Easter Island – alive and well in Soho?
The April 1986 edition of World of Interiors has a feature headlined “Soho strip”. It’s written by Doris Saatchi, as Doris Lockhart then was, a New York-born writer and art connoisseur married to advertiser Charles Saatchi. There is a great portrait of her by Robert Mapplethorpe, though somewhat undermined for me by Red Dwarf – when I look at it I can’t help but think of Holly condescending to the inane spaceship crew…
The article describes a London flat rented by David (“Dave”) Cluff, a “perfectly ordinary young man” and graphic designer working nearby. Cluff had recently moved in, taken out the clutter and restored the “decrepit” Georgian residence, burning off paint to reveal wood but apparently retaining the original structure. Then he commissioned two men to paint the walls: “an art school drop-out and failed pop musician” Christos Tolera, and “a former fashion designer… [and] one of the original New Romantics”, Simon Withers. Cluff wanted “a mural with images related to Easter Island”. Which he got with spades – in fact, two murals.
What’s all this about?
By 1986 London clubber Christos Tolera had already sung in a band which signed up to Virgin, worked as a model and done some specialist decorating. The band, which didn’t last long, was named after Dave Brubeck’s astonishing composition, Blue Rondo à la Turk. Chris Sullivan has posted a nice bright remix of their most successful track, Me and Mr. Sanchez, which made it big in Brazil. Later Tolera finished a degree at the City & Guilds of London Art School, graduating in 2003. He has done some striking portraits, some of his recent work looking distinctly Hieronymus Bosch-like.
Simon Withers, like Chris Sullivan, was a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. Another active clubber, he’d helped design the emergent Spandau Ballet, and his name pops up in reminisces of Blitz, New Romantics and the early 80s London style scene. Christina @ Fashion’s Most Wanted posted a good interview with Tolera in 2010. “I kept getting asked to decorate people’s places”, he says, “and then Simon Withers and I created a business together. Simon used to work for Malcolm [McLaren] after he split up with Vivienne [Westwood]. We called it Rot Inc. But we ended up being called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”
When Christina asked Tolera about his interiors, he said they did quite a few clubs, the Galliano shop and, their last job before quitting, make-up artist Mary Greenwell’s residence (“I was living on the floor in someone’s attic”, says Tolera, “and we’d spent over £100,000 on Mary’s house. I just thought, I can’t do this anymore”). Along the way, they did “this amazing house in Soho that still exists, it’s been preserved. Doris Saatchi did a piece in World of Interiors about it.”
So there it is. If the murals are still there now, I’d love to hear from whoever lives in the flat. Meanwhile, what do we make of them?
In the magazine’s photos we can see trompe l’oeil peeling plaster, in the style of the murals, around three shelf-boxes that Duff has punched through a wall above a doorway; a bathroom wall painted and textured to look like antique plaster; and two Easter Island scenes. The larger scene, showing four statues, completely fills a living room wall. The smaller, apparently across the room on the opposite wall, covers a mantelpiece and frames the fireplace below (in the photo-spread at the top, you can also see a chair made “from a skeleton found in a Welsh bog”, and a human skull in the grate).
The only other photo I could find of these works, presumably supplied by Tolera, is in Christina’s blog (above). It shows a wider view of the fireplace, with one of the wall-openings in the corner (top left) and a ceiling painted to look a little like sunlight shining through branches. I’m guessing that perhaps the two men are Tolera and Withers, left and right.
Doris Saatchi tells us that when Cluff was nine years old, he was invited by a friend of his parents to help himself to a pile of books before they went off to the dump. He found a title about Easter Island. “As a child in Hertfordshire”, he said, “Easter Island seemed so far from my lifestyle that it stayed in my mind.”
I can identify with that. I was at school when I read Thor Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku, his page-turning story about exploring the south Pacific and Easter Island, which brazenly mixes adventure, archaeology, history and fantasy, with a bit of racial prejudice (as we called it then) and a lot of ego. It was one of the things that made me think it would be cool to be an archaeologist, and it left me determined that I too would one day visit the island – and maybe find my own stories.
Until quite recently there were few other books in English about Easter Island – the other popular one was also a translation, Alfred Métraux’s Easter Island: A Stone-age Civilization of the Pacific, published by Andre Deutsch in 1957. So I guessed that Cluff’s childhood find was also Aku-Aku. Perhaps it was. It was certainly the inspiration for the main mural.
The statues on the wall are based on photos in Heyerdahl’s book. Two of them show statues he had excavated out from the silts and slopewash around the edge of the quarry (he falsely claimed to be the first archaeologist to excavate on the island – that was Katherine Routledge, who also dug out some of the quarry statues). Note the abrupt colour changes in the stone, reflected in the paintings, which mark the soil level before excavation. The other two, I think, are based on further statues at the quarry, seen at centre and right in a double spread rising from sun-parched grass (I’ve flipped the image of the left statue, below).
Of the painting over the fireplace – which is what I assume Saatchi is describing when she refers to “the mural’s short fat figure” – she says Tolera and Withers “bumped into [it] … while doing research in the Museum of Mankind”. This would make sense. Heyerdahl was not excited by the island’s petroglyphs, which in their own way are as extraordinary as the statues, and his book has no photos resembling this mural. Katherine Routledge, however, photographed some “birdmen”, which appeared in her 1919 book and articles.
This photo is not an exact match for the mural, but it comes pretty close. Significantly, the pointed tips of the beaks of the photographed figures are concealed by a boulder. In the mural, the beaks are drawn with rounded ends, giving the figures an alien-like look. No beaks on Easter Island look like that, but the artists could well have imagined they did. Initially Cluff didn’t like them, he thought they were “too phallic”. But he was persuaded to keep them.
In one distinctive room, these paintings embody a brief era of early 1980s fashion-led art and music, with a whiff of south Pacific adventure, 1950s style. David Cluff should be proud of what he brought into being.
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Both statues and birdmen feature prominently in our study of Hoa Hakananai’a’, which I have written about here before, and is now completed. We have a handful of peer-reviewed papers about the research on the way. The first, about the statue and its carvings, has just been published in the Antiquaries Journal in “first view”. This paper is copyright Cambridge University Press/Society of Antiquaries of London.