A WEEKEND WITH WAUGH
A young American writer wrote up a summer 1954 visit to Piers Court in an issue of The Cornhill magazine, published in the summer of 1960. (Oh, yes, he did!) The man's name was Edward R. F. Sheehan and this is what the cover of the relevant issue of The Cornhill looked like back then:
Well, no, it's me, in autumn, 2014, who has overlain the words 'A WEEKEND WITH WAUGH' over the cover of issue 1024, unable to believe how little the publisher, John Murray, made of his Evelyn Waugh coup at the time. No wonder John Murray has since gone out of business.
It is a great little article, clear and funny, and it will be the backbone of this essay. The original article runs to sixteen fact-filled pages, of which the following is the first. Perusal optional:
At the foot of that page, Sheehan tells us that he scrawled a one-line postcard to Waugh asking if they could meet when he next came up to London. Waugh's reply came back to Sheehan's digs in Russell Square straight away, a letter dated August 6th, 1954, enclosing a poster which Sheehan was asked to put up in Grosvenor Square. (Wouldn't Russell Square have done just as well? There's probably a joke there.)
My God, a garden fête at Piers Court! And thanks to Edward Sheehan we're all going to enjoy every minute of it!
Waugh's covering letter requests that Sheehan change his plans slightly and come out to Piers Court on the fourteenth for the fête. He would be able to help erect booths in the morning and, later in the day, manage traffic, detect thieves, 'bark' at side shows, spend money and judge children's sports.
Waugh wondered whether Sheehan's talents ran to conjuring, ventriloquism or contortionism. Could he draw lightning portraits? Perhaps he played the trumpet? If so, The Stinchcombe Silver Band would welcome a solo from him while they took a rest.
One gets the impression that Evelyn Waugh had recovered from his ordeal by cruise ship of earlier in the year. His letter evokes the comic spirit of Decline and Fall (the Llannabba Silver Band on Sports day) and Vile Bodies (Colonel Blount welcoming Adam to Doubting Hall). But with that last allusion I am getting ahead of things a little.
Sheehan was met at Stroud station by the Waughs' gardener and driven to Piers Court. (Reminds me of Scoop, Salter travelling to Boot Magna in the back of a lorry driven by a Bert Tyler.) He admired the deep valleys of Gloucestershire, the Cotswold Hills and the view of the wide valley of the River Severn in a way that echoes Guy Crouchback's description of his trip out to visit the Box-benders at their house in Gloucestershire in the prologue of Men at Arms.
The gardener left Sheehan at the front doorstep of Piers Court. The visitor found the door locked. But then the door was opened by a 'rather round, rubicund man in a red smoking jacket.' That does it for me. I know from other sources that the jacket that Evelyn is wearing in the pic below is a brown tweed with a bright red check in it. A red smoking jacket would bring out that red check very nicely!
Waugh was smoking a cigar, but he grabbed Sheehan's bag and made his way upstairs with it, before realising it was rather heavy. The visitor had to explain that it was full of books and cigarettes. Waugh had no time for the mention of cigarettes - an inferior smoke if ever there was one, and asked if his guest wanted some supper. Sheehan had eaten a little after six. This was an outrageously early time to eat as far as his host was concerned (distressingly suburban?). In any case Waugh left his guest to freshen up.
The sort of welcome that Colonel Blount gave Adam in Vile Bodies, challenging his visitor's assumptions about identity and etiquette. Interesting to think that Waugh had grown into his own comic creation. It suggests that when he wrote about Blount in the first place he was tapping into himself. True, he was also thinking about his own father when he drew the portrait. But the mindset was essentially Evelyn's, which is perhaps why it's done with such memorable intensity. In his early books Waugh put a lot of energy playing off innocence (Paul Pennyfeather, Adam Symes) against experience (Grimes, Colonel Blount).
Sheehan was installed in the 'master guest room' that Graham Greene had occupied a few years before, details of which can be read on that page of this website. Sheehan doesn't mention the hand-written sign on the cistern. Instead, he tells us that his room was large, old-fashioned and comfortable. The bed was a lavishly canopied four-poster. In the corner of the room stood a Victorian washstand, an impressive monstrosity elaborately decorated with metal work and mosaic. This same Narcissus Washstand is now owned by the Higgins Art gallery and Museum, Bedford, and its Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art has kindly sent me this photograph of it.
Now this had been a gift to Evelyn from John Betjeman at the end of 1953. A similar piece is mentioned near the beginning of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, because, when the item was delivered, Waugh reckoned it was missing an essential part which had been there when he'd seen it in London, 'the serpentine bronze pipe which led from the dragon's mouth to the basin'. Betjeman told him that there had never been such a pipe and Waugh was forced to conclude he'd hallucinated the thing, just as he was to hallucinate so much more in February 1954, en route to Ceylon.
I wonder how much pleasure the Narcissus Washstand gave Waugh. It would have been a much more welcome gift if it had been given a coupe of years earlier, because then Ellwood could have filled the tank hidden behind the mosaic work at the top of the washstand. And after Evelyn had performed his ablutions, his manservant could have removed the dirty water from the tank hidden by the cupboard doors at the bottom of the Washstand. 'Oh Ellwood, where are you when you're wanted?' Gazing at his own reflection in the tiled bathroom of his semi in Dursley? Vanity, vanity all is vanity!
Sheehan reports that in the adjoining bathroom was a more conventional basin with a gaping hole in it. On the basin was painted the intriguing inscription: 'Mrs Grant: her mark.'
Sheehan says nothing more about this. So I will. The Mrs Grant mentioned was almost certainly Laura's sister, Bridget. Waugh had known Bridget Herbert from the day he first met Laura at the Herberts' glorious holiday home in Portofino. She'd married Eddie Grant in 1935 and Evelyn had taken to calling her 'Mrs Grant' in letters, half-facetiously. In Feb 1944, Waugh wrote to Laura, 'I hope you are feasting on sardine trifle or whatever delicacy Mrs Grant has now devised to welcome you home.' And in March of that year 'I enjoyed my visit to Piixton very much except for Mrs Grant's 'orrible overcoat.' From Mrs Grant's ' orrible overcoat to Mrs Grant's mark. Clearly, she honed her act over the years, to a point where Waugh could only admire his sister-in-law's chutzpah.
Sheehan heard a knock on the door. He opened it to find a lean, red-headed young man. Bron (who would have been approaching his fifteenth birthday) introduced himself as 'Auberon Waugh'. He wanted to know if the housekeeper should heat hot water for him or whether he would draw his bath cold. Also, did he prefer his fish boiled or broiled? Sheehan tentatively went for cold water and boiled fish. If it had been me I would have had the washstand filled with hot water, that's for sure, and then I'd have made sure it was cold and dirty by the time it had to be emptied. Though, thinking that through, no doubt it would have been me who had to empty it.
Downstairs, the Waughs and their six children were waiting up in the drawing room. Which is where Sheehan had to eat his fish rather self-consciously, finding that the family had already eaten. (A definite Colonel Blount trick: keep visitors on the hop about when food was coming and in what quantities.) Sheehan describes Waugh as having remarkable eyes. And a large head resting on a short, comfortable frame.
Evelyn asked his guest where he was from. Boston, was the answer. Waugh had been there. "The politics are interesting," said Sheehan. "You like politics?" Waugh asked, intrigued. Sheehan said he loved politics. Waugh retorted that he hated politics. Impasse. There follows a page focussing on Waugh's experience of America and Americans, which ends: "Waugh's judgements produced occasional chuckles from his children and uncritical silence from Mrs Waugh, a woman of few words who seemed to accept those of her husband with a serenity that bordered on adoration." I'll let that pass for the moment, but I'll be getting to Laura's perspective on another page soon.
The conversation eventually drifted to the fête. Sheehan asked Waugh why he had opened his home to the public. Because St Dominic's Church in Dursley was in financial need and he saw a way in which he could do his bit for the church and his local community.
Rising, Waugh went to the corner of the drawing room and pulled down a wall map of Piers Court. At First Sheehan thought it unusual that an estate of only a few acres should require mapping out. Waugh murmured 'way of life' but he wouldn't have had to justify the wall map to me. God, I'd love a wall map of Piers Court! Showing which fields the cows were occupying and which were planted in grain. Showing where the Gothic facade was in the garden and where the classical ruin. Showing where the various facilities were in the house, with a short guide as to who could use them and for what purpose. Showing a big arrow at the end of which would be written the immortal words, 'Mrs Grant - her mark.'
Suddenly, the Waughs' eldest child, Teresa, who would have been sixteen, spoke. "Where are we going to put Teddy tomorrow?" Apparently the Teddy nickname for Edward Sheehan had already been started, I guess by Evelyn.
"I think we'll put Teddy in the car-park," said Waugh senior."Teddy will do splendidly in the car-park. We have the special headpiece for him."
"Headpiece?" interjected Bron. "Papa, you're not going to make Teddy wear that."
"Yes, the headpiece," Waugh replied, cryptically.
The headpiece was something that would be revealed in the morning, but before the end of the evening, Sheehan managed to pique Waugh's interest when he mentioned a newly published letter by Graham Greene. A letter of protest to the Guardian about the denial of a church burial for Colette.
At the risk of breaching the heirs to Sheehan's literary estate's copyright, I'll quote Waugh's response at length. I won't go to the trouble of retyping the relevant paragraph, but simply scan it. A gift to you, the 21st century reader, from Teddy, the 20th century writer.
And that's us seven pages into the 16-page article in The Cornhill. At which point Teddy takes himself off to bed, as will I. After all we have a big day tomorrow. A garden fête at Piers Court!
Saturday. Showers and sunshine. Waugh had a whole convent of Poor Clares praying it would be fine for the fête.
The family was having breakfast in the dining room when Teddy entered, smoking.
"Now, come here, Teddy, sit down and have something, and get rid of that blasted cigarette!" Having said this, Waugh leaped out of his chair, seized the lighted cigarette and threw it out the window. That might not seem like such strange behaviour these days with our strict no smoking rules in public rooms, but this was the action of a man who was rarely photographed without a cigar in his mouth. Not at meals, though. I suppose that's the thing.
The breakfast consisted of fruit, bread, sausage, ham and eggs, and tea, served by the Waughs' matronly cook. Following it, Teddy asked Bron if he would show him around the 'park'. Bron took him first to the ruined Greek temple diagonally facing the front of the house.
Sheehan tells us that the field rising into a hillock to the right of the house in the above picture was to serve as the car-park for the afternoon. In other words, cars were allowed to pass through the gates for the hundred yards or so until the drive approached the house at which point they went off to the field on the right.
Sheehan found the Gothic Edifice more intriguing. He asked Bron what the statues represented and was told they were the seven virtues.
"Oh? Temperance? Chastity?"
"No, They are the seven minor virtues."
This puzzled Teddy. When he got a chance, he asked Evelyn, who mumbled something about limbering up for the car-park and placed a broom in Sheehan's hand.
Sheehan had Victorian books to rearrange for the exhibition in the library, ladders to climb, rugs to roll, and electric lights to move. Below is a view of the library at Piers Court, looking towards Waugh's desk at the far side of the room. I guess that the rugs were rolled up so that a horde of people in outdoor shoes could be let into the house and not do too much damage. I guess too that tables such as the one in the foreground would have been ideal for laying out the valuable old books, open at particularly impressive plates.
Sheehan doesn't say anything about the books in question, except to list a few of them. So I will say a bit more, starting with Humphry Repton's architectural masterpiece, Brighton Pavilion. This splendid book was published in 1808 and contains drawings of Repton's design for Brighton Pavilion. These plans were approved by the Prince of Wales but not built due to lack of funds. It was John Nash that eventually got the commission, and in Waugh's library at his death (and, I strongly suspect, at Piers Court on the afternoon of the fête) there were two copies of Illustrations of Her Majesty's Palace at Brighton, executed by the command of George the Fourth, under the Superintendence of John Nash. That is an 1838 volume, but here is a plate from the Repton book which was definitely at Piers Court on the day of the fête:
View from the dome, Brighton Pavilion, engraved by Joseph Constantine Stadler , published 1808
Why would Evelyn Waugh have been so interested in Brighton Pavilion? It is an especially ornate place and he and Laura often holidayed in Brighton in the summer. In other words, Waugh knew the building and wanted a record of its appearance and its history for his library at Piers Court. George III, whose portrait faced him as he worked at his desk in the library, was the father of the equally extravagant George IV, who commissioned the Royal Pavilion.
Another of Waugh's Victorian books was William Henry Pyne's Royal Residences. The volume is partly a history of six royal palaces but its main interest is the hundred highly finished coloured engravings, facsimiles of original drawings by eminent artists.
The Saloon, Buckingham Palace, from Henry Pyne's Royal Residences.
Why did Waugh have this book? Well, as we know he was a sucker for a fine house and the royal palaces are, in certain respects, the finest. Didn't an earlier party of his and his first wife have directions to their then home,17a Canonbury Square, Islington, from Buckingham Palace? Yes, you've got to make it easy for royalty if you want them to attend your shindig.
Sheehan also tells us that Waugh had several chromo-llithographic folios of the mid nineteenth century on display. Many of those have illustrations by Owen Jones. Basically, Jones mastered a technique that allowed paintings to be reproduced by the use of layers of colour, one colour per stone, often involving dozens of layers to create the likeness. At Waugh's death he had more than twenty volumes in his library whose chief attribute was their Owen Jones' illustrations. Designs for mosaic and tessellated pavements, 1842, Details and Ornaments from the Alhambra, 1845, Examples of Chinese Ornament from the South Kensington Museum, 1867, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856, and Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages, 1849, show the lengths that Jones went to find originals whose wonders could be painstakingly reproduced on the pages of a book. Jones's efforts to preserve culture gave him heroic status in Waugh's eyes. He was collecting such books when Nancy Mitford was in the Heywood Hill Bookshop in 1943 and 1944. It is likely that all these books would have been on display on August 14, 1954. Let the illustration below represent those fine volumes :
Actually, no, I don't particularly like that page. It's a composite of 'Celtic' designs. I greatly prefer this next, a single example of spectacularly coloured architecture from the Alhambra. Site-specificity is all:
I dare say Teddy enjoyed handling the precious old books, but he wouldn't have had much time to sample them. It was all hands to the pump, transforming all the downstairs rooms of Piers Court into an exhibition space. He was asked to help Bron move the Narcissus Washstand from his room to the landing on the stairs where it would be viewable from the hall. Negotiating the part-marble monument around bannisters to its place of honour was no easy task, and Waugh's directions didn't help much. 'Watch the corner, Teddy! - wouldn't want to stick you with a re-plastering bill.'
Below is an interesting photo, shame it's such a low quality black and white photocopy. I suspect it shows the spot that the Narcissus Washstand was moved to. Most likely the landing on the left, if Evelyn didn't want visitors on the first floor, which was where the private bedrooms were. The landscape on the wall there may be the large view of Rome by Van Vitallius that is included on the list of items at Piers Court in 1951, a list that was made after a trust fund was created, a scheme that Waugh's agent came up with to ease Waugh's personal tax worries and to increase his cash flow.
The two paintings to the right of the above photo, visible from the entrance hall, are The Pleasures of Travel (1751) and The Pleasures of Travel (1851) by Robert Musgrave Joy. These paintings were bought by Evelyn in January 1948. Edward Sheehan mentions them, but on that summer's day of 1954 there were three paintings in the set, as Waugh had commissioned Richard Eurich to paint The Pleasures of Travel (1951). Actually, all three paintings stress the costs rather than the benefits of travel. A highway robber boards a carriage, 1751, a railway official sells tickets, 1851, and an air steward looking on helplessly as a plane shakes alarmingly, 1951.
In Waugh's preface to When the Going was Good, written at Piers Court in 1945, Waugh stated that his own travelling days were over. Of course, Scott King's Modern Europe, The Loved One and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold prove otherwise. Still, when Waugh looked at his three pictures, I think he was content to think that his travelling days were done.
OK back to the fête. Towards midday, Teddy tells us, the heavy work was done. Waugh poured himself a gin and bitters. Then Bron broke in on the conversation. He had been down by the front gate (which is about 100 yards from the house and out of sight of it) saying that there was a nice young American down there, wondering if he could get in before the appointed hour, being an admirer of Waugh's writing and having come up by an early train from London.
Waugh poured himself another drink and told Bron to return to the gate with Teddy. They should look over this second young American and if he was fit for company they should invite him to lunch.
I'm reminded of Colonel Blount in Vile Bodies again. Although I think the sign at Doubting Hall was the more conventional 'NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON BUSINESS'.
Sheehan has nothing to report about lunch. At quarter to three it was raining again and all the outdoor games looked doomed. However, Waugh had faith in the power of prayer and was unconcerned. Sure enough, at five minutes to three it stopped raining for the afternoon.
"All ready, Teddy? then follow me. We must dress you up in your headpiece." Waugh took his guest into the downstairs loo where the leopard-skin toilet seat and the Abyssinian paintings were hung. From a wooden cabinet he extracted a gleaming object. It was a German helmet of Franco-Prussian vintage with a spike coming out of the top, as long and as sharp as a bayonet. Teddy refused to wear it. Waugh was not pleased. 'Do you realise what this means? You are trying to deprive the fête of one of its prime attractions - a unicorn in the car-park.'
Of course, Evelyn was not beaten. In the moist green grass of the car park that afternoon a unicorn grazed. It wore horn-rimmed spectacles and attracted much attention. Conley, Sheehan tells us with a touch of self-congratulation, made a fine unicorn.
The fête was on. With Conley in the car-park, Teddy was temporarily at large. He watched visitors swarm over the grounds of Piers Court; they queued into the house and then came popping out of it like tweed peas from a Georgian pod (Teddy's phrase). Waugh did not at first mingle with them, though there were people who had dashed down from London and a few members of the old nobility.
Waugh was enthroned in the Greek temple, attired, not in the loud country tweeds he was famous for, but in a dark grey suit. When he caught sight of Teddy he beckoned him over and told him the sideshows required his services.
The American was assigned the task of selling muffins to the younger set. Meanwhile Laura was operating a cardboard roulette wheel and Father Collins was supervising the second-hand bookstall, where a book on the Pope lay alongside The India-Rubber Man by Edgar Wallace, favourite reading of both Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
Sheehan goes on to write that VIrginia (I think Teddy meant Teresa) was reading palms and Bron was running a stall where the maladjusted, for a penny a throw, could vent their hatred of human society by heaving rocks at old chinaware. A mysterious tent labelled 'The Holy Friar' intrigued Teddy, but so busy was he selling muffins and so long was the queue for the tent that he couldn't get into it. The Stinchcombe Silver band puffed its way through an unfamiliar repertoire and all seemed sweetness and idiosyncratic light.
Waugh was so pleased with his fête that he descended from the Greek ruin and parked himself on the front doorstep. A large woman approached him wanting to know the age of the house and to suggest that her 300-year-old house was more Georgian than Waugh's 150-year-old one. Douglas Woodruff, the chum who had set up the trip to Spain with Evelyn that gave rise to Scott KIng's Modern Europe, put in an appearance and was told about the new Graham Greene letter.
At about 4.30, the crush of visitors on the lawn and those queuing to get inside the house had reached its peak, suddenly right up to the front door bowled a chauffeur-driven Baby Austin. Out of the car stepped a young man carrying a poetry anthology the size of an encyclopaedia and a bright leather bag. Evelyn would not let this visitor into the house until he had checked the contents of his bag. To anyone who asked, Evelyn said that the newcomer was named Quentin Davenport, that he belonged to an old Catholic family and had been sent down from university for writing a blasphemous poem.
The Harold Acton-type went into the library and was unimpressed with the books. A volume called The Shakespeare Gallery containing engravings done by Boydell in 1805, was insulted as commonplace. Here is an image of King Lear from that book.
It shows a still-powerful Lear having a go at his favourite daughter, Cordelia, while Goneril and Regan look on complacently. Which reminds me that Sheehan has written nothing of Margaret's activities that weekend. And nothing of Harriet's. Oh well, he has contributed so much that one shouldn't ask for more.
What did Quentin Davenport think of the copy of Bickman's eighteenth-century copper-engraved Universal Penman? He thought it belonged in the elephant-foot wastebasket. Picking said book out of said basket, I open it up at a page at random:
Not sure what that is. Exercises for writing with the fountain pen? Waugh did use a pen to write his manuscripts and occasionally he let it make a flourish up and down the page, especially when he'd made a mistake. The prominent middle verse reads:
'Wit like Beauty, triumphs o'er the Heart,
When more of Nature's seen, and less of Art.'
Evelyn liked his stories to be led by incidents in his life. And Sheehan's story is certainly driven by what he saw unfold in front of him during his weekend with Waugh.
Quentin Davenport moved from the library to the drawing room where hung a painting labelled An Afternoon on the River by Augustus Egg, featuring 'three lovely ladies in a punt picking rushes', as Waugh told Diana Cooper. Hearing some of the visitors speculate on whether it was an early Egg or a late Egg, Mr Davenport quivered his nostrils and assured them "it is obviously a poached Egg. Left too long lying about."
I have hunted high and low for an image of that painting but can't track it down. When asked who his favourite painter was by the BBC, Waugh replied: "Augustus Egg was of the highest rank." In 1956, Evelyn bought a second Egg, called A Teasing Riddle. I do know what that looks like and so too should you as it would have been on display for a few months at Piers Court:
A young man has been asked a question. The two women know the answer to the puzzle all right, but for the moment he is being kept in the dark. There are all sorts of ways Evelyn could have made this composition relate to his own life (She-Evelyn and Eleanor Watts keeping a secret from He-Evelyn; ditto Mary and Dorothy Lygon; ditto Laura and Bridget Herbert). And I think that's the key to Waugh's love of Victorian narrative paintings.
'Three lovely ladies in a punt picking rushes'. Oh, to see that picture and to relate it to Evelyn Gardner and her two sisters, Juliet and Alethea. Or to Laura and her two sisters, Bridget and Gabriel. Or to Diana, Nancy and Debo Mitford.
The painting below by Arthur Hughes is called The Lost Child. It was bought at auction in July 1949. See Evelyn's joy on being restored to his lost child, his favourite, Margaret! (She would have been seven when the painting was bought.)
The Lost Child was bound to have been in favour again at Piers Court in 1953, when Septimus was lost one morning until the local farmer returned the boy safe and well, eliciting the thank-you letter that is the subject of this essay.
As the poster (see top of this page, third image down) announces, a guided tour of the pictures was given by Miss Rose Donaldson. As Frances Donaldson, her mother, relates in Portrait of a Country Neighbour, young Rose was schooled by Evelyn in what she should say about each picture. She reports that on the day of the fête the innocence of her childish voice contrasting with the knowing and cynical opinions she was expressing gave amusement to many.
William Douglas Home had telephoned to ask if he might write a story about the fête for the Sunday Express, one of the hated (by Evelyn) Beaverbrook papers. So Rose, in describing a pair of paintings - one representing a serious young man with a book, regarding a modestly dressed girl with a dog; the other a dandified young man, lolling at a window, with a newspaper in his hand while chatting up a girl with a flower basket - was instructed to say:
"This one is reading for honours - this one for a pluck."
Sounds a bit inappropriate to me. I mean, Evelyn's tuition. But one has to remember how different the culture was then. Men got away with too much and they simply didn't see the world from a woman's perspective. A problem that persists today, though I believe it is less pervasive.
Anyway, Rose added for William Douglas Home's benefit that the newspaper in the hand of the dandified young man was a kind of rag, the equivalent, one might say, of today's Sunday Express. Cue laughter at Piers Court. Out of the mouths of babes comes words put their by their irresponsible elders.
There aren't many photos of the drawing room at Piers Court. Here is a poor quality one taken from a black and white copy of a photo in Country LIfe. Nevertheless, it shows where the pair of paintings referred to above hung, one on either side of the mirror above the fireplace.
Of course, the drawing room at Piers Court would have been constantly changing, even within the Waughs' time there. In the shot below, the pair of paintings are not hung. But I can't help imagining walking over to the dormer window at the end of the drawing room and looking out onto the temporary car-park in the hope of catching a glimpse of a unicorn. In the foreground stands a stuffed owl. Once it would undoubtedly have hunted maternal rodents and their furry brood. No longer.
When the car-park began to empty, Teddy paid a visit to the downstairs loo, of the leopard skin commode, where he found Conley having a drink with Evelyn. Teddy reminded Conley that there were no more trains to London that night and that if he wanted a lift back, only a few cars remained. Whereupon Waugh, perhaps fixating on the perspective that there was only one habitable guest room at Piers Court, grabbed Conley by the arm and dragged him out of the house. He managed to stop the Baby Austin and stuff Conley into its back seat despite protestations both by driver and passenger. The protests may have focussed on the fact that the car was going to Bath, not London. Job done, Evelyn patted the roof of the car to signal that it might resume its journey off the premises.
Teddy reports that champagne was served that evening in the dining room before supper. The American made a poor job of popping the cork and champagne began to fizzle onto the table which he tried to stop with the palm of his hand.
"Pour it, you silly ass!" Waugh shouted.
As the Waugh family toasted their happy day, Teresa observed that she'd caught Teddy talking politics to the Archbishop's wife, a woman whom Laura had relieved of three and tuppence at the roulette. This took the subject of conversation on to the Holy Friar, and Teddy learned from Evelyn that it wasn't a bogus monk, hired for the day to take confessions, but a frying pan perforated in the centre and suspended on a string.
The dining room had also been used for the fête. The shot below shows two paintings that were on show that day, though there is no reason to suppose the photograph was taken then. Above the fireplace is The Upset Flower Cart by W.A. Atkinson, which I'll show more clearly in a second. To the right of it is Spirit of the Rainbow, a drawing by Rossetti which is also coming up. By the way, the door on the left edge of the photo is of a cupboard between the dining room and the drawing room. The door on the right edge leads to the corridor in the middle of the house and to all the other ground floor rooms.
As an aside, you can see that the table has been set for two. Evelyn and Laura, I presume. Though Bron tells us in Will This Do, that his parents sat at right angles to the present place setting. With Evelyn facing towards the interior wall, where the books are. And Laura sitting looking out the window, to the field where her cows grazed, in other words towards the bottom left corner of the photograph.
You can see why Waugh would have been excited to buy The Upset Flower Cart (see below) for a very small sum in 1950. (These Victorian narrative paintings are valuable now, but in the middle of the Twentieth Century they were completely out of fashion.) A gentleman and his lady wife have come across a working woman whose cart has hit a brick lying in the road, upsetting itself, tipping her flowers onto the ground and breaking the pots in which geraniums were growing. She is being consoled by a girl in a striped dress. While the daughter of the well-to-do couple, looking concerned, is about to be entrusted with her father's wallet. Perhaps the sensitive girl - let's call her Margaret - is going to buy all the flower-seller's produce. That would end their afternoon stroll down the Caledonian Road in North London on a positive note!
Below is the Rossetti drawing that Waugh bought for £10 (if I remember correctly) before the War. A treasured possession, as Evelyn's first book was called Rossetti. The fact that the drawing was of a naked woman perhaps chimed in well with his state of mind early in his marriage to Laura.
Also on display on the day of the fete was a caricature by Max Beerbohm of King Edward VII and his entourage. According to Teddy, the work was called 'The Prince and his Friends'. I have no picture of it, but Beerbohm drew Edward VII quite often, apparently, and here is a caricature of him which for some technical reason I can't reduce the size of.
Max Beerbohm, Edward VII
A nice contrast in style to the Rossetti figure, they would have made an odd couple, as Laura and Evelyn did in physical terms. I don't know what Rose Donaldson was primed to say about Evelyn's Max Beerbohm piece, but I want to say this. Beerbohm published a superb portfolio of paintings called Rossetti and his Circle in 1922. That was during Evelyn's first year at Oxford and The Times said about the book: 'Each drawing is worth a whole sermon on ideals in art and life.' While the New York Times announced, 'Here is the final criticism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.' Evelyn definitely knew of the work as he refers to one of the paintings in his Rossetti. But when you see them en masse, as I've recently done, you see how stylish and funny they are as a set and what an influence they surely were on Waugh as he wrote his first book. Indeed, his Rossetti is more timid than the Beerbohm work. (Decline and Fall isn't.) I'll reproduce one drawing below. It takes its title from words written in pencil in tiny writing along the bottom of the image. 'Mr William Bell Scott wondering what it is those fellows seem to see in Gabriel.'
Max Beerbohm, Mr William Bell Scott wondering what it is those fellows seem to see in Gabriel, 1923
The above image emphasises Rossetti's power of influence. Evelyn Waugh was the same sort of character, emanating charm to those who met him on a good day. It's easy for me to think of the above image as representing Waugh, leaning against the pillar in his Greek ruin, a figure of gravitas to his family, two visiting Americans, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman and Graham Greene. So that must be Quentiin Davenport in the foreground, arms crossed, wondering what it is those fellows seem to see in Evelyn.
For three years after the war Max Beerbohm lived in Gloucestershire, not far from the Waughs. Evelyn got Christopher Sykes to introduce himself and Laura to Max and the meeting was a success. Some days later, Evelyn wrote to Beerbohm enclosing a copy of Brideshead Revisited. On 22 May 1947, Max wrote back. The letter is quoted by Christopher Sykes in his biography of Waugh and it certainly hits the spot:
'Dear Evelyn Waugh,
You are wrong about the 'high privilege'. It was mine, in that the Christophers brought the Evelyns to see me. And you are wrong about 'homage' too; for you are a far more gifted man than I ever was. And again you are wrong in supposing that I had not read Brideshead Revisited: I had done so at the time when it was first published, and I remember well the great outward brilliance of it and the inward strength and depth. I shall now read it again, for I am one of 'those who have the leisure to read a book for the interest of the writer's use of language'. And you are a master of language when you write for print: it is only when you write a letter or inscribe a book that you go astray! With best regards to Mrs Evelyn. Yours sincerely, Max Beerbohm.'
There's how to write a letter. Tell your correspondent he's wrong three times and still end up making him feel top of the world.
I expect Teddy felt on top of the world too after dining with the Waughs and being plied with drink by Evelyn. He doesn't say anything about the rest of the evening, or about retiring upstairs to his bedroom. But I will. For surely a highlight of a day full of highlights was to come again to the Narcissus Washstand. That is, once Bron had helped Teddy lug the thing back into the master guest room.
Looking at the washstand from the side, I suddenly wondered if there really was a tank up top - there didn't seem enough width. And I needed confirmation about the bowl itself, was there a plug-hole in it as I assumed?
Luckily there is also a washstand made by William Burges at the V&A, called the VIta Nova Washstand. Remarkably similar is it not? Burges may have had these on an assembly line such was the demand for them!
Yes, there is a tank in the top part, and a little brass tap for filling the sink from it. So what is the larger tap fitting for at the back of the sink itself in the form of a goat with horns?
There seems to be a similar second tap on the Narcissus Washstand in the form of a crouching figure. Maybe that is a hot water tap. In fact, if I remember rightly, the letter John Betjeman sent Waugh in December 1953, telling his friend he'd got it wrong about there having been a pipe connecting the tap to the basin, went on to say: 'The tap was probably cold, the mouth hot.'
Anyway, let's answer the question of whether there is or is not a plughole in the sink.
There is not. Instead there are silver fish set into the green and black marble. In the case of the Narcissus Washstand, there may be no silver fish, for wouldn't they distract from consideration of one's own reflection in the crystal clear water? I'm beginning to like these washstands. I'm beginning to think that every twenty-first century home should have one.
To empty the basin, I believe it is turned, and then the dirty water is transferred to a bucket that is kept out of sight in the lower echelons of the washstand.
This is all making sense now. But what's this detail below?
William Burges - his mark!
Back to the Narcissus Washstand, now that my face is washed with cold clean water, and the used water disposed of.
The top section is decorated with three painted panels. The first (on the left) shows Narcissus looking down at his reflection in the well at the pump. The second shows him refusing to look upon the face of a young woman, his lover perhaps. The third (on the right) shows the woman having been left to do her ablutions alone. My God it's a morality tale! Evelyn would have loved it. 'If only I'd paid less heed to my own career and more to She-Evelyn's attractions she would never have left me.'
The words written, gold on red, around the triptych, read:
'THIS IS THE MIRROR PERILLUS IN WHICH THE PROUD NARCISSUS SAW ALL HIS FAIRE FACE BRIGHT.'
Cue a photograph taken in 1928, a few days after 24-year-old Waugh's first wedding, a month or two before the publication of Decline and Fall, the accolades for which he seems to be staring off into the middle distance towards, by-passing She-Evelyn's profile.
Or even this, probably taken in the same summer of 1928.
'THIS IS THE MIRROR MERCURY BY WHICH THE PROUD HE-EVELYN SAW ALL HIS FAIRE BOOK BRIGHT.'
That marriage was doomed from the start. In his mid-twenties Evelyn Waugh was much too self-regarding an individual. By his mid-thirties, when he'd been round the block a bit, he was ready to settle down with someone else.
Time for bed, I think. A very comfortable looking four-poster awaits. I've been word-processing away all day. I'm pretty sure I'll be out like a candle the moment my face finds a cool hollow in the pillow....
"Teddy for early church," comes a voice from somewhere. I'm cosy lying where I am. Actually, I've got a stonking headache. I don't move.
"TEDDY FOR EARLY CHURCH!"
I recall from Sheehan's story that he was woken by Evelyn calling him to church through a megaphone from under his window. Shortly thereafter, Laura drove Evelyn and Teddy to church in a Ford Station wagon. Fine, but not this house guest. He's staying right here.
Eventually, I crawl out of bed to discover that there are two Victorian monstrosities in my room. And one broken sink. And a sign on the toilet that says I'm supposed to jiggle a handle until it comes back to the horizontal. I content myself, for the pressing moment, in emptying my bladder.
I move towards the red washstand only to discover that someone has been sick in it. Ditto, the gold one. Well, starting with gin and bitters in the morning, Evelyn had a hell of a lot to drink yesterday. Two gins before lunch, wine with lunch, more gin in the downstairs loo in the late afternoon, champagne before dinner, wine with dinner, brandy after dinner. No wonder he came a cropper. I'm just surprised he could remember where the Narcissus Washstand finally ended up.
Oh, hang on a minute, I had more or less the same amount to drink. And I'm not used to anything like such a cumulative quantity. I guess Evelyn wasn't necessarily in my room in the middle of the night, after all. In any case, I'd better clean these up if I want to be invited back.
How did Teddy's weekend with Waugh finish? On Sunday afternoon, Laura and Evelyn drove him to the station, Evelyn mocked Teddy's weather-beaten grey hat, claiming it was inferior to the spiked German helmet his guest had been so sniffy about, and - perhaps as a compromise - recommended the purchase of a bowler for making a decent impression on the streets of London.
Waugh said goodbye to his weekend guest on the station platform: "It's been great fun. You must write to us. I hope you can come again sometime." Teddy thought he detected a whimsical affection in Evelyn's tone.
But he never saw Waugh again. And to the two or three letters Edward R. F. Sheehan sent, came the same reply printed on a postcard: 'Mr Evelyn Waugh is abroad. His letters are not being forwarded. They will be dealt with on his return.' The postcards were addressed in Evelyn's own hand.
Together, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and Edward Sheehan's A Weekend with Waugh show what Evelyn Waugh was like at the age of 50. Subject to much self-satisfaction, yet prone to persecution mania, on the one hand; and on the other an imaginative, friendly, playful, bullying patriarch who liked to pretend he was living in the middle of the nineteenth century.
1) Edward Sheehan died aged 78 in 2008, according to his obituary in the New York Times. Which means he was 24 when he travelled to PIers Court. He went on to be a foreign journalist, covering strife in the Middle East. 'Equipped with a Jesuit education and a highly developed sense of adventure, he gravitated towards war zones, trouble spots and states dealing uncertainly with regime change.' I suspect Piers Court was good training for what was to come later. Here he writes of a trip to the Congo: 'In keeping with the festive nature of the occasion I was obliged to drink considerable quantities of lotoko, a crude corn liquor which the Congolese peasants consume indiscriminately and which sometimes drives them mad. Therefore my memory of the dances is not as clear as it might be, but my recollection is of kerosene lanterns and of immense, frenetic shadows against a whitewashed wall. The drums had been chopped out of logs, a leper was waving palm branches, and bare-breasted pubescent girls, their wire-spring pigtails sprouting in almost Gothic patterns, advanced on me in waving columns.' Not a patch on the Stinchcombe garden fête, then.
2) I'm told that the second American, Conley, was based on Joseph Crowley. He was working for an American organisation in London during the 1950s and apparently helped Evelyn Waugh with American dialogue in Officers and Gentlemen. So when Sheehan came across Conley and Waugh drinking in the downstairs toilet towards the end of the fête, Joseph may have been helping Evelyn get this exchange right:
"Don't mind Joe, Colonel. Let me fix you a drink."
"Joe isn't feeling too hot this morning," said Bum.
"I just asked what's the guy's name and what's the story. What's not too hot about that?"
"What say we all have a drink?" said Bum.
Of Trimmer's abounding weaknesses hard drinking was not one. He did not enjoy whisky before luncheon. He refused the glass thrust upon him.
"What's wrong with the guy?" asked Joe.
"Commando training," said Ian.
"Is that so? Well, I'm just a goddam newsman and I don't train. When a guy won't drink with me, I drink alone."
3) I must have made a good job of cleaning the Narcissus Washstand. A gift from John Betjeman to Evelyn Waugh in December 1953, it was sold in 1994 by Auberon Waugh for the sum of £240,000. Not a bad Waughfall, though there would have been considerable capital gains tax to pay out of the proceeds.