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Conrad Fulke O'Brien-ffrench. Artist and Spy.

From Intrigue and artifice to Art.

Self Portrait circa85
Image courtesy John Ffrench

Before he had left England, the master of a hunt had commissioned a set of paintings of the season’s best hunters and had them bound and published. Conrad decided to build on this small success and train as an artist. He secured a place at the Slade School of Art in London and began under the tutelage of the renowned Professor Tonks. However, he transferred to Byam Shaw and settled into three years’ training under Ernest Jackson.  Then, to finish his education, he attended the Academy of Modern Art in Paris, where his brother, Alexsis, was also studying. There he remained for a further three years, studying under André L’Hote. From here was to begin the Art Deco movement. From such beginnings Conrad the artist was born.


In the best traditions of the budding artists of the day, Conrad found an attic studio in the Parc Monsouri district. He mentions many friends during his time in Paris: Simon Elwes, who became a famous artist; Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer; Guy Arnoux, the artist; and Elena Mumm, the champagne heiress who was later to become the wife of the American writer and critic, Edmund Wilson.                                                                                                

It was the time of the Great Depression, and making a living from art was difficult. Conrad had begun corresponding with his father, and it was he who suggested they spend Christmas in Jamaica. They both agreed to avoid tourist hotels and instead seek out the ‘Old Jamaica’ of sugar plantations and grand estates. Yet, it was a Jamaica that no longer existed, thanks to the cultivation of sugar beet in Europe. Conrad, though, had the address of two elderly spinsters, known as the “Misses Fisher of Mahogany Hall”. Once a grand sugar estate, Mahogany Hall had now fallen into disuse; it was ideal for their purposes. They booked a passage on the SS Montagua, literally a Fyffe banana boat, bound for Kingston. Their accommodation and surroundings at Mahogany Hall were all they had hoped for. The Misses Fisher, both in their seventies, and though living in reduced circumstances, were, as Conrad puts it, “the victors of a rearguard action into glory”. He and his father truly got a taste of the Jamaica they had dreamt of. In the New Year they moved to Montego Bay, where Conrad rented himself a studio and did much work towards an exhibition he was planning when he returned home. The presence of his father, the Marquis de Castel Thomond, was reported in a local paper and they were finally caught up in the Jamaican Society scene towards the end of their stay. Conrad gave a few lectures on modern art and judged a couple of beauty contests and sold a few pictures. Yet, his father yearned for the high society and intellectual life of Rome, and Conrad had an exhibition to arrange. So they sailed for Avonmouth and travelled as far as Paris together where they parted, his father proceeding to Rome. Conrad set out his art around his studio and spent the summer of 1930 preparing for his exhibition of Jamaican paintings. Maximillian Gauthier wrote the introduction to the catalogue. The exhibition was not a wild success, Conrad tells us, but he sold a few pictures and received encouraging remarks from some prominent people, so was satisfied. Of his art he says:


“I drew simply because I love to draw. It became to me like a caressingly re-creative movement, giving form in subtle lines with all the best of my technical ability, in terms of planes and curves and other aspects of dimensions, to a subject seen in its light of perfection. Not merely studies but portrayals, my drawings became to me a revelation in economical line of all moods and subtleties of those eternally enchanting qualities in the subject. My art unfolded before me as a means of discovery and of sharing the truth as I found it revealed around me.” (DM p.106)


Drawing was more a therapeutic pastime, a pleasure for him. I have been told told he seldom had a pencil and pad far from hand and sketched everything. If you see my collection, you can see what they meant. 


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