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U3A Writing: Art Deco Rendezvous

All it took to ruin a perfect day in London – and much more besides – was one quick phone call, as Derek McQueen’s story reveals.

Derek, whose tale involves an art exhibition at the Royal Academy, is an artist. Please do visit his Web site http://www.derekmcqueen.com/

David Burnham had been looking forward to the Tamara de Lempicka exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy in London
Her exotic paintings of women had taken Paris by storm in the 1920’s and she became known as the ‘Red hot White Russian’, an icon of the Art Deco movement.

Burnham had another even more exciting reason to visit the Sackler Galleries of the RA that August Saturday. It would be his fourth rendezvous with Mary.

The train from Leicester was crowded and Burnham’s reserved seat was not in the ‘no cell phones’ carriage. He buried himself in The Times in a vain attempt to drown out the litany of ring tones and overloud half conversations. The day was sunny and warm, with temperatures in the high seventies. Burnham’s grey, lightweight suit and expensive Jermyn Street Charles Tyrwhitt shirt had seemed perfect when he left home at eight fifteen that morning. Now the stuffy and food-smelly compartment was getting to him.

The arts section of the Times carried a review of the Lempicka show and he became absorbed by the details of the artist’s colourful and exotic life in Paris. As with many White Russians, she was exiled from Russia, along with her Polish ex nobleman husband, at the end of the 1914 -1918 war. All their material possessions were left behind. Remarkable then that this beautiful, stylish and talented young woman so quickly became part of the artistic and social elite of Paris in the twenties and thirties.

Burnham took in the reproduction of ‘La Belle Rafaela’. Painted in 1927, Lempica had posed a Parisian prostitute in a close up and provocative, reclining nude or ‘odalisque’, pose. The exaggerated curves of her statuesque body, filled the work with glowing cream, bronze and erotic red paint.

David Burnham’s inner vision was deflected to Mary and anticipated pleasures to come.

The train pulled into St. Pancras and several hundred sweaty and impatient passengers surged along the platform towards the huge station clock, the London Underground and waiting taxis. It was ten minutes to eleven as Burnham headed for Kings Cross and the Piccadilly line.


Summer tourists swarmed around the Eros statue, enjoying the sunshine as he came up the stairwell from Piccadilly Square tube station by the Virgin mega store. The Royal Academy was just ten minutes away. Now fully relaxed, jacket slung over his shoulder, he made his way along the crowded pavement with time to spare.

Mary would be by the Joshua Reynolds statue at one o’clock, just time for a much needed coffee in the Friends Room.

The magnificent RA courtyard is opposite Fortnum and Mason’s, grocer to the rich and famous, and next-door to the Burlington Arcade of ‘Burlington Bertie’ fame. Burnham hummed the popular music hall tune as he passed the first President’s statue and up the few steps to the large receiving hall.

Queues waited for timed tickets to the Lempicka show to the right of the imposing and elaborate, central staircase. Not for the first time he was pleased to be a Friend of the Academy with immediate free entry to all exhibitions, use of the Sir Hugh Casson Friends Room and other privileges. He had twenty minutes to grab a coffee and showing his card at the desk, entered the calm of his ‘favourite place to be’ in London - with the exception of Mary’s flat of course.
He ignored the delicious looking pastries and found the only space on one of the sumptuous leather chairs and sofas. Coffee tables down the centre had art magazines to make the stay even more pleasurable. A mini exhibition of paintings by John Bellany, lined the walls, delighting the eye. Suddenly it was time for his rendezvous with Mary. Burnham’s heart rate quickened.

Mary Broughton was a beautiful young woman by any standard. Tall and slim, with exquisitely cut and layered dark hair perfectly complimenting her oval face, Mary was indeed a picture. The emerald green dress was a perfect choice and many envious eyes looked her way as she and David Burnham wandered, hand in hand, through the galleries. She was very much in love - that was very clear. At twenty-eight and fifteen years younger, she was certain that David Burnham was her future.

In nine-hour days in the studio, Lempicka produced many seductive paintings of women, interrupted only by champagne, warm baths and fragrant massage. The fantastic images on the Sackler Gallery walls were so powerfully erotic that the couple had to leave the Academy and make haste to the nearest taxi rank in Cork Street. The fifteen-minute ride to 17, Waverley Muse seemed an eternity.

David Burnham got back to St Pancras with twenty-five minutes to spare, for the nineteen-twenty return journey to Leicester. He was happy and relaxed as he walked over to WH Smiths kiosk for a copy of the London Evening Standard. It would occupy him nicely on the two-hour journey. Reaching for his wallet at the till, he was disturbed to find it missing. Apologetically he handed back the paper and swallowed hard, trying not to panic.

‘Good God’ he thought, ‘I’ve left the bloody thing on Mary’s bedside table.’

Burnham would be in serious trouble without the wallet that was certain.

‘I have to phone and ask her to bring it over in a taxi,’ he thought.’

There might still just be time if he was lucky, but it was a close call. What if she had gone next door? What if there were no taxis.’

Close to panic, Burnham yanked out his mobile phone, scrolled down the Names list to B and hit the button.

‘Come on – come on for God’s sake where are you? Jesus!’

After infinite rings, he was finally through.

“Mary, I’ve left my wallet by the bed. I’m stuffed without it sweetheart. Get it over to the station in a cab as fast as you can darling.”

There was a long silence
.
“David is that you? What the devil are you talking about – wallet by the bed? What in hell’s name are you doing?”

David Burnham had punched the wrong button.

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