Denton Welch: writer and artist, by James Methuen-Campbell

An artist in search of an archetype
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The Independent Culture

This is the story of how, in 1935, a 20-year-old art student on a bicycle got entangled with a car and suffered injuries from which he died 13 years later – but not before he had written three autobiographical novels, a good many short stories and copious volumes of journals.

Denton Welch's injuries made him reclusive, so that he was thrown back for literary material on his childhood and adolescence. He possessed astonishing powers of recall, and his acute observation of location and conversation enabled him to bring even the most minute details into the sharpest focus.

His story has already been told (by myself, in the 1984 biography Denton Welch: the making of a writer), but James Methuen-Campbell retells it well. He is an insatiable researcher, carefully stepping over anecdotes previously recorded to supply new ones of his own. He is to be congratulated on unearthing letters from Welch's mother.

But the area in which his efforts will probably prove of greatest benefit to Welch fans is the cataloguing of his paintings. This must have taken hours of sleuthing, for almost all reside in private collections. The raison d'être for this second biography has been to demonstrate what a fine painter Welch was.

Contrary to the belief of Maurice Cranston, the Rousseau biographer, that "one of the more endearing traits in Denton's personality was his capacity for friendship", Methuen-Campbell is spot-on in his assertion that Welch was more concerned with archetypes than individuals, especially where his sexuality was concerned. Even before the onset of impotence, it is doubtful whether his sex life often took place anywhere but in his head. Methuen-Campbell makes minimal play of Welch's homosexuality, appreciating him as a writer and painter of prodigious talent. His treatment of the companion of Welch's last five years – the disreputable Eric Oliver, now dead but to whom both biographers are indebted – is shrewd and perceptive.

Methuen-Campbell has done well to find new family photographs. Some of the 15 colour plates have been seen before, but only in black and white, and this crucial touch doubtless accounts for the price of this handsome book. Welch's non-posthumous novels and short stories, Maiden Voyage, In Youth is Pleasure and Brave and Cruel as well as the posthumous I Left my Grandfather's House, have long been expensive collectors' items. As this new study is limited to 500 copies, I predict it will end up as one more Welch curio, feverishly hunted in Hay-on-Wye bookshops at £200 a copy.

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