A FOOTLING FOOTNOTE IN HISTORY; He Was an Art-Collecting Margarine Millionaire Who Went to School with Ian Fleming, Lunched with Dylan Thomas, Was Robbed by Francis Bacon and Died in His Bath. but Was Peter Watson Really the Man Who 'Shook 20th Century Art and Shocked High Society'?

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 5, 2015 | Go to article overview

A FOOTLING FOOTNOTE IN HISTORY; He Was an Art-Collecting Margarine Millionaire Who Went to School with Ian Fleming, Lunched with Dylan Thomas, Was Robbed by Francis Bacon and Died in His Bath. but Was Peter Watson Really the Man Who 'Shook 20th Century Art and Shocked High Society'?


Byline: CRAIG BROWN NON-FICTION

Queer Saint

Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield John Blake Publishing PS25

***

Given time, every footnote turns into a biography. Peter Watson is a very footnotey type of character. If you look up his name in the index of any book about the arts in England in the middle of the 20th century, he will probably have two or three entries, but is unlikely to rate a fourth or a fifth.

His name pops up, for instance, on page 158 of The Letters Of Evelyn Waugh. 'Is there any chance of selling the two chapters under the title "Work Suspended" to a high-brow paper?' Waugh writes to his agent in February 1940, adding: 'Connolly has started one backed by a pansy of means named Watson.' A footnote adds: 'Vernon William Watson (1906-56). Called Peter. He inherited a fortune made from margarine in the First World War. He spent some of it on a collection of modern pictures and the magazine Horizon, of which Connolly was editor and he was arts editor.' The date of birth is, incidentally, two years out: Watson was in fact born in 1908.

And, again, on page 179 of Gore Vidal's autobiography Palimpsest. Vidal is writing about another footnotey character he had once met, this one a high-class male prostitute called Denham Fouts. 'He was being kept by Peter Watson, usually identified as the "oleomargarine king of England"; a tall nervous man, Peter had financed Cyril Connolly's Horizon magazine, at that time the most interesting literary paper in the English-speaking world. Watson established Denham in a flat in the rue du Bac, then more or less abandoned him.'

And up he pops, too, on page 109, of Daniel Farson's memoir of Francis Bacon, this time wrongly described as 'a wealthy American who subsidised Horizon'. Here, Watson rates a mention only because Bacon, strapped for cash, shins up a drainpipe and steals PS300 from his hotel bedroom in Nice in 1951.

And so it goes on. If you go to the trouble, you can find a fleeting mention of 'Watson, Peter' in the indexes of countless memoirs and biographies of more illustrious names from the Forties and Fifties: Christopher Isherwood, the Mitfords, Truman Capote, Stephen Spender, Lucian Freud.

In Queer Saint, the bit-part player is placed, for the first time and, presumably, the last time, in the spotlight, centre stage. In an effort to big up their subject, the publishers have inserted a suitably overblown subtitle, 'The cultured life of Peter Watson, who shook 20th century art and shocked high society'. Of these 15 words, only about a third are true. Yes, he was called Peter Watson, and yes, he certainly enjoyed a cultured life. But he never 'shook' 20th century art, just bought some of it, and he never 'shocked' high society, just skittered around the fringes of it.

His father, Sir George Watson, made a fortune marketing margarine in the years before World War I: he owned Maypole Dairies, which had 1,000 shops across Britain, with one opening every week between 1905 and 1914.

In 1921, the young Peter was sent to Eton, where his contemporaries included Ian Fleming, Anthony Powell and James Lees-Milne. After an unsatisfactory time at Oxford, he launched himself into the gay life of Germany and Austria before inheriting a trust fund of PS1 million. This made Peter, at the tender age of 22, one of the richest young men in Britain.

Like many who come into vast fortunes, he embarked on a life free from work. He never had a job, and never did anything arty, other than collect it. Of course, there is no reason why he should have, but a life without work leaves very few footprints for even the most dutiful biographers to follow.

It might have helped had he kept a diary, or penned more than a handful of letters. But he did not. As a consequence, Watson remains a shadowy figure in his own biography. …

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A FOOTLING FOOTNOTE IN HISTORY; He Was an Art-Collecting Margarine Millionaire Who Went to School with Ian Fleming, Lunched with Dylan Thomas, Was Robbed by Francis Bacon and Died in His Bath. but Was Peter Watson Really the Man Who 'Shook 20th Century Art and Shocked High Society'?
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