London home to be saved in honour of poetic lovers

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The Independent Online

A house in London that provided a backdrop for one of the most passionate affairs in literary history, between the French 19th century poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, is to be saved to honour their legacy.

A host of prominent figures, including the author Julian Barnes, the comedian Stephen Fry, the singer Patti Smith and the actor Simon Callow, have backed a campaign to save the house in Camden amid fears that it would be acquired by property developers.

The romantic poets escaped to London in 1872, living in the house in the final days of their time in the city, after it became known in Paris society that they were having an affair. It caused a scandal in Paris not only because Verlaine was married, but also because he was considerably older than his boyfriend. Rimbaud was just 17 when they eloped to London.

While living at the house in Royal College Street they produced some of their most influential works, but in recent years the building had been left unused and fallen into disrepair.

Simon Callow, who has campaigned vociferously for the property to be saved, said the house was "a wonderful memento of the fruitful if nightmarish stay in England of these extraordinary men, of the work they did there, and indeed, of their affair".

Formerly owned by the Royal Veterinary College, it was sold at auction to a property developer at the beginning of this year.

Campaigners, who had tried unsuccessfully to find a sympathetic buyer who could afford the central London property, feared that the Georgian home would be gutted and turned into modern flats. But a wealthy admirer of Rimbaud's work put up the money to save the building and turn it into a poetry centre in honour of the pair. Michael Corby, said he had bought the house to save it from being stripped of its history. He has hired a designer and an architect to restore the house and create a space for performance events.

Mr Corby said: "I will admit I do not particularly care for Verlaine but I think Rimbaud is absolutely wonderful. My first objective is to get this place restored and then use this as a base to promote their works."

Their house in London has an important role in the poets' history. The end of their relationship in London has gone down in literary legend for its sheer absurdity. It began with an argument over a kipper and ended after a chase to Belgium where Verlaine, in a drunken rage, shot his lover in the wrist.

The influence of the two poets extended far beyond their own century. Their work has been seen as the precursor to the great modernists of the 20th century, such as Picasso, T S Eliot and Joyce; and the end of their love affair even made it into a Bob Dylan song.

Now the site of their last days together is to be become a place for poets to meet, research and perform. The conversion into a cultural centre is being pioneered by the charity Poets in the City, which has been getting backing from big financiers to create an archive of work, a performance space, and a café where artists can meet.

"It is probably going to be more tea and cake than absinthe," said Graham Henderson chief executive of Poets in the City, who has been negotiating with businesses to get sponsorship for the project. "A lot of people have been working hard over a long period of time to get the house saved.

"It is all on the drawing board at the minute, but we envisage a place that is a celebration of Verlaine and Rimbaud, where poets and enthusiasts can meet, do research and hold events."

Supporters of the project hope that French visitors arriving in London on Eurostar trains will drop into the house, which is close to the new St Pancras International station.