Obituary: Henrietta Moraes

Philip Hoare@philipwhale
Saturday 16 January 1999 01:02

AS THE model for Francis Bacon's Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe (1963), Henrietta Moraes was a voluptuous icon of the Soho subculture of the Fifties, sprawling across an unmade bed posing for photographs taken by John Deakin for Bacon's painting.

"He was a horrible little man," she told Michael Peppiatt in 1990.

He came round and told me to lie on the bed with my legs open. And he began taking photos from the wrong end. I said, "Deakin, I don't think that's what Francis wants. I don't think that would interest him." "Oh no," said Deakin, "this is the way Francis wants it." But of course he didn't, so we had to start all over again. Later on I found Deakin selling copies of the first lot of photos to some sailors in Soho for 10 shillings a time.

A timeless incarnation of the Bohemian artist's model, she may have been painted by Bacon and bedded by Lucian Freud, but Moraes could equally well have been a model - and mistress - for Augustus John or Toulouse- Lautrec.

She was born Audrey Wendy Abbott in Simla, in 1931; her father was in the Indian Air Force: "He tried to strangle my mother when she was pregnant and then took off to parts unknown and was never seen again." Brought to England, she was educated in a series of convent schools, leaving with ambitions to be an actress, only to be sent to a secretarial college in South Kensington. Introduced to London night life, she was soon frequenting the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where she met Michael Law, "an out-of-work documentary film director" - 35 years old to her 19. They married in Rome a year after their first meeting.

Pursuing a new career as a model, she plunged into the dissolution of Soho life: the French Pub, the Cafe Torino and the Gargoyle Club. She fell in love with Lucian Freud, who seduced her over a kitchen sink and painted her perhaps three times; Bacon produced two dozen studies by her reckoning. She also fell in love with the painter John Minton, but he was besotted by a body builder named Norman Bowler - by whom Henrietta became pregnant. Her friend Patrick Garland notes that "the real love of her life was Johnny Minton. He was in love with Bowler, and the nearest Henrietta could get to Minton was to marry Bowler." Her agent in later years, Alexandra Pringle, agrees: "Her great loves were for gay men, and for women."

Henrietta, already eight months pregnant with her son, Joshua (to be followed by a girl, Caroline), divorced Law and married Bowler. She was running a coffee bar in David Archer's bookshop in Greek Street in 1956 when a "slender, fawn-eyed boy" wandered in: the Bombay-born poet Dom Moraes. Aged 18 and waiting to go up to Oxford, he was already, by virtue of the patronage of Stephen Spender, well acquainted with Soho. "I first saw her perched on a stool at the bar," he wrote,

surrounded by men, whose remarks she punctuated with a noisy, emphatic laugh. She was 25. She had the same pale skin, long dark hair, and intensity of the eyes as Dragika [Moraes' previous love]. Her escort was a tall handsome young man with a kind and serious face. When he asked her to have a drink, she turned and said with a dramatic flicker of the eyes, "Piss off, darling. Can't you see I'm busy?" In her high-pitched voice, which emphasised certain syllables as an actress does, the words brought back an atmosphere of the Twenties, with their bored young people in bars.

She and Dom Moraes went to the cinema:

Deprived of a large audience, she was quiet and rather unsure of herself, and

I began to feel a protective warmth towards her. . . She told me that she had had an unhappy childhood, and I felt deep pity for her. When, exuberantly, she threw bread at strangers in restaurants, I was rather gratified, since it proved she was now happy. Her insecurity made it impossible for her to allow herself not to be the centre of attention in any room.

Soon after, Moraes went up to Oxford, but was besotted with Henrietta; an affair he dissects with painful emotion in his autobiography, My Son's Father (1968).

In 1957 Minton committed suicide, and left Henrietta Moraes his house in Chelsea; at the same time, she discovered Bowler was having an affair. She left him, moved into Minton's house, took a job in an advertising agency, and seduced Dom Moraes. Together they "surrendered whole days to alcohol". Having gone up to Oxford, he received word that she had taken an overdose. Discharged from hospital, she came to visit him.

Bringing Henrietta to Oxford was like taking Cruella de Vil to Battersea Dogs' Home. Patrick Garland, also at Oxford at that time, recalls: "She cut a great swathe. . . through the impressionable undergraduates of the late Fifties, a heady whiff of Bohemian Soho. She was an almost Parisian figure in those inhibited, repressed times. We were virginal - and she wasn't." Dom Moraes appeared to be an exotic, poetic trophy to her.

"I felt she picked him up expecting him to be the young Rimbaud," says Garland. "She partly doted on him, partly tormented him. She saw her role as a femme fatale." Garland remembers a drunken party

when Dom climbed out of a window and fell a long way down a grating . . .We went to the Radcliffe [Hospital] where Henrietta was in attendance - in one way very devoted; but part of me felt that she was enjoying walking in the footsteps of Caitlin Thomas - enjoying the melo-

drama. She was rather self-regarding as a Bohemian.

The relationship remained tempestuous, destabilised by Henrietta's insecurity and Moraes's youth. "Now, looking back, I realise that . . . I was too young for [Henrietta]", wrote Dom Moraes.

Apart from my poems, I had then no means of earning money whatsoever. She seemed to look on my inability to take her out to dinner, or to pay a bill for the house, as further proof of my lack of love. We were too different as individuals to live successfully together. But at that moment we were locked together too violently for release, like fighting hawks that fall, claws fastened in each other's flesh, in a long slow spin, with the ignored reality of earth banking itself below.

In 1958 Dom Moraes became the youngest poet to win the Hawthornden Prize. Relations with Henrietta were difficult; she was working as a copywriter, and again attempted suicide, "chipping away at her wrists with a razor blade. . . When I appeared, she looked up and said, `You made me do this.' " She

now had frequently to visit the provinces on her firm's business; each visit allowed me a day or two's rest. One day, as I indulged myself thus, the telephone chirped. It was a friend who told me, in the kind way friends have that [she] was madly in love with another man.

Rather than rage, Moraes felt

an incredible, enormous sense of freedom. I did not wait to see [Henrietta], but went out to a literary pub, selected a pretty young woman . . . and went to bed with her. That day I left [Henrietta], and went back to Oxford.

Henrietta's account has it that Dom Moraes went out for a packet of cigarettes and never came back. Moraes, for his part, makes no mention in his memoirs of the fact that they were actually married in 1961 - although even Henrietta Moraes herself doubted this fact when she went to the Chelsea Register Office and found no record of it. "I could not understand Dom's need to tell lies," she wrote, but admitted, "I was much too neurotic for his delicate nervous system, and we both drank too much."

Henrietta Moraes lost her house and began a descent into drug abuse: "I picked up bad habits like a magnet does iron filings." She used her experiences to write articles on addiction for the Sunday Times whilst living out her "amphetamine psychosis" phase "which turned life into a Marvel comic". She became a cat burglar, as much for the adrenalin kick as for the material profits. Caught, she spent two weeks on remand in Holloway, and, on release, found herself injecting methedrine with a black-leather-garbed lover called Rebel from District 6 in Cape Town: he subsequently died of heart failure in her house. Meanwhile her children were being looked after by a friend, and their mother began attending a Chelsea clinic.

"It was 1966, and there were the strains of a prolonged party in the air." For Moraes, the party was LSD-fuelled, and full of new friends: Christopher Gibbs, David Mlnaric, Mark Palmer and Catherine Tennant. With Palmer and Tennant she set off on a four-year gypsy caravan trek to Wales. Henrietta ended up working at Richard Booth's bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, where she met Marianne Faithfull - whose secretary she became.

She stayed with Penny and Desmond Guinness at Leixlip, and moved into Roundwood, an 18th- century house owned by the Irish Georgian Society. But lack of money, and excessive drinking, resulted in her decampment back to London, signing on, living in a tiny flat on Edith Grove, and gardening for friends of friends, drinking cans of Special Brew the while. When she later managed to adhere to the Alcoholics Anonymous regime, however, she was ironically diagnosed with diabetes, necessitating a strict diet.

Late in life, Moraes found two champions: Alexandra Pringle, who published her memoirs, Henrietta, in 1994 and became her agent; and Maggi Hambling, who painted her and was with Moraes when she died. "I found her intensely moving," says Hambling. "I learnt an enormous amount from her. The whole of her life was in her face." Hambling sketched her subject on her death- bed, and in her coffin.

A colourful funeral service was held in Chelsea last week, Moraes's hearse pulled by plumed horses. The whole of Fulham Road was brought to a standstill - "Henrietta would've loved it," says Pringle, who notes that Moraes has left behind a handful of "devastatingly well-written" short stories, heavily autobiographical. "The day before she died she was bursting with excitement about the second volume of her memoirs," adds Pringle. "She had found the title on a bottle of mineral water - Delightfully Still, by Henrietta Moraes."

Philip Hoare

Audrey Wendy Abbott (Henrietta Moraes), artists' model: born Simla, India 22 May 1931; married 1951 Michael Law (marriage dissolved), 1956 Norman Bowler (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1961 Dom Moraes (marriage dissolved); died London 6 January 1999.

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