Some Notes for
Sunday at Eye
A Journey into Childhood
SUNDAY AT EYE
R = recreated
1. Sunday at Eye, that house of rural calm
Christopher Whitfield (R):
Sunday at Eye, that house of rural calm,
Where History sleeps, her head upon her arm,
Where Rodney's younger sons spent tranquil days,
Proud of their port, and wise in rustick ways!
The day begins, and from the freezing night
Rises reluctant with its Wintry light.
See, where the woods come creeping down the hill,
The bare trees white with frozen rime, and still!
See the flat fields, hoary and hard all day,
Where cattle stand, and chew their whispy hay!
See the grey sky where, in the cold dawn's light
The daws and rooks pass by in silent flight,
While the red sun blinks through the frozen haze,
And in Eye's windows sees his own red face!
Jeremy: (speaking over music)
This poem of Christopher Whitfield’s, more than any other, brings back to me memories of my childhood at Eye.
[Solitary bell (T)]
[Children’s voices (R)]
[both finish, but possibly not the music, before Whitfield comes in again]
The morning stirs, the children's voices sound,
Lighting the house with laughter from all round;
And by the ha-ha, through the cold there goes
The parson, muffled to his dripping nose,
While singly from the solitary bell
The notes sound out, the solemn hour to tell.
A child or two and two old ladies go
Into the church; the Sexton follows slow.
Now the bell stops, and seeing all is clear,
Daphnis and Chloe and their Friend appear.
[Pigeons fluttering wings (R)]
The pigeons flutter to the opened door,
Fed but an hour since, yet demanding more.
[Car starts, Jaguar c.1936 (R)]
The car is started, and with Tigger too,
[Dog bark, spaniel (R)]
The rural trio seek for rustick pleasures new.
Daphnis and Chloe were my parents, thus named because my father had recently published their story. Tigger was their golden cocker spaniel. They visit Wales and drive up Hay Bluff. Then they return for tea and;
Now to Eye's fireside do the trio wend
Their way through dusk that marks the day's chill end.
There the logs crackle, and with joy they see
Steam in their cups the aromatick tea.
The shutters closed, the curtains closely drawn,
They re-explore the day from dusk to dawn,
Take down the books that Daphnis' press creates,
While Chloe for her children, stitching, waits.
[More children’s voices (R) which continue behind]
The busy brood arrives, and games begin
That turn to wisdom Adam's venial sin.
I never did understand what this line meant. I think Adam’s venial sin was that he made love with Eve and thus set everything in motion; sex, procreation, children, everything. If Eve had never handed him the apple, would it have just been an eternal Adam and Eve, living alone in an eternal though boring garden?
Shouts, laughter, children's joys, fill all the air;
What sweet domestick scene could be more fair?
But soon fair Chloe, lifting up her head,
Rises, and calls the happy brood to bed.
[Lose children’s voices]
So goes the day. And when the house is still
And Chloe's cares are done, they take their fill
Of wise converse, forgetting not the jest
That lends the serious hour its wonted zest.
Night draws on, and soon they take their way
To bed, and sleep, to meet another day.
The Friend awhile reads verse of ancient Greece,
By Daphnis printed for delight's increase,
With fair engravings by fair Chloe made,
One of a hare loved by a simple maid.
Happy, he sleeps, though he with day must leave
These pleasant scenes for cares that make him grieve.
And, though his stay is short, his thanks come deep
From a touched heart that hopes their friendship long to keep.
2. A Return to a distant country. Riding & organs
Childhood fifty years ago is a distant country. Unlike other distant lands of which I fondly dream and to which I can, if I want to, return - Ibiza, Ethiopia, Texas - the land of childhood is one to which you can’t go back.
Growing up at Eye.
My greatest pleasure in those days was riding. On my little black pony, Jet, and later on a chestnut cob called Beauty, I roamed the countryside, threading my way through coverts, groves, traversing meadows up to my horse’s belly in corn or hay, travelling long distances across country.
Solitude and Fantasy.
In the tomb-like darkness of the cellars that lay beneath Eye Manor, in the attics overlooking the church, in the apple orchards, and in the broad rooms of this exotic house, the thrill I experienced from its beauty was solitary and powerful; a frisson that came from the perfection of the things with which my parents had filled it, the leather-bound books my father printed, the glint of old silver candlesticks in which, in the evening, candles flared.
In the garden I self-regardingly wandered barefoot down a pergola avenue where the grass was deep, and small yellow apples hung from knotted trees, sour to bite. Many evenings, at the further side of an intricate herb garden, in a deserted cottage which my parents allowed me to use, I sat and watched the opposite windows of the big house shimmering gold in the sunset. As the sun went down the herb garden became a well of darkness. There was often mist and I loved to see the layers of mist between the trees, billows of mist coursing slowly across the lawns and meadows. The poetry of this was particularly powerful when the lawns were in winter lost under snow.
For long hours when my parents were out and my sisters at school, I had it to myself. Wandering through the empty rooms I would take down from their shelves the books I loved; the poems of Sappho, of Lascaris, of Catullus, of Meleager, of Byron and of Keats.
Music was another passion. Sometimes I tethered my horse to the porch of some remote country church and inside ran my fingers over the cold sculpture of tombs. Then, stealthily, I’d approach Victorian organs and, going round the back, pump at the worn wooden handle to the bellows till the air reservoir was full, then run round to the keyboard.
[Cue in Organ and hold behind]
There might be enough air in the reservoir to keep the organ in air for a minute, if I pulled out those stops, like Dulciana & Lieb Gedacht, which did not need a lot of air. Not very long with the powerful large pipes of the diapason. Always the whimpering finish as the pipes ran out of puff.
[Organ being pumped by hand. Footsteps run round. The organ is played, then comes to a wimpering hush]
[Other organs, other harmoniums]
Eye Manor was a beautiful house. Built in 1680, it had intricate plaster ceilings decorated with a profusion of cherubs, swathes, pomegranates, fruits, all that seemed lush and wonderful to the imported Italian plasterers of those days. The tall gracious windows looked out over a weeping ash and green lawns that sprouted from the red Herefordshire earth, the ha-ha, and more green meadows beyond.
(describes how he used to play as emergency organist for holy communion).
[Music; the organ at Eye, played by Jeremy]
Vicar (R): (leads into holy communion service?)
3. In the Boars Head Press edition of Sapho
In the Boars Head Press edition of Sapho there is a woodcut by my mother which shows a small boy of 18 months driving two sheep and a hog down a path illumined by the evening star. There is a thatch roofed cottage and cypresses arch overhead. A woman is collecting vegetables for the evening meal. Behind, rise the dark slopes of moorland.
The woman collecting vegetables is my mother. The cottage is Heathercombe, behind a stream just below the edge of Dartmoor. There my mother and father had done much of the work involved in running the Boars Head Press, whose books they printed and illustrated themselves in the years before they came to Eye. The little boy was me.
The book gives the translation of the poem the picture illustrates as;
Evening, thou bringest back all that the bright dawn took; thou bringest the sheep, the goat and, back to its mother, the child.
About this time my parents sent out a Christmas card with a poem by my father which is dear to me because it appears to me to deal with events which led to my own conception. ‘Patient Days’ he called it.
Christopher Sandford (R):
Long waits the master for his mistress fair
in january iwis he sees her there
her naked body paler than the sleet
and snow right dark beneath her tender feet
in february when wanton winds blow
he feels her nighness in the fire's glow
in march when snows are melting on the hill
he hears her tinkling laughter in the rill
when bels and flourets greet the april skies
he learns truths hid behind enamelled eyes
when lambs are bleating in the may morn
he seems to hear the cry of babes unborn
in june he plunges naked in the stream
a flood of ecstasy in a drifting dream
the july sun has gotten crops so fair
in harvest corn he sees her waving hair
in must of august grapes he sees her blood
like tears of pity shed on holy rood
september fruits are wreathed in autumn bloom
with painted pennons draping summer's tomb
october days he feels the giant frost
numbing his heart while woods sigh lost a-lost
november days he strives to make good cheer
in wassail wine and song he feels her near
december nights he bows him lowly down
for christ was born to save with thorny crown
on christmas eve he bounds across the floor
who beats so late and lonesome on the door?
Eye Manor was a more sophisticated house than Heathercombe. In theory my father's work took place in a room called The Cockerell, partly after the press and partly after the plaster cockerell that adorned the ceiling. In practice my father found this room too secluded, and preferred to work in the drawing room, one of the biggest rooms in the house, where there was more coming and going. Sitting by the big French windows, he could look down the length of the garden, and I remember him remonstrating with my mother that she should not plant a tree which would, he said, interfere with his view of blue distant hills.
There was an air of quiet activity in our home, with the rustling of papers at my father's long table at the centre of it. For recreation he would leave his table and push a huge motor lawn mower over the lawns, swerving dangerously at the last moment to prevent him and it falling down into the haha.
He and I used to ride together, before breakfast. His horse was a largish chestnut thoroughbred called Dr Syntax. My pony was called Jet. She frequently bolted, and when she did I usually fell off. For years I thought she was called Jet because she went so fast. In fact she had been so called because of her colour, which was jet black.
Our idyllic life was occasionally interrupted by deadlines in my father's publishing. Once, in order to catch the afternoon post, I remember him correcting proofs under a beech tree on the ancient fortress of Croft Ambry whilst the family picnic which he'd promised to go on took place around him. Once he discovered that a 'special' of one of the Cockerells had not been correctly signed, and so set off with my sister in his ancient Jaguar to get the required author's signature at the further end of Wales.
Late that night they arrived back. They claimed that a storm had nearly caused them to be benighted on the slopes of Plinlimon.
Solitude and Fantasy
I was, I suppose, a most pretentious lad. Later, when I reached the University of Oxford this pretentiousness would be in full flower. Already, quite strongly influenced by what I was reading at the time, I felt able to write, during vacation, to Mark Tennant, a fellow undergraduate; ‘You say that you envy my happiness. Yes, I am happy.
Young Jeremy (R):
Yes, I am happy. But if only, oh, if only I could have your belief in a future life, for that I would give you all my joy. My happiness is like the old and famed Greek blitheness, and what is that blitheness but a pathetic and tragic striving to do and be all things before it is too late?
And sometimes it seems to me now as if the old Pagan joy is only a despair, a false joy. It is for us who cannot believe in anything else to feign happiness, to tell ourselves endlessly that this is the only life for us to make what we will of it. And God knows make poor enough use, most of us. If it were the privilege of each of us to design our own heaven, mine would be a place where feeling, sensation, would be real and lasting, instead of existing only like flashes of light in a night of cloud and mist.
I detect the influence of Walter Pater, amongst others, on my journals of this period. ‘The time of mists is come,’ I was able to write, ‘a great cloud ...’
Young Jeremy (R):
... a great cloud white as lime lies over the country, the mist whitens the fields, isolating trees and buildings. This great house through which I wander is hemmed in away from the rest of the world. I feel lonely. The silent rooms cry for music, the lawns and trees cry for colour and people, these floors and these couches for visitors, and these books, in their leather volumes, for readers.
Yesterday I went through blowing clouds and mists to a hill top, stormy, dour, and the weather hurled tattered pieces of mist at me. I sat on an out-jutting rock in the face of the rain and on an antieuq pipe played wild music for the elements, and for the ponies and sheep that wandered in the bracken that clustered below the jumble of fallen stones.
Though most of what I wrote was based on reality, some was fantasy and I find it hard at this later date to disentangle which was which.
[Sounds of wind and storm]
Young Jeremy (R):
On Berrington Lake in a boat we cut the cold waters in a tempest, among islands hung with mist; and you the only warm colour, so utterly warm above the black water, sitting with me in the bottom of the boat. The halyard stiffened and the sails braced and the dark waters slopped a little over the gunwale. And the trees on the shore leaned themselves to a frenzy as if they envied us. Then, on the bed, beneath the garret-roof, while the storm outside lifted tiles and dashed straw and leaves across the lawns, we lay together.
Who was this ‘you’ lying with me in the boat, and did they really exist? This was a question which I believe troubled my mother when she surreptitiously read my journals, as I now believe she did. Since she had read it secretly, she could not confront me directly about the identity, or lack of identity, of the people I wrote about in it. One of these was Gwenda, one of the maids that my parents still employed at this time, with whom I had secret meetings. Gwenda was enthusiastic about my endeavours and, I believe, about me, although as her feet were placed more firmly on the earth than mine, she sometimes, understandably, became confused when I enthused on such subjects as the importance of burning with a gem-like flame. On our first outing she told me of a conversation she had with Judith, another maid.
‘I fancy Master Jeremy,’ I said. ‘No hope there, he’s queer,’ said Judith, and then she said, ‘Well, if you look at him with a smile like the one you just looked at me with, perhaps you’ll prove me wrong on that one.’
Gwenda had red hair and freckles. I would light candles in the attic room with dormer windows where I used to meet her. Looking back on those days, I remember the view of the church tower, twenty yards or so away through the window. I remember the huffing and hooting wind outside, snug memories enacted on the stark black painted bedstead that creaked and wheezed.
Sometimes I went, on horse back, to trysts with her in the woods around Croft Castle or by the lakes there. Gwenda travelled, by a different route, on her bicycle. At a place we called the Haunted House we climbed to the top of the hay in a barn and looked out at a dark lake that glinted outside it, and the woods, and the distant hills. Beyond this, we’d climb through groves of stunted trees to Croft Ambry’s grassy summit whence you could see, beneath a veil of mist, the Black Mountains, and dark frisky horses galloped up sometimes from the valley to investigate us.
In the exotically bound volume that I used as a journal at this time, I wrote;
Young Jeremy (R):
This afternoon I lie beneath the darkening renaissance ceiling, fingering the strings of a mandolin. That old ash outside the window is inky black. The cows call sadly. You came in a short while ago and handled a mandolin for a moment, then went out again suddenly, like a shadow. Now I can think of nothing but you.
Young Jeremy (R):
And now the bells are ringing from the church tower, they shout clamorously, imperiously. And yet they seem to me insipid and banal, these rites to which I am called by the bells on the church tower, rites of the churchyard with its plaques and tombs.
The bells have finished now. I rise from my bed and set out to find you. Secretly we go out to the church and climb the narrow stone staircase up the church tower. Far away lies Clee Hill, clothed in snow. We climb further, past crumbling masonry and up an iron ladder into the smaller tower. The gale comes to our faces fresh and cool here and an old weathercock creaks overhead. As we climb up the last section, up into the smaller tower that is built above the larger one, part of the masonry machicolation gives a lurch and almost goes crashing down into the churchyard below. The wind is wild and Gothick. The weeping ash on the lawn underneath is like a wild thing.
If for no other reason, I know that some of what I wrote about my life at this time was fantasy because I can recognise, or think I can recognise, passages translated and transcribed from classical authors.
Young Jeremy (R):
O leave, leave the tender game before it is too late. But how can I leave it when, so many mornings at dawn, lying in your arms on the bed or on the floor, I forget everything else in the world beside the charm of your fair face?
This is followed with a stern admonition;
Young Jeremy (R):
Don’t take the lives of others from them. Don’t dabble in wantonness lest it take up all your time.
A knowledge of the Latin which I was taught at school and which enabled me to translate such sentiments from Catullus, rather than a knowledge of life, inspired me. With hindsight I can appreciate how disturbed my mother may have found passages like these.
My parents were evidently away on another day when ‘we harnessed two horses and galloped abreast down the valley till we reached George’s plantation.
Young Jeremy (R):
The sun cast long shadows as we rode on towards the lake. Her face was flushed with exultation.
She was wearing a hood with a purple lining. As we galloped thus, our legs collided sometimes as the horses came close. I had an almost unbearably keen perception of living. On we went past the lake, under oaks, out onto the hill. On along a narrow path, through the wood. I remember the picturesque effect of the young beech trees and she as if from the pages of some missal on the white pony. On we went till we could see Kimbolton Church from a neighbouring hill.
We rode back in darkness. The wind excited the horses and they galloped wildly beneath the ink black oaks of the park. The water of the lake was wild, agitated, and cattle scattered ahead of us. But the ecstasy wasn’t repeated. That galloping abreast was the focal point of the day.
So steeped was I in classical literature that typical Herefordshire farm labourers turned into classical herd-boys.
Young Jeremy (R):
At dawn the sun lit up the cherubs and fruit of the ceiling of my room. Starlings, curlews and rooks, a herd-boy outside calling the cows. For some time I lay beneath the green satin eiderdown, in a mist of contentment.
I detect another influence at work in this part of my journals. That is a book I had bought in Paris called ‘Au Chateau D’Argol’, a gothick romance that I now can no longer find in my bookshelves.
Young Jeremy (R):
Oh, night of perjured rest and spoilt sleep, pent agony of almost painful bliss, of bliss at dusk and at first light renewal of bliss. Oh, the flagrant invitation to worship that shines through her clear eyes, oh her curving lips, her parted teeth. I am almost too much alive. Sometimes when I wake at night the pulse of life through my veins, the vastness of desires to which I can give no name is overwhelming, making sleep or even thought impossible.
The desires to which I could give no name were probably nothing more than common lust, tinged perhaps with a dash of romantic love.
Young Jeremy (R):
I should like to grasp the whole earth in my outstretched arms, or render myself prisoner to the limitless power of the ocean. That is why storms attract me, and the riding of only half tamed horses, the feel of tree-branches swaying beneath me, the texture of sand to the foot or foam to the body.
With a touch of complacent self-congratulation, my journal continues;
Young Jeremy (R):
I am disconcerted at my own vitality. Is it that I have tasted of some forbidden fruit, miraculously kept from the taste of other folk?
After supper with my parents in the oak-panelled dining room lit by a ten-armed candelabra and with the mellowed lights from behind the panels shining up at the ceiling, the plaster wreaths and apples and pears, while in the vast grate a fire smouldered. I did not, as they thought, go to bed. Instead, climbing metal fire escapes and a drain pipe in drowning rain, at length I reached her room.
I whispered; ‘Are you asleep?’
I climbed into bed beside her. Lying across her body in the bed I held her in my arms and for some time neither of us spoke. She seemed half asleep. I could just feel her heart beating. Then she directed at me the intense blue of her eyes and drew her breath in sharply. Her body became rigid and I felt as if time had stopped. For a moment she lay quite still.
Young Jeremy (R):
How I wish you didn’t have to go away. Ever.
Young Jeremy (R):
Never mind. It won’t be too long before we’ll be together again.
My Charger is Champing his Bridle and Chain
Do other people’s perceptions ever correspond to one’s own image of oneself? I suppose that perhaps they do when one is seen through the eyes of love. Love can be acceptance of a person in their own highest image of themselves.
But to others? Photographs of the time show me as a shy callow ungainly youth. From my writings, without these, what would one deduce? I suppose, if they were taken at face value and their frequent foolishness ignored, some faun or satyre or even some person so infinitely radiant that their parent must have been a Goddess or God.
I sketched a portrait of what I thought I was like in a journal of that time in which I wrote of myself in the third person, creating out of myself a sort of dream lover, and giving myself a fancy name, Angelico.
Young Jeremy (R):
My youth was passed in that state known by decadent novels as ‘passionate purity’. I read avidly, walked for miles in the country, thought about myself and the stars and the heavens, and how the devil it could all have started; threw myself down on beds of bluebells.
Eye Manor was already a prodigy house but I thought fit to add a few touches from my cousins house, Wooley Park;
Young Jeremy (R):
The library is a long faded room from whose thick carpet an amber coloured light is reflected onto the low white-pinnacled ceiling. Rows of leather books, stamped in gold, reflect from one to the next the glitter of candles or the glow of the evening sun when in setting it slants through the tall windows. The glass above the fireplace mirrors darkly as though through a mist or veil, and beneath it a bowl of Chinese porcelain is filled perpetually with the odour of rose leaves.
I returned to my own room at Eye with its cherub guardians for the next bit;
Young Jeremy (R):
One afternoon, on the window-seat which overlooks the striped lawn and shaggy countryside, I sat, oblivious of the shadows lengthening outside, turning the vellum pages of Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’. The paper had been cropped to fit the embossed leather binding, and the text obscured by annotations, but the tall type was still legible for the passage where the author, wandering alone through the depths of a wood, comes upon a shepherdess singing impromptu to her lover the lines;
‘My true love hath my heart and I have his,
Each in exchange is for the other given .....’
Did my real life resemble this picture in any way? Certainly not when I was at school, at the Downs school near Malvern.
But at home? One image immediately comes back to me. I am on my pony and my father is mounted on his big chestnut horse, Doctor Syntax. We have reined in to stop by a gate and are looking over the misty countryside of January. Later this afternoon we will pile into the battered Jaguar and I will be on my way back to school.
I wonder if anyone who has been sent at a young age to boarding school ever completely forgets that. I will never forget the empty yearning feeling in the stomach as the hours tick away towards the moment of waving goodbye to parents at the school entrance.
‘It is sad that we can’t be as people were in the old testament,’ says my father, ‘with the fathers and daughters and grandfathers and grandchildren all travelling through life together towards the promised land. Unfortunately in these times it can’t be like that and you can never amount to anything in the world if you don’t go to boarding school.’ I thought to myself that the old testament way sounded nice, whereas the present way was horrible.
My father drew a parallel with how ancient knights must have felt before leaving for a crusade. He sang;
‘My charger is champing his bridle and chain,
The moment is nearing, dear heart I must leave you.’
He had himself been unhappy at school at Marlborough, a far more vicious place, when he was there, than any I experienced. I believe he never really recovered from the extensive bullying he received there.
My sisters, Antonia and Juliet, would in the course of time also be bullied at their school, Lawnside, in Malvern. Yet at that time it was believed that the children of the privileged classes must be sent away to boarding school.
‘It’s like taking a lamb to the slaughter house,’ my mother muttered as the Jaguar went all too fast down the roads to hell. She cried out, ‘Look, the Malverns,’ as we crossed Bromyard Heath, ‘Aren’t they looking lovely?’
I looked back at her glumly and she said again sadly, ‘It is like taking a lamb to the slaughter.’
Schooling had not always been so difficult. I had spent my pleasantest times with a governess my parents employed, who taught me in a grey room called the schoolroom, and when, as a result of a school being requisitioned during the war, my father taught me. My father and I sat at a round table in the great parlour and of those times I remember best a poem which had the refrain;
‘... then our songs will be heard on the echoing green.’
Another poem which I had occasion to remember with deep sorrow many years later went;
‘Four ducks on a pond,
A green bank beyond,
What a small thing
To remember for years,
To remember with tears.’
My mother complained that whenever she looked in, my father and I were roaring with laughter. It was her view that so much laughter must be hindering my proper education. So I was sent off to another boarding school.
The War Years
Going out of the drawing room. Hundreds of planes passing overhead. War had come. Troops were stationed at Eye.
Galvanised sheds were built as garages for vehicles and ammunition store, and subterranean hideouts constructed throughout the county. My father slept by day. By night he was busy setting up a resistance movement to be brought into action in the event of enemy invasion. The cellars at Eye had become a secret guerilla headquarters with my father in control.
Many things that my parents had planned had to be abandoned with the arrival of war and petrol rationing. Even shopping was difficult. Twice a week my mother and I rode the four miles to Leominster on bicycles with baskets fore and aft, returning laden with tins of powdered milk, small portions of whale meat, and other wartime delicacies, such as raw carrots to be made into Woolton Pie. Hens now perched in the shrubbery, pigs snorted in a specially constructed pig sheds, nine evacuee children and their schoolteachers moved in, and horses grazed the once immaculate lawns.
We had very little petrol and went for picnics by train when there was not enough petrol to go by car. On one picnic I discovered the entrance to an underground passage, hidden under gravel. Inside were bottles piled high on racks, each with a piece of cloth attached. I ran back to describe my find. My father hastily drew me aside and explained that he had combined the picnic with a visit to one of his ammunition dumps, and that I must not mention my discovery to anyone.
During all this period he was also producing his Cockerell books, although not so many as in time of peace.
My Mother’s earliest public recognition
My mother’s earliest public recognition had come at the age of eight when she won an award in a competition organised by Chilprufe underwear. The competition was for a picture of a toy bear wearing a Chilprufe vest. My mother drew her own toy bear and the prize was another Chilprufe vest, this time for the bear.
As the years passed she was to become a part of that renaissance in wood and copper engraving and etching which was an exciting feature of the art scene of the twenties and thirties, a renaissance which included, among many others, Clifford Webb, John Buckland Wright, John O’Connor and John Petts.
Over the years her work was shown in mixed shows at the Anthony Blond, the New English Art Club, Gallery One, and other galleries in London, and she later exhibited in many shows featuring local Herefordshire artists, in one at Hereford Museum called ‘Lettice Sandford and the Golden Cockerel Press’, and a very successful final show at the Kilvert Gallery in Clyro.
At one point she had decided that my two sisters were ‘too much for me’ and took me away with her for a holiday in Bognor, and later Weymouth. She was working on her etchings, but the dim lights of the hotel strained her eyes, and not long after this she had to give up wood engraving and etching. In later works, such as Aucusson and Nicholette, and her childrens books Coo-My-Doo, and Roocoo and Panessa, both about fantail pigeons, based on the pigeons that fluttered round the eaves of our home, she used pen and ink.
She produced very little artwork between 1950 and the 1980s . Then, after a gap of many years, she returned to the life of an artist. Unlike her prints, which were mainly celebrations of the human form, her later work, usually in watercolour, was a record of those things that she found most delightful in the Herefordshire countryside, its buildings, meadows, hills, uplands, coppices and groves.
She was born Lettice Mackintosh Rate. Her mother had died young and her father (my grandfather) was fairly remote, so she and her four sisters to a large degree brought up themselves, while however observing customs of the utmost decorum, and with the aid of nannies, governesses, musical and artistic instructors, and chaperones. The names Lettice Mackintosh were considered eccentric by some, and at school she was nicknamed Watercress Waterproof.
They were a talented family. The eldest sister, Muriel, some years older than Lettice and known to most of her friends as Robin, studied at the Royal College of Music under Herbert Howells. Her subject was conducting, at that time an even less usual occupation for a woman than now. A friend of Cecil Sharpe's, Robin was interested in the traditional songs still being sung by some women to ease their daily work. On one typical expedition my mother went with her to discover hitherto unrecorded songs on the islands of Col and Tiree.
Another sister, Peggy, was musical and a third, Elizabeth (Betty), studied music and modern dancing. All four were inspired by the revival of folk dance and music of the twenties and gave public performances in aid of various charities, in period costume. The group, in which passing men were occasionally granted walk on parts, was called the Greenwood Players.
My mother's grandmother, a talented and sensitive woman who read Dante’s ‘Il Paradiso’ in Italian, had a London house and one year decided to rent another in Seymour Street in Mayfair, for the girls to live in and have an experience of city life. She was the grandchild of Beau Candy, a natural son of George IV who had him brought up by a merchant called Candy, and lavished on him a fortune.
Once a week my mother went to draw fonts and well heads in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These, situated near the entrance, were felt to be safer subjects than those rather more naked artworks which might lie further into the museum. Even on these apparently innocuous trips a chaperone was thought necessary and this role was undertaken by her grandmother's personal maid, Mrs Rose.
Upstairs at Milton Court near Dorking, the grandmother's large Jacobean country home, my mother copied the designs on a cassone decorated by Uccello. Later, when the place was inherited by her father and he and his daughters moved in, the cassone was sold to pay for the installation of electric light in the huge residence.
The large barns of the home farm appear in some of my mother's works of this date, including The Miracle and The Jesse Tree. My mother also remembers drawing her sister Betty's feet standing barefoot on a bridge over a tributary of the river Mole, which ran through the gardens.
She was sent to boarding school at The Manor House, Brondesbury, in North London. It had been founded by Miss Soulsby, a high minded Victorian educationalist, who was succeeded by Miss Abbott who was headmistress in my mother's time.
My mother remembers a lino covered staircase, up and down which the students thundered on their way to classes many times a day. Its walls were hung with uplifting quotations and one that my mother remembered went;
'E'en the light hairbell lifts her head
Elastic from her airy tread.'
These were World War I years, and one term there was an unexpected holiday during the construction of a gun emplacement outside the school, to be used in the hurling of missiles at passing Zepellins.
Lettice: Early Life
My mother explains that she was not much good at sport, unlike her younger sister Betty. The exception was swimming, in which she gained a Life Saving Certificate. She also received tuition in fencing because it was felt to be beneficial to young ladies of that time who were required to have very straight backs. Other lessons took place flat on her back on a long board with a hole in it for her head, for the same reason.
Art was what she was best at and the art master, who was important to my mother, was Percy Jowett. He had not been able to go to war because of a gammy leg. At art classes the chaperone was Mlle Couchoux, who also taught French.
Her sister Robin brought back from Italy reproductions of Renaissance Italian painting and these my mother later felt had been a strong influence on her, especially the oval Renaissance faces which surfaced sometimes in her own work.
Her father Lachlan Rate was persuaded to let her go to art school. A place was found for her in austere but high minded lodgings at Harrington Gardens, South Kensington, run by the Girls Diocesan Association, and she attended the Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole school of art on Camden Hill. For three terms she and the other pupils copied plaster casts. Of an evening they were allowed to paint brief sketches in oils.
My mother never liked oil paint as a medium very much. Watercolour, of which she was already very fond, was not then held in as much esteem as now. Her Japan black paint box was put away, to languish many years unused. In the course of her studies on Camden Hill, she became interested in book illustration and moved on to the Chelsea Polytechnic in Manresa Road in Chelsea, where she was delighted to find that the Art Department was now being run by her old friend and teacher Percy Jowett. Another teacher was Robert Day who taught her engraving on wood, and she became part of a small and dedicated class in etching run by Graham Sutherland.
‘At that time’, says my mother, ‘he was in his earliest stage of engraving nature in extreme detail so that each leaf or stalk could be recognised as of that particular tree or shrub and he had a delight in country scenes that followed in the tradition of Palmer and Calvert. He encouraged us to seek out their work.’
To this period belongs my mother’s big drawing, The Jesse Tree, which has the home farm buildings at Milton in the background, and the etching ‘The Miracle’ which shows the Virgin Mary appearing to a homely figure who is amazed as she digs the cabbages, and in which the very fine lines of the Virgin Mary now seem to have miraculously disappeared from the copper plate altogether.
The wonderful large wood engraving ‘The Isles of the Blest’ also dates from this period and, so my mother explained, ‘Although it was one of my most successful, I actually forgot about its existence, so it was never seen or exhibited or even printed until I rediscovered it in an old drawer in 1980’.
Lettice Meets Christopher
On leaving the Polytechnic in 1927 Lettice went on a skiing holiday with her sister Betty to Maloya, in Switzerland. It was there that she met Christopher Sandford, my father.
Of Anglo Irish descent, he was at that time extremely fond of the new sport of motoring, which he combined with a passion of his, for old English churches and especially mediæval stained glass. Lettice and Christopher had in common a love of printing, he of the printed word and she of the printed image.
My mother’s first commissioned job was for the Christmas issues of the Illustrated London News in 1931 and 1932. It was to illustrate with wood engravings some Tibetan folk tales, which had been collected and transcribed by Barbara Bingley.
‘Meanwhile,’ Lettice told me, ‘Christopher and I both got so interested in finely produced books that The Boars Head Press came into being, named after the Sandford family crest. We ran the press as a joint enterprise, I illustrated many of the books, and Christopher set the type and printed them, using the facilities of the Chiswick Press, of which he was a director.’
Together they also chose the bindings, and my mother's work for the earliest of these, in books like Clervis and Bellamie and The Magic Forest, has something of the atmosphere and appearance of Mediaeval woodcuts.
She was experimenting in other styles in wood and copper and was very excited by the edition of Comus, with illustrations by Blair Hughes Stanton, that was published by the Gregynog Press. ‘I admired his use of black figures set off by his intricate use of the graver,’ she told me, ‘and he had a tremendous influence on the direction my work would take, which can first be seen in my illustrations for Thalamos, with its rhythmic and free expression. This was the first time I thought of trying a black figure with white lines.’
Lettice illustrated the few fragments of poetry that have survived from Sapho, the poetess of Lesbos, for another volume from the Boars Head Press and of these my favourite is a picture of myself, as a small shepherd boy, herding sheep. The cottage in the background is Heather Combe, on the edge of Dartmoor, which my parents rented and where many of the Boars Head Press books were designed. At this time it was, I think, my parents’ spiritual home, although they also had a house in Kensington.
Lettice also did illustrations for Hero and Leander which were published by another of Christopher’s enterprises, the Golden Hours Press.
A year or so after this she saw some copper engravings by Matisse and was enchanted by his ‘sparse technique’. My father had now acquired from Robert Gibbings the Golden Cockerel Press and Matisse’s freehand inspired my mother in her illustrations for three great Cockerel books, The Golden Bed of Kydno, The Song of Songs, on copper, and The Cockerel Greek Anthology on zinc. ‘All these,’ my mother told me, ‘relied on a very sensuous line that seemed appropriate to the texts.’
Christopher’s Views on Typography
In the Magic Forest, the first Boars Head Press book, my father talks of the importance of innovation. He says that ‘the typographer’, in other words himself, has ‘in fairness to admit’ that his most objectionable critic has not been the old hand who complains, ‘You can't do that, Sir. Why, Sir? Well, it isn’t usual!’ but himself, who is never satisfied with his work, but must ever go chasing after a coy nymph named ‘Perfection’.
Pondering this book, he decided that the Chiswick Press ‘Antique’ type, with its bolder face, would have combined better with the rich ‘colour’ of the wood blocks to yield the page he had before his mind’s eye.
Alternately, he wondered whether it would have been better to print this story of the sixth century in some primitive type, but then reassures himself that that would have been a retrograde step since ‘those faces, which few people can now read with ease,’ have been ‘replaced by more legible types.’
My father once said to me that as a young man he'd been advised to go into something lucrative like women's underwear, not private press printing. There was no real choice though. He had a vocation to become a publisher.
Corn Dollies; Women’s Institute Drama
My mother was becoming increasingly intrigued by a series of artefacts as ancient perhaps or even older than woodcut, and certainly stranger in their provenance. She was introduced to them by Miss Philla Davis, a council craftworker who, travelling by motorcycle, passed a night at Eye once a week to give classes in the school or village hall. The motorcycle of this remarkable woman was hung round with whatever was needed for that week of craft work, vital bits of hessian, old legs for restored stools, rope and straw, bolts of cloth, men’s boots, goggles, rush for chair seats, dummy figures, half upholstered chairs.
Inspired by Philla, my mother was to play a major part in the regeneration of the ancient craft of corn dolly making. She travelled far and wide on tours of discovery to learn the secrets of traditional makers, and regional variations. The closest maker of corndollies she visited was in the Herefordshire hamlet of Stockton Hennor, the furthest lived in Exmouth.
She wrote, and co-wrote with Philla, pamphlets and books, and for more than a decade hosted a long series of over a hundred 3-day corn dolly making courses at Eye. Also she travelled to America to teach. Once, squirrels broke into her marquee and ate many of her specially imported demonstration corn dollies. Besides recreating the ancient models she also embarked on new designs of her own.
Among the most unusual of all her creations were two gigantic seven foot ‘corn maidens’ for the harvest celebrations in the opera Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden. Many of her corn dollies are now on permanent display in the Churchill Gardens Museum and Gallery in Hereford.
During this period my mother was also directing drama for Eye Womens Institute. ‘We became involved in a charming world of make believe, culminating in the yearly County Drama League Competition,’ she told me. ‘Whole winters were spent in making props and costumes, and producing plays with actors from our own community.’ There was the Chester Play of the Deluge, in which the part of God was played by the vicar, the Rev. Meredith Davies, standing behind a sheet on a step ladder, speaking through a megaphone. In ‘the Bodenham Bogey’, a thriller by their friend, the Herefordshire writer Jessica Frazer, the bogey was played by my father, emerging from a well in mid stage, heavily made up in green greasepaint, wearing a green hessian outfit, with long and unkempt locks made of green bast.
My mother was also active with the local Womens Institute, and rose to be president of the Herefordshire Federation of Womens Institutes. There were many other activities such as bottling and dress making to fill the days, and she designed and superintended the work on a largish number of embroidered banners for local Womens Institutes.
Even more engrossing than any of these was the operation of opening Eye Manor to the public. My mother assembled collections of clothes, dolls, corndollies. Period furniture, old masters, the Golden Cockerel books and her illustrations were on show.
Despite all these other activities in the post war years, my mother had found the time to illustrate some books, now using pen and ink. There were Aucassin and Nicolette, Arabian Love Tales, and Lancelot and Guinevere for the Folio Society, and The Letters of Maria Edgeworth for the Golden Cockerel.
Return to Watercolour
It was subsequent to my father's death, and with the move to a pleasant cottage in the stable yard at Eye, that my mother returned to her early passion for watercolour. She once again got out her black Japan paintbox and returned to Norwich to look once again at the paintings of John Sell Cotman and the Norwich School of Watercolour. She joined the Hereford Painting Club, a group of some thirty artists which goes once a week to a country house or farmhouse or other picturesque spot to paint.
‘I began with the Club a series of paintings chronicling aspects of Herefordshire. Llandinabo Court, for example, with its number of bulls looking enormously rustic and chewing the cud peacefully, in a wonderful assortment of old and new barns.’
‘I remember especially, too, the edge of the lawn at Tedstone Court with its distant view of hills, sheep and donkey, magnificent pine in the foreground, and lych gate and church just visible.’
‘I love the cleanness of the statement of watercolour. We live in a watercolour world, and especially in these border climes in which water has made itself so much a part of everything. I've always loved the country and all of its seasons. This is a way of putting down what I feel about them.’
Of this, which was to be the last decade of her life, she said; ‘I don't want to go abroad or travel or anything. This is what I want to do.’
The artist Eugene Fisk, who sometimes taught on the courses, says; ‘With her large straw hat, her small folding chair and trolley easel, she was very much the traditional British woman painter, and was frequently the first to arrive and the last to leave.’
Besides the glory of her earlier engravings, my mother's watercolours will remain as record of a rustic bucolic Herefordshire which may one day be a thing of the past.
As Samuel Palmer said of William Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, her paintings and engravings are ‘visions of little dells and nooks and corners of paradise’.
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