I am determined to live my life, to drain its cup to the very dregs, to live each day, each hour, feverishly perhaps just now – I am absolutely ravenous for Life: what I do matters not so very much, as long as I live!
– Peter Warlock
British composer Peter Warlock was born, magnificently, in London’s Savoy Hotel under the fractionally less magnificent birth name Philip Heseltine, in 1894. His father was an affluent solicitor who died when Philip was only two years old and the boy had a close, at times claustrophobic relationship with his mother.
Young Philip evinced an early and intense interest for music. While still at Eton he conceived something close to a mania for the music of Frederick Delius, and through his mother met the composer. Although his passion for Delius would cool, partly replaced by another for Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren, they remained long-term friends – an impressive achievement given the burn rate of Warlock’s associates.
Warlock’s enthusiasms were as tempestuous as his disdain, and the flip side of that antsy vitality of the opening quote was the crippling despair to which he would periodically succumb. He conducted vituperative public feuds, writing obscene limericks about his enemies which he at one stage anthologised on a toilet roll.
In 1915, Warlock contrived to meet D.H. Lawrence, only to break with him the following year. The ensuing rift brought out each man’s scatological qualities. “Heseltine ought to be flushed down a sewer,” said Lawrence, “for he is a simple shit”. Warlock, meanwhile, used an original Lawrence manuscript as toilet paper. He sued Lawrence over his thinly-veiled appearance as Halliday in Women in Love, winning an out-of-court settlement.
Philip Heseltine first used his most famous pseudonym in an article about Eugene Goossens in 1916 (another of his many handles was Roger A. Ramsbottom; his humour remained arrested in adolescence). The name Peter Warlock was evidently chosen more or less at random, although it offered a premonition of his later interest in the occult. It was also a useful identity for the Bohemian existence he was by now pursuing (contemporaries used the pseudonym and birth name interchangeably; I refer to him here, as posterity generally does, as Warlock).
Bohemian chatter has Warlock stripping off in Piccadilly Circus, tearing naked through quiet village lanes on his motorbike, or conducting what British tabloids inevitably refer to as “three-in-a-bed romps”. He shared a “queer barn-like studio” in Battersea with writer and composer Cecil Gray and frequented the Café Royal, inevitably coming under the influence of Augustus John. There he met ‘Puma’ – Minnie Lucy Channing, a beautiful artist’s model – whom he would later marry. Virginia Nicholson claims in Among the Bohemians that his table “was always a magnet to those who found his ribaldry and invective entertaining.” Typically, Warlock turned on his onetime local, later describing the Royal as “the very vortex of the cesspool of corruption”.
Warlock’s early career was erratic. Nancy Cunard’s mother got him a job as a music critic at the Daily Mail in 1915, where he worked for only four months. Oppressed by London and fearing that his previous exemption from the draft would be reviewed, Warlock left for Ireland with Puma in 1917. By that time the two had had a son, Nigel, but gave him away.
Poverty forced Warlock to retreat to his family’s house in Wales, a humiliation which nonetheless found him composing prolifically. He was also deepening his interest in the occult which had emerged in Ireland. Augustus John reports that on a visit to a Norfolk church, Warlock had light-heartedly suggested sacrificing his mistress Barbara Peache, whereupon the building was struck by lightning. Warlock was influenced by Aleister Crowley and maintained a friendship with Victor Neuberg, Crowley’s hapless, traumatised disciple.
Warlock returned to London to edit a music journal, The Sackbut, an exercise which ended predictably in rancour and recriminations. He spent much of the second half of the 1920s in a cottage in Eynsford, Kent with a regular stream of visitors including Nina Hamnett, Constant Lambert and Lord Berners. A regular Sunday ritual saw guests conducting a program of sea shanties and other off-colour musical offerings directed at the nearby church, followed by Olympian drinking bouts. Their excesses even bested Nina Hamnett, a woman who – God knows – could hold her drink. On one such occasion she simply face planted and passed out. For Warlock, wild exultation alternated with crippling depressions, and his workflow followed a similar pattern of total absorption or utter inertia.
It was the latter which won out in the end. On this day in 1930, Warlock died in Chelsea’s Tite Street, just two doors down from Oscar Wilde’s London home, succumbing to a gas leak. He was only 36 years old. The subsequent inquest returned an open verdict, but various clues point to suicide: Warlock had already spoken of taking his own life, revised his will shortly before his death, took care to put the cat out before retiring on the night in question.
Warlock left more than his music behind. Seven months after his death one of his mistresses, Jessica Goldblatt, gave birth to a son. That boy grew up to be one of Britain’s most high-profile art critics, Brian Sewell. Over 12 years ago he was dropping clues to his father’s identity which would have been unmistakable to anyone familiar with Warlock’s story. But it was only with the recent publication of his autobiography, Outsider, that he revealed his father’s name (along with accounts of queer sexual abandon to rival Edmund White’s City Boy).
Sewell’s extraordinary voice, a kind of exasperated, beyond-posh bray apparently instilled by his mother, is a long-running meme in Britain. But the similarities with his father – critical incivility, sexual incontinence and manic depression – are even stronger.
Of course it’s unfair to reduce any artist to the sum of his eccentricities. I can claim no detailed knowledge of Warlock’s oeuvre but would humbly suggest two pieces as a starting point if you would like to explore further. The first is The Curlew, an intensely melancholic setting of four Yeats poems. And to bring you back from the brink, a far more uplifting and seasonally appropriate work.