I’m not sure what took me to Salvador Dalí’s house in Port Lligat, but it sure as hell wasn’t admiration. As a public figure, I hold him alone responsible for the look-at-me culture that gives contemporary art a bad name. And as a painter… don’t get me started. Sceptics slag off conceptual art as a load of navel-gazing nonsense, made by people with no interest in anything other than themselves. But to be fair to Dalí, he did at least have something to say. That is: ‘I’m mad, me!’
No, if I’m honest the only reason I’d slogged up the hill from the nearest town was nosiness. Artists’ houses that have been preserved as museums are always a thrill. They appeal to the busybody in me, but have the same high culture pull as a major art gallery. You miss out the crowds, the branding and the reverence of somewhere like the National Gallery, but get an eyeful of a famous person’s loo. Art history and scatological curiosity go hand-in-hand.
Britain has stacks of these museums. Barbara Hepworth’s place in St Ives, Cherry-burn in Northumberland, where Thomas Bewick was born and Gainsborough’s house in Suffolk are a few off the top of my head. I can’t quite face a trip to Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘avant garden’ in Lanarkshire; if it’s true that you should never meet your heroes, the same probably applies to turning up at their house after they’ve died.
In fact, I actually prefer visiting the houses of artists I don’t like. When I lived in Paris, the place I spent the most time besides work and my local bar was the Gustave Moreau museum. Moreau was a useless painter, and he knew it — Zola described his work as barely worth a shrug of the shoulders. This is presumably why he left his magnificent townhouse in the 9th arrondissement to the public — it’s not like anyone else was going to dedicate a museum to him. It’s a monument to a very bourgeois sort of vanity, and it’s wonderful.
Frederic Leighton was another stinker of an artist, but the Holland Park mansion he built and lived in is one of the best museums in London, and not just for its great programme of exhibitions. You walk in, pay for a ticket and immediately find yourself in a 19th-century fantasist’s idea of a Moroccan souk. It’s décor Liberace might have dismissed as a bit too garish. Bonkers, but marvellous.
But back to what happened at the Dalí house. To cut a short story even shorter, I didn’t actually get inside. Online booking problems, the house’s extreme popularity at 3:26 p.m. on a Tuesday — that sort of thing. But from the road leading back to the town, I could still make out its main attraction — the swimming pool, constructed in the unmistakable shape of a penis. Rumour has it that Dalí based the design on his own member. What a willy.