Confessions of a Child of the Century

As an autobiographer, John Richardson has a great deal going for him. He has been in and around the international art world for many years. He can tell a story as well as anyone in town. If he has ever spent time with a bore, we don’t hear about it. In his fields of particular interest, which are nothing if not varied, he has been “everywhere” and known “everyone.” In person, he can summon up the look of a “most potent, grave and reverend signior,” only “to discard it in a flash when laughter looms.” Though currently best known for his ongoing and monumental life of Pablo Picasso, he has perfect pitch for the human comedy and no inhibitions whatever about setting it down in its every detail.

From “Army and Navy Child,” the opening chapter of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we learn that he was born in 1924, the son of a seventy-year-old father and a delightfully pretty woman half his father’s age. They had got together at a time when she was earning her living by retouching photographic portraits in the Army & Navy Stores. (Conceivably it is in part from his mother that John Richardson inherited his very sharp eye for a retouched work of art.)

The Army & Navy was at that time the best and biggest general store in London, and her suitor stood high in its echelons. Knighted by King Edward VII after long and distinguished service in the British army, Sir Wodehouse Richardson had been one of a group of twelve young subalterns who founded around 1870 what was to become a series of enormous and hugely profitable department stores at key points in the British Empire.

To shop at the Army & Navy, whether in London, in Bombay, in Calcutta, or in Aldershot, Plymouth, and Portsmouth (key centers in England for the British army and navy) was a badge of rectitude for many thousands of British families. It was the British world in miniature. Its catalog (a thousand pages and counting) was, as Richardson says, “the Bible of the British Raj.” The Army & Navy Stores could meet all your needs, from childhood onward, and when you died a coffin exactly your size would be waiting for you in the appropriate department.

As the first-born son of the vice-chairman of the Army & Navy Stores, John Richardson as a small boy had the run of the stores and was treated by the staff, as he says, “like a little prince.” (A framed photograph of him was hung in one of the elevators.) He was much loved by his father, and it was reasonable to suppose that he would inherit a major share in a business on which the British Empire had come to rely. How could it be otherwise, when his father had been entrusted during the South African Wars with the formidable responsibilities of the Quartermaster General? As such, he had sole responsibility for the quartering, encampment, marching, and equipment of his troops. A …

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