Posted on:Monday 26th April, 2021
Original artwork by Hannah Kent 20211
In 2011 I embarked on a great adventure. An opportunity arose to save the house at 8 Royal College Street once occupied by the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and to develop it as a ‘poetry house’, a centre for the arts and education in Camden. On the back of this opportunity, I founded the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (R&V) and threw myself into the task of developing it as an arts organisation. From this unusual starting point, a whole new wave of activities in the arts took shape. In October 2020 the legacy gift of the property to R&V was withdrawn by its owner, ostensibly depriving the charity of its founding purpose. Even so, when I consider what has been achieved by R&V over the last 10 years, I have no regrets. And when I ask myself if there is still a future for the organisation, the answer is still a resounding yes…
The dream of creating a cultural centre in Camden always depended on the legacy gift of the house, and when the owner withdrew that gift without warning in October 2020, the ‘poetry house’ project appeared to have been defeated. Since then, there have been some more positive developments. A concerted campaign of action by the charity and by fans of Rimbaud and Verlaine has successfully prevented a sale of the property. As I post this blog the owner has apparently changed his mind about selling No 8 and is talking once again about hosting music recitals at the property, and about leaving it in his Will for development as a heritage and community asset. This is good news, of course, although the owner continues to refuse all contact with R&V, the charity originally established with his approval to accept the legacy gift. Instead, he is talking about starting his own charity, apparently with similar charitable objectives.
So where does that leave R&V? And at a time when COVID-19 is already ravaging the arts, does it even have a future? The answer is more positive than you might think. In large part that is because, for R&V, the vision of a ‘poetry house’ has always been about much more than bricks and mortar. It has also been about the role that the ‘accursed poets’ can play in inspiring the arts and education in the here and now. For us the arts are not just a narrow exercise in heritage, but a living, breathing tradition, an obligation to stimulate new artistic creativity and participation, and something that plays an important role in civil society.
This vision goes back to the very earliest days of the organisation. When R&V was launched as a separate charity in 2014 it held its first board meeting in a room in the House of Lords, hosted by Bernard, Lord Donoghue. One of the most important decisions we took that day was that R&V was not to be ‘just a small house museum’, and that it should concentrate on developing itself as an arts organisation and community with a clear cultural and educational mission. If it succeeded in this, we decided, the legacy gift of the property would be a bonus, and not ‘the be all and end all’. In other words, we realised that a house means nothing unless it is filled with life and meaning, that it is more important as a symbol of the arts than as a physical space, and that a successful arts organisation would always want to project its activities into concert halls, schools and community centres, to commission original work, and to champion the role of the arts in society. This decision still makes me proud.
Rose Stachniewska performing in Songs from a Parisian Salon in February 2020
So, what have we achieved? For a start, we have demonstrated that live arts events inspired by the Decadent Movement can fill large concert halls like Kings Place with paying audiences. With the help of grant funding from Arts Council England, the T.S. Eliot Foundation and others, we have programmed some amazing live events, featuring many different art forms and a wide range of exceptional performers and speakers. As recently as February 2020 I recall a spine-tingling moment as the soprano Rose Stachniewska sang À Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn in the Chancellor’s Hall at the Senate House as part of the Songs from a Parisian Salon show. R&V’s success at delivering inspiring live arts events, including smaller monthly salon-style events, over many years suggests a strong and growing demand for eclectic and high-quality artistic content. With an ambitious new series of live events planned post-COVID in the Cadogan Hall, the opportunities for live arts events remain as exciting as ever.
In a decade marked by the rise of populism and nativism in politics, R&V has been going ‘against the grain’, forging new friendships across Europe. In 2015 it launched the Kindred Spirits network, bringing together eight ‘poetry house’ partners from all over the continent, from Reykjavík to Granada, from Charleville-Mézières to Bucharest, and from Rome to Vilnius, to celebrate the importance of literature and the sense of place. In May 2015 all the partners came together for a conference led by R&V in Bucharest. I still have a vivid memory of the roses in the garden of the Tudor Arghezi poetry house, set in a meadow on the outskirts of Bucharest, where the delegates (in high spirits) posed for photographs. Looking at these photographs now, I feel proud of R&V’s achievement. There can surely be no more eloquent expression of the continuing desire to cherish and nurture international friendships and a shared European culture.
Poets and representatives of 'poetry houses' from all over Europe gathered for a conference run by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation in Bucharest in 2015, and a rose in the garden of the former home of the Romanian poet Tudor Arghezi.
I also have special memories of R&V’s work in secondary schools in Camden, including Maria Fidelis, Regents High, La Sainte Union and Camden School for Girls. I especially recall a schools’ show at Regents High in 2017 where the pupils had the opportunity to read their own poems, later published by R&V in the anthology How We Make Daylight. The poems were fantastically inventive and of an exceptionally high quality. I got a strong sense not only of the talent of these young people, many from relatively deprived backgrounds, but of the potential of the arts to address wider problems and help us to make sense of our lives. The experience was both moving and humbling.
During a period often characterised by retrenchment and despondency in the arts, R&V has commissioned new work across different art forms, from poetry to jazz to theatre. For instance, in 2016 it commissioned playwrights from all over Europe to create a portfolio drama, Poetry House Live, which was performed and filmed in London and Scotland and translated into 6 different languages. I recall the summer days on the Roehampton University campus when we brought together the playwrights and actors to workshop their plays, and I marvel at the way in which they collaborated to craft new original drama. R&V has stimulated new work by, and offered opportunities to, hundreds of early career artists and creatives. To me this lies at the heart of the charity’s purpose.
Poetry House Live playwrights Richard Dalla Rosa (France), Roberta Calandra (Italy), Sigurbjörg Þrastardóttir (Iceland), and Gabrielė Labanauskaitė (Lithuania) attending R&V's theatre workshop in London in 2016.
R&V has also pioneered new funding models for the arts, including innovative proposals for limited profit investment. This work has borne fruit in several projects which have combined grant funding or sponsorship with the creation of new income streams for the charity. One example is a current project with Bloomsbury Publishing for a book funded through a combination of grant funding and a commercial publishing agreement. At a time when arts budgets have been slashed and many organisations are struggling, R&V is helping to create a more sustainable future for the arts.
Finally, one of the pleasures of recent years has been establishing relationships with many of the leading individuals and institutions in the field of Decadence studies. R&V was a founding member of the Decadence and Translation Network, which held a series of seminars during 2019, and it has a burgeoning partnership with the new Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. Just before the first lockdown I met with colleagues in a suite of rooms in the building in Paris which was formerly the home of the Suez Canal Company to discuss ideas for collaborations between academics and artists in this field. I would like to think that, in our own small way, R&V is also working to bring the world closer together.
Poets and educators Thomas Owoo and Christian Foley present R&V's Camden Schools Anthology outside the William Blake house in 2017
Through all of this, the image of 8 Royal College Street has been a symbol of what R&V is trying to do. But it has been just that, a symbol, not a boundary to what we can achieve. I was once asked what R&V would do if money were no object. I replied that we would probably want to create a new building around the corner from the property at No. 8, one more suited to being a home for the arts and education. No. 8 itself would even then serve more as a symbol of the charity’s values and inspirations than as their physical incarnation. Reading about other literary houses around the world we have found that a similar divide almost always exists between the bricks and mortar of a historic property, often small and difficult to manage, and a brighter and bolder mission to use the property as a jumping-off point for the arts and education in the wider community.
Who knows what the next 12 months will hold? Whatever happens, the ‘poetry house’ vision was always about something much bigger and richer than the steep and narrow stairs at No 8 could comfortably accommodate. Now that R&V’s future access to the actual property is uncertain, I am grateful for the wisdom and clarity of this insight. Amongst other things it means that (with the help of R&V’s many members, friends, and supporters) a new and brighter future for the charity is still entirely possible, and with it my own continuing adventure in the arts…
1‘Nous revivrons ici bien courageusement, patiemment’ [‘We will live here again, bravely, patiently’]: A phrase used in a letter written by Rimbaud to Verlaine from London dated 4 July 1873, after their argument, but before the famous shooting incident in Brussels. Graham Robb’s biography of Rimbaud suggests that this letter would have been written in their room at No 8 Royal College Street.