself goes on the dining table, Just as one did in the flat he'd shared with She-Evelyn in Canonbury Square, nearly twenty years earlier. This picture is of Piers Court with its (some would say) grotesque new addition:

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All of which (the buying and the installing) would have got Waugh in the mood for the 1948 summer exhibition at the Royal Academy, kicking off on May the 1st.

He didn't write to Diana Cooper that summer. Evelyn was ill with nettle rash, but not until the beginning of July, so he would certainly have been along to the RA between the beginning of May and the middle of July. Though perhaps we'll need to wait until publication of the relevant volume of Personal Writings in the CWEW project to get confirmation of this. He is bound to have described his movements to someone. All it needs is the mention of a trip to London.

Only two Spencelayhs this year. Both oil paintings, both hung in the Architectural Room. Items 618 and 634 on this page of the catalogue:

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Puzzling B.U.s is a puzzling title. Alas, there is no reproduction of it on the web. But there is a poor quality repro of a sketch of Spencelayh's which goes under the same name.

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What is it? A man sitting at a table with paintings on the wall in the background and a pot plant. What is he doing? He is referring to a book and there are some objects that might be coins lying on the tabletop. In which case B.U. means bright and uncirculated or brilliant and uncirculated.

The other painting has its enigmas as well. For there are three pictures of Spencelayh called
A Lover of Dickens, and at least two of them were painted in 1947 and so are prime candidates for the picture hanging at the R.A. in the summer of 1948.

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The painting above is undated. The painting below was painted in 1947.

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Evelyn would no doubt have enjoyed looking at either of the above, but I feel he would have loved the complexity of the painting below, the second called
A Lover of Dickens that was painted in 1947.

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Let's take in some of the detail. The portrait of Charles Dickens is the same as found in the background of
Grandfather's and Grandmother's Treasures that Waugh admired in 1946. Ditto the wind instrument. The grandfather clock has a strip of five red stamps stuck to its front. The sitter reads The Times as well as Dickens, with the help of his glasses, the case for which rests on the front of the table, beside what I take to be two coins of different denominations. So the glasses case might be a wallet. The red bandana emerges from the sitter's coat pocket which is lying on a chair against which a spade is leaning. I would like to know what's in the small leather case that's sticking out of his waistcoat pocket. And I'd like to know what's in the bag resting on the table, which seems fairly full. A silver gilt cabbage leaf dessert service? I suspect that the large painting of a river scene has a man fishing in the boat in the foreground. Those might be fishing flies in the band that goes around his soft hat. Does the fishing theme link back to the Dickens theme? If so, how? Evelyn may have been able to answer that, his father having read Dickens to him throughout his childhood.

Good old Arthur. Might that thought have crossed Evelyn's mind? His father having died five years previous. Good old Arthur, who Evelyn was, in some ways, turning into, physically and mentally.

August 16, 1948
'I do nothing. Success has brought idleness as its dead fruit.'

August 24, 1948
'Doctor in the afternoon. He said 'Drink less' and tried to sell me a 5-guinea book about his collection of works of art.'

October 28, 1948
'My 45th birthday. An unproductive and unhealthy year. The start God pray of a better.'

I've tried to come up with an image that sums up Evelyn's 1946 to 1948. With special emphasis on the unproductive and unhealthy later year. I'm tempted to call it 'Elvis Has Left the Building', but then he patently hasn't.

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Just to remind you of what Evelyn said to Diana about this back in 1946.
'Not Alone. The masterpiece is the old man seated with hands folded on calf-bound bible, look of earnest faith in his eyes, an oleograph of Christ behind his head, AN EMPTY BIRD CAGE. I would dearly have liked to be that.'

Of course, I've changed one word in that quote. But did Evelyn Waugh see himself as turning into one of the old men that Spencelayh lavished so much time and attention on? I think so. Spencelayh gave them such gravitas that it must have seemed a most natural and somewhat desirable fate.

But Evelyn wasn't ready yet to go gently into that good night. After all, he was only 45, for heaven's sake. Waugh took the bull by the horns and arranged to go to America for the back end of the year. At
Life's expense (the magazine paid for all Evelyn's transatlantic travel, luxury accommodation and considerable food and drink) he toured the country with a view to writing a long article about Catholicism in the United States, a piece that would eventually appear about a year later.

No sooner back in England for Christmas, he took off again at the end of January 1949 for another American tour. This time lecturing on three English Catholic authors: Graham Greene, Ronald Knox and GK Chesterton, the first two of whom were his close personal friends.

Have thumping great Bible will travel. First class, of course.

Evelyn has left the building.

Well, not quite yet. First there was the matter of the servant problem.



Acknowledgements:
Thanks to Ann Pasternak Slater for her talk on EW and Charles Spencelayh at the Evelyn Waugh Symposium of 2011.