Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lost Artists: Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall

Neglected artists are much harder to rediscover even than neglected authors. A rather unusual case is that of Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall (1862-1942), who was a successful society portrait painter for about twenty years, from the early Eighteen Nineties to the outbreak of the First World War, but went on (according to one source) to paint vast mystical abstracts.

Amongst his pictures is a pastel portrait of Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) in 1899, now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. The artist exhibited widely, in London, Dublin, Paris and especially Berlin.

Horsfall had a British father and a German mother: the genealogy of the Mendelssohn family mentions Alexandrine Mendelssohn (1833-1900) married to a John Horsfall. He was born in Germany and grew up there, and seems to have spent more time there than anywhere else. A 1924 German art encyclopaedia (Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Kunstler) lists him as "living in Germany since his youth".

Nevertheless, he was interned by Germany during the Great War in the Ruehlben prison camp, where records show that he sketched fellow prisoners, and contributed to the publications that the inmates contrived to produce. In the Scotsman newspaper of April 12th 1916, he is noted as having contributed to the Prisoners' Pie annual, printed in Ruhleben. He also contributed drawings to the Ruhleben Camp Magazine. Following the war, his work was included in a 1919 exhibition of work created at the camp, and he sold some to the Crown Princess of Sweden.

In 1923, the author and journalist Herbert Vivian published his memoirs under the pseudonym of ‘X’ (Myself Not Least, Being the Personal Memoirs of ‘X’, Henry Holt, USA: the first British edition was from Thornton Butterworth in 1925). Vivian was himself a colourful character, involved in the romantic Jacobite circles of the Eighteen Nineties, who, owing to his services to certain royal families of South Eastern Europe, had been made a Knight of the Royal Servian Order of Tokovo, and an Officer of The Royal Montenegrin Order of Danilo. Under another pseudonym, he was the author of a Shielian world-conspiracy thriller, The Master Sinner (1901).

In his memoirs, he devotes a few paragraphs to Horsfall, describing him as a “Bohemian acquaintance”, and giving an account of him immediately after his recollections of Aleister Crowley. The artist came back from the camp, he says, “under the influence of [occult] spirits”.

Horsfall, says ‘X’, believed he was under the protection of an ancient Egyptian priest, and “took to doing extraordinary whorls on huge canvasses, closing his eyes and applying his colour by wild confusion of circles, for instance, was a map of the New Jerusalem.” Horsfall, in short, had changed from a painter of precise studio portraits to a strange visionary. Vivian may have been right in attributing the artist’s transformation to the prison camp, but if so this must have developed mostly afterwards. For in the camp he made pencil sketch portraits that are perfectly conventional.

But after this, Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall vanishes from view. None of the work described by Vivian seems to have surfaced in any major gallery or auction. We are left with this tantalising evocation of an artist utterly changed, with work that sounds dramatically different to his earlier portraits, but seemingly undiscoverable.

Mark Valentine

Picture: Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum
by Charles Mendelssohn Horsfall; pastel, octagonal, 1899;
given by Sir Lees Knowles, 1916. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

WORMWOOD 22 - M R James, Ballard, Gissing, A C Benson & more

Wormwood 22 is now available and should be with subscribers by next week. We’re pleased to present 92 pages of original discussion on the literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent, including:

Emily Foster on M R James and the Psalms of Solomon: a source for ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’?

Doug Anderson on Phyllis Paul’s “remarkably assured” first novel; and news of a lost faery romance

Reggie Oliver on J G Ballard – “a relentlessly unusual mind” – and more

Peter Bell on seven superb tales of a Pennsylvanian antiquarian: why so overlooked?

Adam Daly on George Gissing – ‘The life you are now leading is that of the damned’

Tim Foley on A C Benson – a dark imagination worth encountering. And was he the mysterious 'B'?

Philip Ellis on beauty and tragedy in Flecker's poetry

John Howard on William Rosencrans, Adam S. Cantwell, The Secret Knowledge and more

Mark Valentine

Monday, April 28, 2014

A N L Munby on Ben Jonson's Books

The discussion about ‘Shakespeare’s Dictionary’ prompts the question of whether many books known to have been owned by eminent literary figures from the 16th and 17th century do in fact survive. The answer is provided in a fascinating paper by A.N.L. Munby, on ‘The Libraries of English Men of Letters’.

This was originally a lecture given to the Library Association on 29 October, 1964: it was collected in his Essays and Papers (1977). Munby was the author of what might very well be regarded as one of the best collection of antiquarian ghost stories written in emulation of M.R. James, The Alabaster Hand (1949). But he was also the distinguished Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge, and a devoted book-collector, bibliographer and antiquarian, with a particular interest in unexplored literary byways.

Munby’s bookish explorations around the country were assisted by a half-ownership in a 1925 Bugatti, acquired from selling two medieval manuscripts he had found. He related in another paper in his collection, ‘Book Collecting in the 1930s’ (originally published in the TLS of 11 May 1973), that “one of the gaskets, which kept on blowing, was finally found to be responsive to vellum, and a thick leaf from a water-stained and ruined Antiphonal was cut up for the purpose”. When admirers asked him the car’s age, he was able to reply, with studied nonchalance: “parts of it date back to the fifteenth century.”

In his paper on writers’ libraries, he first notes that there are no extant books known to have been owned by any English literary figure from the Middle Ages, such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland or Skelton. The earliest books relevant to his theme that he has noted do not start until the early 16th century: for example, a few survive with the signature of Nicholas Udall, the author of Ralph Roister-Doister.

But soon survivals start to become more frequent, even if these are uneven, and quite an array belonging to Shakespeare’s contemporaries can be identified. The most notable of these are the books of Ben Jonson. Munby notes that Jonson’s books “are readily identifiable since they normally bear his name upon the title-page and the motto ‘Tanquam explorator’” (approximately, “[I go] as an explorer”) . He further observes that “additional books from Jonson’s library turn up continuously.” As a keen collector himself, he then relates rather wistfully a couple of anecdotes about how he narrowly missed acquiring Jonson books himself.

The researches he cites, by Percy Simpson, had up to that point identified over 200 books with Jonson’s ownership marks in them. Munby explains that Jonson’s library was known to his contemporaries as impressive, helped by an annual gift of £20 on New Year’s Day, from his patron Lord Herbert, to buy books. Many of Jonson’s books are copiously annotated, with very characteristic marginal comments.

What sort of books did Jonson have? Munby provides an outline. As well as Greek and Latin classics, his library included “belles lettres, science, history and antiquities and, as might be expected since Jonson himself was the author of a grammar, there was quite a substantial section of books on languages.” Further, there were editions of poetry, plays, essays and courtly romances. He also owned five medieval manuscripts, one of them a magical treatise, Opus de arte magico (etc), attributed to King Solomon.

The other Shakespearian contemporaries whose books Munby's survey shows have survived in some measure include Sir John Harington, John Donne (and one of his had also once belonged to Jonson), Robert Burton and Francis Bacon, whose volumes are embossed with the armorial emblem of a boar. The probability is, of course, that there are other books that once belonged to men of letters of the time that have not yet been identified, since they do not have the clear signs of ownership adopted by Jonson or Bacon. Attributing those will always involve an element of conjecture, and sometimes the slenderest of clues.

Mark Valentine

Picture: Ben Jonson. After Abraham van Blyenberch, 1618.
©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Patrick Carleton, Thirties Novelist

In a contribution to a mailing of the ghost story correspondence society The Everlasting Club (new members welcome), the eminent anthologist and scholar of the field Richard Dalby revealed his researches into the little-known author of a single Jamesian tale, ‘Dr Horder’s Room’. This was Patrick Carleton, whose story of the malevolent spectre of a Cambridge Master of College was published in the anthology Thrills (Philip Allan, 1935), and reprinted in Ghosts and Scholars (1987), edited by Richard with Rosemary Pardoe. As Richard noted, Carleton had also written novels for Allan, and so that must have been how he came to be included in the collection. But who was Patrick Carleton?

Richard noticed that one of Carleton’s novels was dedicated to the actor Michael Redgrave, and was able to discover more about him by consulting biographies of Redgrave. These revealed that Carleton was the slightly disguised pen-name of Patrick Railton (1907-42), known to his friends as Paddy. He is described as “a frequently heavy boozer and often wildly funny”. Richard further established that “he was invalided out of the army in 1941 and (spending his last months in a sanatorium in Ruthin, North Wales) died of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942.” As well as his novels, Carleton had written a study of ancient history, Buried Empires – The Earliest Civilisations of the Middle East (1939). As Richard noted, this had involved him in travels similar to those of Dr Horder in his story.

Doug Anderson was able to add to Richard’s work an explanation of the Carleton pseudonym, identifying that the author’s full name was Patrick Carleton Railton. He also noted that his father was Cecil Carleton Railton, who died in 1944, only two years after his son, while his mother Daisy (1879-1969) was long-lived, and renewed the copyrights on her son’s novels in the US in the 1950s and 60s.

Prompted by these revelations, I looked for Patrick Carleton’s novels. The first I tried, Desirable Young Men (1932) was very striking. The early part is about vivacious, rather precious young undergraduates at interwar Cambridge, with a distinct sense of E F Benson’s college novels, and even a tinge of the camp wit of Ronald Firbank, presumably reflecting Carleton’s own milieu. Though exuberant and witty, it might deter some readers as being a trifle too arch, but the book takes a darker turn in the final third, revealing the youthful hardships, and proud inner life, of the main dilettante figure of the earlier chapters.

Denied a Fellowship on grounds of character, he becomes a recluse in the bleak Peak District, Derbyshire, living in a village close to a thinly-disguised Buxton, and researches medieval witchcraft and paganism. This part, with its evocation of the haggard terrain, is very Machenesque - I'd be surprised if Carleton had not read him. Nothing supernatural happens, but the mood is most sinister.

His brooding scholar falls into obsession and personal neglect, though a worldly doctor befriends and seeks to ‘rescue’ him, rather as the local doctor tries to nurture Lucian Taylor in Machen’s The Hill of Dreams. But whether Machen was an influence or not, Baron Corvo evidently was: “Fr Rolfe’s Adrian VII (sic)” is evoked with approval. This second part of the book presents an interesting and abrupt change in tone, even if it makes for a slightly awkward structure. Though ultimately it doesn’t quite work, the book is exceptionally well written, bold and confident.

A second contemporary novel, The Hawk and The Tree (1934), follows a down-at-heel educated young man on a picaresque journey around England, including stints as a tramp, barman, circus hand, and in other casual jobs. It has deft and memorable portrayals of unusual minor characters he meets on the way, and gives an insight into the devil-may-care mood of subsistence England in the interwar years, again presumably based on Carleton’s own experiences.

His next, Saturday to Monday (1935), is about the intertwining lives of an impoverished but genteel young bank clerk, and an archaeologist returned from the Near East after an injury, and now director of a museum. It includes some brisk, realistic “interior monologue” in which we see into a character’s swiftly-rushing, unguarded thoughts. The technique could be trying if over-used, but Carleton keeps such passages succinct and to the point. The plot is perhaps somewhat too tentative, but once again the authorial bravado rather carries one along.

His final novel, No Stone Unturned (1939), is, on a first reading anyway, less successful: its protagonist is a young American (somewhat unsurely depicted) who has been sent to research family roots in the Peak District by a wealthy Aunt of whom he has expectations. It is notable though, especially for the period, for its sympathetic portrait of a cultured young Jewish diamond merchant.

Carleton’s remaining two novels, One Breath (1934), about a family of travelling showmen, and Under the Hog (1937), about the times of Richard III, are historical romances I have yet to read. It is clear, however, that even if none of his full length fiction is exactly fantastical, Carleton certainly ought to be better-known among aficionados of unusual literature.

Checklist of Books by Patrick Carleton

Desirable Young Men (Philip Allan, 1932)
The Hawk and The Tree; A Novel (Philip Allan, 1933)
One Breath; A Novel (Philip Allan, 1934)
Saturday to Monday: A Novel (Philip Allan, 1935)
Under the Hog; An Historical Novel (Rich and Cowan, 1937)
The Amateur Stage: A Symposium [editor] (Geoffrey Bles, 1939)
Buried Empires: the earliest civilisations of the Middle East (Arnold, 1939)
No Stone Unturned; A Comedy (Rich and Cowan, 1939)

Mark Valentine

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Laughing King Lear

About thirty years ago or more, I spent a great deal of time “under the Dome” of the British Library, housed then in the British Museum in Great Russell Street, where I would, before entering through the black wrought iron gates, pass the quarters where Arthur Machen once lived. I was in quest of rare decadent poetry. To get books, readers went to the great green directories listing the library’s holdings, which stood like ancient holy books in niches around the room. They hefted them out, turned their vast pages, and found the elusive title they wanted. They then copied out the particulars, including the all-important shelfmark, onto a white slip of paper, which manifested these also onto several carbon copies. These requests were then placed in a receptacle at a central desk.

Some time later, which might vary from fifteen minutes to several hours, the desired book might arrive on a wooden trolley, pushed with hushed ponderousness by an official in a grey tunic. Occasionally, instead of the book, the slip itself would waft on to the reader’s desk, informing them that the volume had been “destroyed by enemy action”, or, with less drama, that it was frail and must only be viewed in the North Gallery. In this ceremonial manner, which seemed always like the solemn ritual of some arcane sect – the Sandemanians, perhaps, or the Irvingites –I was able to handle such rare relics as the verses of Count Stenbock, the phantasmagoria of John Barlas, the chiaroscuro poems of Arthur A Piggot, or the pierrot plays of Eric Lyall. And provided that one could show the work was out of copyright, it was also possible to order photocopies of at least some of the pages in these delicate volumes. The copies would be posted to you, arriving perhaps a fortnight or so later.

This service was usually provided with considerable efficiency. But on one occasion, I received from the British Library an envelope which proved to contain a mystery: a copy I had not ordered. It had no doubt been mixed up with another reader’s request: they were perhaps puzzling at around the same time over the swooning effulgences that I must have been expecting. What I got instead was the final scene of King Lear.

I thought this was odd. Why would anyone need to order a copy of that, when the plays of Shakespeare may easily be found in countless editions? However, keen readers can rarely stop themselves from perusing any reading matter whatever, that happens to stop in front of them (I am myself an inveterate reader of notices). So I had a look at what I had mistakenly been sent. And then I was still more mystified. It all seemed rather amiable. The King, Gloucester and Kent exchanged cheery compliments and were apparently all set to wander off into the sunset together, arm in arm. I was not then as well-versed in Shakespeare as I might be, but I had formed the hazy impression that King Lear was a tragedy. Yet this didn’t seem all that melancholy.

What I had been sent, of course, was the finale of the “happy” version of the play composed by Nahum Tate in an adaptation of 1681 that rather bravely mingles his lines with Shakespeare’s. With a mind full of Machen’s theory of improbable coincidences, as evinced most notably in The Three Impostors, I naturally supposed that receiving this unexpected document must have some secret significance. Perhaps, I reflected, it was not after all just a mix-up. Maybe there was a furtive Tate admirer embedded among the staff of the great Library, who made it his business to send tantalising glimpses of the happy Lear to random readers. If so, they had found their mark. I am sorry to say that the sentimentalist in me found it rather touching. And there are worse watchwords for life than Lear’s last line.


Now, gentle Gods, give Gloster his Discharge.

No, Gloster, Thou hast Business yet for Life;
Thou, Kent and I, retir'd to some cool Cell
Will gently pass our short reserves of Time
In calm Reflections on our Fortunes past,
Cheer'd with relation of the prosperous Reign
Of this celestial Pair; Thus our Remains
Shall in an even Course of Thought be past,
Enjoy the present Hour, nor fear the Last.


Our drooping Country now erects her Head,
Peace spreads her balmy Wings, and Plenty Blooms.
Divine Cordelia, all the Gods can witness
How much thy Love to Empire I prefer!
Thy bright Example shall convince the World
(Whatever Storms of Fortune are decreed)
That Truth and Vertue shall at last succeed.

(from the online text edited by Jack Lynch of Rutgers University, Newark, with thanks)

Mark Valentine

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Shadow of Enoch Soames

In 1916, Max Beerbohm published an account of his lunch in a Soho café on 3 June 1897 with the neglected decadent poet Enoch Soames, the author of Fungoids and Negations. His companion repined about the neglect of his work and wondered if he would ever be appreciated. A fellow diner, overhearing this, offered to let him travel in time to consult the catalogues of the British Library exactly one hundred years later. Soames accepted the pact, and met Beerbohm later to tell him what he found. Dolefully, the poet reported that the only reference he could find suggested he was merely a fictional character in a Beerbohm story.

The stranger seems to have selected the date he offered Soames rather maliciously. Had the woebegone writer asked to be wafted a few years further on, he would have been highly gratified. For, since that melancholy episode in 1997, attention to Soames’ work has grown considerably. In 1999, A Bibliography of Enoch Soames (1862-1897) was compiled by Mark Samuels Lasner, and in 2001, Enoch Soames – The Critical Heritage was published by the distinguished booksellers Maggs Brothers. There are even signs of an Enoch Soames Society.

However, a curious episode relating to Enoch Soames has continued to receive too little attention. The story is told in The Devil in Woodford Wells, A Fantastic Novel (1946) by Harold Hobson. We need not be misled by the book’s sub-title, for the author tells us in the second sentence of the book that his story is a true one. Doubtless it was described as a fantasy due to some wartime exigency when it was composed. Mr Hobson is on record as confirming that Max Beerbohm himself approved this further account relating to his Nineties friend.

The author begins by telling us that he is an ardent enthusiast of Beerbohm, and has lectured on him several times: he is just about to deliver a further radio talk about him. And then he relates an encounter on Thursday 5th June, 1941 at the British Museum Reading Room. This was closed to most readers because of the war: but anyone who had work of national importance could still be admitted to a special wartime reading room. As a journalist writing for American newspapers, our narrator qualified. However, on this day he arrived there just at the moment when another man, who gave his name as Soames, was being turned away. The rebuffed figure wore a hat, “slightly raffish, a hat that suggested a harmonious blending of Irving and a rural dean”. He also had a muffler.

Hobson encounters this Soames again shortly afterwards, and makes his acquaintance. They visit a bookshop, and go back to the narrator’s home, in Woodford Wells, where the poet is invited to dine with him, is introduced to his wife and daughter, and regales them with a story he has written.

After this, matters become both murkier and more fantastical, until we understand at the end precisely why this new episode in the biography of the fated decadent versifier must remain in a literary limbo. If the account has not quite all the elan and dark fin-de-siecle glamour of Mr Beerbohm’s original composition, nonetheless it is an affectionate homage.

The author, Sir Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a miner’s son from South Yorkshire educated at home by his parents owing to childhood polio, a condition that he did not allow to limit his later life. A voracious reader, he earned a scholarship to Oxford, and afterwards began writing theatre reviews, leading to his appointment as drama critic for The Times in 1947. He was a champion in particular of avant-garde theatre.

The Devil in Woodford Wells would seem to have been written as a light diversion. Kate O’Brien, in a review in The Spectator, praised the book’s “agreeable and cultivated writing” and said it conveyed its “easy-going pleasure most infectiously”. It is also one of that select number of works to involve cricket and the fantastic: E R Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), Frank Baker’s Embers, A Winter Tale (1947) and L P Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) are also club members. This delightful memoir, with a tinge of Chesterton and even of Buchan, as well as Beerbohm, certainly ought to attract new readers.

Mark Valentine

Picture: Enoch Soames by William Rothenstein

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Before Nabokov

Charles Woodington was the author of three books: Hasheesh (Hodder & Stoughton, 1926); His Neighbour’s Wife (Stanley Paul, 1928); and Beauty and the Beasts (Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1931). Very little else is known of him. To judge from his books, he may have spent some time in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The title story of his last book is a novella. Set in Alexandria around the time of the Great War, it concerns a beautiful girl of thirteen living with her mother, who is in poverty and owes rent. The landlord, an artist, would like to paint her portrait: at first, simply her head and shoulders. But then he asks if he may do a nude of her. The daughter is distraught at the idea. But, when he persists, a bargain is struck: she will pose, at her mother’s insistence, for a fee that will settle the arrears, and more.

The story handles the girl’s sensitivity at this shabby deal with delicacy. It is the start of a series of attempts by other men to ensnare the girl’s beauty, so that she feels always the object of grubby lust. Even her one real love affair feels to her tainted by the knowledge of the modelling she was compelled to do. When, now a young woman, she hears the picture is to be exhibited, she takes scissors with a view to attacking it: but on the verge of doing so, she is struck by the beauty of the work as art. She walks away proudly, though still under the stare of a couple of lechers. We are to infer that though they won’t change, she at least can preserve her dignity.

The girl’s name is Lolita: the book appeared over twenty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name was published in 1955. Lolita, as Nabokov himself noted, was (when he used it) an obscure Spanish familiar name for Dolores. The Russian author’s book was a major departure from his previous novels, both in theme and character. He explained this, in terms, as a triumph of the imagination, a way of extending his abilities and his reach. The theme caused difficulties in securing publication, and it eventually emerged from The Olympia Press of Paris, notorious then for under-the-counter erotic books. Some of that reputation has clung to the novel ever since, though it is also acclaimed as a major literary work, a 20th century classic.

Could Nabokov have read Woodington’s story and brought it to mind when he composed his own version? Direct evidence of this is unlikely to be found. The publisher of Woodington’s book, Elkin Mathews, was in partnership with John Lane in the Eighteen Nineties and co-published many of the leading, and daring, novels of the period. He still had a reputation for producing exquisite and ornate books, and for taking on the more outre elements of literature: he was an early publisher of poetry volumes by Joyce and Pound. His imprint was precisely the type to appeal to Nabokov, the aesthetical young Russian in Europe in the Thirties.

Mark Valentine

Monday, April 21, 2014

Was this Shakespeare's Dictionary?

Henry Wessells at The Endless Bookshelf is one of the first to review a beautiful and fascinating book that may also reveal one of the most remarkable literary discoveries of our time: Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light by George Koppelman & Daniel Wechsler, Axletree Books (2014).

The authors acquired a copy of an Elizabethan folio dictionary, An Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionary, containing four different tongues, namely English, Latine, Greeke and French Newlie enriched with varietie of Wordes, Phrases, Proverbs, and divers lightsome observations of Grammar (etc) by John Baret (1580), annotated in a contemporary hand. Its marginalia, they argue, relates closely to phrases found in Shakespeare’s plays, some of them unique to him, others rarely found elsewhere. They weigh plenty of other options, and objections, but advance an astonishing conclusion: this copy must have belonged to Shakespeare. Those are his annotations, in his hand.

Short of finding Cardenio, or a note from Baron Verulam admitting to a celebrated alias, this has to be, if sustained, the ultimate Grail of Shakespeare studies. The analysis and debate it will occasion is only the beginning. If it comes to be accepted, it will tell us much about Shakespeare’s literary practice, sources, and ways of thinking, and add to our understanding of the man. But even for those who doubt the attribution, the relationship between the dictionary and the plays will require some explanation, and raise many questions. One result will surely be, as Henry notes, to send many people back to read the plays anew, and wonder at a vocabulary and phraseology suddenly requickened.

And Henry also notes, “on grounds of original content and beautiful design, and for launching ideas that will resonate where ever English is remembered”, the book should certainly be one of the most memorable of the year.

(George Koppelman ran the literary imprint Seven Woods Press, and became a rare bookseller as Cultured Oyster Books. Dan Weschler is also the editor of Strange & Wonderful: An Informal Visual History of Manuscript Books and Albums, from his own Sanctuary Books imprint strangeandwonderfulbooks)

Update: Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library discuss the book here.

Mark Valentine