Symbolist Figure (1946).
The visual art, that is, not the novels and short stories. Last month I finally got round to reading Denton Welch’s first two novels, Maiden Voyage (1943) and In Youth is Pleasure (1945). Finally, because I’ve known Welch’s name for a long time, mostly via William Burroughs—who dedicated The Place of Dead Roads to him—and John Waters—who often lists In Youth is Pleasure as one of his favourite novels. This was also the book that Burroughs favoured, and he wrote an introduction for a US reprint in 1983. At first glance, Welch would seem a surprising choice for the pair: the protagonist in each book is a thinly fictionalised avatar of the author—he’s even named Denton Welch in the first—an effete upper-middle-class English teenager who hates his school and most of the people he meets, and who spends as much time as possible wandering alone, looking for affordable antiques and any old buildings that may be of interest. The homosexual undercurrents in each book generate persistent tensions which are an obvious attraction for many readers, even though nothing is ever stated overtly and there’s no hand-wringing over unrequited passions. Welch’s boys are most passionate about the things they collect, and their determination to be left alone to pursue their interests when all the adults around them are trying to push them in different directions. Having been a similar school-hating, art-obsessed, introverted teenager, if I’d read In Youth is Pleasure when I was the same age as the beleaguered Orvil Pym it would have made a huge impression.
Self-portrait With Cat.
Art was the interest that Welch most wanted to pursue but it’s the writing for which he’s remembered. Few people have good things to say about his drawings and paintings but there’s a strange quality to many of them that I like, an atmosphere of menace that lurks beneath the often naive renderings. I was surprised how gloomy and claustrophobic many of them are. The refined sensibilities in the novels lead you to expect something lighter, frivolous even, like the paintings and illustrations of his contemporary, Rex Whistler, or other artists of the Neo-Romantic school of the 1930s. In fact looking at Whistler’s work again, it’s the Whistler style I most expected even though it’s unfair to compare the two. Welch and Whistler shared a taste for pictorial decoration, and a blithe indifference to the avant-garde trends of the day, but Whistler was a formidable talent, the kind of successful illustrator that Welch could only dream of being. (That said, both artists were commissioned by Shell for the company’s poster series showing views of Britain.) Yet lack of ability sometimes takes an artist into places that a professional wouldn’t reach. Whistler would have given us a perfect cat, not the strange creatures with almost human faces that Welch liked to draw. I’m curious to know which, if any, contemporary artists Welch preferred. His diaries are now earmarked for a future reading.
Hadlow Castle, Kent (1937).
Horse and Moon (1943).