Carry on up the Cÿte d'Azur

Forget the Turner Prize: they did art-world mischief better in the 1950s. Picasso's biographer has taken time off for a memoir of high camp and low cunning in Soho and the South of France
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The Independent Culture

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper by John Richardson Jonathan Cape, £20, 320pp

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper by John Richardson Jonathan Cape, £20, 320pp

After many substantial courses, Edwardian dinner parties would take a break during which a sorbet would be served to refresh the palate. This book, comparatively short and written with bite and humour, is Richardson's sorbet. We have digested the first two volumes of his monumental Picasso, arguably to date the best biography of any artist in history, and now we wait impatiently for the two further tomes which will complete it. Meanwhile, we can curb our impatience and gobble down this divertissement.

What is the subject matter? The subtitle tells all. The book has, in fact, two portraits. The first and more detailed is of Richardson's long-time affair with Douglas Cooper, a rich and clever Anglo-Australian (although he always denied this) with a wonderful eye for modern art and, especially, classic Cubism. He was also one of the most vicious and unpleasant people I have ever met. I know that my opinions in many ways accord with Richardson's - although naturally, over so many years, the two had moments of cosy rapport (not too many).

And the second personage? Picasso himself. In my view, the postwar years were not his greatest moment: the fawns and nymphs, the silly and vulgar ceramics, the dead lumps of Marxist propaganda, all are low on energy and meaning. But Picasso himself is always fascinating - generous and mean, manipulative and yet sometimes spontaneous.

Naturally, Cooper and Picasso are not the only denizens of the diminishing rain forests of European modern art. Braque, Giacometti, Matisse, Miro, Balthus were still active, but many soon died or repeated themselves. Europe, after all, was not an encouraging spectacle while England, with its half-timbered approach to modernism, was even worse. Cooper lay about him with a will and was usually, I regret to say, right.

Richardson's childhood does not occupy much space. His father, who died young, founded the then magnificent Army & Navy stores. His mother's family had been in service. He went to a foul prep school (who didn't?) and then to Stowe, where I was to follow him a few years later and, like him, was very grateful for the progressive couple who ran the art school.

Events tended to fall to Richardson's advantage. Called up into the Irish Guards, he was struck down by rheumatic fever. During the rest of the war, he worked as an industrial designer and at night was on call for fire-fighting although, by his own admission, was often to be found in the famous Gargoyle nightclub, the habitat of high Bohemia. After the war, together with some talented friends, he was commissioned to put together an exhibition called "Britain Can Make It".

In London, being good looking, witty and bisexual, he met everybody. Then, at a party, squeezed into an RAF uniform much too tight for him, there stood the hideous prawn-eyed Cooper himself. Nothing happened on that occasion, but in 1949 they met at another party. Douglas took John home to "see his collection", and so to seduction and sex with the irascible Mr Blobby. Soon John Richardson became trapped, but not too reluctantly, for 12 years. A wonderful château restored from a ruin, a continuously refined art collection, splendid food in the great restaurants of Europe, travel, friendship with the great - I can see the temptations.

Most of this book is set in the South of France. An elegy for a vanishing way of life, it is stuffed full of fabulous bitchy stories, and offers us the final ball. Cooper, of course, is at his fiercest. In London, he does his best to unseat the weak and watery John Rothenstein, director of Tate. He was very unpleasant about Sir Roland Penrose, a charming man if a little compliant, whom Cooper attacked through his books on art. Cooper tore to shreds a perfectly decent monograph on Picasso and, in my sight, made Roland burst into tears. Picasso himself enjoyed playing Penrose off against Cooper; he was nothing if not mischievous.

In the end, Richardson - who is no weakling - finds the game no longer worth a candle, and cuts and runs. It wasn't a clean break, but gradual. At one point, on the eve of Picasso's birthday, Cooper was stabbed by a bit of Moroccan rough trade. That held things up for a time.

When John finally upped and left, Douglas not only tried to sabotage everything he did, but made it impossible for him to take what belonged to him. Eventually, Richardson had to steal his own property.

Cooper issued a bull: anyone who saw John as a friend was from then on barred from his company. Francis Bacon, who throughout the book offers deliciously camp warnings against Cooper, said "Didn't I warn you that she was a thoroughly treacherous woman?" They didn't see each other for 16 years. By this time, people were so used to and appalled by Cooper's monstrous behavior that to be attacked by him worked in your favour.

In Monte Carlo, in 1981, there was a rapprochement. All passion was spent. Cooper had become enormously fat, and his mind too had gone flabby. He had recently adopted as a son an interior decorator called Billy McCarty who, under the Code Napoleon, inherited everything. When Cooper died McCarty behaved, unlike his mentor, with complete honour. He himself died not so much later from Aids. He was a lovely man.

Almost the final act in Douglas Cooper's life was to quarrel disastrously with Picasso, whom he irritated by persisting that he should acknowledge his illegitimate children. Picasso threw Cooper out of the studio. Typically, Cooper immediately attacked Picasso's late pictures (which I consider his finest since the war) as "Incoherent doodles done by a frenetic dotard in the ante-room of death". What's so odd is that there is some truth in this charge; but it's precisely that which makes the late pictures so moving.

We have eaten and enjoyed Richardson's sorbet. Now we must hope that it will not be too long before the next substantial dish is placed in front of us.

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