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Interview with John Richardson: His new memoirs as Cubism’s Falstaff

Richardson talks about his mentor and one time lover, Douglas Cooper—fiendish and funny art historian, aesthete and champion of Cubism

Before he met the art historian and collector Douglas Cooper (1911-84), John Richardson asked his friend Francis Bacon about Cooper’s eye for modern art. “She’s only got one, so it better be good,” was Bacon’s campy reply. As for Cooper’s much admired collection of Cubist works by Picasso, Braque, Léger and Juan Gris, Bacon warned, “Take a look at your own risk. She’ll try to lure you into bed and then she’ll turn on you—she always does.” John Richardson’s memoir, The sorcerer’s apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper explores the prophetic truth in Bacon’s words.

Cooper’s eye (he had sight in only one because of an accident) initiated the young Mr Richardson into modern art from studios to the marketplace to the savage gossip of insiders. Son of a department store manager, Mr Richardson studied painting briefly at the Slade School. He encountered Cooper at a London party in the spring of 1949 and drove off at high speed for a night of revelry that led to a twelve-year bond in which Cooper was Mr Richardson’s lover, surrogate father, teacher, and social guide. Through Cooper, the young man would meet Picasso and later write two volumes of a planned four-volume biography. Many of the book’s reminiscences are set at Castille, the ramshackle Provençal château that Cooper bought for a song and restored as a showcase for his collection of Cubist works. We see Picasso and Cocteau at the bullfights and around the dinner table. W.S. Auden is visited on Ischia, whence Mr Richardson is banished after a bout of lovemaking with a young poet on the lawn beneath Auden’s window. Graham Sutherland, the only British painter championed by the anglophobic Cooper, is portrayed as a petty social climber.

Cooper was paradoxical, a rotund, rubicund aesthete with a merciless tongue and “a dislike of passing unperceived”, who often expressed his attraction for things and people by attacking them. Thanks to a special loathing for England—at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, he denounced her as the “bitch of Buckingham”—Cooper never left a single work of art to a British institution, although his hatred shifted to France after Minister of Culture Michel Guy forced him to keep some works from his collection in that country.

When Mr Richardson was in his 30s and began seeking a life beyond Cooper’s grasp, the young writer fled to New York and fell in love with Manhattan, fuelling Cooper’s wrath. The elder man burned most of Richardson’s possessions, and the author gives a detailed account of burgling Castille to recover some of the art that he left behind. A jealous Cooper had denounced him to the police.

There are some tantalising revelations here. Cooper, a prodigious linguist, was responsible after World War II for tracking down and interrogating Nazis and collaborators who looted art from Jews. One predator, a Herr Montag who built up a collection of art from works that had been seized for Hitler, was released soon after Cooper arrested him following a long pursuit, on orders from a high British official. It turned out that the Nazi had been Winston Churchill’s painting teacher.

We also see Picasso meet and court his last wife, Jacqueline Roque, and we witness a torturing evening in which the painter is reunited with his melancholy mistress, Dora Maar.

By the book’s end, Cooper is addled by drink, and working on a Gauguin catalogue for Georges Wildenstein, the dealer whose collaborationist misdeeds he had so famously exposed. Yet Mr Richardson concedes that his recollections of life with Cooper are not the final word on the Falstaffian art historian. Cooper’s correspondence remains largely lost and unexamined. Rather than his scholarship, “It is by his letters, if they are ever published, that he deserves to be remembered,” Mr Richardson writes, “Douglas could turn out to be a twentieth-century Vasari.”

How do you assess Francis Bacon’s characterisation of Douglas Cooper as vindictive?

John Richardson He should have picked up on Francis and really become an early patron. Douglas had this built-in prejudice against anything British—all British painting had to be bad. So I think that Francis fell under this dispensation. Francis, I don’t think, gave a damn about this, which made Douglas all the angrier. The fact that Douglas settled on Graham Sutherland as the only British painter who was any good made it all the more important to him to put down Francis whenever he could.

Why did Cooper steer clear of New York, which was on its way to becoming the centre of the art world after World War II?

Douglas had backed the wrong horse. I think that he genuinely did not like abstract painting, and Douglas felt that the logical development after the war, Social Realism, would triumph. Douglas was convinced that abstraction had had it. He liked Mondrian and Malevich, but he felt that it was all pre-1939, and that was finished. He looked in his crystal ball and came to the wrong conclusions. Also, he was a backer of the Paris School and the New York School, in his eyes, was competition, and to be put down whenever possible. We used to go and stay with Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, and Peggy had a lot of Pollocks left. We could have bought them for $10,000 each. I said to Douglas, “For Christ’s sake, why don’t you branch out?” He’d say, “I hate that sort of thing.” If I had had $10,000, I would have bought one like a shot and been a rich man today. He was very narrow in his tastes. The four great Cubists constituted the yardstick by which everything else was judged.

Restitution of art looted by the Nazis is very much in the news these days. How did Cooper view his role in that effort?

One of the really good things about Douglas was his passionate feeling that these Nazi looters had to be put behind bars, and that the art had to be rescued. Douglas was one of the most effective people in the Fine Arts Commission. When he went after somebody, he damn well got him. It was outrageous what he unearthed. He was very idealistic about that.

What do you think was Cooper’s most important contribution to art history?

Douglas wrote to Lord Amulree (Basil MacKenzie) at least twice a week for around fifty years. I knew some of the letters because Douglas would read bits out or I would see them. These letters are one of the great art-world correspondences of all time. Everything that happened was told to Basil, absolutely everything. If these letters come to light, they will constitute something absolutely crucial. The letters are totally fascinating. He was the most formidable letter writer—fiendish, funny, outrageous. So much of Douglas’s published writing is too scholarly in style, but when he came to writing the letters, he would let rip. They’re not all negative; a lot of them are positive and he wrote at considerable length about everything: his relationship with Picasso, with me, with Juan Gris; marketplace gossip, our trips; all very, very pungent. The Getty has an enormous number of Douglas’s letters to the historian Francis Steegmuller, to which you can get access but the correspondence with Basil has disappeared. Let’s hope that one of these days it materialises. It would have showed Douglas’s vitriolic side more sharply and vividly, and also his wit.

What is different about the art world now compared to the days about which you’re writing?

The painters Douglas wrote about, with the exception of Picasso, had a difficult time at the beginning. Léger, in order to earn enough money when he was starting out, used to fake Corots. A really gifted young artist today doesn’t have to fake Corots. He’s taken up by a major gallery in five minutes flat and suddenly making a million dollars a year. From the Kahnweiler sales of the early 1920s, when three-quarters of four artists’ Cubist output was flung on the market, prices did not change until 1939 or 1940. Douglas bought Léger’s “Contrasts of forms,” the big gouaches, from Leonce Rosenberg, for the equivalent of $25 each, and he bought the great “Josette Gris,” the portrait of Juan Gris’s wife, for less than £100 at Christie’s, twenty years after it had been painted. These days, within six months people become stars and he’s flung out. There’s a paradox here. The angel in him wants to do something good, but it backfires, so his devil makes him turn on Picasso. It’s so very self-destructive.

John Richardson, The sorcerer’s apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999), 306 pp, 121 b/w ills, $26.95. (hb) ISBN 0375400338

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 97 November 1999