One of the glories of the early Persephone Quarterlies (now Biannuals) were the woodcut illustrations by artists like Clare Leighton, John Nash, Winifred McKenzie & Tirzah Garwood. I’ve always loved the detail in woodcuts & the ones chosen by Nicola Beauman for those early Quarterlies came to epitomise Persephone for me. Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography is an incredibly readable account of her life, written for her future descendants, while she was undergoing cancer treatment. She died aged only 42, in 1951. Long Live Great Bardfield is not only the story of a woman’s life, it’s the story of an artist living in a group of artists & the compromises that she makes in the struggle between domesticity & her artistic life.
Born in 1908, Eileen Garwood (nicknamed Tirzah when she was a child) grew up in a happy family that recognized her artistic talent. She studied at art school & went to London to support herself with freelance work. This was the 1920s & post-war freedom meant that this wasn’t such an outrageous choice for a young woman to make. Tirzah’s family, however, still expected her to marry & for some time she dithered between Bob, a steady young man approved of by her parents, & Eric Ravilious, one of her teachers at the Eastbourne School of Art. Class was also important to Tirzah’s parents, & Eric’s working class origins didn’t recommend him to the Garwoods.
The resulting confusion was dreadful. I think if I’d been left alone I shouldn’t have married either of them. … much as I liked the idea of Bob as a comfortable pipe-smoking husband, I knew that if I did marry him I should always regret giving up my friendship with Eric and that I hadn’t gone on with my drawing. It was as though Bob stood for my family’s idea of life and Eric for my freedom and independence.
Tirzah & Eric did marry and, nine years later, they were living in rural Essex with two children. Eric & Tirzah discovered Great Bardfield when they were tired of living in Hammersmith & wanted to get out into the country. Fellow artist, Edward Bawden & his wife, Charlotte, also came to live in Great Bardfield. Tirzah had given up woodcuts after her marriage as domestic life & children took up her time. She did have a creative outlet as she took up marbling paper but, as is usually the case with women artists, their work isn’t taken as seriously as a man’s work is.
By the early 1930s, Tirzah’s marriage was in trouble. Eric had fallen in love with another woman & was away from home for weeks at a time. When he was home, he was criticizing her for being unadventurous & doing nothing but housework. Tirzah was pregnant with their third child & stoically concentrating on decorating Bank House, where they were now living,
I worked hard in decorating the house and wasn’t unduly miserable. I think i must have a cheerful constitution because I didn’t seem to be put out by misfortunes as much as most people. Possibly this is because I habitually am lucky enough to be completely absorbed in drawing or writing so that I become quite unconscious of people or time when I am working, so there is always that escape from reality.
The marriage limped on as war drew closer. Tirzah fell in love with John Aldridge but their affair was doomed as he was married. Tirzah discovered she had breast cancer & underwent a mastectomy in 1942. Eric had been commissioned as a war artist & was killed in a plane crash on the way to Iceland that same year. Tirzah later married Henry Swanzy, a producer for the BBC & began painting in oils. Cancer returned & Tirzah died in 1951.
Long Live Great Bardfield is an immensely engaging book. Tirzah’s style is quite matter of fact & unemotional even when she’s describing upsetting events. As she writes near the end,
I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but as I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival.
That conversational tone & Tirzah’s honesty make the book so absorbing to read. I read it in just a few long sessions, led on from one chapter to the next. There is a lot of humour in the book as well. Aunts are nearly always eccentric & Tirzah’s are no exception. There are many amusing stories of her childhood with her parents & siblings. When Tirzah is in hospital she describes the other patients & the camaraderie they feel for each other. Her descriptions of childbirth & the treatment she had for breast cancer are very calmly related. Her emotional honesty is also remarkable. All through the misery of realising that Eric was having affairs, she kept trying to understand his point of view & just got on with things because she had no choice. She expressed no obvious regret for the loss of her career although I was boiling mad on her behalf as I thought of her wasted talent.
The quote that kept recurring as I read this book was from one of Katherine Mansfield’s letters or journals about the expectation of her husband, John Middleton Murry, that she would be responsible for all the domestic chores, even if she was working, while he sat in the garden with his friends.
The house seems to take up so much time… Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’
There are also many lovely descriptions of the Essex landscape in the book & of the houses they lived in & visited. The difficulties of country living – the infestations of insects or rodents, the problems of finding help in the house, the vagaries of landlords & the joy of discovering that the Great Bardfield butcher’s name is Mr Bones – as well as the friends they make are always interesting to read about. It’s not surprising that Tirzah had no time for art when housekeeping & child care took up so much time.
Tirzah’s daughter, Anne Ullmann, has edited the autobiography & used letters & Tirzah’s rough notes to fill in the final years of her life. Tirzah’s story is important, not just as the portrait of a group of artists in the interwar years, but also as a profoundly clear-eyed & honest description of the life of a woman artist with all its difficulties & disappointments as well as the satisfaction & the joy.