There is often something of the adult cultural individualist in the badly behaved child. Douglas Cooper once phoned his mother, pretending to be a policeman, and said to her: ‘I regret to inform you that your son has committed suicide. We will have to ask you to identify the body’. Early cultural influences included his homosexual uncle Gerald Cooper, who took him in the mid-1920s when he was twelve or thirteen to see the Diaghilev company performing in Monte Carlo. Douglas Cooper was educated at Repton and, from 1929, Cambridge, where he was so flamboyantly queer that Nicholas Lawford, later a diplomat, chased him with a hunting crop. He left, however, to study art history and, in the words of John Richardson, to take up ‘the pursuit of cubist works of art and good-looking young men’. The decision to collect cubism had arisen out of his despair at the Tate Gallery’s unadventurous approach to modern art; by the outbreak of the Second World War he had amassed 137 paintings, with his main concentration being on works by Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger. In the summer of 1938, Cooper fell asleep at the wheel of his car and in the ensuing crash lost the sight in one eye. Exempt from military service in the war, he went to Paris to join Count Etienne de Beaumont’s ambulance unit (as Jean Cocteau had done in the first war); Beaumont’s great distinction in his eyes was, of course, that he had commissioned work by the likes of Picasso, Braque and Eric Satie. Later, in RAF intelligence, Cooper became an interrogator of prisoners of war in Cairo – ‘Torquemada could hardly have done better’, as he put it himself. In Cairo he made friends with Patrick White, whose relationship with the Alexandrine Greek Manoly Lascaris gave him bouts of envy and a strong sense of what a good homosexual relationship might amount to. Cooper was eventually transferred to Malta after he successfully interrogated but who subsequently killed himself. At the end of the war he joined the Monuments and Fine Arts branch of the Control Commission for Germany, charged with the pursuit of Nazi loot and looters. Back in London in 1947, Cooper moved into the new Egerton Terrace house of ‘Basil’, the Hon. Sholto Mackenzie, later Lord Amultree. The two had had a sexual relationship in the 1930s, but were now no longer lovers. Here Cooper started writing the argumentative art history for which he would become widely known.
Viva King, the wife of a curator at the British Museum, used to hold Sunday parties in her Thurloe Square house, which used to be attended by the likes of Norman Douglas and Angus Wilson. She had a particular affection for artistic boys, to the extent that the phrase ‘a friend of Mrs King’ briefly became a euphemism for homosexual. Douglas Cooper referred to her as a ‘Poufmutter’. Here, at one of her Sunday dos, Cooper met a young man called John Richardson. John Richardson had been educated at Stowe – where ‘A special veneration for the grottoes and temples that dotted the park resulted from their being the scenes of my first sexual experiences’ – and then at the Slade, which had been evacuated to Oxford for the duration of the war. Nothing much came of the first meeting, since Richardson was panicked by the apparent advances of the older man and fled the house. In the meantime, Richardson got reviewing work on the New Statesman through its assistant literary editor T.C. Worsley; the two of them went together to the theatre, which Worsley reviewed, and the ballet, which Richardson reviewed. In the spring of 1949, Worsley took Richardson to a party which John Lehmann was holding to celebrate the publication of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. Cooper and Richardson encountered each other again, and Richardson asked if he could see Cooper’s art collection. (Francis Bacon had warned him that he would have to sleep with Cooper before he got to see the art.) They went to the Egerton Terrace house and, with a certain reluctance on the younger man’s part, slept together. Gifts of flowers and cigars arrived the next day, and then Cooper took Richardson off to Amsterdam to tour the museums and galleries. Between June and October 1949, they went off on a Grand Tour, initially in the company of the set designer James Bailey, whom they dumped in Paris. There, Richardson met Picasso for the first time. Feverish for a while, Cooper underwent examination by the dandyish and ineffectual Jacques Lacan. Eventually, Richardson went down to Naples on his own to meet up with T.C. Worsley and cross to Ischia, where the two of them stayed with Wystan Auden and Chester Kallman. The young American poet James Schuyler, too, was there, and Richardson was instantly ‘dazzled’ by him. One night they made love, apparently watched by Auden and (perhaps) Worsley – but to do so was frowned on, and Worsley took Richardson away, under the cloud of Auden’s retrospectively prim disapproval. Back in London, Richardson moved in with Cooper and MacKenzie in Egerton Terrace.
Douglas Cooper and John Richardson had happened upon a derelict chateau near Nimes, the Chateau de Castille, which Cooper decided to buy. They gradually did it up and filled it with the art works from Egerton Terrace. They neglected, though, to install burglar alarms. A near-neighbour was Marie-Laure de Noailles, whose home was always full of young musicians, straight and gay, some of whom were her lovers. (Ned Rorem lived there for seven years.) Castille being only fifteen miles off Route Nationale 7, the chateau frequently welcomed visitors: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the summer of 1952; the historian James Joll and the lover he met at Castille, John Golding, whose thesis on cubism Cooper was supervising at Anthony Blunt’s behest, but who would go out of favour when his work became obviously more scholarly than Cooper’s own; Nancy Mitford; Cyril Connolly, who arrived uninvited but appeased Cooper with his mimickry of such mutual friends as Brian Howard, Alan Pryce-Jones and Maurice Bowra; Anthony Blunt, who came most summers, usually accompanied by his beloved John Gaskin; Angus Wilson, who had upset Richardson by basing Terence Lambert, in Hemlock and After (1952), on him; and even, briefly, the Queen Mother. There were trips to bullfights with Picasso and, sometimes, Jean Cocteau. They stuck rigorously to their own priorities. So, although they met the aged Winston Churchill, but they turned down lunch with him so that they could eat, yet again, with Picasso. Formal occasions in their lives, if there had to be any, could always be enlivened by bad behaviour or by the whimsy of chance. In the peers’ stand outside Westminster Abbey on the day of the Coronation, Cooper loudly booed the arrival of the star of the show, Elizabeth Windsor (the younger). Back in France, at the funeral of ‘the flamboyant fashion designer’ Jacques Fath, the flowers were mixed up with those for an old woman who was to be buried on the same day. His coffin bore a wreath with the words ‘A notre tante adoree’.
The relationship between Cooper and Richardson faltered a number of times before it ended for good. On the first occasion of serious rupture, the younger man went to New York, where it happened that John Hensbeen had just moved in with Philip Johnson, so Richardson was able to move into Hensbeen’s apartment; and he spent that Christmas in the incomparable surroundings of the guest house at Johnson’s Glass House complex in New Canaan, Connecticut. Through Helena Rubenstain he met Tamara de Lempicka. Truman Capote, an old friend of Cooper’s, kept him amused in the city by taking him to a lesbian bikers’ haunt, which they had to leave in a hurry because Capote said he was fearful of being raped. Back with Douglas Cooper, Richardson went down to Florence to stay with Henry Clifford, curator of painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and his wife: ‘After a few days in this sumptuous house, I began to see the secret garden in its extensive, terraced grounds ‘as a metaphor for the private life of our host, who devoted a lot of time to doing flower arrangements with his friendly Italian butler’. Cooper and Richardson lunched with Harold Acton. In Venice they stayed with Graham Sutherland and his wife, in a house lent to them by Arthur Jeffress. (The story of the latter’s demise is instructive. At a grand party, the Duchess of Windsor asked him for a lift home; but his gondoliers had gone off on a jaunt, so he sacked them. They in turn denounced him to the police, who happened to be purging Venice of homosexuals. Jeffress fled to Paris, where he killed himself.) In September they went to Les Baux to watch Cocteau filming Le Testament d’Orphee on the day Picasso was due to be in it. Serge Lifar was there, too, attempting to resurrect his reputation after having collaborated during the war. At lunch with Cocteau, Richardson noticed that he had used grey crayon to obscure his bald patch.
After a bad Christmas at the chateau, Richardson finally decided to leave Cooper and make a new life for himself. He left Nice on 30 December 1960, heading for New York. Douglas Cooper often tried to obstruct his career thereafter. When Richardson was running the Dunn International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Cooper mischievously got himself appointed to the organising committee. In Richardson’s account, Cooper appointed ‘an ambitious young porter’ called Bruce Chatwin as his ‘cats’-paw.’ Whenever Cooper required him to, Chatwin would appear in Richardson’s office, ‘with a supercilious smirk on his pretty face’, and deliver Cooper’s ‘insultingly officious messages’. On Chatwin, Richardson grudgingly concedes that ‘when Bruce subsequently reinvented himself as a writer we became friends – sort of’.
Source: John Richardson, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper (London: Cape, 1999)