Rodney Archer, aesthete
Rodney Archer kindly took me to lunch at E.Pellicci yesterday, but first I went round to his eighteenth century house in Fournier St to take this portrait of him in front of his cherished fireplace that once belonged to Oscar Wilde. One day in 1970, Rodney was visiting an old friend who lived in Tite St next to Wilde’s house and saw the builders were doing renovations, so he seized the opportunity to walk through the door of the house that had once been the great writer’s dwelling. The fireplace had been torn out of the wall in Wilde’s living room as part of a modernisation of the property and the workmen were about to carry it away, so Rodney offered to buy it on the spot. For ten pounds he acquired a literary relic of the highest order, the fine pilastered fireplace with tall overmantle that you see above, and which today has become a shrine to Wilde that is the centrepiece of Rodney’s first floor living room in Fournier St. You can see Spy’s famous caricature of Wilde up on the chimneypiece, but the gem of Rodney’s Wilde collection is a copy of Lord Alfred Douglas’ poems with pencil annotations by Douglas himself. Encountering these artifacts in this environment – that already possess such a potent poetry of their own, amplified by their proximity to each other – is especially enchanting.
I adore the way Rodney lives in his lovely old house, allowing the patina of ages to remain, endowing the place with a powerfully seductive atmosphere evocative of its past residents. An atmosphere enhanced by Rodney’s sensational collection of pictures, carpets, furniture, books, china and god-knows-what, that he has accumulated over all the years he has lived in it, which transform the house into three-dimensional map of his extraordinary vigorous mind and imagination, crammed with images, stories and all manner of cultured enthusiasms. No single item is of great monetary value in itself yet everything is charismatic. In Rodney’s house, anyone would feel at home the minute they walked in the door because the effect of all these accretions is sublime, everything has arrived in its natural place yet nothing feels arranged. It is a relaxing place, with reflected light everywhere, and although there is so much to look at and so many stories to learn, it is peaceful and benign, like Rodney himself. Rodney’s style can never be replicated by anyone else, unless you became Rodney and you could live through those years again.
Rodney came to live here in London’s most magical street in 1980. It came about after his mother fell down a well at The Roundhouse and broke her hip while visiting a performance of “The Homosexual (or The Difficulty of Sexpressing Yourself)” by Copi in which Rodney was starring. It was the culmination of Rodney’s distinguished career of just eight years as an actor, that included playing the Player Queen in Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic in a production with Richard Pasco in the title role and featuring Patrick Stewart as Horatio.
After she fell down the well, Rodney’s mother told him that her doctor insisted she live with her son, much to Rodney’s surprise. Gamely, Rodney agreed, on the condition they find somewhere large enough to live their own lives with some degree of independence, and rang up his friends Riccardo and Eric who lived in Fournier St, asking them to keep their eyes open for any house that went on sale. Within three months, a house came up. It was the only one they looked at and Rodney has lived there happily ever since. Thirty years ago, Spitalfields was not the desirable location it is today, “My mother thought I was joking when I told her where I wanted live,” declared Rodney, raising his eyebrows, “Now it would nice if there were more people living here who were not millionaires. I visit people in houses today where there are ghosts of people I used to know and the new people don’t know who they were, it’s sad.”
Rodney’s roots are in East London, he was born in Gidea Park, but once his father (a flying officer in the RAF) was killed in action over Malta in 1943, his mother took Rodney and his sister away to Toronto when they were tiny children and brought them up there on her own. Rodney came back to London in 1962 with the rich Canadian accent (which sounds almost Scottish to me) that he retains to this day, in spite of the actor’s voice training he received at Lamba which has imparted such a mellifluous tone to his speech. After his brief years treading the boards, Rodney became a teacher of drama at the City Lit and ran the Operating Theatre Company, staging his own play “The Harlot’s Curse” (co-authored with Powell Jones) in the Princelet St Synagogue with great success.
“When I retired, I decided to do whatever I wanted to do,“ announced Rodney with a twinkly smile, at this point in his life story. “Now I am having a wonderful third act. Writing about that time, my mother, the cats and me…” he said, introducing the long-awaited trilogy of autobiographical fiction that he is currently working on, in which the first volume will cover his first eight years in Spitalfields concluding with the death of his mother in 1988, the second volume will conclude with the death of his friend Dennis Severs in 1999 and the third with the death of Eric Elstob. (Elstob was a banker who loved architecture and left a fortune for the refurbishment of Christ Church, Spitalfields.) “There is something about the nature of Spitalfields, that fact becomes fiction – as you become involved with the lives of people here, it gets you telling stories.” explained Rodney, expressing a sentiment that is close to my own heart too.
Now it was time for lunch and, as we walked hungrily up Brick Lane towards Bethnal Green in the Spring sunshine, the postman saluted Rodney and, on cue, the owner of the eel and pie shop leaned out of the doorway to give him a cheery wave too, then, as if to mark the occasion as auspicious, we saw the first shiny new train run along the recently completed East London Line, gliding across the newly constructed bridge, glinting in the sunlight as it passed over our heads and sliding away across Allen Gardens towards Whitechapel. This is the elegant world of Rodney Archer, I thought.
Turning the corner into Bethnal Green Rd, I asked Rodney about the origin of his passion for Wilde and when he revealed he once played Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at school, his intense grey-blue eyes shone with excitement. It made perfect sense, because I felt as if I was meeting a senior version of Algernon who retained all the wit, charm and sagacity of his earlier years, now having “a wonderful third act” in an apocryphal lost manuscript by Oscar Wilde, recently discovered amongst all the glorious clutter in a beautiful old house in Fournier St, Spitalfields.