LAURA

I need to start this essay by going back in time from today.

Here goes: 31 January 2015... 19 June 2014... 2 January 2006...

Let's pause there for a second...

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Right, off again: 2 January 2006... 5 August 1955.

OK, that should do it. Friday, 5 August 1955. Just another visit to Piers Court, my fourth or fifth. Are you watching Nancy Spain? This is one way to get right in there.

I've taken the precaution of checking that Evelyn Waugh is not at home. He is staying at the Grand Hotel, Folkestone, where Diana Cooper took him on August the second. His diary entry for that day records that the hotel was made of Edwardian brick, very much like the Hyde Park Hotel in London, with polite old servants and a very dull kitchen. So why am I at Piers Court rather than in Folkestone? - where Evelyn is going to attempt to carry on from where he left off on his novel
Gilbert Pinfold. Because it is Laura Waugh I've come to see this time around.

She answers the door and asks me to follow her upstairs - to the second floor - to the room that had once been the manservant Ellwood's.

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Of late, Laura has been using the room as a gallery to display her sculptures. Is it because Evelyn does not like their aesthetic that they have been relegated to this remote part of the house? Does he find it jars with the Victoriana that conforms to his own taste?

I don't ask such loaded questions. Instead, I ask Laura Waugh (mother, farmer, artist): "Was this room open to the public during the fête last August?"

"No, neither Evelyn nor I wanted that. I feel quite private about my work."

Not for the first time since setting up this visit, I realise I must have said the right thing on the phone. The right thing being: "But it's
your work I'm interested in Mrs Waugh. Your husband's gets quite enough attention already."

My eye has been circulating around four distinct art works. Where to start though? Perhaps with the giant ear that's been mounted onto the wall.

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Laura's ear, Evelyn's balls. Really? Well, I don't know, but I'm thinking of a photograph of Laura, sitting beside her grandmother, that was taken not long after the birth of her first baby, of which the image below is a detail.

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On the face of it, the sculpture alludes to a domestic power struggle. Who wears the trousers in the Waugh household? Is Laura really in control, as the ear sculpture suggests? Or is that simply wishful thinking on the artist's part? But I feel I'm searching for meaning too soon. I need to look harder at the work before even trying to form a conclusion.

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Laura tells me that the flesh of the ear is made of
papier maché stuck to chicken wire and painted with acrylic. I can see that the scrotum is made of plastic and looks like it has been manufactured. Ah yes, these are not a casting of Evelyn Waugh's bollocks then, but truck nuts bought from a garage or shop.

"I hung a pair from the rear bumper of our car and liked them so much that I knew I wanted to include them in a piece of work."

"What does Evelyn think of the motif?"

"He refers to the piece as
The Heygates. I think he has in mind my cousin's rather large ear and John Heygate's testicles."

"What is the actual title of the piece?"

"'
No One on the Corner Has Swagger Like Us'."

I smile. Then I think. Ah, so the image could be referring to the fact that together Evelyn and Laura make a strong team. Laura's ability to listen, plus Evelyn's courage when he has a pen in his hand, equals swagger. I point to one ball and say to Laura, "
Scoop." Laura points to the other and says, "Brideshead Revisited". I hardly need to add that these are the two books that Evelyn dedicated to his second wife.

I move a few yards until I'm standing in front of a second sculpture. It's called
Men Grow Cold as Girls Grow Old, and We All Lose Our Charms in the End.

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Has this woman, seen standing on a plinth, lost her charms? Not for me she hasn't, the self-deprecating wisdom contained in the title ensures that. Besides, I have a soft spot for the sight of her sock rolled halfway down her leg.

I take this piece to be a self-portrait by Laura Waugh. Perhaps I just say that because of a couple of photographs I know of Laura wearing a head scarf.

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Laura Herbert was just 17 when Evelyn Waugh first met her in 1933. He described her then as a white mouse. She was timid, a virgin and a Catholic, so an ideal partner for Waugh who'd had enough of feisty independent-minded women of his own age. Evelyn did admire her personality and her looks, but the relationship was hardly one of equals. He, at 30, was by then a famous author, accomplished socialiser and experienced traveller.

Their relationship proceeded slowly and, hopefully, Laura lived a little in 1934, 1935 and 1936. At least she got away from home (Pixton) and to RADA where she seems to have been an (not particularly talented) aspiring actress. In 1935, in a letter to Mary Lygon, Evelyn described Laura as quiet and astute. Anyway, they married in 1937, when she was still just twenty, and they bought Piers Court with her family's money. And then what? And then men grow cold as women get old and we all lose our charms in the end.

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How quickly does a young woman lose her youth? In Laura's case, it must have seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. She was pregnant every year from 1937 to 1946. In the 120 months that constituted ten of her very best years, she was pregnant for 54 of them, I have gone to the trouble of calculating.

When Laura was 30 she had a break, for a couple of years, but was pregnant again once more in 1949/50.

This next piece, a grouping on the floor, is
Untitled. But I find myself giving a name to each of the fingers and a face to each of the finger nails: Teresa, Bron, Meg, Hatty, James and Septimus.

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But why the raised finger? A gesture of defiance aimed at each of her children, or to the man who fathered them? I am certainly not going to ask Laura any such personal question. Indeed, I can't ask Laura anything at all as she has slipped off and is no doubt downstairs, overseeing the next family meal.

Instead, I move on to the last of the sculptures in the room. Again I take it to be a self-portrait. Though the breasts are unrealistically portrayed, being long and sausage-like.

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The title of the piece is
Slattenplatten. And after that single mysterious word on a card there is the following sub-title printed within brackets. '(She is a practical woman. When she is running through the forest she places her long breasts over her shoulders so her daughters can breast feed while on her back. That saves a lot of time. People say that she is very ugly without even meeting her.)'

To my mind, the work speaks of female perseverance and vulnerability. It may also allude to Laura's passion for cows, in particular their udders. In 1947, she wrote in a letter to her sister that she had just paid £108 for a Guernsey cow. However, when Laura and her cowman got the beast home it was found to be only giving a gallon of milk a day when the creature had been sold as producing four gallons. The cow, Laura wrote, had a magnificent udder,
'not at all pendulous but silky and rectangular and firm. Just like all the pictures of perfect udders you see in farming papers.'

The letter to Gabriel, which Alexander Waugh quotes in
Fathers and Sons, goes on: 'My life at the moment is hellish. I motor every week into Bristol for Bron to do eye exercises which take half an hour - all the rest of the week I seem to spend shopping.'

Again, I'm reminded of a photograph. Frantically busy Laura...

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However, that was taken a few years later, when her second child, Bron, had accidentally shot himself with a machine gun while out on patrol with his brigade in Cyprus. As Selina Hastings tells us, Bron's life was despaired of when Laura flew out the day after the accident to be at the side of his hospital bed. She stayed at Government House in NIcosia, visiting the ward twice a day, and gradually his condition improved. In
Will This Do, Auberon Waugh quotes from her letters home to Evelyn:

June 11, 1958
'My darling, I am staying with the Foots - I have met neither yet. Please write and tell me how a lady behaves in Government House when she is exceedingly shabby and fat and has no clothes?'

A couple of days later, Laura wrote to Evelyn telling him that their son was fully conscious, as he had been throughout his ordeal. He was finding it hard to speak and was being encouraged to save all his energy for breathing and drinking. Laura would visit twice a day, fifteen minutes at a time, so as not to overstimulate him. Bron had taken a bad turn in the night and Laura had almost been sent for. However, in the morning, his breathing seemed very much better, almost silent. Laura ended by telling Evelyn that she had bought herself a dress because she'd realised she could not continue without one.

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Three days later, Laura had excellent news. Bron's surgeon was of the opinion that he would be off the danger list in a few days. She further reported that he'd slept well the night before and had 'stopped PInfolding'. Which I take to be a reference to hallucinations. Laura then went on to ask Evelyn if he could deal with a couple of farm jobs. Laura asked him to tell her cowman to give one spoonful of cake daily to Magdalene and Desdemona that week, two spoonfuls from the beginning of the next. Also, if Lucy was still giving 40lbs of milk per day she was to be artificially inseminated the next time the Aberdeen Angus bull was around. However, if Lucy was yielding less milk than that, she wasn't to be serviced at all.

On June 25th, Laura wrote again to Evelyn, telling him that Bron was still having his lung cavity drained every other day, which was 'a painful and beastly operation'. She finished her letter by writing that she was longing to 'see you all'. I wonder if she meant her children or her cows. I expect she meant both. "Teresa, Meg, Hatty, James, Septimus, Magdalene, Desdemona and Lucy: - Mummy's coming home!"

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Why wasn't Evelyn over in Cyprus at his son's bedside? For no very good reason, according to Alexander Waugh, his grandson. Evelyn remained at home, scratching his balls. Sorry, I mean writing about Ronald Knox. He did pray for his son's recovery and urged others to do the same. But he didn't travel to Cyprus, and it seems he hardly wrote. Alexander Waugh quotes six letters written by Laura from June 11 to June 21, each of which urges Evelyn to write to Bron and to urge everyone else in the family to write as well. She kept repeating that their son longed for letters. All Bron could think about was home and the family; he yearned for news to take his mind off his present circumstances.

Eventually, Evelyn wrote once and so did Meg. But Laura wasn't happy with a total of two incoming letters. This was such a big issue to Bron and such a disappointment for him. Reading Laura's letters, you can sense her own pain as she tries, single-handed it seems, to deal with her oldest son's misery. Were her messages home falling on a big deaf ear?

But Laura couldn't have been thinking of that near-fatal shooting incident when making
Slattenpatten, because the accident was in 1958, by which time the Waughs were living in Combe Florey, Somerset. Could the same feelings of hyperactive motherhood have been engendered by something that happened in July 1955? The same turmoil-prone son, Bron, was arrested while intoxicated. The fifteen-year-old had been served in a pub in Gloucester and was arrested on a train with a partially drunk bottle of gin in his possession. The next day Laura and Evelyn went to the juvenile court at Stroud where they saw Bron plead guilty to the charges brought against him and apologise to the judge.

What can one say? As a parent, you have to have eyes in the back of your head in order to look out for your children. Better still for the mother to have teats to the rear as well. On which - having realised the error of their ways - the kids could suckle like calves.

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So there we have it. Laura Waugh races into her forties, desperately trying to deal with it all. Well, no she wouldn't be forty until June, 1956. She races away from her prime, then. A prime that was just a memory by summer 1955, if it had ever really existed at all.

She would get a reward of sorts though, once she was dead. Bron writes fondly of his mother in
Will This Do. Alexander writes tenderly and respectfully of his grandmother in Fathers and Sons. Actually, Bron remembers her chasing him, when he was four-years-old, from Weir Home Farm to the front door of Pixton, a distance of a mile and a quarter, constantly whipping his legs with nettles in order to make him run faster.

Those weren't nettles, Bron, lad. Those were your mother's breasts. Offering the succour that your father could never have provided for you at that age, nor for many years to come. Though he did get there in the end as you'll see from the
next page.




Notes
1. The sculptures referred to above are actually by Fanny Wickström. I saw her sculptures at the Glue Factory on Burns Street in Glasgow on the occasion of the Glasgow MFA Degree Show in June 2014 and was immediately taken with them. I think her work shares some of the concerns of David Shrigley, in that one feels both sorry for the abject creatures portrayed and a degree of empathy with them, lost as they appear to be in the human condition. Within a few minutes of first seeing the work, I was thinking of the sculptures as a way into the mindset of Laura Waugh, and I hope that's not insulting to the memory/reality of her or to the intentions of Fanny Wickström.

2. The second sculpture featured above, which I've called
Men Grow Cold as Girls Grow Old, and We All Lose Our Charms in the End is actually called Fances. The title I've used was that of a fifth piece that I didn't photograph at the time. I wish I had now.