Denton Welch: Dreams of cheap lipstick and Turkish Delight

Severely injured in a car accident, quiet and introspective by nature, the painter and author Denton Welch didn't have a very broad canvas to work on. But it's what he did with his limitations that counts, says Ian Irvine
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

One wouldn't imagine that William Burroughs and Alan Bennett have much in common, but the junkie Beat who wrote The Naked Lunch and shot his wife and the diffident friend of Thora Hird who dramatises unregarded lives do share an admiration for the writing of Denton Welch.

Burroughs observed of him: "Such a marvellous writer, the way he can make anything into something. Writers who complain that they don't have anything to write about should read Denton Welch and see what he can do with practically nothing."

Bennett has noted: "My copy of his Journals is dated 'December 1952' written in my still childish hand. This was a few months after I had been conscripted. Utterly unlike any person I had come across, he seemed a sympathetic voice and - a characteristic of books read when young - seemed to be speaking particularly to me. So I took the book with me into the army as, I suppose, a token of a different sort of life, 'a civilised life' I probably though of it then, though it was nothing like the life I'd known."

Welch's career as a writer only lasted eight years. He died in 1948 aged 33, having composed three novels, over 60 short stories and a journal which ran to over 250,000 words. Though even as a child he exhibited a heightened sensibility, he hadn't intended to be a writer: painting was his first love. He attended Goldsmith's College in south London when art there was still a craft skill to be learnt through life drawing. His paintings are very distinctive; figurative, imaginative and richly coloured. James Methuen-Campbell, the editor of this new and definitive collection of his short stories and other writings, wrote a biography of Welch in 2002 which did much to establish his reputation as an artist. Though not in the first rank, his pictures fit easily into that current of neo-Romanticism which swept through British art in the 1930s and 1940s - including John Minton, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Keith Vaughan, Eric Ravilious - often characterised by a strong attachment to the English landscape with visionary, and occasionally surrealist, overtones.

While he was an art student Welch suffered the horrible accident which wrecked and shortened his life. On a Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend in 1935 his bicycle was run over on a suburban road by an inattentive driver. When he woke up in hospital, his legs had been crushed, he was incontinent and, most ominously, his spine had been damaged (this was the cause of his death 13 years later).

Welch's writing is almost entirely autobiographical: though he naturally alters, conflates and exaggerates episodes, it was always inspired by some real event in his own life. His third, best and posthumously published novel, A Voice Through a Cloud, dealt with the accident and his convalesence, recalling the experience with hallucinatory clarity, and closely observing the cruelties and tendernesses of life in hospital: "The ambulance came for me on a soft warm day in early July. Now that I was to leave the ward for ever, a strange disembodied, unearthly feeling swept over me. I was light; I was nothing. Why did they bother to move an empty shell? The fact that someone in the ward had renamed me Ted added to my sense of lost identity. As the trolley bore me away through the glass partitions, voices called out, 'Goodbye, Ted'' ; "So long, Ted." I waved, but they might have been talking to a stranger. I was not Ted. I was no one.

"I gazed out of the windows at the rooftops for the last time; I thought of the terrible nights and extraordinary dawns I had known in that place. I tasted hot milk in tall glasses, sweet strong tea in squat pap-bowls. Jars of flowers glowed, then faded, on the green-tiled top of my bedside locker. I saw the man with his leg slung up in the air, and the other bad-tempered one with the bandaged ear. I heard Dick's forced chuckle and the elephant trumpetting of the man who died. I felt the efficent nurse tearing off my dressings - the tiny hairs crackled as if on fire.

"I had strayed into a nightmare land where I had no part or place. Like Alice I had burrowed down a rabbit-hole to find myself in a world of twisted sight, sound, taste and touch.

"As I was wheeled to the lift, something sprang to life inside me. The smell of the shaft, the momentary glimpses of faces, fire-extinguishers, frosted windows, as we sank through each floor, seemed to intoxicate me. Then there was the open door of the hospital. The direct air and sun were the strangest things of all."

During his convalesence, his kidneys became damaged and he began suffering from the blinding headaches which plagued him to the end of his life. Released after four months into a series of nursing homes, Welch discovered the considerable willpower required to become mobile again - not least through the sympathetic attention of a Tonbridge GP, Jack Easton. He first settled in Tonbridge and for the rest of his life would live in a series of cottages in Kent, eventually finding a congenial companion in Eric Oliver. His journals are filled with their antiquarian expeditions through the county, creating a tender wartime pastoral enlivened by the modest gluttony of picnics and chance chaste conversations with good-looking farm boys and soldiers.

In 1940, inspired by reading J R Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday, his account of going to India as the private secretary of an eccentric maharajah, Welch began a travel narrative of his own which eventually became his first novel, Maiden Voyage, about an adolescent adventure.

He had been born in Shanghai, the youngest of the four sons of a wealthy rubber merchant and his glamorous New England yankee wife. His education had been eccentric and intermittent in both China and England but, after the death of his beloved mother when he was 11, he was destined for the boarding-school at Repton (where Roald Dahl was a contemporary and his occasional tormenter). A quiet, unsporty loner, he was unsuited to the brutality of public-school life in the 1930s, though in part protected by an older brother's presence in his house and able to retreat to the Art School. At 16 he ran away to London and the consequences were entirely beneficial. His stand against authority improved his reputation in the school and his benevolent but distant father decided to remove him at the end of the term and asked Welch to come and stay with him in Shanghai.

This episode was the basis of Maiden Voyage. Its publication in 1943 was a sensation, not least for its frank account of public school life. Though nothing explicitly homoerotic occurs in the book, as with much of his work there is a charged possibility of sex which never actually appears. He seemed a permanent adolescent, a mixture of sophistication and naivety with an undeluded precision about his own feelings and motives and of those around him. It brought him the acquaintance and approval of many important figures in the literary world - Edith Sitwell, Cyril Connolly, John Lehmann, W H Auden - and his short stories began appearing in magazines. (Two collections of short stories appeared posthumously - Where Nothing Sleeps now gathers all his shorter work together for the first time. Welch's novels are intermittently in print, but his other work has, until now, been difficult to obtain.)

His second novel, In Youth is Pleasure, published in 1945, recalled his last holiday from school before he was taken away for good, with his father and brothers in a smart hotel in the Home Counties. There is really no plot, but Orvil/Denton's vivid inner life carries the reader on through his imaginative fantasies and freshness of observation: "He locked himself into his bedroom and thought of Aphra's lips - the painted redness of them, glossy like melting sealing-wax or a pillar-box in the rain. He went to the chamber-cupboard, searched under the paper and pulled out the lipstick he had stolen from the shop in Salisbury. He looked at it carefully and saw that it had 'Sang de Rose' written on it in very peculiar lettering, which reminded him of nothing so much as white worms wriggling in and out of angular lattice-work. he put the stick to his nose and smelt it. He thought of crystallized violets coated with bright mauve sugar, and of European-made Turkish Delight dyed pink. 'It's very cheap lipstick,' he thought."

This close-up myopic vision is characteristic. Welch had fastidious tastes: he was well-informed about old china, bric-a-brac, prints, paintings and other gleanings of his junk-shop forays. He preferred small things to large, bright colours over beige, the old over the new. (An 18th-century dolls' house which he restored is now the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.) To mention these interests might be to give the impression of a fey aesthete, physically weak, irredeemably minor, like Stephen Tennant. But this would be mistaken: Welch was single-minded, but not solipsistic, and hard-working to the end. Though in considerable pain and only able to work for a few minutes at a time, he continued revising A Voice Through A Cloud until his death in December 1948.

In a letter towards the end of his life Welch said that he believed the small, everyday happenings of one's existence were indicative of greater truths, and on the whole that he mistrusted writers who took it on themselves to peddle significant utterances. He was right. From his vivid memories of the quotidian recalled in claustrophobic rooms Welch managed to create a body of work, individual, compelling and honest. Influential in its own time it remains so today.

'Where Nothing Sleeps: the complete short stories' by Denton Welch, edited by James Methuen-Campbell, is published in two volumes by Tartarus Press (£70). To order a copy, (p&p free), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897