When Cocteau came to Soho

Image of Peter Aspden

The trouble with living in a capital city that is the centre of world culture is that there is too much culture in it. London is swamped by culture. It is a trial just to keep up with its latest important openings – never mind to catch every little pop-up inanity that hopes to turn cheerful ephemerality into something more lucrative. Of course, we think we know the landmarks. But just occasionally, even those of us who are born-and-bred Londoners can be surprised.

The restoration has been completed, I was informed by a recent email, on Jean Cocteau’s chapel mural in Soho. Cocteau? In Soho? Where was it, I asked, not without embarrassment. Just off Leicester Square, between the Häagen Dazs ice cream shop and the Prince Charles cinema. I asked around. Plenty had tasted the ice cream and visited the cinema. But none knew of the church of Notre Dame de France and its illustrious art work.

Off I went. I met one of the restorers on the site of her work. Marie-Odile Hubert explained that the chapel mural needed the work because it had been subjected to a peculiar form of vandalism. A miscreant had made some adjustments to Cocteau’s decoration. He had painted a white circle around the sun of the artist’s landscape, and attached a kind of signature: “T_A*”. It is hard to know whether pretentious vandals are more or less irritating than thoughtless ones. Still, the dust that had accumulated on the surface of the mural had thankfully protected it from more lasting damage, and it was subsequently decided to restore the entire work.

Cocteau was asked by France’s cultural adviser in London to make the mural while the church was being rebuilt in the 1950s following wartime bomb damage. He spent just over a week on the work in November 1959, with his progress avidly followed by the press, which reported that he was in the habit of conversing with the figures in his Annunciation and Crucifixion scenes. And why not?

I was glad to make this discovery, for Cocteau is one of those figures whose playful and eclectic approach to art has always attracted me. The London mural is drawn, as all of his work, with great freshness and apparent facility. There is a trademark self-portrait in the foreground, in which the artist raises a quizzical eyebrow that is hard to interpret, and a moving portrayal of Mary at the foot of the Cross. The chapel is now protected by locked glass door and panel.

Cocteau spread his talents far and wide. He is in consequence rarely regarded as the artistic equal of many of the figures he spent his time with. But what a great spender of time he was! His vividly written diaries are replete with encounters with remarkable men and women. He had a row with Marcel Proust when he declined the writer’s offer to have a coat made for him. He bumped into Charlie Chaplin on the SS Coolidge, somewhere between Hong Kong and Shanghai. The two men didn’t speak each other’s language. But with whom better to mime the beginnings of a friendship?

Cocteau’s story was the story of the 20th century. He was introduced as a young man to the Empress Eugénie, nonagenarian widow of Napoleon III, and studied her face. “It looked as though an unhappy young woman had buried her face in her hands too often and that in the end the shape of her fingers had left their imprint upon it,” he wrote, a poignant evocation of the fall of the Second Empire. Yet there he also was in 1953, jury president at the Cannes film festival, when a teenage starlet by the name of Brigitte Bardot showed the world what a bikini could do. Empress to sex kitten: that was quite a journey for womankind.

We should perhaps be wary of his testimony, for Cocteau saw life almost exclusively in theatrical terms. But that flair for the dramatic enriched his writing. A small essay on Nijinsky and Diaghilev is packed tight with memorable journalism. “The force of gravity dwells within us,” he wrote on seeing the dancer at work. “[Nijinsky] searched continually for some trick that would do away with it.” Diaghilev would be constantly chewing his lip when watching his artists, his “moist, downward curving eyes ... like Portuguese oysters.”

In Villefranche-sur-mer on the French Riviera, where I happened, by coincidence, to spend Easter day, the same restorers have worked on the Cocteau mural in the chapel of St Peter on the village seafront, which I duly visited. There is a vibrant scene, tucked just inside the entrance, of gypsies celebrating. The guitarist looks familiar: it is a homage to Django Reinhardt by the jazz-loving artist.

The popular view of great artists is that they are singular in their visions, obsessively honing their art to achieve something close to perfection. Cocteau was the opposite, wide-ranging, generous, obsessively interested in other lives and arts than his own.

I told Father Paul Walsh, Marist priest at Notre Dame de France, that it was remarkable that Cocteau-in-Soho was not better known. “That may be our fault,” he replied, explaining that the order’s mission was to go “hidden and unknown” in the world. That phrase could never be applied to Cocteau. That this worldliest of artists should come to bustling Leicester Square to provide a corner of such lovely quietude is, if not exactly one of London’s cultural secrets, one of its best jokes.


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