|By the way of Herne Bay (a biographical note)|
|by Harvey, Glenn|
|Glenn, A fascinating article (and thanks for the name-check at the end!). I continue filming this month (8 August is when MD arrived in Herne Bay) and would like to talk with you some more about the project as a whole. The film will be shown in Folkestone next April, when I'll also be launching the chess tables to commemorate MD's participation in the Olympiad there in 1933. Is your previous email address still working? Or perhaps you could mail me? It'd be good to meet you again before too long. I think I may have discovered some more interesting connections... With best wishes, Jeremy|
|By Jeremy Millar|
Some time ago, during the early weeks of summer, my partner and I borrowed a friend's Volkswagen camper van and set off from north London to spend a weekend in the north Kent coastal resort of Herne Bay (Fig. 1). The VW was rather tired and neither of us wanted to tempt fate by travelling too far or too fast. Besides, we had just the weekend to ourselves and had to be back at work the following Monday. I was aware Duchamp had spent some part of the summer of 1913 in Herne Bay, but beyond that…well, there were other parts of his life and work that were more interesting to me. His time in Herne Bay was worth little more than a short passage, a piece of ephemera, or a wrong date in a 'Complete Works'.(1) So that Friday afternoon, as the sun shone down on London's Stoke Newington, Herne Bay had its attractions as an easy destination, giving my partner and I the opportunity to spend a quiet couple of days by the sea-side, soaking up the Victorian ambience in one of Marcel's temporary abodes.
A few hours later, we found a camp-site in Herne village, dumped our gear and set off for the sea-front. I was interested in what had become of the pier. I had been told by a locally connected friend that the pier was no more - victim to corporate penury, gale-force winds, wild seas and fires - and that Herne Bay was now, the 'pretty dull' relation to its more fashionable near-neighbour, Whitstable. On this particular evening the main car park on the Herne Bay sea-front was a playground for local youth displaying their car-handling skills before their girlfriends. We parked up in the middle of all this mobile testosterone and, with some anxious, backward-looking regard for the well-being of our borrowed vehicle, took a walk along the promenade in the warm evening sun.
Out to sea, isolated some three quarters of a mile from the beach, were the spidery remains of the former pier end. Above the foreshore, squatting like some glorified Wal-Mart shed, a charmless piece of 1970's brutalist architecture - the 'new' Pavilion. In these circumstances I often get a slight feeling of being on a ghost hunt; longing to become not so much the corporeal self - but to put on the cloak, the mantle - in order to summon up a history that if not completely lost, is recorded somewhere.
We walked to the new pavilion and I took some photographs. Not sure why really. Nothing to remind me of Note 78 any more. Perhaps the elegant pale trace of the old Pavilion would appear on the negatives. I wondered where Lynton College might be. The building was probably long gone. Nevertheless, I had an image of some Victorian gothic edifice in my mind - it was after all a 'college'. It had to look like one.
As the sun continued its descent beyond the horizon and a big moon appeared from behind the rows of houses on the sea-front, we made our way back to the camper van. It was still there, intact - amidst the sporadic melee of screeching tyres and shouting engines. It started first time, even. Typical.
The architectural elegance of the Herne Bay sea front was largely preserved - apart from the dreadful new pavilion. But still, I felt short-changed in some way. There seemed hardly any recognisable clue to Marcel's sojourn in this place. No traces. But then, what in earth was I expecting? A sign somewhere, perhaps - 'Herne Bay twinned with Blainville-Crevon'? Despite all my selfish wishes to the contrary, the impact of Duchamp's physical surroundings was hardly that of a realist. And this was just a short weekend break. However this logic was somehow escapable. In London there was a play being performed - 'Vincent in Brixton' I think it was called. It was an imaginary essay on Van Gogh's early development. And yet, here, perhaps Marcel passed lightly through these particular surroundings. No painful existential crises, no creative agonising - just 'as much tennis as possible'. The only traces here seemed to be of my own invention.
'I am very down at the moment and doing absolutely nothing. It's very irritating when it's like this. I am going away in August to spend some time in England.' (2)
Everything was out of reach or simply wasn't available. As we walked back to the VW, I resolved to come back to this place and attempt some 'serious research'.
Herne Bay, around this time, I was to discover, drew many French students to the town to learn English. The town was teaming with visitors at the beginning of August 1913. It was the last public holiday before Christmas and the last of the summer (The English August 'bank holiday' was at the start of the month. Nowadays it falls at the end of August).
A few weeks later I took the train from London's Victoria station; this time alone. It was another fine summer's day, a late Friday morning. The train wend its way out through the crushed suburbs of south-east London towards the north Kent coast. The carriage was virtually empty. I couldn't help but wonder if Marcel and Yvonne had come this way. Or had they travelled to Herne Bay from the channel coast? I made a mental note to check the train timetables for August 1913. The countryside was lush and green. Kent is known in the tourist literature as 'The Garden of England' and indeed, in the postcard to Bergmann, Marcel remarks, uncharacteristically, on the beauty of the countryside.
I leave the train at Herne Bay station- the Victorian station frontage largely unchanged from the time of Marcel and Yvonne's visit. I walk from the station on the outskirts of the town down 'Station Road'. Earlier that week I had stumbled across a web-site on Herne Bay, put together by a local man. Part of the web-site was composed of photographic, 'virtual' journeys along prominent Herne Bay byways. Station Road was one of them. It would otherwise have been so easy to have missed the black gas lamp standards (Fig. 5 & 6), manufactured by 'Beck and Co. Ltd London', and now long disused - that mark progress down this road towards the town centre.
A few more photographs - and I head straight for the Herne Bay Museum and Art Gallery. Here things take a turn. 'Marcel Duchamp? In Herne Bay? You interested in him as well.' One of the museum's staff turns out to be somebody who was considering doing their PhD dissertation on the Duchamp -Herne Bay connection. Christine Ramsay puts me in touch - there and then - with a prominent local historian by the name of Harold Gough. I was looking for Lynton College, I say over the 'phone. 'It was in Downs Park, No 2', Harold informs me. We talk about Duchamp's postcard to Dumouchel and Duchamp's reference to playing lots of tennis. There used to be tennis courts on the land to the rear of the college Harold tells me. My first real on-site 'lead' and I'm starting to feel like a detective on the trail of a heinous crime. I didn't have a town map but Christine gives me directions.
Well, Lynton College in Downs Park road has long gone. But the buildings survive - for there is more than one. In fact a bright yellow estate agent's sign-board outside number sixteen betrays the fact that this part of the old college building has just been sold (Fig. 7, 8 & 9). I ruminate on the lost opportunity to pose as a potential buyer and have a look around the place. More photographs…and at last I feel as though I'm getting somewhere.
And in the town's street index of the time, the college is registered as a 'school for young ladies' (Principals - Mrs. And Miss Wilson). Nearby in the same street was L'école Internationale, run by another Wilson. Obviously a family affair…
In the 19th century Herne Bay had developed quite rapidly as a coastal satellite community to the medieval village of Herne, just a mile or two inland. Typically, in the early years of the community, smuggling was a significant local 'industry'. But later in the nineteenth century, as well as a steamer staging post for maritime coastal travellers between London and Margate, it was a fashionable destination in its own right for the Victorian and later still, Edwardian city dwellers seeking to escape the growing bustle and noise of London. 19th century Herne Bay - in part - developed around its successive piers.(6) By 1913 an imposing structure - essentially a third replacement of earlier structures - stretched out from the north Kent coast for 3,636 feet. Its length made it the second longest pier in England after the pier at Southend - its northerly cousin which survives to this day on the north side of the Thames Estuary.####PAGES####
The importance of this Pavilion for the town can be judged from the fact that some of the design drawings were reproduced on the front page of the local newspaper, the Herne Bay Press. (Fig. 12)
This surviving Duchamp note (Note 78, above right) (Fig. 13) indicates a different sort of significance. Gough-Cooper and Caumont, in their 'Ephemerides…' write, quoting Duchamp's notes, "As 'a magical (distant) backdrop' for his Large Glass, Marcel is impressed by the Pier Pavilion and envisages 'garlands of lights against a black background (or a background of the sea, Prussian blue and sepia) Arc lights - figuratively fireworks."(7) The accompanying scrap of surrounding text to the image of the Grand Pier Pavilion has been 'completed' by Harold Gough, who by now, I have come to know as the honorary curator of the 'Herne Bay Historical Records Society' (8)
'The Pier was operated by a Private Company until 1909, when it was purchased and improved by the local authority…The Grand Pier Pavilion was erected by the Council in 1910, and was opened on the 3rd August by the Lord Mayor of London (Sir John Knill)…'
I initially had my doubts whether Duchamp had obtained this scrap of paper during his 1913 visit, but was put right…Harold Gough writes to me,
'There is no reason to think that Marcel Duchamp did not acquire this [Note 78] during his 1913 visit. It happens that in July 1913, just before he arrived…another feature of the town was opened with great éclat.
On the East Cliff, not far from Downs Park, in fact, there had been a bandstand erected over a small shelter and deck-chair store, which could also serve as a band auditorium in wet weather. This was a gift to the town in 1904, by the developer of the roads on the East Cliff area, Thomas Dence. When King Edward VII died there was much discussion of a suitable memorial in the town, and it was decided to add to the bandstand building by excavating a Hall under the Downs to which the lower story would become the vestibule.
This theatre/concert hall/dance hall would be called the King Edward VII Memorial Hall, and while the King's widow, Queen Alexandra, was unlikely to perform the opening ceremony, it was found that the late King's sister, Princess Beatrice, formally known as Princess Henry of Battenberg would be willing to do so. Edward Fuchs, who had made the effigy for the Edward coinage, was commissioned to carve a large marble plaque to front the box-office; so you can imagine the actual Day was a big one for Herne Bay. Bronze medals were provided for all and sundry, especially the school children, and July 13 was when it all came together.
Fred C. Palmer [the photographer credited with the image on Note 78 - GH] was a prominent local photographer with premises on the sea front, and he really went to town on producing postcard souvenirs of the event…something on local history would have been a popular handout or souvenir. Copies might well have been distributed to hotels, boarding houses, and even schools, so that M.D. could well have found one at 14 Downs Park…'
Although Note 78 is not from any newspaper, Fred C. Palmer was a regular contributor to the Herne Bay Press: (Fig. 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18)
In the Gough Cooper and Jaques Caumont 'Ephemerides', there are several references to Marcel and Yvonne's visit to Herne Bay. These meticulous recorders of duchampiana note but a very small selection of the wide variety of entertainments that were available to Marcel and Yvonne;(9) among them, an English version of a French farce, 'Oh I Say' which played to packed houses for three nights from August 11th (Fig. 19), and a film show at the Bijou Theatre, 'East Lynne' and 'Trilby' ('Pictures and Varieties Twice Nightly').(Fig. 20)
'Oh I Say' played at the Grand Pier Pavilion
Theatre to nightly audiences of over a thousand so the Ephemerides places
emphasis on this French farce, not perhaps without good reason (the original
had previously played to full houses in Paris enjoying 800 nights at the
Palais Royal). But there were other exciting events occurring that month
that might have drawn the attention of Marcel and Yvonne - again, from,
The Herne Bay Press: (Fig. 25)
It was a mere five-minute walk from 14 Downs Park to the Kings Hall theatre - where there was also an open-air bandstand. The Duchamps would have heard the music carried by the brisk north-easterly winds that prevailed at the start of August. Attendances were reaching 1500 for some concerts at the Kings Hall. And at the Grand Pier Pavilion theatre there was also a 'French Composers Night' which, according to the Herne Bay Press, '…proved very popular.' In the town's Victoria Park, the Herne Bay Lawn Tennis Club four-day tournament attracted over 400 entries 'from all parts' and had 'large attendances of the public each day…'
Through a Herne Bay local history website, I get in touch with artist-witer-curator, Jeremy Millar. Living in near-by Whitstable, Jeremy was also looking for the site of Lynton College and is preparing to make a film based on Marcel's stay in Herne Bay.
'And, by the way', Jeremy asks, 'Do you know about the colony of rare wasps in the cliffs not far from Downs Park?'
1. Calvin Tomkins, in his biography of Duchamp, covers Marcel's and Yvonne's sojourn in Herne Bay thus: In August 1913, Duchamp went to England with his eighteen-year-old sister, Yvonne, who needed a chaperone while she took a three-week course in English at Lynton College in Herne Bay, on the north coast of Kent. Writing from there to his old friend Raymond Dumouchel in Paris, he makes the trip sound like a carefree vacation: "Superb weather. As much tennis as possible. A few Frenchmen for me to avoid learning English, a sister who is enjoying herself a lot." Even on holiday, though, Duchamp continued to work on the Glass. Several detailed notes and sketches done at Herne Bay that summer deal with the workings of the bride's sex cylinder , or wasp, and with the arcane concept of the pendu femelle. / From Herne Bay, Marcel and Yvonne travelled to London, where they spent four days exploring the city - Yvonne acting as translator for her indulgent older brother. And Alice Goldfarb Marquis in 'Marcel Duchamp - The Bachelor Stripped Bare': 'Duchamp had indulged his newfound taste for travel during the summer of 1913 with a trip to England. He worked on more notes for the Large Glass while spending several weeks in Herne Bay, Kent, chaperoning his sister, Yvonne, who was taking a course in English.' Arturo Schwarz in his 'Complete Works', wrongly dates the Herne Bay notes and studies to July, 1913.
2. Marcel Duchamp to Walter Pach, Wednesday, 2nd July 1913, Neuilly, 'Affect/Marcel - The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp', Eds. Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor, Thames and Hudson, London 200, p28.
3. On Saturday 30th August, having received his 600 francs, Duchamp sends an acknowledgement note from Herne Bay to the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. See Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, 'Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy 1887-1968' in Marcel Duchamp - Work and Life, The MIT Press, 1993.
4. Marcel Duchamp to Walter Pach, Wednesday, 2nd April 1915, Paris, 'Affect/Marcel - The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp', Eds. Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, trans. Jill Taylor, Thames and Hudson, London 200, p34. Indeed, for two years Duchamp did work in New York as a librarian at the French Institute. See: Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp - a biography, Chatto and Windus, London, pp154-155.
Just in terms of cinemas alone, there was the 'Grand Cinema', opened the previous
year (famous locally then for having its name spelt out in no less than 292
electric lights); the 'Paragon Cinema' (first opened in August 1911 as the 'Cinema
De Luxe') further along the High Street from the 'Bijou Theatre' (opened 19th
August 1912). The Paragon was also decorated at night with electric amber, ruby,
green and blue fairy lights. Films were also shown at the Pier Pavilion and
the 'St. Georges Hall' - from 1910. All in all, Herne Bay was extremely well
catered for when it came to cinemas. In the pre-television days of 1913, the
town had more cinema theatres than it does now.