Manet not Manet


I was still early. I wandered further down Fleet Street to where The Strand (they are really the same road) officially begins. The plinth of the Temple Bar Monument had a sculpture of Queen Victoria inset on one side. She was looking more vague than grumpy, wearing a small gold crown, carrying a golden sceptre and an orb, with various devices in relief on either hand, representing Art and Science. A violin, a harp, a palette and brush, the masks of comedy and tragedy; a sextant, a cog-wheel, the globe, a skull. Her son, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, is apparently represented on the other side but I didn’t go round to see him. I wanted to scout out the place I was going to and then I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was thus entirely apposite, if fortuitous when, after scoping the green glass frontage of Kings College, I saw a sign that advertised the Courtauld Institute.

The Courtauld! Fabled name. And indissolubly linked with the Warburg Institute, where I was going to go the next day. The Courtaulds were textile millionaires in nineteenth century Britain; their fortune was based upon the manufacture of silks and crepes. They were also, in the early twentieth century, pioneers in the making of artificial silks: rayon or viscose, made from cellulose in dissolved pulp of organic origin. Tree fibres; bamboo. It was Samuel (1876-1947) who, after the war, became interested in art and, using his vast wealth, started buying French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. His extraordinary collection was assembled quite rapidly, most of it accumulated between 1926 and 1930. He had Roger Fry, among others, as an adviser.

After his wife died in 1931 he lost interest; and in 1932, with politician, diplomat and collector Lord Lee of Fareham, and art historian Robert Witt, founded the Courtauld Institute of Art—to which he donated his paintings. It isn’t just a collection however, the Institute also exists for the purposes of the study of art history and of the techniques of conservation. Many distinguished people have studied at the Courtauld, including Australia’s own Bernard Smith, who was there (1948-1951) while the Fourth Man among the Cambridge spies, Anthony Blunt, an expert on Poussin, was Director (1947-1974). The Courtauld is part of the University of London and, since 1989, domiciled in Somerset House on The Strand, purpose built in 1780 for the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Art and the Society of Antiquities. I went up the steps to reception trembling with nervous anticipation. After all, inscribed over the entrance to the Great Hall, in Ancient Greek, is the admonition: Let no stranger to the Muses enter here.

Perhaps I had transgressed. You can’t properly look at paintings when you are in a hurry; on reflection, I should have skipped the Medieval and Renaissance collections on the lower floors—magnificent though they are—ignored the fascinating exhibition of the prints and drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (‘Bruegel, Not Bruegel’), and gone straight to the top, where the Cezannes (The Card Players), Degas (Woman at a Window), van Goghs (Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear), Gauguins (Nevermore) and single works by Chaim Soutine (Young Woman in White Blouse) and Amedeo Modigliani (Female Nude), hang. Looking at paintings in the flesh, even, or especially, when you know them in reproduction, is always surprising, sometimes astonishing. I did not expect, for instance, to be moved almost to tears by the big Édouard Manet painting hung centrally on a wall that otherwise showed four Cezanne landscapes; but I was.

It was Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882) and I’m still not sure why it affected me so; but it might have been because of the way she, the barmaid, Suzon, a real person, looks so remote, so desolately out of the painting, without meeting any of our eyes; while in the mirror behind, in which we can see the bar and its many patrons, we also see her from behind, in conversation with a top-hatted gentleman who is almost, not quite, out of the frame. It looks like a proposition is being put, the prelude to an intimate encounter perhaps; and yet, when you look back at Suzon’s face, you know that this is nothing she ever wanted or needed, merely something that she will have to endure—if indeed she goes through with whatever it is they are discussing. So we have mirrored both her action in the world and its internal or psychological complement.

That’s the thematic that moved me; or one of them. But the painting is startling in other respects too. There is the pair of legs, wearing green pointy toed boots, suspended from the top left hand side of the picture: they belong to a trapeze artist but resemble, even though you can see the bar upon which they rest, the feet of a suicide, a hanged woman. A mirror painting, the work is conceptually intricate, almost to the extent of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, which Manet had seen and loved. In a technical sense, despite the solidity, the reality, of so much within the picture—the bowl of oranges on the bar, the array of bottles on the left—over all, the thin washes of paint give the impression (that word!) of it being barely finished, or perhaps I mean just finished. Manet has painted enough to give us the full picture and then he’s left off. The consequence is that A Bar at the Folies-Bergère looks utterly immediate, as if it were still being made. Or rather, as if what it shows with such clarity and force, is still happening.

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from : Imperial Drifts

temple_bar_dragon_15305195724I had another meeting with a family member—a different family—at 5.30 in the evening. It was in town, at Kings College, London, down on The Strand and not far from the Thames shore. I wrote up my notes of the conversation with Barney and Tim and then, at a loose end, sallied forth, a couple of hours early, to have a bit of a look around. I wasn’t sure what for; but I did know that John Platts-Mills’ old rooms at the Inner Temple were not far away from Kings; so I thought I might see if I could find them. I took the Jubilee Line from Baker Street to Westminster then changed for the District Line. At Temple, as if drawn by the ancient waters, I made my way down to the river.

Or such was my intention; but halfway across the Victoria Embankment, a motorcycle cop drew up beside me and stayed me with his gauntleted hand. I could see his steady blue eyes beneath his visor and wondered, in the instant, how I had offended. Was I jaywalking? Then I realised he was the outrider of a convey. It swept past me at speed, a dozen vehicles long: more motorcycle cops, black 4WDs with tinted windows, two big grey windowless Mercedes vans, more cops on bikes. None of the vehicles showed any insignia; there were no flags on bonnets, no royal or government crests either. In fact, there was nothing I could see which might have identified what kind of convey it was nor who was in it.

My mind spun with possibilities. Clandestine royals? A President or a Prime Minister from some foreign country who did not wish anyone to know s/he was in town? Henry Kissinger? A high level military delegation, on its way to confer with politicians at Westminster? Black ops? Or did the vans contain captured terrorists and were they en route to Wandsworth Gaol? Common criminals wouldn’t receive such lavish treatment. It was frustrating not knowing; intimidating too. I imagined how many Kings and Queens of England had taken that route in their carriages before, with mounted equerries slashing the poor folk out of the way. I seemed to hear the cries of peasants going under the wheels of antique tyrannies. There were ghosts of downpressers in the grey afternoon air.

The Thames didn’t care. The brown river slid slowly by, cleaner than when last I had seen it, immemorial in its blank acquiescence to whatever took place along its banks. I gazed down at the flow, letting my mind drift; then walked slowly along until I was opposite Middle Temple Lane, where I re-crossed the road, without incident, and wandered through the precinct. I saw a yellow building on my right which could have been where Platts-Mills had his rooms; but somehow could not summon the energy to seek it out further. I wondered about the Temple Church, where he and Janet were married in 1936: built by the Knights Templers 800 years ago, in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; but I already knew it wasn’t open today.

The chaos and roar of traffic along Fleet Street was a subliminal shock. Then I saw, as I looked along the busy thoroughfare, protruding from the murk, the bronze statue of a dragon writhing on its plinth. It was rampant, its mouth open, its wings spread and clutched in its fore-claws a shield bearing some obscure device. While this too seemed like something out of the far past, the Temple Bar Memorial is actually less than a century and a half old: built in 1880 by Horace Jones to mark the place where one of the eight gates to the City used to stand; with the dragon on top sculpted by Charles Bell Birch. Monarchs on their way from Westminster to the Tower used to have to pause at the gate before entering the City. Sometimes the Mayor would be there to offer up his sword and his keys.

I was going the other way—towards The Strand I mean—but I still had a bit of time on my hands. And there, on the other side of the road, was a church. St Dunstan-in-the-West; so in I went. The cacophony of the street stilled; I found myself in a pale grey octagonal nave, with burgundy pillars and a vaulted ceiling painted aqua blue. Golden wooden beams gleamed in the empyrean. Muted light shone down through stained glass windows. Although I am not in the least bit religious, I could hear the whisper of heavenly choirs singing, far away. St Dunstan was Bishop of London in Anglo-Saxon times, in the last decades of the first millennium, the century before William’s conquering Normans swept over in 1066. He is the patron saint of gold and silver smiths, because he is said to have made his own plate for the churches where he officiated.

This was not the church St Dunstan built, however; that was demolished in 1829, when Fleet Street was widened. The new church, the one I was in, was made in the early 1830s over the graveyard that stood behind the old church; by two John Shaws, father and son. The curious octagonal construction is said to have been in imitation of the shape of a lantern; and some bits of the old building were incorporated in the new. I ran my hand along a wooden communion rail, carved by Grinling Gibbons when the poet John Donne was vicar here in the 1620s. Next to the main altar was a wall of Byzantine icons obscuring what looked like a chapel; with their opulent gold leaf, their purple skies and staring eyes of saints, they looked strangely anomalous in the otherwise sparse Anglican interior.

I had heard footsteps behind me while I was drifting through time in that sacerdotal space; perhaps the rattle of keys. Sure enough, when I dragged myself away from contemplation of these wondrous things and turned to go, the door was locked. I was a prisoner of St Dunstan! Momentary panic was soon alleyed; a young robed woman, looking vaguely monk-like, came out of an ante room to release me. She must have known already I was there. We close at 4 o’clock she explained, unapologetically. I lingered a moment. Why, I asked, is the chapel next the altar closed off like that? What is that wall of icons? It’s called an iconostasis, she explained. Basically a screen. It comes from a monastery in Bucharest. People from the Romanian Orthodox Church worship here as well. This is one of only three churches in England where they can.

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One Saturday morning in March 2013 Maggie and I went along to the Art Gallery to see a show called The Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie Era. It was just a short walk from her flat in Florence Court down to the gallery; and hot already as we ambled under the shade of the Phoenix palms in Nesca Park then turned the corner into Darby Street, where the smell of charred bacon mingled with the aroma of coffee from the breakfast bars packed with gorgers and loungers; while mementos of last night’s debauches lay palpable in the stains on the pavement as much as in the wear on the faces. I don’t exclude myself. It could have been, except for the cars and the clothes, a scene straight out of the Regency period two centuries before. As was the show we were going to see.

Outside the gallery the Council had cordoned off with orange tape the stumps of the arcade of grand old fig trees which, in spite of public protests, they had cut down; transforming Laman Street, twenty-first century style, into the ugly chaos of a building site. Out of a naked blue sky the yellow sun beat down upon desolated ground. Some violation had occurred which would never be accounted for; except perhaps on the books of those who would profit from it. That felt very Regency too, in the New South Wales version. It was, we were assured and did not believe, only temporary. As always it was a relief to leave behind the heat and dust and noise and splintered light to enter the cool half dark of the gallery.

Most of the ground floor was closed off for the installation of a new show; over to the right, one of the Darby Street coffee shops had established a pop-up cafe and there were plastic tables and chairs, a sofa, where was usually art space. Treasures was upstairs. I looked forebodingly at the concrete staircase we would have to climb: a Brutalist structure designed, apparently, to intimidate with its implied weight, its lowness and squatness, all-comers. I never go up without thinking of the 1989 earthquake and the Irish roadie I knew who was buried for twenty-four hours in the rubble of the collapsed Newcastle Workers Club. Ricky and his mate spent the time until their rescue singing every song they knew that had the word ‘help’ in it.

But I like the gallery and especially the upstairs; the claustrophobia always dissipates as I enter that big light-filled room. This day, as so often, I went backwards through the exhibition; as if seeking to trace time back to its source. Thus I began, not with the headline piece—Edward Close’s grand 1821 water colour Panorama of Newcastle—but before Thomas Mitchell’s two modest ink drawings from 1828, one of which shows the strange, pagoda-shaped structure built to enclose the coal-burning, ship’s warning light on Signal Hill; and followed them with three miniatures by Richard Read, also in water colour, of the Macquarie family: Lachlan, the Governor, his wife Elizabeth and their coddled darling, the unfortunate Lachlan Junior, as a child.

Apart from the panorama, there were a half a dozen other pieces by or attributed to Edward Close, a military engineer who settled on the Hunter and was one of the founders of the river town of Morpeth. His works are precise, elegant, exactly observed but to my eye somewhat attenuated. The best of them a graceful rendition of the Governor’s house with a white path curving up to the Georgian door of the low, stone building; and a view of South Head and Coal Island at the time when, in the early 1820s, the building of the causeway between them, which Close supervised, had just begun. You could make out three delicate lines of tide wrack cast up on the ochre sands of Horseshoe Beach; and the spidery construction of the flagstaff on the hill where now Fort Scratchley stands.

This was a leit-motif of the show: the then persistent within the now. For me it was most resonant, most acute, on the north wall, where four landscapes by Joseph Lycett hung. They were all views of Newcastle and environs circa 1818 and by looking into them you could recover lineaments of the original geography, and traces of its human societies, contiguous with the streets of the town yet buried beneath the assumptions, no less than the concrete and the clay, the buildings and the asphalt, of the present day.

Alongside and opposite these four oil paintings a number of heterogeneous other works hung, many of them attributed to a troika of artists: James Wallis / [Joseph Lycett] / Walter Preston. Wallis was the military officer who commanded the settlement at the Coal River, aka King’s Town, during the period when Lycett’s oils were painted. Walter Preston, another convict, transported for armed robbery, was an engraver and there were other examples of his work in the show. There were also paintings by Wallis himself, including a portrait of his dog, Fly, monstrous, like a mutant Stubbs, before an aquatic landscape. He was a competent but uninspired artist; and why the bracketing of Lycett’s name after his?

Their names recurred in the caption to an old bound book, an album, in a glass case opposite; it was closed but on the wall above a series of projections showed the works—water colours, engravings, drawings, that had been pasted, presumably by James Wallis himself, whose book it was, inside and on the front and back covers. At least half of the twenty-six images therein turned out to have been made by Joseph Lycett: watercolours of plants and flowers, mostly. Towards the end of the album six fine paintings of views around Sydney harbour appear. Five of them are inscribed, in Wallis’ hand, Drawn by a Convict.

These landscapes are all dated 1818, presumably because Wallis, and his album, departed the colony in March, 1819 and had, before he left, engravings made of these images for a book published in Sydney that year and again in London two years later; on both occasions Wallis claimed the engraver worked from his own Original Drawings. These originals were thought to have been lost until, just a few years ago, the album turned up in the back of a cupboard in Ontario, Canada, and was auctioned as part of a deceased estate. The State Library of NSW bought it in 2011 for the hefty sum of $1.8 million dollars. Wallis’ ‘original drawings’, then, were made by a convict; and that convict was Joseph Lycett.

There was another album, similarly presented, assembled by one of Wallis’ predecessors, Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe, and containing water colours of native Australian birds and animals by another convict artist, Richard Browne. I knew Browne’s work already, had seen his curiously elongated images of birds, his startling, toothy, larger than life portraits of Aboriginal people, eight of which were included in the exhibition, before. They are striking yet disturbing caricatures; you don’t know if they are meant to be satirical; or if Browne just couldn’t draw very well; or if he actually saw things this way. You can’t quite work out where to situate artist, subject or viewer.

A third book stood alone in another glass case in the middle of the room, without an associated slide show, and open upon a hand-coloured print showing an engraved and hand coloured version of one of Lycett’s four oils, the Inner View of Newcastle. This book, though I didn’t realise it at the time, was a copy of the rare and precious Views in Australia which Lycett, with others, prepared in London between 1824 and 1825. I noted the beautifully exact rendition of a two-pronged grass tree in the foreground, and the unusual way the leaves and branches on the sheoak trees were painted, before passing on. There was something else ahead, something astonishing.

It was inside a cube of what looked like thick glass but must have been perspex or some other kind of hard, transparent plastic: I could have touched it but I didn’t. This cube squatted, tardis-like, four square on the floor. It was roofed, about the size of a small room; within it, select drawers open, lid up, wings flying, stood the Macquarie Chest. Not only had I not seen it before; I had never heard of its existence. There it was, a portable wunderkammer and prodigy of unknown import. Or : conundrum.

The chest is an amalgam of an eighteenth century naturalist’s collecting cabinet and a military travelling trunk of a kind popular in the Empire, especially among officers sent out to administer the Raj. As in both of those articles of furniture, the drawers and wings and other fold-outs collapse, the four stumpy legs unscrew and fit in the bottom-most drawer, to form an oblong that could easily be stowed in a cabin, in the hold of a ship, in the freight compartment of a horse-drawn transport. A collecting cabinet was designed to transport specimens safely; while a military travelling trunk, when assembled in the officer’s tent or in his bungalow, would transform into writing desk, wardrobe, dressing table, shaving station and so forth: a portmanteau for the gentlemanly functions and pursuits enshrined within.

This one, however, built out of local timber—rosewood and cedar—had no practical function but was rather a sort of museum-cum-art gallery. Within its curiously wrought spaces there are the taxidermed bodies of eighty species of bird, all endemic to the Hunter River and environs. There are, likewise, a drawer full of beetles arranged, mandala-like, in patterns; another containing spiders and larger winged creatures such as stick insects, mantis and dragon flies, similarly disposed; two drawers of butterflies and moths; two of sea weeds and algae; two very beautiful arrangements of sea shells. These disparate specimens, with one or two exceptions, are all likewise local to the Newcastle area.

The natural history collections are only one part of this cabinet of wonders; the other consists of thirteen oil paintings on wooden panels which may be slid out of drawers or revealed when lids are opened or wings unfolded; they fall naturally into three groups: eight showing pairs of native birds and animals before exquisitely painted landscapes and dramatic skies; four seascapes copied after engravings made to illustrate Matthew Flinders’ account of his 1802 voyage in HMS Investigator round the Australian coast; and, the largest of the works, on the top lid, a selection of fish from Newcastle waters lying on a sandy beach before a rocky landscape; many of these fish also appear in the Wallis Album. The thirteen panels are unsigned but were certainly painted by Joseph Lycett.

The Macquarie Chest is assumed to have been made, its contents assembled, its panels painted, in Newcastle as a gift for the Governor whose name it bears; and its provenance suggests it returned with Macquarie to England in 1822; and later passed into the ownership of the Drummond family, who stored it for 150 years in a junk room in Strathallan Castle in Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands, where it was intermittently a plaything for children. It has a companion, the so-called Dixson Chest, a sort of mirror image, constructed either before or after (or, more likely, at the same time, as the Macquarie), which turned up in London in the 1930s sans most of the contents of its drawers; it has also, disastrously, had its Lycett panels ‘restored’ by some well-meaning vandal.

The Macquarie Chest is an amazing thing; yet I peered into the cube in a state of frustration: you couldn’t get up close to the painted surfaces and you couldn’t then step back and let them resolve; you had to perch, as it were, with your nose against the glass, looking at each work from an oblique or an acute angle. Not all of the panels were shown; just as not all of the drawers were open. It was maddening to learn that the eight bird and animal panels, which can be displayed together, make a three-part panorama of Newcastle, the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie; exasperating to have to pace around the transparent box trying to get a decent look at some of the more occluded drawers and display cases.

I could not help seeing an analogy with the artist himself, Joseph Lycett, a prisoner while he painted these illuminating works; now those works were themselves in a kind of captivity; while its guards had the untrammelled access I and other members of the public are denied. But that’s how it is with galleries, museums and libraries too—for the Macquarie Chest, and its pair the Dixson, are the property of the State Library of NSW. Newcastle folk, who believe the Macquarie Chest rightly belongs to them, have commissioned a modern day simulacrum which in this exhibition was displayed, en plein air, near its obsessively protected senior. The top features paintings by Philip Wolfhagen, including a Homage to JL; it is more art object than natural history display.

So who was Joseph Lycett? I didn’t know; but I did have, on my desk at home, a card from a previous exhibition at the Newcastle gallery, showing a reproduction of another of his paintings, the View on the Wingeecarrabee River. I had looked at it again and again over the two years since I’d picked it up: intrigued by the chunky way the rocks on the other side of the river had been—like Inca masonry—painted; and fascinated by the two tiny, bent figures in the foreground, one white, one black, running in pursuit of their two dogs, which were themselves chasing an upright kangaroo. I loved the feathery branches on the sheoak trees and, more generally, his take on Australian landscape : both exotic and familiar, a place seen through innocent eyes; as if Lycett, pace his older contemporary William Blake, had the doors of perception cleansed.

There was also, by my bed in Sydney, a book about him—one that had come to me as an unsolicited loan from a friend, one which I had not yet read. I’d leafed through it when it arrived, looking at the reproductions of paintings, which were various and not of a particularly high quality, then put it aside. Now I learned its owner wanted it back. The next day, Sunday, I took a train down to Summer Hill and, as I soon as I arrived, went and found the book; and began, using View on the Wingeecarrabee River as a bookmark, to read.

Joseph Lycett, Governor Macquarie’s convict artist by John Turner was published in 1997, the bicentenary of the European discovery of the Coal River in 1797. Turner was a historian with an interest in the local area; he taught for many years at the University of Newcastle. The inception of his book was curious: in 1982 Turner received a letter from one Michael Lycett, of Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex, a descendent of the artist, who was researching the life of his mysterious ancestor. Among the provocations for Michael Lycett’s research was the information that, early in the twentieth century, another Lycett descendent had been refused a job as butler to the Earl of Harrowby because of the recursive notoriety of his long-dead artist ancestor.

Turner’s book, still the only full biography, is well researched, detailed, often illuminating—and ultimately unsatisfying. This is because of a paucity of the kind of material from which biographies are usually written; indeed, it looks as if Joseph Lycett sought, wherever possible, to cover his tracks. To leave as little of himself behind as he could. He volunteered a bare minimum of information to those who were compiling official records; or else eluded altogether those who might have wished to document him or his activities. Towards the end of his preface, Turner writes of the inadequacy of the sources demanding a seemingly endless stream of ‘possibles’, ‘probables’ and ‘perhaps’s’.

This deliberate effacing of the self is all the more striking when you consider the rich legacy of art works Lycett left behind; one which continues to grow as more comes to light. When a major survey exhibition was curated in 2006, the catalogue featured 149 works and yet did not include, by any means, all those that the artist is known to have made; the Wallis album, for instance, had not yet been found. Most of these several hundred works were executed during a ten year period, that is, between Lycett’s arrival in New South Wales early in 1814 and his virtual disappearance from the record mid-way through the next decade, by which time he was back in England. There is a resonant silence around the life of the man responsible for this impressive oeuvre.

Turner’s research has been amplified by others, mostly professional art historians, in the nearly two decades since 1997; but very little of substance has been added to the biography. In some respects, all that has happened is a proliferation of those possibles and probables, those perhapses. After finishing Turner’s book, and then reading everything else I could find on the subject, I felt as frustrated as I had when trying to get a decent view of the Macquarie Chest locked away in that perspex cage in the gallery. There had to be some way of comprehending these mysteries, those enigmas : but how?

I returned twice more to the Newcastle gallery to see Treasures; on each occasion concentrating exclusively on Lycett’s works, whether collaborative or otherwise. One intriguing fact came to light : for most of their existence, paintings now known to be Lycett’s were attributed to others and particularly to his commandant, James Wallis, who, when he left New South Wales took with him in his baggage, along with the landscapes in the album, a number of other Lycett works, including some of the oil paintings. Still other works were assumed to be by another hand because they showed places in the colony that Lycett is not known to have visited.

There is a debate, for instance, as to whether he ever went to Tasmania, whose landscapes he painted with the same aptitude as those of his works that show scenes in New South Wales which he had, presumably, viewed. Turner, who believes he did go to what was then known as Van Diemen’s Land, also mentions in one place the alleged existence of a notebook. What price this document? I considered writing a version of it myself, as a fiction that might also constitute a forgery. After all, that was the crime for which Joseph Lycett had been transported : he was a forger, a counterfeiter of money.

For a forger, anonymity is a sine qua non. The success of your enterprise depends on two things: first, that no-one recognises that what you have made is counterfeit; second that, if someone does realise, they still won’t know who did it. So Lycett’s self-effacement as an artist has a paradoxical symmetry when aligned with his other profession, that of a forger. However, even a master counterfeiter might feel pride in his work and a corresponding need for recognition; while it is rare indeed for an artist not to seek some acknowledgement for his or her endeavours. Was there some correspondence between Lycett’s art works and the money he had, literally, made? Was the fidelity with which he painted landscapes he may not have seen linked to the forensic care with which he copied the banknotes that he had? What is the connection between art and forgery?

This question has exercised me for some time; and among my books on the subject was one that is apposite. The Forger’s Shadow by Nick Groom is a study of literary forgery in the hundred or so years between the birth of Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) and the death of Thomas Wainewright (1794-1847), dubbed the Poisoner, who was himself transported to Australia for his crimes. Groom’s study investigates the peculiar qualities of Romantic poetry’s relations with literary forgery. It intends, in Groom’s own words, to put poetry back into literary forgery, and forgery back into poetry.

Lycett’s dates are 1775-1828; he was thus a contemporary of some of the poets examined in Groom’s study. He was also, in a literal if not a literary sense, a forger. Is there more to his work than meets the eye? Some complexity that might illuminate the waste ground that lies between authenticity and its shadowy other? Which are, I suggest, entwined together like the mollusc and the shell; or the convict and his keeper. Or Australia Felix and its murky shadow. Truth and seeming are the yin and yang of our contested present as much as of our rich past and equivocal future. Some intrinsic accommodation, implied in Lycett’s work, might yet be stated.

After my third viewing of the show in Newcastle, on the train back to Sydney, a strange conviction overcame me. All at once, and indubitably, I felt I knew who Joseph Lycett was. I do not mean that I understood the construction, however fugitive, in the biographies; nor exactly the artist, although I do believe an artist’s personality can sometimes, not always, be found in or through the work. No, what I felt with a certainty that still surprises me, is that I knew the man. It was as if a ghostly hand came down the years and clasped itself in mine. As if a contract was signed or a pact made. Or, more precisely, as if a summons had been issued. I knew in that moment I would have to write about him.

image : Old Ouse Bridge, York; oil on panel; Joseph Lycett, c 1811

One of just two paintings known from his pre-transportation years in England

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from : Mortal Things


The drought over the years 1814-16 led to an increase in crop depredation, particularly by the Gandangara people, who would descend onto the plains from their fastnesses in the Southern Highlands and plunder corn from the settlers’ fields. Tribes from as far afield as Jervis Bay habitually moved inland in times of scarcity as well. The plains were the traditional lands of the Darug people but the situation was complicated by the fact that both they and their coastal cousins, the Eora, had been decimated by disease, mainly smallpox, over the first two decades of European settlement.

In the vacuum so created, the Dharawal, another coastal people, whose traditional lands also encroached upon the south-west portion of the Cumberland Plains, had developed a largely peaceable, mutually supportive relationship with local settlers, particularly in Airds and Appin. When the Gandangara came looking for food, Dharawal people took refuge on the farms of friendly settlers; and also attempted to arrive at some accommodation with the interlopers on behalf of both the settlers and themselves.

Macquarie’s Aboriginal policy had since his arrival been conciliatory and in some respects enlightened; as was his early response to a new era of conflict. In December 1814 he founded a school at Parramatta for Aboriginal children and at the same time initiated, on the 28th, an annual feast at which the people of the district, both black and white, mingled, received gifts and exchanged entertainments. The next month, January 1815, he made the first ever land grant to indigenous people, returning to sixteen families, including that of his Eora friend Bungaree, some acres at Georges Head on the north shore of Sydney Harbour.

This was followed by other grants, notably at Black’s Town, now Blacktown, in Sydney’s west. His hope that an incorrigibly nomadic people would settle upon these tiny parcels of land to garden and to farm was, however, wholly mistaken. Another aspect of the realpolitik behind the grants—that they might operate to get Aboriginals off the streets of Sydney—was equally misguided; and later, in 1816, he decided to ban from the town the recurrent ‘contests’, during which ritual fights took place over a number of days. This despite the fact that these rehearsals of traditional law, while robust and confronting, were considered a fine spectacle by most townsfolk.

However, his initial low-key response to the emerging pattern of indigenous crop theft, settler retaliation, followed by revenge attacks and further depredations by the Aboriginals, inevitably leading to more reprisals, soon hardened into a resolve to settle the matter once and for all. Early in 1816 he conceived the plan of sending detachments of troops out into the troubled areas, with orders to pacify the land. His instructions were clear: the soldiers were to take prisoner all Aboriginal people they found, to shoot any who refused to surrender and to hang them in trees. They were also to bring back eighteen small children for the Native Institution (the school) at Parramatta.

When, two years earlier, Macquarie authorized civilian militias to act against crop thieves, he distinguished between the peaceful Darug and Dharawal, who were not to be harassed, and the warlike Gandangara, who were; no such distinction was made now. Nor were women and children excepted although they were, if possible, to be spared. Macquarie wrote that the Native Blacks of this Country, having for the last three years manifested a strong and sanguinary hostile spirit, in repeated instances of murders outrages and depredations of all descriptions against white settlers residing in the Interior, I felt myself compelled to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments. Effectively, the plains were to be cleared of Aboriginal people. It was an early example of the notorious policy of dispersal.

What followed was farcical. Captain Schaw was sent north and west towards the headwaters of the Hawkesbury River to scour the Evan lands and the Grose along the Nepean marches. Lieutenant Dawe marched down into the Cowpastures and the Illawarra; both these men commanded light companies. Captain Wallis, with a detachment of more heavily armed grenadiers, was given the most troublesome sector, the new country of Airds and Appin. The three forces were to meet at the conclusion of the operation at Woodhouse’s farm on the Appin Road. Neither Dawe nor Schaw managed to find, let along engage, any Aboriginal people at all, probably because the extant networks effectively subverted Macquarie’s intent. They were sent on wild goose chases by their Aboriginal and settler guides that tied them up and exhausted them.

Wallis, however, at the farm of a settler called John Kennedy, noticed among the Dharawal people sitting down there, two of the five named as wanted men: Yallaman and Battagalie. Kennedy and another settler, Hamilton Hume, asserted their right to be there and argued that they were helping to protect the property. Wallis left in some confusion and soon afterwards was abandoned by his guides—a convict called John Warby, sympathetic to the Aboriginals, and two likewise reluctant Dharawal men, Budbury and Bundle. Nevertheless, after the return of Warby and a tip off from a man named Tyson, he found, in the early hours of April 17th,  above the Cataract River at Appin, an Aboriginal, probably Dharawal, encampment.

The fires were burning but deserted, Wallis wrote in his report. A few of my men heard a child cry. I formed line ranks, entered and pushed on through a thick brush towards the precipitous banks of a deep rocky creek. The dogs gave the alarm and the natives fled over the cliffs. It was moonlight. I regret to say some (were) shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice. Fourteen dead bodies were counted in different directions. How many met their deaths as they rushed shrieking and terrified over adjacent precipices, nobody knew for certain. Women and children were among the dead.

Five prisoners were taken, one of whom was later banished to Van Diemen’s Land in remittance of the death sentence imposed upon him. Two other men, Gandangara warriors Durelle and Cannabayagal, were captured nearby, hanged, as per Macquarie’s instructions, from trees, their bodies left to rot as a warning to others, their heads hacked off and taken back as trophies. Wallis’ men had with them special bags made precisely for this purpose. The heads were sent to Edinburgh and remained there, ‘for scientific study’, until 1991. Dawe, Schaw and Wallis each received fifteen gallons of rum for their exertions over the twenty-three days of the operation; their lieutenants got ten gallons; the guides, NCOs and soldiers were given half a pint. Cash and clothing was also distributed among the troops.

Wallis was not happy about what he had done. In his report he lamented this melancholy but necessary duty and expressed regret at the deaths of women and children. How deep the wounds went is difficult to say but it isn’t too much to suggest that the relatively enlightened policies he showed towards the Awabakal and Worimi during his time at Newcastle stemmed from the need to make amends for this traumatic event. By the same token, the operation, which Macquarie claimed as a military success, was one of the factors leading to Wallis’ appointment as Commandant. The Governor praised his zealous exertions and strict attention to the fulfilling of the instructions on this delicate but very important service.

image : Joseph Lycett : View on the Worrogoomboo River about 90 miles from Sydney

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Summer 1967

Summer brings out the girls in their green dresses

Whom the foolish might compare to daffodils,

Not seeing how a dead grandmother in each one governs her limbs,

Darkening the bright corolla, using her lips to speak through,

Or that a silver torque was woven out of

The roots of wet speargrass.


The young are mastered by the Dead,

Lacking cunning. But on the beaches, under the clean wind

That blows this way from the mountains of Peru,

Drunk with the wind and the silence, not moving an inch

As the surf-swimmers mount on yoked waves,

One can begin to shake with laughter,

Becoming oneself a metal Neptune.


To want nothing is

The only possible freedom. But I prefer to think of

An afternoon spent drinking rum and cloves

In a little bar, just after the rain had started, in another time

Before we began to die – the taste of boredom on the tongue

Easily dissolving, and the lights coming on –

With what company? I forget.


Where can we find the right

Herbs, drinks, bandages to cover

These lifelong intolerable wounds?

Herbs of oblivion, they lost their power to help us

The day that Aphrodite touched her mouth to ours.


James K Baxter

from Runes, 1973

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There’s a story that a unique, the authentic, version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam went down with the Titanic. I don’t know if that is true or not; but it is certainly the case that a package containing the manuscript of Joseph Conrad’s 1897 tale Karain was aboard and lost in the shipwreck. It was on its way to New York because John Quinn, Irish American, corporate lawyer, art collector, and aficionado of original mansucripts, had bought it, as he bought many other Conrad mss. Conrad replaced the drowned script with that of another story, The Informer.

Karain was important to him because it was the first thing he published in Blackwood’s Magazine, which paid him 40 pounds: it proved a lucrative association. In those days magazine publication was far more remunerative than book publication. And Conrad, like so many other writers of the time, usually published his longer works in installments in magazines anyway. This could lead to complications, especially in a writer as slow-working and highly-strung as Conrad was. Once, when he stalled in the writing of Nostromo, and the next excerpt was due, Ford Madox Heuffer, his sometime collaborator, undertook to write enough pages to satisfy the magazine in question, T.P.’s Weekly – and did so. He managed to imitate the master’s style without significantly advancing, or altering, the plot.

Conrad was initially optimistic about Karain. ‘A Malay thing. It will be easy and may bring in a few pence.’ This soon changed. ‘That infernal story. I can’t shake myself free of it, though I don’t like it – never shall! But I can get rid of it only by finishing it coûte que coûte.‘ Later, when he sent the beginning of the story to Edward Garnett for comment, he wrote: ‘If you say ‘Burn!’ I will burn – and won’t hate you. But if you say ‘Correct – Alter!’ I won’t do it – but shall hate you henceforth and forever!’ In the event he did accept Garnett’s criticisms, and revised accordingly.

Although Karain is set amongst Bugis people in an unamed part of island South-East Asia – somewhere on the shores of the Straits of Macassar – the main plot of the story comes from a Polish ballad, Czaty (The Ambush) by Adam Mickiewicz, whose verses Joseph’s father, Apollo, used to read to him aloud when he was a boy. Typically, however, there is another dimension to this tale, which resolves as a savagely ironic, Kiplingesque fable about superstition; and a framing story too, which contrasts events in the archipelago with life in London. Karain ends in a profoundly dystopic view of the metropolis; not that its view of island life is any more comforting:

‘”The sea met us—the sea, wide, pathless, and without voice. A sailing prau leaves no track. We went south. The moon was full; and, looking up, we said to one another, ‘When the next moon shines as this one, we shall return and they will be dead.’ It was fifteen years ago. Many moons have grown full and withered, and I have not seen my land since. We sailed south; we overtook many praus; we examined the creeks and the bays; we saw the end of our coast, of our island—a steep cape over a disturbed strait, where drift the shadows of shipwrecked praus and drowned men clamour in the night. The wide sea was all round us now. We saw a great mountain burning in the midst of water; we saw thousands of islets scattered like bits of iron fired from a big gun; we saw a long coast of mountain and lowlands stretching away in sunshine from west to east. It was Java. We said, ‘they are there; their time is near, and we shall return or die cleansed from dishonour.’

“We landed. Is there anything good in that country? The paths run straight and hard and dusty. Stone campongs, full of white faces, are surrounded by fertile fields, but every man you meet is a slave. The rulers live under the edge of a foreign sword. We ascended mountains, we traversed valleys; at sunset we entered villages. We asked every one, ‘Have you seen such a white man?’ Some stared; others laughed; women gave us food, sometimes, with fear and respect, as though we had been distracted by the visitation of God; but some did not understand our language, and some cursed us, or, yawning, asked with contempt the reason of our quest. Once, as we were going away, an old man called after us, ‘Desist!’

“We went on. Concealing our weapons, we stood humbly aside before the horsemen on the road; we bowed low in the courtyards of chiefs who were no better than slaves. We lost ourselves in the fields, in the jungle; and one night, in a tangled forest, we came upon a place where crumbling old walls had fallen amongst the trees, and where strange stone idols—carved images of devils with many arms and legs, with snakes twined round their bodies, with twenty heads and holding a hundred swords—seemed to live and threaten in the light of our camp-fire . . .

“We came back to the coast. Our feet were bleeding, our bodies thin. We slept in rags under the shadow of stone enclosures; we prowled, soiled and lean, about the gateways of white men’s courtyards. Their hairy dogs barked at us, and their servants shouted from afar, ‘Begone!’ Low-born wretches, that keep watch over the streets of stone campongs, asked us who we were. We lied, we cringed, we smiled with hate in our hearts, and we kept looking here, looking there, for them—for the white man with hair like flame, and for her, for the woman who had broken faith, and therefore must die . . .

“We sold the carved sheaths of our krisses—the ivory sheaths with golden ferules. We sold the jeweled hilts. But we kept the blades—for them. The blades that never touch but kill—we kept the blades for her . . . Why? She was always by our side . . . We starved. We begged. We left Java at last.

“We went West, we went East. We saw many lands, crowds of strange faces, men that live in trees and men who eat their old people. We cut rattans in the forest for a handful of rice, and for a living swept the decks of big ships and heard curses heaped upon our heads. We toiled in villages; we wandered upon the seas with the Bajow people, who have no country. We fought for pay; we hired ourselves to work for Coram men, and were cheated; and under the orders of rough white faces we dived for pearls in barren bays, dotted with black rocks, upon a coast of sand and desolation. And everywhere we watched, we listened, we asked. We asked traders, robbers, white men. We heard jeers, mockery, threats—words of wonder and words of contempt. We never knew rest; we never thought of home, for our work was not done. A year passed, then another. I ceased to count the number of nights, of moons, of years.”‘

This sounds like one of those crazy Rimbaldian journeys, both those imagined in the literary work and those accomplished in the real world, whose warrant is the letters sent home to the farmhouse at Roche from Aden or Abyssinia or Djibouti or Cairo. The metropolitan passages towards the end of Karain are just as eerie; they are like outtakes from Illuminations. The narrator has met in the street one of his shipmates from his island days, a man called Jackson, whom he thinks has been too long away:

‘A watery gleam of sunshine flashed from the west, and went out between two long lines of walls; and then the broken confusion of roofs, the chimney-stacks, the gold letters sprawling over the fronts of houses, the sombre polish of windows, stood resigned and sullen under the falling gloom. The whole length of the street, deep as a well and narrow like a corridor, was full of a sombre and ceaseless stir. Our ears were filled by a headlong shuffle and beat of rapid footsteps and an underlying rumour—a rumour vast, faint, pulsating, as of panting breaths, of beating hearts, of gasping voices. Innumerable eyes stared straight in front, feet moved hurriedly, blank faces flowed, arms swung. Over all, a narrow ragged strip of smoky sky wound about between the high roofs, extended and motionless, like a soiled streamer flying above the rout of a mob.

“Ye-e-e-s,” said Jackson, meditatively.

The big wheels of hansoms turned slowly along the edge of side-walks; a pale-faced youth strolled, overcome by weariness, by the side of his stick and with the tails of his overcoat flapping gently near his heels; horses stepped gingerly on the greasy pavement, tossing their heads; two young girls passed by, talking vivaciously and with shining eyes; a fine old fellow strutted, red-faced, stroking a white moustache; and a line of yellow boards with blue letters on them approached us slowly, tossing on high behind one another like some queer wreckage adrift upon a river of hats.

“Ye-e-es,” repeated Jackson. His clear blue eyes looked about, contemptuous, amused and hard, like the eyes of a boy. A clumsy string of red, yellow, and green omnibuses rolled swaying, monstrous and gaudy; two shabby children ran across the road; a knot of dirty men with red neckerchiefs round their bare throats lurched along, discussing filthily; a ragged old man with a face of despair yelled horribly in the mud the name of a paper; while far off, amongst the tossing heads of horses, the dull flash of harnesses, the jumble of lustrous panels and roofs of carriages, we could see a policeman, helmeted and dark, stretching out a rigid arm at the crossing of the streets.’

(pic is a page from a Conrad manuscript; in this case Heart of Darkness)

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Drunken Boats & Running Guns




If it seems unlikely that Joseph Conrad and Arthur Rimbaud should have met in Marseilles in June of 1875—then it is. Rimbaud, born October 20, 1854, was three years older than Conrad and had, most likely, by that time already completed the entirety of the literary writing for which he is known. He had been travelling in Italy, to learn the language, and was afflicted with sunstroke while walking between Siena and Leghorn—there was said to be a foot of dust in the road—where he was rescued by the French consul of Livorno, put up for two days at the Stella Hotel, given three francs and twenty centimes and found a berth on steamer heading for France. He disembarked at Marseilles and collapsed again.

While recuperating in the hospital he decided to enlist as a mercenary with the Carlist rebel army, which was trying to install their leader, the pretender Don Carlos, on the Spanish throne. Rimbaud signed up at a recruiting office in Marseilles, received a small amount of money and was given instructions as to how to join his regiment in Spain. The Carlists were about to suffer a series of bloody defeats; wisely, instead of crossing the Pyrenees, Rimbaud went to the railway station and used the money to buy a ticket to Paris; perhaps that had always been his plan. He had been in Marseilles about a week.

Conrad, meanwhile, born December 3, 1857, was not yet eighteen years of age and had just returned from his first trans-Atlantic voyage, from Marseilles to the West Indies and back again, in an ancient leaky barque called the Mont-Blanc. He went as a passenger, apparently, but may have worked the return passage, from St. Pierre in Martinique, as a member of the crew. He already had some experience in pilot boats, bringing ships in and out of the harbour. When the Mont-Blanc again sailed for the Caribbean, only a few weeks later, he went with her as an apprentice seaman. The ship called at St Pierre again, at St Thomas in the Dutch Virgin islands, at Haiti (presumably Port-au-Prince), before sailing for Le Havre with a cargo of sugar and timber. The young Polish sailor took a train back to Marseilles and spent the next six months ashore, doing what we do not know.

So there is just that week in June, 1875, during which the two could have met; it seems unlikely. Some of the time Rimbaud was in hospital; and signing up for the Carlist adventure must have occupied at least another day. The man with the wind at his heels might not have lingered long enough to satisfy hopeful literary speculations. Conrad, presumably, was busy anyway, preparing for his next voyage. But the Carlist connection is interesting because, in later years, Conrad claimed he had helped run guns to the Carlists, from Marseilles onto the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in a small ship he calls, in his reminiscences, the Tremolino (no ship of that name is known to have been in Marseilles at the time).

A further problem is that he locates this activity in 1877, by which point the Carlist cause was irretrievably lost and guns could not have been sold in the manner Conrad says that they were. It is possible, however, that he did take part in some sort of smuggling of contraband (brandy? cigars?) into Spain; but the motive was likely to have been purely commercial and not work in the service of some noble, if doomed, cause. It’s possible too that he did help run guns, not into Spain but into Colombia, or else one of the Central American republics, during his next voyage to the Caribbean: in a newer, smarter barque, the Saint-Antoine, in which he sailed as Steward between July 1876 and February 1877.

The Saint-Antoine visited Cartagena in Colombia and Puerto Cabello and La Guayra in Venezuela, as well as St Pierre, St. Thomas and Haiti; but Conrad recalled, many years later, a voyage in a ship that does not seem to have been either the Mont-Blanc or the Saint-Antoine: ‘an extremely small and extremely dirty little schooner, during a four days’ passage between two places in the Gulf of Mexico whose names don’t matter.’ Was this the gun-running expedition? Some people think so. Mind you, if it was indeed in the Gulf, rather than the Caribbean, the voyage must have been to, or from, somewhere in Mexico, Cuba or the United States, not Colombia or Central America. Vera Cruz, perhaps. Havana.

The putative Carlist adventure might then have been a conflation of two separate enterprises, one to sell guns to insurgents somewhere in the Americas, the other to sell contraband into Spain. On both adventures Conrad was in the company of the Corsican, Dominique Cervoni, the model for Nostromo, and a much younger man of the same surname who was thought to be, but was not, Dominique’s nephew. It was this man, César, who is alleged to have betrayed the Tremolino on her third and final voyage, causing Dominique to run her aground on the rocks of a Mediterranean island. This may be a fiction. Conrad, like Rimbaud, was a compulsive mythomaniac who nevertheless always attested to the truth of his fabrications. This is of course a common trait in writers.

Rimbaud’s next adventure, the next year, 1876, while Conrad was sailing on the Saint-Antoine, was into the east as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army. He enlisted in Brussels and, with a large amount of money in his pocket (300 florins), went by ship from Rotterdam via Southampton, Naples, Suez, Aden and across the Indian Ocean to Batavia on the island of Java. And thence to Samarang, a port the sailor Conrad would, a decade later, come to know. At Salatiga, in the hill country behind Samarang, where his battalion had gone for further training, Rimbaud deserted.

No-one knows what he did next (he might have gone to Australia); he said he spent a month ‘wandering through Java’. He can’t have gone very far; he was probably the Edwin Holmes who sailed as a crew member on an English ship, The Wandering Chief, which left Samarang at the end of August, only two weeks after Rimbaud’s desertion, bound for the Irish port of Queenstown. His own gun-running exploits were still in the future.

Meanwhile Conrad had found out that, if he wanted to continue to sail with the French merchant marine, he would have to register with the civic authorities—as a Russian citizen which, much to his disgust, he was. And that would mean that when he turned twenty-one he would become liable for Russian military service: onerous, long-lasting and, for Poles, inconceivably humiliating. This is probably why he joined an English steamer, the Mavis, in Marseilles and ended up, after a voyage across the Black Sea to Yeysk on the Sea of Azov to pick up a cargo of linseed, in Lowestoft, England.

It was June 10, 1878. Rimbaud was about to set out for Africa. He was still there in 1890, when Conrad made his epochal, disastrous excursion, partly on land, partly by water, up the Congo to Stanleyville (Kisangani) in the service of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo.


So they probably did not meet in person in Marseilles or anywhere else; but their trajectories, though opposite, are startlingly congruent. Rimbaud imagined a life which he then went on to lead; Conrad lived a life which he then went on to imagine. They are like mirrors; or strange attractors. And they certainly met on the page. Or at least, that’s where Conrad met Rimbaud.

On August 27, 1898, writing to his friend, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Conrad remarked, surely ironically, in a postscript: ‘Can’t understand Rimbaud at all. You overrate my intelligence. Je suis bon qu’a lire Cyrano and such like cogioneries.’ Later, in 1899, he wrote ‘I happen to know Rimbaud’s verses.’ He had just praised an article that appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in February of that year, called A Vagabond Poet, by Charles Whibley.

The history of the publication of Rimbaud’s writing is convoluted; but a few suppositions might be made. Rimbaud published Une Saison en Enfer himself in 1873 but it did not circulate widely; the entire edition, apart from six author’s copies, remained, unpaid for, with the printer in Brussels. They were worth a franc a copy. Verlaine published an incomplete edition of Les Illuminations in Paris in 1886. In 1895, he edited Rimbaud’s Poésies Complète, published by Léon Vanier, also in Paris. Three years later, in 1898, Oeuvres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, edited by Paterne Berrichon and Ernest Delahaye, came out from the Société du Mercure de France.

It was revised and enlarged as Oeuvres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud: Vers et proses, revues sur les manuscrits originaux et les premières éditions, mises en ordre et annotées and republished by Mercure in 1916. Conrad might have known any or all of these, with the probable exception of Une Saison en Enfer. He might also have read Rimbaud’s scientific despatches from Abyssinia, published by the Société de Géographie in the late 1880s and the 1890s.

Conrad was of course a fluent speaker of French, in the habit of writing letters in that language, and widely read in its literature. Molière, Flaubert, Anatole France, Maupassant, Zola were (he said) among his favourite authors. The poet Saint-John Perse was a personal friend; he corresponded with André Gide for many years, knew Paul Valéry and Maurice Ravel after the war. He read Proust’s magnum opus in the early 1920s and proclaimed him a master, extolling his ‘veiled greatness’.

Conrad’s aunt, Marguerite Poradowska, actually his cousin by marriage, was a novelist living in Paris, writing in French (she was a niece of Dr. Paul Gachet) and might well have been the connection that led him to Rimbaud: but there is a five year hiatus, between 1895 and 1900, in their otherwise extensive correspondence. Poradowska apparently destroyed those letters Conrad had written to her, for reasons which are unclear, but which may have had to do with some sort of romantic entanglement that ended badly or failed. Hers to him are not extant either: perhaps she asked for them back and burned them too.

Nevertheless it is likely that Conrad was reading Rimbaud at the time when he wrote, not his earliest works—Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896)—but during the composition of his first sea tales, The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) and Youth (1898), as well as Heart of Darkness (1899). Youth is the story that introduces Charles Marlow—‘(at least I think that is how he spelt his name)’—as narrator; he also narrates Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim (1900), as well as the 1913 breakthrough book (commercially speaking) Chance.

He, Marlow, is a kind of practical application of Rimbaud’s famous dictum Je est un autre and allowed Conrad to speak freely in another voice without implicating himself in experiences that were, to some extent at least, autobiographical. At least one of Rimbaud’s famous Lettres du Voyant was published in Verlaine’s 1895 edition of the poems and this is, I think, the text that Conrad is most likely to have read.

Of all of the early stories it is Youth that sounds most Rimbaldian on the ear. It is a lightly fictionalised account of a disastrous voyage Conrad made in 1881-2 on a ship called the Palestine (in the story she is the Judea). The Palestine was nearly wrecked twice even before leaving English waters; and off the east coast of Sumatra (she was headed for Bangkok), between the island of Bangka and the mainland, her load of coal spontaneously combusted and the crew had to take to the boats and row for their lives, leaving the ship burning then sinking behind them.

Conrad makes out of the story Marlow’s introduction to, not so much adulthood, as the title might suggest, as to the East. It includes rhapsodic passages that seem to me to have their source, not simply in Conrad’s memories of his younger days at sea but in the delirious verses of Le Bateau Ivre. I can’t prove this and I’m not going to try. But here is a representative section of the prose of Youth, taken from near the end of what is really quite a short tale:

‘And then I saw the men of the East—they were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the colour of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement. They stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at night had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved. The fronds of palms stood still against the sky. Not a branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves forged of heavy metal. This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise. And these were the men. I sat up suddenly. A wave of movement passed through the crowd from end to end, passed along the heads, swayed the bodies, ran along the jetty like a ripple on the water, like a breath of wind on a field—and all was still again. I see it now—the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of vivid colour—the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating still, and the three boats with tired men from the West sleeping unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine. They slept thrown across the thwarts, curled on bottom-boards, in the careless attitudes of death. The head of the old skipper, leaning back in the stern of the long-boat, had fallen on his breast, and he looked as though he would never wake. Farther out old Mahon’s face was upturned to the sky, with the long white beard spread out on his breast, as though he had been shot where he sat at the tiller; and a man, all in a heap in the bows of the boat, slept with both arms embracing the stem-head and with his cheek laid on the gunwale. The East looked at them without a sound.

‘I have known its fascinations since: I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it.’


Images : JC 1874; AR 1871 (when they were each 17)

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