Richard Buckle

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Christopher Richard Sandford Buckle, writer and critic: born Warcop, Westmorland 6 August 1916; CBE 1979; died Salisbury, Wiltshire 12 October 2001.

Richard Buckle was a ballet critic with a flair for notoriety; he eventually became famous as a writer, editor and biographer of Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Unfortunately for his talent and integrity, he was by nature flippant and flagrant with his ready wit. He flaunted his homosexuality when homosexuality was still a crime. He was frequently at the heart of a scandal and became for a while the enfant terrible of the ballet.

Not particularly striking as a personality, he dressed more as a stockbroker and was more than slightly snobbish. He enjoyed the good life and was generous. He never lacked friends, though undoubtedly his unbridled tongue, or his prodigal pen, made him enemies. He enjoyed ballet and dancers voraciously and became hooked on the Diaghilev myth; art had to be sophisticated, decadent and, if possible, outrageous. He wrote a book on Nijinsky (Nijinsky, 1971) and followed it with a book on Diaghilev (1979).

Buckle was born in Warcop, Westmorland, in 1916, the son of an army officer, and educated at Marlborough and Balliol College, Oxford. After Oxford, he was drawn to the theatre. He auditioned with Michel St Denis and failed, after which he studied textile design at the Polytechnic and then betook himself to Paris where he made some dilettante efforts at haute couture. Quite suddenly, riding on the top of a bus, he got the idea of creating a new dance magazine.

He founded Ballet in 1939 just before the outbreak of war. It was shelved for the period of conflict, during which he served as a Guards officer. As soon as he was demobbed in 1946, he resumed publication and Ballet became established as the most artistic and lively journal ever produced on the subject of dance. For a time he collaborated with Lord Harewood to embrace opera. Ballet continued as a separate entity until 1952, by which time Buckle had become regular ballet critic of The Observer, making a reputation for pithy and sharp reviews. He worked for The Observer from 1948 to 1955 and in 1959 became dance critic of The Sunday Times.

During the early years of his magazine, Buckle could scarcely contain his ebullience and he serialised anecdotes from his life which appeared in book form as The Adventures of a Ballet Critic (1953). For all his facetiousness, there was a basis of sound judgement in Buckle's verdicts. He was a writer of skill with artistic perception. His magazine was enhanced with aesthetic illustrations that made it a work of art. His critiques were witty, dating and provocative, even if with the years his fire-power softened, his opinions mellowed.

The years after the Second World War brought Lincoln Kirstein, doyen of American ballet, and George Balanchine with the New York City Ballet to London. Buckle befriended them with lavish hospitality and he wrote enthusiastically, while many fellow critics found fault. He went too far describing his adventures with Kirstein, including a gay pub-crawl with the American eventually getting himself locked in Buckle's bathroom. It was hilarious reading but the embarrassed Kirstein was not amused.

He found himself in hot water when he severely criticised the Constant Lambert/Frederick Ashton ballet Tiresias, premiered in July 1951. The abuse of the work was such that it was an overnight disaster. Three weeks afterwards Lambert died. His passing was a severe loss to Ninette de Valois, since Lambert was one of the triumvirate which had created Sadler's Wells-Royal Ballet.

De Valois realised it was time to take a strong hand if she and her ballet were to survive. She decided the press must be curbed – taking Buckle to a series of lunches at The Lame Duck in Covent Garden, she impressed upon him the necessity of his support in establishing British ballet. Buckle took heed and to some extent became a more responsible writer. He also observed that if he toed the line more avenues would be open to him.

Though he never saw the Diaghilev Ballet, he was enthralled by all he read about it, and what he gleaned from artists who had worked with Diaghilev. He embarked upon a series of books on Diaghilev and his dancers and that remarkable era during which Russian ballet came to the West.

He was now well established in the hierarchy of English ballet but did not neglect foreign artists. When Antonio came to London and caused a sensation with his zapadiado, Buckle heaped on him extravagant paeans of praise. "If you have seen Antonio, you will be proud to tell your grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the wonder."

Buckle became a friend of Else Brunelleschi, a noted Spanish dance teacher, and with her help he became erudite on the subject of flamenco. His friendship with Anton Dolin was less cordial. He could not resist throwing a few barbs at the ageing Dolin. Of a performance of The Nutcracker at Festival Hall he wrote:

If you happened to come in the middle of the pas de deux, you would have thought that you were seeing Dolin giving a burlesque impression of himself as Anton Dolin.

Despite his frivolous nature, Buckle was a meticulous researcher who contributed greatly to the history of Russian ballet in Europe during the Twenties. In his maturity he sought the help of Tamara Karsavina and collaborated with Lydia Sokolova on her book of Diaghilev reminiscences (Dancing for Diaghilev, 1960).

His most flamboyant success was to organise the Diaghilev Exhibition for the Edinburgh Festival in 1954, which the following year moved to Forbes House in London. Lord Goodman presently entrusted Buckle with buying ballet artefacts for the Arts Council. There was some scandal when he purchased at a Sotheby's auction at huge price a large painting, Three Spartan Women, that carried the signature of Picasso, although it was not painted by him.

Buckle's swan-song was a Diaghilev Gala he staged at the Coliseum. The production was too large for him to handle; it got out of hand and ran into debt but, nevertheless, with assistance it was duly staged. After this his prestige diminished.

In old age he retired to the country and wrote autobiographies (The Most Upsetting Woman, 1981; In the Wake of Diaghilev, 1982) which never quite achieved the success of his ballet books.

John Gregory

* John Gregory died 27 October 1996