Dora Gordine and Arthur Symons: Artistic and Literary Encounters
Would a book of poems dedicated to Dora Gordine from the poet and critic Arthur Symons sold at auction in 1995 shed some light on Gordine’s creative circle? Here volunteer Stella Beaumont takes this poetry book as a starting point for an intriguing exploration of Gordine and Symons’s relationship.
Three years into volunteering duties at Dorich House and Dora Gordine continued to elude me. A sculptor born in Latvia of Russian-Jewish heritage working in England, who reached her artistic maturity in a period of international artistic ferment, Gordine and her house, life and work would appear to offer rich research pickings to any aspirant art historian, and so I was keen to join the team of volunteer researchers working on The Squatter Years project. In the years between my first shift at Dorich House and the initiation of this project, I had completed an MA in art history and written a dissertation on C.R.W. Nevinson, the English artist who had exhibited alongside Gordine at the Leicester Galleries in 1928. English art of this period was my self-declared specialist subject.
And yet I struggled with Gordine. The commanding solidity of her studio-house and the tactile materiality of her sculptures seemed to stand in stark contrast to the looseness of my grasp on her artistic philosophy, her circle of friends and potential influences, her position within the English art establishment, and her interest in broader cultural issues. I simply couldn’t ‘place’ her and felt that for an artist who was described in 1938 as ‘very possibly becoming the finest woman sculptor in the world’, Gordine had received rather less critical and theoretical scrutiny than she deserved.
So when the opportunity arose to examine an individual object previously owned by Gordine as part of The Squatter Years project, I was immediately intrigued by and drawn to a poetry book, London Nights, by the poet and critic Arthur Symons (1865–1945). It sold at auction on 16 March 1995 for £5,700 and was described in the auction catalogue as a gift to Gordine from Symons. I wondered whether either the contents of the book itself or any incidental details thrown up by research into Symons and Gordine’s relationship might cast new light on her philosophy or connect her to a wider artistic circle than previously considered, bringing my sought-after contextualisation into sharper focus. The book seemed to me a totemic object that might, perhaps literally, illustrate the nature and depth of the connection between Symons and Gordine and suggest to me its source. Last, but by no means least, the book struck me as an object of intrinsic beauty and interest in its own right, to be admired as much for its craftsmanship as for its contents.
In her introduction to Revolution, the catalogue accompanying the 2017 Royal Academy exhibition Russian Art 1917–1932, the art historian and curator Natalia Murray describes the centrality of books to Russian culture in the early twentieth century. The ‘World of Art’ group of Symbolists, active and influential in Russia at the time, paid as much attention to the applied arts as they did to painting and sculpture. Book design was particularly highly regarded for the opportunity it offered to integrate different forms of artwork. The book was seen as both a forum for innovation as late-nineteenth-century advances in print technology bore fruit, and as an art form that appealed to ‘the Russian tendency to accept the word as truth’. Consequently, Murray continues, ‘as a synthetic work of art the book enjoyed no less attention than the opera and the ballet and its capitals, headpieces, tail pieces and vignettes attracted the foremost artistic talents’. At the time of Gordine’s birth in 1895, Latvia was a Baltic province of the Russian Empire and the period 1900–25, coinciding with Gordine’s early life in Latvia and Estonia, represented a period of great enthusiasm for book collecting and limited editions. Symons, who had visited Moscow in 1902, was likely aware of this.
The auction listing for London Nights, pictured at the top of the page, emphasises the highly bespoke and personalised nature of this association copy of the book, presumably in Symons’s own possession from the time of publication in 1895 until his gift of it to Gordine at an unspecified later date. The listing tells us that this was one of only 50 large-paper copies produced at the time and subsequently embellished through the tipping in of three additional poems (unspecified) and the photograph of a drawing of Charles Baudelaire, the French poet greatly admired by Symons.
Born in 1865 in Milford Haven in Wales, Symons was a poet, critic, translator and magazine editor who has been described as one of the most influential voices of the fin de siècle in England – a period ‘that did not just refer to a set of dates but to a set of moral, artistic and cultural concerns’ as exemplified in the movements of Aestheticism, Decadence and Symbolism. In his introduction to Arthur Symons: Selected Letters, 1880–1935, Karl Beckson describes Symons as perhaps the most influential critic of the 1890s and notes that ‘he counted the leading writers, artists and performers of the day as personal friends’.
Symons’s self-described position as an ‘afficion’ of the music hall, together with his love for ‘Lydia’, a ballet dancer at the Empire, shaped much of his writing between 1894 and 1896 and both themes are to the fore in the poems in London Nights. Dedicated to the French poet Paul Verlaine, who shared Symons’s preference for the music hall over theatre or opera, the eighty poems in London Nights use the metaphor of dance to explore both the performative nature of fin-de-siècle life and the ritualistic and rhythmic patterns of erotic enticement and pursuit.
In the prologue to London Nights, Symons describes his 1890s life as ‘lagging, loud and riotous’, writing:
My life is like a music-hall.
Where, in the impotence of rage,
Chained by enchantment to my stall,
I see myself upon the stage
Dance to amuse a music-hall.
Unfortunately for Symons, most contemporary critics hated London Nights on its publication in 1895, with the most damning review appearing in the Pall Mall Gazette: ‘Mr Arthur Symons is a dirty-minded man and his mind is reflected in the puddle of his bad verses’. The climate of moral outrage surrounding the contemporary trial of Oscar Wilde was likely to have further stoked antipathy to Symons’s work. Nonetheless, in 1896 Symons was asked by Leonard Smithers to edit The Savoy, a new magazine set up to rival The Yellow Book, which had diminished in reputation following the dismissal of Arthur Beardsley as part of the moral backlash against Decadence. But by the end of 1896, The Savoy too had failed despite Symons’s attempts to separate the magazine from both the Decadent movement and the furore around Wilde.
Over the next three years, and in the course of much travelling between England and Europe, Symons’s views on art and literature changed. He eschewed the more extravagant and mannered elements of Decadence in favour of a whole-hearted embrace of Symbolism. In his first book of criticism, Studies in Two Literatures, written in 1897, Symons had proposed the idea that ‘a work of art has but one reason for existence, that it should be a work of art, a moment of the eternity of beauty’. Then, in 1900 with the publication of his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, he made his first attempt to deal with literature as part of ‘a concrete expression of a theory, or system of aesthetics of all the arts’. Dedicated to his friend W.B. Yeats, and revelatory of his new interest in the mystics and mysticism, Symons asserted that a ‘profound shift has taken place in men’s thoughts’ and now, ‘after the world has starved its soul long enough in the contemplation and rearrangement of material things, comes the turn of the soul and with it comes the literature of which I write, a literature in which the visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world no longer a dream’.
In 1905, Symons’s only work of fiction, Spiritual Adventures, was published and he spent most of the decade travelling: first to Constantinople and Budapest, then to France and Switzerland, before arriving in Italy in 1908. There, in Bologna, he experienced a fateful mental breakdown, attributed to syphilis, which led to his forced transfer back to England, detainment and his certification as insane.
Frustratingly, most studies of Symons pay little attention to the period between his breakdown in 1908 and his death in 1945 – although it is, of course, this period in his life that holds most interest to those of us researching his relationship with Gordine. Certainly he did not enjoy as pre-eminent a position in English cultural life as he had before his illness and there are suggestions of loneliness or solitude in the contemporary depictions of his return to the places of his youth. In 1923 Gerald Cumberland wrote of a visit to the Café Royal in London where ‘Arthur Symons still lingers like a pale ghost […]. Frail, eager and brittle, he is like much of his work, but his spirit dwells almost alone in these days’. John Betjeman, in his somewhat harsher 1940 poem ‘On Seeing an Old Poet at the Café Royal’, portrays Symons as a confused and displaced old man. His biographer Beckson refers to a letter Symons wrote to Iseult Gonne in 1934: ‘I know very few people: all my best friends have died. But I must have not changed, being as always abnormally restless’. We should not dismiss the idea that by the time Symons met Gordine in the 1920s or 1930s, he was simply hoping for a new, more productive and mutually respectful relationship to take the place of the many friends he had lost.
Although we cannot tell from the auction catalogue listing exactly when Symons gifted the book to Gordine, we can set the likely parameters in a ten-year period between the late 1920s and the late 1930s. Symons died in 1945 and his last recorded trip to London was in 1938 when he attended an Yvette Guilbert concert. Whilst Gordine is occasionally an unreliable narrator of her own history, it is likely she first visited England in or around 1926, while she was living and working in Paris. Although Symons made many trips to Paris, there is no record of the two meeting at this point.
In his 1963 biography of Symons, Roger L’Hombreaud claims their association stemmed directly from Gordine’s 1928 Leicester Galleries exhibition. Drawing on personal interviews with Gordine, L’Hombreaud wrote: ‘In 1928 when he [Symons] went to the Leicester Galleries in order to see some Toulouse-Lautrec posters he came accidentally upon an exhibition of bronzes by an unknown sculptor. Immediately he became enthusiastic, demanded the address of the artist, and rushed off to despatch a telegram of invitation to meet him at the Savoy lounge the very next day’. A copy of Symons’s 1918 work, Cities and Sea-coasts and Islands,inscribed ‘To Dora Gordine from Arthur Symons, November 14 1928’ has recently been offered for sale (originally with a misreading of the inscription date as 1925 through dint of Symons’s highly individualistic handwriting). As the Leicester Galleries exhibition took place in October of 1928, it is perhaps reasonable to conjecture that this book was Symons’s first gift to Gordine.
Gordine would then have been 33 whilst Symons (born in 1865) would have been 63. The relationship that then ensued represented a rare connection between Symons and a contemporary artist. In his introduction to a collection of Symons’s letters, Beckson notes Symons’s lack of interest in artists after 1908, writing that ‘after the period of his mental collapse, he made few new friends and took remarkably little interest in literary and artistic developments between the two world wars: his letters, for example, make no mention of such figures as T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf’.
Symons’s two reviews of Gordine’s later Leicester Galleries shows, in July 1933 and November 1938, were therefore unusual on two counts. Firstly, they were the only times reviews by Symons were published in The Spectator, whose distinguished roster of regular art critics at that time included Anthony Blunt and John Piper. Secondly, Gordine was the only artist who came to prominence after the early 1900s that Symons chose to write about.
Symons’s fulsome review of Gordine’s 1938 exhibition offers a clear sense of why she attracted his interest and the extent to which he admired her sculpture that ‘shows her genius in its full range of achievement’. Laying out the grounds for his encomium in the opening paragraph, Symons singles out Gordine’s ‘profound sense of pure form’ that, together with the ‘subtlest delicacy of modelling’, combined ’to endow her bronzes with an abnormal power, an almost uncanny life which only the sculpture of the greatest civilisations can match’.
That Symons admired Gordine for the way her work conformed to the ‘intrinsic laws of art’ is confirmed in a letter from Gordine to Professor Peter L. Irvine in 1962:
‘Although Symons was always receptive to any new work of artistic importance, he very rarely found it in the last decades of his life. That is to say, he found hardly anything comparable in quality with the artists of the recent and more distant past. I think it was because he believed in certain intrinsic laws of art, which artists of every age, and in many different styles, had always recognized and tried to follow.’
Equally, Symons’s 1938 review highlights how much importance he attached to what Gordine was not doing, describing her work as ‘heedless alike of realism and exaggerated abstraction’. In the aforementioned letter to Irvine, Gordine wrote how ‘in the twentieth century he [Symons] felt that artists began to flout these “intrinsic” laws deliberately, because they lacked the strength and talent to follow them’.
Symons also much admired the way in which Gordine used colour to enhance the purity of her form and to emphasise the ‘unique character’ of the bronzes. Symons argued that ‘Gordine certainly sees each work from the start in terms of colour as well as form’ and situated her ‘Russian soul with its Asiatic affinities’ as the source for her deployment of ‘gorgeous and varied hues, reminiscent of malachite, turquoise, granite, ancient lacquer or gold’. Symons’s similar love of jewel-like colours is reflected in many of the poems in London Nights where he writes of the stage as a place inhabited by ‘Lights in a multi-coloured mist, from indigo to amethyst’, describes the ‘orange-rosy lamps’ of the Moulin Rouge, and sees his ex-lover Marcelle in the colours ‘mauve, black and rose, the veil of the jewels and she, the jewel’. But whilst Symons is evidently impressed by Gordine’s technical skills in colour and form, he is perhaps most strongly engaged by her choice of subject, as, to Symons’s mind, Gordine has sculpted dancers. Pagan’s arms are admired because ‘the gesture in which they have been seized is like the most significant movement of a suddenly arrested dance’. The Smiling Torso has ‘the same static rhythm as the Pagan but is pulsing with an even greater vital exuberance’. Pagan has ‘primitive limbs’ that hold ‘deep erotic appeal’ much in the way that the ‘elemental’ quality of Renée in London Nights is central to her sexual hold on the poet.
Would Gordine have concurred with Symons’s reading of her sculpture and would his Purism-inflected criticism – that suggested her heads expressed ‘a universality of human characteristics’ alongside their ‘interest and fidelity in the sphere of portraiture’ – have matched her original intent? Gordine was not given to excessive theorising or intellectualising of her practice, although she did explain her own interpretation of ‘pure sculpture’ as ‘a sculpture which is primarily neither realistic nor decorative, but which reveals the beauties of form and movement latent in the three dimensions in which the sculpture exists’. In this respect, she would presumably have agreed with Symons’s interpretation of her work as ‘alive to the highest degree without the aid of that realistic detail which often gives to ordinary sculpture the semblance of life which it lacks in itself’.
A photograph I have seen from the collection of Gordine’s papers in the Royal Society of Sculptors archive, which may have been taken in the grounds of Dorich House, may have captured Gordine and Symons discussing these same matters; drawn closely together on a garden bench, their postures mirror one another as Gordine places a supportive hand on her companion’s slightly hunched upper back. The photograph is unattributed and the sitters are not identified, but there is such a strong resemblance to images of a younger Symons that it is almost certainly him. Whilst Gordine’s expression is both confident and relaxed in the photograph, Symons’s expression is more wary and perhaps slightly downcast. Whilst his clothes are formally smart, they suggest their place was in a different age. To me, Gordine seems entirely in control in this encounter.
L’Hombreaud references the importance Symons attached to his relationship with Gordine. In the conclusion to his biography of the poet, he cites their relationship as ‘among the few pleasures that remained to Symons’ and perhaps rather fancifully describes how ‘with his long slender fingers he would caressingly trace the outline of a bronze [by Gordine] – like the ‘Recumbent Girl’ – which he considered one of his most cherished possessions now that his sight had gone’. Does this photograph point to a reciprocally fond feeling on the part of Gordine? Or was Symons simply a useful contact who had played his part in furthering her reputation and career, but who was now of only limited use as his reputation dimmed?
Following Symons’s death in 1945, Gordine appeared in one letter to be primarily concerned by a further reduction in her supply of patrons and sponsors. I have not found anything to suggest that Gordine felt his loss on a more personal level. It is, of course, possible that a collection of letters sent by Gordine to Symons, currently out of my reach in the archive of Columbia University in New York, may provide further post-lockdown clues. But in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I have found it tempting to see Gordine’s interest in Symons as potentially transactional.
The art historian Jonathan Black has noted how Gordine ‘sought out key individuals whom she wished first to draw and then portray in bronze’ with the aim of using their celebrity to attract critical and press attention. Symons did not make the cut for a bronze. There is, however, a strong likelihood that this painting by Gordine, in the Dorich House Museum collection, is a portrait of Symons. The critic Frank Harris had described a 1917 portrait of Symons by Augustus John as portraying a ‘terrible face – ravaged like a battlefield’ and characterised by ‘the sparse grey hair, the high bony forehead, the sharpe ridge of Roman nose’. This Gordine portrait likewise portrays a similar character and looks very like other portraits of Symons. The portrait can also be seen propped up in her studio in depictions of Gordine at work.
Gordine definitely came into sharper focus for me as my research progressed and this project has certainly increased my respect for her (if not necessarily my liking). An assumption that she largely depended on her husband Richard Hare to smooth her entry into the ‘right’ circles has been blunted by the realisation that her relationship with Symons owed nothing to Hare’s intercession. My early reading of a connection through Hare’s friend Janet Vaughan foundered on the realisation that her grandfather, John Addington Symonds, who had been a great friend of Symons, had in fact died in 1893. The connection appears entirely of Gordine’s making, born out of Symons’s respect for her work and Gordine’s ability to parlay his early positive response to her work into a long-lasting and highly beneficial professional relationship.
Lastly, and from a purely personal point of view, I have found the opportunity to engage with the work of a poet I had never read before and the experience of entering ‘base camp’ in the entirely unfamiliar world of literary criticism, a stimulating, often vexing, but ultimately highly satisfying undertaking. Interdisciplinarity, formerly just an academic buzzword to me, is a new area of interest. I have also learned to question everything to do with dates and handwriting, having pursued for many weeks an erroneous ‘lead’ arising from thinking something happened in 1925 when it actually happened in 1928. For that lesson alone, I am grateful for the experience of working on this fascinating project.
Published as part of the project The Squatter Years: Recovering Dorich House Museum’s Recent Past, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, January 2021.
 Jan Gordon, ‘Dora Gordine at the Leicester Galleries’, Observer,6 November 1938, p.14.
 Natalia Murray, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2017), pp.55–71.
 Karl Beckson, ‘Introduction’, in Arthur Symons: Selected Letters, 1880–1935, ed. by Karl Beckson and John M. Munroe (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1989).
 Arthur Symons, London Nights (London: L.C. Smithers, 1895), https://archive.org/details/londonnights00symogoog/page/n17/mode/2up.
 Karl Beckson, Arthur Symons: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p.118.
 Arthur Symons, Studies in Two Literatures (London: Leonard Smithers, 1897), qtd in Roger L’Hombreaud, Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography (London: Unicorn Press, 1963), p.153.
 Beckson, Arthur Symons, p.326.
 L’Hombreaud, Arthur Symons, p.303.
 Beckson, ‘Introduction’, in Selected Letters.
 Arthur Symons, ‘Dora Gordine’, The Spectator, 4 November 1938, p.768.
 The terms ‘pure form’, ‘purism’ and even more so ‘purity’ were used liberally and elastically throughout twentieth-century art writing to the extent that, in 1931, Jacob Epstein called out the term as a meaningless cliché. However, given Symons was a precise and engaged theoretician, it is likely that he had a specific type of purity in mind when he commended Gordine’s sculpture. Most probably the ‘purity’ Symons saw in Gordine’s sculpture was of the kind identified by the leading theorists of the rappel a l’ordre movement. Writing in the journal L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret laid out a comprehensive statement on the principles governing Purism in which they proposed that ’the work of art seems to us to be a labour of putting into order’ and that ‘the means of executing a work of art is a transmittable and universal language’ in which art should obey certain eternal and immutable laws of physics and economy. (See Jonathan Black, ’Portraiture, Patronage and Networking’, in Dora Gordine: Sculptor, Artist, Designer, ed. by Jonathan Black and Brenda Martin(London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2007), p.30 and Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) and Amédée Ozenfant, ‘Purism’, in Art in Theory, 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp.237–39.)
 Dora Gordine, letter to Peter L. Irvine, 23 February 1962, qtd in Beckson, Arthur Symons, p.325.
 Symons, ‘Dora Gordine’, 4 November 1938.
 Symons, London Nights, https://archive.org/details/londonnights00symogoog/page/n17/mode/2up.
 Symons, ‘Dora Gordine’, 4 November 1938.
 Dora Gordine, ‘The Beauty of Indian Sculpture’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, January 1941, pp.13–14, qtd in Fran Lloyd, ‘Modern Sculpture: Gordine and her Contemporaries’, in Dora Gordine, ed. by Black and Martin, p.83.
 Symons, ‘Dora Gordine’, 4 November 1938.
 L’Hombreaud, Arthur Symons, p.306.
 Black, ‘Portraiture, Patronage and Networking’, p.60.
 Jonathan Black, ‘Portraits of an Age c.1930s–60s’, in Subtlety and Strength: The Drawings of Dora Gordine, ed. by Jonathan Black and Fran Lloyd (London: Phillip Wilson Publishers, 2009), p.20.
 Qtd in L’Hombreaud, Arthur Symons.
 Such as a portrait by Rudolf Helmut Sauter from 1935, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw06186v and one wearing a similar hat by Elliott & Fry from 1916, https://condenaststore.com/featured/portrait-of-arthur-symons-elliott–fry.html.