Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Letters in a Book

I wrote the following some years ago, but a conversation this evening prompts me to reproduce it here. It will really be of interest only to those who know anything of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The other day I finally got around to sorting out some books inherited long-ago and I came upon one called ‘William de Morgan and His Wife’ by A.M.W. Stirling (author of ‘Coke of Norfolk’ etc). I was vaguely aware that de Morgan was a novelist of the late 1890s, but I certainly didn’t inherit any of his books. Not a name to conjure with in the Wheldon household (unlike, say, Lowry or Waugh or Lawrence or Tolstoy or Francis).

So why had this book been kept? Well, in the first place it turned out to be a copy originally belonging to its author, A.M.D. Wilhelmina Stirling, of Old Battersea House, SW11. And in the second place, it contained three hand-written letters.

The first, chronologically speaking, is dated Oct 15th, 1867, and there is no addressee. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this is a copy of a letter. It relates the details of the death of George de Morgan, William’s brother, and is written by a cousin, Eliza, Emily or Harriet (the book contains a useful de Morgan family tree). It describes William as “very much exhausted with all he has gone through… he looked very thin and wretched when I saw him a week ago”.

The second letter is from Jane Morris to William de Morgan, thanking him for sending her a copy of his novel ‘Alice-for-Short’, which she describes as ‘delightful’. Jane Morris of course was Mrs William Morris, and the letter is dated July 15, 1907 and was sent from Kelmscott Manor. Mrs William Morris is perhaps better known as Jane Burden, one of the great pre-Raphaelite models, and a particular favourite of Rossetti. She was a ‘stunner’ (Rossetti’s word) who in later life became the model for Mrs Higgins in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ (produced in 1916, two years after Jane’s death).

This second letter ends with the remark that the Morrises will be pleased to see Evelyn “in August”. Evelyn was married to William de Morgan, and she was an artist of some standing in her own right, having been, in 1877, a founder member of the Grosvenor Gallery, the avant garde alternative to the Royal Academy. The Grosvenor Gallery was a kind of prototype for modern museums. At the same time as hosting exhibitions, it laid on symposia and lectures. Evelyn was a contemporary of Leighton, Watts and Burne-Jones.

The final letter is glued to the flyleaf of the book and is addressed, in the year of the book’s publication, 1922, to the author, Mrs Stirling. It is from Margaret Mackail, who was born Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s daughter. Her lifelong friend, W. Graham Robertson, described her in a letter of 1936 as one “whose paths were always in the great waters and whose footsteps were never known if she could possibly help it… As a rule, she would die rather than tell you what she was going to have for dinner… ”. The letter isn’t very interesting, other than in its reference to the telephone as “a form of co-called civilization”.

As for Mrs Stirling herself – well, I can’t say I was surprised – she turned out to be Evelyn de Morgan’s sister, and herself a rather formidable character who wrote novels under the name Percival Pickering. She died in 1965.

About eighteen months ago I happened to have a conversation with Angela Thirlwell, biographer of Ford Maddox Brown and expert in general on the Pre-Raphaelites, and she mentioned that a chap called Frank Sharp was working on a scholarly edition of the letters of Jane Morris, so off to Frank mine went (or at least a scan of it). I don't know whether the letters have been published yet, but they may be, one day. The mystery remains, however, as to how the book came into my possession. It is possible that it is one of the books that Mum picked from the publisher Fred Warburg's library (she was one of three people invited in his Will to take a number of books; she was modest and eccentric in her choices, except for some first editions of Evelyn Waugh).

Ken Russell and Dad made a film on Stirling for Monitor in 1960.

1 comment:

  1. I read your blog with interest, and can perhaps shed some light on how the book came into your possession. In 1963 Ken Russell made a documentary about Mrs Stirling and Old Battersea House, for the BBC. The documentary was produced by Huw Weldon and I suspect Mrs Stirling made a gift of the book to him.

    We have a copy of the documentary here at the De Morgan Centre and will be featuring it in an exhibition from 1st May to 29th June 2013.

    If you would like any further information please don't hesitate to contact me at the Centre.

    Claire Longworth, Curator