Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood

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Tirzah Garwood was the wife of the mid century artist Eric Ravilious, whose work has been enjoying a much-deserved renaissance in recent years. The air of tragedy about him, lost in his prime over the Icelandic sea while working as a war artist, has only added to the appeal of his romantic, unsettling, marvellously modern watercolours, largely of the rural English landscape. However, behind every great man is an even greater woman, as the saying goes, and Tirzah Garwood is no exception. A highly talented artist in her own right, her ability to pursue her work during the years of her marriage to Eric was stymied by childrearing and illness, and so she has not received the lasting recognition she deserves. Hopefully, the reprinting of her autobiography, and recent renewed interest in her woodcuts, will change this. Her lively, vibrant voice and passionate interest in art and creativity sing out from this marvellous book, that chronicles not only the life of an artist and her friends, but that of an ordinary woman struggling to carve out a life for herself amidst the everyday drudgery of childcare and housework. For as much as the Ravilious’ life was glamorous and bohemian, surrounded as they were by illustrious friends and well-connected relatives, it was also beset by the banal concerns of all of our lives, from eccentric landladies to frozen pipes, broken heating to unwelcome guests. It is these observations of the ordinary that make this book so special; not the accounts of what such and such a famous person said or looked like, but how Tirzah coped with the many and various challenges her life threw at her, while still managing to maintain a sense of joy, wonder and impressive acceptance of the world she lived in.

Great Bardfield, in the depths of rural Essex, was the village where the young Raviliouses, alongside many of their artist friends such as Edward Bawden, lived for several years in the 1930s and 40s. They shared homes, lives and even partners, and the village itself seems to have been home to a great deal of eccentric types who provided plenty of colour to what was often a hard existence. Anyone who fantasises about English country life should read this book to understand the reality of what living in unheated, unmodernised houses in the middle of nowhere was really like; there is very little romance in the drudgery of hauling buckets of water up several flights of stairs, wading through muddy lanes to get to a shop, and wearing fifty cardigans to keep warm in a house so cold you can see your own breath. There was much to entertain, too, of course; parties at the local manor, bonfire night celebrations, countryside rambles, picnics and endless sources of gossip, alongside the constant stream of new artist friends joining what swiftly became a close community of creative types who seemed to have few qualms about falling in love with each others’ partners. One of the most surprising things about this memoir is just how relaxed and open Tirzah was with discussing her sexuality and her feelings. She and Eric were openly unfaithful in a marriage that was much more complex and tumultuous than I had realised, and the requited and unrequited love affairs they had amongst their circle of neighbours and friends caused troublesome fractures of friendships that clearly preoccupied much of Tirzah’s energies during her time in Great Bardfield.

Tirzah did not intend for this to be read by anyone but her family, but it is a valuable and precious account of pre-war life that offers a fascinating insight into both an artistic life and the life of a woman brought up in the Edwardian era. So much of history deals in stereotypes and generalisations, and the impression we are given of women of this time always seems to place them at an impossible distance from our own existence. However, Tirzah paints a portrait of a thoroughly modern woman, living with thoroughly modern people, whose lives were just as complex as our own and certainly not ruled by the strict social standards historians seem to want to place pre-war life within. Tirzah’s approach to life was impressively reasonable, fair, refreshing; she loved freely and forgave freely, and never begrudged others for their failures. She did not have an easy life; Eric’s early death was devastating, as was her own protracted battle with the cancer that would eventually kill her, leaving her unable to see her children grow up, but she faced it with an irrepressible curiosity, fearlessness and zest that made me wish I had known her. This is a marvellous book, that is so much more than a glimpse into the world of the Great Bardfield circle of artists, and even if you know nothing – or care to know nothing – about them, it is worth reading for Tirzah’s generous, lively and wonderfully honest depiction of a woman’s life in the pre and post war era alone. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Northumberland

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Over the Easter holidays, a friend and I went on a lovely week-long break to Northumberland, the border county between England and Scotland. Every time I travel to Scotland on the train, I’m enchanted by the gorgeous glimpses I catch of long stretches of sandy beach, wide open skies, wild, rugged landscape and tantalising ruins as we speed through Northumberland, and I’ve been itching to explore the area properly for a long time. So, an airbnb cottage booked (this lovely place, if anyone fancies following in my footsteps) and a car borrowed from my parents, we headed north for the almost seven hour journey. It’s a long and boring drive, being largely motorway, so we broke the trip up by stopping off at a National Trust property, Belton House, on the way, and we also very much enjoyed spotting the famous Angel of the North statue as we drove through Newcastle. Arriving in the tiny little village where we were staying was wonderful; surrounded by fields and sheep, the silence was quite astonishing for people used to living amidst constant noise, and that evening, on our way back from the pub, we gasped in amazement at the sky, filled with stars that we never normally see from the streets of London.

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After an excellent night’s sleep, on our first morning we headed off to the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, crossing briefly into Scotland in order to do so. Berwick sports a fantastic viaduct, lovely sea views and a charming, historic town centre. We loved sitting by the water, eating chips and watching the trains to Edinburgh and London whizz past across the viaduct, and we also thoroughly enjoyed a rummage in Berrydin Books, a very well organised and friendly second hand bookshop where I picked up some bargains. We then headed down the coast to Lindisfarne, which has been a must-see of mine ever since I was enthralled by the stories my history teacher told me back in Year 7 of the terrifying Viking raid on the poor defenceless monks who inhabited the windswept island, only accessible via causeway to the mainland. It was a thrill to drive across the narrow road, surrounded by sea, and studded with terror-inducing signs warning you of the dangers of not checking the tide times and ending up trapped, car filled to the roof with sea water. We arrived safely on the island, and my imagination was running wild with visions of atmospheric ruins. Disappointingly, my visions were nothing like the reality; the ruins of the old priory are at the end of the village street, and there was little sense of the isolation or mystery I had pictured in my history lessons. Whilst it was amazing to be on the island and to see the priory ruins, I did wish I hadn’t built it up so much in my head before going! There is also a wonderful National Trust run castle on the island, but it’s closed this year for renovations, unfortunately. I’ll have to go back another time! On our way home we stopped by Wallington, an unexpectedly beautiful National Trust house filled with impressive pre-Raphaelite paintings and a brilliant gallery of Victorian curios – we only stopped by to have a cup of tea, but found ourselves enchanted by it. It was actually one of our favourite places throughout our whole trip and I’d highly recommend a visit.

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The following day, we went to see Cragside, another National Trust property. It’s a famous Victorian landmark, being the home of the engineer Lord Armstrong, and the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. It’s an absolutely incredible place; beautiful inside and out, with spectacular gardens and a pinetum built within the quarried slopes of the surrounding land. The views are breathtaking, and there is so much to see and do; you can see the servant’s quarters and the labour saving hydraulic devices Lord Armstrong had fitted, the suite of rooms decorated with owls just for the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and an iron bridge built across the gorge to provide spectacular views of the house from the garden. You could spend all day there, but we had other things to do – we went off to Alnwick for lunch, home to the castle that was Hogwarts in the Harry Potter film, and the amazing Barter Books, housed in Alnwick’s old train station and filled to the brim with second hand books – before enjoying a wonderful windswept walk along the beach to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, which has sat majestically by the sea for around a thousand years, and is a truly breathtaking sight.

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Keen to see more of the coast, the following day we drove out to Bamburgh Castle, which is still inhabited, and contains a very interesting collection of quite random objects. However, its main attraction is the spectacular views across the white sand dunes that are at the foot of the cliffs below, and out to the Farne Islands, which are famous for being the home of Grace Darling, the Victorian heroine. We loved walking across the shimmering sand of the beach, which seemed to move as the sand slithered about in the wind, and we were incredibly lucky to have a glorious blue-sky day on which to enjoy the scenery. The village at Bamburgh is incredibly pretty, and has an attractive Victorian church and an RNLI museum dedicated to the story of Grace Darling, which is well worth a visit. We also had a delicious afternoon tea at the historic Copper Kettle tearoom; much needed sustenance after all that hiking across sand dunes!

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We loved every minute of our time in Northumberland; the history, the landscape and the glorious sense of space and freedom made possible by its sparsely populated stretches of countryside make it a place where you truly can escape from the realities of your everyday life.  I already can’t wait to go back.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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Every December I look on Amazon to see what books are coming out in the following year, and I have lots of fun scrolling through different genres and adding books to my wishlist. While doing this last year, I was initially attracted to Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel simply because of the image of its gorgeous cover; such artistry had to promise something delightful within. This quite shallow attraction caused me to research the author further, and when I discovered an interview in which she listed her favourite American writers as being all of my favourites too, I thought I would probably find myself liking her work. So, when it came out last month I hotfooted it to Foyles and excitedly read the first few pages. Impressed by the lyrical quality of the writing, I snapped it up and made it my first new fiction read of 2017. I raced through it in two days over the Easter holiday, hardly bearing to put it down between mouthfuls of chocolate. Ruskovich has a wonderful way of writing that manages to be incredibly atmospheric without feeling the need to draw attention to itself by painstakingly cluttering sentences with metaphors: a rare gift indeed. To her great credit, despite having an MFA, she doesn’t write in that elaborate, ponderous way so many contemporary writers seem to at the moment, and substance and style occupy an equal place, creating a fantastic story that sings off the page.

Told from multiple viewpoints, and jumping around in time, the story centres on an act of random violence in which a small child, May, is killed by her mother, Jenny, one summer in the mountains of Idaho. Her older sister, June, after witnessing what happens, runs away, and cannot be found. Wade, Jenny’s husband and the girl’s father, marries Ann a year after the event, and the narration starts from Ann’s perspective, some years later, when Wade is starting to lose his mind to dementia, and the painful legacy of the loss of his children is rearing itself ever more presently within their everyday lives. It is Ann’s desire to understand that day, to try and work out from the occasional snatches of information she gains about the girls and their mother, and the life they had with Wade, how and why Jenny can have killed her child, that drives the narrative, and there is much that is haunting, moving and surprising along the way.

I won’t say much more other than to warn in advance that this is not a thriller, or a detective story; there is no conclusion to the story, as Ruskovich has been incredibly brave in choosing not to provide a reason for what happened. There is no neat confession, no moment of realisation when a light is shone into the darkness. We are left to use the information we are given to come up with our own interpretation, just like Ann, and personally, I preferred it like that. I closed the pages with so much left to think about, and the characters and the beautifully realised world of the Idaho mountains in which they live stayed with me for days. It is a tragic and deeply sad tale, yet also one that quivers with hope and beauty. Ruskovich paints such a rich and wise portrait of humanity, exploring with an exquisite lightness of touch how deep and unfathomable the depths of all our lives truly are, even to those who think they know us the most. I loved it. I would say it’s definitely been my book of the year so far, and I already can’t wait to read what Emily Ruskovich writes next.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair

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I was kindly sent this to review by Dean Street Press, who have recently reprinted a whole host of female middlebrow authors from the mid 20th century in attractively designed paperbacks and ebooks. Now normally I leave review books languishing for months in guilt inducing piles, but I knew instantly from reading the description of eccentric village life on the blurb of my copy of A Winter Away that I would love it, and so I began reading as soon as it plopped onto my doormat. My instincts were not wrong; this is a hilarious, witty and wonderfully warm story about a number of misfits whose convergence in a corner of rural Dorset leads to just the sort of trifling yet utterly absorbing events that make up the often ridiculous course of everyday life. This is the perfect antidote to current affairs: it’s light and wonderfully funny, but also very well written and sensitively observed. I adored every moment, and felt quite bereft at leaving the world of the characters behind. If you are a fan of Persephone Books, Barbara Pym, and/or Angela Thirkell, then I can guarantee you will find in Elizabeth Fair a marvellous new author to get stuck into.

A Winter Away begins with Maud, young and delicate, sent away to live with her much older cousin Alice and her friend, Miss Conway, in their cottage in the village of Glaine. She is to be the secretary to the eccentric, elderly lord of the manor, Mr Feniston, her cousin’s landlord, and owner of a large and crumbling mansion a short walk up the lane. However, Maud’s stay in the countryside, which is supposed to be a chance for her to build up her strength in an untaxing environment, seems far from relaxing from the moment she arrives. Not only does Miss Conway seem to resent her presence, but there are unsettling remarks made about the fate of Mr Feniston’s previous secretary. Maud is not convinced she will be up to the job, nor whether she particularly wants to stay in the same house as the jealous, prickly Miss Conway. However, she soon discovers that Mr Feniston, or Old M, as she calls him, is all bark and no bite, and he quickly warms to his keen, insightful young secretary. Meanwhile, life in the village becomes far more exciting when it transpires that Old M has a son, Oliver, and a nephew Charles, both of whom have troublesome relationships with the patriarch of the family, and who also happen to be rather good looking. Maud, who has found herself becoming very attached to the Fenistons, decides to take it upon herself to try and heal the rifts in the family. However, Old M’s penchant for keeping secrets from everyone, and making her keep them too, puts her in a rather difficult position. Added to these problems is the issue of poor Ensie, cousin Alice’s neighbour, whose overbearing father keeps her practically housebound, and can’t see that she has fallen in love with the local curate. Maud takes it upon herself to help Ensie too, but keeping everyone else’s secrets only leads to the unconscious masking of her own…

The village of Glaine comes vividly to life through Fair’s description of the surroundings and the residents, all of whom are excellently drawn. I loved Mr Feniston the best – contradictory, mischievous and stubborn, his dialogue sparkles on the page and left me in fits. I also found Miss Conway a very intriguing character; there were hints that she felt a little too strongly for cousin Alice, and her jealousy of Maud was a lightly treated, but still rather dark undercurrent to the story. Ostensibly A Winter Away is a love story, but it is also a rather Stella Gibbons-esque tale of how an outsider can transform the stagnant lives of a small community through refusing to observe the traditions that keep the inhabitants trapped in their ways. Fair was a very talented writer with a real gift for characterisation, and I can’t recommend A Winter Away highly enough. This is definitely a novel that thoroughly deserves to be brought back into the light.

Spring Sojourns

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The sun has finally come out in London, and the smell of spring is in the air. Over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been out and about in the city, and found some previously undiscovered gems that were made even more glorious thanks to being seen against the backdrop of blue skies. A couple of weeks ago I was at an English teacher’s conference at the British Library, and one of the speakers happened to mention that just up the road in the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church could be found the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft. As regular readers know, I love nothing more than a poke about a graveyard, and so as soon as the conference finished, I hotfooted it up Midland Road, past St Pancras and a host of modern blocks of flats, to a rather anachronistic looking Victorian church, marooned with its green island of a graveyard amidst the bustling modernity of council estates and high rise apartments. I soon discovered that the church was a Victorian replacement for a much earlier foundation, when the church was situated in the then country village of Somer Town, and was a tranquil, idyllic spot, far from the smoky metropolis.

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As London expanded, it devoured the village and the church became the heart of a slum, which the Metropolitan Railway saw no harm in tearing down to make way for their new railway line and gargantuan gothic folly of a station in the 1860s. The railway line cut straight through the church’s grounds, necessitating the removal of a number of bodies and graves The Thomas Hardy tree in the back of the churchyard is another fascinating reminder of the graveyard’s links to the railway; as a young man, Hardy was hired to help exhume and move the bodies that lay in the path of the construction works. As can be seen in the photograph of the Hardy tree, the railway line is incredibly close to the church, and is still having an impact on its structural safety nowadays. A beautiful, tranquil and totally unexpected little space in the city, it is a rare survival, as is the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, which she shares with her husband William Godwin. Despite being in this out of the way spot, I was heartened to see that someone had recently left a tulip on top as a tribute. If you are in the vicinity of King’s Cross or St Pancras, I recommend a brief detour to the church; the graveyard also contains the grave of Sir John Soane of the museum fame, and its rich history makes it well worth a visit.

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Last weekend, I popped to Leighton House Museum in Holland Park to see the Flaming June exhibition before it closed. I’ve been meaning to go to Leighton House for years; its aesthetic interior is legendary, and though Leighton is one of those Victorian painters who fell out of fashion quite considerably in the 20th century, I have a great admiration for his work. Flaming June, arguably his most famous painting, was bought for a song in the 1960s, when no one was interested in Leighton’s work, and is now displayed in a Portuguese museum. It has not been back to the UK since it was sold, and so it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to see it in the flesh, on show with the other paintings it was initially displayed with when Leighton presented it at the Royal Academy. Fascinatingly, there is a bit of a mystery associated with the group of paintings; all of them bar one has been traced. Most went into private collections, but one, thought to have been given to Queen Maud of Norway, has disappeared entirely. I’d love to know where it is, and whether someone has unknowingly got it sitting in their house somewhere! The house itself is beautiful on the inside, filled with priceless oriental artefacts as well as a range of Victorian paintings both by Leighton and his friends. Its exterior shows clearly how Leighton adapted the house to suit his needs both as a painter and as an aesthete, and the huge studio windows and large garden certainly made me jealous! It’s well worth a visit, and a trip can be combined with nearby 18 Stafford Terrace, another Victorian artists’s house museum that belonged to illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne, which I must revisit soon.

ps. do listen to the latest Tea or Books? podcast here, in which we discover some new middlebrow favourites!