Henna Nights


I didn’t see Jack Gold’s excellent TV adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant until long after it came out in 1975. Towards the end Crisp (powerfully played by John Hurt) finds himself having to spend the night in Portsmouth. He goes for a walk on the front and is immediately surrounded by sailors, who start to gently tease and flirt with the henna-haired ‘stately homo’ in the friendliest way imaginable. The Crisp/Hurt voiceover reflects wistfully that ‘it was the only time I felt I was the centre of attention without being in danger’.

It’s a short, almost dreamlike sequence, but powerful enough to echo some very similar romantic yearnings in the works of Stephen Tennant, the young artist-aristo (who, fitting though the epithet might have been, would never have called himself a ‘stately homo’). The reclusive Tennant was a talented draughtsman whose pen and ink watercolours possessed an original and instantly recognizable style. Most of them were illustrations for the novel – set in Marseille – that he spent nearly half a century not finishing: Lascar, A Story of the Maritime Boulevard.

In the 20s and 30s, Tennant had been one of the ‘Bright Young People’, a group including Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, the Mitfords and Evelyn Waugh. He was one of the inspirations for Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte and for four years the lover of First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon.

While putting on a retrospective exhibition of his work I was taken to meet Stephen by his nephew, Simon Blow. Simon’s grandfather, Arts and Crafts architect Detmar Blow, had designed the house, Wilsford Manor, that Stephen had bought from his brother; later he commissioned the fashionable 1930s interior designer, Syrie Maugham, to work on the interior. The resulting mix of Art Deco and Arts and Crafts was incongruous but strangely appropriate for Stephen’s self-indulgent and eccentric lifestyle.

Stephen, now in his eighties and – as was Crisp – a fan of henna, received us in his bedroom like some fading eastern potentate, propped up by pillows and surrounded by jewelry boxes, seashells and bottles of scent, lending some credence to the popular myth that he’d spent most of his life in bed. Dinner and breakfast were served in a dining room decorated with pink shells, by a couple named Skull; Stephen attended neither meal, preferring to remain in bed. I asked Simon if he ever ventured out to meet his tenant, V.S. Naipaul, who lived in a cottage in the garden, but he thought not, although Stephen did once send the great author a mango. The exhibition was well received, but Stephen died four years later in 1987.

Last week two events brought back my short friendship with Stephen into sharp focus. The first was a visit with Simon Blow (whom I hadn’t seen for several years) to the evocative exhibition of his work curated by Victor Wynd and currently on view in his gallery, The Last Tuesday Society Shop (aka Victor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors) at 11 Mare Street in Hackney. It’s a well put together little show with a broad selection of the artist’s work including photographs of Wilsford – and should not be missed (see the ER Review section for more details).

After viewing the art, Simon and I went on to look at the nature at the nearby Bethnal Green WMC. Top Shelf Jazz is a group of jazz musicians who play a 20s and 30s style of music ‘with vocal refrain’ and dress for the part (see the ER Review section for more details). For me, nothing evokes a memory of a memory more than music. The songs were risqué, the music veering from Al Bowlly-style crooning to foot-stomping, roaring-20s stuff, from a fine Reinhardtesque guitar to some very elegant swing. There was an exotic, diminutive tattooed lady (Fancy Chance) who took most of her clothes off as she Charlestoned, and later a tap-dancing lady (Josephine Shaker) who kept hers on. But it was when the band donned their scarlet fezzes and a fine crowd of jitterbuggers, lindyhoppers and ceroc(k)ers took to the dance floor in a syncopated thresh of limbs that I thought of dear, decadent Stephen Tennant. I think the old boulevardier would have just loved it, tattoos, fezzes, music and all.

Photo by michael s marks

Leave a Reply