Hearing of his admiration for Marias, a friend told Chambers about the beguiling shaggy-dog story that surrounds Redonda – and that Marias belongs to a long line of literary figures anointed as the island’s kings.
On the other side of the Atlantic, among the Leeward Islands in the West Indies, an obscure, barren outcrop called Redonda rises out of the ocean. Discovered and named by Christopher Columbus in 1493, this Caribbean islet is little more than a scrap of volcanic rock, a mile long and a third of a mile wide. Edged with forbidding cliffs and devoid of fresh water, its only inhabitants are seabirds and rats.
Today, Redonda belongs officially to Antigua and Barbuda. Unofficially, though, it exists autonomously, in a parallel universe of the imagination, as the Kingdom of Redonda. This fanciful realm is the subject of a new suite of paintings by the British artist Stephen Chambers. The Court of Redonda goes on show today, in a palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, as part of the city’s Biennale.
“I first came across the story of Redonda in late 2014,” says Chambers, 56, sitting on a battered leather sofa in his large studio, a former clothing sweatshop off a Georgian square in Hackney, east London. At the time, he was living temporarily in Williamsburg, a fashionable neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. Seeking distraction from painting in a nearby bookshop, he picked up a copy of A Heart So White, by the Spanish writer Javier Marias and was, as he recalls, “engrossed”.
The “official” history of the Kingdom of Redonda begins in 1865, when a merchant trader and preacher from the nearby island of Montserrat decided, on a whim, to lay claim to it. Supposedly, he petitioned Queen Victoria for the title of King of Redonda, which the British Colonial Office granted to him.
On his 15th birthday, or so the story goes, the trader’s son (who would grow up to become the fantasy writer MP Shiel) was crowned king of the island, in situ, by a bishop from Antigua.
For more than six decades, Shiel reigned over Redonda – in his own mind, if not in fact – as King Felipe I. Following his death in 1947, his literary executor, the bohemian poet John Gawsworth, whom Shiel had appointed heir to the kingdom, acceded the throne as the self-styled Juan I.
With tongue-in-cheek seriousness, Gawsworth bestowed knighthoods and dukedoms upon many of his friends, issuing “royal” documents on antique Venetian paper. Over time, a Redondan “court-in-exile” emerged, consisting of poets, artists, and intellectuals. Its epicentre was the Alma Tavern, around the corner from Gawsworth’s home in Notting Hill, west London. “Gawsworth created this legacy of making Redonda a kingdom of creatives,” Chambers explains.
After Gawsworth’s death, in 1970, the already unlikely story of the Kingdom of Redonda became even more absurd, as sovereignty over the island was contested by different people. “At one point,” Chambers says, “there were two kings in dispute.”
One of them was Gawsworth’s literary executor, the publisher Jon Wynne-Tyson (King Juan II), who later abdicated, in 1997, in favour of Marias, in recognition of the latter’s sympathetic portrayal of Gawsworth in his 1989 novel All Souls.
As King Xavier I, Marias has conferred titles on many friends and colleagues, including the writers William Boyd, AS Byatt, Jonathan Coe and WG Sebald, and the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar. Ian McEwan he named the Duke of Perros Negros, a nod to the British author’s 1992 novel, Black Dogs. The director Francis Ford Coppola was appointed Duke of Megalopolis.
Fascinated by Redonda, Chambers dug deeper into the legend’s history. Slowly, an idea for a new project started to form in his mind. When he was invited to exhibit at Ca’ Dandolo, a 17th-century palazzo in the island city of Venice, Redonda seemed like the perfect subject.
And, so, in late 2015, Chambers began his first imaginary portraits of Redondan courtiers. Recently, I saw almost all 101 paintings in the finished series, before they were shipped to Venice.
Painted in oils on wooden panels, each measuring 19in x 15in, they depict a motley retinue of fine-featured beatniks, free spirits, artists, ne’er-do-wells, and chancers. The courtiers are of various ages and ethnicities, and wear dandyish, highly patterned clothes. Some hold twigs and branches, like traditional staffs of office. As Chambers puts it in the exhibition catalogue: “The Court of Redonda is… bringing to the High Table those that would normally be fed in the garden shed.”
Against a background of a single colour, each painting is attractive: “I want them to be seductive,” Chambers tells me, “to beckon and to call, ‘Come hither!’ ”
The style owes a debt to traditional Indian Mughal painting and to the Quattrocento art that inspired Chambers as a young man, when, fresh out of St Martin’s School of Art in the early Eighties, he rode across Italy on a motorbike, looking “at every Piero della Francesca in the country”.
Because he considers The Court of Redonda a single work, Chambers is hoping to sell it for “a lot more” than he has ever asked for anything else. “It’s one piece,” he explains. “It was made as a court, and should live as a court.”
Painting so many individual portraits must have been taxing: at one point, during our interview, he refers to the series, with relish, as “large-scale lunacy”. Did he become obsessed with Redonda? “The word ‘obsession’ is frequently pejorative,” he replies. “But I like people that are obsessive.”
It’s clear that he had fun coming up with comical titles for his courtiers. One bald, nondescript, middle-aged character, for instance, is called “Boris, el Seductor”. A young rake wearing a white tuxedo has the title “Patron of Lost Causes”.
There is a “Guardian of the Guano”, a “Queen of Tickertape”, and “Harold the Bum”. “Count Music”, meanwhile, bears the features of the Motörhead musician Lemmy, since the painting was executed in the aftermath of the singer-songwriter’s death.
I ask Chambers if he has smuggled a self-portrait into the mix? “There isn’t a king. It’s the court,” Chambers shoots back, smiling. “Besides, every portrait that’s ever done is really a self-portrait.”
Chambers is already a Royal Academician, having been elected in 2005. If Redonda’s current king decided to ennoble him, what title would he choose? He smiles: “It hasn’t crossed my mind,” he says.
A few days later, though, I receive an email from Chambers, describing the arrival, out of the blue, of a typewritten letter from Marias, whom he had told about the project. “He has, and this gives me a childish thrill, bestowed a Redondan title.” Chambers wrote. “I’ll be revising my passport, driving licence and gas bills accordingly.”
Arise Stephen Chambers, Viscount of Redonda.