Posted @ 04:34The Further Adventures of Keats & Chapman III
I've written of Keats & Chapman before on these pages, but not for two years. See "Some Observations" [April 2005] and "The Further Adventures of Keats & Chapman II" [May 2005] if you want to put the following into context.
The Roof Of The World
During the era of the British Raj, Keats and Chapman took themselves off to the Indian subcontinent in search of that other elusive partnership, Fame and Fortune. The tried various schemes which brought them little in the way of fame, nothing in the way of fortune and some slight embarrassment with local law enforcement authorities in the case of the scheme that was more of a scam (over which we shall draw that diaphanous but modest item of apparel, a discrete veil). Being either possessed of an indomitable spirit or totally blind to their lack of success, they refused to give up. Eventually they journeyed north to the Himalayas and found themselves (an extraordinary feat considering that they never lost themselves in anything other than books) in Nepal where they set themselves up as architects despite the lack of any experience or training in that discipline.
Keats, as was his wont, manned the office and did all the necessary back-room chores whilst Chapman, ever eager, cast himself as the enterprise's sales force and attempted to drum up business. Chapman, however, was exceedingly profligate with their remaining, somewhat meagre, funds and they were soon rendered penniless by his insistence on attempting to find business in the most expensive clubs and hotels. Chapman was — he claimed — selfless in this area and only partook of the large meals and endless rounds of drinks in order to ingratiate himself with potential clients. If Keats made any comment on this thin justification, it is not recorded, but it is known that he offered to be as selfless as Chapman and partake of these banquets as well. It took all Chapman's powers of persuasion to convince Keats that his presence and his somewhat cynical, acerbic tongue were not conducive to a successful business lunch.
Keats demurred and took himself off into the mountains where he composed several unremarkable sonnets on the subject of gluttony. The two friends became estranged and ceased speaking to one another except when absolutely necessary.
Finally rendered almost bankrupt with no further finance available from the banks to which they were already heavily in debt, Keats took to wandering the streets shouting "Get your buildings designed here! Roll-up, roll-up, British architects for hire!" and wearing a sandwich board. Chapman sulked in the office and doodled.
Imagine Chapman's surprise when, one winter morning, a senior member of the armed forces entered their little premises and enquired if they would be available to design and build a new Officer's Mess for his regiment. Chapman, sucking on a pebble to ward off hunger, readily agreed and ran out into the streets to find his friend and tell him the good news.
He found Keats scratching an ode into a recent dusting of snow.
"How much does it pay?" asked Keats, suspecting that Chapman had neglected, in his enthusiasm, to ascertain this small but important detail of the contract.
"Oodles," replied Chapman unconvincingly, confirming Keats' suspicion.
"Did you manage to get any money up front?" said Keats, "we'll need it to get started with materials and the like since no bank or trader will advance us a single rupee of credit."
"Well…" began Chapman, a little embarrassed.
"Come on, man," said Keats, "spit it out. Tell me the bad news."
"Well," said Chapman, "I didn't get any money but there is no problem with getting the materials we need: our Army friend has promised to provide me with signed authorisations to requisition anything we need from the Quartermaster at the barracks."
"Have you got them?" enquired Keats.
"Not as such," replied the ever-optimistic Chapman, "but I was assured that the requisitions exist and that we will be in possession of them very, very soon. But we have to hurry, he told me he'd be back with them in 45 minutes."
"Ahh," said Keats, drawing in a deep breath and exhaling it as a deep fog in the chill November air, "those would be the elusive coupons of mess construction."
Chapman coughed and counted the mountains.
When Keats returned to London following his abortive attempt to cross the Sahara dessert on a raft made of sea-shells in order to prove some minor point of comparative anthropology over which he had loudly fallen out with Charles Darwin, his first port-of-call was his old friend Chapman.
During Keats' absence, Chapman had become enamoured of the Arts & Crafts movement (or, possibly, had conceived a passion for Christiana Rossetti which necessitated his adoption of the movement's principles). This conceit had led him to attempt to produce fabrics in the style or, at least, the manner of William Morris. To this end, he had converted a good proportion of the lower floors of his house into a small factory and design studio. It was here, amongst drawings and wooden blocks that Keats found him, comparing test swatches of his latest creations.
Keats, whilst admiring the simple aesthetic professed and the noble aims aspired to, couldn't help but comment that the whole enterprise was a little too much like manufacturing and a not enough like true art.
"Arts and Crafts," stressed Chapman, "It is the way forward. Combine the best possible design with the best possible materials and everyone will be able to enjoy the best if soft furnishings."
"Everyone who can afford it," commented the sarcastic Keats in a quiet voice.
Chapman either did not hear or chose to ignore the remark and continued to enthuse about his new calling.
"So," asked Keats, "how is it going? Have you achieved the magnificence of design you hoped for?"
"My dear Keats," said Chapman, "this will not happen overnight. I need to experiment and study. Most of all I need to study the techniques of the best of the contemporaries and antecedents. Until I can understand how to duplicate their achievements, I shall not be ready to emulate or exceed them."
It was at that moment that a telegram arrived for Keats — he used Chapman's house as his London base when in town — from Queen Victoria begging him to pop up to Balmoral for a few days of haggis, bagpipes and whisky. Unable to refuse the polite request of his monarch, Keats thus had the perfect opportunity and excuse to leave his friend to his studies and researches.
Returning later in the week, Keats found Chapman in a state of despair, in a room full of garish, ugly examples of the draper's art.
"What is wrong?" Keats enquired of his friend.
"It would be easier to answer the opposite question," said Chapman, "What is right? Absolutely nothing is right. It's all gone horribly, horribly wrong. And I can't understand why. I've read every single book in the British Museum on the design and manufacture of cloth from ancient times to the present day. I've scoured bookshops for pamphlets and manuals in dozens of languages and enlisted all the experts in the land to translate them for me. I've read everything I can on the science of cloth-making. But it's all coming out wrong. Look at this mess."
Chapman swept his arms around the room and the monstrosities his researches had produced and then fell, sobbing to his desk, his head buried in is hands.
"There, there," consoled the ever-considerate Keats, "it's just a simple case of too many books spoiling the cloth."
Chapman immediately remembered an appointment with his tailor to be fitted for his habit before entering a monastery.