Magazine article The Spectator

The Girl from Toulouse with Nothing to Lose

Magazine article The Spectator

The Girl from Toulouse with Nothing to Lose

Article excerpt

The girl from Toulouse with nothing to lose Brian Masters


by Hilary Spurling

Profile, L7.99, pp. 119

Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse, published last year, was not only a majestic biography, thorough as much in its artistic perception as in its understanding of character, but also a treasure-trove of unexpected information. One surprise was that Matisse had abandoned his experimental work in 1902 to paint pictures of flowers and ordinary portraits, so as to make money to save his parents-in-law from penury after they had been ruined by involvement in the Humbert fraud.

What exactly was the fraud and who were the Humberts? Spurling told us as much as she dared, but one felt she had to keep her enthusiasm in check or the Humberts would trample all over her pages. Now she can let herself go with a little pocket-book dedicated to the Humbert story itself, a subject which was universally familiar at the turn of the century and which nearly destroyed the French judiciary, but which has since disappeared from record. It is an irresistible mixture of farce, folly and gigantic deception; one must be glad she did not resist.

How to give the flavour of a treat, like a delicious amuse-gueule before the serious main course of the second Matisse volume comes along, without giving it all away? By asking the reader to believe the impossible, for a start. Imagine the grandest house in Paris, stuffed with the grandest furniture and scene of the grandest parties to which everyone, including three presidents of the Republic and five prime ministers, are happy to be summoned. Imagine the salon, the high fashion, the glittering jewellery. Imagine, if you like, the Paris equivalent of Londonderry House in Park Lane, where the august Marchioness of Londonderry received her guests at the top of a smooth, dramatic staircase. Yet imagination was not needed at Londonderry House. Its sumptuous style was supported by the Londonderry wealth, derived from coalmines in County Durham. In Paris, however, the style of the Humbert mansion was supported only by imagination, for Monsieu and Madame Humbert hadn't a bean.

Therese Humbert claimed to be the heiress of an American, Robert Henry Crawford, whose life she had saved following an accident in what Spurling calls 'a phenomenally early motor-car'. …

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