Dinner at the Chelsea Arts Club
Last night I introduced Ken Howard the artist to the art historian Martin Gayford. Ken I have known and admired for over 30 years and Martin is well-liked and respected in our world for his art journalism and biographies of John Constable,Van Gogh and Michelangelo. Ken had written to Martin after reading the Constable biography to note a similarity in their lives – both fell in love and ultimately married women whose fathers deemed them unsuitable. In Ken’s case it was a German painter Crista Gaa whom he met as a student in Florence in the fifties and married some 30 years later. Tragically she died 2 years after they married. John Constable married Mary Bicknell whose father was a solicitor and advisor to the Prince Regent.
Arriving early and sipping a gin and tonic in the garden of the club surrounded by ageing Bohemians I speculated that we would spend some time talking of Constable. I was therefore surprised when Ken spoke of Lucien Freud and Martin’s account of sitting for him. Lucien Freud was to dominate the conversation. Ken regarded him as the best of all English painters, never waivering in quality throughout his life, unlike other artists he mentioned who had a specific and finite period when they were good.
Conversation did turn to the critic. Ken spoke of one artist Bill Jacklin (brother of the Open and Us Open champion Tony Jacklin) who received a rave review after an exhibition at David Wolfers’ New English Gallery. He never sold another picture.
The Chelsea Arts Club enjoyed a rumbustious reputation in the past which has clearly mellowed. As we sat in the garden a group of twenty gathered to sing madrigals. Daphne would have approved of the food. I’m not a great fan of the traditional club world but I rather liked the louche ambience of this club. I cannot imagine that too many lines of club rules would be devoted to dress code or indeed they have any rules at all.
I shared a taxi back to Kings Cross and thence my hotel. London travel is difficult enough without a tube strike and impossible with it. The whole area of Euston Road was gridlocked at 10 at night. Bob Tickler had a David Mellor moment of frustrated anger recently in a taxi and taken to fixed-fare mini cabs to cope with sitting in traffic with a whirring meter. I followed his advice. As the mini cab driver tried to find some free artery of travel and finished up in another jam I reflected that at least it’s not going to cost the same as dinner at the Savoy. The whole journey took well over an hour and I am afraid to say that much of the bonhomie, cultivated and informative art conversation of the past three hours was ruined by the experience. It made me yearn for my Brighton where a taxi journey rarely costs more than £12, rarely takes longer than 15 minutes and instead of traffic fumes you can roll down the window and savour the balm of good sea air. No wonder our original starting point of the evening Constable lived in Brighton as the sea air was good for his wife. It also shows that’s sometimes fathers in law get it seriously wrong.