"Saturday Night at the Opium Club"
Billy Etsy

One of the more unusual painters in the Depressionist School, Etsy was a member of the same opium club as Samuel Taylor Coleridge of "Kubla Kahn" fame. He had been mightily impressed by Coleridge's 1816 poem, and was one of the few people who heard the completed poem all the way through. He also revered the poet's 1798, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." 

One night at the Altered Estates Opium Club where they were members, Etsy and Coleridge began a discussion of the vivid imagery in both poems just before the opium kicked in. This painting is the result of Etsy's opium fugue, begun the next day while the dream was still fresh in his mind. During its first gallery viewing it was a succès d'estime, praised by critics for imagery and technique but disparaged by the average gallery viewer¹.

Etsy's opium dream combined elements of the two Coleridge poems which the painter tried his best to reproduce in oils. It shares the voluptuousness of "Kubla," with the nude and partially-draped youth in and around the golden swan boat, and the approaching horror of "Mariner," in the setting, with swimmers in the Thames– little better than a stinking sewer in 1832– and the approaching "pea-souper" smog bank, a mix of normal London sea fog with the sulphur-laden smoke of a million coal stoves. Such smogs routinely killed hundreds whenever they appeared.

Flattered by the critics and undaunted by the public scorn, Etsy produced several other paintings set on the polluted Thames, most notably "Cleopatra's Arrival in the East London Docklands," notable for the dead dogs floating near the nude swimmers, and "Musidora: Bather in the London Estuary," notorious for its realistic depiction of slime on the nude female form.

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¹An Average Gallery Viewer Review subscriber poll put the painting in first place for the 1832 WTF award, similar to the present-day Golden Raspberry award for clueless movies.

 

 

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