Friday, 1 December 2017

December: Dinner with Emerald at the Dorchester

Friday, 1st December  1944

"Joan Moore lunched with me at Wilton's.  She brought a huge sack which the waiters filled with oyster-shells for her hens.  It was so heavy that we had to wait for a taxi to pull up at the door.  [Joan Moore, the pianist, now Countess of Drogheda]

Emerald, Lady Cunard  (1872-1948)

It was with much reluctance that I dined with Emerald again tonight, but I had promised to do so earlier in the week.  I had a hot bath and set forth in the worst form, taking three books for her to read.  Met Peter Quennell downstairs in the Dorchester*.  We drank whisky and soda together and went up.  As so often when one least  expects it,  the dinner was hugely enjoyable.  There were the two Chaplins, and Alice Harding and Peter.  Anthony Chaplin told us what it felt like in the rear of a bomber with a gun.  He said the cold was quite appalling.  You were numb all the time, and sick. But the spirit of loyalty and camaraderie among the crew was such that it could only be described as pure love.  He said that in 1940 many of our planes were destroyed by bombs dropped from above by our own planes.

We talked of George Moore.  Emerald showed us a letter from him to her, beginning 'Dearest Maud', comparing her to Christ and Sophocles, and acclaiming her genius.  She was very modest about it.  Then she brought from her bedroom a large cardboard box, shook it and said, 'These are all letters to me from George Moore.  I cannot tell you what they are about.'  Peter tried to persuade her to let him go through them with her, but she was reluctant, not wanting them published.  Then she talked of Paris before 1914 and the affectation of Robert de Montesquiou -- who Peter said was the prototype of Charlus - and how he loved to be pressed to recite his own poems, leaning against a marble pedestalled bust in an absurd posture.  While she was telling this story I realised wherein her genius lay, for she has a prodigious memory, and a wonderful gift of narrative, spiced with a frivolity and humour which are unique, and totally irresistible.  It was an enjoyable evening because conversation was not a denigration of contemporary socialites whom I did not know, but about the recent historic past."

Prophesying Peace  James Lees-Milne, 1944

*American-born Maud 'Emerald' Cunard, the  famous society hostess, moved into a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel in her seventies, where she continued to entertain.  Lees-Milne frequently visited her or escorted her to social occasions, and became friendly with the Chaplins.   He later married Alvilde Chaplin, who became famous for her gardening books in the 1950s, even designing Mick Jagger's garden at his home in Amboise, France.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Esmond De Beer, a 20th century gentleman scholar

La Debacle sur la Seine,   Claude Monet 1880  © Dunedin Art Gallery NZ.

This atmospheric painting of the ice thawing on the Seine is now one of the stars in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand.  It was bought by Dr Esmond de Beer and his sisters in London, and was planned as a future legacy to their original home town of Dunedin in the South Island, New Zealand.  Its icy chill was so evocative, that at first they could not sit in the room where it hung, until the winter weather was past.  It is a large painting, some 63 by 50 cms and this reproduction does not really show the cold grey tones of the thawing river. 

This Monet was one of the paintings in the room where I worked as a very minor assistant to Dr de Beer, while he was preparing the final proofs of his major work on the philosopher John Locke, for the Clarendon Press, Oxford.    

Esmond de Beer in his study at Brompton Square, January 1976
© University of Otago NZ.

He had already produced the definitive modern edition of the Diary of John Evelyn, in six volumes, in 1955, and then began the even greater task of editing all the correspondence of John Locke, spanning  over fifty years, with meticulous scholarly notes and background, in eight volumes.  

John Locke, aged 40      John Greenhill, 1672
© National Portrait Gallery, London 

 It is difficult to realise the decades of dedicated work involved in transcribing from the original manuscripts the 3,648 surviving letters of Locke's postbag, many in Latin, French and Dutch.  Dr De Beer's research on often barely identifiable writers, publications, postal routes, addresses, philosophical and political topics discussed, and domestic and historical context, make his detailed accompanying notes a marvellous guide to the letters and the lives of their seventeenth century writers.    

Each volume completed ready for the Clarendon Press was a small celebration for everyone.  He and his sisters Mary and Dora were invariably kind to me:  bringing me back a cake from the Brompton Oratory bazaar, or sharing with me their pleasure when their tree peony bloomed,  and giving Christmas book tokens for my children.  Dr de Beer served on many committees, such as the Society of Antiquaries, the Hakluyt Society, the Historical Association and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and would show me rare volumes he was using from the London Library.  Occasionally he borrowed some of my medieval English texts, as he was always keen to add to his knowledge of English classics - although Gawain and the Green Knight was not to his taste.

Together, the family were discerning art collectors, acquiring an outstanding Claude Lorrain for Dunedin Art Gallery, and numerous old master engravings and other works;  fine original Japanese woodcuts, an Edward Lear watercolour and William Nicholson prints for example, were hung on the stairs.  

Esmond de Beer with his older sisters, Mary and Dora de Beer (rt.)
 at Brompton Square,   © Otago University Library, NZ

All three siblings were keen climbers, and would holiday each summer on Raasay, (like Boswell and Dr. Johnson) but Miss Dora was the real mountaineer as well as something of an anthropologist.    In 1938 she joined a climbing expedition to the peaks of Yulung Shan in S.W. China with five friends, setting out from Rangoon in August.  She describes their experiences in her Account of a Journey in S.W. China - Yunnan 1938,  published in 1971:
"We dropped steeply down from the pass.  In China nearly all the ranges we crossed were very steep and we were constantly either panting uphill or jarring our knees downhill.  It was warm and there was a big walnut tree.  It was pleasant to rest in the shade, crack nuts, and forget about everything but the present happy moments.  That often happened to me -- China was an enchanted land.  I wandered through it as if I were unrolling a Chinese scroll with trees and hills, and rivers and birds.  That was when it was going well, sometimes I was too weary and uncomfortable to do more than feel that the beauty was there, if only I could forget my tiresome body enough to look around with seeing eyes.  
We continued on down a valley with more rice fields, an occasional granite boulder protruding above the green of the rice  arousing geological interest.  Then a group of men with two mules overtook us, both men and mules carrying wooden casks, and the Chinese scroll turned into a Hokusai woodcut, as it quite often did." 

The back of Mt. Fuji from Minobu river   Katsukisha Hokusai

Dr de Beer made many substantial gifts in his lifetime to support research and scholarship, including the Bodleian Library (where his name is inscribed), and other libraries, museums, art galleries and learned societies in the UK and in New Zealand.  After his sisters died in 1981 and 1982,  the magnificent collection of 172 notable works of art that they had built up together, especially for their home town, was sent out to the Public Art Gallery in Dunedin.
"For a while after the crates were unpacked, 'J' gallery [sealed from the public] resembled a treasure trove.  There were paintings standing on pads around the walls and precious Chinese porcelain and other rarities were arrayed on trestles.  …an atmosphere of excited hush prevailed…every possible excuse was found to linger in the glittering room."  P. Entwisle, Treasures of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Dr Esmond de Beer, CBE  (1895-1990)
©  Otago University Library

I feel very privileged to have met this remarkable New Zealand historian and his generous lively-minded sisters.

University of Otago,  Dunedin, New Zealand   (N. H. Hamilton,

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Fifth of November: the "never to be forgotten delivery of this day"

The foiled attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 was celebrated through that century with services of thanksgiving on November 5th, as John Evelyn records 350 years ago:

"Our Viccar preached on 121 Psal: 4 - [Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep] -shewing the gracious effects of Trusting in God. &c: his universal Vigilancy for his Church:" Diary   1667
He had lived through London's Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed the late medieval St Paul's and he would see its rebuilding in Wren's neoclassical Baroque design, the great dome replacing the old tower on the City skyline.

The Houses of Parliament on fire,  16th October1834

The old Westminster Palace buildings were eventually destroyed by fire, caused like the 1666 fire by human accident, when the burning of thousands of old revenue tally sticks got out of control.

While Wren is rebuilding St Paul's in the new Italianate style, Evelyn continues to record the yearly November 5th thanksgiving services, with occasional comments on changing times.

"…I, indisposed… could not go to Church this day, to my great sorrow, it being the first Gunpowder conspiracy Anniversary, that had ben kept now this 80 yeares, under a Prince of the Roman Religion: Bonfires forbidden &c:  What dos this portend ? "  Diary 1685

"Mr Stringfellow preached at Trinity Church on 2 Cor: 1.10:   [Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us;]   This Festival was celebrated with Illuminations, that is by setting up innumerable lights & candles in the windows towards the streete, in stead of Squibbs & Bonefires, much mischiefe having ben don by Squibbs:  Illumination was the custome, long since in Italy [& France:] & now introduced here:
The Parliament now sate:"  Diary 1691

In contrast to St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style, looking back to our national heritage, and so those two iconic London landmarks  were shaped by fire, genius, and contemporary attitudes.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

November: Drawn in Kensington - Linley Sambourne House

Linley Sambourne, the famous Punch cartoonist posing

Sunday, 1st November 

"I called for Anne Rosse at her uncle's house in Stafford Terrace, a house bought by her grandfather, Linley Sambourne, the  Punch cartoonist of the 1880s.  It is a period piece, untouched.  It is choc-a-bloc with art nouveau. The Morris-papered walls are plastered with old photographic groups and Sambourne drawings, the frames touching each other, weird clocks galore, stained-glass windows, Victorian walking-sticks and parasols.  Anne and I walked round the pretty back streets by Holland Park, and took a bus to the Ritz, where Michael joined us at 1 o'clock and Oliver [Messel]* at 2 o'clock.  We talked over the luncheon table till 4.  Oliver is a camouflage major in Norwich.  He has discovered Ivory's  disused Assembly Rooms, made them into his headquarters, and is redecorating them."
[*Artist and designer, brother of Lady Rosse] 

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne 1942

The rich, darkly cluttered Victorian interiors of Linley and Marion Sambourne's Kensington home are  just as Lees-Milne describes, but relieved by lamps, mirrors, and the light reflecting off the glass-framed pictures and photographs covering the walls,

Two views of the Drawing Room  
© Linley Sambourne collection, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

This family home at 18 Stafford Terrace was part of the artistic life of Kensington in the 1880s, dominated by Lord Leighton in nearby Holland Park  Road.  It was preserved almost unchanged by Lady Rosse, remembering her happy childhood, and the Victorian Society, until it was passed to the local authority and opened to the public in 1980.

Linley Sambourne made a good living from his drawings for Punch, but he had to follow the editor's directions.  He wrote to James Whistler  to warn him that he would be satirised for his libel case against the critic John Ruskin, who had so strongly derided Whistler's Falling Rocket  painting.  "I am in a manner obliged to take up any subject the editor points out….I have every sympathy with you in what must be a most trying and irritating time".

Working to deadlines and aiming for a range of accurately drawn characters,  he used posed photographs as a source for figures in his cartoons, and turned one of the bathrooms into a workroom, with a marble-lined developing tank in place of the bath.

Marion Sambourne posing for a Punch cartoon drawing © RBKC Sambourne collection

He used family and servants for these photos, and professional models for artistic and nude poses;  when I first visited in the 1980s many of these were hung in the workroom;  I still remember one (maidservant or model?) of a nude young woman in profile, wearing nothing but a pair of black stockings, and looking as unconcerned as if she were just washing dishes.

As well as the stylish 'aesthetic' furnishings, the family records, photographs, diaries and correspondence were also preserved, now part of the Linley Sambourne archives;  Marion Sambourne's diaries in particular give a fascinating picture of daily life for a well-off Victorian  family and their artist friends.

and see: Stafford Terrace;  The Holland Park Circle, Susan Dakers 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

October: John Evelyn - home thoughts from abroad

Friday 1st October 1943

"A taxi motored me to Wotton House where I lunched and spent the afternoon.  Today it belongs to John Evelyn, just as it belonged to the diarist John Evelyn in the seventeenth century.

  Pen drawing of Wotton House, by Evelyn 1640.  © British Library, Evelyn Archive

It is a long rambling, untidy house.  The nucleus of it is Jacobean, and a few rich doorways of that period survive upstairs.  But the present Evelyn's grandfather spoilt the house in every conceivable way in the 1870s. In the hideous Ruskin-style library are many rare books, including some 200 of Evelyn's own; also royal seals, miniatures and nineteenth-century busts.  There are innumerable family portraits , including three of John Evelyn, of which the Kneller is the most remarkable.

John Evelyn, c.1687  by Sir Godfrey Kneller  © The Royal Society 

There is a table carved by Grinling Gibbons, whom Evelyn discovered, and an Italian ebony cabinet* in which Evelyn's manuscript diaries were found.  The army have occupied most of the house during the war.  They allowed a fire to blacken the original door cases, walls and ceiling of the dining-room.  Could Evelyn have called in Wren to design this room?.  The garden, now a wilderness, has a mound cut into terraces by Evelyn, and below it a temple on Doric columns, which he built.  All the trees are magnificent, and the beeches are said to have been planted by him."

Ancestral Voices   James Lees-Milne 

John Evelyn travelled extensively in France and Italy as a young man during the Civil War.  In his Diary he records (exhaustively) all the palaces, gardens, churches and art treasures he saw in France and the great cities of Italy:  visiting Genoa, Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Leghorn, Rome and Naples. Full of interesting insights, describing the people and customs,  he only occasionally mentions the food and weather, unless it affected his progress. He travelled by coach, on horse-back, and felucca (subject to storms) and by horse-drawn barge and boat from Bologna and Ferrara along the Po marshes to embark for Venice.  From Venice he journeyed home via Switzerland (he was ill with smallpox in Geneva) and France, where he married the English ambassador's young daughter, Mary Browne, in June 1647.  He left Paris for Calais at the end of September 1647, where he had first arrived four years before, and reached London late on 2nd October.

John Evelyn in 1648  by Robert Walker  © National Portrait Gallery

Having only just returned myself from Bologna airport, after several long days of amazing sightseeing in the Emilia-Romagna, I was struck by this poem Evelyn wrote in Naples in February 1645, well before his travels were ended.  Was he remembering the tranquil family home and its gardens at Wotton? 

"I left this Ode, …as the Non ultra of my Travells; sufficiently sated with rolling up and downe, and resolving with my selfe to be no longer an Individuum vagum, if ever I got home againe;...

Happy the man who lives content
With his own Home, & Contintent:
Those chiding streames his banks do curb
Esteemes the Ocean to his Orb;
Round which when he a Walke dos take,
Thinks t'have perform'd as much as Drake:
For other tongues he takes no thought
Then what his Nurse or Mother taught:
He's not disturb'd with the Rude Cries
Of the Procaccio's Up & Rise;
But being of his Faire possess'd
From Travelling sets up his rest:
In her soft armes no sooner hurl'd
But he enjoys another World,
Scornes Us who Travell Lands & Seas,
Thinkes there's no countries like to his:
If then at Home, such Joyes be had,
Oh, how un-wise are We, how Mad!"

Diary of  John Evelyn  edited E.S. De Beer

*I wrote about Evelyn's Italian ebony cabinet in an earlier blog (Jan 2016): see  "A Collector's Cabinet"

Sunday, 17 September 2017

"The Farthing Poet", a Victorian individualist

Charles Dickens is known for the many remarkable characters in his novels, but among his large circle of acquaintances there was one person that he might have hesitated to create as fictional, best known as 'Orion Horne'.

Widely travelled, a poet, playwright, journalist and social reformer, unsuccessfully married, self- invented and enterprising, young Richard Henry Horne had left Sandhurst in 1820, aged just 18. Inspired by Shelley to become a poet in 1823, just two years later he sailed with the Mexican Navy and fought at Vera Cruz. Chambers' Dictionary describes this early career somewhat breathlessly:

"having survived yellow fever, sharks, broken ribs, shipwreck, mutiny and fire, he returned to England and took up writing."

Horne was known for his Spanish guitar playing, his cape and his theatrical whiskers and moustache, among his interconnecting circles of friends and colleagues in London.

Richard Henry Horne, c. 1840    Margaret Gillies*   © National Portrait Gallery London 

These poets, editors and publishers included Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and the Quaker writers William and Mary Howitt, William Macready the Drury Lane impresario, Charles Dickens (whom he met in Macready's dressing room) and Dickens' biographer John Forster.   

William and Mary Howitt,  miniature by Margaret Gillies 
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

Horne wrote for their new topical journals on many subjects and styles, often using exotic pseudonyms, through the 1830s, but his real ambition lay in his Jacobean-style verse dramas, (e.g. The Death of Marlowe, 1837).    He campaigned for a Society for English Literature and Art, to support "men of superior ability" against "the False Medium and Barriers excluding Men of Genius from the Public" and felt that "all departments of human genius and knowledge" should combine for the good of man.

In 1839 he began writing to Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) who contributed to his edition of Chaucer's Poems, Modernised.  This was published in 1841, when Horne was working in Wolverhampton as a government Assistant Commissioner reporting on child labour in mines and factories.  His detailed report  inspired Elizabeth Barrett to write The Cry of the Children in 1843.  He compares a rich child practising the piano, with a poor factory child striking a wrong key on a machine and losing its fingers, and reveals that when these neglected children pray "Our Father", they think that is the whole prayer.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Italy, 1858   Michele Giordiani

1843 also saw the publication of his major epic poem Orion, to general praise, and for which he is best known, as 'Orion Horne', partly through his own publicity.  It was to be sold for one farthing exactly, and only to those who pronounced its title correctly; this was his riposte to the public neglect of poetry.
He was also successful with his critical biographies (helped by Elizabeth Barrett), A New Spirit of the Age in 1844 and his popular children's book Memoirs of a London Doll in 1846.  Unwisely marrying  Kate Foggo in 1847, he began working on Dickens' new monthly journal Household Words in 1850. 

By 1852, abandoning his marriage, his old wanderlust and unsatisfied ambition sent him sailing to the Australian goldfields with fellow writer William Howitt, where he commanded Melbourne's Private Gold Escort in the outback.

One of many books written by Howitt, based on his and Horne's early years in the outback.

During a chequered career as writer and administrator,  he was ousted from his position as area magistrate in a controversy over illegal liquor sales, and in the 1860s produced a lyrical drama Prometheus, and other epic poems which he felt were unappreciated. Disillusioned, he sailed for England in 1869,  still writing poems, articles, plays and romances for periodicals, now under the name of Richard Hengist Horne, possibly (or not) appropriating the name from someone he met in the  outback. He survived on a government pension,  as "a literary doyen, producing many new works all artistically worthless"** until his death in 1884.

A chameleon figure in the Victorian literary world, he pioneered new styles and new ideas in his writing:  Dickens' symbolic dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend were partly inspired by one of Horne's articles.  But perhaps his greatest legacy was his detailed report for the Child Labour Commission in 1841, contributing to the 1847 Ten Hour Act and Lord Shaftesbury's successful campaigning.

The Cry of the Children 
" Do you hear the children weeping,…
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
Through the coal-dark, underground --
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round,…"

E. Barrett Browning, 1843

*Margaret Gillies made a successful career for herself as a rare independent woman artist, known for her portraits of many public figures.  She was also one of Horne's friends, illustrating his children's  books.
 ** according to Ann Blainey, Horne's biographer: "The Farthing Poet," 1968 

Monday, 4 September 2017

September: a visit to Constable country

Willy Lott's Cottage, Dedham Vale;  watercolour, grey ink   John Constable 1832  © British Museum 

Friday, 1st September
"A crisp, chilly morning, with that whiff of melancholy in the air.  Autumn is well on the way.  I would not mind if only I felt well, clear-headed and un-drugged.  Sisson* took me to Flatford Mill which the N.T. has acquired.  I love Constable, but I do not love this place.  It has been made a travesty of the totally unpretentious, rural, domestic scene of one of England's greatest painters.  Today the manor house is too picture postcardy for words.  Willy Lott's Cottage is abominably whimsy inside.  Sisson favours whitewashing or white painting all interior beams, I am glad to say. I concur with nearly all his ideas.  The Mill itself is still relatively unspoilt, and the island garden, with fat box hedges and old apple trees is full of charm.

We drove to Thorington Hall.  It has a rather neglected look, and the furniture inside -- well!  The house has had evacuees, and not been inhabited as a private house since the war, which explains much.

Thorington Hall's landmark octagonal, star-topped chimneys at Stoke-by-Nayland

Paycocke's House  elaborate carved frontage 

I left the Sissons after luncheon, and drove to Paycocke's, that hideously over-restored house in Coggeshall.  The tenants' bogus French furniture most inappropriate.  Sisson and I would like to whitewash all the harsh new brick nogging on the street elevation."

Prophesying Peace  James Lees-Milne 1944

Dedham Vale and Dedham Church  John Constable 1828 
© National Gallery of Scotland

Flatford Mill, Thorington Hall, and Paycocke's House in Coggeshall, near Colchester  were all acquired by the National Trust.  They represent the prosperity of the Stour and other  East Anglian river valleys where, like the medieval monks before them, Tudor butchers progressed from keeping  flocks of sheep to becoming wealthy cloth merchants, with river transport to major ports like Ipswich (where Cardinal Wolsey's father was a butcher-cum-grazier and merchant). By the eighteenth century cloth manufacture moved north and the cloth-fulling mills were converted to grain mills, like Flatford, where the Constable family farmed, and shipped their flour down to Pin Mill near Ipswich.

Dedham Lock and Mill   John Constable 1820  ©V&A Museum

*Marshall Sisson was an architect who lived in Shermans House in Dedham; in August the next year Lees-Milne stayed with the Sissons for the weekend:  "Sisson and I walked to Flatford Mill, where we watched the milling crowds bathing, running, jumping and enjoying themselves".  Prophesying Peace  1945  James Lees-Milne

Maybe they walked along Fen Lane, which was Constable's boyhood path from East Bergholt to school in Dedham?

Fen Lane, East Bergholt  John Constable 1817  © Tate Britain