Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"A Tired Police Captain" - The Doyle Bust Business (Part Two).

Jo Davidson with Conan Doyle at 15, Buckingham Palace Mansions,1930.
On 7, November, 1929, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was carried ashore at Dover by two sailors, taken by train to Victoria Station and thence by bathchair to his apartment in Buckingham Palace Mansions. Ill before he left, he had committed himself to a life-threatening Spiritualism lecture tour of the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Well aware he had not long to live, he (typically) arranged his affairs (including the programme for his funeral on 11, July, 1930) in the few months that remained to him. 

In this context where every action had special significance Doyle sat for the famous sculptor, Jo Davidson. That bust now resides (not currently on display) in The Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. Here is the museum description:
Jo Davidson (United States, New York, New York City, 1883 -
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1930
Sculpture, Bronze, 18 3/4 x 24 x 8 in. (47.63 x 60.96 x 20.32 cm), Signed and dated back on back, below collar right: JO DAVIDSON / LONDON 1930 Signed by Conan Doyle on front, right: Conan Doyle Foundry mark of A. C. Rehberger in circular cachet on back, on socle lower left
Gift of Maury P. Leibovitz (M.83.206.8)
Modern Art Department.
In The Connoisseur 88 (August 1931) p126, F.G.R., Men of Letters describes the bust as "an almost speaking likeness."
Dr. Leibovitz was the ultimate owner of the estate of Jo Davidson (see this article on him HERE ).
The sitting would appear to have taken place during the second half of December, 1929 and I refer the reader to Davidson's own fascinating book Between Sittings which may be read on-line HERE .
A glance now at the Wikipedia entry for Jo Davidson HERE will illustrate the standing of the sculptor in 1929 and just why Conan Doyle went out of his way to sit for him.
Davidson had come to England on commission from George Doran of Doubleday, Doran & Co. to do the heads of the best-selling American and British authors. Upon arrival , mid-December, in London (having managed to track down Joyce to sit for him), Davidson had difficulty pinning down his subjects. Doyle he describes as "under die weather" and "momentarily inaccessible". 
He manages to sculpt busts of Hugh Walpole, Frank Swinnerton, Kipling (from memory) and Edgar Wallace, before Conan Doyle becomes available. Here is Davidson's description of the sitting:
  "I will never forget meeting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Somehow I had
visualized him as tall and thin, Sherlock Holmes with double-peaked
cap and a perpetual pipe in his mouth. Instead, there was a big man
with a round heavy face and drooping mustaches, looking for all the
world like a tired police captain.

Conan Doyle received me in his apartment. It was musty and filled
with overstuffed furniture. He was dressed in an old, faded woolen
dressing-gown and wore carpet slippers. I had heard that he was a
spiritualist and was not surprised when he talked about the hereafter.
But when he said that after we die we will all continue doing in the
hereafter exactly what we were doing on earth, I asked him if he was
describing Heaven or Hell.

All the time I was working on his bust, I kept looking for Sherlock
Holmes, but what I found was Dr. Watson. I tried to talk about
Holmes and Watson as if they really existed, but Sir Arthur was inter
ested in other things. Pointing to an old armchair by the fireplace, he
said, "The other day I was sitting in that very chair and my son, who
has been dead for some years, came over and kissed me on the brow,
something he never did in his life."
Soon after, Davidson left for France, where he secured sittings from Aldous Huxley, H.G.Wells, Somerset Maugham & D.H. Lawrence who died on 2nd March two weeks after his sitting.
On April 17, 1930, the sculptor travelled to New York to "do" Booth Tarkington and Christopher Morley. He says "the making of these busts would be the cause of Doran's withdrawal from Doubleday, Doran & Co. The last time I saw George Doran was when I was in London arranging for my show at Knoedler's. I have been ever grateful to him for the opportunity of "busting" my friends."
In June, 1931, Knoedler Galleries of Bond Street, London, exhibited the busts under the title "Portrait Busts of some Contemporary Men of Letters", by which time were added the heads of Shaw, Galsworthy and Barrie. 
"It was held for die benefit of the Royal Literary Fund. There were posters in the underground announcing my show, with reproductions of the busts of Shaw, Maugham, Lawrence, Wallace, Bennett and H. G. Wells. The afternoon of the opening was a gala affair. Many of my sitters and their friends were there. Luigi Pirandello, whose bust I had modeled in 1926, came to the show. The "free" day brought people who came to see their favorite authors whose pictures they had seen in the posters in the tube stations. The show was acclaimed by the critics and pictures were published in all the illustrated papers. Even the London Times carried an editorial about it.
  "In her column 'I Said to Me,' Rebecca West commented (July 28, 1931): 'A New Yorker, George Doran, did one of the things best worth doing that have been done during the last few years in the way of artistic enter prise when he got Jo Davidson to make bronze busts of a dozen or so of the great. Now Jo Davidson has put them in a room in Bond Street, with an other dozen or so of his own picking, and going there is a great experience. There they all are. The men who make one think as they do, who think as one makes them because one is part of the present, which even the greatest cannot get away from the embodiments of that queer thing, the mind of the age, which is both inside and outside each of us
'Jo Davidson knows who is no good. All the people whose work has no stuffing, who get in here because of some accident of fashion, look as if they were made of butter. . .I have never read a book of criticism that so subtly and completely in ventoried the mind of the age as this room of Jo Davidson's. It is a superb exercise of lively, sensitive, well-informed intelligence.'"

Conan Doyle had been dead 11 months but I like to think that, in his final days, he made what must have been a supreme effort given his health, sensing he had earned a deserved place in the pantheon immortalised by Jo Davidson.


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