The art of Denton Welch, 1915–1948


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.

A Voice Through A Cloud: Discovering Denton Welch


Hadlow Castle, Kent (1937).


Horse and Moon (1943).


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The art of Robin Ironside, 1912–1965


Rossetti’s Willow Wood (1944).

In one of those odd coincidences that occur from time to time, a picture by Robin Ironside is featured in a book I’ve been reading this week just as news arrives of a forthcoming talk about Ironside’s strange paintings. The book is Baroque Baroque by Stephen Calloway, while the talk is being given by the artist’s niece, Virginia Ironside, at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History in London on April 21st. (Details here.)


Secret burial (1954).

I have to admit that I’d not encountered Ironside’s work until now despite a long-term fetish for unusual or unfashionable art. This isn’t too surprising since he and his fellow Neo-Romantics (a term he coined) had the misfortune to be working during a period that was deeply antagonistic towards this kind of painting. Rex Whistler is the most popular exponent of the style but Ironside’s art has the added attraction of a vaguely Surrealist flavour without any of the absurdities that usually ruin English attempts to follow Dalí and company. The Ironside website has further examples of his paintings plus designs for the theatre and some illustration work. For those who can’t attend The Last Tuesday Society there’s a lengthy reminiscence by Virginia Ironside about her fascinating uncle.

The art of Konstantin Somov, 1869–1939


Naked Young Man (1937).

The work of Russian painter Konstantin Somov has a decent presence on the web, albeit separated into his public works which comprised portraits, landscapes and illustrations, and his more private, homoerotic studies of voluptuous Russian men. The former can be seen at WikiPaintings or The Atheneum where there’s a recurrent theme of rococo fantasy similar to that being explored by Rex Whistler in Britain between the wars. (Whistler’s work was recently featured at Little Augury.) It is, of course, the other side of Somov’s work that concerns us here. This gives me an opportunity to put titles and dates to some of the paintings circulating on gay art sites with no details at all.

Somov was friends with Sergei Diaghilev, and provided illustrations and designs for Diaghilev’s Mir Iskusstva arts magazine. This year is the centenary of the first performance of The Rite of Spring so expect to hear more about the great Sergei and company in the coming months.


The Boxer (1933).


Portrait of A Man (1933).


A Reclining Man (1936).

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