One day in the spring of 1921 a beautiful young Englishman set off for Paris to become the greatest painter the world had ever seen. His name was Christopher Wood and he was nineteen years old. Until he took the boat for Calais on 19 March he was working for a fruit importer in the City of London. He was the son of a doctor in the North West of England, and his sudden disappearance to France confirmed his family's worst fears. Although Christopher wore shirts from the best outfitters in Jermyn Street, was well-mannered and polite to his parents, he seemed to have no understanding of middle-class convention. Some combination of circumstances had combined with a fierce streak in his character to make him wild and ambitious. He was determined to be a painter, and the intensity of his desire was frightening to his parents.
Dr Lucius Wood and his wife Clare had two children: Christopher, whom they knew as Kit, and Elizabeth, whom they called Betty. As a child, Kit had his hair cut in a bob and wore smocks. So did Betty. The family was relatively well off; the parents believed in God and the children believed in Father Christmas.
One December Kit wrote:
My dear father Xmas, I want a new good yacht and I want it to be all hollow inside and gun and a top And Betty a big doll and a gun And I want a very sparp chissel and a good screw driver and a good peaint box and mother wants a nice comfy bed With love from Kit and Betty Wood.
He always knew what he wanted, and in his childhood he almost always had it. His mother was devoted to him and he to her. He would gather crocuses for her birthday on 25 March and she repaid him with her doting indulgence. Clare Wood came from a Lancashire family called Arthur on her father's side, and a seafaring Cornish family called Pellew on her mother's; Kit liked to think that the sea, and boats, were in his blood. Dr Wood was a general practitioner. He was a less demonstrative person than his wife and took a detached view of his son's early enthusiasms. He called him 'Snodgrass' after the would-be poet in Pickwick Papers. Next to Dickens, Dr Wood's preferred reading was the Bible.
At the age of seven, Kit was sent to a preparatory school called Freshfield, where he excelled at games. In 1914 he went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire. This was one of the newer public schools, lacking the history or burnish of Eton and Winchester, but respectable in its way. The aim of such schools was to prepare their pupils for the service of the British Empire abroad, as soldiers, diplomats and administrators, or to ready them for work in the professions at home. Games were as important as work, though neither was as crucial to the school's philosophy as the idea of 'independence': their claim was to turn a boy into a man, even if the evidence suggested he was still a child.
At the moment Kit Wood began his time at Marlborough in September 1914, the world changed. 'The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness,' wrote Henry James, 'is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.' It was as though the history of Europe had been torn up: Erasmus, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Goethe, Mozart, Dante, Montaigne, Tolstoy, Rembrandt, Beethoven . . . their work had no cumulative value any more; it was smashed into fragments that Eliot would try to reassemble in The Waste Land. Almost ten million men died.
While Kit Wood struggled to settle in at school, his father went as a medical officer to the Western Front, where he stayed for the duration of the War. While he was away, Kit became seriously ill. The disease seems to have started as polio but then to have been complicated by the development of septicaemia or a similar infection. One of Wood's adult friends thought it had all started with a football injury. In any event he was now forced to abandon the games field: he was unable to do his lessons in class but had to read and write in a lying position. In March 1916 he had to be withdrawn from Marlborough altogether. His mother nursed him at home, and in the long, painful hours of his illness he turned to painting. His love for her, already profound, was intensified by his physical dependence.
Dr Wood was absent from his son's life, except in the occasional letter from the Front. The progress of the War was known to Christopher Wood only from odd glimpses of his mother's newspaper during his convalescence: the 'real' world was kept at his mother's arm's length.
The illness ruined his education. He did not return to school until January 1918 when he arrived at Malvern College in Worcestershire. Like all such schools in England at this time, Malvern was in a state of grief bordering on paralysis. The school magazine that listed Wood's arrival also recorded the award of nineteen DSO's to old boys of the school and thirty-six MC's. There was no artwork in it; there was almost no room for anything but the names of the dead: a total of 457 Malvernians were killed in the War. Teachers of school sixth forms were finding it difficult to keep their nerve when the names of boys they had so carefully nurtured towards manhood and university appeared a few weeks later in the dead and missing columns of The Times.
After four years on the Western Front Dr Wood returned to find that his little son had become a handsome, crippled young man. His boyish beauty had remained; he had a short straight nose, a strong jaw and hair of the colour known as fair, though by no means blond, brushed back from the temples where it showed the first signs of receding. He had a clipped, rapid way of speaking, indicative of a nervous intensity that had developed in him since 1914. He limped when he walked, though he used his cane as much for conversational emphasis as for physical support.
Dr Wood had taken a job on the Earl of Derby's estate at Knowsley near Liverpool. The family lived in a spacious house in Huyton, which was then an affluent suburb. He told Kit that he too should train to become a doctor, but among the changes wrought in Kit by what he came to call 'the War years' was a powerful indignation at anything he viewed as meddling in his affairs. Dr Wood's suggestion was briskly rejected by his son, who told him he had had enough of blood and illness: he had decided to go to Liverpool University where he would study architecture. This had the air of a compromise worked out with his mother: the subject was artistic yet respectable, the university was near home. It was as close to being a painter in an attic as he could yet realistically manage.
Wood viewed it as no more than a means to an end. One of his architectural drawings from the university survives: it is a solid piece of work, correct and craftsmanlike, but on the back of it is a highly-coloured painting of a young woman. His mind was not on elevations but on other plans.
After a year he left university and took a job in London working for an importer of dried fruit called Thornley and Felix. He lived in rooms in Bayswater and his homeward route in the evening took him past the Cafe Royal, where Augustus John habitually held court. Friends of Wood later claimed that he one day approached the throne with some drawings and that John was so impressed that he arranged for Wood to go to Paris and lodge with his friend Alphonse Kahn, a well-known collector and connoisseur, while he studied painting. It is possible that Wood had met John when he went to lecture to the Sandon Club at Liverpool University and was thus able to reintroduce himself, but it is more likely that the Paris connection was made by a Wood family friend called Robert Tritton, who dealt in Oriental antiques.
Alphonse Kahn had taken up attractive young men before, though there is no evidence that he required them to become his lovers in return. Kahn was an extreme example of a 1920s Pairisian type whose money came from international finance but whose interests were in art and patronage. He lived in an astonishing house in the sixteenth arrondissement and he invited Christopher Wood to abandon his little rooms in Bayswater and to come and stay with him while he looked for a studio and more permanent lodging.
So it was that the untrained, uncertainly talented Christopher Wood took the train to Dover and crossed to Paris, where few English artists of his generation had previously ventured. The day before he left, as though in symbolic farewell to the life he was leaving, he played a round of golf with Robert Tritton at Woodhall Spa, a seaside course in Lincolnshire.
Christopher Wood was a child of the Edwardian era, born at the last gasp of imperial pomp into a country depicted by later writers, such as Philip Larkin in his poem 'MCMXIV', as crisscrossed with narrow roads and deep hedgerows, with village names from Domesday all grown-over with loving neglect, and patient football crowds with trusting, upturned faces, unresentful of their prosperous betters with their long weekends, grouse-shooting and towering blancmanges.
The England of Wood's childhood was in fact a fearful place, engaged in a battle on all fronts to keep the modern world at bay. Wood's desire to be a painter and his departure to lodge in Paris with an unmarried 'connoisseur' were deeply alarming to his father. Attempts to interest English people in new developments in painting, writing or psychology had all failed: the country not only had little appetite for knowledge of human behaviour, it had no real interest at all in the life of the mind.
Far from being imperially complacent, Britain was worried about its place in the world. After the Boer War, alarmist literature circulated about the poor physical quality of the British young: congested city conditions had produced a generation of stunted, weak, voluble children who lacked in physical or moral stamina. In the port of Liverpool, Christopher Wood's father saw just such conditions, and came to the same conclusion as the demagogues who suggested that Britain's best way forward was in increased -- or as they put it 'splendid' -- isolation from Europe and its modern ways.
By denying legitimacy or even publication to many of the ideas current in Europe, the conservative forces of Edwardian England managed to confuse the cranky with the serious by driving both underground. While socialism was emerging as a credible political force, anarchism occupied almost as much public attention. Many people who might have seen feminism as the most important means of social advance were distracted into anti-vivisectionism, vegetarianism or the investigation of the occult. While the country retained some adamantine self-belief, and an instinctive patriotism which found its most poignant expression in the raising of the Pals' battalions in 1915, it was morbidly sensitive to the currents of new thought that were abroad.
And abroad, in the opinion of the middle classes from which Christopher Wood came, was where they should stay. Channels to the continent were few and subversive. Walter Sickert had lived in Dieppe and studied the French Impressionists; Wyndham Lewis had been to France, as had David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein. Ben Nicholson went to Paris in the early 1920s and made some flirtation with abstract painting before retreating into figurative work for the next six years.
Christopher Wood had no historical self-consciousness and was motivated by complicated and utterly personal patterns formed in the period of his illness. He did not see himself as a pioneer, but no amount of ignorance on his part could stop him from appearing to the people he met in Paris as a very curious figure indeed.
Alphonse Kahn's house in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne was dominated by a vast salon with a polished parquet floor and open fires at either end. About the walls were hung paintings by Turner, Rembrandt, Greuze, Poussin, Matisse and other modern painters that Wood could not immediately identify. Wood's quarters consisted of a beautifully decorated bedroom, with bathroom and lavatory attached. Kahn provided him with meals and helped him to enrol at art school. Wood had wanted to go to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but it was beyond his means; he signed up instead at the Academic Julian in the Passage des Panoramas off the Boulevard Montparnasse, which had been made fashionable in the 1890s when Bonnard, Vuillard and fellow-painters of the Nabis group had passed through. Matisse, Leger and Derain had added their lustre to the Academie, though by 1921 it had come to depend on visiting Americans.
All these names, all these styles of painting . . . and all that Christopher Wood had was his ambition. He needed not only to orientate himself in a foreign capital, but to catch up with what had happened there when he was a child. The principal breakthroughs in painting and sculpture had been made in Paris by Picasso and others before the War. Paris had drawn in artists from all over Europe: Modigliani, Miro, Brancusi, Picasso, Kandinsky, Giacometti, de Chirico, Chagall, but still in England the most famous painter was Augustus John.
Wood never managed to form a clear perspective on the development of modern painting; and his enthusiasms were often contradictory. He admired Augustus John, even though John's work had already degenerated by this time into a succession of society portraits where his undoubted technical facility was not imaginatively stretched. But Wood also came to like Cezanne, Derain, Matisse and other French painters who were more determinedly modern. He compensated for his lack of academic understanding by an instinctive good taste, and a sensitivity to a wide variety of art.
Excerpted from The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks. Copyright © 2002 by Sebastian Faulks. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.