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 ninth episode in the loose concoction 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 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 …
Last month’s issue – glory be, I wrote about my lost paradise and the luckier of the two children on the aerodrome, the one who fell in love with wild flowers and made them part of her life’s work. By chance – though I don’t believe in chance – when doing some springcleaning on my computer, I came across this. Before you read, on, I should say Garnett is my married name and Cannwood my former house.
Sunday July 21st 1992
Lunched with the Garnetts at Cannwood, their new house near Bruton. An old redbrick Georgian house much added to. Pretty and higgledy-piggledy, crammed with furniture, ornaments, children falling over each other, maids with babes, muddle, confusion, jollity; a house such as I could never make. Polly much improved, fine eyes, immensely clever and quick. Took us for a walk in a meadow they own which has been scheduled “not to be disturbed”. As it has never been “improved” by farmers or treated with pesticides, it is a tapestry of wild flowers, such as one sees in a Cluny panel and indeed one saw every day in one’s youth. Scabious, clover, vetch blue and yellow, cornflowers, marguerites and one hundred and thirty varieties of grass, so Polly says. The field next door, which has been “improved”, utterly dead like a landscape on the moon. To think that A and I have lived to see this change.
If I extrapolated from the words in bold, in this entry in Beneath a Waning Moon, one of James Lees-Milne’s many voluminous dairies, I would need to write a book. Bruton is a perfect little Somerset town and was neglected and unfashionable when we lived near there – it’s now the most fashionable town in England (no connection with our residence there?) and in its rise is an anthropological history of the social movements of a certain class of English people and what happens in its wake.
James Lees-Milne was an erudite man of letters, deeply interested in the aristocracy and their great, often endangered houses and he did a signal service to the National Trust in England by saving many from destruction and ruin after the war. Nevertheless under the cultured facade was a creature of bitter prejudice.
He hated the Irish, never lost an opportunity in his diaries to say how detestable and low they were. He knew everything about English history and was utterly ignorant about what his beloved country had done to us. So, Polly. Much Improved! The cheek! I read that judgement somewhat sorrowfully because it meant that my camouflage, my protective colouring and my West Brit manners were suiting him better. I wonder what my manners were before I improved? When I first knew him, I was my natural self, whatever that was. He was as polite and charming as he could be but when I read much improved I remember that startling line (which makes me laugh) from Ted Hughes’ poem about The Hawk … My manners are tearing off heads. An attorney general in Ireland in 1606 (Sir John Davies, poet, philosopher, liar) once outlined his ambition for Ireland … so that the next generation will be in tongue and heart and every way else become English; so as there will be no difference or distinction, but the Irish sea betwixt us … Tongue and every way else. But the heart? Never. Never. Never.
He mentions confusion in the house. Wrong. So wrong. He and his wife, Alvilde, lived in delicate perfection, a social yet quiet existence, considering the maelstroms they had once lived and loved through. Their lovely house was in the village of Badminton where the Duke of Beaufort lives and reigns. (There’s another huge social history, Shakespearean in its depth). So if, understandably, James Lees-Milne mistook a house full of movement and people and joy for confusion, I feel sorry. For them. But not very. (Alvilde was a truly great gardener and once when we were in her house unsullied by child or noise or confusion I heard her deep in a discussion of roses with Mick Jagger whose garden in his French château she had designed.)
Cluny panel … I don’t need to unravel that allusion to the heartbreakingly beautiful tapestries of The Lady of the Unicorn in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.
And A? A is for Alvilde as above. One day someone will write a biography of this formidable woman. Married first to a Viscount Chaplin, she lived in Paris and became the lover of Winnaretta Singer, the Princess Edmond de Polignac, an heiress of the Singer sewing machine fortune who did so much, not just for music in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, commissioning Satie and Debussy, Poulenc and Ravel, but also supporting the homeless and many other causes. (But how rich must her father have been? The mind boggles because she was his 24th child!)
James Lees-Milne mistook a house full of movement and people and joy for confusion
She has always fascinated me – so brave, so clever, so generous, openly lesbian at a time when it was generally an opaque secret. I’d have loved to have jumped into bed with her. Both her marriages were chaste. Her first, to Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard when she was 22, was not a raging success. On her wedding night she climbed to the top of a wardrobe and threatened to kill the prince if he moved a step towards her. Not unnaturally, the marriage was annulled. Her next, a mariage blanc to Prince Edmond de Polignac, was a happy one – both had their own interests and proclivities and were indeed an ornament to their society.
To say that the web of relationships among the artistic beau-monde of Paris and London was clusterfuckery is putting it mildly. They were as intermingled as the flowers in my meadow. One gets quite dizzy. James Lees-Milne was the lover of Harold Nicholson, husband of the writer Vita Sackville-West, who had an affair with Alvilde who had been a lover of Winnaretta who was the lover of Vita Sackville-West, who had a long affair with Violet Trefusis, daughter of Edward VII’s mistress and grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Are you still with me? And that’s not the half of it but I’m stopping now exhausted and will get back to “a walk in a meadow … Scabious, clover, vetch blue and yellow, cornflowers, orchids and one hundred and thirty varieties of grass, so Polly says. The field next door, which has been ‘improved’, utterly dead like a landscape on the moon.”
I’ve written about this meadow so often because I’ve never got over its loss. When we moved to London I grew vegetables in the garden but now that there are organic vegetables available from so many sources I stopped and foolishly began to try to grow wild flowers (oxymoron there) but I had no slumbering old soil to pull on, only London clay and builders’ rubble. But I tried. I tried. I planted a lawn with fritillaries, hundreds of them (they are almost my favourite flower, but then which one is not) and the lawn was a dream of purple tortoiseshell and chequered bells, drooping modestly like shy Regency beauties but with magnificent yellow tonsils (yes!). The following spring I waited for them to emerge but I’m blowed if pesky squirrels hadn’t eaten every single bulb.
Then one day last year just before the first lockdown I went to Collect, a big gathering of art galleries, held every year in London. Even the name is a horrible temptation and I was determined not to buy anything, anywhere.
I saw something from the corner of my eye. My heart leapt. My wild flowers! blooming vividly! here on a white stand in a corner of one of the vast rooms of Somerset House.
A beautiful young woman – Annette Marie Townsend – was standing beside what was essentially a huge glass box in which was a smaller transparent box filled with transparent shelves of trays. In each little section rested a perfect simulacrum of a wild flower. The colour, the size, the detail-revelation, perfection. Dog daisies, primroses, scarlet pimpernel, poppies, dandelions, cornflowers, buttercups, toadflax, clover, honeysuckle forget-me-not … I was back home as I stood, trying not to let the quivering lower lip give me away.
The flowers are made of beeswax. But not just any beeswax. A commercial beekeeper in New Jersey noticed that his bees were not doing well after pollinating blueberries. He sent the wax, pollen and dead honeybee pupae to Dr Scott McArt, a scientist at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. He found 22 pesticides in the samples. Twenty-two.
He in turn sent these samples to Annette, natural history artist and botanical expert, scientific artist and conservator covering all areas of Natural Science, Botany, Zoology and Geology at the National Museum of Wales. She used this wax, with its criminal pesticides residues, to create this artwork, on the previous page. Her work is aimed at raising awareness of the impact of agricultural chemicals on wild flowers and the global decline of pollinating insects — something I observed and mourned over and wrote about for over 26 years of my country life. It took her two years to make it but it took over 30 years of studying plants and everything else in the blooming world with a passionate intensity, to know how to do it. Now I am lucky enough to have the results of her genius. In their dazzling fresh beauty they look as though I had picked them this morning. They bring me joy, they give me hope.
These flowers are a fusion between art, craft and science. They are a paradox, a celebration of a future catastrophe. I think of James Lees-Milne’s sentence. The field next door, which has been “improved, utterly dead like a landscape on the moon”. A sentence in every sense. Dead bees, dead fields, dead us.
I think too of his opinion that I had been improved. Like the field next door.
“Treasure 2020” by Annette Marie Townsend
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