Sunday 31 May 2020


Two months ago, a man disappeared. He had dementia, so it was not an unexpected manifestation. Three weeks after the disappearance, his body was found. And the world paid their obituary dues. The world that knew him, or of him. His name was Peter Beard.

Some names float into our consciousness but don’t take root. We are usually too distracted. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready. One of the great joys of being human is the discovery of an old being, or way of life, new to us. That is why age is of so little consequence or significance in the knowing and understanding of ourselves. Someone can always teach you something, if you are brave enough not to be foolishly arrogant.

Peter Beard was a photographer. Born into the wealth of a Gatsby like family in Manhattan, he sidestepped the suggestion he ‘go into advertising’ (money making more money), and instead, inspired by Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’, found himself at 17, in Africa. His guide was Quentin Keynes, the photographer (son of scholar collector Geoffrey Keynes, nephew of economist Maynard Keynes, grandson of Charles Darwin). Peter bought Hog Ranch, in Kenya, a few years later, and there, tickling warthogs, feeding giraffes and falling asleep under stars, made the world his home. Animals weren’t always so amenable. An elephant matriarch charged him once, goring her tusk into his leg and crunching his ribs. ‘We are real apes,’ he said. ‘It just so happens that we have learned how to think, quite a lot more than we ever expected.’

The world made him their home too, as is our wont with humans who inspire. Thus Francis Bacon painted him nine times in triptych, he was befriended by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali claimed Beard as his late younger brother, resurrected, and Beard himself ‘found’ Iman on the streets of Nairobi - he liked to describe her as an illiterate Somali goatherd; she, who spoke four languages and knew nothing of jungles. The fashion world naturally adored him for the extraordinary image combination of the modern body beautiful set within the first continent’s natural charm. A double seduction of the camera. There was, of course, something about the white colonial about him... but he was conscious of his own part in the conversational destruction of our ecology.

What most fascinates me about Peter is the way he lived in collage.

There is a powerful trend today (brought on by our worst excesses) to minimise and tidy. When I look around my home, which is two houses in one (at least) - India in England - I sometimes feel it’s all too much, since none of it can be taken, Pharoah style, into the next world. I have spent portions of my twenty years in lupus quarantine, tidying and sorting, only to wake the next day to naughty elves having opened the cupboards and cabinets and released a fresh hurricane of things, each containing its own halcyon of memories. The naughty elf is me, of course. Because to be neat, tidy and indexed is far removed from my nature. Mine is the nature of a Peter Beard collage, collecting, gathering, foresting for survival against the long hours of isolation. Spiritual fodder for humans does not come from the mind and psyche alone. We have always needed stones, pebbles, shells, feathers, sparkling crystals and rusty, broken but reusable furniture. Photographs are pensieves for our memories, runes from the past. Letters are a fellow human’s call to us.

In your quarantine, did you tidy? Or did you lovingly admire the gatherings of your years on earth, appreciating the textures of your collected self?

(P.s. a Pensieve is a shallow basin into which you can place your memories, and sort through meaning from chaos. If you are Professor Albus Dumbledore, that is...)


Anonymous said...

and covid-19 has come upon us. it is our season; our time to pay.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I did not tidy. I slowed to the pace of a tortoise and felt guilty about the tidying i should be doing. Smiles.

perveenart said...


Anonymous said...

Peter Beard--it's a shame he is gone.

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