Arthur Power

Arthur Power (Guernsey, 1891—Leopardstown, Co. Dublin, 1984), is perhaps best known today for his book Conversations with James Joyce, but he also painted well into old age and was art critic for the Irish Times.


Power was the son of a major in the British army who, like Eileen Gray’s brother, died in the Boer War. Power spent much time on the large estate of his uncle in South Kilkenny and Waterford during his youth, and again while recovering from being gassed in Flanders during the First World War. After having witnessed the Easter Rising in Dublin and narrowly avoided being shot, Power stayed in the West for a while in 1917 before coming back to his mother’s place at 21, Fitzwilliam Place in Dublin. It was in Dublin in 1918 that he met Paul Henry, who was then living close by in Merrion Row and whose recounting of his experiences as an art student in Paris persuaded Power to move to the French capital “for intellectual adventures, adventures of the mind”.
 Ossip Zadkine
And adventures he had in a city he called the “modern Athens”, where he was able to discuss the Irish literary movement with a small bookseller in the Place de l’Odéon “who knew far more about it than the majority of Irish people did”. Power arrived there at the beginning of 1920, having spent some time in strike-prone Italy. After a couple of days at the Hôtel Terminus beside the Gare Saint Lazare (9th arrondissement), he booked into the much cheaper Hôtel Moderne on the Place de la Sorbonne (5th arrondissement), opposite the Café Harcourt, frequented a few years before by John Millington Synge. Power knew nobody in the city and the loneliness soon got to him, but the prospect of returning home to run the family estate was even less appealing. “I would sooner die of loneliness and poverty in Paris…than parade around the countryside to tea parties and horse-jumping shows,”  he wrote.


 Amedeo Modigliani
A letter from a friend provided Power with the address of Jo Davidson, an American sculptor living in Paris, who Power had previously met in London. Davidson found Power a job as an art critic for the Paris edition of the New York Herald. His new job brought Power into contact with many leading artists of the day, including the sculptor Aristide Maillol and Amedeo Modigliani. The Italian artist was already a mental and physical wreck when Power interviewed him in January 1920 and he died two weeks later. In a Montparnasse café, he chanced upon the Russian Ossip Zadkine, with whom he became friendly. Before leaving for a holiday in Savoy, Zadkine rented Power his studio at 35, rue Rousselet (7th arrondissement). Power spent his mornings “in the curtained alcove reading Zadkine’s books and experimenting with my own writing”, and spent his evenings at the Rotonde or the Dôme, two of the main bohemian drags in Montparnasse, with the Rotonde mostly frequently by Latins and Slavs, according to Power, and the Dôme the preserve of English speakers and a few Scandinavians.


 Le Bal Bullier
In April 1921, Power first met James Joyce at the vast Bal Bullier, a famous dancehall opposite La Closerie des Lilas (the site is now occupied by a hideous student centre, at 31, avenue Georges Bernanos (5th arrondissement). That evening, Joyce and family had come to celebrate Sylvia Beach’s decision to publish Ulysses, while Power had arranged a date with Annette, a young laundress. Annette stood him up, but Power was recognized by a friend of Jo Davidson’s who was sitting with the Joyces. Power had read some of Joyce’s earlier books “and had disliked them intensely”, but Power hit if off with the Joyces, and they ended the evening across the road at the Closerie des Lilas, frequented a few years before by James Stephens. Over the next 10 years, Power became a regular visitor of the Joyce family and was appreciated especially by Nora for his moderate drinking habits.


Power changed address a few times during the 1920s. In 1925, he was living in a room at the Hôtel de Béarn at 123, rue Saint Dominique (7th arrondissement). Described by Power as “an old-fashioned hotel” and “dilapidated” even though it suited his tastes “for it gave to me the flavour of the ancient regime”, the Hôtel de Béarn is now classed as a historic monument and houses the Rumanian embassy. Power describes that when he was living there, he received a visit from an Englishman called Crayshaw and his girlfriend, who were on their way to visit Aleister Crowley (“the so-called devil worshipper and master of black-magic”) in Sicily. The girlfriend insisted on organising “an astral journey” and entering into contact with the spirit world. In the presence of a sceptic like Power, the séance was not a success. But before leaving, the English pair insisted on covering the furniture “with protective signs in chalk to shield one against the evil influence of certain spirits”. However, the hotel owner quickly got wind of the aborted attempt at spiritualism and was so aghast that such “evil practices” had taken place there that he evicted Power, threatening to call the police if he did not leave at once. Power took this as par for the course, for, as he says so appositely, “the average French are very conservative and narrow-minded—concierges and hotel proprietors in particular.”


 123, rue Saint Dominique
At one point, he invited a moody, taciturn James Joyce to a party in a studio he was living in at 6, rue de la Grande Chaumière (6th arrondissement)—the very same street where his friend, Paul Henry, had stayed a quarter of a century before. Just like Henry, Power studied at the Académie Colarossi, just beside his studio in the rue de la Grande Chaumière Later, Power lived in a studio in rue d'Alésia overlooking the Parc Montsouris (14th arrondissement). Power left Paris in 1930 and tried unsuccessfully to run the family estate he had inherited in Ireland, while making regular visits back to Paris and the Joyces.


In 1981, Power published some relatively salacious extracts from his diary in the Irish Times.  In contrast to the impression of a man entirely devoted to art and literature purveyed in his memoirs, From the Old Waterford House, the diary extracts suggest that whoring and fleeting encounters with a variety of women took up much of Power’s time in Paris. Power describes in some detail his adventure with a girl freshly arrived from Dieppe to seek her fortune. Deep-chested and handsome, she was as ardent as I was,” he writes, but after a few love-making sessions in cheap hotels, Power decides that “she was stupid in a way and had no geist.” Power also mentions regular meetings at the Dôme on the Boulevard de Montparnasse with a man called Henshaw, who had been a journalist on the Irish Times.  Henshaw and Power compared their experience of brothels in the Monto in Dublin and the far more sophisticated equivalents in Paris.  Power mentions that when he was a 17-year-old virgin and on his way back from his studies in Germany, he visited a richly decorated maison close in a bourgeois district of Paris. “I cannot say that my first love-making, even though I still remember it as something of importance in my life, came up to my great expectations.” But it was the memory of the “golden-domed room” and the choice he had been presented with on entering the brothel between a “galaxy of naked beauty” that made him “disillusioned and even hostile to the sordid surroundings” that he came upon in the Monto back in Dublin.



Select Bibliography


Conversations with James Joyce (1974, reprint 1999)

Arthur Power


From the Old Waterford House (1940, reprint 2003)

Arthur Power

"An Irish Artist in Paris, 1925—Extracts from a Journal",

Arthur Power in The Irish Times, Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, 1981