'I've got something I think might interest you', said my landlord with a twinkle. When I first moved to London from Suffolk I lodged with Professor John Walton and his wife Sue Whitmore, the parents of my university flatmate, Rosamund. Their large house in Queens Park was full of Sue’s art; one had to be careful on the stairs as half-finished chicken-wire sculptures or tribal masks made tipsy late-night returns perilous. John is an inveterate car-booter and each Saturday morning he would seek me out to present his latest treasure. It became a game; he would ask what I thought something was, how old and then crucially how much I thought he had paid for it and I quickly learned to pitch high so that he had the pleasure of revealing the bargain he had struck. On this occasion he was clutching something very heavy wrapped in a carrier bag and by the look on his face he had found something genuinely special.
John knew I was an admirer of Noël Coward; his ability throughout his career to judge the mood of the moment and reinvent himself accordingly kept him a superstar. John removed the bag and there in his hands was an exquisite bronze of Coward's face resting elegantly on one hand. The workmanship was fine and yet there was no signature or identifying mark. I sent pictures to the Noël Coward Society but, aside from an offer from New York to buy it, nobody could identify the artist.
Timothy Morgan-Owen is a Coward aficionado and has amassed undoubtedly the largest collection of items relating to Coward's leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence. We met for lunch at J. Sheekey and he produced from his briefcase a script from a 1969 TV interview onto which the make-up lady had taped a lock of Coward's hair with the note: 'Blend of tan face, paying particular attention to the chin and lines below the eyes. Cut hair.’ It was extraordinary (if rather macabre) to actually touch the hair of an idol who has been dead for over forty years. Timothy introduced me to Geoffrey Johnson who was with Coward in Jamaica when he died. I showed him a picture of the bronze on my iPhone, ‘I've seen that before …’, he said quizzically.
Rosy Runciman, Cameron Mackintosh's archivist strongly suggested it might be by Coward's friend, Clemence Dane as the technique resembles the larger example in the National Portrait Gallery. Clemence Dane was described by Coward as ‘a wonderful unique mixture of artist, writer, games mistress, poet and egomaniac’ yet her name and achievements are almost forgotten today: she was the first British woman screenwriter ever to win an Oscar and the inspiration for the eccentric medium Madame Arcati in Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Apparently she was famous for her indecent, albeit innocent remarks; inviting Coward to lunch during the war, when food was difficult, she boomed down the telephone, ‘Do come, I’ve got such a lovely cock!’ (‘I do wish you'd call it a hen’, Noel answered.)
Geoffrey Munn, a familiar face from The Antiques Roadshow, was the next to join my quest and at the Garrick Club, surrounded by theatrical portraits, he presented me with a copy of Coward's will. Aside from instructions to leave mementos to starry friends such as Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra was the touching purchase of an annuity of ten pounds per week for life for his former housekeeper at Goldenhurst, his Kent home. Clemence Dane’s large bronze head and an oil painting of Coward were bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery - but no mention of my smaller bronze. Geoffrey suggested we make a side-by-side comparison. As we approached the gallery’s archive on an industrial estate in South London I envisaged that last scene in the Indiana Jones film when the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into a vast warehouse, never to be seen again. We were led into a storeroom lined with heads. Here, wrapped in plastic were Elgar, Churchill, Palmerston, Wesley and lesser-remembered mortals who, like the cinematic Ark may never again see the light of day.
We set my Coward bronze next to the gallery’s own. There were clear similarities in technique: small, unsmoothed pieces of clay dynamically applied to build up the face, emphasis on the lips and lines around the eyes but nothing screamingly conclusive. We were dismayed that the original marble base was missing from the gallery’s bust, possibly recycled - we had hoped for a material match.
As Clemence Dane was still my best lead I next headed to the V&A archive in Olympia, which holds her papers. During an afternoon in the reading room I poured through her letters, typed manuscripts and diaries. She was an extraordinary woman. In her diaries she documents her exciting time in Hollywood, zooming around having lunches with the likes of David Niven – it would make a wonderful film. There were pamphlets from exhibitions and I scrutinized a photo, following her death, of a room filled with her art and sculptures but elusively no sign of my bronze.
Finally I went to the Noel Coward Room at Alan Brodie’s offices, an Aladdin’s cave for any devotee and I set the bronze on Coward’s own desk. Alan and his staff scratched their heads for new leads and I reasoned that somebody somewhere has seen the bronze before on a friend’s piano or mantlepiece. It must have been admired, treasured and talked about. It is clearly the work of skilled hands and there is none other like it. I implore Coward experts around the world to help me solve the mystery and attribute this fine work to its artist.
Do get in touch if you have any useful information that may help in Zeb’s quest:
Bronze of Noël Coward, artist unknown © Zeb Soanes