The Lost Bohemians
Does the modern world still have room for artistic outlaws?
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
On a tree-lined street in Kensington, set back from the manicured houses of the uber-rich, you will find Antony Bream’s studio. The hall is dark and smells of turpentine. Out of the gloom, a wide stone staircase leads up to the second-floor dwelling with a lavatory adjacent to the front door. Inside, tall north-facing windows let in the grey London light and reveal stacks of canvases piled against the sides of the room. Several huge easels as big as men loom near a gas heater, and a podium set up for models occupies much of the floor. Beyond the main room lies a galley kitchen and down a set of stairs, a bedroom with a bath in it and a large wooden stick for stirring the laundry. Bohemia, often described as a country of the mind, surely positions itself here where idea and place coincide.
Now in his seventies, Bream has lived and worked in his studio for fifty years. A disciple of Sorolla, Sargent, Orpen and Lavery, Bream trained at the Royal Academy under Peter Greenham in the 1960s and first exhibited his work at the Fine Art Society in 1979 before several one-man shows in London’s West End.
Setting out to be a traditional British artist, he learnt to paint figuratively using natural light and painting nudes in the style of the great ateliers of late nineteenth century France. As a young man he worked predominantly as a portrait painter, commissioned by the likes of William Rees-Mogg and Lord McAlpine. A life-long Tory, his bohemianism has always been in the service of the establishment rather than against it. Never far from what Jonathan Meades aptly calls the “Royal Borough of Kensington and Bohemia”, Bream spent his days in the studios of Glebe Place and World’s End, architectural emblems of the working artist.
Asked about his professional success, Bream croaks a hollow laugh. He cites the late fifties and sixties as the felicitous conjoining of art and ideas when Britain emerged from the cultural recession of the second world war to produce something extraordinary, when the fabric of society became fluid enough for him to move up and down it with ease.
Hasn’t bohemia always lingered stubbornly out of reach?
With his brother, the guitarist Julian Bream, he would cross London moving from the upper-class circles of Pont Street to the jazz clubs of Eel Pie Island in Twickenham. Patronage, that centuries-old Roman tradition, existed back then, he explains, because it respected the autonomy of the artist — unlike today’s committee-led, Arts Council equivalent that celebrates the woke to the exclusion of all else.
He talks with a nostalgia that borders on reproach. The great bohemians of yesteryear from Augustus John to Walter Sickert have been lost, irretrievably, to the past. And what of his contemporaries, those who loitered with him in the bar at the Chelsea Arts Club and made pilgrimages to Florence to study under Pietro Annigoni? Are they lost too? Either dead from the drink or languishing in the shadows of obscurity, he notes drily. Truly, maintenance of the bohemian position is no easy task.
But hasn’t bohemia always lingered stubbornly out of reach? A concept so shrouded in nostalgia that you have to wonder whether it ever existed at all. David Hockney, a somewhat conflicted bohemian due to the millions he has made from posing as one, avers that it did indeed exist but, like a boarded-up shopfront, it is simply no longer open.
“I didn’t expect it would close down sometime,” he muttered poolside from Los Angeles. Indeed, as Elizabeth Wilson, professor of cultural studies at the University of North London, notes in Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts, bohemia is always past, its obituary always looming. Every generation of bohemians imagines itself to be the last authentic group of rebels.
Yet, while the word and concept may have lost traction for us twenty-first century moderns, it bears to underline its original meaning. Bohemians were artistic outlaws and harbingers of change, their art too far in advance of middle-class mores to sell. As such, bohemians were famously impecunious, a stance that became part of the very fabric of their creed. Seediness and a certain shabbiness were the bohemian’s calling card, material realities of the ideological sacrifices they made in the name of art. To eat mouse on toast as Virginia Woolf is said to have done was to really live.
But to their chagrin, this dissident lifestyle was taken up by the masses spawning commercial imitations from Puccini’s La Boheme to George du Maurier’s serialized novel Trilby. And we’re still at it today; bourgeois bohemians — what the French witheringly call les BoBos — drink artisan lattes and wear ripped clothes in distorted homage to their secular gods. But for painters like Bream, a fate worse than nostalgic imitation afflicts bohemianism today. Rather, art has uncoupled itself from bohemia to live in the sterile quarters of digital media, marketing and publicity. To achieve renown today is to engage with the machine, the very antithesis of bohemian belief. Bream, for his part, refuses to even own a mobile phone.
Contemporary British artists such as Damien Hirst, David Hockney and Peter Doig owe their success to the idea of bohemia at the same time as they betray it. But bohemia has always proven vulnerable to the siren-song of money, drawing its artists away from authenticity and towards imitation, or worse, celebrity. Equally, the spread of bohemian mores eliminates the distinctiveness of the original. Every time someone calls Sienna Miller a bohemian, an artist in a garret perishes. If not sparking rebellion or signifying difference, bohemia becomes irrelevant.
Every time someone calls Sienna Miller a bohemian, an artist in a garret perishes
Perhaps, rather than being at loggerheads, the bohemian and the bourgeois are engaged in a subtle dance. For their part, bohemians need the middle classes as a foil for their transgressions and as a marketplace. For all their condemnation of dosh, bohemians from Henri Murger, who tried to flog portrayals of his Left Bank poverty into wealth in the 1840s, to the SoHo artists of the 1980s such as Jeff Koons, have not been shy about their desire for accumulation. Their ire has stemmed as much from the low price their art brings as from the audacity of the bourgeoisie to put a price tag on the abstract.
This dance needs two partners. Bohemians from Lord Byron to Lucian Freud have been objects of fascination in part because they allow vicarious indulgence in the prohibited. If bohemian squalor reassures the middle class of the price of excess, bohemian glamour enables an imaginative trapdoor from the bourgeois strictures. That someone would live by values other than the spreadsheet heartens the middle class, even as they disavow such a course themselves. From Hackney to Montmartre to Manhattan the middle class has long coveted the tone of bohemia if not its realities.
Bohemianism, then, exists in co-dependence with the bourgeoisie, much like an abusive relationship. Keeping these forces in harmony has proven well-nigh impossible, which is why bohemias have often crumbled. And yet the term persists. Maybe we should abandon the search for the authentic bohemians and ask instead why we still use the term at all. Virginia Nicholson, author of Among Bohemians, goes so far as to suggest that we’re all bohemians now which may account for its invisibility, “We are hatless, relaxed and on first name terms with people we barely know. We live in a society that most people’s grandparents would hardly recognise.” While this may be a catchy explanation for bohemia’s slide into the mainstream, it ignores the more uncomfortable truth that we no longer venerate those artists and writers who gave us the term in the first place.
But what are the bohemian characteristics that still exist? Smoking? A raffish mode of dress? Alcoholism? These still manifestly exist but they have been shorn of their mystery, divorced from their promise of artistic genius.
Arthur Miller described American bohemia in Manhattan’s Chelsea hotel as the absence of a vacuum cleaner. Stephen Fry characterized a bohemian as someone who will never own a lawnmower. Aside from our acceptance of its unkemptness, we seem to struggle with a definition of bohemia in what could be characterized as a low point of the phenomenon, when the best we can do is cannibalize old ideas and gorge on episodic television drama.
But if creative daring and transgressive energy relies on social and political schism then perhaps we may look forward to a period of restoration in the aftermath of Covid. The conditions are there for an epiphany; enough is blighted, fatigued and infected to allow for innovation.
When I ask Bream what he hopes for when the galleries reopen, he hesitates. Eventually he declares that he’d like to sell a few pictures and go for a drink in the Savile Club. Doesn’t sound too outlandish to me, but maybe we’re all bohemians now.
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