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Purely for My Pleasure by W. Somerset…

Purely for My Pleasure

by W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham

Purely for My Pleasure

Heinemann, Hardback, 1962.

4to. 28 pp. 37 plates. First edition. Frontispiece portrait of Maugham by Edouard MacAvoy. Contains the following 37 plates in full colour:

Henri Matisse – The Yellow Chair
G. H. Barrable – Songs from Italy
Roderick O'Connor – Still Life
Roderick O'Connor – Still Life
Roderick O'Connor – Still Life
Wilson Steer – The Severn, Littledean
Wilson Steer – Effect of Rain, Corfe
Zoffany – Garrick and Mrs Gibber in Ottway's 'Venice Preserved'
Samuel de Wilde – Bannister and Suett in George Coleman the Younger's 'Sylvester Daggerwood'
Paul Gauguin – Eve with the Apple
Jean Joveneau – Still Life
Jean Joveneau – Still Life
Fernand Léger – Les Toits de Paris
Marie Laurencin – The Rowing Boat
Marie Laurencin – Mother and Daughter
Marie Laurencin – Young Girl With a Fan
Marie Laurencin – The Kiss
Marie Laurencin – Portrait of W. Somerset Maugham
Camille Pissarro – The Quai Saint-Sever, Rouen
Eugene Boudin – The Banks of the River Loques, Calvados
Camille Pissarro – A Winter Landscape, Louveciennes
Henri Matisse – Lady with a Parasol
Stanislas Lépine – View Outside Paris
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Argenteuil
Georges Rouault – Christ Crucified
Pierre Bonnard – Grandmother and Child
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Trois Jeunes Filles en Promenade
Claude Monet – Zaandam
Maurice Utrillo – A Street in Conquet, Brittany
Alfred Sisley – Le Loing à Moret
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Nude (Gabrielle)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Le Polisseur
Pablo Picasso – The Death of Harlequin
Stanislas Lépine – River Scene
Stanislas Lépine – A View From Caen
Pablo Picasso – Standing Woman (La Grecque)
Edouard Vuillard – Still Life with Flowers


This is the last book that W. Somerset Maugham published in his lifetime, only three years before his death and just a few months before his infamous memoir Looking Back appeared in magazines and was rejected firmly by his publishers; today, almost 50 years later, it still remains in manuscript only. Purely for My Pleasure is rather an album than a book actually. It can be described more accurately as the swan song of Maugham's famous collection of pictures which he was collecting purely for his pleasure for 50 years or so. In 1962 he was forced to sell all these masterpieces at Sotheby's because in his house of the French Riviera they were under the constant threat of being stolen and were giving him much anxiety and no pleasure. But prices, gossip, scandals and such like are not to be subject of this review.

If you want a fascinating glimpse into Somerset Maugham's life, personality and picture collection, this is the right book to have. Do not waste your money for the terrible Sotheby catalogue that contains only a brief preface by Maugham and half of the pictures only in hideous black-and-white reproductions. The contrast with the book is shocking indeed! Here Maugham relates how he came to possess any of the 37 paintings beautifully reproduced on the plates as well as the remarkable portrait as a frontispiece. The only drawback of the text is that it is too short and from time to time somewhat perfunctory. But Maugham could always say a great deal with a very few words and that is exactly what he does here.

The book is written in a light and amusing style, full of anecdotes about the paintings and of the painters who created them. Somerset Maugham must have enjoyed himself immensely writing it. But it should be noted immediately that his facetious tone by no means hinders his usual candour. Maugham's delightful recollections of Marie Laurencin’s, from her ingenuous delight in her own canvases to her frank statement, while she was painting a portrait of him which he received as a gift, that she does not give a damn about the rumour that her portraits lacked likeliness, make a really charming read; Maugham flatly says that she was not a great artist, ''far from it'', but a pleasing one and it is obvious that he had a considerable affection for her. Another anecdote I particularly enjoy reading over and over again is the one about Le Polisseur. In those ancient times, most people were a little disconcerted by a nude male figure, but since Maugham certainly was not, he was able to obtain the picture at a very reasonable price. Later he amused himself by asking every connoisseur of fine arts who was guest at his villa if he could guess who painted the picture. Only one could. Maugham's friend Sir Kenneth Clark looked silently at the picture for two minutes and then said that nobody could have painted this head and this arm but Toulouse-Lautrec. And quite right he was. Of course, the famous story about Gauguin’s masterpiece – the so called ''Gauguin-on-glass'' – which Maugham bought while he was on Tahiti is also here, albeit the account is less detailed than the one in A Writer’s Notebook, and so are his meetings with Henry Matisse and Edouard MacAvoy. The most remarkable thing about all these stories is that they tell you a great deal not only about painters and paintings, but about Maugham himself as well. So do the reproductions.

The reproductions themselves, in quarto format and stunning colour, are a real treat. Even if you do not share, as I certainly do not, Maugham’s moderate admiration for modernism, you can hardly fail to be impressed by the colours and the composition of Léger’s Le Toits de Paris or Rouault’s Christ Crucified. And if you are fascinated, as I certainly am, by the French Impressionists, there is really a great deal to enjoy here. Pissarro’s A Winter Landscape, Louveciennes or Renoir’s Argenteuil or Zaandam are not only some of the most enchanting landscapes ever painted, but a true masterpieces of light and colour. Speaking of landscapes, Lepine’s three canvases are quite remarkable for being somewhat on the other side: rather gloomy, somewhat cheerless and vaguely disconcerting. Although I have never been able to feel strongly for Picasso or Matisse (or Gauguin, for that matter), I can't help myself but being moved by The Death of Harlequin, Lady with a Parasol or Eve With the Apple, respectively. Also, I should like to remark on the remarkable portrait of Maugham which occupies the frontispiece of the book. It may not be as famous as the ones by Graham Sutherland or Gerald Kelly, but to my mind the work of Edouard MacAvoy is by no means less great. Despite his somewhat modernist approach, he did achieve not only amazing likeliness, but also a very successful representation of one of Maugham’s most outstanding features: his strength of character. For my own part, however, the picture in Maugham’s collection I like most is G. H. Barrable’s Songs From Italy depicting a lovely girl playing on a musical instrument.

She is lovely, is she not? Incidentally, you will not find this one in the dull Sotheby catalogue. I guess those who are interested in art but not in Maugham himself would hardly find Purely for My Pleasure a very pleasurable book; they could easily get all these pictures in other books and albums, perhaps in even better reproductions (if such thing is possible at all). But if you are genuinely interested in Maugham’s life and personality as well as in fine art, painting especially, this book is most definitely a must for your library. Its presentation is splendid, the only very minor complain being that the text and the pictures could have been better arranged on the pages, and it offers a priceless glimpse into the inner world of Somerset Maugham that is not easy to obtain elsewhere.

Postscript (March 2014)
Extensive collection of quotes and photos from the book may be consulted here. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 11, 2009 |
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