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.”
The scene is a medieval castle; the place, La Napoule, a sleepy seaside
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
– Henry Clews Jr.
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
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
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
Typically, Henry Clews’ thinly disguised pun on “hypo-critter” reflects
the autodidactic artist’s approach to all his creations, whether sculpture
literary drama––the use of wit and neologisms to spin out his complex
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
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
Napoule castle, Clews has come to refer to himself as “Mancha,” and
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
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
tall Senegalese butler at La Napoule in baggy colonial zouave pants, a
mauve silk shirt, yellow waistcoat, white gloves and a high embroidered hat.
all, when Henry and Marie name their only child, born in Paris
in 1915, “Mancha Madison Clews Jr.,” it symbolically seals their
pursue Clews’ “impossible dream”—the struggle to remain “pure” in
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,
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
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
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
City where she is represented by Galerie Lelong.
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