Along with Edgar Blatt, the driving force behind the ill fated “To and Fro” was Simon Carnes (c1913-1966). He wrote a number of Revues in the 1930s, including “One of Those Things“(1934), ,“All’s Well” (1936) and “Back Your Fancy” (1938). He was also an actor and a set designer. Although primarily a lyricist he seems to have also done some composing and, unlikely as I find it, is credited with providing the music for the 1935 Fortune theatre production of Elmer Rice’s “Not For Children“. The Revues seem to have been generally well-received but they peter out at the end of the decade. Simon Carnes, like so many others, disappears from the records, a small footnote to theatrical history.
36 Wardour Street today – Carnes’ flat upstairs on the right (in the 1930s the Vietnamese restaurant was Mrs.Brown’s Little Tea Shop)
Except it wasn’t quite like that. Simon Carnes vanishes but Simon Fleet was born.Carnes had lived in Wardour Street (two minutes walk from Hugh Wade’s flat) throughout the 1930s and was evidently already something of a “character”. Tall, handsome, very much a dandy, he was taken up by some very influential friends.The two most important were probably Sophie Fedorovich and Lady Juliet Duff.
Sophie Fedorovich was a Russian-born artist who was part of the circle that included Barbara Ker-Seymer, Olivia Wyndham, Marty Mann and Lucy Norton. She was also very close to Frederick Ashton. Although a gifted painter, it is for her costume and set designs for the Ballet that she is best remembered. When she met Simon is uncertain – her name is on the programme for “To and Fro” so it is likely that they knew each other from the mid-thirties.
Costume Design by Sophie Fedorovich 1940
Equally significant was his relationship with Lady Juliet Duff, a socialite and patron of the Arts (particularly Ballet) to whom the adjective “extraordinary” is customarily applied. Lady Juliet was thirty years Carnes’ senior and he was to be what Viva King terms her “cavaliere servente” for many years. She provided Carnes with an income – he seems not to have been independently wealthy – and encouraged his transformation. He was a constant presence at her house and as a companion at the theatre. Sir Francis Rose (of whom more in a separate post) describes Simon in the early days of his alliance with Lady Duff.
David Herbert, Juliet Duff, Cyril Ritchard (of “To and Fro”), Madge Elliot and Michael Duff 1941
“Simon Carnes, as he was called then, drifted about the house quietly, politely, and with sufficient personal fantasy to make him the most pleasing of modern and youthful eccentrics.”
During the War Carnes (whose real name is something of a mystery – Nicky Haslam says he was originally Harry Carnes, while Viva King thinks it was Kahn) changed his name to Simon Fleet. He was in the Merchant Navy at the time. He also changed his appearance, thanks to an experiment with plastic surgery that left him with a rather snub-nosed look, and his profession – moving from the world of the stage to Antiques.
Lady Juliet Duff, the Lunts, Chips Channon – Simon Fleet sat on the ground (Photo by Cecil Beaton )
Starting off as a Portobello Road stallholder , he was to eventually become the saleroom correspondent for various Arts journals and the Observer’s antiques expert. His good taste was legendary and his 1961 book on the history of clocks is still regarded as a classic.
But it was his persona and distinctive companions for which he is most usually remembered. As Viva King recalled, “His house was made gay by his great variety of friends – high, middle or lower class. Simon brought gaiety to his world and one was lucky to know him.” These friends included Chips Channon, Cecil Beaton, Dickie Buckle and Oliver Messel. His appearance too, guaranteed that he was noticed. He had a fondness for thigh-length boots, which, in the 1950s, must have even caused Chelsea heads to turn.
The house in question was 22 Bury Walk. He had inherited this from Sophie Fedorovitch, who died there in 1953 – owing to a gas leak. It was known as the “Gothic Box” and was sumptuously and ornately decorated. Nicky Haslam, to whom Simon was an early mentor in all things stylish and sophisticated, devotes considerable space to affectionate reminiscences of the house and its owner in his autobiography Redeeming Features. Haslam, to me, represents the last link – through Simon – to the world of 1930s’ High Bohemia. See Nicky Haslam.
Apart from his writings on antiques, Fleet edited a tribute book to Sophie Fedorovich and an odd little booklet on Henry James at Rye. He befriended Lady Diana Cooper and appears to have had a similar relationship with her as with Juliet Duff. When the latter died in 1964 , she left him money in her will, a testament to their long friendshio. Thereafter he went into a serious emotional depression. His end was sad and undignified. Less than sober, he fell down the stairs at the Gothic Box and died as a consequence.
It would be interesting to know if Simon Fleet and Arthur Jeffress’ paths crossed. They certainly had mutual friends (Nicky Haslam knew both – but then again he has met everybody) both feature in Truman Capote’s letters ( but as with Haslam, ditto). The artist John Piper had correspondence with both men, but these seem strictly of a business character. Even so, it seems hard to imagine that two such flamboyant characters, both avid collectors, did not bump into each other at least once.
Sketches for the ballet by Sophie Fedorovich 1950 – donated to the V&A by Simon Fleet
One of the surprises for me since commencing this blog is the centrality of Ballet to any discussion of cultural life in C20th England. Starting with the impact of Diaghilev ( championed by both Juliet Duff and her mother), then the Ballet Rambert, through to the dancers and choreographers (Ashton, Tudor,Chappell) ,to the set and costume designers (Messel, Fedorovich,Burra) , the network that was created draws in a range of artists, Bright Young People, popular entertainers and West End socialites to an extent I had not begun to consider. I wish I knew more about the topic. A good starting point is Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Sir Frederick Ashton, Secret Muses but I feel the need to explore further – the reviews and critical writings of two of Simon Fleet’s friends Dickie Buckle (who gave the eulogy at his funeral) and Maude Lloyd (who danced in “To and Fro“) strike me as worth a look and I am going to hunt some of them down.
For the Revue To and Fro see http://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/to-and-fro-1936-hugh-wade-and-the-perils-of-the-topical-revue/