By ANTHONY RUDOLF.
ARRIVING AT AMBERLEY STATION from London en route to Nigel Foxell’s funeral on August 13, 2018, I saw a sign to a church and, being early, walked there on a blisteringly hot day. It was the wrong church, in a neighbouring hamlet. The farmer’s wife next door took pity on me and drove me to St. Michael’s, the ancient and beautiful prior church at Amberley. My idiotic error would have brought a wry smile to Nigel’s face, a feature always noted by his friends. The traditional service included Bach, Fauré and a Cardinal Newman hymn. John Donne’s ‘Death be not proud’ was impeccably recited by Nigel’s friend, John Davison, and Nigel’s elder son Anselm delivered a necessarily complex personal tribute from himself and his brother Emilio, which those present could interpret as they saw (un)fit.
Nigel Foxell was a class act. He would have appreciated the playful description, knowing that I, who published three of his books, was teasing him. He presented as very posh – with his voice, his double-breasted suits, his clubman / Lloyds Name persona — but he was hiding in the open air. The elegant outer image, the urbane and cosmopolitan style, his handsome face, mediated the depths, which were those of a brilliant and learned man, multi-talented and multi-lingual, at home in all the arts. He was a paid up member of the European tendency, lately in retreat but which we need more than ever. For some years, he helped his senior friend and mentor, the Ulster-born poet George Buchanan, to run Umberto Campagnolo’s now defunct Society for European Culture, and was secretary of the Keats-Shelley Association UK for even longer.
He held court for more than forty years in the Savile Club, which he joined in 1970 after more than a decade abroad. Not for him “a table for one in the long dining-room”, to quote a line from a poem by George Buchanan, a fellow club member, in elegiac mood. Rather, he would preside over a gathering of random members at the famous long table or invite friends and colleagues for personal and / or professional gatherings at a dedicated table. In addition to George, distinguished and influential fellow-members and friends included Vincent Brome (author and even in his nineties the Casanova of the North Reading Room in the British Museum), the military historian M. R. D. Foot and Pierre Rouve (film director, art historian and legendary broadcaster to Bulgaria from the BBC World Service at Bush House). For many years Nigel’s address book was a who’s who of practitioners and administrators of art.
The club was his second home, and gave him a platform for his gifts as a Socratic conversationalist and disseminator of art and culture. He dedicated himself to organising exhibitions of art at the club, whose art committee he chaired. When confronted by a fellow member who remonstrated about why the club should have art exhibitions at all, he could not resist replying that their main purpose was to annoy the philistines. He also turned his artistic flair to practical ends by painting ties, to a modernist design, for his own use and for gifts to fellow Savilians and other friends. He was particularly close to an older version of himself, the fabulously intellectual and charming Pierre Rouve, with whom he would plan and discuss exhibitions, articles and reviews, and visit galleries and theatres.
NIGEL FOXELL’S GRANDFATHER was a clergyman and composer and friend of Edward Elgar; his uncle was a chaplain to the Queen. Lambert, his father, had been a war chaplain and then, post-war, vicar of St Pauls Knightsbridge before settling in Christ Church, South Hackney. Intellectually and spiritually, Lambert, who was forty five when Nigel was born, was a son of the Oxford Movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, both of which had a significant input into Nigel’s formation and would later influence his art and literary criticism. Born Sibyl Leftwich and a descendent of Nigel de Seint-Sauveur, Nigel’s mother hailed from German and French aristocracy. Her sister was married to the legendary food writer Ambrose Heath, whose son Peter Miller, Nigel’s cousin, became an important conservation architect, supplying yet another intellectual family resource for the budding intellectual, as did Miller’s wife Sheila, a gifted artist and graphic designer.
Nigel was evacuated to St Albans during the war and went to prep school there before going to Aldenham School in Elstree from 1944 to 1949. While at Aldenham, we are told, he would tour the London art galleries even as young as thirteen, and explain the pictures to his friend Robert Gardiner: a sign of things to come. From 1949 till 1951 he did his National Service. In 1950 he became a second lieutenant in the Royal Army Educational Corps, having started off in the Royal Engineers. Following National Service, he had wanted to go to Paris, become a painter and study art before going on to the Royal College of Art or Camberwell. His parents thought otherwise, and in 1951 he proceeded to Exeter College Oxford, where he read English under Neville Coghill. On completing his undergraduate degree in 1954, he was awarded the £75 Lawrence Binyon Prize (in today’s money about £2000) “for an approved course of travel abroad to extend knowledge and appreciation of visual art”, which enabled him to study art and architecture in Rome, where he was resident at the British School. He also studied in Padua. He met his future wife Ena in Rome. She was a married architecture student and became his Italian teacher, although they did not marry until 1962. The main explanation for the delay is that they had to wait for her marriage to be annulled. Meanwhile they would have kept in touch by post and met from time to time in Italy and England.
In 1956, aged twenty five, he formally entered the art world on appointment as assistant keeper in the Department of Western Art (prints and drawings) at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He felt that a degree in English literature gave him a better grounding for this kind of work than a background in art history. Those who appointed him over more specialised candidates were evidently of like mind. Here, he began to deepen and broaden his knowledge of art, which enabled him to become an acute art critic particularly alert to historical, iconographical and symbolic influences in painting and sculpture. His inherited involvement in religion and the visual arts stood him in good stead as a writer, as did his earlier studies in classics and English literature.
At some point in the 1950s, he persuaded his old college to buy a series of paintings emanating from the Pre-Raphaelite circle and the Arts and Crafts movement, which were not as expensive then as they would later become. In 1956 he bought a Dutch old master, ‘The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John’ by Hendrick ter Brugghen, from his father’s church in South Hackney (where it had served as an altarpiece for about sixty years) for £75 and gifted it to the Diocese of London. They put it up for auction, as Nigel suggested, and it sold for £15000 (about £400,000 pounds in today’s money) and is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. One of the morals of this story is that Nigel could recognise a good painting when he saw one. The end justified the means.
Nigel left the Ashmolean in 1958 and spent a few months doing gallery work in New York, and then from autumn 1958 until 1961 he was Assistant Professor or Lektor in English literature at Tübingen University, Germany. In Tübingen, he was assigned a small lecture hall but the University soon had to relocate him to the great hall, so great was the demand for his lectures, which went beyond literature to music, art and religion.
He left Tübingen to spend a year as an assistant master at Eton before returning to his job in Germany, perhaps because there was a rule about how long a lektor could stay. While at Eton, he taught the present Provost and former cabinet minister, William Waldegrave, who remembers him as an inspiring teacher. Foxell and Waldegrave can be seen in a classroom photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson no less, taken in February 1962 during the great photographer’s visit to the UK that year. That year too, back in Tübingen for his second stint, Nigel married his first wife, Ena who, while in Germany, abandoned architecture and took up language teaching.
THEIR TWO SONS, Anselm and Emilio, were born in Tübingen in 1963 and 1964. After the second spell in Germany ended in 1966, Foxell moved with his wife and sons to Saskatoon in Canada where he spent a year as assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan; and thence to New York, where he took up an academic post at Long Island University in 1967, which lasted for two years. Nigel made a complicated return to London with his children in 1969, about a year after the death of his father, at which point he came into his inheritance. Ena followed soon after and eventually the boys lived with her in London for two years before she took them to Rome, where she brought them up alone while working as a translator and then as an international interpreter. They attended the Liceo Torquato Tasso in central Rome. Nigel would visit Italy during these years, see the boys and his friends in Florence, such as the international interpreter Caterina Corsini, and in Rome, where he was close to and influenced by members of the art and literary communities which overlapped with the community centred on the so-called English ghetto around Keats’s house (one of Foxell’s great causes). These included Robert Carroll, the American painter and photographer and his wife the writer Simona Mastrocinque. In 1979 he took the boys to meet Harold Acton (surely, like Kenneth Clark, a man after Nigel’s heart), doubtless via an appropriate connection.
In London, in the early 1970s, Foxell met his second wife Ann (née House now Ann Rudd). They lived in Bayswater. Her two children from her first marriage were at boarding school. During the summers — with her children home from school and Nigel’s sons holidaying there from Rome — the household was large. The arrangement worked well, with Ann softening Nigel’s tougher love. This state of affairs lasted until the boys were sixteen. Nigel and Ena were divorced in 1973. (Ena died in 2006).
During this phase, Nigel began dedicating himself to writing, mostly art criticism and fiction and also made a translation for Studio Vista of a book of essays about France and the arts, called Art and Confrontation, after the lead essay by Jean Cassou. He wrote for Apollo and other art magazines. In addition to his involvement with the Keats and Shelley Memorial Association UK and the Society for European Culture, he did some teaching, including lectures on Jacobean drama and the metaphysical poets at Morley College. He was also a fine photographer, whose subjects included his friend the blind poet John Heath-Stubbs (1978) and later the saturnine Vincent Brome (1999), which are in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Now a Name at Lloyds, he became a denizen of the London art scene, mixing with the editors of art magazines and owners of galleries, and ran his own gallery at home. The second marriage ended around 1980. In the 1980s he attended Jean Gimpel’s salon off the Fulham Road, whose regulars included such close friends as Josephine de Bono, Amy Page and the Rouves. He had friends among the artists: Charlotte Kell (also a poet and grand-daughter of Vernon Kell, who founded MI5), the celebrated abstract painter Victor Passmore and the Polish Jewish painter and typographer Jan LeWitt. Two friendships in particular survived from Oxford days: one with Frederick Trenchard Lane whose family owned Bloxworth (where Far from the Madding Crowd was filmed) and the other with the colourful and eccentric man of the anglo-Catholic cloth Brian Brindley (perhaps an English version of Father Jean-Marie Charles-Roux, who married Nigel and Anne). Brindley’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph, quite possibly written by Nigel, is to be commended for its entertainment value and depth. Foxell also socialised with a group of scholars and writers at the University of London’s Senate House. Later, he would attend with Robert Gardiner and Emilio the Ben Nicholson / Philip Toynbee Lunch Club. He loved going to the men-only Writers’ Retreat at Reigate, Mount Pleasant.
IN 1990 AT a Sothebys dinner, Nigel met Anne Chauvin de Précourt, the daughter of Diana de Vere Beauclerk, a descendant of Charles the Second and Nell Gwynne. They married in 1996, the delay partly associated with problems at Lloyds of London, where Nigel was a Name. For thirty years Anne worked in the art and music worlds – Sothebys, Agnews, Edinburgh Festival, European Youth Orchestra, Montpellier Festival and Art Fund. In 1997 Nigel moved to Kennards, the old thatched cottage, in Amberley, near Arundel, where Anne lived with her mother. A few years later, my Menard Press brought out his splendid eponymous history of the ancient parish church which would eventually host his funeral, and I was particularly pleased to publish his best single essay, A Sermon in Stone, an account of the vertically enshrouded John Donne effigy in Saint Paul’s cathedral by Nicholas Stone. Other significant essays included one on Turner and one on Gerard Manley Hopkins, a chapter taken from Foxell’s first book, Ten Poems Analysed (Pergamon Press, 1966), which came out from Menard as a pamphlet in a revised version in 2015, before it was reissued by Shearsman Books.
France and French culture were important to Nigel — who was associated with Jean-Marie Benoist and other professionals at the French embassy and Institute in Hyde Park and French South Kensington — as were Bulgaria and its culture. But his true “seconde patrie” was Italy, not only for the traditional British reasons of art and culture but because, as already explained, his first wife Ena was Italian, and his two sons are thus half-Italian. Ena was from Lazio, daughter of Medoro Pallone, whose profile was classic Italian and whose life could have supplied material for the author of The Leopard: exiled and impoverished, anti-fascist and communist, trade unionist and provincial deputy, anglophile and minor aristocrat, atheist and heavy smoker.
Over the years Nigel arranged and led art tours of the seconde patrie: the Italian Grand Tour lived again in a modern form. He was a born teacher and organiser, a natural trip advisor, you could say. He was also a master of what the French call ‘haute vulgarisation’, top-end popularised scholarship. In later years, thanks to the Rouve connection, he became fascinated with Bulgaria and lectured there on Byzantium and the Orthodox religion. After Pierre Rouve died in 1998, Foxell remained close friends with another star in that firmament, Pierre’s widow Sonia, and collaborated with her on Bulgarian projects associated with Pierre’s native country, not least editing and bringing out Sonia’s memoir of Pierre at the Mailer Press, set up by Nigel in 2006 in order to publish friends and associates, in particular Charlotte Kell and Anthony Astbury, list-maker extraordinaire, his catalogue poems being a notable element of his output.
Mailer Press was a classic one-man band outfit. Like Anthony Astbury’s own Greville Press, it was a haven for poets and others who needed a home which was neither a commercial publisher nor a vanity press. Two significant publications were the memoir Memory in Corners by Angela Hall and a reprint of the Greville Press edition of her poems, Winter Bride, selected and introduced by Simon Gray. Foxell also published pamphlets of his own work which were perhaps too long to be published in journals and too short for commercial book publishers, such as Airspeak in One Easy Lesson and Loss in Haiku, in which the poet’s echoing feelings can be discerned between the lines. In Amberley, he was dedicated to the poetry circle that Diana, his mother-in-law, hosted at Kennards.
Nigel put on exhibitions on the ground floor of his mews house in Earls Court, including one by the painter Audrey Jones in 1994, which consisted mainly of her original drawings reproduced as illustrations in the Menard Press book Red Knight, scabrous poems composed by redoubtable medieval Serbian women and translated by Daniel Weissbort, another of nature’s Europeans, who knew and appreciated Nigel. She remembers a frugal lunch with him prior to the show, but this was the early 1990s. Some of the drawings were sold, which is always good. Foxell’s role was to provide a platform for artists whose work pleased his keen eye.
His many later visits to Italy took him to Tuscany, Sicily and Sardinia where he traced the footsteps of D. H. Lawrence, which led to his book Sardinia without Lawrence (2005), published in English by John Rety’s Hearing Eye, and also in an Italian edition. It is worth noting that he wrote his book in Italian and translated it into English. He also wrote for the Sardinian newspaper Unione Sarda and lectured at the Italia-Inghilterra Society. In France, visiting his third wife’s family, he found time to draw “chasses-rues”, being himself drawn by the beauty inherent in small things.
A MAJOR ASPECT of his creative life was the writing of fiction. His first two novels, Carnival (Oberon 1968) and Schoolboy Rising (Oberon 1973) drew on his experiences at Aldenham School and at Tübingen. He was particularly interested in how the non-conformist tested, flourished in, or at least survived social institutions, such as a school or university, and how an institution can succeed in bringing a rebel back into the fold. In many ways this reflected his own character, a colourful apparently conformist but fundamentally non-conformist individual, comfortable in school and university and club, something like a loyal opposition. He could annoy specialists with his wide-ranging interests and non specialists with his specialist knowledge or, rather, knowledges. He had the best of both worlds. He researched his historical novels, sometimes with his sons in tow, who recall trips to Naples in the late 1970s and early ’80s when he was seeking background on Nelson and the Napoleonic wars for his books Loving Emma (Harvester 1986) and Emma Expects (Branch Line, 1987). Naval tactics were a particular interest. He compared the English naval tactics, born of individualism and free thought, to the more regimented and aligned ships of the French fleet that he saw as constrained and unfree. Perhaps this is another version of romantic versus classical. Certainly he was seeking to connect the naval tactics to the respective intellectual and artistic zeitgeists that produced them. Other novels include One Father’s Justice (Mailer Press 2007) and The Marriage Seat (Harvester 1978).
Nigel’s writing style emanated from the deep Nigel on the cusp of tradition and non-conformity, of his outer and inner lives. Rooted in English prose and poetry, his best writing was painterly and spare, fluent and crafted, eloquent and highly readable, and the novels bear witness to this. One need not be a Christian to read or at least dip into his history of Amberley Church – the fullest study of any parish church in the country — erudite and with the scholarship more on show than in the historical novels, yet unsolemn and entertaining and with the lightest of touch, and always loving. This must be how he sounded on his guided tours of Italy. In this book his profound knowledge and inheritance of religion and art and the history of both came together, always scholarly and never academic.
Nigel was deeply interested in codes but did not enter into the world of formal semiotics as pursued by his friend Pierre Rouve. Nigel’s pamphlet on Gerard Manly Hopkins’ masterpiece ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is a master class in textual analysis. The copious notes touch on nearly every line in the poem. It is an indispensable guide to one of the great poems in the language, a poem which deserves and requires close and subtle attention from the imaginations and intellects of critics. A new generation of general readers will be grateful to Nigel Foxell, for the diligence and love he has brought to bear on this formidable task.
In Nigel Foxell’s last years, before the final illness during which he was eased by the calm and stability of Kennards and the care provided by his wife, the London of the arts and of his club remained a magnet for the writer, who continued to generate the energy to make the journey from Amberley to London where, based at the Savile, he would sally forth to concerts or poetry readings, whether reciting his own work or supporting the organizations that fostered other writers’ work. A favourite venue was the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town where John Rety’s poetry evenings took place. During this phase, Foxell and Anthony Astbury founded a literary luncheon club which met first at a restaurant in the Strand and then migrated to the Ritz: better food, better setting, at a price of course.
NIGEL LED A complicated and complicating life. I was a friend but not an intime, which perhaps enables a certain distance and objectivity with which to write what has to be called an interim assessment, which I hope will be of use to future writers. I have tried to make sense – with occasional deviations, hesitations and repetitions (to coin a phrase) – of the life of a man who loved women and equally loved the all-male universe of his club. Given his mindset, it was entirely appropriate that he was the father of sons. I find it difficult to imagine a Foxell daughter grappling with the meaning of dad’s life. On the other hand, thinking of my relationship with my own father, I may be talking nonsense here. All children grapple with the meaning of both parents’ lives. On another and less personal pathway, I want to say that the themes and variations of art and religion and love which permeated his life and imaginaire are heady and, taken at the flood, leave us duller folk gasping for breath and needing a drink. If I were a member of his club, I would book a table for one in the long dining room, toast my friend and give more thought concerning my homage to a singular individual than has been possible on this occasion.
If his life were to be translated into a musical score, the horizontal and vertical lines would be visually complex. “In a valley of this restless mind”: the first line of a beautiful medieval poem Nigel surely knew. Foxell’s seriously and serially polymorphous activities suggest a restless soul deeper even than the deep Nigel beneath the colourful individual on view to the world. Nigel Foxell was, to use cricket parlance, a gentleman and a player. I would not be in the least surprised if he was one of the models for a sympathetic combination character in an Anthony Powell novel. Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald also spring to mind as authors of fictional territories where he would have felt at home. Nigel was unique and irreplaceable, and unimaginable in the future.
Nigel Edward Lambert Foxell.
Born London July 22 1931, died Amberley, Sussex July 23 2018.
Son of Lambert and Sybil Foxell
Father of Anselm and Emilio Foxell
Husband of Anne Foxell.
With thanks to Sonia Rouve, Anne Foxell, Simon Kusseff, Peter Foxell, Robert Miller and Aloisia de Trafford.
Special thanks to Emilio Foxell, for his patience and objectivity.