by Philip Hoare
At Batsford’s gallery in May 1945, Dirk Bogarde and his wartime companion Christopher Greaves exhibited watercolours they had made during the Allied advance in Europe. The title was ‘With the BLA’ (the British Liberation Army), and The Times, reviewing this show of ‘men-at-arms and men-of-arts’, remarked that Captain Derek Van den Bogaerde (as he was then) ‘seems to think principally in watercolour, which he uses very effectively’. Every painting was sold and vanished into private hands, except one which is held by the British Museum.
Until his death it was presumed that very little had survived of Bogarde’s early art. However, when his estate gave permission, first, for an official biography and then for a two-part BBC TV documentary, a small green sketchbook was discovered among his few surviving papers. It contained pen-and-ink sketches he had made in 1941, two years after he had left art school. They provided visual evidence of an extraordinary talent.
Born in 1921, Bogarde inherited his sense of the theatre from his ‘very beautiful’ mother, Margaret.
She had been an actress during the First World War, entertaining ‘the Boys from the Front’, and in 1920 had turned down a Hollywood contract when her artist boyfriend delivered an ultimatum: the movies or him.
Ulric Van den Bogaerde – son of a Belgian-born art faker – had served in the war, at the Somme and Passchendaele, during which he had seen his best friend blown to pieces; he suffered ever afterwards from the effects of shell-shock. In the same year that he married, Ulric, who had started his career before the war as an artist on The Times, became its first art editor, in which capacity he became responsible for all the illustrations in those pioneering days of newspaper photography.
Art school was a natural progression for the young Derek. After an uncomfortable adolescence spent with an uncle and aunt in Glasgow, where he had been sent when his brother Gareth was born, he attended the Chelsea Polytechnic (later the Chelsea School of Art and Design) in Manresa Road from late 1938 to summer 1939. As Bogarde recalled in his first volume of memoirs, A Postillion Struck by Lightning, he was taught by Graham Sutherland – ‘patient, calm, gentle’ in ‘neat farmer’s smock’ and ‘pale blue knitted tie’ – and Henry Moore: ‘He too moved among his pupils quietly and gently’, exhorting them to treat their life-class skeleton carefully; ‘it’s very hard to get skeletons these days.’
Bogarde’s biographer John Coldstream identified him as a tentative presence at Chelsea (he found just one former student who remembered Bogarde there), ‘vanishing every evening’. It seems he did not want to ‘connect’. ‘He had already experienced a period of blackness’, said Coldstream, ‘what he called the “anthracite years” in Glasgow – and he’d established a sort of “shell” around himself.’ Adam Low, director of the ‘Arena’ documentary, said that after being exiled to Scotland Bogarde ‘understood the nature of rejection’. (There had also been an incident in which Bogarde had been taken home from the cinema by an older man, who had wrapped him up in clothes like a mummy, and abused him. It is telling, as Low remarked, that this scene – almost fantasised in Bogarde’s memoirs – is connected with the cinema; one of the earliest known examples of Bogarde’s art is an adolescent sketch on a page from a school exercise-book, depicting Laurel and Hardy, Greta Garbo and Mickey Rooney.)
During his time at Chelsea, Bogarde had become artistically obsessed with the First World War, reading All Quiet on the Western Front and Seven Pillars of Wisdom and idolising William Orpen and Paul Nash. ‘I was quite convinced that I was painting in this fury because I was the reincarnation of a young soldier who had been killed in 1917,’ he wrote. His output was prodigious, ‘leading Sutherland to say it was probably better to “get it out of my system” and exercise my imagination . . . [he] knew full well that no reincarnation was taking place, simply a release from too much emotionalism.’
Yet it was a fantasy which would stay with him.
Bogarde left Chelsea in a ‘welter of second hand grief, anxiety, and something which was rapidly approaching self-pity’, and returned home to rural Sussex, itself emblematic of the ‘lost England’ of the neo-romantic painters of the period. Although H. S. Williamson, Head Master at Chelsea, wrote to Ulric of ‘the promise of your son’s work, and his unusual facility of invention’, Bogarde, ‘lost, worried and disconnected’, realised that ‘I would never be a successful painter, for the simple reason that I did not want to be. I had no dedication but a totally God-given talent which I truthfully wished could be directed towards the main love of my life: the Theatre.’ As Coldstream remarked, the debate was ‘not all that serious – the theatre had already got to him’.
With the outbreak of war, the 18-year-old Bogarde joined a repertory company in Amersham, where he met Anthony Forwood, then a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery and occasional theatrical agent, who would later share his life for forty years. Forwood secured Bogarde a part in Diversion No. 2, a revue at Wyndham’s Theatre. It was during the longueurs backstage that Bogarde returned to his art. His sketchbook, begun in February 1941, not only exhibits the influence of his tutors, but also indicates that he had not yet exorcised his obsession with the First World War. His scenes of blitzed London recall Moore’s wartime work in the city’s Underground shelters, while his dark landscapes hint at Sutherland’s gothic renderings of rural England. But many are images from an earlier war – his father’s. One picture seems to show a group of soldiers in an exploding shell-hole, as though literally in Hell; another depicts what he calls a ‘set for “Carnage”, an imaginary ballet'; yet another is entitled simply ‘Ypres, 1918′.
Such apocalyptic scenes contrasted vividly with haute-couture fashion-plates of chic women, sketches of Marlene Dietrich, poster designs and backstage still-lives that resemble nothing so much as the work of pre-war designers like Cecil Beaton, and are evidence of Bogarde’s more fey, theatrical imagination (indeed, his first theatre job, in Kew, had been as an assistant set designer).
It is as if, in this one small sketchbook, were contained the almost schizophrenic images of his lives and his choices: the horror of war versus the glamour of fashion and the theatre. It was an accurate reflection of the bizarre quality of wartime London.
Sharing a Wyndham’s dressing room with Peter Ustinov, while bombs dropped outside and made the house lights flicker, Bogarde and his friends would emerge from rehearsals into ‘an inferno in Charing Cross Road. The whole world seemed to be on fire, the sky crimson, dust and smoke like a thick fog, the glass canopy around the theatre shattered into inch long splinters, rubble, broken branches and fire hoses everywhere. The Hippodrome was burning fiercely, people cursing, coughing and running, wires looped across the street and everywhere belching heat and smoke.’ It was these scenes that he recorded in his sketchbook: figures slumped on the platform of Piccadilly Circus Underground station, churches and theatres framed by broken and scorched timbers; it was as if the imagined wastelands of his First World War scenes had suddenly become reality.
Picking their way through the bombed West End, Bogarde, Forwood, Ustinov and Edith Evans took refuge in an afternoon drinking club in Orange Street, where they were greeted by the sight of ‘a pale young man in a blue angora sweater . . . playing “Our Love Affair” – he looked up with polite surprise but went on, his identity bracelets gleaming softly.’
‘All the while, bombs continued to fall, ‘shaking the room and making a glass tank of wax lilies jerk and wobble in the blast’. Diversion No. 2 premiered to a packed house the next day, one of only two theatres open for business in London. But midway through the run Bogarde received his call-up papers.
As a commissioned officer from 1943 Bogarde spent the rest of the war working in Military Intelligence, interpreting aerial reconnaissance pictures for the Army. His progress through France, Belgium and Holland with the Liberation forces was recorded in the collection of watercolours shown at Batsford’s. They were the last serious flowering of his art until 1977, when he produced a series of sketches for A Postillion Struck by Lightning. He designed the jackets for several of his subsequent titles; and for Great Meadow (1992), his further ‘evocation’ of the idyll he had shared in Sussex with his sister Elizabeth, he again supplied a set of charming, bucolic drawings.
It is fitting that the paperback edition of Bogarde’s final book, a collection of journalism titled For the Time Being, should end with his tribute to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The scenes of war he drew so graphically in his sketchbook still haunted him. And like their ‘second hand grief’, like the parts he played and the costumes he wore, his public life was a vicarious performance. The true depth of his own emotion, even now, remained hidden.
This essay is a revised version of ‘Private Life on Parade’, published in The Independent on Sunday on 9 December 2001.