August 20, 2006

Denton Welch

Detail of a Self-Portrait by Welch now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Readers who have made the acquaintance of the works of both William S. Burroughs and Denton Welch, may yet be surprised to learn, as I was, that the former considered the latter to have been a strong and direct influence on his writing. It’s an influence that, to my eyes, remains far from obvious, but Burroughs seems to have repeated the claim many times, and I don’t doubt that he meant it sincerely. Curiously, Welch (1915-48), was one of three idiosyncratic 20th-century English authors (Mervyn Peake and J.G. Ballard being the others) to have been born in China. Like Peake (his near-contemporary) he was a talented visual artist too. There are already several fine profiles of Welch on-line, so I shan’t attempt another, and will be content to add my voice to chorus praising his prose…

One of two details from 'By the Sea,' a painting by Denton Welch.

The first thing that impressed me about Welch’s writing was its extraordinarily precise and clear (at times almost Proustian) deployment of recollected detail: his accounts of childhood sparkle like costly jewellery. Next, I picked up on how his prose (in the words of Jeremy Reed) ‘oscillates between moments of lyrical serenity and outbreaks of psychological disorder:’ Welch meticulously recounted his tantrums, perverse outbursts, peevishnesses, and capricious urges, taking pains to record, and, it seems, to magnify, the ‘flaws and inclusions’ in his character. Another constant undertone is that of sexuality: Welch was gay, and his novels and stories are suffused with ‘a queenly aura,’ but one that is seldom ‘campy or superficial.’

The other of two details from 'By the Sea,' a painting by Denton Welch.

This characterisation of Welch by Ernie McLeod strikes me as just:

Some might accuse Welch of being an overly precious writer, which, in fact, he is. He’s the kind of obsessive queen for whom the perfect teacup, jam and biscuits are infinitely more important than, say, world peace. But beneath the preciousness is the fertile grit of humanness. Welch’s self-awareness rarely slips into self-indulgence because his pointed observational powers dissect everything and everyone in his path, narrow as it was. He was a literary psychologist with an equally keen eye for damaged china and hypocrisy.
'Harvest:' a painting by Denton Welch, ca. 1940, now in the Tate Collections.

What little I’ve seen of Welch’s paintings and drawings impresses me less than does his writing. His style has been described as one of ‘prettified surrealism.’ A few more of his artworks are shown here, here and here. Several more works are listed (alas, with only a single illustration) here. Welch also had a keen interest in, and love for antiques, and one tangible legacy of this takes the form of an eighteenth-century dolls’ house which he painstakingly and authentically restored from the decrepit condition in which he discovered it. The restored house is now part of the collection of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood.

The Denton Welch Dolls' House (1783).

All three of Welch’s novels are currently in print, courtesy of Exact Change, and the Enitharmon Press. Also, earlier this year, the Tartarus Press published a marvellous two-volume edition of Welch’s ‘Complete Short Stories and other Related Works’ under the title Where Nothing Sleeps. By way of conclusion, I have taken the liberty of copying a poignant one-page piece from this compilation for your reading pleasure: In the Autumn Weather.

Posted by misteraitch at August 20, 2006 07:49 PM

That does seem like a painter's tale--ochre and violet and black and flame-colored, plotless but full of the sense of layerings. And it's always interesting to see what's on the H-shaped bookshelf.

Posted by: marlyat2 on August 23, 2006 04:02 AM

The paintings intrigue me, yes I understand the 'prettified surrealism' jibe, but they are also full of echoes of other painters: harvest of poussain, bust with mushrooms and the cottage of samuel palmer, the woman with crossed arms of mondriain etc, etc. For me these reflections are just a bit more than merely derivative, but ultimately unsatisfying

Posted by: paulm on August 24, 2006 12:47 AM
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