Lynn Barber

Out of the Snake Pit

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper


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What does John Richardson think he is doing? He is half-way through his monumental Life of Picasso, with two volumes down and at least two more to go – you would think that, at seventy-five, he would feel some urgency to finish it. But he has taken time out to write this fluffy memoir. Of course it’s good fun, but it would be tragic if he didn’t finish his Picasso.

Perhaps Richardson felt he needed to pay a belated tribute to the ‘Sorcerer’ who gave him his entree to Picasso – Douglas Cooper. Cooper was a shit by all accounts including this one, a bully and a troublemaker with a lacerating tongue, but he was one of the greatest connoisseurs of modern art. Armed with family money from Australia, he bought the big four Cubists – Picasso, Braque, Léger and Gris – before the War, when they were still cheap, and ended up with a collection worth half a billion.

Richardson was presumably a dazzlingly handsome young man when Cooper met him in 1949. (Actually, he is still handsome – he starred in some ads for Gap T-shirts a few years ago.) Richardson was then twenty-five, conveniently invalided out of the Irish Guards and making an exiguous living as a book and ballet critic. He had what he calls an ‘upstairs-downstairs background’: his father founded the Army & Navy Store, originally as an officers’ food co-op during the Zulu Wars, and married one of his shop assistants at the age of seventy, siring three children and dying when John was five. John went to Stowe, where he enjoyed a hectic sex life among its temples and grottoes, and then went to the Slade for long enough to realise that he was not cut out to be a painter.

He first met Douglas Cooper at a party of Viva King’s, who accurately described Cooper as ‘a sinister bugger’. Francis Bacon also warned Richardson: ‘She’ll [meaning Cooper] try to lure you into bed and then she’ll turn on you. She always does.’ Nevertheless, when Cooper invited Richardson to come back and see his paintings, of course he did. Cooper was thirty-eight, overweight and ‘as rubbery as a Dali biomorph’, so the sex was fairly horrible; but ‘A kiss from me, I fantasised, would transform this toad into a prince.’ It never did – but Cooper was smitten and Richardson was happy to have a rich sugar daddy, and in no time at all Cooper had bought the Chateau de Castille near Uzès, where they would live together for the next twelve years.

Cooper was good friends with Picasso, and they often visited his studio, first at Vallauris, where they saw his great She Goat in the making, and then at La Californie. Richardson was astute enough to spot that Jacqueline Gilot was on the way out, and that Jacqueline Roque was emerging, from. a crowded field, as the next mistress. He told Cooper that it would be a good idea to send her a present, so they sent her a beautiful Dior red silk wrap. It proved a good investment – Picasso sent the box back with a ‘Seated Nude’ inside.

Richardson was an eager apprentice, lapping up everything Cooper told him about modern art. One day a friend of Cooper’s sent him photographs of two supposed Légers which he intended buying, but Richardson glanced at them and said they were fakes. ‘There was a terrible silence during which Douglas’s pink face turned the colour of a summer pudding. “What a little expert we’ve become.”’ Soon afterwards Richardson took himself off to New York.

There was an odd postscript in 1961, when he returned to the South of France to attend Picasso’s eightieth birthday party, and learned that Cooper was in intensive care, having been stabbed by a bit of rough trade near Nîmes. Richardson stayed by his bedside – until Cooper awoke and said: ‘Tell me, my dear, why did you hire that assassin?’ That really was the end of the affair.

Richardson is an engaging writer, but even he can’t always disguise the essential nastiness of the whole set-up. He talks about Cooper’s ‘meanness of spirit and purse’, his will-rattling, his filthy temper and vitriolic tongue, and the fights, which Cooper always won because ‘He would fall on top of me and pin me to the ground.’ He makes the art world sound an absolute snake pit and reveals that, although Cooper started off honest, he ended up selling authentications just like Bernard Berenson. Richardson also describes his own rather dubious dealings with the aged Helena Rubinstein. ‘Whenever I was able to raise some money, I would go round to Madame’s enormous triplex apartment, wave bundles of fifty-dollar bills at her, raise my eyebrows quizzically, and point to one of the Picasso drawings. Madame could not resist the fresh green smell of newly minted banknotes.’ Richardson was appointed Christie’s representative in New York and went on to become the respected connoisseur and art critic he is now. Clearly the apprentice mastered his sorcerer’s trade.

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