Last month, I went back to the house and its ghosts. Once again, I was allowed to dig in the archives, now more neatly catalogued and tidied into manila folders. I was looking for studio photographic prints for exhibitions that Neil Tennant and I were hoping to stage with the National Portrait Gallery and the Photographers' Gallery. Tennant had become pessimistic about the chances of unearthing anything new, but as soon as I began to sift through these files, I knew we had our exhibition. If nothing else, four photographs alone would justify the shows.
One of them (opposite) is among the photographs reproduced here for the first time: a simple bromide print, the ancient silver in it rising to the surface. On the back, Cole Lesley had written, "Aged 16". There was no other information, but it seems likely it was taken by a London photographer, possibly local to Clapham Common South Side where Coward lived at the time with his family in a flat overlooking the boating pond.
By then Coward had been performing professionally since the age of 11 (and privately since the age of six), encouraged by his mother; his father was an inept piano salesman and heavy drinker. But the year in which these photographs were taken was a crucial one for the would-be star. In 1917, Coward appeared in The Saving Grace in Manchester and London; it was, he wrote later, "the real start of my name being known".
These pictures appear to be another purposeful step up the ladder of celebrity. They show a boy-man, an unfocused image which would in post- war years resolve itself - via a dressing-gown, a cigarette holder, and a sex-and-drugs play called The Vortex - as a generation's role model. The Coward we see here is a little tweedy, a little collegiate. But the apparent innocence on that blank face - which would become etched with lines by the time he reached Private Lives and his 30th birthday - is also the face of an Artful Dodger. It would be years later that society hostess Emerald Cunard remarked that Coward was "the Artful Dodger of Society" (his position within London society, so painfully attained, was never quite as secure as the suburban boy from Clapham liked to think); but the comment is apposite because that collegiate scarf, worn so jauntily around the boy star's neck, had probably not been paid for. Coward, at the age of 16, was an inveterate, and rather professional, shoplifter.
He stole his socks from Savile Row; he stole his comics from WH Smith. He once walked into the Piccadilly bookshop Hatchards, grown bold by his adept light-fingeredness, and began to fill an entire suitcase (which he had just stolen from Fortnum & Mason) with books. On another occasion, he was seen by an assistant and challenged. Noel retorted, with the quick- thinking that would inform 50 Coward plays: "Really, look how badly this shop is run! I could have made off with a dozen books and no one would have noticed." His teenage confidante, Esme Wynne, was aghast when out with her parents in the City, to see him steal from a bookstall and run off with the stallholder in hot pursuit.
It was wartime London, and Coward seemed to feel free to do anything. He and Esme toured the country in various productions, and boasted of their sexual conquests. Esme seduced her director; Noel his fellow boy actors. There must have been a certain attraction about the wayward teenage actors: after one appearance in the Midlands, Esme records in her diary, she and Noel were chatted up by a pair of second lieutenants on the train back to London. It was only because they didn't find their suitors attractive that the affair went no further.
Noel, on the other hand, had already gone a lot further. At the start of the war, he had been befriended by an artist named Philip Streatfeild: one of the post-Wilde set, Streatfeild was a bohemian with studios in Glebe Place off the King's Road. He painted respectable portraits of captains of industry, and the odd actress. But he also painted boys, usually naked, and usually young.
I could find only one reproduction of one of his paintings. The picture in question depicts three boys and a girl bathing at a rock pool. It is evident that the picture was painted in Cornwall, where Streatfeild often went. It is also evident, from the subject-matter and technique, that he must at some time have been under the tutelage of Henry Scott Tuke, the most famous Victorian/Edwardian painter of such scenes. Most surprisingly, I realised that the model for the figure on the farthest right of the group was probably Noel Coward.
Coward had met Streatfeild in 1914, maybe through his mother who - so the Streatfeild family legend had it - cleaned Streatfeild's studio. The artist took a liking to the boy, and that summer, he drove down to Cornwall with Noel and another friend, Sydney Lomer. Lomer, like Streatfeild and Tuke, possessed "Uranian" tastes; basically pederastic. It seemed extraordinary to me that Coward's mother, Violet, should allow her son to be driven off to Cornwall by these two strange men, and allow the relationship with Streatfeild to develop in the way it did. Perhaps it was through ignorance; but it was also through a desire to see her family re-attain its social position (Violet hailed from Border gentry - her grandfather had been British Consul at Madeira - now fallen in fortunes).
By the end of the year, Streatfeild and Lomer had enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and were on manoeuvres, training for the trenches; a letter from "Mum's Suitcase" revealed the remarkable fact that they took Coward with them as a sort of regimental mascot. "I have just come back from a long day with Lomer's division and I've marched 10 miles!" Noel told his mother. "All the officers are so nice to me and all wanted to share their lunch with me. You've got a fascinating youth for your son, my dear."
However, this uneven relationship - Coward was still only 15, and Streatfeild, at 35, old enough to be his father - ended abruptly the following year, with Streatfeild's death, not of wounds received in France, but of tuberculosis, possibly contracted from Coward himself.
Had the relationship ended on a sour note? When I looked up Streatfeild's will, dated 2 November 1914 (eight days before he enlisted), I found he had bequeathed pounds 50 to "my friend Noel Coward of 50 Southside Clapham Common SW". But a codicil, added on 16 April 1915, revoked the legacy. Had Coward's family found out the truth about the relationship, and dissuaded their son from continuing it? Or had the Streatfeilds worked on their son, blaming lower-class Coward for infecting Philip?
I doubt if we shall ever know the truth. But looking at these photographs, taken shortly after the affair, it is hard not to read something less than innocent in Coward's looks. At 16, he was already experienced in love and death; stern training for a future dramatist. His is a face in transition; a face experiencing all the upheaval and hedonism of wartime London and the sudden crush of the modern world, of a new popular culture.
During the 1914-18 period, 150 nightclubs opened up in Soho alone, catering to all kinds of desires. Noel lived on the fringes of this society; he knew good-time chorus girls such as Billie Carleton, shortly to die at the Savoy on the night of the Armistice Ball of a cocaine overdose. When the war - in the form of his call-up papers - intruded on his social and professional life, he ate tea leaves in order to make himself too ill to pass a medical board. When finally called up, in 1918, he suffered a psychosomatic illness that resulted in his discharge. These wholesome photographs belie a boy who spent Armistice Night with a bisexual opium addict called Tony Gandarillas, and who would, by the time of The Vortex - a play inspired by Billie Carleton's drug death - be construed as a decadent figurehead of the disaffected post-war generation.
It was, crucially, Coward's wartime experience that defined his hedonism and allowed him to write so tellingly of the post-war Jazz Age. The few years' march he had on Waugh, Beaton, Tennant, Acton and the rest of the Bright Young Things gave him distance. By virtue of his class and his upbringing and the life he had led in the theatre and elsewhere, he could look with objectivity on that mad between-the-wars world when everything was speed, technology, psychology, jazz and dance. Rebecca West wrote of Coward that "he had a better grasp of what was going wrong in our society than Shaw". Being older than the generation he observed, Coward's all- too-grown-up teenage years helped make him the dramatic genius he was.
I'd like to think that it is this notion of teenage rebellion that is responsible for the current revival in Coward's fortunes. The BBC Arena films that are being televised this Easter weekend are a surprisingly substantial tribute to Coward's currency. The three hour-long programmes, directed by Adam Low (responsible for films on Robben Island as well as the Evelyn Waugh Arena trilogy) take an unapologetically intellectual as well as highly entertaining look at Coward's work and life from the perspective of the late 1990s; they also reveal, for the first time on TV, the nature of Coward's wild youth.
At the same time, Twentieth Century Blues, the Neil Tennant-produced album of Coward songs for the Red Hot Aids Trust, explores the notion of Coward as the first pop star, and includes Suede's inspired version of "Poor Little Rich Girl" which drags out every decadent drug-addicted nuance (most especially in a presumptuous but neat change of lyric to read "She crawls from room to room", sung in Brett Anderson's best narcotic drawl). And in the past two or three years we've had Sean Mathias's reworking of Coward's troilist 1932 classic, Design for Living, in which the full gay subtext was brought to the fore; and an immensely successful Present Laughter on Broadway last year, in which the Coward character's stalker, Roland Maule, appeared butt-naked before his idol, offering him his all.
Such late-20th-century reinterpretations are looking at the darker side of Coward: the nervous breakdowns that peppered his career, brought on by the sheer momentum of work and resulting in a face at 30 as lined as that of a 50-year-old; the novelist and critic St John Ervine wrote, "neurosis and incipient TB have helped to give him that curious old look he has". Unrequited love affairs must have contributed, too - among them, an obsession with Jeffrey Holmesdale, Earl Amherst, who travelled with Coward to the Far East in 1930, a trip which produced Private Lives and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", home movies of which have been unearthed by Arena and are being shown for the first time this weekend.
But that trip also produced one of Coward's great unperformed works, the anti-war polemic Post-Mortem, an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of his own war. Sandwiched between the success of Private Lives and the patriotic blockbuster Cavalcade, the passion of Post-Mortem proved too much for its author, and he was never able to produce it. By that time, 1931, he had come to a crossroads in his creative life. On one side, the route to critical approbation and creative experiment; on the other, popular acclaim and international success. Coward - who declared "I can take any amount of criticism, as long it is unqualified praise" - took the latter route and, in the process, lost the support of such surprising figures as Virginia Woolf, who had previously confessed to have fallen "in love with Noel Coward".
There are other contradictions to the glitzy, cocktail-swilling, dressing- gown-wearing image that became debased in later years to cater for Saturday matinee, blue-rinse coach parties. The homosexuality, of course: even in 1969, Coward was warning Sheridan Morley not to write about his sexuality, reasoning that there were still "a few old ladies in Worthing" who might be shocked by the facts. The affair with Prince George, the Duke of Kent, was a case in point; and apparently the reason for the fact that Coward had to wait until 1970 - 40 years after Cavalcade, 30 years after In Which We Serve - to be knighted.
These are antidotes to the received notion of Noel Coward, the Kenny Everett and Russ Abbott parodies, the am-dram purgatory into which Private Lives and Blithe Spirit have been condemned. As DW Harding wrote of Jane Austen as "an ironist ... sentimentalised by her admirers", so Coward - a firm admirer of Austen - seemed to be threatened with the same fate. Coward the ironist, however, is ready to take his place in a culture characterised by a phrase that would have made him wince: Cool Britannia.
Next year, the Coward industry really rolls into gear as the centenary of his birth is celebrated. Expect everything from wall-to-wall West End productions to public statues, and quite a few surprises beyond. But deep in the midst of all this is the often-forgotten fact of Coward the rebel, the subversive, the self- created star who succeeded in making himself one of the century's most famous Englishmen by reinventing himself with every decade like any modern pop idol. His meteoric rise from Clapham to the stages of the West End and Broadway, to Belgravia's ballrooms and the first-class lounges of transatlantic liners, makes it easy to forget that the boy was once a rebel, albeit with a cause
Philip Hoare's biography of Noel Coward is published by Arrow Books. "The Sayings of Noel Coward", edited and introduced by Philip Hoare, is published by Duckworth. "Twentieth-Century Icon: Photographs of Noel Coward" is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until 31 December. An exhibition of the same name will also be showing at the Photographers' Gallery, London WC2, 14-18 April.Reuse content