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Polly Devlin: The Remembering Rope – Part Two

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POLLY DEVLIN’s remembrance of people and times past is triggered by her collection of treasured antiques and the backstories of their acquisition …

For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the second episode in the loose bookconcoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house past the pictures and objects I also see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away.

I met Patrick Kavanagh a long time ago in the Queen’s Elm pub on the Fulham Road (long since closed) but was too something – shy? nervous? insecure? – I don’t know – to stay and drink with him but I wish I had because he wanted to talk to me and I love his poetry and I still remember the lines from his epic poem The Great Hunger – “Men build their heavens as they build their circles / Of friends. God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday.” Well, women do too and, I don’t know about God with a capital G but there is something of heaven in my everyday bits and pieces, something of the soul and spirit and art of the long-ago artisans and craftsman who made them. When I collect them I feel I honour their work – but then again, I have always been able to put a high moral gloss on my behaviour. But who could fail to be touched by, for example, one lovely Irish spongeware bowl where a tired sleeve brushed against a freshly painted ivy leaf one 140 years ago and smeared it; that sweet disorder is the reason I love it …

I wrote earlier of a semi-lune table in my bathroom with its small precious (though not valuable) objects arranged on it with infinite precision – and among them is a charming ceramic boat rowed by two frogs, the hull painted with roses, daisies and bay leaves. The name The Sally Duchess is painted on the prow and it was made by Andrew Wood, an extraordinary young man (well he was more or less the same age as me then, I suppose, but seemed younger when I first met him, Christ! 50 years ago). He had just bought a disused Bethesda Chapel down a side street in Uley, one of the most beautiful and secret of all Gloucestershire villages and was camping in a corner of the derelict chapel, behind a curtain hung in the apse. The place was so cold that I thought my arms would crack off as I listened to his mad plans to somehow raise enough money to turn it into an arts centre for theatre, art, film, sculpture, pottery, poetry, a place where children could work and grow up among art, as easily as growing up among cigarettes or football. He asked me to be a trustee of this putative arts trust and I agreed. It was the least I could do. I was amazed by his plans, his courage, his goodness. I was also completely sceptical.

Andrew, a highly talented potter and ceramicist with extraordinary virtuosity, makes intricately modelled fantastical pieces and small whimsical ones wonderful in their quirkiness and colours such as had not been used in ceramic pieces before and I asked him to make a piece for my youngest daughter’s godmother, Sally Westminster, who had a vast collection of frogs in every material from jade to alabaster to gold. So he made her this little boat, with its frogs and roses, daisies and bay leaves entwined around its hull. (My daughters were called Rose, Daisy, and Bay – and a bit of social history here – their friends were called Flora, Violet, Lily, Iris, plus two other Roses and three Daisys – all born in the same era and without collusion. As many children had flower names in the 1970s as there were, say, Carolines in the late 1950s.)

Sally loved the boat. It had pride of place on one of her tables.

During the Second World War many young women in the Forces who had been stationed in Cairo had returned home having married eligible young English men in the army there and she was a prime example. They all looked back on the war as a golden age. She was a childless widow, and loved her garden passionately, and the birds in her aviary, but most of all she loved her springer spaniel Phoebe. She swore that when her dog died she would go soon after and when Phoebe had to be put down, Sally suffered a stroke in her garden the next day. Her birthday. As she lay dying, being comforted by Mrs Millar, who had worked for her for years, a bird began to trill in the tree overhead. “Listen Your Grace,” Mrs Millar said desperately, “A thrush is singing.” “It’s a blackbird,” Sally said. Famous last words.

My daughters were called ROSE, DAISY AND BAY – and bit of social history here – their friends were called Flora, Violet, Lily, Iris, plus two other Roses and three Daisys …

She was tall, limber, limping and was one of the three hidden half-starved children of Roger Ackerley, her father’s secret second family. She and her two sisters only knew him as a shadowy figure known as Uncle. He was also, by his legitimate marriage, the father of JP Ackerley who wrote two masterpieces – his autobiography My Father and Myself and the biography of his beloved dog Tulip. I commend them. Sally’s sister, Diana Petre, was one of JP Ackerley’s (unknown to him) three half-sisters and she chronicled the story of the three neglected half-starved children plagued with rickets (hence the limp) reared behind locked doors in a suburb of London in her remarkable memoir The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley. Although Diana was a friend she never spoke of her childhood to me and I only knew about it when she published the book (against the wishes of her sisters.)

Sally left the frog boat back to me in her will and there it sails, carrying so much history, including the death of a duchess, across the beautiful table. It was at Andrew’s pottery in the old chapel that I made the big house piece that no-one thought would survive its firing in the kiln. Another story. And Uley? it became the most wonderful arts centre and is still at the heart of creative art in that part of Gloucestershire.

I’ve always been interested in textiles and the making of textiles ever since I stayed in Teileann in the Gaeltacht to improve (improve!) my girlish and stammering Gaelic and first saw weavers weaving Donegal tweed. I still have the length I managed – or my father managed – to buy there, and it hangs on a Bentwood towel rail, still beautiful and subtle and moth free after all these years. This little length of tweed has a remarkable story behind it.

There is a long history of pioneering English women philanthropists, coming to Ireland with romantic ideas about its beauty and then being shocked into action by the desperate conditions of the deprived rural populations and the endemic poverty they encountered. One such was the artist Alice Rowland Hart who in 1883 visited Donegal with her husband. She went public with her concern and anger about the conditions in which the people lived and began a campaign to raise money but then realised that charity was neither acceptable nor the answer and that she needed to help people earn a permanent living. There already was a small cottage industry of spinning flax and weaving tweed in the county – (in the 1790s The Royal Linen Manufacturers of Ulster distributed thousands of flax spinning wheels and 60 looms for weaving to houses in Donegal) – but it was a patchy business with no commercial structure. She determined to revive it, founded the Donegal Industrial Fund, began to work with local weavers, helped with design (using vegetable dyes from local plants) and showed the Irish weavers the products that the successful Scottish weaving industry were selling all over the world. The industry began to flourish, with outlets in Dublin, London and the USA. Mrs Hart then set up embroidery schools all over Ireland teaching the embroidery of flax on linen using designs from Irish manuscripts – (known as Kells art) and Japan, inspired by the important collection of Japanese art which she and her husband owned. I’ve never heard her name mentioned in Ireland, never mind in Donegal, but I treasure my swatch of Donegal tweed and praise her.

Two other textiles I love and look at regularly. One is a faded silk quilted counterpane of the greatest fragility and beauty, embroidered all over with stumpwork in silver and gold thread, appliqué and tiny glass and gold beads depicting exotic birds and foliage which I bought at the auction of the contents of Luttrellstown Castle after the death of its owner, the dazzling Aileen Plunkett. One of the three glamorous Guinness daughters – the epitome of the Bright Young Things – who wowed society in the 1930s and over the years had endless publicity devoted to their social exploits. It had been bought for her as a wedding present by her father Ernest Guinness – (he also bought Luggala, that lovely Wicklow house, for his other daughter Oonagh’s wedding present.) He was brilliant at business but could get things very very wrong occasionally – as, when he was serving in the British Army during World War I, he became suspicious of a soldier who seemed too young for the many high-ranking stripes and medals he sported. Ernest concluded that he was a spy and arrested him. Turned out your man was the Prince of Wales.

And the second textile roll? Sybil Connolly’s fabulous pleated silk. Like Fortuny only better. That’s for next time.

 

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