Last night after attending the private view of BEYOND FAIRYTALES at the Hardy Tree Gallery, I took my girlfriend Julie and my friend David to see Yeats’ flat at Woburn Buildings. We were in luck. Beyond the Yeats balcony in the Yeats room itself, we saw a figure at work.
As I was telling the story of how Yeats came to live in the otherworldly Euston abode, the figure came onto the balcony and began listening. She then spoke to us from her vantage point, saying she knew very little about the Irish poet. I told her she was standing in the very room where Yeats lost his virginity, this the poet who claimed sex and death were the only things worth writing about. She invited us up.
This is one of those rare rewards for the indefatigable urban explorer, who almost always has to be satisfied with facades. It’s happened before at certain enchanted sites: Ezra Pound’s 10 Kensington Church Street address; the Order of the Golden Dawn’s Isis-Urania Temple at 36 Blythe Road; Tom Paine’s immaculately preserved 18th century house in Sandwich. Sometimes you get threats of police, as happened at Wyndham Lewis’ house at Palace Gardens Terrace, where the furious old proprietress looked like Lewis in drag.
Yeats’ Woburn Walk flat is another poetic holy of holies – like The Jerusalem Room in South Molton Street – which I have always wanted to enter, but didn’t know how. The time-machine side-street was about to take us for a ride.
The lady who came down to admit us introduced herself as the artist Anita Chowdry. She was in her artistic apron, and planning to work through the night. As she had a long shift ahead, she didn’t mind offering some spontaneous hospitality, in return for finding out a little more about her own spiritual host. Dessert wine was opened.
It was a real pleasure to be in the room that Yeats had lived in for almost a quarter of a century. The Irish ‘national poet’ spent a surprising amount of his life in London, always keeping in touch with the aesthetic vanguards and the occult societies he so fed off.
That his room is now occupied by an artist who is exploring what some call ‘sacred geometry’ but she calls ‘classical geometry’, the alchemy of colours and creation of gold paint, fractals, and the curves of the world, can only be good. When I suggested that Yeats would be delighted with the occupant of his London rooms, she assured me he is. Here is a link to her fascinating website. She works with a magical ‘steampunk’ instrument which she calls The Iron Genie. http://www.anitachowdry.com
Yeats had fallen in love with a married woman, Olivia Shakespear, a novelist and first cousin of his friend the poet Lionel Johnson. She encouraged him to rent the flat as a Victorian love-nest, and helped with the finances. Buying the bed in a Tottenham Court Road shop – with Olivia at his side – was nerve-wracking, not out of prudishness but because of the prices. Yeats recalled in his memoirs: “Every inch increased the expense.”
Yeats commenced his famous ‘Mondays’ almost as soon as he had moved in. Ernest Rhys and Arthur Symons were among the first guests, friends from the Rhymers Club. I was able to tell Anita, who is Anglo-Indian, that one of Yeats’ most illustrious visitors was the poet Rabindranath Tagore, whom he helped get translated into English and generally feted in the Anglophone world. Yeats is noted for his Indian connection. An early guru was Mohini Chatterjee who came to Dublin and preached asceticism. In middle age, Yeats and Tagore had a great symbiosis. Late in life, Yeats took up with Shri Purohit Swami with whom he translated The Upanishads. Anita is arguably the last Indian artist to collaborate with Yeats, a posthumous endeavour on his part, and she claims that magical things have happened in her career since moving into the studios.
The fireplace is the same though Yeats wouldn’t have used Flash to clean it.
Here we are watching a video about the Iron Genie which Anita deploys to create her geometrical works.
The commercial geometry of ‘Woburn Buildings’ has changed much since Yeats’ time, but that room is the defining space of his time in London where he broke free from the family he was born into, for a quarter of a century, before belatedly starting a family of his own. It was his bachelor pad – the affair with Shakespear lasted only a year – and the place where he succeeded in becoming the colossus, WBY. He would have had more room at the back and later he also rented the attic, but this is the humble bolthole where he entertained many luminaries inc. Tagore, Pound, Eliot, Maud Gonne, and wrote much of his oeuvre. It is beyond priceless.
Yeats – often lazily branded a fascist, but actually an original thinker with a one-off, customized politics – shared the property with a pedlar in the attic above, and a cobbler below with whom he maintained very cordial relations over the years. Though he was as poor as they were, if not moreso, his dandified appearance led to his being called ‘the toff what lives in the buildings’.
Text: Niall McDevitt
Photos: Niall McDevitt, Julie Goldsmith, David Graeber