Arts world dismayed at fate of London home of Rimbaud and Verlaine

It was the London home of the 19th-century Decadent poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, two of France’s greatest literary heroes, whose tempestuous love affair ended with a shooting and prison. A Georgian building in Camden, where they rented lodgings in 1873, was to have become “a poetry house”, an arts and education centre in one of the capital’s most deprived areas, after a campaign involving some of Britain’s foremost arts figures.

But the arts charity behind the project has been dismayed to discover that Michael Corby, the benefactor who promised to bequeath the historic building to the charity a decade ago, has changed his mind without warning, deciding instead to sell it on the open market.

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (R&V) never imagined that he would withdraw his 2011 legacy gift of No 8 Royal College Street.

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Graham Henderson, R&V’s chief executive, found out about the sale only after an estate agent’s sign went up: “That was the first I heard about it.” The charity is now seeking legal advice.

The campaign for a poetry house had attracted widespread support from leading figures such as the novelists Julian Barnes and Tracy Chevalier, the poet Sir Andrew Motion and the actor Simon Callow.

It also included Sir Christopher Hampton, the playwright and screenwriter whose Total Eclipse was inspired by these poets and their near-fatal affair. He told the Observer: “It would be a terrible shame if [Corby] wasn’t able to go through with his generous original offer.”

Corby, 76, confirmed that he has changed his will. His circumstances have changed as he has become an “invalid”, he said, noting that a house that he had bought for his retirement is no longer practical.

No 8 Royal College Street, Camden, north London.
No 8 Royal College Street, Camden, north London.

It is now on the market for £1.95m, advertised as a “gorgeous” Grade II-listed Georgian home, built about 1790.

The estate agent’s description does not mention the poets, referring only to former “colourful” residents. Rimbaud and Verlaine were certainly colourful. They came to London after scandalising Paris with their absinthe and hashish-fuelled affair.

“They were deeply problematic,” Henderson said. “Drugs, alcohol, violent fights … [Their] reputation as decadent characters has been part of their appeal, particularly to rock stars – everybody from Marc Bolan to Bob Dylan. We’re talking about two characters of enormous cultural significance.”

He added that they lived in this house for only three months: “Yet the seismic importance of events that happened there, people are still writing books about. These events have achieved mythic status.”

He was referring to the poets’ devastating quarrel: “Rimbaud leant out of the window as Verlaine was walking back from Camden market … and shouted a stream of abuse. Verlaine hit Rimbaud with a fish he’d acquired in the market [and] fled to Brussels. Rimbaud, contrite, immediately followed … Verlaine shot Rimbaud, wounding him … and went to prison for a couple of years for that.

“Rimbaud shortly afterwards gave up poetry for ever, which is still a matter of huge regret because what little work we have from him is so revolutionary.”

Verlaine, left, with Rimbaud and Léon Valade in a detail from By the Table, 1872, by Henri Fantin-Latour
Verlaine, left, with Rimbaud and Léon Valade in a detail from By the Table, 1872, by Henri Fantin-Latour. Photograph: DEA/Getty Images

The revolver used by Verlaine to shoot Rimbaud was auctioned for £368,000 in 2016.

Henderson praised Corby’s restoration of the building and noted extensive “dealings in which the gift has been clear … So it made it more of a surprise when it was suddenly apparent that he’d done it without saying anything to us.”

Corby said: “They’ve got no reason to be surprised because no one’s had any contact with me for a long time. Do you know how many [R&V] trustees there are? Fourteen. Not one of them has even sent me a Christmas card or written with any proposals or anything.”

But he added: “I’m not proceeding out of any vindictiveness. I’m absolutely gutted that I can’t live in the house. It took all my life savings to renovate it. On top of £250,000 to do the basic things, there were quite a lot of extras.” Every year, he has “mentally set aside” up to £25,000 for maintenance, he said.

Corby used to run trade associations dealing with mail and telecoms. Music is his particular passion, and he plans to bequeath his estate to musical and ecological causes.

Julian Barnes said: “I well remember the excitement back in 2011 when the poetry house was – as it seemed – saved for the nation. Since then, it has proved a successful arts venue and it would be a great shame if it was not allowed to continue.”

Simon Callow added: “We all are hoping that we’ll be able to keep this dream of turning this remarkable house into a viable celebration of [these poets] … It’s extraordinary that they had this critical period of their lives here in London. They are not exactly an ideal gay couple. Nonetheless, they were advanced for their day in their fearless embrace of their own sexuality.”