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Detail of doors at
La Napoule

A Capital
at La Napoule

The Soul of Patients

The Wog of Lizards of
La Napoule

The Ant Eater
Lanie Goodman The Quirky
Quixotic Kingdom of Henry Clews Jr.


“Solitude is what I need, high walls and aloofness, a hidden corner to be alone with my dreams, away from humanity.”
          – Henry Clews Jr.
The scene is a medieval castle; the place, La Napoule, a sleepy seaside town on the French Riviera; the time, the early 1920s. In the palm-shaded courtyard, Henry Clews Jr., an American expatriate millionaire-turned-artist is seated in his cherished rocking chair, across from his wife, Marie, reading choice passages aloud from the 1023-page manuscript of his autobiographical play, Dinkelspieliana.
          They are not alone. Bulldogs Snob and Tory doze peacefully at their feet, while Don, the white maribou, Craney, one of two grey cranes, and Mrs. Asquith, the ibis, wander between the dusty piles of stone and chiseling tools in the half-built cloister. The other pet birds—the green nightingale from India, the faintail pigeons, white peacocks, flamingoes and the talking magpie—are also part of the audience. Clews is holding forth on one of society’s worst evils—“casinocracy”––as epitomized by his description of a pair of “casinocratic princesses”:
“The two culture-crazed ladies…are pulsating with chic and cheek and are crammed with the latest ists and isms. They are attired with studied simplicity, high-heeled black satin slippers with glittering diamond buckles, black satin shorts and pearl braces. The outline of their enamelled nipples can be perceived from under tiny cones studded with synthetic rubies. The ornamented tit-concealers are the size of Carter’s Little Liver Pill boxes, and are held in place by strings of pearls fastened at the back by a jeweled clasp.”
          The play was never published, much less performed, but the Casinocrat remains one of many monsters who turn up in the artist’s 150-odd sculptures, most of which are still on permanent display at the Clews castle, today the international cultural center, “La Napoule Art Foundation,” which functions as a non-profit artist residency and museum.
          In the complex cosmology of the world according to Clews, this particular species is the fallen aristocrat of the roaring twenties—a debauched alcoholic gambler, portrayed as a smirking hippo head with half-closed eyes whose curvaceously feminine body of feathers is supported by hideous clawed legs.
          Typically, Henry Clews’ thinly disguised pun on “hypo-critter” reflects the autodidactic artist’s approach to all his creations, whether sculpture or literary drama––the use of wit and neologisms to spin out his complex web of personal obsessions. As a renegade from the stultifying 1890s high society of “Old New York” (as described by his contemporary, Edith Wharton), Clews evolves from an erratically brilliant prankster and college flunky into a self-appointed philosopher on the moral weaknesses of humanity. Both childlike and vituperative, Clews reigns with wicked glee over his own private Eden within the fortressed walls of La Napoule, which he recreates stone by stone, engendering an entire family of modern gargoyle demons and spirits.
          These creatures, carved in precious blocks of pink, grey and green porphyry, also reappear in the columns of the cloister, the walnut arches of the dining room, and various other unexpected nooks and crannies all over the castle. Reminiscent of the hybrid animal kingdoms of Hieronymus Bosch, Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss, they comprise a stylized mix of cultures and species: Oriental, Hindu, Inca and African-featured cross-breeds of fish, crustaceans, birds, reptiles, monkeys and predatory beasts. Among the zoomorphic cast of characters, for example, are the Wog (a parrot with elephant feet and a lizard’s tail); the Og of Octopi (a long-tentacled half bird, half octopus); the Shat of Snakes; the Doodles of Dukes; the friendly Gilk of La Napoule; the wrinkled Goohoo of Frogs; the Gamanyune, bird of illomen; and the ubiquitous Jins, laughing gnomes who haunt the chateau.

How did the handsome, headstrong Henry Clews Jr.—son of an established, wealthy Wall Street banker and former dandy in the Newport, Rhode Island smart set—end up a reclusive misanthropic sculptor, determined to live out his romantic fairy tale far from the steel skyscrapers?
          Perhaps we might take a special look at the artist’s exalted “monstrous” form of Utopia. Like his curious bestiary, Clews’ idea of paradise is also a hybrid, grafted directly from literary fiction, and sewn together with mock religious icons. When Clews moves back to war-torn Paris in 1914 with his newly-wedded second wife, Marie, he has already embarked on his personal quest, which he intends to honor even after death. Not only has Clews come to identify with Cervante’s Don Quixote, but he has decided to incarnate the character in real life. However, the knight in shining armor inevitably fuses with another invented persona, a Christ-like martyr dubbed the God of Humormystics, persecuted by the uncomprehending “gymnocrats, scientists, democrats and burghers.”
          Not surprisingly, this reinvention of Clews’ life begins with the magical power of the word. By the time the artist reaches his forties and inscribes “Once upon a Time” over the entrance of his reconstructed La Napoule castle, Clews has come to refer to himself as “Mancha,” and calls his adored mother “Manga.” During his swift courtship with the divorced Philadelphia high-society beauty, Elsie Whelen, he had already rebaptized her as “Marie” (to which he eventually added “the Virgin of la Mancha”). This renaming was presumably because Clews hated his aggressive elder sister, Elsie, another ruler-flaunter but of a different nature. In the Clews’ conservative milieu of finance where women rarely attended university, Elsie horrified the family by becoming a feminist Margaret Mead-type anthropologist and a published scholar, who would turn up at posh events in black velvet and muddy hiking boots from the wilds.
          Quirkiness apparently ran in the family. Clews’ mother, formerly Lucy Madison Worthington, was a domineering Southern aristocrat descendant of James Madison who invariably called all butlers, footmen, and chauffeurs, “Thomas,” “John,” and “James,” respectively. Which might be why her son Henry Jr. blithely christens his own valet “Sancho,” and outfits the tall Senegalese butler at La Napoule in baggy colonial zouave pants, a mauve silk shirt, yellow waistcoat, white gloves and a high embroidered hat.
          Above all, when Henry and Marie name their only child, born in Paris in 1915, “Mancha Madison Clews Jr.,” it symbolically seals their pact to pursue Clews’ “impossible dream”—the struggle to remain “pure” in a mechanized world where the true nobility no longer has its place.
          In the preface of The Strange World of Henry Clews, one of the few works published on the artist, French academician André Maurois likens Clews to Marcel Proust, evoking their shared nostalgia for things past and scathing portraits of gossipy duchesses and precious blue-blood fops. Indeed, Clews’ series of busts (The Hostess, The Duchess, The Gothic Gossip, Mrs. Watson Watson-Wahlig, Royal Snob, The God of the Ritzonians) sculpted in Paris between 1912 and 1916, prior to La Napoule, are realistic renditions of what Clews termed the “slaves of decadent high society”—sagging, wasted flesh and evil-eyed grins, depicting vanity, frivolity, greed and obsequiousness.
          It is also tempting to compare Clews to one of Proust’s more avantgarde contemporaries, French author Raymond Roussel. Born in 1877, just one year after Clews, Roussel grew up in a similar wealthy banker’s milieu in Paris. His revered and equally eccentric mother, Madame Roussel, doted on royalty and always traveled with her coffin, which doubled as a trunk for her evening gowns. Like Clews, Roussel was a rich, solitary dandy and neurasthenic, convinced that he was a predestined genius, identifying with Napoleon and Victor Hugo with the same steadfast conviction that Henry play-acted the Knight of la Mancha. Both Roussel and Clews abhorred scientific and mechanical progress, believing it would rob life of its magic. Yet, in both cases, their artistic production of bizarre imaginary creatures, drawn from fairy tales, myths and linguistic play, was undoubtedly too “modern” (much to their genuine surprise) for the staid critics of the pre-Surrealist generation. Curiously, a few of the surviving early photographs of La Napoule—the elaborately costumed black servant “Sancho” under the palms and the artist’s menagerie of extraordinary pets—bear a striking resemblance to scenes from Roussel’s bizarre play, Impressions of Africa, staged in 1912.
          Since Clews spent part of that year in Paris, it is even possible that he attended a performance of Roussel’s play, or heard about the uproarious premiere from his closest friend, English composer Frederick Delius, who also gave him a first-hand account of Picasso’s famous banquet for Le Douanier Rousseau. Ever since the late 1890s, Clews had been traveling back and forth between NewYork, Newport and Paris, where he made a point of seeking out his mentor, Rodin. Though he never actually studied with the master, Clews had already begun sculpting and painting portraits, combing the Montmartre cafés and Luxembourg Gardens for models.
          It hadn’t been easy to shed his social status and enter the art world. Despite Henry’s enterprising but “creative” British ancestors, Ralph and James Clews, who designed the 19th century Staffordshire pottery (embellished with blue and white designs of English castles and scenes from Don Quixote), it was always assumed by Henry, Sr. that his namesake would take over the “Clews and Company” banking firm on Wall Street.
          Yet clearly, Henry Jr. was not cut out for figures. After having been expelled from Amherst College, and studying philosophy at Columbia University without successfully completing his degree, Henry Clews Jr. then enrolled abroad at the University of Hanover, Germany, but was soon thrown out when officials discovered that the twenty-year-old American was conducting séances of spiritism. And once Mrs. Clews learned that Henry had fallen in love and was living with his sweetheart in a lakeside cottage near Lausanne, she came to fetch her son and brought him back to work at the bank. As recounted by Marie Clews in her memoirs, this was a short-lived decision— indifferent to the rise and fall of the stock market, Henry Jr. was likely to be found reading Shakespeare in a backroom during a moment of crisis. Eventually, it was agreed that he quit the world of finance, and Mrs. Clews begrudgingly rented her son a painting studio. Henry’s earliest canvases (apparently never preserved) were portraits inspired by Renoir and Whistler, depicting the household servants, gardeners, and Newport fishermen.

JANE HAMMOND has had 28 solo exhibitions. Her work is in the collections of 40 major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. A traveling museum exhibition of her works on paper commences in late 2006. She lives in New York City where she is represented by Galerie Lelong.

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