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The Art of Fencing by James Peel

24 December 2013

The façade was ordinary. A row of terraced houses near Hyde Park; a street that once contained its own smaller community: a greengrocer, wooden fruit and vegetable stands, a butcher – swing-doors, hanging carcasses, scattered sawdust on the floor.

A couple of steps led up to no. 44. The house was mausoleum and maze. It occupied part of the next-door building; joined, rearranged and rejoined again. Staircases would come to an end, closed off behind empty suitcases, doors hidden under wallpaper. The strong smell of furniture polish, dark wooden antiques and repeated references to swordsmanship.

A serpentine broadsword stood in an umbrella stand. Decorative ceremonial filigree and mother-of-pearl blades hung on walls next to prints of solemn men, facing off in the dawn, stripped to their white shirts; honour or death. A study full of fencing trophies and mementos from around the world. On bookshelves were rows of pipes and unopened pale blue packets of filterless Gauloises Caporal next to cut-glass ashtrays. Decorative damask, worn silk curtains, locked doors, Bakelite candlestick telephones, a sealed dumbwaiter and servant bells that no longer rang.

I am not a fencer, nor an expert in the tradition and craft of the sport. My early impressions were gained from the house, no. 44, in which my grandmother continued to live after my grandfather’s death. Her preservation of his belongings reflected a quiet belief that her late husband, who died in the house, still haunted us. For a brief time in my teens, I enjoyed the sport – its subtlety and measured aggression – and travelled to some school matches. I was curious and intimidated by this man I had never met – Charles-Louis de Beaumont – who as captain for many years of the British Fencing Team, stared out of the many group portraits hanging at no. 44. Charles competed for his country up until his early fifties, yet lost his best competitive years to the Second World War.

My interest as an artist has been in exploring forgotten histories and failed ambition. This has led to work related to migrant shipwrecks, relighting a Mersey estuary lighthouse with the names in Morse code of those who perished at sea aboard the Ocean Monarch; attempts to visualise the relationship between the scale and spectrum influenced by the ocular harpsichord of an 18th-century French Jesuit, Louis Caste; disappearing crossings between border communities along the Rio Grande; attempts to capture the memories of runaway brides in the Scottish Borders through the use of an Aeolian Harp; and recently, an exploration of the life of the Mexican-American revolutionary and early aviation enthusiast Victor Ochoa.

Would this interest in the overlooked and romantic have been possible without this childhood exposure to such a house? A house whose possessions also alluded to a noble French tradition, defections from the Jesuit order and other such family romances so concretely bound up in this imposing and lost environment?

Before the Iron Curtain fell, my grandmother would continue to host the party for her late husband’s Martini epée event. Soft-spoken men from the Eastern Bloc and friends of my late grandfather would gather at the house for dinner. My brother and I would open the door and listen to the different accents with excitement as we collected coats. We would occasionally be given mementos: enameled pins from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the USSR and East Germany.

We would attend the final and watch my grandmother present the prizes, before attending an after-party at the top of New Zealand House with its panoramic nighttime views over London. My brother Kit recalled the action: ‘the blistering speed, the crash of swords and the yell of triumph as the victor tore off his helmet and pumped it towards ecstatic countrymen’.

Following my grandmother’s death, no. 44 was gutted and restored to its original state as two buildings; we hope the new owners did not inherit Charles’s ghost.

Dedicated to my son, Magnus.

 

James Peel is a British artist living in New York.

  • 'Nude Males Fencing', a photograph taken from Eadweard Muybridge's 'Animal Locomotion', 1887 (Getty Images)
  • Charles de Beaumont, Oil portrait by A.D. Craig, 1958