Max Beerbohm and ‘Tubby’ Clayton

Idle in the lockdown, I did a bit of exploring in Ebay, a site where I’ve not ventured much recently. I bought myself this print, a drawing of Rev. P.B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton by Max Beerbohm, one of a set of lithographs of current notables that Max drew for the Spectator in 1931.

I have a small collection of Beerbohm prints (with a display of his caricatures from Vanity Fair in our dining room, and a few from The Poets’ Corner scattered around the house) and copies of almost all of his books. I’m mostly a haphazard collector of things, but Beerbohm is one of the few authors and artists for whom i’d like to be a completist.

But what I want to ask is – why ‘Tubby’ Clayton? I can’t think of anyone less like Max, a non-religious aesthete who avoided all kinds of earnestness, than Clayton, the humane padre who was the moving spirit behind Toc H (Talbot House) the building in Poperinghe that offered teetotal rest and relaxation to soldiers. There was a chapel upstairs, but soldiers were under no pressure to visit it. It was a place where they could sit, chat and write letters (without the distractions and temptations found in the bars and brothels that were the other main attractions in Poperinghe.)

The other pictures in the Spectator set are a mixed bunch. Probably the best is this one of ‘H.G. Wells foreseeing things’.

He’s dreaming pleasantly of the future, by the light of a rather old-fashioned looking lamp attachment. It’s rather sweet, even though it puts Wells in his place very definitely. There are some rather straightforward ones of journalists and politicians (J.L Garvin, Lord Cecil) and a wistful-looking portrait of John Masefield. I like very much Beerbohm’s picture of his friend Siegfried Sassoon, looking gangly and awkward, and having trouble fitting into the picture frame.

Politicians and writers are standard subjects for Beerbohm, but in this set he includes two clergymen. One is Dean Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s, a celebrity in his day, and a journalist whose pessimism could be ferocious (‘Civilization is a disease which is almost invariably fatal.’). Beerbohm makes him look rather sinister. The other is Clayton.

His original Toc H had expanded during the twenties to become a network of several hundred servicemen’s clubs throughout the Empire. In 1931 the original Toc H building in Poperinghe was re-opened as a mixture of museum and guest-house for battlefield tourists. Perhaps this event had put Clayton back in the news, At the time he was a vicar in the East End, and campaigned on social issues.

(By the way, I gather that the Poperinghe Toc H is in financial difficulties at the moment, because of the coronavirus. There’s an article about it here.)

Yet Clayton, though well-known, still seems an unlikely subject for Max Beerbohm, who specialised in neatly (and usually subtly) depicting the vanities of the self-important (literary and political). Perhaps it was Clayton’s lack of vanity that drew him to him. This seems to me to be a charming portrait of an unpretentious and good man who put himself at service of others.

Toc H was once a power in the land, well-known everywhere. It even became proverbial. From the early days of my teaching career I remember a deputy head of the old school dismissing one of the less intellectually endowed students as ‘dim as a Toc H lamp’.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    As always, you give us good stuff to read, re-read and then think about and [maybe] follow up.

    Thank you!

  2. Posted April 25, 2020 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this insight into a little-known corner of British history. I’m fascinated by what we can learn of our past from what is sometimes wrongly dismissed as ephemera.


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