Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 7 - Initial circle of friends and family



When the Sidgwicks first took a lease of ‘Vellensagia’, there was no art colony. The only artist in permanent residence was the landscape painter, John ‘Lamorna’ Birch, who had taken ‘Flagstaff Cottage’, the former harbour master’s house that was perched overlooking the cove, shortly after his marriage, in 1902, to Emily Houghton Vivian (1869-1944), the artistically inclined daughter of a Camborne mining agent. At the time of the Sidgwicks’ arrival, they had one daughter, Elizabeth, always known as ‘Mornie’, who had been born in 1904, whilst, in 1909, their second child, Joan, was born. Being childless herself, Cecily always took a great interest in the children of her friends. Her comment in None-Go-By that one reason why life in Lamorna was not dull was because, "We get asked to all the children’s parties, for instance", is telling. A number of people would have considered such invitations a pain, not a pleasure, but, for Cecily, the company of children was always welcome, and she was much loved by them. Clearly, the inability of Alfred and herself to have children of their own had been a bitter blow.


The Sidgwicks and the Birches remained close friends and there are several original watercolours from John Birch in Cecily’s album, which had been sent to her as Christmas cards. The Birches feature as the Larches in a number of Cecily’s novels, with Mrs Larch (i.e. Houghton) coming across as a sensible woman, in tune with Cecily’s own ideals, who held open house most Sundays, coping remarkably well with entertaining a throng, whose numbers were never known in advance.


Whilst the Birches were the only resident artists when the Sidgwicks were initially at ‘Vellensagia’, the attractions of the valley were, by this juncture, well-known to others, and a range of painters from both Newlyn and St Ives made regular trips to Lamorna, often initially at the invitation of the Birches. Accordingly, when in late 1907, Birch met Harold and Laura Knight in Penzance, shortly after their arrival from Staithes, he invited them over to Sunday lunch. The Knights got rather muddy on their walk across, but Laura commented, "It was well worth getting wet feet, for it would seem we had suddenly entered Paradise; a densely wooded valley filled with lichen-covered trees of greenish-grey, whose branches threw a bluish tracery of shadow over the rich tufts of grass already speckled with the yellow of early primrose and white anemone." Whilst they remained based in Newlyn for the first few years of their Cornish stay, Lamorna continued to be a constant draw for subjects and, eventually, in 1912, they persuaded Colonel Paynter to convert three of the cottages at ‘Oakhill’ at the top of the valley into one property. Whilst they were waiting for the alterations to be finished, they stayed with the Sidgwicks, evidencing an existing friendship, which developed further once they were close neighbours. Cecily’s album contains a photograph of Laura Knight at work, with palette in hand, taken by E.Paul of Penzance, and the Knights feature in her novels as the Knoxes, a caring and considerate couple. Harold Knight completed a portrait of Cecily, a study in dark brown and gold, illuminated by her white hair. However, she does look rather uncomfortable with the modelling process.


Thomas and Caroline Gotch, who feature in one of Cecily’s novels as the Cowpers, spent the summer in Lamorna in 1909, whilst waiting for their fine new home, ‘Wheal Betsy’, to be built at the top of Chywoone Hill in Newlyn. This seems to have resulted in a lasting friendship, with Alfred and Thomas being equally passionate about chess. Cecily’s album contains a photograph of Gotch’s 1910 work The Flag, featuring his daughter, Phyllis (b.1882), which he may have been working on at the time. Later, Alfred, along with Phyllis, acted as a model for one of Gotch’s major commissions. Phyllis, who, with her love of parties and theatricals, was an integral figure in the local social scene, will have been quietly observed by Cecily as interesting material for her cast of female characters.


In addition to established artists, there were also a large number of students, who came sketching in the valley, as trees were in short supply in West Penwith for artists interested in landscape painting. Accordingly, John Noble Barlow, whom Birch indicated had painted in the valley before his arrival, brought across from St Ives a succession of his students, such as Herbert George, the Australian, Rose Lowcay, the American Anna Althea Hills and local prodigy, Garstin Cox. Elizabeth Forbes also brought groups of female students on sketching trips in the valley, so that, by 1910, John Birch was complaining that he could not go rabbit shooting any more, as there was a female student behind every gorse bush! It may have been Elizabeth Forbes, therefore, that Cecily first befriended, but, after her tragic early death in 1912, she retained a friendship with Stanhope Forbes, who again featured in one of her novels.


In None-Go-By, Cecily indicated that one of the reasons why the Clarendons (i.e the Sidgwicks) had wanted to get away from London was that they constantly found themselves "mixed up", against their will, with the affairs of their relatives. However, like the Clarendons in that novel, the Sidgwicks did not find it easy to cut ties with their relations. In the novel, if a child was ill or needed a break, then a spell in Cornwall with caring Mary Clarendon would do them good, and if nieces or cousins were having problems with suitors, or wives with husbands, then Mary Clarendon was the person who would be able to give the best impartial advice. In addition, of course, West Cornwall was a considerable draw in the summer holidays and whole packs of relatives descended on them for weeks at a time and expected meals, even if the size of the cottage meant that they had to stay at the Hotel or in other lodgings in Lamorna. 


In reality, the Sidgwicks were indeed soon joined by other family members, and it is not often appreciated that her brother’s family also had, and still have, significant connections with the Lamorna Valley. Her brother, Percy David Ullmann (1858-1921), who became a stockbroker, married Hilda Barker in 1893. Her father, Ernest Barker, was also a stockbroker, albeit he had been born in Smyrna in Turkey, whilst her mother, Mary, his second wife, was from Ireland. Hilda had been born in Paddington in c.1874, and so was some fifteen years younger than Percy. They had three boys - Peter Alfred (b.1895), Richard Barker (b. December 1898) ("Dick"), and Jeffrey Percy Craig, (b. December 1903). It appears that shortly after the Sidgwicks settled in the Valley, the Ullmanns decided to rent from Colonel Paynter ‘Morsylla’, one of the row of cottages in the Cove, as a holiday place for the ‘boys’. Hilda also had seven siblings - Mabel, probably the only child from her father’s first marriage, and Heine, Violet, Gladys, Zoe, Dorothy and Phyllis, who were all younger than her - and they too appear to have visited Lamorna. Indeed, the Ullmanns and two of Hilda’s unmarried sisters, Zoe and Dorothy Barker, (and Cecily’s fox terrier) are mentioned in a review of the Tableaux Vivants that Cecily, clearly already feeling comfortable in the community, organised in September 1910 at Cliff House, Lamorna in aid of the St Buryan District Nursing Association. It is worth quoting the review in The Cornishman in full.


"The principal feature of the entertainment, which was organised by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick, was a most artistic series of living pictures designed and arranged by Miss Barker of London. The tableaux began with a charming picture entitled, ‘Once upon a time’, of a pretty group of children listening spellbound to an old-world fairy story in a corn field, and the grouping of the dainty little figures and their unstudied poses delighted the audience.

The second picture, ‘What is it master likes so much?’, suggested by a well-known poster, had a clever fox-terrier, ‘Jimmie’, as its central figure, investigating his absent master’s luncheon table. ‘Jimmie’ proved himself an actor of rare gifts of facial expressiion, and greatly amused his audience.

The third picture represented two aspects of bathing, the ideal and the real; the first a beautiful and ethereal figure clad in diaphanous draperies (Miss Dorothy Wyatt) lying on the brink of a fern-fringed pool; and the second phase, in effective contrast to the first, a grotesque figure in a baggy bathing gown shivering on a rock before screwing her courage to the sticking point of adventuring into the water. The two phases showed what a clever actress Miss Zoe Barker is. Almost immediately afterwards in her picture of ‘The Flower Girl’, her face was a most pathetic and beautiful study of a typical London flower girl, sitting beside her basket of brilliant flowers, for which, despite their beauty, she had failed to find a buyer.

Another very effective picture was ‘Motherless’, representing the interior of a fisherman’s cottage, where the widowed husband (Mr Lamorna Birch) was, with clumsy tenderness, nursing his motherless infant, and his little daughter, a most pathetic little figure as represented by Miss Jessie Jory, in her black frock, was trying to fulfil her duties as a housewife.

The pictures, however, ranged from grave to gay, and everyone was soon laughing at the humours of ‘Washing Day’, which represented Miss Doris Taylor, a most dainty little figure in Dutch costume, standing over the tub of her laundry, while among the array of dolls was a huge Golliwog, at least six feet in length, propped up against a chair in an attitude of characteristic helplessness.

Perhaps the most striking and artistic picture was that of ‘The Snake Charmer’, which represented little Miss Lamorna Birch, in a rich costume of Indian beads and embroideries, conjuring a serpent from its basket, while in the background her attendant (Miss Dorothy Barker) in rich Indian garb, was playing the pipes to wake the snakes into activity.

The last tableau depicted ‘The lady with the lamp’ (Miss Zoe Barker) passing through the wards of the hospital at Scutari, while as she passes one of the soldiers falls forward on his pallet to kiss the hem of her dress.

When one bears in mind the difficulties Miss Barker had to surmount in staging these pictures at short notice from the resources she had at hand, the congratulations showered upon her on the artistic success of her enterprise and initiation are fully deserved. Thanks are also due to Mr Taylor, of Penzance, for the assistance he gave her in arranging for the effective lighting of the stage, and to Mr Jory for the talent that he developed at a moment’s notice as a very efficient stage carpenter. Nor must the untiring services of Miss Coulson be forgotten, who throughout the presentation of the tableaux was at the piano and provided the accompaniment to which a good deal of the effect of many of the tableaux was due.

The second part of the programme consisted of a concert to which Miss Gotch contributed some of her always popular costume songs, and Mr Lamorna Birch and Miss Dorothy Wyatt were among the vocalists. Miss Gibbs and Mr Hutchings played two pieces by Chopin with unusual brilliancy. Perhaps the popular success of the evening rested with Mr Aukett, whose rendering of such popular ditties as Yip Laddy-Lay were marked by an exquisite sense of humour.

In the absence of Colonel Paynter, Mrs Paynter occupied the chair and made a very happy little speech, in which she returned thanks to the organisers of a very successful entertainment. Among the crowded audience were Mr and Mrs Alfred Sidgwick, Sir and Lady Venning, Mrs T.B. Bolitho, Mr and Mrs Ullmann, Mr and Mrs Stanhope Forbes, and Mr and Mrs Knight, who also painted two most attractive picture posters of the entertainment, the sale of which contributed materially to the substantial amount that accrued in aid of the funds of a really useful society."


The report is fascinating as it indicates not only that the Sidgwicks had already fitted well into the local community, but also how the artists and the locals of all classes had worked together to make the entertainment a success. Lamorna Birch and Phyllis Gotch were never shy of taking part in entertainments and several of the other performers, such as Dorothy Wyatt, may well have been students at the Forbes School, given the attendance of Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes. However, in addition to ‘Mornie’ Birch, other local children were involved, such as Jessie Jory, the daughter of the estranged couple, one of whom ran the pub and one the hotel, and Doris Taylor, who was presumably the daughter of the Penzance man who helped with the lighting. Then, George Aukett, the long-serving butler at ‘Boskenna’, was also invited to perform, as well as local, Joan Coulson. Having made friends with Ethel Paynter, through their gardening book, it was appropriate that she should attend, and she brought along her parents, Sir and Lady Venning. Mrs T.B.Bolitho, who was probably the basis for Lady Godolphin in her novels, was also present. It is reports such as these that give us a real flavour of how enjoyable life in such an artistic community must have been and what an inspirational childhood youngsters such as Mornie Birch must have experienced.


The presence of so many of Cecily’s relations in Lamorna does also make one wonder whether, for instance, her stockbroker brother, Percy, was, like Mary Clarendon’s brother, James, someone who was a quiet, steady home-loving man, who "did his job in the City effectively" and liked to relax in Cornwall by spending most of his time fishing; whether his wife, Hilda, was like James’ wife, Caroline, a hard-bitten, wide-awake woman, who had had "to face life as it is and not dream dreams" and who was an energetic and devoted wife; or whether Hilda’s bevy of sisters were behind some of the stories about the trials of getting a multitude of daughters off one’s hands. For instance, were either of Hilda’s unmarried siblings, Zoe or Dorothy Barker, the inspiration for Susan in None-Go-By, the niece of Mary Clarendon, with "the beckoning eye", who could not help but charm everyone that she came into contact with and had a string of suitors of all ages constantly at her side?


However, there is little doubt that one of the young Ullmann boys was the inspiration for both Bob in The Severins and Sam in None-Go-By, the spoilt, headstrong youngest boy, who caused havoc wherever he went and was treated far too indulgently by his mother and sisters. Indeed, as Sam reappears in Storms and Teacups (1931) whilst at Cambridge University training to be a Royal Engineer, he is likely to be based on Peter Ullmann, who became a Major-General in the Royal Engineers. Cecily was now most taken with him. "He has an engaging personality and an activity of brain that makes most people seem asleep. I have never come across a subject yet in which Sam is not interested, and he is as well informed as a pocket encyclopedia."


The two elder Ullmann boys, Dick and Peter, also feature in Cecily’s short story, Easter Holidays, which was written in 1910 and included in her 1913 collection, Mr Sheringham and Others. This confirms that Dick had come down to stay at ‘Vellensagia’ just a fortnight after they had moved in "and took possession at once. The uncle and aunt look after the place for fifty-two weeks in the year, but he is the real owner." When he returned the following Easter, "on the whole he thought it improved. Perhaps rather too much had been cut down in front of the cottage. Anyone now could see a certain clump of pink primroses that last year he alone had discovered." Dick’s interest in botany was stirred and, in August 1910, he registered his first plant with The Botanical Society of the British Isles. Over his life, he registered over 1,150 species with the Society, of which over 200 he had found in West Cornwall (see under R.B. Ullman on the Herbaria@Home website). During the three weeks of the Easter Holidays, when the boys were with them each year, Cecily indicated that "life has an unwonted glow". She commented to Alfred, "We often have chicken and apricot tart and clotted cream when we are by ourselves, but then they never seem at all thrilling." When the boys left each year, Cecily said that they missed their young voices "as you who live in cities miss the song of the thrush". How she must have missed not having children of her own.