James Boswell

Le Sphinx


Not on display

James Boswell 1906–1971
Ink on paper
Support: 342 × 506 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 1982

Catalogue entry

T03460 LE SPHINX 1937

Black ink on paper 13 1/2 × 19 7/8 (342 × 506)
Not inscribed
Presented by Ruth Boswell 1982
Exh: James Boswell 1906–71 Drawings, Illustrations and Paintings, Nottingham University Art Gallery, November–December 1976 (66); Le Sphinx, The Workshop Gallery, October 1977 (no catalogue); Display to promote publication of portfolio of reproductions [see Repr. below], Liberty's, October–December 1977 (no catalogue); James Boswell 1906–1971, Royal College of Art, January 1978; [?] Paintings, drawings and prints by James Boswell Satirist, painter and illustrator 1906–1971, The Portico Library Gallery, Manchester, October–November 1978 (14–17, T03461 and three other [unspecified] drawings from the series were shown)
Repr: T03460, together with T03461 and three other drawings from the series [not in the Tate's collection], published by The Workshop, London, as a portfolio of lithographic reproductions in an edition of 500, 1977

The following entry is based on a letter received from Sally Shuel on 19 June 1986, containing answers to the compiler's questions put to Betty Boswell on his behalf, on a letter from Ruth Boswell dated 30 April 1986, and on conversations with Sally Shuel and Ruth Boswell on 19 June 1986 and 26 June 1986 respectively.

These three works [T03459, T03460, T03461] are part of a series of nine ‘Le Sphinx’ drawings which Boswell made in the summer of 1937. Le Sphinx was a celebrated Parisian brothel, located at 31 Boulevard Edgar Quinet in Montparnasse, which Brassai describes in The Secret Paris of the 30's (London, 1976). It flourished during the 1930s and was a favourite haunt of artists. Giacometti was a regular visitor and regarded it as ‘a place more marvellous than any other’ (quoted in James Lord, Giacometti, New York, 1985, p.78). His bronze sculpture, ‘Quatre Figurines sur Bas’ 1950 and 1965, represents ‘Several nude women seen at the “Sphinx”’ (letter from Giacometti to Pierre Matisse); there is a cast in the Tate's collection (T00773). Boswell visited Le Sphinx in the early part of 1937 and this experience directly inspired the drawings which were executed shortly after, in the artist's home at Charlbert Court, St John's Wood, London.

Exhibitions of the drawings have wrongly dated the works as having been completed in 1939. The evidence for the earlier date of 1937 and for their not having been made in situ, as previously thought, is as follows. From August 1936 until the time of his conscription into the army in January 1941, Boswell was Art Director for the publicity department of Asiatic Petroleum, later Shell (he also occupied the post for a brief period immediately after the war). His widow, Betty, recalls that Boswell visited Le Sphinx while on a short business trip to Paris. He was accompanied by a colleague who wanted to spend a night with a girl from Le Sphinx and they were both taken to the brothel by Boswell's opposite number in Paris. The approximate date of the trip can be established because Betty Boswell recalls that she was unable to accompany her husband as this would have involved bringing along their infant daughter, Sally, who had been born in July 1936 and was at that time only about eight months old. The visit must therefore have occurred around March 1937. Betty Boswell is certain that the drawings were made at Charlbert Court and the family had moved from their address at Haverstock Hill, Belsize Park, London, to Charlbert Court by May 1937 because there is a photograph of the Boswells' daughter, which is now in her possession, with this new address in the background; the photograph is annotated with this date. She vividly recollects the circumstance in which the drawings were made because ‘the occasion ... was so absurd’. Boswell required a model and Betty, of whom Boswell produced numerous drawings in the sketchbooks, remembers that she ‘sat, naked on a chair, feeding [Sally] mashed banana as [Sally] sat in a high chair, while Jim drew...’ Betty Boswell also remembers that, although she disliked the drawings because she ‘did not like his slight obsession with dwarfs’ (a dwarf who was a permanent inmate of Le Sphinx can be seen in two of the drawings not in the Tate's collection), she did not mind posing nude because the weather was warm on that occasion. This suggests that the time of year was summer. The results of this sitting are evident in T03459. Betty Boswell has identified herself as the dark haired female seated on the extreme right and also recognises her waist, hips, and legs in the light haired girl seated on a stool at the bar. In addition, in a ‘Le Sphinx’ drawing belonging to Ruth Boswell which depicts three prostitutes and a dwarf, Betty Boswell was the model for the girl on the left of the picture. The inscription on T03461: ‘Le Sphinx 4am’ refers, therefore, to a drawing which is intended to evoke the scene as it might have appeared at that time. It is not a record of the moment when the drawing was completed.

That Boswell did not produce the drawings while actually at Le Sphinx is suggested further by the fact that it was not until after the war that he adopted the practice of transporting larger sheets to make drawings out of the studio. Sally Shuel, Boswell's daughter, has stated that it was ‘not until very much later in life [that her father] had access to a car [and] used to draw on Ingres, on sheets about 12 × 16 [inches] or so which he would carry in a small portfolio which doubled as a drawing board-this was when we went on holiday - it all had to fit into the suitcase’. She remembers, however, that it was Boswell's invariable habit to carry a small sketchbook with him. It is possible, therefore, that Boswell could have made some smaller sketches during his visit to Le Sphinx but, if these exist, their whereabouts is not known. Three small ‘Le Sphinx’ drawings do exist in a sketchbook (Tate Gallery Archive, 8224.9, pp.24, 25, 26) but a sketch of Sally, aged about three years, in the same book indicates that these drawings must have been made around 1939 (Sally Shuel has stated that Boswell would normally have kept only one sketchbook in use at any one time and these would not therefore be filled with work from different periods). As it is known that Boswell made another visit to Paris in 1939, this would account for the sketchbook material and also a small (10 1/2 × 16 3/4) ‘Le Sphinx’ drawing of two prostitutes and a dwarf on pink paper, now in the possession of Ruth Boswell. The style of these drawings is characterised by a feathery line technique and differs from the larger drawings which have been drawn with a broad tipped reed and are bolder in execution. The drawing on pink paper is the only ‘Le Sphinx’ drawing to be signed and dated 1939 and has been thought, incorrectly, to have been completed at the same time as the series to which the Tate's three drawings belong.

There is a drawing on the verso of T03461 of what appears to be one girl in three different stages of undress. The largest figure is completely nude. Sally Shuel has suggested that this side of the paper was used in the first instance, and the other side used on a subsequent occasion for ‘Le Sphinx 4am’, because of shortage of materials at that time; realising the success of this second drawing, Boswell went on to complete the other eight drawings in the series. A standing nude in a sketchbook 1939–40 (Tate Gallery Archive, 8224.11, p.10), closely resembles the nude on the verso of T03461 but Boswell made numerous drawings of this type and there is no evidence of any connection with Le Sphinx.

Le Sphinx opened around 1930. Brassai described the opening as follows:

Hundreds of artists had been invited, and the champagne flowed like water. The main salon was like a café, but in the background, under a waterfall, was a glittering statue of a golden sphinx - the only luxury in the bordello. For this house broke with the usual tradition: heavy curtains, red velvet sofas, walls covered with fabrics ... At the Sphinx, everything was enamelled, waxed, white, clean, functional, hygienic. It was like an operating room. There was another innovation: the men could bring their wives and children. Going to the Sphinx was like a family outing. The little boys would stare wide-eyed at the Sylphs offering their charms, weaving stark naked in and out among the tables. A foretaste of the sex education of the future. For these children, the mystery had gone out of the huge numerals, the closed shutters. Woman, before they reached puberty. There were other bordellos that welcomed couples, who came out of curiosity and didn't go upstairs. And sometimes drinks at these houses were more profitable than tricks (The Secret Paris of the 30's, London, 1976, n.p.)

Drawing on client's reminiscences, Ruth Boswell records that:

It attracted a wide public - artists, writers and businessmen. For students it acted as a kind of initiation rite

People often dropped in for only a drink and a chat. A girl might sit down on a neighbouring stool, asking permission first, but she soon moved away if told 'J'attends ma régulière. Indeed so discreet were they that it was not unusual for men to bring their wives. The standard procedure then was for a girl to ask: ‘May I speak to your husband?’ Permission granted, the couple went upstairs to the bedroom on the next floor, in a lift that was considered a great luxury.

The decor was respectable, like that of a good provincial hotel, the atmosphere one of genteel respectability. One client describes ‘Le Sphinx’ as being more like a Lyons tea-house than a brothel, with the girls good-natured, wholesome and exceedingly pretty.

The dwarf in the drawings was a permanent inmate who would fetch and carry for the girls, and amuse them when business was slack. They, in turn, treated him as a pet.

One visitor from 1936 remembers seeing purses being suspended over private parts, which seems wonderfully appropriate, another mentions light cloaks over bare breasts (text accompanying portfolio of five lithographs, 1977).

‘Le Sphinx’ closed in 1946.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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