What Goes Up Must Come Down (for 'Brace Brace' at 29 Percy Street)
For a house that was final… would lead to thoughts –serious, sad thoughts –
and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.
(Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)
The bomb that fell near Percy Street in the Blitz was sent to cause destruction, and indeed succeeded in destroying a number of buildings, including the houses at its junction with Tottenham Court Road. Further along the row however, number 29 stayed standing. Although with the sudden and brutal amputation of its near neighbours, the house is forever more, slightly folding in upon itself as if winded by the impact. The evidence of this remains: inside, the door frames and cornicing are at incongruent angles to the walls and floor. Houses are collapsing from the moment they are built, just as we could say that their owners are dying from the day they are born. For houses, as with people, this decline can happen at a slow, acceptable rate, or it can be accelerated by war, poverty, natural disaster, infestation or because they are built on insubstantial foundations. 29 Percy Street was doubly ill-fated, although neither war nor its flimsy foundations have been enough to destroy it.
The north side of the street was built in the late 1760s, the area was then fashionable and the houses with their lofty façades and elegant proportions were highly desirable. Tidy, respectable, uniform rows of Georgian houses, like those in Percy Street, imply tidy, respectable, uniform lives lived within them: Enlightenment machines for living in. But just as a human body is ‘a house of blood and bones’, so a house is a body, its neatly kept public rooms, its well-lit spaces, its hidden attics and its dark, labyrinthine cellars. And just as men’s souls and beating hearts are hidden beneath the anonymity of characterless suits, so houses like those in Percy Street hint at secrets and potential discoveries, they echo with the traces of history, of past events, contents and inhabitants. A house is a portrait of the self, a mirror of our own fragile being. It is a palimpsest on which fantasies can be imposed. Intimate, irrational, vulnerable, its fortunes like our own can rise and they can fall.
Behind this particular façade, through the years, has been a crucible of creativity. In the nineteenth century George Frederick Kiallmark, whose musical abilities were much admired by Mendelssohn, ran an academy for the study of piano in the house. In the early twentieth century, as the respectability of Fitzrovia, and the rents, began to tumble, so its reputation as a bohemian hotbed bubbled into being. In the compact network of streets around Fitzroy Square and south towards Soho, many of the large Georgian houses were being broken up into flats and studios to be colonized by artists. At the Eiffel Tower restaurant at the end of the street, artists, writers, intellectuals and hangers on were welcomed by the genial and enigmatic Austrian host, Rudolf Stulik. There the Vorticists gathered and Wyndham Lewis illustrated the menu. At the Fitzroy Tavern, around the corner on Charlotte Street, Dylan Thomas, Nina Hamnett, George Orwell and Augustus John held boozy, boisterous court. The Omega Workshops were in Fitzroy Square. Walter Sickert, Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb had studios nearby.
29 Percy Street became a boarding house and its tenants came and went – the poet Kathleen Raine and Sonia Brownell, the latter eagerly pursued by Cyril Connolly and Augustus John, and later the wife of George Orwell and inspiration for Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the 1930s in the top floor flat, Nancy Cunard, writer, activist, heiress, bangle-wearer and errant daughter, ran her campaign on behalf of the nine Scottsboro Boys, who had been accused of the rape of two white girls and sentenced to death in Alabama. Years later, the artist Roland Collins would discover her banners, posters and placards in the attic. Collins, an illustrator and designer, moved into a studio on the first floor after the war and remained there for several decades. Noel Carrington, brother of Dora and book designer, editor and founder of Puffin Books, had an office in the house.
It was the romance of this past that enchanted the painter Glynn Boyd Harte decades later, in the mid-1980s. One day Boyd Harte was buying supplies with his wife at an art shop on Percy Street when he spotted a handwritten note in the window, advertising the sale of a house across the road. Number 29 was being sold by a lesbian couple who ran a poodle parlour at the premises. He arranged to view the property that day and knew immediately that he must buy it. The artist had a perfectly good house, a beautiful house in fact, in a corner of Cloudesley Square in Islington where he lived with his wife and two young sons. He had bought it with inherited money, decorated it with flair and used candles as the only lighting. Boyd Harte was then in the prime of life, while the house of which he dreamed in Fitzrovia was by then in an advanced state of disrepair. And yet it was the embodiment of his own particular domestic fantasy. His friends thought it madness to pursue a house that was essentially a ruin with no real foundations and whose electrical wiring had been gnawed by rats, but he borrowed money to buy it and the building was his.
For Boyd Harte, Fitzrovia – the whirligig Fitzrovia of Augustus John, Ronald Firbank and Nina Hamnett - was his spiritual home. In the 1980s he was something of a celebrity in the art world. A painter, printmaker, illustrator and commercial artist, he painted anything that took his fancy with whimsy, wit and apparently effortless ease: townscapes and seascapes, table tops and cafes, elegant interiors, suburban villas, murderers’ cottages and baked beans cans. Charming, fun, impractical and flamboyant, he addressed his friends as “my dear” and dressed, as Tom Stoppard would later write, ‘like TS Eliot in his bank clerk days’, in dandified co-respondent shoes, waistcoats, corduroy trousers or Oxford bags. Deeply loved, and in return deeply loving, he could fall out with people in spectacular fashion. He was very amusing and expected the same of others.
Boyd Harte turned 29 Percy Street into a cabinet of curiosities. For him it was truly loved and a dream home, he delighted in the romance of its past and its potential. It was a place of reverie and fantasy. It appeared again and again in his paintings: a samovar here, a sunlit room there, a noble Georgian fireplace. He had excellent, classical taste and created beautiful rooms in the Biedermeier style with Viennese furniture and wallpaper he had painstakingly hand-painted, as well as a Soane-inspired library and a grand kitchen in the basement. While the house was lovely to look at, and while it had been furnished with lovely things, it was crumbling around Boyd Harte and his family. Enormous amounts of money had to be spent on the rickety foundations. ‘It was chic but very shabby and in a state of picturesque collapse’, remembers a friend. Heavy rain would fall through the house and one evening at dinner, the ceiling collapsed above the dining table. That same friend recalls that Boyd Harte would have been characteristically amused, merely warning his guests to look out for plaster in their soup.
There is always a dynamic interplay between an active mind and its surroundings. The house becomes a theatre, its rooms become stages on which lives are played out. Boyd Harte lived in his imagination amongst the ghosts of Fitzrovia’s bohemian past, and was haunted and inspired by that legacy. And his house became a place of performance, of musical entertainments at the grand piano on the first floor, of cabarets performed with a friend as Les Freres Perverts and of countless lavish, still-remembered parties. Happiest as the centre of attention, he threw himself an annual, themed ‘official’ birthday party on 1 May. One was Georgian, the façade lit by torches and bewigged guests arriving in carriages. Another party was Mexican. He imported cacti and tonnes of sand, drew bullet holes in the rubble-filled courtyard and his wife was dressed as Frida Kahlo. Boyd Harte in a long white beard went as the Emperor Maximilian and at midnight he performed a tableau recreating Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. Friends were impressed by how convincingly he played dead, not realising that earlier in the day he had slipped and been knocked unconscious by a giant cactus he had been carrying.
Boyd Harte was drawn to the heroic and the overreaching, to stories of fantasy and failure. One of his heroes was William Beckford, the fabulously wealthy author, orientalist, radical and recluse, who had built his own Gothic fantasy, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, at the end of the nineteenth century. Fonthill, with its sky-scraping tower, became the stuff of legend even before it collapsed in 1825. Its ruins disappeared almost without trace. Cannily, Beckford had not long sold it, having fallen into enormous debt. It was left to its new owner to lament the Abbey’s demise.
In 1976 Boyd Harte and Ian Archibald Beck had performed ‘The Second Collapse of Fonthill Abbey’ at a fundraising ball in Wiltshire. ‘Glyyn constructed a very fine and detailed cardboard model of the Abbey which I wore as a costume’, Beck recalls. ‘The tower on my head and my arms extended outwards as the wings of the Abbey. Glynn played the piano and improvised a thunderous set of ‘collapse’ chords while I slowly sank to the ground in a state of destruction.’
Perhaps it was a portent. 'On reflection Percy Street was a sort of madness for Glynn’, one of his friends recalls. From the moment he bought the house he was paying to keep it from collapse. And though the absence of foundations didn’t destroy the house, they were, in part, the cause of Boyd Harte’s financial failure. He was, a friend remembers, ‘utterly hopeless with money’. At the peak of his success he had been represented by a gallery from which he parted acrimoniously. Though he was taken up by another gallery, his career was never fully resurrected, and the 1980s financial crash shattered the fabric and wallpaper design business he had been developing. He had already borrowed money for the house, when he received an enormous tax bill and soon after a huge American Express bill. He had budgeted for none of it and the only answer was to sell the house.
To some, financial collapse would be the defining tragedy of their life. To others, it would be the loss of a dream home. Glynn Boyd Harte refused to see either as such. ‘His life was a series of ups and downs’, writes a friend. Stockpiled, unopened letters from the bank were later handed out for guests to read aloud as after-dinner entertainment. He sought to rebuild his life, and that of his family, buying a small flat on Gower Street and a house in a pretty fishing village in Normandy. He treated the loss of Percy Street and the acquisition of his house in France as a triumph, a new dream.
For Gaston Bachelard, an ideal house is one of promise deferred: ‘It is a good thing’, he writes, ‘for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later… so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it.’ Glynn Boyd Harte was ill for a long time before he was diagnosed with the leukaemia that would eventually end his life, at the age of 55, on 16 December 2003. He was outlived by the Percy Street house which he loved, and which is now so carefully restored, and shored up against the ravages of time.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (London: Beacon Press, 1992)
‘a house of blood and bones’ quote from ‘The Moon-Worshippers’ by ER Dodds, 1919
And with thanks to Diana Parkin, Ian Archibald Beck and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan.