Two of Soho’s most legendary characters have been spotted again in the vicinity.
Romantic writer Thomas De Quincey and his tragic consort – a sex-worker known
to posterity as ‘Ann of Oxford Street’ – are on display in a shadowy W1 side-street,
close to the area’s red-light district.
The artist Julie Goldsmith, Member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors,
has created a tribute to their story and to Soho’s history. She has made imaginary
portraits of the 17-year-old De Quincey and the 15-year-old waif whom he
claimed saved his life.
The works are part of a solo exhibition called Soho Faery hosted by rare book dealers
and literary cocktail bar The Society Club. Most of the works are housed inside the club
but a few – including Thomas and Ann – are on show in the adjoining Door, London’s
smallest art gallery.
As Soho is renowned as a vice zone, De Quincey and Ann seem to embody the spirit
of the place, one a drug addict, the other a prostitute. But the relationship had an innocence that has proved captivating. In 1802, De Quincey was not yet an ‘opium-eater’, merely a runaway schoolboy roughing it in the capital, hungry and homeless, nocturnal denizen of a derelict townhouse on Greek Street.
Recounting the friendship in his famous 1821 memoir Confessions of an English
Opium-Eater, his tone is very much ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. It was a brotherly
sisterly passion. Anyway, he insinuates to readers, he could not have afforded Ann’s services. At their final parting in Golden Square there was much hugging and kissing and tears. Though they expected to meet again after De Quincey returned to London from
a short sojourn away, they never did. She didn’t turn up at their Oxford Street rendezvous,
and he had no luck trying to trace her address, or finding her among the crowd on the
“great Mediterranean of Oxford Street”.
The artist – a ceramicist and sculptor – has painted her miniature portraits onto clay, glazed them in a kiln, and mounted them in 19th century gilt-edged frames.
Goldsmith’s image of the young man, who was from a well-to-do Manchester family,
is baby-faced – but with bat-winged shoulders – perhaps suggestive of the gothic horrors
to come. The historian and critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, saw De Quincey as flying like “a bat on the wings of prose… to the true poetic region”. Physically, De Quincey was less than five feet tall, a leprechaun of a man, but a giant of letters. His biographer Frances Wilson sees him as a Peter Pan figure who never grew up.
Goldsmith’s Ann is very modern and sultry, dark-haired and dark-eyed. You could imagine her as a Soho ‘model’ and/or as a ‘goth’ having a drink at the Intrepid Fox in its heyday. Her melancholy is not masked by heavily made-up eyes, one partially hidden, or her sexual allure.
De Quincey offered no physical description of Ann in his memoir. Her surname is unknown and she is thought to have died of TB. They met on Oxford Street, both streetwalkers, flaneur and kerb-crawler. Once, when he had fallen gravely ill on a doorstep in Soho Square, she ran to a nearby shop and bought him a reviving drink of spiced port. Had she not done so, he would not have lived to write his classic tale.
The Society Club – a supporter of pressure group The English Collective of Prostitutes –
has also commissioned a walk by the Irish poet Niall McDevitt. A Walk in Soho
with Thomas De Quincey takes place this Saturday 14 January, meeting 3pm at The Society Club, Ingestre Place, W1F OJF.
There is no permanent monument to De Quincey and Ann in Soho. Don’t miss this passing homage.