An Old Master
THE ARTIST IN THE BEAST
Emily Bertha Crowley died in Eastbourne, England, on 14 April 1917 while her only son was far away at her half-brother William’s son’s citrus farm at Titusville, Florida. Crowley was back in New York when the news reached him, anticipated by a dream two days earlier that left him extremely distressed. He had never got close to his mother, but her actual death left him feeling helpless and lonely. So much of his attitude had conspired to goad her religious rectitude; what was the point now?
It was, I think, Emily’s death that initiated an unexpected development in the poet, for by the end of 1918, Aleister Crowley was painting with a will. We can but guess as to whether he had pondered his mother’s now vanished, sensual, artistic side, or whether he recalled a painting she had made of Lawrence and Birdie Bishop’s Florida farm on a visit long ago. Was it that, without thinking at all, Crowley took on the mantle of his unfulfilled mother’s unfulfilled talent and found in it, through his endurance of countless empty days and nights in America, a link to her and to his seldom plummeted, deepest feelings? Crowley was a master of words, but there are some feelings words cannot express.
The earliest photograph of Crowley painting was taken at Decatur, Georgia. His idiosyncratic little tuft of hair, an erection on his shaven head, looks like an additional brush atop his bulky, muscular frame. His weary face encapsulates the spirit of solitude that was his.
In some respects it is surprising it took Crowley so long to pick up pallet, easel, and brush. He had been introduced to decadent artistic circles when, in 1897, he had become undergraduate lover to Trinity College Cambridge graduate Herbert Charles Pollitt (1871-1942), known as “Jerome,” a connoisseur, dancer, and actor for whom Pollitt’s close friend Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) had designed a personalized book plate in 1895-96, while contributing his famed artwork for the Yellow Book magazine.
When Crowley published his own decadent poetry book White Stains (1898), he followed Beardsley’s example and employed the services of principal decadent publisher, Leonard Smithers (1861-1907). Smithers found an Amsterdam printer for Crowley’s outrageous verses.
In his last year at Cambridge (1898), Crowley became close friends with Gerald Festus Kelly (1879-1972), a young man who knew he wanted to paint. Crowley was impressed by Kelly’s artistic seriousness and through all his worldwide travels of 1900–1902, kept in touch as the younger man graduated from Cambridge and, inspired by James McNeill Whistler, went to Paris to become an artist, a career that, in Crowley’s view, ground to a halt in 1930 when Kelly accepted election as a Fellow of the Royal Academy, London, with all the respectability that position could muster, including being the British Royal Family’s favorite artist. Having become respectable, Kelly lost Crowley’s respect absolutely.
But it had not always been like that. In early November 1902, fresh in body but feverish in spirit after an audacious, but failed attempt to climb K2 in the Karakoram Range, Crowley entered Montparnasse, Paris--the first time since 1899. He had not seen Kelly since 1900.
Gerald Kelly introduced Crowley to his circle of artistic friends at Le Chat Blanc, 93 Rue d’Odessa, near the Montparnasse railway station. The Montparnasse district, on the south bank of the Seine, with its bohemian cafés and “apaches” (street roughs of both sexes) would become Crowley’s artistic lodestone until 1929 when the French state was persuaded the “Patriarch of Montparnasse” was a nuisance to its interests. As Crowley explained in his 9 January 1930 letter to Karl Germer, it was in Montparnasse that he was introduced to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).
Crowley publicly championed the cause of Auguste Rodin’s controversial sculpture Balzac. Crowley and Rodin collaborated on a book combining Rodin’s watercolors with Crowley’s sonnets of reflection on the sculptor, the poet’s French assisted by Marcel Schwob, the Jewish writer who helped Wilde put his English-forbidden Salome into French.
Crowley also claimed to be an intimate friend of Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), Frits Thaulow (1847-1906), an artist called Cruyère (whom I cannot trace), and the greatest artists of his period.
Legros became Slade Professor, Chair of Fine Art at University College, London, in 1876 (resigned 1892). He was mentor to the Abbey Theatre Dublin’s founder Annie Horniman at the Slade in 1882 before she joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890. Legros maintained his English connections, and it is notable that Crowley was very friendly with a number of brilliant Slade students. Augustus John (who executed at least three portraits of Crowley) won the Slade prize for his Moses and the Brazen Serpent in 1898. Sculptress Kathleen Bruce (1878-1947) studied at the Slade in 1900–1902 before going to Paris to enroll at the Académie Colarossi. She returned to London in 1906 and became Crowley’s lover while acquainting herself with Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie, and Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whom she married.
Frits Thaulow was a distinguished Norwegian artist, mainly working on impressionist landscapes. He moved to Paris in 1892 but preferred provincial subjects. The National Gallery of Norway possesses thirty-seven of Thaulow’s works. It is significant that most of the artists Crowley knew saw themselves as defiers of convention in pursuit of authentic vision at the expense of academic constraints. Rodin, in particular, suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in this regard. And so would Crowley, still a philistine’s target.