In search of Claude Cahun

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Barge Aground - our wonderfully strange  home for a week of reasearch in Jersey                         Picture Hattie Miles


Words: Jeremy Miles    

The strange building pictured above is a brilliant little beach bungalow that we stayed on Jersey during the summer of 2007. It is called Barge Aground, a name bestowed on it  for reasons that are instantly apparent.  Built as one of a number of beach bungalows overlooking the Atlantic coast at St Ouen just before the Second World War, it is now the only survivor and after a checkered history that has seen it requisitioned by a Nazi machine-gun battalion as a field canteen and serving time as everything  from a  boy scout headquarters to an international speech therapy clinic, it has now been bought by Jersey Heritage Trust and returned to its original Art Deco glory. 

So it was we found ourselves in residence at one of the most head-turning  beach-side residences you  are likely to find anywhere this side of a movie set. Inside it effectively offers one huge room in the body of the “ship” with a well-equipped kitchen and bathroom at the prow and two adult sized bunk bedrooms in the stern.

 But it is the external view of this building, masquerading as a  grounded vessel, that really impresses. Perched on the dunes above the beach it enjoys glorious views along a beautiful and rugged coast blessed with spectacular sunsets. It’s real name by the way is Seagull, but no one uses that.  The sea-wall is just yards away from Barge Aground’s ample and sunny patio and a short flight of steps takes you down onto a three mile sweep of beach that at low tide reveals sparkling rock pools and an environment that offers the kind of glorious solitude that money can’t buy. There is something strangely compelling about the Island of Jersey. Perhaps it is the curious feeling that you’ve slipped into a parallel universe where someone’s mended the roads, paid all the bills and life is just a little more leisurely. More likely it’s the beautiful coast and countryside that in a tiny area - just nine by five miles - offers stunning contrasts: rugged headlands, sandy bays, lush green meadows and wooded valleys. Whatever the reason there is a timeless quality to the island that instantly beguiles. The largest of the Channel Islands, nestling in the Bay of St Malo just 14 miles from the French coast, Jersey is a gem we shall return to. Not least because it is home to the archive that contains the work of French surrealist photographer, writer, actor and resistance fighter Lucy Schwob aka Claude Cahun. 

KV Cahun 09 halbe-seite

 Last summer I  was researching a dissertation based on her groundbreaking but long-neglected photographic work  which was originally produced in the 1920s and 30s. For reasons involving anti-semitism, the rise of Hitler and the fragmentation of the surrealist movement much of her work was destroyed. What was left remained effectively  lost from the 1950s to 1990s but is now gradually receiving recognition. My work on the pioneering artistic output of this cross-dressing Jewish lesbian who maintained a passionate long-term relationship with her step-sister, Susanne Malherbe, subsequently earned me a Masters degree in Art History and I am now working on a book about  Schwob, a creative but contrary individual, whose unorthodox lifestyle choices were to cause her major  problems in her native France before the war. 

Her flamboyantly unconventiona lifestyle was fatally out of step with the political ideals of the monsters waiting in the wings.  Realising that a Nazi invasion was becoming inevitable, Claude and Suzanne (who called herself Marcel Moore) quit Paris for the Channel Islands in 1937 blissfully unaware that Hitler’s jackbooted troops were close behind.  The two women cut-off from their surrealist comrades decided to embark on a courageous personal battle against the occupying army. 

Conducting resistance activities and a propaganda campaign under the guise of two eccentric middle-aged sisters helped them avoid detection for two long years.  Eventually betrayed by a housekeeper, they were arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Fortunately liberation arrived before the firing squad. However Schwob;s health had been broken and she died at the age of 60 in 1954. Suzanne lived on as a recluse until the 1970s when she could finally stand no more and committed suicide.

We had never been to Jersey before but I found myself heading for St Helier,  the island’s capital and main port, to see Cahun expert Louise Downie.  Author of Don't Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (Jersey Heritage Trust/Tate Publishing 2006). Downie has worked with the Cahun archive in Jersey for years and really knows her stuff. The fact that I earned a Masters  is at least in part down to the time I spent talking to Downie about Cahun, her life, career and place in the history of art. Without her input and the directions it sent me in  my dissertation would have probably lacked a number of crucial elements. For more about Cahun see the  excellent Jersey Heritage Trust archive JHT Cahun archive.

So to the Channel Islands. You can easily fly to Jersey but we decided to take the car so opted for  the ferry instead, sailing out of beautiful Poole Harbour past the millionaires row that is Sandbanks before making a right (or should that be starboard?) turn and heading out across the English Channel. On arrival in  St Helier  the compact scale of the island really hit home. The journey to our temporary holiday home in St Ouen’s (pronounced St One’s) Bay on the Atlantic west coast had looked a fair distance on the map. It took us little more than 15 or 20 minutes to drive there, even though the entire island has a 40 mile-per-hour speed limit. 

And what a holiday home it was! In fact Barge Aground is a local landmark, and general talking point for just about anyone you meet. Jersey may be small but there’s plenty to do. It isn’t all Bergerac memorabilia and Gerald Durrell either. At St Ouen there are a number of reminders of the wartime occupation by the Nazis with the remnants of old gun emplacements and even a little museum built into one of the old German bunkers - a poignant reminder that Jersey was the only part of the British Isles to be invaded. 

By far the biggest war museum on the island though can be found in the astonishing Jersey War Tunnels - the bomb-proof barracks and armaments factory hewn from solid rock  by the invaders. It is a dark and foreboding place that was later converted into an underground military hospital. Today with genuine wartime equipment and artefacts, models, reconstructions and interactive exhibits its tells the moving story of wartime on the island and its massive impact on the daily lives of the population. 

 An idyllic world suddenly plunged into a nightmare. A life of forced labour, near starvation rations and constant danger where the fear of informants and collaborators was offset by the bravery of escapees and those involved with the Resistance. The joy of the island’s liberation on 9th May 1945 is celebrated with a stirring re-enactment each year in St Helier.

ly© Jeremy Miles 2017