Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Beryl Bainbridge: Napoleon and Me

Napoleon Dancing at 42 Albert St, Camden Town, to the Strains of the Gramophone, 1967

On returning from St Helena I just managed to catch an interesting exhibition at the Liverpool Museum of paintings by Beryl Bainbridge, one of Britain's most successful post war novelists.

Apparently the Liverpool born writer was also a prolific painter, and fascinated by Napoleon, particularly by the contrast between his exile on St Helena and his previous public life in Europe as victorious soldier, Consul and Emperor. I suspect though that her vivid imagination may have somewhat exaggerated the amorous possibilities that Longwood House afforded him!

Pride of place in the exhibition, and the front cover of a new book on Bainbridge by Psiche Hughes, is a portrait of Napoleon dancing to a gramophone record with a naked lady, presumably Bainbridge herself, at her home in Camden.

Another shows one of the men in her life in the guise of a bearded Napoleon, apparently seated on a horse.

Napoleon On a Horse

Another shows a lover Don McKinley as a young Napoleon. To the left of Napoleon is a cut off face of Beryl Bainbridge herself and to the right a view of the Lancashire countryside presumably from the farmhouse close to Ramsbottom in which they lived.

Napoleon When Young

Another, which one journal claims was in the exhibition, but which I do not recall, and for which I can find no image (photography was not allowed), is entitled "Napoleon and Friend Retreating from Ramsbottom", which, at the risk of offending a few readers, seems like a good place to retreat from.

Also displayed were pictures of Scott of Antarctica, the Titanic and, most interesting to me, of Dr Johnson, including one of Johnson and his cat Hodge again set in her own house in Camden. Dr Johnson was one of Bainbridge's later passions and the subject of her novel “According to Queeney", which tells the story of his unrequited love for Mrs Thrale.

A quirky, apparently light hearted exhibition, with Adolf Hitler making a cameo appearance in a Titanic picture, there was an underlying more serious theme to Beryl's painting. I was interested by the comment of her daughter JoJo Davies, speaking about the portrayal of Dr Johnson: I love this painting. .. That look of disappointment on his face. Disappointment was a big theme in her novels, though not conscious I don’t think. Reading that I thought again of the Titanic and Scott of Antarctica, and despite the erotic imaginings, of Napoleon on St Helena. Interestingly though, in reviewing what was a very small exhibition, neither the Guardian nor the Telegraph thought Napoleon or Dr Johnson worth a mention.


Phil said...

Nice post and pictures...lucky man!

Velda said...

This is cool!