In the old Blake manor house on the west coast of Ireland, W B Yeats was reciting a poem to a small but rapt audience. The recital took place in the long library panelled from shipwrecks and pungent from peat smoke from a flickering fire. Suddenly a door next to the fire unexpectedly opened to reveal an empty passage. Yeats waved an elegant hand, interrupting his poem with ‘Leave it alone. It will go away as it came’ continuing his recital without missing a beat.
Evan Morgan was one of the guests and was thrilled to hear about a reputedly haunted room in the house, bare of furniture because of poltergeist activity and kept permanently locked. Having just been received into the Church of Rome and in possession of a relic, he told all there that deliverance was at hand. He would exorcise the room. Within moments the room filled with a thick mist and Evan was forced to the ground, writhing and rubbing his eyes. When he came to, Evan described the ghost of a pale faced boy with large luminous eyes, dressed in brown who was strangling himself. In Evan’s words, “I went down into the private hell of that poor boy! I have never known such mental agony! Hand me my Catullus, I won’t be coming down to dinner.” An anti-climactic closing sentence perhaps.
Yeats and his mediumistic wife held a séance in the room and confirmed Evan’s vision when she ‘conjured’ up a pale red-haired boy of about fourteen and learnt that he was a past member of the Blake family. Records show that an Ethelred Henry Blake died aged fourteen 1824-1838.*
The story is recounted in William Cross’s latest book on Evan Morgan, and I’m grateful for that story alone. The book is alive with similar anecdotes, in fact it’s the purpose of the book, which is packed with stunningly evocative photos and accounts of Evan from those who fed on his profligacy. His house parties were legendary, and the estate was largely bankrupt when he died in 1949 aged fifty-five.
Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino 1881 - 1957 Italian heiress soul mate of Evan. She lived in a world of Belladonna and opium, wore leopard skin dresses, cradled exotic snakes and lead a live leopard on the leash: 'More a work of art than a human being.'
A short life but packed with incident, and William Cross, the indefatigable truffle hound of aristocratic minutiae has a rich seam to mine from gossip, diaries and letters recording encounters with the flawed but deeply generous Evan Morgan:
‘The most extraordinary house I have ever stayed at . . . belonged to Lord Tredegar, down in South Wales. He was a papal count of some sort and lived surrounded exclusively by Great Danes and handsome men-servants . . .He really was an extraordinary fellow with altars all over the house and somewhat terrifying interest in black magic’ John, Duke of Bedford
‘Evan was a showman, whether as a papal chamberlain wearing gorgeous robes in Westminster Cathedral or ordering drinks all round in an East End pub if he was in a good mood. His moods, however, swung dramatically, especially after he had enjoyed sex-and-whipping sessions (with soldiers and sailors he’d picked up) after which he had to have his period of sackcloth and ashes before a bloodied crucifix.’ Robyn Bryans ‘The Dust Has Never Settled’ Honeyford Press 1992
‘Evan loved to tell a story about Julian Huxley falling in love and telling his wife that he was going away with the woman. He had arranged to meet her at the Café Royal – but had lain down for a nap in his study, removing his false teeth. His wife tiptoed in and took them and buried them in the garden. And that was the end, not of the marriage, but the romance.’
Julian Huxley as a houseguest of Evan was embroiled in conversation with his host when a footman rushed in to tell him that a pet baboon had escaped and gone wild. “Evan merely said to me: ‘You know about animals, come along,’ picked up a torch, and off we went. The baboon was certainly alarming, snarling and showing its teeth. But we coaxed it into a corner and Evan caressed it until it calmed down. And so, we returned, the baboon in excited nakedness, perching on Evan’s dinner-jacketed shoulder and contentedly munching a carnation it had snatched from his button-hole.”
Maybe, in a hundred years’ time, a similarly lavishly produced book will recount the activities of current half-dressed celebs, but none will possess the enigmatic quality of the black and white photographs that seem to capture the soul of those portrayed.
The book is a must for the ‘completist’ and an excellent ‘dip into’ for those fascinated by the seedy glamour of a past world**
*The house was burned down by the IRA and rebuilt as a hotel. The haunted room is currently a bathroom.
** Rich in sources and footnotes. Those addicted to google will be led down a rabbit hole leading to a maze you might never escape from. The book may be slim. The exploration is endless.