First published online by Charlotte Higgins.
“How well do you know Kipling’s poetry?” demands John Richardson, almost before the door to his Manhattan apartment has closed behind me. “I’m trying to remember the name of a poem … it’s for something I’m writing.” Richardson – the first volume of whose Picasso biography won him the Whitbread book of the year award in 1991 – is 88 years old and suffers from macular degeneration, severely hampering his ability to read. But he is still working furiously: writing, now with collaborators, volume four of the Picasso biography, and curating exhibitions. (His Picasso: the Mediterranean Years at the Gagosian Gallery London in 2010 was regarded as a museum-quality exhibition – or indeed, as surpassing museum quality, arising as it did out of an intimate personal knowledge of the artist and his circle.) When I visit, he is drafting an essay on Lucian Freud, whom he had known since he was 18 years old and Freud was 20.
Richardson – who occasionally pauses at length to excavate a name from the deep layers of his memory, but who is otherwise sufficiently youthful to clamber out of a sash window to perch on his tiny terrace at the behest of the photographer – leads me through a startlingly impressive array of rooms, busily decorated with sculptures, deeply upholstered divans, elaborate lamps, antique tables and, above all, pictures. He gestures in the direction of an 18th-century portrait. “That’s a Reynolds of Frederick, Prince of Wales. One of Queen Mary’s ladies-in-waiting was always trying to get it out of me. They didn’t have one at the palace.” We whisk past Picassos and Freuds, and I spot what I imagine to be a reproduction of a Braque perched on a side table. It is only later, when I look at the inscription – “Pour Richardson, avec mes amitiés, G Braque” that I realise it’s the real thing, a delicate piece in ink and cardboard collage of a bird flying to its nest.
Richardson is one of the last links to a dazzling, lost world: aside from Picasso, Braque and Jean Cocteau, whom he met while living for 12 years with the art collector Douglas Cooper in the south of France after the war, he was on terms with an array of literary and artistic figures – Anthony Blunt, Cyril Connolly, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Francis Bacon, Nancy Mitford, Graham Sutherland, James and John Pope-Hennessy – many of whom are vividly brought to life in his gripping, gossipy, score-settling memoir, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Above all, the memoir conveys the character of Cooper, one of the most important early collectors of cubist art, who seduced Richardson and then swept him away to France in 1950.
Cooper introduced him to many of the stellar figures who shine out of the memoir’s pages, but he was also a domineering, controlling companion. As Richardson puts it: “There was a great deal to Douglas – he was brilliant, he was very funny, there was never a dull moment, but to live under the same roof way off in a rather deserted part of Provence was – well, I sometimes went stir crazy.”
He eventually left and settled in New York, writing for the New York Review of Books (among other publications) and organising a successful Picasso exhibition in 1962 that spanned nine galleries. He then set up the New York branch of Christie’s with fellow Briton Charlie Allsopp. “We complemented each other. I didn’t know much about 17th-century Dutch painting, or Chinese porcelain or silver. He didn’t know much about modern painting,” he says of Allsopp, the father of TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. Leaving Cooper, he says, “I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world.”
It was going back to France to consult Picasso about the 1962 exhibition that brought forth the idea of the biography. “I’d say: ‘Who is it a portrait of?’ And he’d say that with works of the late 1930s there were sometimes as many as four people in one portrait – Dora Maar, Nusch Eluard, Inès the maid, Lee Miller, you’ll see all of them. So the whole question of identity in these portraits was fascinating. I thought I’d do a big study looking at how one could trace Picasso’s style through the portraits of the women who were inspirational to him. Then I realised it was much better to do a large-scale biography.”
With its sharp, jargon-free prose, its persuasive art-historical arguments and its pungent insights into its subject’s character, the first volume was a revelation. Art historian Richard Wollheim wrote in the London Review of Books: “There is no short way of conveying the wealth, precision and imaginativeness of this book.” For critic Waldemar Januszczak, writing in the Guardian, it was “the finest biography of an artist I have read”.
John Patrick Richardson was born in London in 1924, the eldest son of the 70-year-old Sir Wodehouse Richardson and his much younger wife, Patty. “My father was totally fascinating and rather impressive,” says Richardson. “He was decorated by Queen Victoria and knighted by Edward VII. He was quartermaster general in the South African war, and the first to feed the troops refrigerated beef – he brought in refrigerated railroad cars.” After the Boer war he co-founded the Army and Navy Stores, with its HQ in Victoria Street in London and outposts in Calcutta and Bombay. “One day, on a Thursday, which was board meeting day, when he’d always do a tour of inspection of the store, he saw this little woman retouching photos and got interested in her, and he waited outside with a bunch of roses, and one thing led to another.” His father died when Richardson, the oldest of three children, was six. “I was enormously proud of my father and to some extent have missed him every day of my life. He was so bright, so funny and warm – heroic in his way.”
At 13, Richardson was sent to Stowe, its Capability Brown grounds and elegant 18th-century follies providing the backdrop for some of his earliest sexual experiences. Here, his art teacher introduced him to the work of artists such as Picasso and Schwitters. Richardson shows me a little abstract work that he made at the time, impressively progressive for a 1930s schoolboy. As war broke out he enrolled at the Slade. Later, just as he was called up, he caught rheumatic fever: he was out of the army before he ever put on an Irish Guards uniform.
He lived in wartime London with his mother and siblings, working as an industrial designer by day and doing air-raid warden and firefighter shifts by night. And then there were the parties. “In those days being gay was somewhat dangerous; my best friend was had-up for some non-offence and jailed for a month – you had to be careful. But during the blitz London was kind of amazing. There were these great nightclubs in bombed basements in Soho. And there would be a feeling of tremendous excitement because quite a few of the men would be going off the following day to Egypt. And people were so great with each other during the war. People weren’t petty or bitchy, they were out for basically whatever thrills they could get before they were bombed or packed off to the battlefield.”
Soon after the war he began to write literary journalism for the New Statesman, mentored by Cuthbert Worsley, the magazine’s theatre and deputy literary editor. “Postwar London,” says Richardson, “was bohemian fun, but also one felt there was a creative spirit to it, which seems to have ceased.” One day in 1949 Worsley took him to a party at the house of John Lehmann – brother of the novelist Rosamond – in honour of Paul Bowles’s new novel, The Sheltering Sky. Also at the party was Cooper, who had spent a chunk of his fortune amassing an impressive modern art collection.
“In those days,” says Richardson, “booze was always a problem. You had to scrounge around for a bottle of port, then there’d be a bottle of scotch, a couple of bottles of South African red wine, some liqueurs – and so you’d get drunk after three different drinks. I had met Douglas before and I longed to see the collection; it was difficult, impossible, to see great cubist works at the time. So I went up to him and introduced myself. ‘I know perfectly well who you are,’ said Douglas.
“I said: ‘I would like very much to see your collection.’ He said: ‘There is no time like the present. Let’s leave these ghastly people and this ghastly party.’ And off we went in a 20-year-old Rolls-Royce, black with yellow wheels, resembling a wasp. We set off at an enormous speed and screeched to a halt two blocks away at Basil Amulree’s, with whom Douglas shared a house.”
Soon it would be Richardson’s home, too: “I slept with Douglas out of curiosity, and also I wanted to get to know him better,” he says. Amulree, a physician and a peer “who never did a mean or cruel thing”, seemed not to mind. “He lived through Douglas,” says Richardson. “In fact, the worse Douglas was, the more satisfaction Basil seemed to get. He wasn’t so much masochistic as uptight. Somehow through Douglas he let go. He would hoot with laughter at Douglas’s antics; occasionally he would give a slight sigh, but he would often egg him on. Basil was not in the least jealous of Douglas’s relationships; Douglas, on the other hand, was extremely derogatory about Basil’s occasional relationships.”
Cooper took Richardson on something of a grand tour around Europe, which culminated in the discovery of a beautiful, neglected chateau called Castille, where they settled. It was here that they moved into the orbit of the magnetic, contradictory creature that was Pablo Picasso, who lived not far away.
Picasso was between mistresses, with various candidates swirling around. Richardson took a great shine to one of them: Jacqueline Roque. “She seemed perfect for him. She was the right shape – big pair of breasts and a big pair of buttocks and not much in between, and that’s what he liked. I went up to Paris and got a present for her, a sort of bullfighter’s cape from Dior, and that cemented our friendship, for Jacqueline soon ended up as the mistress.”
Jacqueline was with him to the end, devoted to and exhausted by the artist. “The last eight years of Picasso’s life there was no one around but her. She was secretary, housekeeper, she lugged around the canvases. She would have to do all the practical things – go to the bank, buy the stuff for the weekend, have a hassle with the lawyer – and be back at home by the time he rose at 10.30. Then she had to remain by his side without even leaving the room until sometimes two, three, four in the morning. And she started to drink. By the time he died she was in terrible shape.”
After a dozen years, the relationship with Cooper ground painfully to a halt. A final episode of the endgame came when Cooper was stabbed by a young man whom he had picked up. Richardson, who had moved away by that point but was back to celebrate Picasso’s birthday, rushed to the hospital, sleeping on a deckchair by his bedside. When Cooper eventually spoke, it was to enquire: “Where did you find that assassin?”
After all that, “New York was paradise for me,” says Richardson. “I felt like a child let loose in a department store. There were white Russian chess players, interior decorators, old-fashioned English people, left-wing politicians.” Friends included Andy Warhol, for whom he took part in a soap opera the artist had devised. (“Maxine de la Falaise played a once-famous actress who had fallen on evil days. And I was her brother from London.”)
He says of Warhol: “Since he died I’ve seen all sorts of depths to Andy I hadn’t spotted when he was alive. I’m a Catholic and I have realised the enormous importance of Roman Catholicism to him. He went every single day to mass. I think this explains the repetitions in his work – all the Ave Marias, like the 50 soup cans. To me he was like a character out of Russian fiction, the holy idiot. He could portray horrible and hideous things and be surrounded by horrible and hideous people taking drugs and killing themselves. But somehow he managed to retain his innocence and never get contaminated.”
Today, Richardson is exasperated by the politics of the US. “Back in those days, most of my friends were to the left. Now the left doesn’t exist any more. A woman – the wife of a well-known zillionaire – recently said to me: ‘John, I had no idea you were such a liberal.’ And I thought, do you know, this is what friends used to say when I was 18. Except they meant I should become a socialist. It seemed to me that history was repeating itself but upside down. I’ve stayed more or less where I am, politically. My father was a liberal, and I feel liberalism in my bones.”
Volume four of the Picasso biography, with the collaboration of Spanish art historian Gijs van Hensbergen and curator Michael Cary, is near completion. It will cover the years from 1933 to the artist’s death in 1973. “Finally one can set the whole Communist record straight,” says Richardson. Though Picasso “became Communist because he was passionately pacifist and had very strong views about poverty”, according to Richardson, he also did so in a fit of pique after “very temporarily becoming a passionate Gaullist” at the time of the liberation of Paris.
He explains: “The de Gaulle people got hold of this, Dora Maar told me, and they came round to dinner. But afterwards, he simply said ‘bande de cons‘ [bunch of cunts] and joined the Communist party the next day.” But, Richardson argues, “in private, he was critical of the Communists and very upset by the brutality of the Soviets, but he was stuck – he couldn’t withdraw without looking like a turncoat. So up to the end of his life he realised he had no choice but to stay in the party.”
And so work continues on a remarkable project; and this slayer, and celebrator, of sacred monsters, forges on towards his tenth decade.
• This article was amended on 26 March 2012. The original said that volume four of the Picasso biography would cover the years from 1962 to 1973. This has been corrected.