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Rodney Archer, The Aesthete Of Fournier St

August 31, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating ten years of Spitalfields Life with favourite stories from the first decade

Rodney Archer, the Aesthete of Fournier St

When I first met him, Rodney Archer kindly took me to lunch at E.Pellicci, but – before we set out – 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 became a shrine to Wilde in 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 was 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 – was especially enchanting.

Rodney allowed the patina of ages to remain in his house, enhanced by his sensational collection of pictures, carpets, furniture, books, china and god-knows-what, accumulated over all the years he lived in it, which transformed the house into three-dimensional map of his vigorous mind, crammed with images, stories and all manner of cultural enthusiasms. In Rodney’s house, anyone would feel at home the minute they walked in the door because the result of all these accretions was that everything arrived in its natural place, yet nothing felt arranged. It was a relaxing place, with reflected light everywhere, and although there was so much to look at and so many stories to learn, it was peaceful and benign, like Rodney himself. Yet Rodney’s style can never be replicated by anyone else, unless you became Rodney and you could live through those years again.

Rodney made his home 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 broke her hip, 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 Ricardo 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 lived there happily ever after.

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 to me, 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 were 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 sounded almost Scottish to me) that he retained his whole life, in spite of the actor’s voice training he received at LAMDA which 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 that 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 was working on, in which the first volume would cover his first eight years in Spitalfields concluding with the death of his mother in 1988, the second volume would 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.

Then it was time for lunch and, as we walked hungrily up Brick Lane that day 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.

Rodney Archer died in 2015

Rodney in his study

Rodney and his cat Fitzroy (portrait by Chris Kelly)

Rodney played Edward II for the Save Norton Folgate Campaign

Rodney sings ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ at Pellicci’s Christmas Party (portrait by Colin O’Brien)

Rodney – “I come to Pelliccis every Wednesday and Saturday. On Wednesday I am the gay mascot for the Repton Boxers and on Saturday we bet on the horses.” (portrait by Colin O’Brien)

You might also like to read these other stories about Rodney Archer

A Walk With Rodney Archer

Rodney Archer’s Scraps

The Seven Ages of Rodney Archer

At 31 Fournier St

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    August 31, 2019

    A classic Spitalfields character with a lovely smile…

    I look forward to reading the other blogs about him later!

  2. August 31, 2019

    I am really enjoying reading these celebration posts. Some, like this, I remember reading before, others new to me. What diverse people live and work in Spitalfields, and even though some have passed, I am sure their influence is still felt, alive in the memory of others and recorded for posterity on Spitalfields Life.

    Rodney comes across as absolutely fabulous, such taste and I imagine artistry and wit. I would like to have met him.

    I gave up on the lottery years ago but perhaps I should try again in the hopes of winning enough to purchase a tiny flat near Spitalfields in which to spend half my retirement.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    August 31, 2019

    I have now had the chance to read all the other blogs about Rodney which are fantastic!

    I’m just sorry I wasn’t around when he was alive to enjoy his character and collections first hand.

    What happened to the house and all his stuff when he died?

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    August 31, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great piece about Rodney Archer who lived life on his own terms. Love that mantle piece. In tribute to Rodney, I am adding a few of my Oscar Wilde quotations:

    “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

    “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

  5. Linda Granfield permalink
    August 31, 2019

    Wonderful story, as it was the first time.

    GA, in a future story could you please tell us what became of all the treasures in 31 Fournier Street?
    Is the Wilde fireplace in a museum? The trove of relics, art, and paper, too?
    Maybe at the Bishopsgate Institute?

    Thanks for selecting Rodney’s story to reprint. What an interesting man.

  6. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 1, 2019

    I actually grew up in Chelsea for the first 11 years of my life, but being a sickly child, spent a LOT of time in the Childrens’ (Victoria) Hospital in Tite Street, so your mention of the street resonated with me. Rodney sounds like a wonderful character with a generous nature. I wish I could have met him. A great post. Thank you.

  7. Frank Kelly permalink
    October 30, 2019

    Rodney was my acting tutor at the City Literary Institute (City Lit) between ’96 and’ 98. I’m so sad to discover that he passed away. I was thinking about him today and found out from Google. Rodney was a funny, supportive, kind and patient man who, through his tuition, gave me a gift that has enriched my life and friendships. I wish I had been able to meet him one more time.

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