John L. Wimbush
- John L. Wimbush
- an opium den at lime street
- signed l.l.: J. L. WIMBUSH.; further signed, titled and inscribed on an old label attached to the stretcher
- oi on canvas
Lucien Freud and thence to his friend Charlie Thomas who gave the picture to Marianne Faithful;
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NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."
'I am engulfed, and drown deliciously.
Soft music like a perfume, and sweet light
Golden with audible odours exquisite,
Swathe me with cerements for eternity.
Time is no more. I pause and yet I flee.
A million ages wrap me round with night.
I drain a million ages of delight.
I hold the future in memory.'
The Opium-Smoker by Arthur Symons.
It is likely that this picture is the one entitled Lingering Clouds exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1889, the title alluding to the rings of thick smoke swirling above the recumbent figures in an East End opium den. The image of the Chinatown opium den run by wicked Oriental immigrants luring innocent Westerners into a life of destitution and addiction, was one made popular in late nineteenth century literature and lurid newspaper stories. East London opium dens appear in Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and famously in Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and the Sherlock Holmes adventure 'The Man with the Twisted Lip'. The most infamous dens were at New Court in Shadwell and colourful newspaper accounts of denizens of New Court were popular abounded. The poet Arthur Symons, whose description of opium smoking is given above, wrote to a friend in 1892 and gave an enlightening account of the hold that the drug had on the addicted; 'I open this again to tell you of a strange girl I met at Franhaus' [the home of a popular novelist of the time] last night - an extraordinary looking young Jewess, about 20, with a long lithe body like a snake, a great red dangerous mouth, and enormous dark amber eyes that half shut and then expand like great poisonous flowers. 'Nuffing amuses me,' she said, with her curious childish lisp, 'everyfing bores me. Nuffing ever did amuse me. I have nuffing to amuse me, nobody to be amused with. I don't care for men, women's talk always bores me. What am I to do? I don't know what to do with myself. All I care for is to sleep. Tell me what is there that will give me a new sensation? And she lay back and gazed at me through half-shut lids. I bent down and whispered 'Opium.' Her eyes opened with almost a flash of joy. 'Yes, there is opium. Where can I get it?' (Antony Clayton, Decadent London - Fin de Siécle City, 2005, p. 81)
Although many potentially dangerous and addictive narcotics were readily available over the counter at many Victorian pharmacies, towards the end of the nineteenth century opium was increasingly perceived to be a great threat to the moral fabric of the country. Following the two Opium Wars, the trade from China to Europe expanded greatly, from a hundred tons in 1800 to two thousand tons in 1837. The advances in steam navigation in the 1870s led to an influx in Chinese immigrants to Europe and with them came a ready supply of the drug and the proprietors of the dens that opened in the slums of the larger cities. Newspapers and authors portrayed London as the European centre of opium smoking particularly around Limehouse and Shadwell, but this was unjustified and the number of regular visitors to London opium dens probably did not exceed a few hundred and no nineteenth century photograph has ever been found of a London opium smoker. The image of the debauched and sordid opium addict languishing in East End dens was largely the invention of artists and writers.
In Wimbush's painting, the three figures are Chinese men clearly under the influence of opium and the purpose of the picture appears to have been to depict a social ill threatening the moralities of the age. The men are reclining on a low bed so that they are able to hold the long pipes used for smoking the opium,heated over the glowing lamp shown on a tray brought by a servant.
This painting has a fascinating provenance having been owned by the artist Lucien Freud and later by the singer Marianne Faithful.