My uncle Robin Ironside bewailed the demise, after the scandal of the Wilde trial and the early death of Beardsley, of the imaginative tradition which, he wrote, ‘had been kept flickering in England since the end of the 18th century, sometimes with a wild, always uneasy light, by a succession of gifted eccentrics’.
The truth is that he himself was one of those very eccentrics. Born in 1912 of a staunchly upper middle-class background, and after stints at the Courtauld and the Sorbonne, he landed, in 1937, the job of assistant keeper to Sir John Rothenstein at the Tate Gallery. Eventually, becoming frustrated at the boredom of a desk job, he gave it all up, moved into a sleazy flat near Victoria Station, and devoted the rest of his short life (he died at 53) to writing about art for magazines like Horizon and Encounter, and painting far into the night.
His writing includes a book on the Pre-Raphaelites, the Brotherhood having become relegated to the scrapheap as sentimental nonsense for over 70 years until he resuscitated interest in it, he coined the term ‘neo-romantic’, and he penned essays on subjects ranging from Proust and Burne-Jones to Gustave Moreau and Balthus. He also painted — obsessively. Addicted to Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, a mixture of laudanum, chloroform and tincture of cannabis, and keeping himself awake on Benzedrine, he’d often work with a magnifying glass on obsessively detailed figures, constantly painting and repainting. He sometimes took mescaline and once, having drawn what appeared to him, under the influence, as a vegetable on the kitchen table, glittering with meaning and colour, woke up to find he’d drawn a faithful representation of — a cabbage.
Permanently short of money, he’d often come round to our house in the middle of the night, begging my father Christopher to cash his cheques, pay for his taxi, lend him a tube of Chinese White or help him break down his flat door when he’d forgotten his key. Or he’d asked Christopher, who, unlike Robin, was a trained draughtsman, how to draw things. He depended for sustenance on his friendships with people like Cyril Connolly, Angus Wilson, John Rothenstein and Sir Kenneth Clark, and society hostesses like Lady Clementine Beit, Emerald Cunard, Lord and Lady Hulton and Anne Fleming.
Fluent in German and French, and ludicrously well read — he was never to be seen without a copy of Virgil, Ovid or Herodotus under one arm and often the latest Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout or P.G. Wodehouse under the other — he was an extraordinarily charming and amusing figure, who people longed to have as a guest. He was, however, hampered by bad luck, and even though he carried out several commissions with my father, such as designing the sets for the ballet Sylvia at the Royal Opera House, and for Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as other commercial projects, most of his solo projects fell through — though he did share one exhibition with Francis Bacon and one with Keith Vaughan.
I remember him as a wonderfully enthusiastic and welcome visitor to our house. He’d arrive saying, ‘I’m late, I’m late! I should not have trifled at the gate!’ and often spend half of lunch slumped in what he described as ‘cosmic gloom’. But after a boiled egg he’d perk up, and become animated and fascinating.
I own several of his pictures and only wish he were alive to see them exhibited at Pallant House. But knowing his luck, had he been alive, he would probably have put a jinx on the whole thing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 14, 2012