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The artist in exile
by Joern Vinnen with Bob Alman
Posted December 2, 2010

Related Links
Christian WIlhelm Allers entry in Wikipedia
The Sport Takes Root in Germany, CROQUET WORLD article, 2008
Cracking Croquet's Public Image, CROQUET WORLD, 1998
How Gay is Croquet? in CROQUET WORLD, 2010

The German artist born as Christian Wilhelm (C.W.) Allers was sufficiently successful as an artist and printmaker to finance the building of his own villa in Capri in the early 1890's. The villa became a well visited destination of prominent travelers. The island was long a favorite of artists and aesthetes escaping public censure and seeking freedom of expression. In 1903 a 4 1/2 year prison sentence was pronounced upon him in abstensia by a Naples Court in a homosexual scandal centering on the rich and powerful Krupp family of Germany industrialists. Many Allers paintings and drawings were thereafter signed with a pseudonym. For much of the last decade of his life he traveled the world painting the families of wealthy patrons. C.W. Allers books were well known in his time. Among his surviving work are meticulously detailed portraits of children playing croquet. This article is based on one of Allers' letters to an ancestor of Joern Vinnen, a great, great nephew of Allers and the founding chairman of the German croquet association.

Most of this article is told in Allers' own words, in the final letter he wrote to the publisher of some of his early books. The poignance of the letter is heightened by our knowledge that it was written in the last year of his life, while he was optimistically predicting a cure, covered in four cat skins to keep him warm, under the direction of his doctor.

Villa Allers, featuring the artist at leisure

Allers' last letter to Carl Griese

Karlsruhe, Südendstr. 6, June 7th, 1915
Dear Carl!

When will you visit me? During the summer holidays? I am not ready with my travel documents, since I've spent so much time "down under" side of the earth I have lost my German Reich citizenship. A while ago they canceled that silly law and I think now I can acquire nationality of Baden. In all the countries I visited you never required papers or a passport. You are always called by your Christian name, so I am "Willy", or you get a title, as in New Zealand, where I was known as Professor Andresen. As I've been out of military duty for almost 13 years, I didn't see the necessity for proper papers; often there were no German representatives or just Danish or English merchants.

If the World War hadn't begun, it would not have been necessary, but instead I was forced to stay in Basel when I had intended to go to Paris to do portraits of some minor barons and baronesses, which I had also done before, and then do some work in Den Haag, Amsterdam and London. But the war put an end to all of this, and I was even unable to travel from Switzerland to Germany without documents until the German Consul made a temporary arrangement and his wife asked me for a small Bismarck painting for an art bazaar in Basel to support the wives and children of German soldiers.

Self portrait from 1898
At the moment I'm working on a large Bismarck painting, in colour of course, because it will be somewhat different to the "Union" (Publishing House) drawings. For my English spectators and their well known taste I had developed a very special method of executing portraits and I have received immense approval. Some kind of coloured drawing (watercolour). The Englishmen like water colours and not too large pictures and moderate prices. So I frequently did portraits of children in actual size, but only heads with less distinct shoulders, and with colour and my patent method the results were very tender artistic pieces, much prettier than pastels and more handy, as my paintings were fixed and durable.

With my huge experience in drawing I always finished within three short sessions, each up to 1 - 1¼ hours, and I delivered the paintings at a price of around 150 Marks, 7 to 10 pound, which was too cheap but nevertheless provided my travel budget with a good income. But in the few big cities in Australia and New Zealand, admirers of the fine arts were quickly served, yet no lasting customers could be raised such as those in towns like Hamburg or Berlin.

Sometimes I could do the work especially fast, e.g. if I lived in the homes of the customers. They sent a motor car to pick me up and I was driven 50 to 100 miles through the bush to the rich sheep farmers where I was recommended from one family to another and often made a whole genealogical gallery, from great-grandmother to a small baby. At the home of one family in New Zealand I made 25 portraits, in others 15 to 20. Once I broke a record, as the Englishmen say, by completing 21 portraits within 18 days. Well, this is something that makes you realize you how much you have done, but it was pleasant and all of them were carried out accurate, no modern scribbling, what is unacceptable as far as portraits are concerned.

You asked where I had been?

Allers' drawings of croquet scenes sometimes feature the children of wealthy patrons in elaborate garb. He considered himself a naturalist and seldom suggested personal emotion in his art.
You asked where I had been? I saw almost all of the world. Mostly in warm climates, as I consider winter unpleasant, and since I have all things I need to work with me, it would have been silly not to make use of the opportunity. In England, where I already knew London, Liverpool and Southampton, I visited smaller towns or provincial towns, some a little larger like Norwich for example, with more than 300.000 inhabitants, but old towns, not comparable to German towns of similar size. Since they all were ecclesiastical bishoprics with very old and major cathedrals, these towns are known as cathedral towns. Of course, on Sundays it is boring and you don't earn money from the really religious people, but in every small town you can find male lovers of fine arts, and my exhibitions were always well attended, as only low quality was produced in the portrait business everywhere, especially from so-called "Malweiber" (Paint-women), who had neither learned to draw, nor to paint.

For example I was in Chester, a very old town near Liverpool. In Preston, in Bolton near Manchester, Blackburn and Blackpool and St. Anne, Southport and Birkdale (north of Liverpool), in Plymouth, Norwich and often in London. Overseas I reached Canada, St. John and Montreal, California, San Francisco, New York and Boston. In the south seas it was Honolulu, several times, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, the Paumotu Lower islands and the Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga Islands, New-Zealand (Wellington, Aukland, Christchurch, Dunedin, etc.).

In Christchurch I lived with a friend, the mayor for several years. We painted, took photographs and enlarged them together, played gramophone and croquet, fished for eels and many kinds of sea fish, and besides several portraits, I did a lot of other pictures, some of them in antique Pompeii style. In Australia I lived most of the time in Botany near Sydney and in Melbourne. But also at Hobart in Tasmania (Van-Diemens Land), where I spent a lot of time in the bush doing portraits, in the reality surrounded by huge, happy kangaroos, small wallabies, big poisonous snakes and Tasmanian Tigers, a type of tiger-hyena dog.

In South Africa, I visited Cape Town

The Trojan youth Ganymede was the most attractive of all mortals, which prompted Zeus, in the form of an eagle, to abduct him for service as cup-bearer to the gods. This oil painting is signed "W. Andresen 1913," although it was done by Allers.
In South Africa, I visited Cape Town and Durban in Natal several times, and went to Montevideo frequently too, as well as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. I went around Cape Horn three times, once in a small English sailing ship, the "Letterewe", from Wellington to London in 120 days. In the South Seas, always on a small, leaking ship called "Tropic Bird", only about 250 tons and with a local crew from the Cook islands. We sailed and pumped from San Francisco through the whole of Oceania with a permanently merry crew from Aitutaki. Finally, all the leaks were stuffed, probably due to dirt or seaweed. The black cook did a good job, he even did Sauerkraut. Only one German seaman was on board, unfortunately he was washed overboard three days after our departure and drowned.

I traveled around the world eight or nine times, so I am a kind of "Flying Dutchman". I never denied being close to the sea. In Honolulu and San Francisco, Samoa, Sydney and New Zealand, I met with many of my old fellow marines. Some of them now as captains or as hoteliers, or as caraway or coconut planters, even copra shippers between the oceanic islands.

Now, I am at home in an unnatural rest, pasted and covered with plasters and newspapers and four cat skins, in order to keep some of the parts of my body at a high temperature. It's a new method developed by my physician, who declares he is acquainted with my illness and can heal me. On top of this I have rheumatism, all over my body, for which I am on a strawberry remedy. - Hope it will help, at least it tastes good.

So, now you know all about my traveling time.

It is wonderfully warm now, especially with the cat skins, but I am tropically trained.

Best regards to all of you
from Uncle Willy


In the realm of publicly shared knowledge forever impervious to fact or reason, Englishmen are gayer than Swedes, blonds have more fun, breakfast is more masculine than brunch, and croquet rhymes with gay.

Let’s be straight about it (to coin a phrase) because it’s a central element – maybe THE central element - in the complex public image of croquet that drives organizers and publicists like me crazy: As everyone knows, croquet is a fag game.

I’ve encountered this perception on many levels in promoting croquet locally and internationally over the last 30 years. It first came up in the high school programs I organized for private schools on the lawns of the San Francisco Croquet Club. Although the “fag” word was never said, it hovered in the background of the conversations with athletic directors, one of whom said, “All I have to do is enlist the most popular guy in the class, and it’s a done deal.” He was right. That’s when I discovered that for sophisticated youth of any age, croquet is so un-cool that it’s actually cool.

At the same time, I kicked off the club’s corporate programs by promoting them vigorously to businesses, charities, and social clubs. One of the largest and most active social clubs in town was the Men’s Exchange Club, with a published schedule of activities of all kinds for gay men, including events in the public parks with the museums and on the athletic fields.

The director the Men’s Exchange Club was blunt: He told me with a pitying look, “Croquet is just too gay. Our guys want to play an active, masculine sport, where you get all sweaty and have to take off your shirt. Like that.” He had a point. No body contact in croquet, no hitting the showers after the game. Therefore: A total waste of time!

The SFCC did host one overtly gay men’s group – the Asia-Pacific Alliance. Why didn’t they have a problem with croquet, too? Perhaps it was because the “gay Asian” stereotype is so well known that the Asians have no inclination to hide. In fact, playing croquet might be an ideal way of coming out and announcing, “I’m gay.”

Oddly, lesbians had no problem at all with croquet at the San Francisco Croquet Club. We did any number of lesbian birthday parties, with presumably some gay men in attendance, although no census was taken.

The issue was never explicitly broached in the After-School SuperSize croquet programs I helped develop at the National Croquet Center in Palm Beach County for three years in the public Middle Schools, but it was there all the same, looming in the background. Some 12-year-olds refused to play under any circumstances. This reaction was most overt among the descendant of slaves, who tended to band to together and sabotage my SuperSize groups.

I had thought this giant-sized equipment would help to “de-wimp” the sport, with its big balls and open, free spirit. The juveniles would not buy that notion for a second. They wouldn’t touch any form of croquet with a ten-foot mallet. Croquet was high on their peer group list of things which must NEVER be done.

Croquet was one of the first sports to welcome men and women together in direct competition and encourage mixing of the sexes. Its egalitarian spirit is an emblem of pride in an enlightened age. The prospect of gender separation still raises passions on both sides of the issue when “women only” events are proposed in international competition. It’s odd that a sport with this unusual distinction should be considered especially gay.

Maybe you’ve spotted already the huge irony in the broad public perception of croquet as a gay sport. It's simply that anyone with any doubts at all about their sexual orientation will not consider for a second taking up croquet: That would be a certain tip-off! As soon as people find out you play croquet, the question will be raised along with one eyebrow. Why risk it? If you’re gay and you play croquet, don’t worry about “coming out.” In the minds of your non-croquet friends, you will already have done it! If on the other hand you’re not gay and not inclined to worry about what other people think: Why not play croquet, if you're so inclined?

My thesis - supported by all the rhetoric above - is that croquet is actually the least gay of all the sports. But until someone does a Kinsey-based census of the players – and that would be quite an undertaking - it’s an unproven theory.

- Bob Alman, Editor


Joern Vinnen, 43, helped to found Deutscher Krocket Bund in 1997 and since then has remained chairman of the German association. He frequently manages national championships and international test matches in Germany. He has a handicap of eight and loves to play Golf Croquet. Joern lives with his family in Hamburg and also plays croquet with them. As an attorney, he specializes in family and probate law.

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