Not a Cirque du Soleil act but three remarkable, independent women, two real, one fictional, two English, one Scotch- Irish. All born in the last decade of the 19thcentury; all long departed but kept alive in my bookshelves.


Not so long ago, travelling in China, I came to the ancient city of Dali, situated on the shores of Lake Erhai and in the shadow of the Cangshan mountains and it was here that I came across a bookshop, something that I was beginning to think did not exist in the whole of China. I can forgive Chairman Mao for the chaos and death caused by the ‘Great Leap Forward’; that was just a bad decision, like Prohibition. But I cannot forgive him for the lasting catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution when he replaced all poetry, art and craftsmanship with himself. In China Chairman Mao IS culture. His statue is the principal work of art in the lobby of my hotel and in this rare bookshop the shelves are lined only with various editions of the little red book, yellowing maps of the Great March and treatises on Communism.

The owner of the bookshop, who spoke English, invited me to sit down, share the ritual egg-cups of tea and listen to him eulogise a man who had disposed of fifty million of his fellow countrymen. When asked if I knew of an English lady called Violet Cressy-Marcks, I admitted I did not and, when I arrived home, I looked her up.

Information on Violet proved to be quite thin. There is no autobiography or biography and only the barest of outlines in Wikipedia, which told me she was born Violet Rutley in South East London on 9th June 1895. She was twenty two when she married Captain Maurice Cressy-Marcks with whom she had a son, William, in 1921. In 1925, freshly divorced, she discovered her true love while crossing Africa from Cairo to Capetown – the pleasure of travelling alone. The next winter she spent north of the Arctic Circle, travelling across Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lapland by sled drawn by reindeer and ending in Baluchistan. In 1929 she rode the Amazon by steamer, surveyed its upper reaches by canoe and crossed the Andes into Peru by horse. Afghanistan, Russian Turkestan and Siberia followed. In 1935, just as the Italian army was attempting to add Ethiopia to its African Empire, she travelled from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, stopping to visit the war fronts in Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is no record of her meeting any Ethiopian officials, but it cannot be by chance that a year later Emperor Haile Selassie, forced into exile, became a temporary guest at Hazelwood House in Hertfordshire, a home Violet then shared with her new husband, Francis Fisher.

In 1937 came the journey that brought Violet to the attention of my bookseller. It was Violet’s sixth visit to China and, like Honeybee, she made a list of objectives before she set out:

  1. To enter China from Burma. This was more by necessity than choice, although I feel it suited Violet to make her journeys as difficult as possible. The Japanese, already occupying Manchuria, were continuing their invasion west, while the centre of the country, from North to South, was a battleground between Mao’s Red Army and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang. Skirmishes between various war lords and the presence of bandits added further danger to the journey.
  2. To visit the Communists and speak to the leader of the Eighth Route Army. Violet was not the first or only foreign journalist to interview Mao in his mountain stronghold at Yenan; American correspondent Edgar Snow had done that as well as Agnes Smedley, later accused of spying for the Russians. A photograph shows Violet looking a little like a housewife as she poses with Mao. But the mere fact he met with her shows he took her seriously.
  1. To study the war and the morale of the troops. I skipped most of this section. The request in her will that her biography should be shown first to the Head of MI5 suggests that the British government may have sponsored some of her travels. Alas there was to be no biography as the chosen writer, who had spent three years working for British Intelligence agencies in Constantinople, died before writing the book.
  1. To visit Lake Koko Nor in Tibet. Finally some sightseeing! At 4,300 square kilometres, the largest lake in China, Koko Nor is situated high on the Tibetan Plateau. As night falls and the yak drivers sleep in their warm tents, Violet sits by the side of the desolate lake, watching, till dawn. ‘Still, I liked the solitude, which is to me the kindest of all travelling companions. Sun, moon and stars, wind, rain and snow never fail to woo me more ardently with her by my side. ‘

When war became global two years later Violet was back in South West China, a war correspondent for London’s Daily Express. There was a spell as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and when war ended she was at Nuremberg reporting on the trials of German war criminals for a London newspaper.

Photographer, archaeologist, ethnologist, zoologist, journalist and part-time spy, Violet travelled alone and light, with just a tent, a typewriter, her note books and a camera, for it was an age when it was still accepted that a single person could be an expert in several fields. ‘Adventurous travel’, she once said, ‘is no place for a man’.

What an ordinary extraordinary woman; fearless, competent, resourceful and adventurous. Twice married, a mother by her second husband of two boys, Forest and Ocean, both named after her real passions. She died in 1970. Nice to think a Chinese bookseller in Dali remembers her.


‘Trilby’- it has a nice ring to it; a name for the sort of self-possessed young woman to be found in a rich aunt’s villa in the South of France. The name of a Bond girl. You would be right if you think it’s the name of a man’s soft, felt hat, now only worn by rich racehorse trainers; but the hat was named after a girl called Trilby, the heroine of an 1894 novel that turned out to be a blockbuster.

Trilby O’Ferrall was a grisette, living in the Latin Quarter of Paris during La Belle Epoque where she worked as a blanchisseuse du fin and as a part time model for artists. The death of her father, an Irish gentleman and cleric, obliged through addiction to strong drink to flee to Paris and the later death of her mother, a barmaid and ‘Highland lassie of low degree’, had left Trilby an orphan and guardian of her younger brother.

One day, descending the stairs from the studio of Durien, a sculptor, where she had been modeling ‘in the altogether’[1], Trilby hears music coming from the apartment below and, on an impulse, knocks and enters. She is greeted by three amateur artists, Sandy, a bearded Scot and occupant of the studio and his two friends, Taffy, a good-humoured Yorkshireman, and Little Billee, a slender, sentimental young man of twenty years. Trilby’s outfit, an army overcoat over a petticoat and a pair of man’s shoes, her self-confidence as she sat down and crossed her legs and rolled a cigarette left the ‘toffs’ bewildered and besotted. So too was the pianist, the bearded and sinister Svengali. In an age where piano legs were curtained off to avoid any incitement to passion, the sight of Trilby’s slender, white ankles caused her male audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats. But the piano stopped and jaws dropped when Trilby kicked off her shoes to reveal that rarest of human features, a perfect pair of pedal extremities.

Trilby soon became a regular and popular visitor to Sandy’s studio, appreciated as much for her charm and lack of vanity as for her sewing and cooking. It was during an evening of song, with Svengali at the piano and his friend, Gecko, on violin, that Trilby revealed her one defect, a total lack of singing voice, a flaw that did not prevent Billee from decorating the studio with a study of Trilby’s feet and falling in love. After rejecting countless proposals of marriage from Billee, Trilby finally accepts, knowing that their social backgrounds were incompatible.

Billee makes the mistake of announcing his engagement to his widowed mother, Mrs Bagot, who arrives post-haste in Paris with one question in mind regarding her son’s fiancée – ‘Is she a lady?’ Although ready to flay her dearest friend alive in order to make her son a pair of gloves out of the skin, Mrs Bagot was not prepared to allow Billee to marry an unchaste siren and duly drags him back to England. After a period of sulking Billee returns to his art, later becoming a successful painter and member of the Royal Academy.

Years later, intrigued to learn that the greatest female singer of the age was known as La Svengali, Billee travels to Paris to investigate and is astounded to find Trilby singing like a nightingale. When Svengali collapses and dies from a heart attack in the box, Trilby, no longer under his hypnotic gaze, can no longer sing in tune, reverting to her former personality with no recollection of her life as a diva. Shortly after this transformation and with no apparent indication that she is suffering from a fatal illness, Trilby fades quietly away surrounded by mystified doctors and the distraught Billee descends into madness on hearing Trilby call for Svengali with her last breath. Soon after, Billee also takes to his bed heartbroken and surrenders life with the manly calm of a true gentleman.

How did this Victorian pot-boiler, largely unread today, become a huge best seller, a novel that launched hundreds of dramatized versions across Britain and America, a character that had hot-dogs and ice-creams and a hat named after it and persuaded the mayor of Macon, Florida, to change the town’s name to Trilby? Mainly, perhaps, because it was the first literary portrait of romanticized Bohemian life and of an idealized Belle Epoque Paris. It also introduced a new type of heroine, a self-confident gamine who eschewed corsets and rolled her own cigarettes. Then there was the character of Svengali, a term that still lives with us today as a person who has an evil, controlling influence over another, but without the anti-Semitic characteristics that George Orwell deplored in the novel’s character. There is an amusing sarcastic tone throughout and the language is littered with real French argot. The narrative was also stoked by Du Maurier’s illustrations and by its delivery in eight suspenseful instalments in Harpers magazine.

Trilby’s creator, George du Maurier was born in Paris in 1834 to an English mother and French father. Moving to London around 1850 he worked as cartoonist for Punch and as illustrator of popular magazines. He and his wife, Emma had five children of whom only Sylvia, born in 1866, and Gerald, born in 1873, achieved fame of differing sorts.

Sylvia married Arthur Llewelyn Davies, a lawyer, with whom she had five sons. They were chosen by Arthur’s best friend, the playwright JM Barrie, as models for ‘the lost boys’ that feature in the stories of Peter Pan. Kate Winslet impersonated Sylvia in the 2004 movie ‘Finding Neverland’.

Gerald was a successful theatre manager and actor; he is best remembered now as the father of novelist Daphne du Maurier, for lending his name to one of the most popular brands of cigarette of the 30s and 40s and as the subject of this classic limerick:

There was a young lady called Gloria
Who was had by Sir Gerald du Maurier
And then by ten men
Sir Gerald again
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.



Nina Hamnett was a real-life Trilby, a true Bohemienne and good-time girl who had a good time without upsetting anyone except her family and other sale bourgeois individuals. After publication of her memoirs ‘Laughing Torso’ in 1928, Nina became an international trademark for indoor fun after midnight.

Born in Tenby, Wales in 1890, Nina was educated at the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army in Bath where she showed flashes of unconventional wisdom and a complete disdain for authority. Later at art school in London, where she was fortunate to have Frank Brangwyn as a teacher, she posed in the altogether for the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who chiseled her nude torso from marble and became an early entry in her list of lovers. ‘I’m in the V&A with my left tit knocked off’ she would claim later[2].

Excited by a visit to Paris in 1912 where she met Jacob Epstein and his wife, Nina returned in 1914, rented a studio on the boulevard Raspail and enrolled in Marie Vassilieff’s art school, where Fernand Leger was teaching at the time. On her first night in Paris Nina was dining alone at Rosalie’s, a cheapish restaurant which Epstein had recommended, when Modigliani walked in, sat down at her table and after introducing himself, offered his art for sale. Nina bought a drawing of a head for five francs. Soon she was accompanying Modi every day to the Dome and the Rotonde, sometimes posing for him (‘Modigliani said I had the best tits in Europe.’) and joining him in week long parties. ‘At Van Dongen’s studio negro boxers sparred with the guests… and Nina danced naked under a black veil’.

When not dancing naked on the tables of Montparnasse, Nina was often homeless and penniless, living on bread, cheese and wine, fortunately in a country that produces the best in the world. She survived mainly because she was popular, which enabled her to refuel as a frequent house guest of the rich and famous like Brancusi, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau. She danced for Eric Satie, sang a duet with James Joyce, played a nose-flute in Edmond Dulac’s studio and entertained Stravinsky and Diaghilev. In Antibes she sat next to Rudolph Valentino at the piano and sang her signature sea-shanties for him and his wife. Nancy Cunard helped her as did the kindly Marie Vassilief. Although no intellectual, Nina must have been good company but most importantly she treated her famous friends with discretion in both volumes of her memoirs. She was promiscuous in an indifferent sort of way, ‘Can’t see anything in it myself…. But they seem to like it so I let them get on with it.’

There was a little income from the sale of her paintings, but hers was a minor talent and she was unwilling to apply herself. Nevertheless she exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Independents. Walter Sickert bought her paintings. Her portrait of Sir Osbert Sitwell is on display today at London’s National Portrait Gallery and her pictures still sell at auction, a small oil fetching between four and six thousand pounds but, as Daniel Farson points out, she was always more interesting than her art.

Back in England Nina found work with the Omega Workshop designing and making fabrics, murals and furniture under the direction of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry who became another of her lovers. Fry’s portraits of Nina show a rather serious, subdued Nina, not strikingly attractive but with that whiff of upper-class, bourgeois origins that she tried so hard to shake off.

By strange coincidence, she met Sir Gerald du Maurier on the cross-Channel ferry and in the preface to her second volume of memoirs – ‘Is She a Lady?’ she quotes from ‘Trilby’: ‘There is no place like the gutter for getting a clear view of the stars’. I wonder whether the stars dimmed for her in those last years. But she remained faithful to Bohemia to the end, spending much of her last years in the Fitzroy Tavern rattling a few coins in her tobacco tin to let others know she needed someone to buy her a drink.

She died in 1956 soon after falling out of her bedroom window.

The books:

  • Journey into China; Violet Cressy-Marcks; Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1940.
  • Trilby; George du Maurier; first published in 8 parts in Harper’s magazine, 1894
  • Laughing Torso; Nina Hamnett; Constable, London, 1932
  • Is She a Lady? Nina Hamnett; Alan Wingate, London, 1955
  • Modigliani, The Pure Bohemian; June Rose, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1990
  • The People’s Album of London Statues; Osbert Sitwell and Nina Hamnett (Illustrator), Duckworth, London, 1928
  • Soho in the Fifties; Daniel Farson; Michael Joseph, London, 1987

[1] This is the first recorded use of the euphemism for ‘naked’

[2] Nina’s marble torso can be seen in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.



What an extraordinary period for art were the early years of the twentieth century in the City of Light, much of it emanating from two refuges for poor artists and writers – Le Bateau Lavoir (the laundry boat), an ex-piano factory in the Place Emile-Goudeau in Montmartre and La Ruche (the bee-hive) situated across the river in the Passage Danzig in the 15th arrondissement.

It was the writer Max Jacob who invented the term Bateau Lavoir to describe the rickety, wooden building, which reminded him of the laundry boats on the Seine. Later he would call it the Central Laboratory of Painting. At one time or another, Braque, Derain, Van Dongen, Vlaminck, Juan Gris and Matisse as well as Max’s friend Picasso lived and/or worked there, as did writers Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet.

La Ruche, originally a temporary, circular pavilion designed by Gustave Eiffel to showcase French wines at the Great Exhibition of 1900, had been dismantled and re-erected as low-cost studios for artists. Among its tenants and frequenters were Chagall, Leger, Soutine, Brancusi, Modigliani and Diego Rivera.

These innovative and talented young artists, many of them, like Soutine and Chagall, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, were driven by poverty and exhilarated by freedom, more powerful stimulants than any strong drink or drug. ‘I knew we would make it through the Bateau Lavoir’, wrote Picasso, ‘There we were truly happy; we were considered as painters and not as curious animals’.

It is one thing to be present, quite another to recognise the importance of what’s happening around you. At the Dôme Café in Montparnasse Modigliani, who required strong liquor to fuel his creative urge, would offer a quick sketch in exchange for a glass of mominette, a cheap absinthe based on potato alcohol. How many of his drawings were framed and treasured and how many used to light the stove or compile the weekly shopping list? I wonder what I would have done with a portrait of myself with distorted face and elongated neck. Artists are not always the best people to market their own work and the tenants of the Bateau Lavoir and La Ruche were fortunate to attract the interest of art critic and poet Wilhelm Kostrowicki, the illegitimate son of a Polish noblewoman. Calling himself Guillaume Apollinaire, he drew these two artistic nests together and to the attention of the public and the collectors. Picasso and Braque had no idea they were Cubists until Apollinaire coined the term ‘Cubism’ in 1911 to describe the emerging art form. Likewise Dali, Duchamps and Max Ernst would not have known they were Surrealists if Apollinaire had not invented and included the word in an article for the program of the ballet ‘Parade’, produced in 1917 by Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie.

1st English edition; Peter Owen, London, 1976

In the early days Apollinaire was also poor, forced to sell his literary talents to the clandestine market. His erotic novel, ‘Les Onze Milles Verges’ (The Eleven Thousand Rods), written in 1907 but banned in France until 1973, is a masterpiece of smut, its title a reference to the massacre in Cologne of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand British virgins in the early centuries of the Common Era. So that’s where they all went.

It’s the story of Mony Vibescu, a Rumanian Prince who comes to Paris in search of excitement and sexual adventure, moving via the Orient Express to Bucharest and St Petersburg and ending in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. It is verbally inventive, comic, obscene, satirical and deadly serious. A lot of the places and historical detail are actual and factual and there are real people or ideas behind the masks; example – the name of the Japanese prostitute Kilyemu is an abbreviation of ‘Celle qui l’emu’ – she who moved him. Tongue in cheek, Picasso claimed it was his favourite book, but it did remain one of his prized possessions. The publishers of my 1976 English translation omit whole paragraphs they feel too explicitly violent. These missing passages describing the crueller aspects of physical love and the triumph of evil were part of the writer’s attempts to rehabilitate the Divine Marquis and the belief that there is a fundamental purity in very bad behaviour.

His next literary works were three collections of poetry – L’Enchanteur Pourrissant (1909), Le Bestiare ou Cortege d’Orphee (1911) and Alcools (1913), the latter establishing his immediate fame and future legacy. The poems were applauded for their combining of contemporary themes with traditional poetic forms. I’ve tried to enjoy Apollinaire’s poems because I like the sound of the man, but as kindly, clever, loyal and gregarious as he was, his poems now seem sad and pessimistic.

Les feuilles
Qu’on foule
Un train
Qui roule
La vie

All went well until 1911 when Vincenzo Peruggia, a former attendant at the Louvre, stole the Mona Lisa, unwittingly involving Apollinaire in the crime, and creating an international uproar. The theft, claimed the New York Times, ‘has caused such a sensation that Parisians, for the time being, have forgotten the rumours of war.’ Bouquets of flowers were placed beneath the spot where the painting had hung and the Editor of the French news magazine, L’Illustration, asked ‘What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?’ Peruggia fitted none of these descriptions; he was merely intent in returning the painting to what he considered to be its homeland, Italy, and to extract a reward for doing so. Apollinaire was arrested and briefly jailed and Picasso questioned by the police, on account of an earlier theft from the Louvre of several Iberian stone heads by Apollinaire’s secretary, which Picasso had bought and used as models for his 1907 painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa in his Paris apartment for two years before taking it to Florence where he contacted Dott. Poggi, Director of the Uffizi Gallery, in an attempt to discuss a reward for its repatriation. But Poggi called the police who soon recovered the painting from a room in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia; Peruggia’s claim to have been motivated by patriotism earned him a sentence of just seven months.

Apollinaire by Irene Lagut from Les Onze Mille Verges

Soon after the Mona Lisa was back hanging in the Louvre, Europe went to war and, like the wind, Apollinaire’s luck changed. Taking up the Government’s offer of citizenship to any foreigner fighting for France, the stateless Apollinaire enlisted, and served at the front until 1916 when a shell fragment pierced his helmet and made him a semi-invalid. It wasn’t the Germans who finished him off but the Spanish Flu, so named because neutral Spain, free of war-time censorship, was the first country to publicise the pandemic. The most popular theory is that the flu originated in Fort Riley, Kansas and came to Europe with the American soldiers. Whatever the circumstances, Apollinaire, already weakened by his war wound, succumbed to the flu in 1918 just months after he was married. The French buried him alongside the rest of their heroes in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

The Bateau Lavoir was destroyed by fire in 1970 and rebuilt in 1978; it still provides studios, but not accommodation, for young artists.

La Ruche, saved from demolition in 1968 by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Renoir and others, remains a collection of working studios for artists.

The hotel where Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa is still there in the via Panzani, now called Hotel La Gioconda.

Drugs and Artistic Creativity

In 1906, a young Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani, arrived in Paris and joined the bohemian colony of struggling artists in Montmartre. When he arrived, Modigliani was sober and well-dressed; within a year he had become a dissolute sociopath, heavily addicted to absinthe and to hashish, which he took in pellet form. Within sixteen years he was dead, destined to become part of the already well-established myth of the questionable marriage between art and drugs. His friend and biographer, Andre Salmon, wrote that it was Modigliani’s ‘impatience to become a genius’[i] that drove him to his addictions, later claiming that ‘from the day that he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art’.[ii] It seems evident that Modigliani, like many artists and writers doubting the potency of the creative talent on which their livelihood depended, took drugs to relieve the burden of possible failure. It is less evident that drugs transformed his art, for, if his painting did improve, who is to say it was not practice, the influence of a happy marriage and a reduced drug intake during his last years that were responsible? Alternatively, given that absinthe is a stupefacient and that hashish can induce depression as well as euphoria, it is possible that Modigliani’s addictions were actually detrimental to his artistic output if not to the quality of his art.

Modigliani’s story, while certainly not uncommon in some respects was unique in others. Every case of drug use will have a different effect on the user, occasioned by his personality, prevailing mood, the locality and time of administration and the drug itself. Norman E. Zinberg codified these variables into what he called ‘Drug, Set and Setting’, claiming that ‘it is necessary to understand in every case how the specific characteristics of the drug and the personality of the user interact and are modified by the social setting and its controls’.[iii] Modigliani’s drug of choice was hashish, produced from the resin of the cannabis sativa plant. With a maximum THC content of 15%, taken in large doses the drug, reportedly, may cause a user to hallucinate.[iv] The use of cannabis and opium can be traced back thousands of years. Sadie Plant points to evidence of opium use in European Neolithic settlements, in Egyptian tombs of the fifteenth century BC and in ancient Rome, although it is not clear if the drugs were used for other than medicinal and healing purposes.[v] However, it is more recent times and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin that provide some first real evidence of the effect of hallucinogenic drugs on human consciousness. This evidence is important because, first, the drug (most commonly Yage) is taken by the user with the express intention of entering into a trance and using whatever visions were experienced for specific benefits to the community. Second, there is evidence of its impact. The impact cited by Andrew Weil in his paper ‘Clues from the Amazon’ [vi] does not point to life altered by psychotic, drug induced dreams, but to the complete absence of addiction and abuse. Weil attributes this ‘success’ to the positive objectives of the drug taking (normally healing or religious ritual), the purity of the unadulterated plant life that constitutes the drug and the ceremonial or ritualistic circumstances under which the drugs are administered, normally by a spiritual leader or shaman.

The factors that made drug taking in remote areas of the Amazon basin harmless or even beneficial were entirely absent in the cities of the industrialised world, where, in the mid-nineteenth century the mind-altering qualities of opium first began to be examined. Alethea Hayter, in her study ‘Opium and the Romantic Imagination’, identifies three groups of people (excluding those who take opium as a pain killer) who are likely to experiment with drugs. The first group consists of the curious, the seekers of novel experiences; the second, those desiring rest and freedom from anxiety, and the last, those who take pleasure in participating in ‘secret rites and hidden fellowships’.[vii] In 1821, English writer and intellectual, Thomas De Quincey, provided the first serious study on the effects of opium on human consciousness with the publication of Confessions of an English Opium-eater. Although a curious intellectual, De Quincey discovered opium in taking it as a medicine finding, at the same time, ‘the secret of happiness’ and his pains ‘swallowed up…in the abyss of divine enjoyment’.[viii]  Outside of his ecstatic eulogies De Quincey also provided some meaningful insight into the effects of opium on the sub-conscious and creativity.

De Quincey’s basic observations, which were to be subsequently confirmed by other opium users, covered several important topics. He claimed that ‘The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected’. [ix] He underlined that the experience taught him nothing new but, in the words of Martin Booth, ‘embellished what already existed, heightening awareness of latent thoughts and imagination’, in other words, improving creative talent but only in the event that the idea already existed.[x] De Quincey also reports that his memory was vastly improved and that he was able to recollect ‘the minutest incidents of childhood’.[xi] Finally he addressed the negative aspects of the drug, claiming that it rendered him too weak to record his extraordinary dreams in print and that it induced feelings of anxiety and melancholy.[xii] Later, the dreams, once of extraordinary shapes and colours, would become agonising and frightening nightmares. De Quincey, in managing to control his life-long addiction, lived to a reasonably old age and enjoyed a happy personal and professional life.

While the creative advantages expressed in Confessions of an English Opium-eater undoubtedly influenced others writers to experiment with opium, notably Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Nikolai Gogol, there were many others who had discovered the drug for themselves. Many were introduced to it in the form of Laudanum, a medicine composed of opium powder and alcohol, sold without prescription until the early twentieth century. During the nineteenth century, among the millions of opium addicts trying to alleviate their misery from the gold mines of California to the dens of Shanghai, elitist groups sprang up – those hopeful that the drug would lead to enlightenment or artistic creativity. One such group formed the Club des Hashischins, while the Romantics, a group of European writers active between 1770 and 1840, included several authors who experimented with drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was at the very centre of the Romantic movement, found inspiration for his poetry in laudanum, at the cost of his health and his income from lecturing. [xiii]

In 1954 mescalin became briefly popular when another curious intellectual, Aldous Huxley, self-administered the drug to test its possible spiritual uses. Huxley experienced the same vivid dreams, disassociation of mind from body and intensification of colour, but the result was the same – the drug can only extract what already exists within the subconscious. He concluded that it was useful as an alternative to words. [xiv] It was a synthetic drug, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), discovered by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann and championed by Harvard professor Timothy Leary, that became the drug of choice for musicians and artists in the ‘swinging sixties’. Even the CIA and US military, who found it caused anxiety and was therefore useful to the interrogation process, examined it closely. Again the results were the same; LSD could send you briefly to the stars, but it could also cause the user to become ‘paranoid and bewildered’.[xv] It also proved relatively unhelpful to the artistic community. Writer Anais Nin found the drug did nothing to inspire creativity; Jack Kerouac felt the drug had permanently harmed his health.[xvi] Writer Julia Ward Howe thought that to use drugs to help write was actually cheating. [xvii]

Hashish, opium, mescalin and LSD – there is no evidence that they can expand human consciousness beyond what already lies in the user’s memory. As British writer Arthur Koestler said, after experimenting with LSD, ‘There’s no wisdom there. I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was’. [xviii]

Drugs therefore cannot contribute to artistic creativity by providing material that did not already exist in the artist’s conscious. The positive contributions that opium, cannabis and hallucinogens have made to artistic creativity lie in two different areas. First, the addicts’ world, together with the fantastic and sometimes gruesome visions that drug-induced dreams produce, have been the subject and inspiration for many fine novels and poems, notably Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Second, drugs provide, for some artists, the only influence under which they can be in any way productive. It enables the artist, perhaps poor and tortured by the possibility of failure, to escape ‘the cosmic suffering that is the inescapable lot of the Romantic artist’.[xix] It becomes not a benefit but a necessity, even though the costs, financial, physical and mental may be severe. Negro jazz musicians in turn-of-the century New Orleans, Toulouse Lautrec and Modigliani all spring to mind. Personally, I always find my art, writing, cooking and life in general improve after the second glass of wine, but that’s just my opinion.

[i] Salmon, Andre (1957) Modigliani, a Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape 1961. p.61

[ii] Werner, Alfred (1967) Amedeo Modigliani. London: Thames & Hudson. p.20

[iii] Zinberg, N E. (1984) ‘Historical Perspectives on Controlled Drug Use’. In Drug, Set and Setting: the Basis for controlled Intoxicant Use. Yale University Press. P.15

[iv] Nordegren, Thomas (?) The A-Z Encyclopedia of alcohol and Drug Abuse

[v] Plant, S. (2000) ‘Private Eyes’. In Writing on Drugs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp..4-5

[vi] Weil, Andrew, ‘Clues from the Amazon’ in The Natural Mind: an investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, Weil, Andrew 1986.

[vii] Hayter,A. (1968) ‘Case Studies.’ In Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, p. 40-41

[viii] Booth, M. (1996) ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, London:  Simon & Schuster, p.36

[x] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, p.36

[xi] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.38

[xii] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.38

[xiii] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.44

[xiv] Huxley, A. (1972) ‘The Doors of Perception’. In ‘The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, p52.

[xv] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’. In The Drug Problem: a New View Using the General Semantics Approach, Westport, CT: London, Praeger. p. 88

[xvi] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.88

[xvii] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.86

[xviii] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.88

[xix] Carpenter, L. (2001) ‘Enhancing the Possibilities of Desire: Addiction as Post-modern Trope’ (Opium, Heroin, and the Novelists of the romantic Imagination), Southern Humanities Review, 35 (3): p.232


Booth, M. (1996) ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, London:  Simon & Schuster, pp. 36-49.

Carpenter, L. (2001) ‘Enhancing the Possibilities of Desire: Addiction as Post-modern Trope’ (Opium, Heroin, and the Novelists of the romantic Imagination), Southern Humanities Review, 35 (3): 228-251.

Cohen, Sydney, (1965) Drugs of Hallucination, London: The Scientific Book Club.

Hayter, A. (1968) ‘Case Studies.’ In Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, pp.36-66.

Hodgson, B. (1999) ‘The Writer’s Muse’. In Opium: a Portrait of the Heavenly Demon. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, p.83-103.

Huxley, A. (1972) ‘The Doors of Perception’. In‘The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, pp.40-78.

Lee, M.A.(1992) ‘Psychedelic Pioneers’. In Acid Dreams. New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, pp.44-70.

Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’. In The Drug Problem: a New View Using the General Semantics Approach, Westport, CT: London, Praeger. pp.75-92

Plant, S. (2000) ‘Private Eyes’. In Writing on Drugs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp.3-32.

Salmon, Andre (1957) Modigliani, a Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape 1961.

Zinberg, N E. (1984) ‘Historical Perspectives on Controlled Drug Use’. In Drug, Set and Setting: the Basis for controlled Intoxicant Use. Yale University Press. Pp.1-18