PIERS COURT REVISITED





I first came to Piers Court in December, 2005, when I was drafting the book,
Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Love. My partner, Kate Clayton, accompanied me and took this photograph. God, was my blood pressure ever that low? Surely, that is a photo that has faded.

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I was 48, then. I'm 61 as I return in May, 2019, in order to carry on with this website. As Kate has long ago lost interest in Evelyn Waugh and developed her own art interests, this time it's John Wilson who accompanies me, a friend whom I've known since college days. John has popped up several times in this project. First, to accompany me around Barford and in particular to the temple at the back of Barford House. Second, to trace one of Alastair Graham's relatives in the graveyard at Netherby Hall. And third, last night, when he took photos of my Scoop talk at Chipping Campden Lit Fest. John is quick-witted and supportive; I'm open-minded and intuitive (I like to think). We make a good team.

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I was also here exactly a year after my first visit, again with Kate, though the camera had run out of battery by the time we arrived at Piers Court. So I'll effectively merge those two earlier visits into one.

John and I walk west, and up a slight incline, until we have the best view of the house from ground level.

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John takes a few more photographs, with me in the foreground, and they are so good that they will be the subject of a separate essay, one that flies from the start. Take a peek now, or, even better, use the link that I'll provide at the end of this essay, which will also take off in due course.

The above view is of the west side of the house. The imposing north-facing front of the house would be visible from the left of the picture. I try and explain the set-up to John using the diagram below. The large red dot is the entrance to the grounds of Piers Court. We have walked along the drive which is also a right of way for a while. But then we have veered off the path, up the grassy slope so that we are standing where the red arrow is, looking down towards the house and front garden.

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When I was here with Kate, we'd walked to Piers Court from the south and our position was as marked by the blue pin, when we saw a couple walking towards the house as marked with the yellow pin. And so we approached them and got a tour around the garden and a quick look inside the front door and into what had been Evelyn Waugh's library. A woman called Jocelyn was the owner then, but the house has since been sold.

As I'm explaining this to John, a car drives up and parks as indicated by the small red circle. A man gets out of the car and goes towards the back of the house. When he reappears, I walk swiftly down the slope and introduce myself. Why not?

I ask if I can approach the front of the house with a view to taking a few photographs. He tells me that he's not the owner. I ask if the owner is in. Yes, she is. "Do you think she would mind if I knocked on the door and put my request to her?" He tells me that he'll do that for me. So John and I wait. We are now standing on the path between the blue and yellow pins marked in the above aerial photograph. Remembering the camera catastrophe of my last visit, I remind John about taking photos: "Documentation, documentation, documentation."

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After five minutes a woman, smartly dressed in black, approaches, smiling a welcome. She is Helen Lawton, the new owner of Piers Court. In recent weeks she has been very excited to learn about the Evelyn Waugh associations of her new home. By coincidence, she knows Septimus Waugh, Evelyn's son, and there is a plan to bring Septimus's old nanny down from Northumberland to the house for a day. This is an ambitious plan, as the former nanny is in her nineties, but Helen also knows Alexander Waugh, Evelyn's grandson, and has other plans to bring Evelyn Waugh enthusiasts to the house.

For now she is entertaining (drinking 'bubbles' before
a late lunch) so can't give us a tour round the house. However, she can give us a quick look round the garden in order that I can get the shots I want. Marvellous.

As Septimus has been mentioned I move to the feature directly in front of the house where he was photographed with his father in 1955.

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I did manage to get the architectural feature in shot on my winter 2005 visit, though it was a family grouping (Evelyn Waugh plus seven of a family plus the same number of servants) I had in mind when I was photographed.

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This time I can be more precise in my positioning. I suspect I have my social face on as John takes the photograph seen below. Oh well, one can't have everything. Is the stone still warm from when Septimus sat there 64 years ago? Yes, I would say so, though it could be the afterglow from Evelyn's cigar, reckons John.

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Septimus, as the name suggests, was the Waughs' seventh child. Teresa was the first born, and that was in March, 1938. There is a picture of her and Evelyn in the grounds of Piers Court, probably taken just before the family left Piers Court for the duration of the war, in late 1939. Nuns were living here from 1939 until 1945. Evelyn had written Brideshead Revisited by the time he moved back into the house in September, 1945.



But the earliest image I know of, may have been taken not long after Piers Court was bought in 1937. It shows Evelyn as master of all he surveyed. Though the house was a wedding gift from Laura's very rich grandmother, the house was put in Evelyn's name. How patriarchal was that?



I begin to search for a photo like that only with me in front of the house in 2006, when Helen moves us along. She takes us to see the east side of the house, exactly the bit that I explored on earlier occasions. I know I can trust John to take pictures discreetly. Now that we have permission to photograph, we don't want to abuse it.

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As we halt at this lovely beech hedge-lined pathway, Helen tells us that Country Life took photographs all round the grounds in 1949. That's right, I was given a photocopy of an estate agent's particulars that included about a dozen such pictures. Well, Helen reckons there would have been more and is going to try and track them down.

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I think this is where Evelyn was photographed once. Yes, in the picture below I'm standing on his shoulder, as it were, just where the path takes a right-angle turn. We're looking in opposite directions. I think Evelyn is wearing the suit of which Christopher Sykes wrote:

'There is a cloth exclusively woven for officers of the Household Cavalry, used in the making of travelling or sporting overcoats and now usually for country caps. Never in history had this cloth been used for the making of a suit. On a light reddish-brown background it has a bright red check about three inches square. Evelyn made tailoring history by ordering a suit in this cloth. The result surpassed the wildest extravagances of an old-fashioned music-hall comedian. A weird touch of obscenity was added as the tailor cut the cloth in such a way that a bright red line from the checks ran down the fly buttons.'

I would love to know (see, actually) what colour the waistcoat was. Purple? Billiard-table green?

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What date is that picture? Well, I can work that out, because Evelyn was also pictured with his family that day, at the pillar and seat feature that is no longer at the front and east of the house, but which I will be researching in full for another essay very shortly, courtesy of the aforementioned Country Life images. For now this picture (below) allows us to date the one of Evelyn Waugh in the beech avenue, because Septimus, the child sitting in his mother's lap, was born in summer of 1950 and appears to be a one-year-old in this picture. (Either one or two, anyway, I only have a childless man's eye for the development of toddlers.) If summer 1951, Waugh was coming up to be 48. He seems to have been in robust health, then. Though he aged quickly after that.

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48 is the age I was when I first came to Piers Court. So let's sort out another picture of that occasion. Actually, there is no time for that now. Because both Helen and Evelyn are in a hurry to get back to their champagne. Which is fair enough. Next stop, the Gothic edifice, which Waugh designed and had built in 1948. (The beech avenue is just out of shot to the right.)

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The saints were long gone in 2006, when I took this photo of Kate. The original idea had been to have skulls mounted on the parapet. Which I think was a more Waughesque - if morbid - idea.

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But the edifice hasn't changed much since 2006. Except winter has turned into spring-summer. Do I mean that?

"I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all." One of the most melancholy lines of Shakespeare, in his most sublimely jolly play.

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Helen suggests that I stand to the side so that John can get a decent picture of the Gothic extravagance. I don't think she quite understands how pleased I am to be back here. Or what I am trying to do. But why should she?

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And you, Evelyn, do you understand?

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No, he doesn't. He simply wonders why a member of the proletariat is standing in one of his most private and sacred spaces.

I've just realised this wide-lapelled suit is the one that he was wearing when photographed by Bill Brandt by the sculpture that used to be in the front lawn. The photo below is dated 1949.

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The sculpture is mentioned at least twice in Waugh's diaries. 5 July 55: 'An indignant and rather insolent protest from the Director of the Wolverhampton School of Art asking what I mean by saying his students damaged Ceccarini's Rafael.'

I suspect that the students being within fifty yards of the sculpture would merit the accusation of 'damage'. The snob in Waugh would not have taken the Wolverhampton students seriously. In the sublime story 'Winner takes All', Waugh has the younger son, Tom - on whom the author heaps many indignities - sent to Wolverhampton to learn the motor business. Mark E. Smith of The Fall sneering
"The Birmingham School of Business School", comes to mind.

Having said that, I don't think Waugh was fond of the statue, classical or not. When selling Piers Court in 1956 he wanted the buyer to take possession of it. She agreed to take everything else, but not that. So it had to go with the Waugh household to Combe Florey.

Helen has led us to the croquet lawn.


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I tell Helen and John about the photograph that exists of the Waugh family knocking croquet balls towards empty bottles of champagne. And that Waugh installed a path consisting of empty champagne bottles laid upside down.

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The girls are maybe two years older than they were in the summer of 1951 photo taken at the pillars and seat. But I shouldn't have mentioned champagne, because that's reminded Helen that she has to get back to her glass of fizz and her friends. Accordingly, we return to the front door.

Helen points out that it lacks a door knocker. That was taken away by the previous owner, I presume. But then it could have been anybody. "Not necessarily," says John. True, perhaps Nancy Spain, or a descendant of Nancy Spain, came back to revenge herself on the reception she received upon knocking on the door in summer 1955. That evening she was told in no uncertain fashion that members of the Beaverbrook press did
not have a standing invitation to dinner at Piers Court.

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The Cotswold stone is looking well.

I show the others what the front door looked like in 2006. Cerulean blue and with door furniture.

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Helen asks if I've a picture without me blocking the view of the door. And indeed I do. Piers Court with clear view of door knocker!

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Helen seems content to stand with us for a while longer before getting back to her party. She tells us she is going to be reinstalling the front room, left, as a library. I show her on my website, diagrams of how the room used to be set up. With Evelyn sitting at his desk looking west towards a portrait of the dandy king, George III. Helen asks to be sent the link. Here it is for one and all.


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And then I look through the window. At first I'm dazzled by reflections, then I see what I want to see. The library at Piers Court ,circa 1946. Why not earlier? I don't think there are any pictures of Evelyn in his library pre-war. I try and communicate my vision of the library
. Circa 1946 to Helen and John.

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I don't think they get it. I keep trying…

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Finally, I get there. At one with the stone of Piers Court. Evelyn dressed in suit one. Standing at his desk. Smoking a cigar.



No, I can do better than that. Evelyn in suit one. Sitting at his desk. Inspired by a bust of Queen Victoria (on desk) as well as the portrait of George III. Writing Scott King's Modern Europe or The Loved One. Shall we say. In other words, this image is from 1946 to 1948.

On 28 October, 1947, his 44th birthday, having written the two novellas mentioned above in the previous year, Waugh wrote in his diary: 'I am a very much older man than this time last year, physically infirm and lethargic.'


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And year later. 'My 45th birthday. An unproductive and unhealthy year. The start pray God of a better.'

Still in the zone. A few years later. Evelyn still sitting at his desk in the library on a daily basis. Wearing suit two with its potent red check. Writing Helena or Men At Arms or Love Among the Ruins. In other words, this image is from 1949 to 1953.

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Alas, he wasn't keeping a diary in this four-year period. So there are no annual summaries of how he was feeling about himself.

Still in the zone. Suit three. Evelyn sitting slumped in a comfy chair in the library (that it is the library is revealed by the non-parallel lines in the background, being one of the distinctive pillars there). It's July 1955 and it is the day that Tom Driberg interviewed him about his newly completed novel, Officers and Gentlemen.

Evelyn had just spent two drunken days in London. On the first day, he lunched at Brooks, drank in White's until 7, then dined with Ann Fleming. On the second day he spent the morning drinking in White's, lunched at Brooks again and went back to White's for more drinking before catching his train. More drinking on the train. So perhaps Evelyn was not at his best for the photographers visit the next day.

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What do I mean by suit three? A better picture of it was taken outside that June day of 1955. Either the one with Septimus on the pedestal, or one of several more, including this one:

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I think of this image as Evelyn seeing off an unwanted visitor. Already he will be thinking of the empty library behind him. How, he will be able to go back there and get on with his real life: his gin drinking, his crossword puzzling, his writing.

Who was the unwanted visitor? Tom Driberg? The photographers? Or me from 2014, even. Yes, let's go for that. Though it was only a virtual visit.

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I was there as Evelyn's manservant-cum-gardener, helping him clear out old unwanted books prior to his move from Piers Court to Combe Florey. I did a mountain of work that day, filling my barrow time and again with the crapulous books of Peter Quennell, Cecil Beaton, Osbert Sitwell, Moray McLaren and other second-raters.

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Actually, I really am leaving Piers Court now.

It is so much less melancholy to be heading out on a bright day in May than being ordered out while working in a menial capacity in the depths of winter. "See you later, Mr Waugh, sir… Missing you already."


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But before I really do leave. I should say something about my jacket. It's called an 'Engineer's Coat' and Kate told me about it a week ago. She said I should buy the garment and wear it to the Scoop event rather than the heavy tweed jacket that I had intended to wear. I guess she was right. Coats one, two and three then. From half-length black coat, to Kate's father's old waxed raincoat, to the Engineer's Coat bought for £85 from Thread. My sartorial choices have to be recorded for posterity, just as Evelyn Waugh's do!

An author's clothes and his or her looks reflect how they feel. And how they feel is reflected in the work that they do.
Helena is such a plod. And I can't believe Waugh was feeling well in himself when he wrote the underwritten Love Among the Ruins.

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I'm looking pretty pleased with myself. For several reasons, but two should be mentioned here. One, because I know John took a great set of images while looking down on the house at the start of our visit, which I know exactly what to do with. Two, because John has agreed to drive me to Barford House RIGHT NOW so that we can check up on the temple at the bottom of the garden.

From
Scoop to Piers Court to Alastair and Evelyn's inner sanctum, in less than 24 hours. Now that's what I call a pacy research agenda. That's what I call a tasty bit of scheduling. On, Evelyn, on.