In Francis Bacon’s Shadow: Richard Chopping & Denis Wirth-Miller

Jon Lys Turner’s The Visitors’ Book sheds light on one of the most significant post-war British art archives discovered in decades

How did you come to write The Visitor’s Book?

Jon Lys Turner, The Visitor's Book: In Francis Bacon's Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller
Jon Lys Turner, The Visitor’s Book: In Francis Bacon’s Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller

I was a co-beneficiary of the estates of the artists Richard ‘Dicky’ Chopping (1917-2008) and his partner Denis Wirth-Miller (1915-2010). I had been a close friend of both for thirty years having been taught by Dicky at the Royal College of Art.

After their deaths, on entering their discarded studios behind their estuary-side home in Wivenhoe, Essex, I was astounded to find pile upon pile of canvases, sketchbooks and correspondence.

A director of the Tate visited the studio and explained that these articles were important – maybe one of the most significant post-war British art archives to be discovered in decades and asked if I would put together the structure of a catalogue for a potential show. This soon grew beyond a catalogue. Representatives of the Estate of Francis Bacon suggested that, with so much unseen material, my project should become a book.

“I realised that as a creative director, I might just have an understanding of a contemporary appetite for the story of these two artists’ extraordinary lives, which I was utterly determined should not go unrecorded.”

Dicky, who had been the most famous book-jacket designer in the world (with his covers for Ian Fleming’s James Bond) was also a writer; in 1965 his first novel ‘The Fly’ had been a scandalous bestseller. He had asked me to accept the role of literary executor. I realised that as a creative director, I might just have an understanding of a contemporary appetite for the story of these two artists’ extraordinary lives, which I was utterly determined should not go unrecorded.

Could you say a little bit about how you chose the title?

In April 1945 Wirth-Miller and Chopping moved into a derelict merchant’s house on the River Colne where they remained until their deaths. A large leather bound visitors’ book was established to record the names of the regular stream of guests making the trip up from London. The book records many intimate friendships and dozens of significant acquaintances with many of the brightest protagonists of the inter-connecting worlds of art, literature and theatre. The list is long including Auerbach, Bacon, Beaton, Britten, Carrington, Colquhoun and MacBryde, Coward, Hamnett, Lessore, Minton, Mountbatten, Orwell, Partridge, Paolozzi, Nash, and Spender.

Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller. Photograph: Edward Morgan.
Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller. Photograph: Edward Morgan.

Why has it taken so long for this history to surface?

In their old age Dicky and Denis found themselves sought out by journalists and biographers – usually looking for stories not about them but about Francis Bacon or Ian Fleming. Word even came to Wirth-Miller that his paintings were now selling at rock bottom prices to a new audience that was seeking to scratch off his paint in the hope of finding a Bacon painting beneath.

“Word even came to Wirth-Miller that his paintings were now selling at rock bottom prices to a new audience that was seeking to scratch off his paint in the hope of finding a Bacon painting beneath.”

The couple became increasingly angry and an unsolicited approach would trigger a slammed door accompanied by an expletive. Denis frequently pulled the telephone from its socket, ripped up unread letters and started destroying the articles that were most sought by these new adversaries. This of course led to their isolation and prevented their story from being told.

The book is based on a wealth of archival material that takes many different forms, from letters and postcards, to photographs, to dinner menus, to painted canvases. How did you approach this archive when researching the book?

I don’t think I have ever been so inspired in my life. I soon realised that I had inherited a commission from my old mentor. I sorted papers chronologically and filed correspondence from their key friends and acquaintances in one place. The dates range from 1936 to 2008. Even telephone bills tell a story, for example how frequently they spoke to Francis Bacon – often twice in one day for decades. The whole project lasted about four years due to the size of the archive which my agent Clare Conville describes as “an embarrassment of riches”.

Dinner menu for 26 October 1971, after the death of George Dyer. Image: Jon Lys Turner.
Dinner menu for 26 October 1971. Image: Jon Lys Turner.

I had prints made from every scratched negative from the studio floor, which revealed unknown stories. I worked with other artists’ archives, I researched and I interviewed. I knew there would be a reason why a dated menu existed – for example one shows what Bacon ate on the night of George Dyer’s death in Paris in 1972. A wartime grocery book shows what foods were bought to aid the young Lucian Freud’s constipation (Freud was a fellow student with them at Cedric Morris’s East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing). Every lead would take me to another source – allowing me to meet many fascinating, colourful characters who could directly answer some of the unsolved questions.

In what ways do you think your book offers a snapshot of bohemian life and London’s gay community?

It has been important for me to reflect the strength, grit and honesty with which they lived their lives. Dicky and Denis were never embarrassed by their predilections, or those of their friends, as there was never any attempt to hide these away. Their hedonist days in Fitzrovia are too easily portrayed as glamorous and carefree without thinking hard about the accompanying anxieties and dangers. From 1938 Dicky and Denis, like many of their young friends, openly lived their lives as a couple. This classified them as criminals in the eyes of the contemporary law as well as alienating them from society in general.

The Visitors’ Book follows the couple through their wild early twenties as new bohemians in Fitzrovia. These bohemians were classless, anti-establishment, sexually liberated and even wilder than their Bloomsbury predecessors”

Francis Bacon on holiday with Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller. Image: Jon Lys Turner.
Francis Bacon on holiday with Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller. Image: Jon Lys Turner.

The Visitors’ Book follows the couple through their wild early twenties as new bohemians in Fitzrovia. These bohemians were classless, anti-establishment, sexually liberated and even wilder than their Bloomsbury predecessors. Debauchery and drunkenness crossed all social and sexual distinctions. They rejected bourgeois ethics and constraints. The emphasis was on personal relationships and individual pleasure.

Then followed the horrors of the call up for the war and the terrible need for secrecy concerning their same sex relationship. Denis was imprisoned in 1944 for gross indecency with an accompanying press interest that led to Dicky having to move and hide after News of the World hounded them. Denis’s letters to Dicky from his prison cell are wretched and poignant.

The couple’s story shows that following the war, an escalation of the police purges on known and suspected homosexuals meant added troubles for themselves and their friends. Their involvement in and their witnessing of the 1967 passing of the Sexual Offences Bill in the House of Commons later becomes apparent. Their later dismay at the forced classification of sexual activity was unexpected.

How would you define Chopping and Wirth-Miller’s connection to the literary world?

Dicky, rather than Denis, became connected to the contemporary literary world, as a writer, as an illustrator and as a friend of many well known writers.

At the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing Chopping became close to Kathleen Hale, known for her illustrative books Orlando the Marmalade Cat. Hale introduced Chopping’s illustrative work to Noel Carrington who became his agent and commissioned a series of children’s books.

In 1939, Carrington had persuaded Allen Lane, head of the fledgling Penguin publishing house founded in 1935, to allow him to set up an imprint for children’s books. This was to become Puffin Books.

During one meeting Lane told Chopping: ‘What I really want to publish is a book of British flowers…. the  Scarlet Pimpernel, the Blue Pimpernel, every type of bloody Pimpernel!”’ Chopping and his lifelong friend, the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge were commissioned by Lane to produce 22 volumes. They worked from 1944 to 1949 until it was revealed that the project was to be abandoned having nearly bankrupted Penguin. Chopping later described himself as sinking back into a red leather armchair, taking in the news. After the meeting, a Penguin employee told him that the furniture had been custom made for Heinrich Himmler’s office in Berlin. Partridge thought tis appropriate comparing Lane to a Little Hitler.

richard-chopping-the-fly-cover-design
Richard Chopping, The Fly

Chopping’s first novel ‘The Fly’ was published in 1965, thanks to the mentorship of Angus Wilson who introduced the publishers Secker & Warburg, where David Farrar described it as, “a perfectly disgusting concoction.” The Sunday Citizen called it “Just about the most unpleasant book of the year, but it held me like a fly in a spider’s web of monstrous cruelty.” On the back of this success Chopping was offer a deal for second novel which appeared two years later entitled ‘The Ring’. His agent reminisced; “Chopping’s second novel, and mercifully the last to be published, The Ring, albeit embellished with a revoltingly clever cover, was a much more mundane affair than The Fly and sank with very little trace.”

Chopping and Wirth-Miller’s visitors’ book shows their other literary friends included:  J.R. Ackerley, George Barker, Anthony Blond, Jocelyn Brooke, Cyril Connolly, W.S. Graham, Iris Murdoch, Joe Orton, Gerard Van Het Reve, Stephen Spender and Angus Wilson.

Could you say more about their connection to figures like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon?

Francis Bacon and Richard Chopping. Image: Jon Lys Turner.
Francis Bacon and Richard Chopping. Image: Jon Lys Turner.

Chopping and Wirth-Miller first met Bacon in Fitzrovia before the war. This acquaintance was later renewed at the East Anglian School where their fellow student was a teenage Lucian Freud. Bacon became a lifelong friend, Freud a lifelong adversary. Bacon and Wirth-Miller’s relationship was violent, drunken and complex. Discovered in their archive were around sixty letters from Bacon to Wirth-Miller illustrating the vicious yet loving relationship between the two. When together in England, France or Morocco, they drank, painted and gambled. When apart they wrote constantly.

“Bacon became a lifelong friend, Freud a lifelong adversary.”

Bacon was the most significant regular guest at their home which, over the decades, he would visit more than anyone. From 1948, Bacon would make his presence in Wivenhoe known by turning up at any hour of the day and banging on the door of the Storehouse. He would often arrive in a London taxi commandeered on the corner of Dean Street or Shaftesbury Avenue seventy miles away. He even bought a house in the village.

Denis Wirth-Miller with Francis Bacon. Image: Jon Lys Turner.
Denis Wirth-Miller with Francis Bacon. Image: Jon Lys Turner.

In 1991 when Bacon’s health was failing, he wrote from a Harley Street hospital to Denis, “I think of you as one of few friends.”

Their fight with Freud which began during the Second World War was recently investigated in an edition of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune programme, where a canvas formerly owned by Dicky and Denis (and denied at least five times by Freud) was authenticated.

One of the poignant images in the book is of the cremated remains of Chopping and Wirth-Miller resting on a shelf in the Storehouse. The location is something of a focal point for the story that you tell. What was its significance to Chopping and Wirth-Miller?

As in life, they disagreed after their deaths: as executors we were left with conflicting requests in the wills of Dicky and Denis as to their wishes for the disposal of their ashes which therefore sat for a long time on the shelf previously reserved for potatoes in their kitchen… the same kitchen where over the decades Francis Bacon pissed in the butler sink; the same kitchen that Terence Conran designed after George Dyer, set the room alight courtesy of a cigarette end.

In 1945 when the war in Europe was finally over, Wirth-Miller and Chopping were able to move into the Storehouse on the banks of the River Colne in Wivenhoe, Essex. The house had been built as a pub in the early 1800s but later converted into a grand townhouse for a wealthy merchant. In more recent times it had become a sail storehouse for the fishermen who used the Colne. By 1944 the building was semi-derelict but it remained elegant. It offered views across the Colne and the marshes that ringed its estuary.

“The Storehouse became the centre of Chopping and Wirth-Miller’s world – the place where a colony of their young artist friends worked together and drank together. They went on many dramatic adventures from this house and always returned to this house.”

The house represented freedom for Dicky and Denis as they had experienced in Fitzrovia before the war. They were no longer beholden to friends for accommodation, or society’s prejudice towards their relationship. They owned it together as a couple. Trains ran directly to London’s Liverpool Street Station allowing the couple easy access to the pleasures of their former city as well as allowing the house to become a preferred out of London party location for a steady flow of their city guests. The villagers were welcoming and in general unperturbed.

The Storehouse became the centre of Chopping and Wirth-Miller’s world – the place where a colony of their young artist friends worked together and drank together. They went on many dramatic adventures from this house and always returned to this house. Importantly for Chopping it was possible to see a white wooden mill from the Storehouse that had once been owned by his father. He enjoyed the link with his heritage as they lived out their very different new lives.

Did you encounter any shocks or surprises during the course of your research? 

Having known Dicky and Denis for thirty years very little would surprise me – I was unfazed by the folder marked ‘Creative Writing’ that in fact contained a series of 1970s porn magazines with titles such as ‘Big, Butch and Black’, or the blonde wig and the whip that I knew were props for the Royal College of Art pantomime.

“I was unaware until I read the diaries of the quantity of pills that Chopping, Wirth-Miller and Bacon were consuming on top of the alcohol.”

However I was startled when I read in their diaries that there was little let-up in the non-stop drinking morning and night, day in, day out. It is amazing that their bodies coped so well – both lived into their nineties. I was also unaware until I read the diaries of the quantity of pills that Chopping, Wirth-Miller and Bacon were consuming on top of the alcohol.

David, Marquis of Queensberry who had been one of the couple’s closest friends for more than fifty years wrote to me last month having read The Visitors’ Book, “I didn’t think that I was shockable, but Dicky trying to make a mixture for Francis that looked like semen, was pretty repulsive!”

Some of Richard Chopping's preliminary images for Ian Fleming's Goldfinger. Image courtesy of Jon Lys Turner.
Some of Richard Chopping’s preliminary images for Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. Image courtesy of Jon Lys Turner.

Chopping has a strong connection to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Could you say a little bit about that?

Richard Chopping's cover design for Ian Fleming's James Bond novel, Goldfinger.
Richard Chopping’s cover design for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, Goldfinger.

In April 1956 Francis Bacon introduced Ann Fleming to Chopping’s work in a Mayfair exhibition. Ann in turn introduced Chopping to her husband Ian Fleming who was looking for an illustrator for his series of James Bond novels. Lucian Freud had declined the commission.

The rapport was immediate and Dicky went on to design a series of now world famous covers in his time-consuming trompe l’oeil style. Fleming wrote of Chopping, ‘no one in the history of thrillers has had such a totally brilliant artistic collaborator!’

Dicky could easily be stirred up in his later years on the subject of his Bond covers after countless people would tell him that he’d be mega-rich if he’d been paid royalties.

You have a deeply personal connection to the figures conveyed in the book. How did you feel during the writing process, and what has been your own response to seeing The Visitor’s Book in print?

I grappled with the process of writing a biography about two characters who were so important to my life. I experienced a feeling of guilt as I was opening, reading and transcribing letters from strangers to my friends – as well as when I was reading very personal diaries. I was unsure if I was happy to share these intimate details with an unknown audience.  But Dicky had asked me to accept the role as his literary executor. He wanted his memoires to be shared and he feared Denis would destroy the materials. Dicky had already left me swathes of information for a biography when he stayed with me in London.

I was also faced with the challenge that people may not like them – their behaviour was sometimes so bad that a thorough intimate rendition of their lives might not do justice to their memory.

Seeing The Visitors’ Book in print gives me many feelings – nearly all positive; delight that I have succeeded and enormous pleasure reading some of the great reviews. However I am particularly pleased when I hear from people who have really got beneath the awe that surrounds Bacon to understand the complexities that made up Dicky and Denis and to understand how some of their enormously difficult relationships impacted on other artists’ work as well as their own.

The Visitor’s Book is available from Constable.


About the Author

Jon Lys Turner has worked in the UK design industry ever since he completed his master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. He has been creative director to some of the world’s largest brands.

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