Peggy Guggenheim’s troubled years in Sussex

Despite being the most famous art collector in the world, Peggy Guggenheim is better known for her lovers. In her haunting and uncredited memoir, Out of This Century, she lists Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy, Humphrey Jennings and Max Ernst among them, and hints at a flight with Henry Moore. The book, published in 1946, earned her the title of ‘the female Casanova’ and caused such a stir that her American tycoon uncles tried to buy the entire print run.

But this reputation as a Bohemian arch has often overshadowed its importance in art history – something an upcoming exhibition at Petersfield Museum and Gallery, Peggy Guggenheim: Petersfield to Palazzo, seeks to rectify. Retelling work by Moore, Tanguy, Ernst and Jean Arp, it tells the story of a part of Peggy’s remarkable life that is often neglected: the years she spent in a damp house in the village of South Harting in West Sussex, between 1934-39 (a it was also the basis for my 2009 novel The Good Plain Cook).

Peggy from South Harting wrote, “The village was completely dead, like all such places in England, but it was in the middle of the most beautiful country. Of course, there was a fine pub.” Hating the weather, the food, and disappointed in her English poet lover, Douglas Garman, she soon moved to London in search of a new start. But Peggy’s brief escape to the English countryside ended her fantasy of fulfillment by being a bohemian wife, and sparked her life as an art collector.

Peggy Guggenheim (standing) with artist Mina Loy in Paris during the 1920s

Peggy Guggenheim (standing) with artist Mina Loy in Paris during the 1920s – Corbis Historical/George Rinhart

On the one hand, Peggy was the perfect bohemian – famous for her wild parties in Paris in the 1920s, was free from sex, obsessed with art, liked to wear outrageous clothes, and adorn the sunbathed nude on the roof of her Venetian palazzo. On the other hand, she is not an artist or an art ‘expert’ herself. She was a good businesswoman; she loathed dirt; and, perhaps most significantly, she was smitten by that non-bohemian variety – children.

Peggy grew up privileged but described her childhood as ‘full of torments’. Her father, New York businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, made a fortune from metal smelting. Benjamin went down with the Titanic when Peggy was just 13 years old. In response, Peggy worked her eyebrows and was, as she later wrote, the “black sheep” of the family.

Peggy was determined to live differently from the rest of the Guggenheims. When she was 23 years old she traveled to Europe, where she made a lifelong friend in Marcel Duchamp. In 1922 she married the writer Laurence Vail after he was startled by her sexual frankness on their first date. “Laurence had a very hard time because I claimed everything I had seen being shown in it [sexually explicit] Pompeian Frescoes,” she wrote in her memoirs, adding that he soon made it clear that she should consider herself “lucky to accept Bohemia … since I had my money to offer , I should lend it to the wonderful people I’ve met.” and had the pleasure of visiting often.”

'I named the house Garman because I was determined to die': Yew Tree Cottage in South Harting, 1935'I named the house Garman because I was determined to die': Yew Tree Cottage in South Harting, 1935

‘I named the house Garman because I was determined to die’: Yew Tree Cottage in South Harting, 1935

The pair had two children, Sinbad and Pegeen, but Laurence was often violent and the marriage was over by 1928, when Peggy met John Holms, another struggling writer, and moved in with him on the edge of Dartmoor. . In 1933 tragedy struck when Sean died while under anaesthetic. The death was a great tragedy for Peggy, who sought solace in the arms of the poet Douglas Garman.

Embarrassed as she was taking another lover, she hid Garman when guests arrived at their home, Warblington Castle. After he then bought Yew Tree Cottage, just down the road in South Harting, she wrote in her memoirs: “Soon after taking this step I decided to commit suicide, I was still as unhappy as John. So I put the house in Garman’s name because I intended to die. Of course I didn’t and I went to live in the house instead.”

While still grieving for Sean, Peggy secretly spent time typing up her manuscripts in the hope that they would be published. She began to drink more, which Douglas was not happy about. In her memoir, she describes teasing him until he punched her in the face. He was not usually a violent man, but Douglas wept with shame. It wasn’t long before her life in Sussex became, as Peggy put it, “fighting all day, f—ing all night”.

But there was a happier couple in the house. When Jack, the gardener, introduced his fiancée, Kitty, to Yew Tree Cottage, Peggy hired her as a cook. Kitty, a local Sussex girl, could only manage Yorkshire pudding and roast pheasant, so Peggy found a fake chef called Wahab to teach Kitty a thing or two. Peggy, perhaps bored, also took part in the lessons. It was this interesting situation – the local cook being taught to tackle French dishes with his bohemian American mistress – that inspired me to write much of The Good Plain Cook from Kitty’s point of view.

Peggy Guggenheim in 1921Peggy Guggenheim in 1921

Peggy Guggenheim in 1921 – Alamy

The real Jack and Kitty got married in the church in Pearse, with Pegeen and Debbie as matchmakers. In contrast, nothing came of Peggy’s relationship with Douglas. When she was 39 years old alone, Peggy wrote that she was “at a loss for a livelihood, as I have never been but a wife for the last fifteen years.”

She began toying with the idea of ​​an art gallery, and opened the Guggenheim Jeune in Cork Street, London, in 1938. Jean Cocteau was the first exhibitor and the gallery held the first solo exhibition of works by Wassily Kandinsky in the UK. She even began making plans to open London’s first public modern art gallery.

World War II intervened but if anything Peggy capitalized on the chaos. She traveled to Paris, where she aimed to buy a painting a day. She was afraid of the Nazi regime’s attitude towards ‘degenerative’ art, artists came to her flat with works for sale. In her memoir she said, “The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Leger’s studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for a thousand dollars.” While in Paris she acquired around 150 works, including pieces by Dali, Klee, Miro, Giacometti and Man Ray. She left three days before the Germans took the city, taking much modern art safely out of Europe.

'Floating in her private gondola at dusk': Peggy Guggenheim'Floating in her private gondola at dusk': Peggy Guggenheim

‘Swimming in her private gondola at dusk’: Peggy Guggenheim – Tony Vaccaro

Peggy was launched as a serious collector and continued to buy. After escaping Europe with Max Ernst and Andre Breton, who effectively saved her from the Nazis, she went on to marry Max and, in 1942, opened another gallery, Art of this Century, in New York. The space was radical: the pictures were hung without frames, on white walls, or suspended from the ceiling on wires.

In 1949, aged 51 and now divorced from Ernst, Peggy bought and moved into the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, which she opened to the public as a museum in 1951. Her collection is still there, which attracts approximately 400,000 visitors per year.

And yet the interest in her sex life continues. When her memoir was published in 1946, malicious rumors about Peggy’s sexuality ran wild. There were stories of excellence, and of three people, including Pegeen. Peggy used to swear by her own artistic achievements, filling her memoirs not with art, but with sex. There is little doubt that Peggy was judged harshly for enjoying her sexual appetite in a way that her male counterparts never would. If the book were published today, Peggy might be celebrated for being a middle-aged public woman who was very interested in her sexuality.

'Beloved children': Guggenheim with her Lhasa Apso dogs'Beloved children': Guggenheim with her Lhasa Apso dogs

‘Beloved children’: Guggenheim with her Lhasa Apso dogs in Venice

The memoir also reveals another of Peggy’s blind spots: her children. Peggy famously said she “would rather have Picasso than have a daughter”, and Pegeen was clearly neglected. She struggled with her mental health and in 1967, after what her husband Ralph remembers as many suicide attempts, she was found dead, aged 41, in her flat after an overdose of drugs and alcohol.

Despite her huge success, older Peggy, who was always with her ‘beloved children’ (her Lhasa Apso dogs) but remained alone, floated in her private gondola during of the night. In the end, Peggy was surrounded by her works of art. “They’re pretty much the most important part of my life now,” she said. “I can’t imagine my life now without them.”

Peggy Guggenheim: Petersfield runs to Palazzo at the Petersfield Museum and Art Gallery from June 15 to October 5; petersfield

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