ON THE SHELF – THE ROY STRONG DIARIES

In 1959, Roy Strong became an assistant keeper at London’s National Portrait Gallery and was appointed as its Director in 1967. Young, flamboyant and energetic, Strong worked tirelessly to bring the Gallery into the 20th century and to mount exhibitions that would appeal to a wide range of visitors, from those who knew little about art to those who were some of the country’s greatest collectors.

In 1973, Strong became the youngest ever director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Again, Strong set about putting the collections into modern order and putting on shows that were meant to shake up the status quo, including his legendary exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House, which raised awareness of the loss of so many of the country’s stately homes and helped to energize the efforts of the heritage sector. Strong has also written columns for several newspapers and magazines and has written books on history, design and gardening, a personal passion of his.

I came across the Strong diaries on a recent trip to Hatchard’s, London. Many of you will already be aware of my fondness for diaries – this is the most contemporary of my collection. As with any good diary, the author has to have a keen eye for detail, a modicum of wit and the ability to use snark to good effect. Strong does not disappoint. Strong’s diaries chart his career, the inner workings of two of London’s greatest museums, and provide insight into the personalities of the day and those who comprise the circle in which he moves. A favourite of the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Cecil Beaton, Strong also documents the last hoorah of many society stars from an earlier age. Here is just a sample of the entries within –

18 December 1969 – The event of the day was Lady Adean’s drinks party. There is a custom that once a year just before Christmas those who have grace and favour residences all give parties on the same evening, or at least those who have windows which look out on to the inner courtyard of St. James’s Palace. In the middle blazed two coke-filled braziers supplied, I was told, free of charge by the gas company, while an ancient lamplighter lit the gas lamps surrounding the courtyard. At seven promptly the Bach Choir entered in procession, carrying candles and singing carols. Within, the chatter and clink of glasses stopped, and everyone moved towards the windows to look down and listen. It was enchanting.

Sybil Sassoon, Countess of Rocksavage by John Singer Sargent, 1913

16 March 1970 – A party by Sybil Cholmondeley at her residence at No. 12 Kensington Palace Gardens – I was ushered through to the drawing room at the back of the house overlooking the gardens, a huge room in discoloured green with a chimneypiece at either end, in both of which a log fire blazed. Over one hung the famous Oudry of a dead swan, over the other a portrait by Sargent of the hostess, in the guise of an Infanta by Coello. From this one gathered that in her day she had been a great beauty. . . The other guests were the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, William Plomer, the poet, and Lady Fermoy . . . The Duke was twitchy as usual, the Duchess complaining that she only had an hour and a half to choose fabrics for clothes at Liberty’s. They formed a great contrast, he somewhat shambling, she with not a hair out of place. She hates plays, opera and most ballet, and anything that in any way constrains her. He in sharp contrast, admitted to loving them all.

Lady Diana Cooper

16 June 1970 – Diana Cooper’s Warwick Avenue house always seems solidly 1930’s romantic in mood . . . she has a timeless magic which cuts across the generations and makes differences in age irrelevant. She’s still beautiful, with that delicate bone structure and those huge pale aquamarine eyes which always slay me . . . She was making one of her specials when I arrived, that lethal mix of vodka, grapefruit juice and mint of which I have learned to beware. Before I could say anything she grabbed me by the arm saying, ‘Such a disaster. At 12:30 I went to check that everything was in order and found that the cook was coming tomorrow . . . and such a distinguished luncheon party.’ . . . . The result of this catastrophe was that the party ended up in the Maida Vale Steakhouse, a typical hostelry of the late Sixties with tartan on the walls, plastic table tops and imitation leather banquettes. . . So there we were, an ex Prime Minister (Harold Macmillan), a marquess and marchioness (Salisbury wearing a straw hat engulfed in white net), an ex-American ambassador, myself and Diana Phipps, who had just bought a foot by Rubens in the Portobello Road . . . By the evening news of this bizarre gathering had reached the Evening Standard. What it showed was that Diana was unsinkable.

26 June 1970 – I went on . . . to visit Shirburn Castle at Watlington to inspect the Macclesfield collection for an Estate Duty Office evaluation. No one had been able to get into the place for years and the family had a reputation for eccentricity. The castle was, it seemed, Regency Gothic with a moat and drawbridge but it left me totally unprepared for the pileup of tat and junk within. Lord Macclesfield made a brief appearance in a plebeian cloth cap and overalls, carrying a cardboard box, for all the world like a removal man. I was taken around by his son, Lord Parker, and the pictures were staggering, the dining room lined with seven Stubbs and a great Hogarth. Later I learned that the Macclesfields were so disliked that the locals burnt down their model farm.

3 – 5 July 1970 – A weekend at Boughton – Viewing Boughton from the road the average person would wonder what kind of institution this vast pile now was. But, oh no, every bit of it is lived in still. The front is late seventeenth century, very French in style, and there’s a huge stable-block to the left with a cupola. . . In the middle there’s a grass courtyard with beds of lavender and sweet-smelling climbers . . . I concluded that it was the smell, or rather fragrance, of the house which was so magical, the white morning room scented with lilies, the unforgettable ancient linen (I saw sheets dated 1811), the curious faint odour of the tapestries, one of which was tossed across my bed as a counterpane.

Mary (Mollie), Duchess of Buccleuch, at the coronation of George VI in 1937

Mollie Buccleuch (nee Mary “Mollie” Lascelles) would be a bonus to any great house, for both her energy and her enthusiasm appear to be unending.  A complete tour of the house is obligatory and that includes the attics, where sixty tapestries exist rolled in bundles and where Catherine of Bragaza’s marriage furniture is stored. It takes three hours non-stop and there’s no sympathy for stragglers. Those that didn’t make it, like John Pope-Hennessy, who spent one weekend there . . . aren’t asked again. Mollie leads with her sing-song voice with its 1930s inflections. Walter Buccleuch lets it all wash over him, a P.G. Wodehouse duke in baggy tweeds, but noble in his way and extremely sweet-natured.

5 June 1979 – One of the V&A’s branches was Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner. Relations with the Wellingtons were never easy. They got off to a bad start in 1974 when I allowed the Byron Society in for a glass of sherry after they had laid a wreath at the statue of Byron close by, on a freezing winter’s day. That prompted a very long letter from the Duke saying how his ancestor, the first Duke, had not approved of Byron and that these poor members of the Byron Society should never have been allowed in. Apsley House in fact belonged to the nation and the Wellingtons were merely tenants, a fact of which from time to time one had to remind them.

We are just about to purchase the famous Wellington Egyptian service for 350 thousand pounds. Valerian Wellesley is a very stupid man. Indeed there have been no brains in the family since the first Duke and no money. They have huge Capital Transfer Tax debts to meet and they are broke. Neither the present, nor the future duchess has brought any money in. The saga began with Valerian Wellington being asked for a boar hunt weekend with the President of France. After this he had the nerve to ask for one of the military banners, taken by the first Duke from Napoleon’s army and hung at Apsley House, to give as a ‘thank you’ present to the President. I put him down rather forcefully on that one. At any rate it was during that weekend that the service was apparently sold to the French. The Reviewing Committee for Works of Art, of course, stopped it, much to his fury. That transaction then became public, also to his fury, as he is now seen as someone thoughtless of the national heritage, selling it abroad. It will mean that as a result of the purchase the Museum (the V&A) will be broke again as usual, but it will be worth it.

 * * *

The diaries of Sir Roy Strong continue in a volume that covers 1988 – 2003, which I plan on reading as soon as possible.

ON THE SHELF: IN PRAISE OF OLD BOOKS

by Louisa Cornell – originally published June 26, 2017

Regular visitors to Number One London have read of my obsession with research books written on the Regency era. I collect them with a fervor just short of that of the Regency’s most avaricious bibliomaniac. As a subdivision of my obsession, I want to tell you a bit about my relationship with research books written during the Regency era. What the latest generation of twenty-somethings would call ancient books.

I currently own slightly over 500 research books about the Regency era. They are catalogued online at LibraryThing  which is one of the earliest online cataloguing services. I understand there are far more platforms now, but this one has served me well and the community is without peer when it comes to discussing and admiring the libraries of its members. My library is listed as public, which means it can be viewed by any member of LibraryThing. Here’s the link to my Regency Research Book collection, which comprises 1/6th of the books I have catalogued so far. I won’t tell you how many of my books are not catalogued. The number frightens even me.

As dearly as I love my Regency research books, those books written and published during or just after the Regency era are my most prized. Why? It isn’t the monetary value nor the cache of having antique books to display on my shelves. I live in the middle of nowhere and my library is hardly ever seen by anyone else. My old books have incalculable value to me for two reasons.

Their proximity to the era about which or during which they are written puts my research as close to the source as I can reach. Ask anyone who is a fanatic about a certain period and place in history and they will tell you, whether it be visiting an exhibit of clothing sewn and worn during said era or reading a copy of a book written and printed during that era, extant resources are the best. To be able to actually look at an item, be it a Manton pistol or a single-lens quizzing glass or a lady’s corset, transports a person into a place as near to the era as they will ever be absent a teleporting police box, a ring of Scottish stones, or an acquaintance with a couple of gentlemen named Bill and Ted. Books written about an era during that era or shortly afterwards offer the very best view into not only the subject matter, but also into the mind of the writer. An invaluable view to have.

For instance,

1829 Edition Paterson’s Roads
Title Page Paterson’s Roads 1829 Edition

 

 

Foldout map from Paterson’s Roads 1829 Edition

Paterson’s Roads was one of the essential travel atlases of the Regency era. Those huge, unwieldy spiral bound atlases one can purchase at rest stops, restaurants, and in no less a location that Walmart have nowhere near the elegance of this volume, but they serve the same purpose. With Paterson’s Roads in hand a Regency gentleman, an ambitious coachman, or a young lady looking to escape an unwanted marriage might find his or her way nearly anywhere the road might take them. My copy has a bit of scuffing about the cover, but it does include all eight foldout maps intact, a rarity. It also has the added thrill, mixed with a bit of sadness, of coming from the library of a country house. The new owners of Lowick Hall in Cumbria have parted with large portions of the home’s library in order to afford renovations necessary to maintain the house. Their loss is my gain, but I cannot help but wonder at whose hands have touched this book before me and what adventures it took them on before it made its way across the Pond to me.

I own two editions of The Stately Homes of England, Illustrated with 210 Engravings on Wood by Llewellyn Jewitt. One is the 1877  two-volume first edition published in England and the other is volume one of the 1878 edition published in the United States. The British edition was an intentional purchase from a book dealer in Saxmundham, England. The American edition I came upon at a flea market and I simply could not leave it there to languish unappreciated. This book allows me to see these stately homes, many of them gone now, through the eyes of both a writer and an engraver who lived only slightly removed from the Regency era. One cannot put a price on their vision. And the wood engravings are exquisite.

Stately homes of England by Llewellyn Jewitt 1877 edition

My 1890 edition of Glimpses of Old English Homes, Illustrated with drawings and portraits by Elizabeth Balch is a bit worse for wear. As with all of my old books it is carefully wrapped and preserved and I wear gloves when I consult it. She is a fragile old girl, but the information and illustrations and the scholarly research conducted by the author provide myriad little details a researcher more removed from the era might never have the opportunity to see.

Glimpses of Old English Homes by Elizabeth Balch 1890 edition
Front page Glimpses of Old English Homes by Elizabeth Balch 1890 Edition

In addition to these three beauties, I own a few more ancient books, as my nephew would call them. I have an 1860 edition of William Makepeace Thackery’s The Four Georges – Sketches of Manners, Morals, Court and Town Life. This book is both entertaining and informative and tells me in no uncertain terms what the author thought of the Georgian era and the people who made the era what it was.

I also have an 1821 edition of Real Life in London: On the Rambles and Adventure of Bob Tallyho, Esq. and His Cousin, the Hon. Tom Dashall through the Metropolis; Exhibiting a Living Picture of Fashionable Characters, Manners, and Amusements in High and Low Life. By an Amateur. Embellished and Illustrated with a Series of Coloured Prints, Designed and Engraved by Messrs. Heath, Alken, Dighton, Brooke, Rowlandson, &c. London: Printed for Jones & Co. This is a fun read and rife with all sorts of ideas for stories set in the Regency era. This is actually an imitation of the original work by Pierce Egan. However, this particular imitation is the one Egan is said to have favored the most. I have to agree with him.

Also on my shelf is The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year 1804 which was actually published in 1806. This is the sort of volume one would have lying about the library or the lounge of a club or anywhere someone might want to pass a few hours reading articles about various subjects as they appeared in the year noted. I cannot tell you how fascinating it is to pick up this book and immerse myself in the major, minor, and every level in between events of a single year during the Regency era.

I also have an 1818 edition of One Hundred Sixteen Sermons, Preached Out of the First Lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer, For all Sundays in the Year by William Reading, M.A. This book is especially close to my heart as it was given to me by a dear friend who knew how much I would treasure it. The inscription of the first owner is dated December 29, 1818. December 29th is my birthday. Reading the sermons probably has not made me a more pious person, but it has given me insight into the religious year and into the way people of this era practiced and thought of their faith.

I said before, there are two reasons I treasure these extant resources so very much. The second reason has nothing to do with monetary value, research value or their usefulness to me as a writer of Regency historical romances. It has to do with me as a human being. My Native American ancestors say “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.”

That spiritual experience is what I have when I hold these books in my hand. When I curl up in a chair with a cup of Earl Grey and a plate of Walker’s shortbread and read the same pages someone from another time and place read I feel a connection, a tie to those long ago readers. I wonder about their lives, their hopes, and their reasons for owning and reading these books before me. When each of these books arrived, I spent a great deal of time holding it and turning it over and over again in my hands. I guess that makes me some sort of book geek, at best, and a book weirdo, at worst. Guilty as charged.

There is a reverence to the written word. Those of us who know the importance of words, of their preservation in these old books, can see as others do not the intangible connection books provide from one era to another, from one person to another, and from one soul to another. The electronic age has provided us with access to plenty of old books via inter-library loan and Google books. I do a great deal of my research this way. I confess if a book is particularly helpful I let the Harvard Bookstore print a Google book up for me. They are cute little volumes and the script and text are presented exactly as they appear in the originals.

In the end, there is simply something about holding a stalwart leather bound volume in my hand and carefully turning the pages of a book other souls thought important enough, for any number of reasons, to preserve so that I might treasure it all over again. In that moment, I understand them. Their soul speaks to mine. And as important as our connection to each other is, we can learn a great deal from our connection to those who have come before us. Old books give us that chance – to connect, to learn, and to grow on our human journey, and our spiritual one.

 

ON THE SHELF: A COLOURED CANVAS

Guest post by author Corille Fraser

 

A Coloured Canvas, Lives, loves and losses in the artistic heart of Regency England

This is a novel about Sir Thomas Lawrence but, as the sub-title suggests, it is much more than a biography of the 18th/ 19th century portrait painter who was only six when he started impressing patrons at his father’s Black Bear Inn by sketching their pictures. The story is full of engaging characters and is told with humour and insight into the world of Regency Bath and London in the years from the American and French Revolutions, through the Napoleonic Wars and the accession of George IV to the coming of the railway, but it touches also on some of the political events and personalities of the era.

All sorts of people stopped at the Black Bear on their way from London to Bath, among them actors including David Garrick and, perhaps, the young Sarah Siddons, as yet unknown but on her way to becoming the leading tragedienne of the period. Did he draw her likeness then? Did she recognise in the boy and herself potentials for greatness? Was that the beginning of the long and tempestuous relationship between the renowned artist and the Siddons family?

Sarah Siddons

Using extensive research into letters, newspapers and comment of the time, I explored the influence his father and many close friends exerted on Lawrence’s career as it developed from West country sketcher to portraitist of Kings and Queens, Popes and Emperors, Prime Ministers, distinguished ladies, diplomats and sportsmen. I singled out some of his subjects for their particularly intriguing stories. Among those are the beautiful but confused Mr Bell, the unprepossessing but clever Irish politician, Mr Curran, the irascible artist, Henry Fuseli, neither rival nor admirer. Children and their pets were particular favourites as of course were members of the Siddons/ Kemble family.

Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1790

Every year from 1789 when he was twenty, his work was to be seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition. His best known studies though not always his best liked were ‘Pinky’, a wintry portrait of Miss Elizabeth Farren and the gigantic ‘Satan’ in which he blended the most imposing features of two friends: the handsome head of actor John Philip Kemble and the powerful body of champion boxer ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson.

The distinguished career was not without its problems. Despite his huge output and ever-increasing income, he was never out of debt and yet he was known to be far from profligate in his personal life. His family, which he supported, not unwillingly, for most of his life, was a financial burden; he spent, often unwisely, on works of art and the latest domestic innovations like a plumbed (but cold water) bath. His friends and advisers, Joseph Farington and John Julius Angerstein helped him organize his budget and kept him out of the bankruptcy court.

And throughout his life at all its stages, Sarah Siddons, her actor brothers Kemble, her husband-manager William who disliked and disapproved of Thomas, and above all her two daughters, sweet Sally and selfish Maria, contenders for his love in their different ways. An intense, difficult triangle that drove him to the brink of madness—or was it a quadrangle? Lawrence was to live out his life as a bachelor, his name, probably but not certainly, platonically linked with several women. His friendship with Sarah Siddons diminished but endured till his death at the age of 60 in 1830.

Note: A Coloured Canvas is available on both Google Books and Amazon.  Corille was born in Scotland, lives in Australia and has a background in theatre and radio. You can visit her website here.

 

ON THE SHELF – PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR: A LIFE IN LETTERS

by Kristine Hughes Patrone

Selected and edited by Adam Sisman, a New York Review Book, 2016 (available through Amazon)

I have so much to thank James Lees Milne for, really. It was through reading his diaries and letters that I have found so many flamboyant, larger-than-life, madcap and  interesting people. He introduced me to a circle of his friends and acquaintances and a time period that has become one of my favourite: England between and just after the War(s). One of the people Mr. Lees-Milne introduced me to is Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose author bio on Amazon reads thus:

“In December 1933, at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) walked across Europe, reaching Constantinople in early 1935. He travelled on into Greece, where in Athens he met Balasha Cantacuzene, with whom he lived – mostly in Rumania – until the outbreak of war. Serving in occupied Crete, he led a successful operation to kidnap a German general, for which he won the DSO and was once described by the BBC as ‘a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene’. After the war he began writing, and travelled extensively round Greece with Joan Eyres Monsell whom he later married. Towards the end of his life he wrote the first two books about his early trans-European odyssey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He planned a third, unfinished at the time of his death in 2011, which has since been edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper and published as The Broken Road.”

A potted history, to be sure, and a fuller bio can be found on Wikipedia. A respected British author and travel writer, PLF also felt a pull to Greece, where he travelled extensively and eventually built a house along with his wife, Joan.

Desk in Fermor’s garden near Kardamyli, 2007 copyright R. de Salis, Wikipedia

But it’s PLF’s circle of friends, also his correspondents, that make this book so interesting. Here again we meet Duff and Diana Cooper, the Devonshires, Andrew and Debo, Evelyn Waugh, Ann Fleming, Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell and a host of others who seemingly all lived out sized lives and who are all people with whom one would have loved to share the odd shaker of martinis. The one slight quibble I had with this book is that it only contains PLF’s letters to people, and none from them, but this can hardly be seen as a flaw when the writing is this good.

While in an army hospital in Surrey recovering from pneumonia in February, 1940, PLF wrote the following to Adrian Pryce-Jones:

“Last night something marvellous happened. I am just being tucked up for the night, when I hear strange foreign noises outside the door, which opens, and in bursts Anne-Marie Callimachi (1) followed by Costa (2). She was dressed in black satin and dripping with mink, with pearls and diamonds crusted at every possible point, topped by the maddest Schiaparelli hat I’ve ever seen. Then Costa, who is very dark, with a huge grin, and quite white hair at the age of thirty. He was dressed in a bright green polo jersey over which he wore a very long black new coat with an immense astrakhan collar: both laden with huge presents. The nurses were struck dumb. Shrill squeals burst from us all, and then we were gabbling the parleyvoo like apes. The nurses fled in  disorder. Then, of course, they couldn’t get a taxi as Anne-Marie had left the Rolls Royces etc. in London; but they had their luggage, and stopped the night at the hospital! We all pretended they were married, so the Sister, with girlish squeaks, got their room ready, with screens coyly arranged between the beds. By this time Costa was telephoning to the Ritz to say Her Highness wouldn’t be back that night, his voice echoing down the passages. The sensation in the hospital was absolutely phenomenal. Huge princely coronets on the luggage – such nighties! Slippers! Oh!! The hospital hasn’t recovered yet, and my glamour value among the nurses is at fever pitch. . . . They left this morning, Anne-Marie leaving a munificent cheque for the Hospital Fund, which I tendered with a languid gesture to the head doctor. Their passage will not be forgotten for ages!”

Fourteen years later, in September 1954, such hobnobbing with the cream of society was still in full flow. PLF writing to Ann Fleming from Hydra:

“Diana’s (Lady Cooper) presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez (3) in a vast sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. . . but this is nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with a aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. . . . On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr.”

We can forgive PLF his forays into the world of the rich and famous, not only because they’re so amusing, but as these brief interludes are tempered with quiet, bucolic and often mundane passages. To Jessica Mitford, PLF wrote in 1983, “Went to a marvelous sheep sale yester’een with Debo (her sister, Deborah, nee Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire), it was wonderful, faces like the whole of Gilray and Rowlandson, and an auctioneer haranguing, in what sounded like Finnish but was just rustic north country. This is the sort of whirl I like to  live in.”

PLF’s friends were generous as well as amusing, several of them allowing he and Joan to use their homes whenever they chose, as was the case with Gadencourt, a manor house in Normandy owned by Sir Walter and Lady Smart – to Patrick Kinross, February 1952 – “They frightfully kindly  let me live here for the whole winter. Why don’t you come and move in on your way home?” He also often stayed at a mansion owned by artist Niko Ghika on Hydra. PLF wrote, “He was seldom there, and, with boundless generosity, he lent it to Joan and me for two years.” Additionally, PLF was a regular house guest of such friends as Lady Diana Cooper, staying at her house in Chantilly and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, spending many Christmas’s with them at Chatsworth House. In February 1960 PLF wrote to Ann Fleming, “Christmas was glorious and went on for ages, consisting of Andrew, Debo and children, Andrew’s mother, Nancy (Mitford) and Mrs. Hammersley, for whom I developed a reciprocated passion. She strikes a wonderful note of bilious gloom about anything.”

Joan and Patrick would eventually build a house in Greece and spent many of their happiest years there, coming back to England regularly and staying at Joan’s family home in Devon. Occasionally, PLF stayed at the Easton Court Hotel in Devon, especially when he was seeking solitude in which to write. In a letter to Lady Diana Cooper, September 1956 –

” . . . . My muse and I are cloistered here, a gale howls down the chimney, cats and dogs come down on the sodden fields outside in an almost unbroken stream and a wind blows that would unhorn cows. I don’t think you’ve ever been here, but it’s a great retiring place for literary purposes, for E. Waugh, & Patrick Kinross and others – I first came here seven years ago with Patrick . . . and have been back several times in extremis . . . It is owned & run by an odd couple, Mrs. Carolyn Postlethwaite Cobb, an elderly American of very improbable shape, now largely bedridden, and her middle-aged ex-lover Norman Webb, a Devonshire chap she met a number of decades ago running a team of donkeys in Biskra or Fez. . . . ”

I found that PLF and I had a lot in common in the end, very odd considering that I’m neither a man, British nor a lover of all things Greek and that I come from a different generation. In a letter to his publisher, Jock Murray in July of 1953, PLF writes that he’d travelled through Greece, finally arriving in Missolonghi by sea:

“Here the great search for Byron’s shoes began. I hadn’t got Lady Wentworth’s (4) letter with me, containing the address . . . I asked all over the town – mayors, local bigwigs, etc. – for a old man who had a pair of Byron’s shoes. . . I tracked him down in the end, a very decent, wall-eyed old man called Charalambi Baigeorgas or Kotsakaris . . . along with a lot of scimitars, yataghans, pistols, powder horns, etc., he produced a parcel, already addressed, on the strength of my letters last year, to Baroness Wentworth. . . . Since then, though, he seems to have fallen in love with them, and (rather understandably) wants to leave them to his children. . . He undid the parcel, and produced a pair of slippers that looked more Turkish, or Moroccan or Algerian (or Burlington Arcade oriental) than Greek . . . . I enclose a sketch and a description of the colours . . . the age looks just about right. I made a tracing of both of them, also of the parts of the soles where the criss-cross tooling is worn smooth, in case it should corroborate, or conflict with, known facts about Byron’s malformation.”

Lady Wentworth

Do admit, these are the sort of lengths I might conceivably go to if the artifact involved Wellington. There’s no information in the book regarding the outcome or provability of the shoe’s being Lord Byron’s but there is PLF’s description of Lady Wentworth herself, and it’ s a pip –

To Lady Diana Cooper, March 1954: “. . . The house (Crabbet Park, Sussex) is untidy as a barn – trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled `LD BYRON’S papers – LDY BYRON’S papers’ in chalk, pictures stacked, furniture piled, wallpaper, curtains etc. exactly the colour and shape of coloured Phiz or Leech . . . . gilt, faded plum and canary, v. grand and dusty. We had rather a mouldy luncheon, ending up with spotted-dog, in a room as full of papers, pictures, horsey accoutrements and favours as a jackdaw’s nest. Lady Wentworth was wearing, as usual, gym-shoes from playing squash, a Badminton skirt to the ground, a woollen shawl, a gigantic and very dishevelled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails gathered off brambles, and on top of this a mushroom-like, real Sairey-Gamp mob-cap, but made of lace and caught in with a Nile-green satin ribbon. Rather a fine, hawky Byronic face under all this, but scarlet patches on the cheeks as from a child’s paint-box; I think she’s eighty-two or three – and a very thin, aristocratic, bleak voice – `have some more spotted-dog?’ sounding like a knell.”

PLF  was a writer with projects constantly on the go, but he was easily distracted by passing fancies, often missing deadlines and being forced to write the dreaded mia culpa letter to editors or friends to which he’d promised pieces.  In a letter to Lady Diana Cooper in November of 1975, PLF confesses: “Michael Stewart has sent us the Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names, which I’ve been deeply immersed in for the last two days: all their derivations, etc.” And to her son, John Julius Norwich, PLF writes: “Last year Jock Murray suddenly told me that about two hundred pounds had mounted up (in royalties) so I blew the lot on the DNB (Dictionary of National Biography) . . . so give me a few minutes notice and I can be pretty knowing about almost anyone in England – before 1900 – up to William Tytler (1711-1792) . . . it would be hard to find a more fascinating and time-wasting acquisition.” Both examples could be me to a T.

A Life In Letters is a delight, some parts reading like a travel book, other parts a glimpse into a vanished lifestyle, all of which is bound up with great friendships, anecdotal offerings and humour.

 

So, what will I read next? In Tearing Haste, edited by Charlotte Mosley, was one of PLF’s last projects and is a compilation of the letters exchanged between himself and Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, over the course of a friendship that spanned more than forty years. However, having already read this when it was first published, I’m thankful that Patrick Leigh Fermor has led me to another possibility, as so often happens with the best books –

From a letter to Lawrence Durrell, November 1954 –

“. . . I’ve just got . . . Daphne’s (5) autobiography Mercury Presides . . . . which is rattling, splended stuff, not a bit the niminy-piminy society memoir you would think, but hell for leather, a mixture of lyrical charm and touchingness with a clumsy, rustic tough edge to it which is most engaging and terribly funny. Rather like the letters of Lady Bessborough or Caroline Lamb, half-sylph, half-stablehand.”

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  1. Rumanian Princess Anne-Marie Callimachi.
  2. Greek photographer Costa Achillopoulos.
  3. Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, Chilean millionaire.
  4. Judith Anne Dorothea Blunt-Lytton, whose mother had been Byron’s granddaughter.
  5. Daphne Fielding, formerly Marchioness of Bath.

ON THE SHELF: CECIL BEATON – SELF PORTRAIT WITH FRIENDS

Cecil Beaton (at left) arrives at an Eton/Harrow cricket match with his sisters, Nancy and Barbara (Baba), 1927.

In my continuing quest to broaden my knowledge of those people who lived during Britain’s between wars years, I recently read Self Portrait With Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1922 – 1974, edited by Richard Buckle. Beaton was one of the constants in many of the other period diaries and letters I had read, and no wonder. He had a ringside seat to much that happened in Britain from the 1920s right through to his death in 1980. Beaton was the photographer of the day, any day, working with both Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines for decades, as well as for the Ministry of War during WWII. In addition, he was the official Royal photographer for decades, which of course likewise made him the photographer of choice for socialites, actors and aristocrats, many of whom became Beaton’s friends. Last year, I was fortunate enough to see the retrospective exhibition, Never A Bore: Deborah Devonshire and Her Set by Cecil Beaton at Chatsworth House.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, with Cecil Beaton

Before long, Beaton’s drawing talents and his innate sense of style and taste brought him work as both a set and costume designer for ballet productions, stage plays and films, earning him Tony Awards and Academy Awards for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction for both GiGi and My Fair Lady.

Beaton with a costume sketch for “Gigi.”
Audrey Hepburn photographed by Cecil Beaton for My Fair Lady, 1963.

 

Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison photographed on set by Cecil Beaton for My Fair Lady, 1963.

Beaton’s diaries were published in several volumes during his lifetime, and Self Portrait With Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton 1922 – 1974 is a selection of entries from all volumes, a taster of the Beaton diaries, if you will, some examples of which you’ll find below. It was a satisfying introduction to the diaries, which I plan to go on to read.

Autumn 1935

“Though nothing about Mrs. Simpson appears in the English papers, her name seems never to be off people’s lips. For those who enjoy gossip she is a particular treat. The sound of her name implies secrecy, royalty, and being in the know. As a topic she has become a mania, so much so that her name is banned in many houses to allow breathing space for other topics. . . five years ago I met Mrs. Simpson in a box with some Americans at The Three Arts Club Ball . . . Mrs. Simpson seemed somewhat brawny and raw-boned in her sapphire-blue velvet. Her voice had a high nasal twang. . . About a year ago, I had an opportunity to renew acquaintance with Mrs. Simpson. I liked her immensely. I found her bright and witty, improved in looks and chic.

Mrs. Simpson by Beaton, 1935

“Today she is sought after as the probable wife of the King. Even the old Edwardians receive her, if she happens to be free to accept their invitations.  American newspapers have already announced the engagement, and in the highest court circles there is great consternation. It is said that Queen Mary weeps continuously.”

1940

12 October

“James (Pope-Hennessy) is writing a book called History Under Fire for which I am doing the photographs. Besides the vandalistic damage, we must show the tenacity and courage of the people, and we do not have to look far. . . Londoners have had one month of this so far, and they must look forward to a whole winter of it . .  . By degrees many people have grown accustomed to being frightened. For myself, most evenings I  have beetled off to the Dorchester. There the noise outside is drowned with wine, music and company – and what a mixed brew we are!”

30 December

“The city was still in flames after last night’s raid when eight Wren churches and the Guildhall were destroyed . . . In the biting cold with icy winds beating around the corners, James P.H. and I ran about the glowing smouldering mounds of rubble where once were the printers’ shops and chop houses of Paternoster Row . . . We went to St. Paul’s to offer our prayers for its miraculous preservation. Near the cathedral is a shop that has been burned unrecognizably; in fact, all that remains is a arch that looks like a vista in the ruins of Rome.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Cecil Beaton, 1940

“Through the arch could be seen, rising mysteriously from the splintered masonry and smoke, the twin towers of the cathedral. It was necessary to squat to get the archway framing the picture. I squatted. A press photographer watched me and, when I gave him a surly look, slunk away. When I returned from photographing another church, he was back squatting and clicking in the same spot I had been. Returning from lunch with my publisher, my morning’s pictures still undeveloped in my overcoat pocket, I found the press photographer’s picture was already on the front page of the Evening News.”

The Letter, Cecil Beaton, London 1940
Winston Churchill by Beaton, London 1940
Cecil Beaton at the switchboard doing his duty as an Air Raid Precautions operator on the estate of Lord and Lady Pembroke, London 1940
Wren Officers framed by Sir Christopher Wren colonade at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, by Beaton 1940

 

Beaton being photographed while photographing Lady Diana Cooper at her house in Bognor, 1940.

“Diana has bought a cow called Princess – a female equivalent of Ferdinand, for there never was so clinging and affectionate an animal as Princess. Twice a day Diana milks her, at 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Princess delivers enough milk to keep the household and to make one large cheese every other day. The goat, less docile, produces milk that makes equally good cheese.  Diana’s hens produce ten eggs a day . . . . The latter part of the morning is spent in the dairy with large bowls of blue and white china, butter muslin nets and spotless efficiency. Here she sets about the technical jobs of cutting whey, taking temperatures and heating to certain degrees large bathtubs of milk, which with the addition of rennet drops from a calf’s innards will eventually be turned into the required number of cheeses and arranged in rows on the storeroom shelf.”

Princess Elizabeth by Beaton, 1942

8 Pelham Place, London: September 1944

“The flying bombs and those beastly V2s, exploding from out of nowhere, have created new havoc in London since I left for the Far East nearly a year ago. . . War in England is more total than ever, hardships always increasing. People look terribly tired and tend to be touchy and quarrelsome about small things.

“Yet, in spite of all the horror and squalor, London has added beauty. In its unaccustomed isolation above the wastes of rubble, St. Paul’s is seen standing to supreme advantage, particularly splendid at full moon. The moon in the blackout, with no other light but the stars to vie with, makes an eighteenth-century engraving of our streets. St. James’s Park, without its Victorian iron railings, has become positively sylvan.

“Even in the centre of the town there are aspects of rural life. While the buses roar along Oxford Street the gentler sounds of hens and ducks can be heard among the ruins of nearby Berners Street. There are pigs sleeping peacefully in improvised styes in the craters where seeds that have been buried for three hundred years have propagated themselves and make a display of purple milk-wort and willow-herb. The vicar of St. James’s, Piccadilly, counted twenty-three different varieties of wild plant behind his bombed altar.”

3 July, 1963

“Geoff Allan, a burly somewhat top-heavy-looking youth from the outskirts of London, has become an expert at ‘ageing’ clothes. Today he was breaking down Eliza’s little jacket in which she first visits Higgins’ house. Everyone who had seen the coat in a test agreed that the black velveteen appeared too elegant and rich-looking. In an effort to save the garment, Geoff decided to take drastic measures. He asked me, ‘Suppose it doesn’t survive?’ ‘Go ahead. At worst, we’ll have to get a new one.’ Geoff put the coat in a boiling vat. After a few hours the black velvet had become a cream colour. Geoff now started to make the coat darker. Putting a spoon in dye, he smeared its surface, leaving light patches where the sun might have faded the collars and shoulders. He purposely left paler the material at the edges and in the creases. The coat was then dried out in a furnace. To me, it now looked like something found in an ancient Egyptian tomb: it was hard and brittle and brown as poppadom. With blazing eyes, Geoff then brought out a wire brush and gave the garment a few deft strokes, saying, ‘This bit of pile will soon disappear.’ It did. Later Geoff said, with avid enthusiasm,, ‘I’ll take the thing home tonight and sew frogs on it again – coarsely, with black thread, and I’ll sew them with my left hand. Then, with my right hand, I’ll rip then off. Then I’ll knife the seams open here as if it’s split. Afterwards, with coarse thread, I’ll patch it. Of course, the collar will have to be stained a bit as if Eliza had spilled coffee on it (no, she would drink tea . . . it will have to be tea stains), and there must be greasy marks on the haunches where she wipes her dirty hands. Naturally the skirt will have to be made muddy around the hem, because, you see, she sits when she sells her violets, and the skirt, and petticoats also, would seep up the wet.”’

Evelyn Waugh by Cecil Beaton

11 April 1966

“So Evelyn Waugh is in his coffin. Died of snobbery. Did not wish to be considered a man of letters, it did not satisfy him to be thought a master of English prose. He wanted to be a duke, and that he could never be; hence a life of disappointment and sham. For he would never give up. He would drink brandy and port and keep a full cellar. He was not a gourmet, like Cyril Connolly, but insisted on good living and cigars as being typical of the aristocratic way of life. He became pompous at twenty and developed his pomposity to the point of having a huge stomach and an ear trumpet at forty-five.

“Now that he is dead, I cannot hate him; cannot really feel he was wicked, in spite of his cruelty, his bullying, his caddishness. From time to time, having appeared rather chummy and appreciative and even funny (though my hackles rose in his presence), he would suddenly seem to be possessed by a devil and do thoroughly fiendish things. His arrogance was at its worst at White’s. Here he impersonated an aristocrat, intimidated newcomers and non-members, and was altogether intolerable. But a few loyal friends saw through the pretence and were fond of him.”

January 1970

Mae West by Cecil Beaton, Hollywood, 1970

“On arrival in Hollywood at the huge 1920s cement apartment block which Mae West owns, I was surprised to find how small her personal quarters are. To begin with I was fascinated; white carpets, pale yellow walls, white pseudo-French furniture with gold paint, a bower of white flowers, huge ‘set’ pieces of dogwood, begonias, roses and stocks – all false.

“The piano was painted white with eighteenth-century scenes adorning the sides, a naked lady being admired by a monkey as she lay back on draperies and cushions. . . Dust covering everything . . . She seems quite contented, or so it appeared from my short glimpse of her during the afternoon photographic session. Miss West’s entourage consisted of about eight people from the studio, her own Chinese servant, and her bodyguard, Novak, an ex-muscleman. . . She had put on weight over the holidays and her dresses would not fit. She was rigged up in the highest possible fantasy of taste. The costume of black and white fur was designed to camouflage every silhouette except the armour that constricted her waist and contained her bust.”

September 1970

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor by Cecil Beaton, 1960

“Went to the house in the beautiful Bois de Boulogne to have tea with the Duchess of Windsor. On arrival in this rather sprawling, pretentious house full of good and bad, the Duchess appeared at the end of a garden vista, in a crowd of yapping pug dogs. She sees to have suddenly aged, to have become a little old woman. Her figure and legs are as trim as ever, and she is as energetic as she always was, putting servants and things to rights. But Wallis had the sad, haunted eyes of the ill. In hospital they had found she had something wrong with her liver and that condition made her very depressed. When she got up to fetch something, she said, ‘Don’t look at me. I haven’t even had the coiffeur come out to do my hair,’ and her hair did appear somewhat straggly. This again gave her a rather pathetic look . . . . .

“We talked easily as only old friends do. Nothing much except health, mutual friends and the young generation was discussed. Then an even greater shock; amid the barking of the pugs, the Duke of Windsor, in a cedar-rose-coloured velvet golf suit, appeared. His walk with a stick makes him into a old man. He sat, legs spread, and talked and laughed with greater ease than I have ever known. At last, after all these years, he called me by my Christian name and treated me as one of his old ‘cronies.’ He has less and less of these, in fact it is difficult for him to find someone to play golf with. There were moments when the Prince of Wales’s charm came back, and what a charm it was! I noticed a sort of stutter, a hissing of the speech when he hesitated in mid-sentence. Wallis did not seem unduly worried about this and said, ‘Well, you see, we’re old! It’s awful how many years have gone by and one doesn’t have them back!'”

Coco Chanel and Cecil Beaton

1971

Chanel is dead. One can no longer take for granted the feeling that she and her talent are always with us. She was unlike anything seen before. She was no beauty, but her appearance in the twenties and thirties was unimaginably attractive. She put all other women in the shade. Even in old age, ravaged and creased as she was, she still kept her line, and was able to put on the allure.

“She used to spend most of the time complaining in her rasping, dry voice. Everyone except her was at fault. But you were doing her a service by remaining in her presence, for even her most loyal friends had been forced to leave her. You tried to leave, too, for your next appointment, but she had perfected the technique of delaying you. Her flow of talk could not be interrupted. You rose from your seat and made backwards for the door. She followed. Her face ever closer to yours. Then you were out on the landing and down a few stairs. The rough voice still went on. Then you blew a kiss. She knew now that loneliness again faced her. She smiled goodbye. The mouth stretched in a grimace, but from a distance it worked the old magic.”