Opium and the art of suicide

Roger Berthoud on the tragic, sybaritic life of a gifted painter; Christopher Wood: An English Painter by Richard Ingleby Allison and Busby, pounds 25
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There can be no more remarkable and poignant story in the annals of 20th-century British painting than that so readably told in this book. If "Kit" Wood, the handsome son of an uptight Liverpool doctor, had not been injured playing football in his first few months at Marlborough, he would probably have become just another conventional public school product. Instead, the two years he spent recovering at home made him feel special and apart.

At 19, after briefly studying architecture, he quit the family home in Huyton for London. Within a staggeringly short time he had charmed his way into the Paris home of a wealthy banker and collector, Alphonse Kahn, and begun to study drawing. In the next eight years he penetrated to the heart of Paris's intellectual and social life, became accepted on both sides of the Channel as a painter or considerable achievement and great promise, only to throw himself under a train at Salisbury station in 1930, a few months after his 29th birthday. Wood's premature death has continued to be seen as a serious loss to British painting.

For much of his short career, he was torn between his ambition to be "the greatest painter that ever lived", and the excitement and glamour of his friendships with the likes of Cocteau, Picasso and Tony Gadarillas, the Chilean socialite with whom he lived for much of this time in some luxury. Wood admired the austerely dedicated lives of his friends Ben and Winifred Nicholson, but did little to emulate them, seeking to justify his socialising as a means of advancing his career.

Which indeed it did, aided by his good looks and (as Anthony Powell put it) "convenient bisexuality": he stood on the brink of success after showing only two paintings. But his sybaritic streak led to opium addiction, which, along with chronic indebtedness and possible blackmail, seems to have unhinged him. Wood's much-sung innocence sometimes comes across in his letters more as spoilt stupidity. Italy's fascists are "young bloods" and, after a Socialist outrage, he hopes they will kill "a good few filthy Socialists." Arabs are "so frightfully dishonest and smelly", and women are "a pest", though he eventually falls for three of them.

The numerous illustrations remind us that at his best Wood was a painter of rare gifts. But the final impression is that he lacked the intelligence and staying power to have become a great one.