Laughing Torso Meets The Great Beast

Here comes trouble … Nina Hamnett circa 1930

You know me, m’dear; I’m in the V&A with me left tit knocked off.’

Thus spoke Nina Hamnett, artist, model, hard drinker and ‘Queen of Bohemia’. In her busy youth she studied painting in London, posed nude for Walter Sickert, and then commuted between studios in Fitzrovia and Paris, sat for and slept with Modigliani (‘Modi said I had the best tits in Europe!’), Gaudier-Brzeska (who executed the titless torso) and God knows who else. In consort with August John, whose studio was at 76 Charlotte St., she helped established Fitzrovia as a bohemian enclave in the years before and after the Great War. Walter Sickert thought very highly of her work but presciently warned her not to let her party-going interfere with her painting. Gaudier-Brzeska’s nude sculpture of Nina is not actually in the V&A, not now anyway, but it did appear on the cover of her 1932 memoir Laughing Torso: names dropped therein included Erik Satie, Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, and the composers of Les Six.

The Student: an early portrait painting by Nina Hamnett, now in The Ferens Gallery, Humberside.

One name she might have avoided mentioning was poet, mountaineer, secret agent, and occultist Aleister Crowley. When he was a young man, in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, Crowley was a sort of outlier to the Decadent movement, and his early verses – published by Oscar Wilde’s publisher Leonard Smithers – showed some talent in a sub-Swinburne style that was out of fashion by the time Crowley was trying it on. Later, his poetry because subservient to his efforts in the occult and his literary style went into freefall. One poem, a self-consciously filthy ode to his girlfriend and partner in Magick (always spelt with a K), contains this memorable couplet:

Splutter foul words
Through your supper of turds!

Beastly, moi? The mature Crowley …

Around 1900, when he was 25, Crowley rented a mansion flat in a block on Chancery Lane and used it as a venue for occult practices, using his own personal white and black magic temples to summon forth entities from beyond the veil. (What the building’s other tenants made of this is not recorded.) Crowley’s reputation as a mage led to him appearing as a villain in various fictional guises: as Mocata in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, and, most notably, as the sinister Karswell in M.R. James’s celebrated ghost story Casting The Runes (1911). In this unnerving tale of an academic stalked by the author of a book on witchcraft, he is portrayed as a lurking presence in the Reading Room of the British Library, poised to slip a runic curse to the reviewer who had given him a bad notice. Magick aside, this portrait of a man who never forgot a slight seems to have been true to life. Crowley knew Nina from the bohemian milieu of pre-WW1 London, and they were familiar enough for him to have once served her his signature cocktail (see below). But in her autobiography, Nina included stories about rituals conducted by Crowley at The Abbey of Thelema, his ratty ‘temple’ at Cefalu, Sicily. Nina’s source was her friend Betty May, the widow of a Crowley acolyte who had died in mysterious circumstances at Cefalu. (Betty was also famous as the Fitzroy Tavern’s ‘Tiger Woman’, whose speciality was lapping brandy from a saucer like a cat.) Betty’s tales of the unsavoury rituals conducted by Crowley, involving bestiality, animal sacrifice and a sprinkling of other perversions, were referenced in Nina’s book. Crowley was incensed and sued for libel – which turned out to be a miscalculation on his part. Betty testified on Nina’s behalf against Crowley, but her testimony was largely irrelevant as Crowley made such a fool of himself in the witness box that the jury decided that he was impossible to libel. Crowley was dubbed the ‘wickedest man in the world’ by the popular press, which seems very silly at this distance. Later in his life, nearing the end of his wandering years, Crowley would occasionally appear on the London scene, an essay in looming darkness offset by natty sartorial touches and even an occasional kilt. He certainly had presence: he was said to have terrified Dylan Thomas in the French House, and once claimed to have put a spell on Julian Maclaren Ross that caused Ross’s overcoat to catch fire. (If it was his famously threadbare camel-hair number, Crowley might have been doing him a favour.)

Nina won her suit against Crowley but her ultimate tragedy was to succumb to a very local disease: Soho-itis (definition: to abandon one’s artistic calling in favour of the pub). By 1950 she was sixty, impoverished, and a full-time cadging drunk, although she was still just about capable of picking up sailors to take back to her vermin-infested bedsit on Howland Street. Her landlady had tried to evict her on the grounds that she pissed in the sink but Nina contested the eviction and the judge ruled in her favour, convinced that no woman could possibly perform such a feat. Shortly afterwards, she managed to set fire to the flat and ended up an exile in distant Paddington, where she died, falling from her flat onto railings below, in 1956. A possible suicide; some even thought that Crowley had put some kind of Karswell-type curse on her, even though he had already been dead for nine years (old, broke, and addicted to heroin, he expired in a boarding house in Hastings). But just two weeks before her death the BBC had broadcast a radio play about Fitzrovia in the 1930s in which she appeared as a fictionalized character. The effect this drama had on Nina’s morale can only be imagined; the play was called It’s Long Past The Time.

As mentioned above (and adduced in last week’s entry), Aleister Crowley has left us a unique contribution to the cocktail repertoire: here is the recipe for his Kubla Khan Number 2:

One part gin;
One part vermouth;

One part laudanum.

Disclaimer: I hold no religious or superstitious views; but I know what happened to the academics in Casting The Runes, so I hope that that this post does not read like a bad review for Mr. Crowley. Altogether now: Clickity-click, 666!