Quentin Crisp in New York City (1992) Photograph courtesy of Ross B. Lewis (Private correspondence) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Author Nigel Kelly has said of Quentin Crisp that if he had not been born 'it is certain that no one could have invented or even imagined him. (Even if they had, they wouldn't have had the nerve to tell anyone!)'.
Many would say that Quentin should have maintained a low profile and kept out of the mainstream public eye, which might have been the case had he not written 'The Naked Civil Servant' in 1968: this resulted from a radio interview, which probably explains why the book is episodic and lacking on detail. It was not a commercial success at the time but its potential was realised and eventually, in 1975, the eponymous Thames Television film, starring John Hurt, hit our living-rooms, ensuring that Quentin would remain in the spotlight for the rest of his life. It was a brave film for the time, but done in such a way that the viewer was drawn into the story of this very effeminate man struggling to survive in a world where even private homosexual acts were illegal until 1967 (or 1980 and 1982 respectively if you happened to live in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Unlike many in that era, Quentin 'came out' and paraded his homosexuality, suffering greatly for it over and over again.
This is not a biography of Quentin Crisp from cradle to grave, since his adult years in London and elsewhere are well documented in other places and I will leave him at the point when he left home for good to make it on his own.
The story of Quentin's early years is a common one - the respectable professional family, the aloof, disapproving father, the doting mother, being sent to schools which would hopefully make a man of him …
Quentin was born in Carshalton as Denis Charles Pratt on Christmas Day 1908. His father, Spencer Charles Pratt (born 1871), was a solicitor and his mother, Frances Marion (nee Phillips, born 1873), had been a governess before their marriage in 1899.
There was clearly no major money in the background of this family. Frances' father had been a hop salesman and Spencer's father, also Spencer, although grandly described at one point as a sugar manufacturer, was an employee in the sugar trade, who died in 1901 leaving effects of just £413. However, with Spencer Charles being a solicitor, one would have expected the family position to improve considerably, but that was not the case. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he is described as 'feckless and frequently insolvent'. There being no comfortable family law firm to fall back on, Spencer had to make his own way.
There were four Pratt children, Denis being the last. The others were Katherine Phyllis (born 1901 Herne Hill), Gerald Spencer (1902 Bromley) and Lewis Henry (1907 Sutton).
Denis, as he still was until he left home for good, was an awful child by his own admission. Even allowing for the fact that his narrative may well be laced with artistic licence, it is obvious that he was highly unusual. He would have us believe that, because he contracted pneumonia as a baby and was mollycoddled until fully recovered, the fact that his mother did not then wrap him in cotton wool forever (although she tried her best, but did not have an entirely free hand in the matter) was largely responsible for his appalling, attention-seeking behaviour as a boy. He wasn't a nice child, but then he had a lot of issues and he was unable to fit in anywhere.
Had the Pratts been very much richer than they were, and/or had Denis been more beautiful than he was, he might have managed to while away his days in hedonistic luxury like his near-contemporary Stephen Tennant, son of Lord Glenconner: alternatively, if he had possessed a definite talent he could have risen above his origins like Ivor Novello (originally David Davies, son of a rent collector) or Sir Noel Coward, Teddington-born son of a sometime commercial traveller in pianofortes.
During the very early Denis years the Pratts had servants and governesses and lived quite well. This was an illusion, as the lifestyle was financed by debt, with the sole purpose of keeping up with the Joneses. As he said in his book, there had been bailiffs at Carshalton even before he was born, hence a move to Sutton. 'It was not until many years later … that I realised how much cheaper it was to drag the Joneses down to my level.'
Quentin does not say much about his childhood in 'The Naked Civil Servant', but his governesses at home must have experienced a very hard time, since he had tantrums, cried, vomited, had 'accidents' (in the toilet sense) and generally did anything he could to get attention. Mr Pratt seems to have tried to ignore it all ('my father did not like me'). Quentin said that Spencer was very fastidious and gave the example that he ate bananas with a knife and fork.
The chronology of the book is not all that clear but at some point Mrs Pratt gave permission for Denis to act in his brothers' school play: he was cast as a fairy and wore a wreath of roses with a dress of green tulle. This was more likely to be a practical casting matter than nascent transvestism. However, the director clearly had subversive ideas - 'a down-and- out actor who showed the children photographs of himself wearing nothing but a bunch of grapes'. Katherine subsequently spotted the man at Sutton station being led away in handcuffs.
Young Denis was rather taken by putting on a performance and would stage his own productions at home, where the servants were obliged to applaud obediently. However, when he was seven the Pratts were forced to move to a smaller abode in the same street and there were no servants. He had no friends who were boys, since they wanted to fight, so instead he would play dressing-up games with girls. And the family moved again about three years later, to 11 Ashdown Road, Epsom, then called Wanganui, probably because a previous resident (Mr Arthur Johnson) had spent time in New Zealand.
The Pratts then had the idea of sending Denis to a private school in Epsom, which seems to have been a fairly small and undistinguished establishment at that point, but it was soon to expand.
Kingswood House School
Kingswood House School was founded in 1899 at premises in Randolph Road, Epsom by former Epsom College master Albert Golding Essery (1867-1937). Mr Essery was from Kingswood, Bristol, which is presumably how the school acquired its name. At some point between 1901 and 1911 the establishment moved to Ashley Road and Mr Essery, although still owning property in Epsom, apparently decamped to indulge his passion for Liberal politics. In the 1911 electoral register, for example, he was listed as owning four local properties but his address was given as the Liberal Offices, Truro. The school head at this point was one Henry Wilson from Killybegs in Donegal, assisted by a young Bristol man named William Carl.
By the time young Denis Pratt was sent to Kingswood House it had relocated to West Hill under the leadership of the Reverend Kenneth Graham Sandberg, who had taken over the school in 1919. One imagines that he did not think it was particularly viable in its Ashley Road premises and I am sure he was right, as the school is still thriving at West Hill and credits its success to the vision of Mr Sandberg (he moved on to Parkside School, then in Ewell and now in Stoke D'Abernon).
1919 prizegiving at Kingswood House when it was still in Ashley Road. The clergyman is probably Mr Sandberg. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
Kingswood House School in West Hill Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
Quentin does not have much to say about Kingswood House, other than the fact that he was unhappy. We have a picture of him (the master in the centre is presumed to be Mr Sandberg) and to my way of thinking he does look different from most of the others, unsmiling, with his cap as far down over his face as he can get it, tie straight and neat blazer.
Kingswood House School Group photo with arrow pointing to Denis Pratt (Quentin Crisp) Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
His eventual stratagem for getting through school was to keep as low a profile as possible until it was over. He said, 'At home I managed to make my life miserable more or less unaided. At school this was done for me. Teachers could not refrain from scoring off me as soon as they perceived I had no armour. When some of the pupils had gone into Sutton to take a music examination, I happened to be the last to come back into the school. The headmistress asked me if I thought that I had passed. I replied that I did - that the exam had been quite easy. There was a roar of laughter from everyone. Only then did I realise that I ought, as a formality, to have said the exam was difficult'.
'Finding myself the constant object of amused attention was hateful to me, yet I don't remember feeling the slightest embarrassment on arriving from time to time at school with my upper half awash with tears and my lower half dripping with excrement.'
Having completed his time at Kingswood House, Denis won a 'very poor scholarship' to a boarding school on the borders of Derbyshire and Staffordshire: this was Denstone College, founded by Nathaniel Woodard, another establishment which still thrives today. The schools mentioned above, along with many others, were originally the answer to the problem whereby a limited education was provided for poor children and the offspring of very rich families were either educated at home by tutors or sent to places such as Eton and Harrow, but there was nothing for those in between. As Woodard once said, '…till the Church educates and trains up the middle classes, she can never effectually educate the poor'.
It would be easy to say that Denis fell through the cracks of education, but he was not stupid and he wrote well enough, so he must have derived some benefit from these schools, albeit that he hated them. He says of Denstone that it 'was on the top of a hill so that God could see everything that went on. It looked like a cross between a prison and a church and it was'.
Perhaps surprisingly, he was good at school work and exams, but only because he learned by rote. 'It slowly dawned on the staff that that they had spread their brooding pinions over a boy who had no more than a crossword-puzzle mentality. I was the opposite of a chimpanzee. I could memorise but I could not infer results from causes.' Still, he survived and conceded that 'I hated school but it was as well that I went there. It provided a dress rehearsal for the treatment that I was to receive in the streets of London in a few years' time'.
During Denis's last term at school Mr Pratt had written desperately to his classics master asking what was to be done with the boy. The master suggested journalism.
So, he was now eighteen, qualified for nothing and back at home (now London), feeling that he was a sexual enigma and inadequate to earn a living. Following the advice of the classics master, the Pratts sent him to London University to take a two-year course in journalism; he knew this would not be successful but thought that he would at least be spared having to work for a while. With hindsight, he wished that he had confided the truth about his sexuality in his mother's friend, Mrs Longhurst, who would probably not have been shocked. The mere fact that she was a friend of Mrs Pratt tells us that there was more to Mrs Pratt than met the eye and that she was probably very ill-suited to Mr Pratt.
Quentin says that Mrs Longhurst was his first glimpse of the 'vie de boheme' - 'a big striding strident person of about forty. By profession she was a stewardess and sometimes a portrait model. She lived in Charlotte Street in a room whose walls were covered in African knives.' Mrs Cicely Ermyntrude Longhurst was in fact the widow of landscape painter Joseph Longhurst, who had died at an early age in 1922, leaving her with a young son.
'Mrs Longhurst's attitude to homosexuality, as to most things, was a mocking curiosity but she was never savage. The rest of the world in which I lived was still stumbling about in search of a weapon with which to exterminate this monster whose shape and size were not yet known or even guessed at. It was thought to be Greek in origin, smaller than socialism but more deadly - especially to children.'
Denis did not manage to get his diploma in journalism, so he sat at home 'getting on his parents' nerves'. Mrs Pratt thought he might be ill so sent him to a doctor, who said he needed a lesson in life: this annoyed Mr Pratt who did not consider the opinion worth the fee.
By night Denis was leading a gay life in London at 7s.6d (37.5 pence) a time, frequenting a dodgy coffee bar called Le Chat Noir/The Black Cat in Old Compton Street, Soho, but officially he was living at home on pocket money of half a crown (12.5 pence) per week. He said he disliked the coarseness of the nocturnal encounters. So, he would leave the parental flat in Battersea in his normal guise and then dash to a public toilet to put on his make-up. His appearance grew progressively more startling, to the extent that men ceased to proposition him because they found it too risky or distasteful.
Mrs Pratt disliked the flat, which she found sunless, and persuaded her husband to buy a house near High Wycombe. Denis went with them for want of anywhere else to go. His siblings had left the nest (Katherine was married to a clergyman and the other boys were abroad or about to go abroad). Mrs Pratt talked him into enrolling in art school at High Wycombe.
'My father hated me, chiefly because I was revolting but also because I was expensive.' However, a little while later, while Mrs Pratt was away for a few days, Denis did manage to get along, albeit shakily, with his father. One of the things Mr Pratt said was that Denis looked like a male whore, which was the first mention he had ever made of the actual source of his son's problems, and this came as a relief to Denis. The following Christmas, 1930, he travelled up to London and never returned - he was out and down and free to do his own thing.
Mr Pratt died in 1931, although Frances survived until 1960, by which time she was living with her daughter and son-in-law.