THE GARMAN SISTERS
In search of the rare and beautiful
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page BW08
THE RARE AND THE BEAUTIFUL
The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters
By Cressida Connolly. Ecco. 320 pp. $25.95
Some of the most fascinating people are those who live just outside the spotlight or at its rim - the ones whose unfamiliar faces crop up, over and over, in the group photographs of the famous. As lovers, muses, patrons, instigators, they are as vital to the making of art or science or politics as those they inspire, and their stories are often more interesting.
Consider the case of the beautiful Garman sisters, whose lives described a glittering arc through London's High Bohemia between the two world wars: One had an affair with Vita Sackville-West; another was the longtime lover and, later, the wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein; still another was the lover of the poet Laurie Lee and the painter Lucian Freud.
As Cressida Connolly puts it in this elegant and alluring family biography: "People fell in love with them. They were lovely to be in love with, passionate, generous, beautiful. They sent secret notes at midnight and left their pillows smelling of scent. They gave presents: books of poetry, music, wildflowers. They made dramatic entrances and exits, their arms full of lilies, haunting railway stations throughout Europe, intoxicating their lovers with sudden meetings and long goodbyes."
Who wouldn't want to read about them?
there were nine Garman siblings, two brothers and seven sisters. Children of a
prosperous churchgoing Midlands doctor, they had an idyllic childhood full of
picnics and make-believe interspersed with lessons and piano practice; but very
early their rebellious streak revealed itself. Mary and Kathleen, the eldest
sisters, pilfered knickknacks from the drawing room and made their younger
siblings take them to town to sell; with the proceeds they bought cigarettes and
French novels and modish accessories, and took their young accomplices to the
movies. When they were old enough to set tongues wagging by ordering drinks in
the local miners' pub, they ran away to London where such behaviour would be
more tolerated, and set to work in earnest on bewitching the glitterati.
Soon Kathleen had embarked on a decades-long affair with Epstein that was only briefly marred by Mrs Epstein's shooting her with a pearl-handled revolver. And Mary had met - and almost immediately married - the poet Roy Campbell, who by his own account "hung her out of the fourth-floor window of our room so that she should get some respect for me".
Despite, or because of, this Petruchio-like behaviour, the couple seemed blissfully happy, if dreadfully impoverished, until Mary attracted the eye of Vita Sackville-West, maker of gardens and lover of Virginia Woolf. The two began a passionate and indiscreet affair ("It is a lovely moment when the mother's voice and hands turn into the lover's," wrote Mary to Vita) that precipitated a scathing verse satire on the Bloomsbury Group by the enraged Campbell and provoked the equally jealous Virginia Woolf to write Orlando, her fictionalised biographical portrait of Vita.
There were threats and tears and slammed doors; in the end Mary went off with Campbell to the south of France to live - Augustus John, Aldous Huxley, Sybille Bedford and Nancy Cunard were neighbours and frequent visitors - and Vita commemorated her erstwhile lover in a series of sonnets.
The younger Garmans were, if anything, just as dashing. Douglas, the elder brother, was a left-leaning little-magazine editor in London when he met Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress, who had yet to discover her calling as an art collector and dealer. Lightning struck - as usual with the Garmans - and soon the pair were living together in an Elizabethan farmhouse where, "while Douglas was studying Marx in the shed he had constructed at the end of the garden, Peggy stayed in bed, reading Proust and shivering, turning the pages of her book with fur gloves on".
Douglas's interest in Marx wasn't a flirtation but a lifelong commitment, and before long what Connolly calls "the paradoxical situation of being a practising Marxist living with an heiress" began to grate. Soon, Peggy confided to her diary, the couple were "fighting all day, (expletive) all night", and eventually they separated. Peggy rebounded by starting an art gallery and an affair with Samuel Beckett. Douglas went on to a lifetime of commitment to radical causes, although he broke with his party's leadership in the 1950s: "I cannot sing, for my voice is hoarse with slogans," he wrote.
His younger sister Lorna, the baby of the family, was perhaps the most flamboyant of the fabulous Garmans. She wore beautiful and unusual clothes and smelled of Chanel No5, went riding on her horse at night, drove a chocolate-brown Bentley, and would strip naked to swim in inviting lakes or rivers or 10-metre waves. At 14 she seduced the man who would become her husband when she was 16, the publisher Ernest Wishart. Throughout their long and seemingly happy marriage, she continued to have affairs: with the writer and free-love advocate Llewellyn Powys; with Laurie Lee, who fathered her third child and wrote of her in his books; with Lucian Freud, to whom she brought objects to paint - a dead heron she'd discovered in a marsh, a zebra's head from a taxidermist's in London. When Freud betrayed her with a younger actress, she told him: "I thought I was giving you up for Lent but I'm giving you up for good."
There is a tragic side to the Garmans' story, represented most affectingly in the fates of Kathleen's two children by Epstein, one a suicide and the other the victim of a botched attempt to treat his apparent schizophrenia. Connolly doesn't shrink from portraying it, but one wishes she had explored a little more fully the connection between the hard, gemlike flame with which the Garmans burned and the human ash that flame cast off. Perhaps such analysis runs counter to the spirit of these exotic creatures, however. As Kathleen Garman Epstein told a friend, explaining why she would never write her memoirs: "The mind boggles ... What muddy pitfalls one inadvertently steps into in search of the rare and the beautiful."
Amanda Vaill is the author of Everybody Was So Young, a biography of the Lost Generation icons Sara and Gerald Murphy. Her biography of Jerome Robbins, Somewhere, will be published in 2005.
September 5, 2004
THE RARE AND
THE BEAUTIFUL: THE ART, LOVES, AND LIVES OF THE GARMAN SISTERS
By Cressida Connolly
Ecco, $25.95, 317 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
Oh the tawdry tedium of the bohemian life, with its self-satisfied assurance that every transgression of custom and mores is bold, lovely, and — every single time — yes, original.
We know from
the memoirs of such insiders as Angelica Garnett and from countless
authoritative studies that even in that most rarefied, intellectually and
emotionally well-equipped set of bohemian iconoclasts, the Bloomsbury group,
life wasn't without its trials and pains, that there were indeed costs for
flouting society's rules and norms.
But in "The Rare and the Beautiful: The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters," you have all the angst and damage, all the rutting and betraying, without even the impressive principles, character and intellectual endowments of the Bloomsbury folk and what they contributed to literature, art and society in general.
There is no one like Virginia Woolf or Maynard Keynes in the Garman story, not even anyone on a par with Lytton Strachey or E.M. Forster. The Garman muses and their acolytes — with the possible exception of the Anglo-American sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein — might be said to have boxed above their weight class in the sphere of artistic accomplishment, even if they were world-class champions in the sphere of artistic temperament.
The daughters of an eccentric Victorian doctor and his long-suffering wife, the Garman girls grew up in the bleak surroundings of the West Midlands' Black Country of England. Understandably, these spirited young women could not wait to escape their fog-shrouded, factory-smoke-polluted native heath to launch themselves, one after the other, onto the London scene replete with artists and bohemians of all stripes.
The third daughter, Kathleen, snagged what would turn out to be the family's biggest catch, Epstein, but from there on it was downhill all the way. The eldest sister, Mary, married the talented but self-destructive South African poet Roy Campbell. She soon cuckolded her wastrel husband by embarking on a passionate affair with the lesbian vamp Vita Sackville-West. While it would take decades (and three illegitimate children) for Kathleen finally to marry Epstein, Mary Campbell's marriage — despite the infidelities and suffering on both sides — lasted more than 30 years until Roy's death in 1957.
A younger sister, Lorna, bested her sisters by bagging not one but two artists, the writer Laurie Lee and the painter Lucian Freud; she also had the distinction of being the heartbreaker with her long-suffering husband and anguished lovers alike.
Lee and Freud each went on to marry a niece of Lorna's. There is some reason, this book tells us, to believe that Lucian Freud's prowess at breaking hearts for the rest of his life arose from a determination never again to be in the position he had found himself in with Lorna: loving more than he was loved.
There were four other sisters, too, but their victims — with the possible and probably apocryphal exception of T.E. Lawrence — are too insignificant and their stories too hackneyed to merit much attention here. There were a couple of brothers as well, the communist Douglas, who was the lover for a time of the fabulously wealthy art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and the cowboy Mavin, neither much more appealing than the distaff side of the family and certainly less colorful.
Although Cressida Connolly writes "The Rare and the Beautiful" with the assumption that these femmes fatales are fascinating and in some way admirable, her book cannot help leading the reader to think otherwise. If the story of Margaret Epstein, Kathleen's rival and a wife clearly determined to hang on to her husband at all costs, is not a cautionary tale to clinging wives and importunate mistresses alike, I don't know what is.
Margaret's bag of tricks included shooting (and permanently scarring) Kathleen in the shoulder and encouraging a seemingly endless collection of would-be inamoratas who she hoped would replace her much-feared rival as her husband's model, muse, inspiration, lover — well, you get the idea.
Epstein took full advantage of all these lovelies, sculpted them, made love to them and impregnated quite a few of them. (Margaret ended up bringing up one of their children as her own.)
But none of them displaced Kathleen as lover and muse-in-chief, and over the years she gave birth to three of Epstein's children, who did not bear his name but whom he privately acknowledged as his. Two of these hapless creatures died young and tragically, one by outright suicide and the other in an incident so bizarre and puzzling that it is hard to conclude whether it too was suicide or something even worse.
Eventually, Margaret died and Kathleen got to be Lady Epstein, but her marriage only lasted for a few years before she became the great man's widow and legatee. As such, she seems to have demonstrated a mix of crookery (making unauthorized castings of some of her husband's bronzes) and philanthropy (donating a huge collection of his work to the Israel Museum).
"The Rare and the Beautiful" is an odd piece of work. The first nonfiction book by the daughter of the late, great critic Cyril Connolly, it is oddly disjointed and at times naive.
Roy and Mary Campbell flee the Spanish Civil War at its outset (they had by this time renounced their wild ways, had converted to Roman Catholicism and were strong Nationalist sympathizers). One sentence on, it's three years later, and Roy is enlisting in a regiment at the outbreak of World War II. A few words on, he is being posted to East Africa in 1943.
Readers may indeed wonder what they were doing in the years between, but they won't find out from Miss Connolly's text. Footnotes provide ancillary and often fascinating amplifications at the bottom of the page, but source notes for the chapters are limited to lists of those interviewed and of articles and books. As to specifically where individual quotes and insights come from, the reader is left unenlightened.
Most serious of all is the bifurcated quality of Miss Connolly's judgment. She thinks she has a good story here and wants to tell it. Yet so much of what she recounts is appalling: the suicides, the mayhem, children uneducated and running wild; cold, neglectful mothers; harsh, demanding, uncaring fathers; joy at the expense of others' misery. Does Miss Connolly realize what she is giving us here, or is she too caught up in admiration for these appalling people to recognize what monsters they must have been?
As it is, this is a depressing if occasionally interesting book. If only Miss Connolly had imbued it with more moral clarity, it might have been, despite its flaws in style and structure, a devastating cautionary tale.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
The TLS n.º 5293 September 10, 2004
RARE AND THE BEAUTIFUL
The lives of the Garmans
They were called the Naughty Nine, and to follow their permutations you need not
so much a family tree as a computer programme. Their bewildered and
powerless-seeming parents were a prosperous, cultivated doctor and his wife in
the Black Country, Walter and Margaret Garman.
First came Mary, born in 1898, who, as soon as she was twenty-one, took herself off with a younger sister, Kathleen (number three), to seek their fortune in London. Like most of their siblings, the pair were dark-haired, dark-eyed, beautiful, artistic and wayward. Their studio on the fringe of Bloomsbury was besieged by suitors, among them the composer Ferruccio Busoni and the painter Bernard Meninsky. Mary married the volatile South African poet Roy Campbell, and had a range of affairs, including with Vita Sackville-West. (“Fancy being cuckolded by a woman!” was C. S. Lewis’s reaction when Campbell told him.) Kathleen, meanwhile, became the mistress of Jacob Epstein. His wife tried to shoot her but eventually resigned herself to this as to other marital augmentations. When Mrs Epstein died in 1947, Kathleen, who had four children by Epstein, replaced her.
Number two was Sylvia, who spent most of her life with a woman whom she met as a fellow ambulance driver in the First World War, taking a short break to marry a sailor who had knocked on their door to ask directions. By the standards of her siblings, Sylvia Garman was rather ordinary, so a family legend was concocted that she had been the only girlfriend of T. E. Lawrence. To Cressida Connolly’s understandable regret, there is no evidence for this.
Fourth was Douglas, handsome man of letters and left-wing activist – assistant editor of the Calendar of Modern Letters and a member of the original Left Review circle – whose first wife was to have a fling with his elder sister Mary, and who himself was among Peggy Guggenheim’s lovers. (He promised to marry her if Edward VIII married Wallis Simpson, but in the event reneged.)
Rosalind, number five, married a Scots Italian called Paolo, with whom she ran a garage in Surrey: handy when Epstein needed storage for his work during the Blitz. Next came Helen, who married a French fisherman. Mavin, the younger brother, ran away to sea, took over a ranch in Brazil, came home and became a Communist. Around this point in the running order, things start to get a little out of hand, perhaps in part because Walter Garman died in 1923, when his youngest children were fourteen and twelve, and most of the inheritance disappeared during the Depression. Of Ruth, the wild eighth in line, it was said, “If only Ruthie could go into a pub without getting pregnant”. The first of her five, mostly illegitimate, children was brought up to believe that his father was an admiral named Reed. Only when he had grown up did Ruth admit that she had got the idea from a pub called the Admiral Reed.
Number nine, Lorna, also liked a drink. A keen horsewoman prone to spontaneous midnight gallops, she won her steed’s tolerance by buying it pints of Guinness. At the age of fourteen she had seduced a rich friend of Douglas’s, the future publisher Ernest Wishart, whom she married at sixteen. Competition for the title la plus fatale among her sisters could scarcely be stiffer, but Lorna probably wins it by a short head. She became important to Llewellyn Powys, Laurie Lee (whom, as he prepared to join the International Brigades in Spain, she told with bared teeth that he didn’t need a war because “you’ve got one here”), and Lucian Freud. Lorna is the subject of several of Freud’s paintings of the mid-1940s and it was she who gave him the stuffed zebra’s head that often appears in his work of that time. She was young enough, and adroit enough, to turn both Lee and Freud into husbands for two of her Garman nieces, respectively Kathy Polge (daughter of Helen), and Kitty Epstein. The latter is the subject, among many other pictures, of Freud’s much-reproduced “Girl with a White Dog”.
Kitty (now Godley, and before that a late addiction of Henry Green’s), is the author of what was previously the only account of the whole family, a vivid essay in the catalogue of the Garman Ryan Collection at the New Art Gallery in Walsall (TLS, March 3, 2000). Parts of the story have appeared in other forms, especially in the memoirs of Roy Campbell, Peggy Guggenheim, Laurie Lee and Michael Wishart, and in Wayland Young’s 1958 roman-à-clef Still Alive Tomorrow. Cressida Connolly’s family background, of course, was contiguous to thatthe world of some of her main characters, and her lively if slightly novelettish (and disappointingly dimly illustrated) The Rare and the Beautiful: The lives of the Garmans is the first book-length narrative of the whole generation. Among its fascinations are the questions it doesn’t ask. Why, for example, aren’t the Garmans as famous as the Mitfords? What did their extraordinariness amount to, exactly? And where did it come from?
The last question arises because although Connolly has done substantial, if blithely unfootnoted, research, she seems uninterested in ancestry. While many biographies are over-encumbered with their subjects’ antecedents, if ever there was a case where readers are likely to want to know more about the gene pool, this is one. Walter Garman was educated in Heidelberg. What was his own family history? Connolly tells us little more than that he was prone to beating his children, but so were many Victorian and Edwardian fathers, and the most reluctant of floggers would have been stirred into action by this brood. What, too, about the origins of Walter’s wife, Margaret Magill?
The Mitfords, of course, included individuals of exceptional talent, as well as personal magnetism. And in Nancy, they had an author to fictionalize the family in a more durable form than the Garmans did in their anecdotes, highly coloured though these are. There were Garmans, especially the boys, who, like Jessica Mitford, turned to the Left and did solid work for other people; and several had artistic gifts, whether as painters or as writers. For all that, though, they mainly belong in the world of Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses (TLS, October 31, 2003). Roy Campbell said that “No other contemporary women had so much poetry, good, bad and indifferent, written about them, or had so many portraits and busts made of them”. You would have to look hard to find the good poetry, but there’s no doubt that Kathleen, Lorna and Kitty are, between them, subjects of important work by Jacob Epstein and Lucian Freud. And to have turned your very existence into a riotous kind of performance art, as several of the family did, is an achievement that brings colour and gaiety into other people’s lives. Certainly this is Connolly’s view, and her group biography plays its own part in the process.
So family-centred a book, though, can hardly not make one think about families as a more literal and long-term form of production. If the Garmans seem life-enhancing from a distance, what effects did they have on those they actually brought into existence? Connolly is alert not only to signs of instability, even sadism, in Walter, but to their inheritance in some of his daughters. “You are a strange pair of children”, Lorna insouciantly told her young son Michael Wishart and niece, Kitty Epstein, “neither of you living with your mothers, your mothers always going off”. How did these semi-abandoned offspring fare, both of themselves and as parents in their turn? The answers presumably vary, and in any case many elements were involved. It would be hazardous to try to interpret the fact that, of the children of Kathleen Garman and Jacob Epstein, only one survived into old age. Wayland Young, who almost married Kitty’s ill-fated sister Esther, poignantly told Connolly, “In that family, there was a chair for suicide by the hearth, long before anyone occupied it”. But just as one would have liked to have been told more about the Garmans’ history, so more might have been said about the fates of their descendants.
Better-behaved people, of course, would not have left us with much of the romance Connolly relates. At the height of wartime rationing, Lorna brought to Laurie Lee’s caravan “books, eggs, tea, sandalwood and honey . . . flowers, mushrooms and bananas; a tambourine, shells, and a chessman she had carved herself from apple wood . . . a bag of sweet cakes and two bottles of wine . . . eight goose eggs ‘and an eddying fragrance of irresistible passion’”. A fragrance, to be precise, of Fleurs de Rocaille, about which, and other scents of the time, Cressida Connolly writes well. Perfume, in its indefensible, evanescent yet unanswerable compulsion, is a perfect metaphor for her subject.
Wild, promiscuous and dazzling: the Garman siblings were art connoisseurs who also collected famous lovers. Cressida Connolly tells the story of a family love affair with Bohemia in The Rare and the Beautiful
Sunday August 22, 2004
The Rare and
the Beautiful: The Lives of the Garmans
by Cressida Connolly
Fourth Estate £16.99, pp481
Now that almost everyone who was anyone has been 'done', sometimes more than once, our biographers must go further afield in order to ply their trade. They are the orchid hunters of the literary world. Actually, scratch that. They are the sly permanent secretaries of the literary world, deftly creating work where, in truth, none is required.
For the reader, assailed by biographies as never before, this is tiresome. You long for the thrilling rustle of bona fide discovery, but mostly end up with an extended obituary as typed by Sir Humphrey Appleby. What a relief, then, to pitch into Cressida Connolly's study of the Garmans. The daring siblings, who loitered noisily on the edges of Bohemia between the two wars, are a real find, and one the author tripped over by chance.
Four years ago, Connolly visited the Garman Ryan collection at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. Reading the catalogue, she learned a little about those who had assembled the collection, which includes work by Van Gogh, Constable, Picasso and Lucian Freud, before giving it to (so unlikely, this) an ugly Black Country town. One of these was sculptor Sally Ryan. The other was Jacob Epstein's widow, Kathleen Garman.
And so she was off. There were nine Garmans altogether but, trammelled by practicalities, Connolly has written the lives of four: Mary, who married poet Roy Campbell, author of a notorious verse attack on the Bloomsbury group, a response to his wife's affair with Vita Sackville-West; Kathleen, mistress and, finally, wife of Jacob Epstein; Douglas, communist and lover of Peggy Guggenheim; and, wildest of all, Lorna, who took both Laurie Lee and Lucian Freud to bed.
A more alluring bunch it is difficult to imagine. But there is startling selfishness here, too. It is to Connolly's great credit that she manages to convey both sides of her subjects' quixotic personalities without ever allowing one to cancel out the other: you urge them on, yet wonder all the while at the steel in their unyielding souls.
Quite where this steel, which manifested itself in their almost absurdly high-minded devotion to art, came from is something of a mystery. The Garmans grew up at Oakeswell Hall, Wednesbury, to the north-west of Birmingham (hence the Walsall connection), the children of a provincial doctor. It was a childhood of privilege - lots of space, several servants - but not great wealth. So when the two oldest girls, Kathleen and Mary, ran off to London, they did so without their father's permission and without his financial help. Thereafter, a hand-to-mouth existence was to characterise the lives of three of the Garmans whose stories are in The Beautiful and the Rare; only Lorna, who bagged herself a member of the landed gentry, enjoyed the comfort of cash (when Laurie Lee went off to fight Franco, she mailed him pound notes that were 'swoony' with the scent of the Chanel No 5 in which she had soaked them).
Douglas Garman, ascetic and novelist manqué, comes across as dour and thwarted, although his story is rendered amusing, thanks to his association with Peggy Guggenheim, who would blithely wear her lover's too-big flannel trousers in order that their affair might not be detected by house guests, and who once tore up his best flower bed in a fit of pique. ('This incident did not help to further my matrimonial aspirations,' she wrote dryly.)
His sisters, however, were so spirited and original - and so dazzlingly beautiful. I thoroughly approved of them, except when it came to childcare which was, at best, modishly laissez faire and, at worst, neglectful and, on occasion, cruel. 'We were never told how to sit at a table... or how important it was to change our knickers every so often,' recalls Anna, Mary's daughter.
The Garman sisters must have stood out a mile, even in an artistic cast of thousands (they knew everyone from Augustus John to Wyndham Lewis). Mary married Roy wearing black and a gold veil and, after giving birth to her first child, demolished a grilled snipe for her breakfast.
She hoped to find in her young genius of a husband 'an eternal tribute to her own wonderfulness', though she was somewhat sidetracked by the intensity of her passion for Sackville-West, whose sexual appetite was supposed to have been prodigious. An apocryphal story has it that Mary came home one day with terrible cuts and bruises on her thighs, at the sight of which Roy is said to have exclaimed: 'Good heavens, kid! I don't mind you sleeping with Vita, but at least get her to take her earrings off!'
Later, Mary moved first to France, then Spain, and became crazily Catholic. Kathleen, meanwhile, would do the washing up in her coat, the faster to dash off after it was finished. Her affair with the famous American sculptor discovered, she was summoned to a rendezvous by Mrs Epstein, who promptly shot at her with a pearl-handled pistol. Kathleen did not press charges; apparently, her lover begged her to desist.
Even more remarkably, when Epstein's wife asked her to drive round Hyde Park in an open taxi so that newspaper reporters, who were agog at the story, could see there was no enmity between them, she agreed.
This unnerving cool-headedness saw her through everything: the years of poverty, when the egomaniacal Epstein would arrive at her lodgings with roses when what she really needed was coal and, later, the deaths of two of their children.
Finally, there was Lorna, who drank Guinness at the hairdressers; who installed Laurie Lee in a caravan - it was made of green tin - close by her home in Sussex, the better that she might enjoy him; and who gave that stuffed zebra head to Lucian Freud (she was his model for two paintings of 1945: Woman With a Tulip, and Woman With a Daffodil).
Later, 'after her naughties', Lorna, too, found Catholicism. But her lovers, incestuously, were never far away; both Lee and Freud went on to marry her nieces. 'She was amoral, really,' says her daughter, 'but everyone forgave her because she was such a life-giver.' Most forgiving of all was her husband, Ernest Wishart, who brought up Yasmin, her daughter by Lee, as his own.
It cannot have been easy to gather together the lives of four individuals in one volume. The danger in embarking on such an exercise is that energetic hopscotch ensues; that you end up with a series of dots rather than one elegant line. But Connolly, admirably in charge of her sparky material, is careful to keep the reader in touch with the other Garmans even when her beady eye is focused momentarily on one alone.
She admires her iconoclastic discoveries, but refuses to allow herself to fall in love with them. Yet when they misbehave, which is often, she avoids judgment, opting, instead, for wry footnotes or waspish asides.
And her prose,
lucid and unshowy, is the perfect foil for these odd, proto-hippies, with their
long skirts and their even longer hair. I loved this book. It has everything:
style, wit, drama - and lots of heady nights out at the Café Royal.
THE RARE AND THE BEAUTIFUL
The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters
By Cressida Connolly. Ecco. 320 pp. $25.95
Claudia FitzHerbert reviews The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly
"What muddy pitfalls one inadvertently steps into in search of the rare and the beautiful," observed Kathleen Garman towards the end of her life, in response to a young man's "ridiculous" suggestion that he write a book about her. Is this what is meant by the phrase "backing into the limelight"? Kathleen Garman, one of nine children of a Midlands doctor, was by this time Lady Epstein, widow of the sculptor Jacob, and an art collector. She married Epstein in 1955 after 30 years as his mistress, during which she had borne him four children and been shot in the shoulder by his wife. One child died as a baby, while Kathleen was playing the piano in the same room; another, a talented artist who suffered from schizophrenia, had a heart attack after his food was drugged during a psychotic episode; a third killed herself.
Connolly interleaves this story with accounts of Kathleen's Communist poet brother, Douglas, and two of her sisters. Mary, older by a year, was Kathleen's partner in crime when they ran away to London in 1919 and set up house in a room on the outskirts of Bloomsbury. They earned what they could as artists' models and lived in style in a jumble of scented geraniums and unframed drawings until they were plucked, one by Epstein and the other by the poet Roy Campbell.
While Epstein established Kathleen as his mistress, the penniless Campbell married Mary and for years they lived mainly on drink and the kindness of friends. (Campbell did a very good line in begging letters – "I am asking you to send me 50 pounds. I shall never be able to repay it. I am asking it as a gift… I am too ill to work. We are going to put the children in a crèche.") Mary slept with men and women, and had a brief affair with Vita Sackville-West, but stayed married to Campbell and together they came to Roman Catholicism through Fascism after settling (in so far as they ever settled) in Spain.
The Communist brother was full of promise that died on the wing. "I cannot sing, for my throat is hoarse with slogans," he wrote in a poem, and it turned out to be true. He took to pig-keeping in middle age and named his sows after his sisters. The other sister in Connolly's story is the much younger Lorna, the loveliest of a lovely lot, who was married at 16 to a Lefty bookish toff called Wishart, and had love affairs first with Laurie Lee and then with Lucien Freud, both of whom went on to marry her nieces. Lorna also converted to Catholicism after sowing her oats, but "nothing in moderation" remained her motto and she was always a figure of startling glamour.
The Garmans were all about ignoring the rules and living for art and being stylish on sixpence and never cleaning anything and trailing broken hearts and anxious children. But Connolly conveys the sisters' different temperaments behind the dazzle of their shared aesthetic. She gives us glimpses of Mary's dull competitiveness and Kathleen's almost Stepfordian stoicism, and the shards of steel and witchery in Lorna's magic. If there was a debt to pleasure it was paid by the next generation. Both Mary's girls had a wretched childhood, failing their brief of being no bother, while Kathleen's losses tell their own story. "In that family," said a friend of the daughter who killed herself, "there was a chair for suicide by the hearth, long before anyone occupied it."
The Rare and the Beautiful is a bohemian book about bohemia. Connolly provides a vivid impression of her subjects, of how enchanting they were to meet and how impossible sometimes to deal with, while dispensing with many of the conventions of biography. She quotes without sourcing and describes without doubting. The mystery of why the children of a middle-class doctor from the Midlands – with no hint of bohemia in the blood – should have all turned out so free, arty and wild is hardly touched upon, except for a shuddering description of how the "soot fell like snow" in the Black Country of their childhood, staining the roses in Mrs Garman's garden and infecting her daughters with a hunger for colour and light.
The general picture is of "an idyllic upbringing". This despite the fact that one of the daughters, Helen, is quoted as saying that Dr Garman was in thrall to forbidden sexual appetites and a sadistic beater of his children. "But Helen was a great one for exaggerating," is Connolly's deflationary rider to this startling new light on what is otherwise presented as a marriage of passionate contentment and late Victorian piety. There is something refreshing about the author's indifference to psychological explanation. The tone is that of the storyteller for whom explanations are a red-herring interruption, the point being how people behave, not why.
picnic touched with tragedy
Virginia Rounding reviews The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly
The nine Garman children were born near Walsall between 1901 and 1911 to conservative and passionately religious parents. Quite what their doctor father Walter and his devoted wife Marjorie did to produce the "rare and beautiful" creatures their offspring turned out to be remains something of a mystery.
Cressida Connolly concentrates particularly on three out of the nine: Kathleen, the mistress and later wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein; Mary, the lover of Vita Sackville-West and long-suffering wife of the poet Roy Campbell (he once hung her upside-down out of a window to teach her "respect"); and Lorna, the lover of Laurie Lee (who later married one of the younger generation of Garmans) and Lucian Freud. There is also a chapter on their brother Douglas, an ardent Communist who had an anguished affair with Peggy Guggenheim.
Much of Cressida Connolly's research is subjective in that it is based on the memories and opinions of people who knew the Garmans; although this gives some immediacy to the story, it also results in many lacunae and discrepancies. The author is scrupulous in making it clear when she is dealing in speculation rather than solid fact; I have rarely read a book in which "perhaps", "presumably" and "whether or not" feature so frequently.
But because so much is left unexplained about the lives of the Garman family the overall impression is of a stage-set across which flit these shadowy, if weird and wonderful, figures, variously getting married and unmarried, taking lovers and losing them, becoming Roman Catholics or committing suicide, all without much apparent rhyme or reason. And the enormous cast list of famous people with bit parts making entries and exits every other page does nothing to ground these characters or give their stories a real sense of coherence.
The Garmans didn't like to explain themselves or examine their own motivation but a greater attempt on the part of the author to understand their psychology, what made them behave the way they did - whether, for instance, converting to Roman Catholicism changed anything in Mary's and Lorna's behaviour and attitudes - would have been welcome. The reader is constantly told how striking, unconventional and "magical" the Garmans all were, but after a while one tires of it. It feels like being at an endless garden party or - a form of entertainment particularly favoured by the Garmans - a picnic.
If the raising of happy well-adjusted children can be taken as a measure of success, the Garmans were by and large miserable failures. Kathleen had four children by Jacob Epstein; one was a cot-death; her son Theo, a gentle man much loved by his friends, was schizophrenic and died in still unexplained circumstances while resisting being bundled into an ambulance (the suggestion is that Kathleen had administered a sedative to him with his food); Theo's sister Esther committed suicide a few months later.
Suicide also claimed the life of one of the five children of Ruth Garman, of whom her sister Lorna is supposed to have said: "If only Ruthie could go into a pub without getting pregnant!". And in 1948 one of Mary and Roy Campbell's two daughters attempted suicide and the other had a breakdown (both these events took place in 1948, though whether they were connected is not made clear).
Connolly does paint some wonderfully vivid pictures of how difficult the Garmans must have been to live with. She sums up Lorna, the youngest sibling, succinctly: "She never, never, stood in a queue: she simply went straight to the front, and no one ever seemed to challenge her. She liked Elvis, the English royal family, nuns and, later, Margaret Thatcher."
Virginia Rounding is the author of 'Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four 19th-
Century Courtesans' (Bloomsbury).