John Richardson's "Sacred monsters, sacred masters", a vision of the idiosyncratic personalities that left their mark on the art world

John Richardson’s insights into the great artists and collectors of the last century


The first two volumes of John Richardson’s Life of Picasso have shown him to be the most qualified and thorough of biographers. His memoir, The sorcerer’s apprentice, revealed a new side: a man of lively charm who—despite the giddy company he kept—maintained an ability to reflect, often poignantly, on his own life and milieu. His new collection of articles, Sacred monsters, sacred masters, is intended, he writes in the preface, to serve as “a sort of prolongation of the memoir...that I published in 1999.”

Sacred monsters is proof, if any were needed, that Mr Richardson stands in the front rank of writers on art. It confirms him as a writer of enormous fluency, dripping with things to share.

Most of the pieces are profiles of one kind or another (even when Mr Richardson is writing a review, it tends to turn into a profile). He plays to his strengths in this way: here is a writer who seems to know everyone, and who, with the help of his research assistants, is demonically good at finding out everything about them. Mr Richardson was friends not only with Picasso, but also with Braque, Warhol, Brice Marden and Lucian Freud (these, particularly the recently updated piece on Lucian Freud, are among the best reads in the book); he went to work for “the veteran con man” Armand Hammer at Knoedler and Co; he had dealings with Kandinsky’s widow, Klee’s son and Dalí’s “nymphomaniac” widow, Gala; he was friends with Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton, and Peggy Guggenheim, and he writes with an insider’s confidence (but an outsider’s clarity) on Carlos de Beistegui, the wealthy grandee and decorator, Eugenia Errázuriz, Picasso’s patron, Dr Albert Barnes, the famous eccentric and collector, Joan Miró, Pierre Bonnard and his wife, the Sitwells, Sibyl Colefax, Mario Praz, and many others.

As with his Picasso biography, Mr Richardson imparts huge amounts of biographical information— some of it integral, some of it flippant and tangential—with amazing grace and economy. Six of these pieces were originally written for House & Garden (reflecting Richardson’s abiding interest in traditions of interior decoration); eight were written for The New York Review of Books, and approximately half were written for Vanity Fair, a magazine which fetishises faded glamour and superfluous wealth like no other. The breakdown provides a clue to a certain split in Mr Richardson’s tone, his affinities. It is hard to know whether paragraphs such as this on Paul Guillaume are pure Richardson or pure Vanity Fair: “Twenty five years after Guillaume’s death, his lethal widow, Domenica, her no less lethal lover, Dr Maurice Lacour, and her conniving brother, Jean Lacaze, would be accused by her adopted son, Jean-Pierre, of plotting to murder him. Besides attempted murder, the case involved charges of blackmail, entrapment, forgery, will tampering and what the French call proxénétisme—pimping. There were also overtones of political skullduggery.”

Mr Richardson can come across as ostentatiously elevated and eye-rubbingly superficial, all in the same sentence. As an indirect result, he occasionally leaves the air around his subjects feeling a little thin. In a few cases, his critiques boomerang in the reader’s mind back onto him—rarely with anything like total congruence, but often with enough of a prick of recognition to make one pause.

Mr Richardson’s piece on Truman Capote, with whom he spent time in Venice, is one of the most fascinating in this sense: “One couldn’t have a better—that is to say wittier, bitchier, more ironical—companion,” he writes.

“No question about it, Capote was in the great tradition of homosexual raconteurs...However, as so often happens, the raconteur stifled the writer...Campy anecdotes that had titillated us as we sat by the Cipriani pool were acutely embarrassing when they appeared in print...”

Mr Richardson is good at pricking the bubbles of the rich and self-deluded, but his verbal reflexes habitually inflate them again in the reader’s mind.

Nevertheless, this book is also littered with crisp insights conveyed without any hint of strain, and there is also much to laugh at. Mr Richardson tells us of a cruel friend of Sybil Colefax, the socially ambitious hostess and decorator, who invited her to dinner with the scrawled promise, “the P of W is coming.” She was greeted at dinner that night not by the Prince of Wales, but by the Provost of Worcester.

In a piece on Bonnard’s “amphibious” wife, Mr Richardson writes: “By 1914... Cubism must have made Bonnard’s gorgeous paintings look as obsolete and frou-frou as the can-can.”

This description of the Palazzo Venier degli Leoni in Venice, home of the Peggy Guggenheim collection, is classic Richardson in the best sense, not least because it is all true: “In the 20s, Marchesa Casati had entertained there surrounded by tranquillised leopards, drugged boa constrictors, and live putti coated with gold leaf. In the 30s, the formidably rich, formidably tough Elena Flick Hoffman had bought it and lavishly redecorated it for her girlfriend, Doris, Lady Castlerosse, the wayward beauty who had inspired Amanda in Noël Coward’s play Private Lives, and who, if one believes Winston Churchill, ‘could make even a corpse come.’”

All in all, there is far more to appreciate and enjoy in this book than to be exasperated by. Moreover, it is unique: there are characters in this book who may never be described by someone who knew them at first hand again—and, be they monsters or masters, they are certainly characters worth describing.

John Richardson, Sacred monsters, sacred masters (Jonathan Cape, London, 2002), 384 pp, £20 (hb) ISBN 0224062557

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Drugged boa constrictors and live putti'