Issue 66 / 67 - (Spring/Summer 2007)
Cyril Seaton: Saucy Surrealist or Fortunate Fantasist?
[fig 1 – Portrait of Cyril Seaton at age 21. Image from the Seaton Family Estate CSPH 0037]
It was George Melly who affectionately nicknamed Cyril Seaton ‘the sexy surrealist from naughty Nottingham’, on the occasion of the opening of the Ingenious Creator exhibition at Angel Row Gallery in 1997(1). I first encountered his work, in the learned company of Chris Lewis-Jones and Simon Withers, at la Galerie d’la Dentelle, in Lille, in 2000, whilst undertaking research into James Oldknow (2). Melly’s speech led me to believe that Seaton was an amorous surrealist who came from Nottingham, and that was all I knew. I was astonished therefore, to discover that Seaton was both well known and much admired by the artistic community of Lille, where, as in Zurich, people were more likely to associate the city of Nottingham with the legend of Cyril Seaton than that of Robin Hood!
Arthur Cyril Seaton was born in Sherwood Rise, then a well-to-do suburb of Nottingham, in 1898, first and only son of Cecil, a draftsman (who specialized in both architectural and textile design work), and Sadie, a part-time teacher who had been brought up amongst the genteel villas of Matlock Bath, where her father, David H. Man, was an instrument maker / repairer specialising in free-reed instruments such as accordions and harmoniums (it was from him that Sadie inherited her love of folk music, which she, in turn, passed on to Cyril). Although Cecil Seaton had hoped that his son would attend the Boys’ High School and go on to university, having failed the scholarship entrance exam, Cyril left school at 14 to become an apprentice lace pattern designer at the Oldknow’s Lace Mill in Saint Ann’s, in 1912.
Oldknow had also established factories in Lille in Northern France, and there was a good deal of traffic between the two cities. Many of the Nottingham workers holidayed in Lille (subsidised by the company) and a good few attended French language classes in order to enhance their enjoyment of these trips. By the age of 16, Seaton was fluent in French and having visited Lille on two occasions, was ‘eager to break the bonds of Nottingham’ (3) . World War One offered him the chance to do just that when, in September 1916, aged 18, he was conscripted into the Sherwood Foresters and billeted in Lille.
After very little in the way of basic training, Cyril found himself in the trenches at Verdun: terrified, traumatized and ‘angry beyond words’ (4)Like many of his comrades, Seaton suffered a nervous breakdown; unlike many of his comrades however, Seaton was offered (and very much benefited from) the ‘modern psychological therapy’ that was instigated by of a certain progressive Doktor Jung at the (now) famous Sanatorium at Jura. Whilst convalescing in Jura he also met - and became friends with - Seigfried Sassoon. Seaton and Sassoon developed a strong bond and it seems likely that they became lovers, though neither of them admitted to this (indeed, in a letter to Wilfred Owen, Sassoon strenuously denied it). Sassoon styled the ingénue’s hair whilst reciting poetry and Seaton himself began to write poetry, for the first time, as a result. Despite growing pacifist leanings, Sassoon was determined to return to the front; Seaton however, was equally determined never to return. On leaving the sanatorium in April 1917, he jumped train (on the outskirts of Aix-les-Baines) and made for the Swiss border.
[Fig 2 – Cyril Seaton with The Matter-Horn circa 1917. Image from the Seaton Family Estate CSPH 0124]
In Geneva, Cyril made contact with other deserters at the Café Negro, a popular haunt of anarchists, artists and bohemians. It was here that he was introduced to the enigmatic Jean Mutt, editor of ‘l’Anrachie’ magazine, who introduced Seaton to the ideas of Nietzsche, Bakunin, Bergson, Einstein, Heisenberg and Freud. He also told Seaton all about the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, which he had visited on several occasions. Inspired by the thought of creative revolt against art, against war and ‘the old order that created it’ (5), Seaton found his way to Zurich and, penniless and hungry, threw himself on the mercy of Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball, who, flattered by his enthusiasm, offered him temporary accommodation. Ball in particular was attracted to Seaton and (having grown up with ‘The Tales of Robin Hood’) referred to him as ‘cock Robin’. Although something of a beginner when it came to visual art, Seaton’s strong sense of design was appreciated by the group of militant anti-militarists who plotted to overthrow art and civilization in that most cultured of cantons. They produced posters, flyers and editions of poetry, many of which, we now know, were typeset by Seaton.
Although not exactly ‘a natural’, Seaton (after much encouragement) became a regular performer at the Cabaret Voltaire. Richard Huelsenbeck, who had acquired a large megaphone which he used for declaiming ‘sound poetry’, thought that this performing aid might empower the ‘reserved young Englishman’ to overcome his stage fright, so he gave it to him. The ‘reserved young Englishman’ surprised all of the visitors to the cabaret the following Saturday evening (including the young Kurt Schwitters) when he performed a spontaneous piece entitled ‘matterhorn’ (6). In addition to shouting down the megaphone, Seaton, dressed in Morris whites, danced a version of the ‘Mapperley May Hop’, which he had been taught at Carrington Primary School; this was probably Switzerland’s first and last exposure to English Morris dancing. The performance (7) was inspired by the Alpine landscapes that Seaton had come to love, Swiss and English folk dance, the physics of Heisenberg (hence the play on the word ‘matter’) and the physicality of the enormous megaphone itself. After this demanding performance, which was the talk of the town for several weeks, the megaphone became known as the ‘matter-horn’, and was used by Seaton on many occasions, including at the ‘Cabaret Cerise’ that was staged at the Bar d’la Dentille, in Lille, in 1926, where Seaton ended up after being thrown out of Switzerland (8).
For no more obvious reason than fate, Seaton seemed destined to live out the remainder of his life at Lille, the dull provincial town that, as a youth, he found so exotic. Aware that he’d ‘missed the boat’ with regard to marketing himself on the world art scene (he was as unknown in Paris as he was in his native Nottingham), he was content to remain a relatively large fish in the small pond that was Lille, where he played host to many distinguished artists and thinkers of the day, including D.H. Lawrence, René Magritte (who proclaimed that he had ‘converted Seaton to surrealism’), a very young (and deeply impressionable) George Melly and Evelyn Gibbs, founder of the Midland Group, who, like Marlene Dietrich, was ‘seduced by his cooking’.
[fig 3 – Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, 1929: Seaton is third on the left. Image from the Seaton Family Estate CSPH 0236]
Although he returned to Nottingham incognito on several occasions, and indeed, presented a night of cabaret (with help from Schwitters and Spanish exile Francis Picabia) at the ‘Malt Cross House of Mirth’ in St James Street in 1937, his bisexuality, his extravagant and dandyish style of dress, not to mention his penchant for opium washed down with absinthe, did not go down well with his lower middle class family or his ‘rough and ready’ drinking butties, and he was always eager to return to the Bohemian enclave that was Lille.
Seaton had, since his time in Zurich, been both an habitual drug user and a prodigious drinker. Following the death of his mother in 1938 his consumption of both alcohol and opium increased dramatically and it seemed likely that he wouldn’t last much longer. However, it was neither the opium nor the absinthe that was responsible for the hospitalization that signaled the end of his life in Lille. Schwitters and Huelsenbeck (who were fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany) had decided to arrange an exhibition of Seaton’s work as a surprise 40th birthday present. The exhibition of vitriolic, text-heavy collages, was to be opened by Marlene Dietrich, who had agreed to appear in full Lola Lola attire: black silk lingerie and little else.
Seaton, who had yearned for the intense camaraderie he had experienced at the Cabaret Voltaire during the First World War, especially since the growth of Nazism on his doorstep, was deeply touched by the presence of friends and comrades who had traveled from as far afield as Geneva, Zurich, Paris, Nottingham and ‘Brave Barcelona’ to be with him at the Gallerie d’la Dentelle. As he entered the gallery, the lights dimmed and Dietrich, who had been concealed behind a curtain, suddenly emerged, resplendent in her fetishistic kit. Seaton, a self confessed ‘sucker for silk’ (9), suffered a massive heart attack and very nearly died on the spot. What was to have been a cause for celebration became a cause for concern as Seaton was rushed to Lille General Hospital in an ambulance. It was feared that he would not survive but, much to the delight of the Dadas, he did.
Seaton was still convalescing when the Nazis goose-stepped into town. As a ‘degenerate artist’ whose collages had aroused the wrath of the Fuhrer himself, it was widely assumed that Seaton would soon be dispatched by Hitler’s henchmen. Indeed, Schwitters and Dietrich were led to believe by the French authorities that this was actually the fate that had already befallen him, but they were mistaken. We don’t know how or why, but, by the fall of 1940, Seaton had managed to find his way, via Casablanca, to San Francisco, where he was befriended by the nascent Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alfred Barr.
Seaton didn’t appear to produce any artwork in California and didn’t appear to want to either, devoting most of his energies to writing poems and selling chocolate: he seems to have been content earning a modest living as a travelling salesman for Herschel’s Chocolate Company. Seaton’s passion for (and access to) chocolate probably accounted for his dramatic weight gain during the post war years. Indeed, Jack Kerouac once described Seaton and Allen Ginsberg as the ‘two heavyweights of the Beat Movement’ (10). His final years, spent ‘sleepwalking between trailer parks, bars and bookshop readings’ (10) are even more shrouded in mystery than his time in Lille.
Mike Bowdidge (PhD student and Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University) unearthed evidence to suggest that Jackson Pollock had entertained an Englishman called Seaton at Springs, Long Island, in the Fall of 1947. Bowdidge is convinced that this Seaton was indeed our ‘sexy surrealist’. There was, predictably, no great meeting of minds and Seaton was thrown out of the house for suggesting that Pollock had ‘displayed a painting upside down.’ According to Chris Lewis-Jones (11), it seems likely that Seaton ended his days in a trailer park in San José, though Simon Withers is convinced that he also spent time in a trailer park in Los Gatos, where he finally ‘gave up on art because it had given up on me.’ (12).
Although Seaton had the knack of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ and was associated with some of the most significant artists and creative thinkers of the twentieth century, he was, clearly, more of a fantasist than an artist. His attraction to Dada was more an attraction to bohemianism than to art, and his attachment to the surrealist movement was by association rather than active participation; his legacy is, therefore, problematic. Rob Van Beek (former Secretary of Nottingham Contemporary Artists’ Network and Lecturer at The University of Nottingham) has suggested that the ‘mysterious English surrealist’ who succeeded Trotsky as the lover of Frida Kahlo was in fact Seaton, but there is no evidence to suggest that he ever visited Kahlo, or even Mexico, other than a reference to ‘that bastard Seaton who hangs around her studio’ in a note written to Diego Riveira by D H Lawrence (13).
Van Beek has also suggested that some of the collages attributed to Schwitters were almost certainly produced by Seaton, whereas one Nottingham journalist and editor (14) has gone so far as to question the very existence of Seaton, suggesting that, like that other legendary local hero Robin Hood, ‘Seaton is in fact a composite character’. Whatever the truth of the matter, the legacy, albeit gossamer-thin, is significant, as attested by the burgeoning Seaton Study Group (15). The enigma that is Cyril Seaton, the local lad who almost made good, will continue to delight, inspire and confound us.
Notes to the essay:
(1) Ingenious Creator was co-curated by Ruth Lewis-Jones and Monica Kinley.
(2) For more information on the founder of Oldknow’s Factory see the Oldknows website: www.oldknows.co.uk
(3) Letter to Evelyn Gibbs
(6) Matterhorn, translated by Jenny Elliot. It is astonishing that Seaton was able to deliver the entire performance in German, even though he had no apparent knowledge of the language prior to his arrival in Zurich barely three months previous! It is also astonishing to realise the extent to which this clumsy tirade plundered the work of Nietzsche and Blake and was itself plundered by the likes of Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Bob Geldof and Little Eva.
“Matter is all/Matter as spore/Matter in motion/Emotion commotion/Emotion commotion and locomotion/ Come on baby/ Do the locomotion/ Come on baby/ Light my fire/ Come on baby/ Catch a fire/or/ Catch a falling star/and/ put it in your pocket/ And see the world in a grain of sand/ and/ See the world/ and/ Free the world/ and/Feed the world/ And do they know it’s Christmas?/Poor World/Rich World/ Which world?/Your world…/Your…universe?/A relativistic universe?/In which space and time converge?/Skidding across the verge/Here on the sphere/a Hemisphere/Any sphere/Of intercourse/ I n t e r/c o u r s e/Coursing/Through the veins/Across the plains/And up the mountains/Where bars of chocolate thrust through cloud/And Tobler alone is/Avoiding the crowd/Man and super man/Man the super man/Man oh man/As/matter ejaculated from my mighty horn/meets the mighty white Matterhorn/To the strains of Strauss’s Alpine Dawn/So/ Why do I look forlorn?// Ay Up Mi’duck?/ Oh Fuck!”.
(7) Which, despite its clumsy instance on crude rhymes, actually inspired Schwitters to start writing and performing (real) sound poetry himself. The friendship between the two helped to bring Merz to the world and Dada to Nottingham.
(8) Although Seaton himself hinted at ‘relationship problems’ as the reason for his exile from Zurich, it is generally thought to have been a combination of debt and tax evasion that led to his deportation from Switzerland as an ‘undesirable alien’.
(9) Under the influence of Man Ray, Seaton had taken many photographs of women (friends and models) wearing exotic lingerie; these were stored in a cardboard shoebox, which he kept under his bed. In addition, he possessed a beautiful silk dressing gown, several silk ties and scarves, several pairs of silk socks and a collection of silk handkerchiefs. Seaton only ever used silk handkerchiefs, declaring in a letter to Evelyn Gibbs that ‘cotton is far too abrasive for my delicate nose’.
(10) In an interview recorded for the documentary ‘What happened to the slack in Kerouac?’ Directed by Roxanne Linklater and Louis McAdam.
(11) Chair of Oldknows Studio Group and co-organiser (with Simon Withers) of the Seaton Study Group Seminar held during the Nottingham Open Festival of Contemporary Art in 2006.
(12) This description, which is actually a quote from Neil Cassidy’s ‘Owning Up’, probably conjures up the seedy path that Seaton trod in the 1950s.
(13) A rather worn and not very convincing photocopy of which was produced by Van Beek at the seminar held at the Lace Market Photography Gallery during the Open Festival of Contemporary Art in 2006.
(14) Again, at the seminar held at the Lace Market Photography Gallery as part of Open Festival of Contemporary Art in October 2006.
(15) The Seaton Study Group was launched by Chris Lewis-Jones and Simon Withers (respectively Chair and Secretary of both Oldknows Studio Group and Nottingham Cabaret Collective) at the seminar (referred to above) in October 2006. The SSG has subsequently attracted members from as far afield as Ankara, Calais, Lille, Lincoln, London, Paris, Zurich, Mumbai, Mexico City, San Francisco, Syracuse, Samarkand, Tangier and Redditch. The launch event/seminar also included an installation/display of archive photographs and documents assembled and collated by Lewis-Jones and Withers, with assistance from fellow Seaton aficionados Fatima al Rashid and Mathew Letts.
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