In conjunction with Saffronart’s Francis Newton Souza LIVE Auction on September 11, Elisabetta Marabotto shares an article on Souza by Selma Carvalho
F N Souza was born in Saligao, Goa, in 1924. He achieved world-wide acclaim as a modernist artist proclaiming, “I leave discretion, understatement and discrimination to the finicky and lunatic fringe.” He died in 2002.
As I turn the corner into the leafy suburb of Belsize Square and walk past the quiet of St. Peter’s Church, I hold my breath. Row upon row of neatly tailored period houses stand to attention on either side of a narrow, well-disciplined road. I can’t see protruding flower-beds, tangled bushes, creeping vines, restored pubs or any hint of disorderly Bohemian irreverence, which might have attracted Francis Newton Souza. And yet, this is where the anarchist of the art world, F N Souza and Liselotte de Kristian spent much of the fifties.
I glance up and see Anya, Souza’s youngest daughter by Liselotte waving to me. Francesca, his second daughter by Liselotte joins us. The apartment has an old-world East European feel to it; walls bear the brunt of photographs creeping like vines into every available space. A pair of ‘Liselotte’ paintings hang on the walls; this is Souza at his most vulnerable, naked self. Smooth, clean lines, no distortion of body parts, no disfigurement of the face, just one line joining another, seamlessly recreating the woman he loved onto canvas.
There is something cherubic about Anya. Francesca’s black hair is coiffed back and her beautiful cheekbones slightly flushed. Somewhere in these women, I can detect steely Konkan determination mixed with the courage of the East European Jew.
“My mother used to have her Progressive League meetings here,” Anya says. “A sort of meeting-up of old-world socialists,” Francesca adds.
Liselotte de Kristian was of Jewish descent, born in 1919 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to a journalist father and a controlling mother who covered up all the furniture with dust-sheets. Her father died when she was six and her mother’s decline into very bizarre behaviour and constant mood-swings meant a childhood of bribery at times and beatings at others, a childhood which Liselotte knew was not normal. Her entire adult life, in a way, came to be defined by this need for normalcy, which she seldom found. She left Prague, a few days after Hitler’s army marched in and made her way to England where she took up odd jobs. Winning a part-scholarship to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) changed her life. Two relationships followed, both equally bereft of love.
I ask about Souza.
“He was actually acknowledged as a writer in this country before his art.” Francesa says.
Souza arrived in England, in 1949, by his own accounts “almost penniless.” England took little notice of this newcomer. Multiculturalism may have been the new Londonism, but it was still a time when landladies put out signs saying, “No dogs, No blacks.” A curious mix of artists, writers, booksellers and gallery owners had established themselves around London’s West End; they congregated, almost like a cult, in Soho. Pasty British poets enjoying the exquisite pain of displaced Jews. They spent much of their time at the French House and Colony Room, watering-holes in Soho, drinking, brawling, dancing naked on table-tops, flitting between squatting and homelessness, fashionably poverty-stricken and flirting dangerously with the law. One of those afflicted with this Sohoitis was the deliciously handsome English poet, Stephen Spender, editor of Encounter magazine who was to form a friendship with Souza. Souza’s autobiographical essay, Nirvana of a Maggot appeared in Encounter (1955) and was immediately applauded.
“Ida Kar was a great friend of both my mother and father. You must visit the National Portrait Gallery. There is an exhibition on,” Francesca urges.
A few days later, I find myself outside the imposing National Portrait Gallery, the fine streets leading up to it are lined with bookshops. A picture of a young Souza snapped up in black-and-white by Ida Kar takes centre stage. He looks unassuming and unsure.
Ida was an Armenian, dark-haired and loud-mouthed. She met her husband, Victor Musgrave, twelve years her junior, while in Cairo and they moved to London in 1945. Their house at 1 Litchfield Street, from where Victor ran Gallery One, saw a steady stream of squatters and lovers come and go. Taking lovers never proved to be a conflict of interest. Stephen Spender knew Musgrave, who gave Souza a solo-show at Gallery One in 1955. The show was a sell-out and if it established Souza, it also established the reputation of Musgrave, as a sort of champion of the art world’s voiceless and defiant avant-garde artiste. Musgrave and Ida had a curious interest and sympathy for the inner-city underbelly, keeping close company with prostitutes. Souza was now firmly entrenched in London’s high Bohemia; untethered from middle-class values, spurred on by leftist leanings, sexually unconstrained and seminally creative. This world was very different from Bombay, and one in which no doubt, he came alive.
“Your mother was the love of his life,” I venture into more disquietening territory.
“There’s a quote in Words and Lines, a dedication to her. I think they were just very intellectually compatible,” Francesca says finally.
Liselotte met Souza in the December of 1954. He was unimpressive, wearing a suit three times his size with intensity to his eyes and a persistence which scared her. He asked her why she didn’t have children and told her she must be barren. When she said she hadn’t wanted children, he replied, “I want you to be the mother of my children.”
Ida Kar, Victor Musgrave, Liselotte Kristian, F N Souza; all these disparate lives had serendipitously intersected in London, only to discover they weren’t disparate souls. They shared a sense of dispossession and a reformer’s zeal, which at times bordered on the anarchic. Both Musgrave and Souza were deeply disturbed by race riots in fifties Britain. In a departure from his usual subject matter, Souza painted Negro in Mourning, 1957.
Souza was married to Maria Figueirado. Liselotte had never technically divorced from her marriage to Richard. Souza and she proceeded to Paris, in what was to be their honeymoon, living for 2 months on £100 between them, cooking on a spirit-stove in their hotel room. Liselotte had worked in television and had played a small part in a film. She fell pregnant while in Paris.
Do you remember him as a father or an artist? I ask.
“He was very affectionate… There are certain artists,” Francesca says to me, “their entire life and their work, their life’s mission, it’s inseparable.”
Souza was totally consumed by his art. His relationship with Liselotte swung between euphoria and despair. Almost overnight and unannounced, he sunk into the oblivion of alcohol. The normalcy of family, which Liselotte had so craved for, dissipated into an unpredictable and often violent relationship.
Despite the drinking, the next few years proved to be enormously successful for Souza. He had five shows at Gallery One. The last one in 1961 at North Audley Street, where Musgrave had shifted the gallery, was hugely successful and in many ways marked the pinnacle of his career. But his relationship with Liselotte had all but collapsed. (Although in a 1958 letter to Victor Musgrave, he still writes lovingly of her). Shortly afterwards, Souza married Barbara Zinkant. In 1967, he left for America.
I bid farewell to the sisters and climb down the old-fashioned stairwell, contemplating what Francesca said, “He was a genius…what he will end up being remembered for is his work, that’s what will stay.”
Selma Carvalho is the author of Into the Diaspora Wilderness, and Project Manager of the Oral Histories of British-Goans Project.