Tag Archives: Norman Mailer

London curiosities, from Don Saltero to Viktor Wynd

This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth –  but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”

These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]

Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.

poo

London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some  relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”

 

Saltero’s collection included such marvels as  a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and  a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”

Well then!

Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’  to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.

Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”

“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.

He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”

The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.

Advertisements

Norman Mailer and Christine Keeler’s bra

Jay Landesman was an American writer and eccentric entrepreneur who arrived in London in the mid-1960s and immediately flung himself headfirst into the emerging counterculture scene, largely because the first person he met when he arrived here was Peter Cook. Landesman later became best known as the male half of a famously open marriage, much to the shame of his son Cosmo, who gained revenge by marrying Julie Burchill. (‘She hated hippies, ex-hippies, food freaks, open marriages and old people,’ wrote Jay, ‘The only thing she liked about us, was that we were Jewish.’)

In his entertaining 1992 memoir Jaywalking, Landesman’s non-ideological dalliances on the fringes of the London scene make great reading, with walk-on roles for the likes of John Lennon (‘He was uptight about Wendy Cook’s insistence he sample her salade Nicoise, a dish he was highly suspicious of and couldn’t pronounce’), Tom Driberg (‘He took us to a pub whose entire clientele consisted of lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors, ageing pederasts and an assortment of amputees’) and Germaine Greer (‘I watched her challenge Jimi Hendrix to an arm-wrestling match, and win’). Although it’s never entirely clear what he did – bar run the disastrous UFO rip-off the Electric Garden for a couple of minutes – Landesman was clearly good company with a penchant for meeting interesting people, and at some point was asked by The Sunday Times to write about the art of giving a party. His ideal guest list is worth repeating in full:

Minimum of three potential celebrities; at least one real celebrity (any field); a foolish couple; a serious couple (straight feed for comics); an engineer or non-speaking Czech (to point out); six swinging teenagers (girls); a bitchy girl who can generate masochism in men; a gym instructress who drinks too much; an older woman who sits and smiles (who is she?); a rune beauty (who was she?); Christine Keeler; no fat people unless Peter Ustinov; nobody jet or Court Circular; no dogs; no Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, David Frost (or equivalents); no crew cuts; a swinging accountant; a buff (a jazz-hair or gambling buff); two attractive lesbians (to get wrong); one international drug trafficker (to point out); a beautiful flawed couple; a gay MP; Tariq Ali (not Christopher Logue); an Irish showbusiness GP; a titled person (to show you’re not snobbish); no artists’ agents, editors or publishers; no children or headshrinkers (except RD Laing); an eccentric lawyer or priest (no respecters of confessionals); an articulate tradesman (electrician, cabinet maker, house painter, bank manager); a forgotten culture hero; a reliable loudmouth who’ll come early and leave early; the ex-wife of a world celebrity; a pop singer no one recognises; a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe, or both; an established figure who decides that night to drop out…

Landesman was fond of Christine Keeler. He met her soon after arriving in London at the Kismet, a Soho drinking club, and the pair became friends. He also knew Norman Mailer from the mid-1950s, Mailer having interviewed Landesman while researching his pioneering essay on hipsterdom, The White Negro. In London, Landesman had an opportunity to bring the two together.

The cause was Mailer’s decision to challenge for the Democrat candidacy as Mayor of New York under the slogan ‘Vote The Rascals In’. The sizeable US expat community in London – there were frequent baseball games in Hyde Park featuring the likes of Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson with Phil Silvers as umpire – decided to hold a fundraising event.

The Friends of Norman Mailer Committee was founded by charismatic rogue Harvey Matusow, and he put on a celebrity auction, featuring myriad bizarre offerings from Yoko Ono like ‘Dirt From Central Park’, ‘Air over Greenwich Village’, ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’ as well as bottles of Robert Lowell’s sweat and a slice of raw liver from Philip Roth’s fridge. The star exhibit, however, was supplied by Landesman: Christine Keeler’s bra.

Bidding began at £100. There were no takers. The auctioneer tried again, at £50. Nobody moved. Next he tried £10 for this ‘psychosexually historical’ item, but the opening bid was a measly 10 shillings. Landesman tried to get the bidding going and raised his own hand, but nobody followed suit and he ended up winning the item back for a mere 10s 6d. Later, he discovered it wasn’t even Keeler’s. ‘Christine doesn’t wear a bra,’ a mutual friend confessed, ‘But the deception was justified in a good cause.’ The mayoral election was just as successful – Mailer came fourth, in a field of five.