;oisoned legacy of the Bloomsbury group

On my first day at grammar school, as I got off the bus, I noticed an ancient Rolls-Royce driving up.  Behind the wheel was a singularly arty-looking woman and beside her sat a fair-haired eleven year old girl.

The woman was artist and writer Angelica Garnett and the girl was Amaryllis, her oldest daughter.

Angelica, who has just died aged 93, was intricately connected to the Bloomsbury Group.  The illegitimate daughter of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and niece of Virginia Woolf, she was only a few days old when novelist David Garnett, 26 years her senior and her father’s gay lover, announced that one day he would marry her.

Nobody took much notice at the time but he duly made her his second wife and their relationship, which produced four daughters in three years, has passed into gasp-making legend.

Back in 1955, when Amaryllis and I first met and became classmates and friends, none of this was known, at least not to the general public.  Even so, it was immediately apparent that Amaryllis was very different from the rest of us and not only in the matter of her unusual name.

For one thing, both of her parents, unlike any of ours, came from a long line of illustrious high-achievers.  One day our English teacher held up a book, Aspects of Love, to the class. “This novel,” he proudly announced, “is by Amaryllis’s father, David Garnett.” The rest of the class stared as Amaryllis squirmed in embarrassment, but she was going to have to get used to it, as there was plenty more to come.  Nobody else in the school had a famous author for a father.

In the school library, there was a row of big red books by Russian authors, all translated by Constance Garnett. I picked one up and asked Amaryllis, ‘any relation? “Yes,” she said “she was my grandmother.” Constance Garnett, mother of David, translated no less than 80 volumes of Russian literature into English and her husband, publisher’s reader Edward Garnett, discovered many authors of genius, among them D.H. Lawrence.

My own name at the time was Garrett, only one letter removed from Garnett, but otherwise we could not have been more different.  For a girl from a working-class background where people could hardly read and write, to be friends with Amaryllis was a high privilege indeed.  She began to introduce me into a literary, artistic and free-thinking milieu such as I could never have imagined,

Highly gifted at art and English, she was precociously well read and already spoke fluent French, the result of many holidays spent in France. She called her parents by their first names, Angelica and Bunny, David Garnett’s lifelong nickname and her Siamese cats, Murasaki and Genji, were worlds away from our own mongrel moggies.

Although initially shy and reserved, Amaryllis could be fun and mischievous when she relaxed and she had an anarchic streak, soon breaking school rules with abandon and customizing the strict uniform. Because she was a Garnett, the teachers indulged her, while trying not to.

In our second year, she was joined by her younger sister Henrietta, a very different character. Henrietta was dark-haired, flamboyant and sexy, looking very much like her grandfather, the handsome Duncan Grant.  Again, she spoke fluent French with a proper French accent and was gifted at art and literature.

The following year, two more Garnetts came, the twins Nerissa and Frances, known as Fanny, meaning that by now the vintage Rolls was very full indeed.  The twins were total tomboys without a vestige of femininity.  They minute they got home they would change out of their school uniform into trousers.  When I asked Amaryllis what they wore to parties, she said, “They have masses and masses of new trousers.”  No girl in those days ever wore trousers or jeans to parties but being Garnetts, they were given special dispensation in many areas.

The twins were also into martial arts, then very new in the West and Nerissa once broke a school record for throwing the discus, the only Garnett who showed a vestige of sporting prowess.  Because the twins had each other, they had less need to make friends with other girls, and kept much to themselves.

Between them, the four Garnetts soon started filling up every issue of the school magazine with their artwork, stories, poems and philosophical musings.  Their work was of a particularly high standard for schoolgirls and the rest of us could not compete.  They took star roles in school plays, won poetry-reading competitions with their posh accents, played instruments in the school orchestra and seemed dazzlingly talented and self-assured in every artistic sphere.

As we got older, Amaryllis, Henrietta, myself and another friend called Vicky, bonded closely and did everything together, as an inseparable foursome.  For Vicky and me, the Garnetts provided an entrée into an exotic, bohemian and unconventional world that included such daring departures from the norm as black jumpers and atheism.

At a school ballet trip, Amaryllis turned up looking very adult in a tight black jumper. Immediately, I asked my mother if I could have one just like it and although she demurred, I got my way.  Then Amaryllis announced, shockingly, that she was an atheist and did not believe in God.  This was at a time when everybody went to church on Sunday.  After Assembly one morning, a teacher came up to her and said: “Why weren’t you praying in Assembly? Why did you not have your head down and your eyes closed?”  Quick as a flash and not remotely contrite, Amaryllis answered: “How do you know I wasn’t praying?”

Angelica, who had what we would now call a boho-chic, or grunge, appearance, ungroomed but stylish and colourful, often invited her daughters’ friends over during the holidays so finally, I was able to see their home for myself.

Again, it was a revelation. Hilton Hall, in the village of Hilton just outside St Ives, was a detached early Georgian manor house set back from the road, and film-set arty inside. Mostly there were no carpets but dark-stained wooden floorboards and Aubusson and Kelim rugs on the floor.  Only the living room, stacked floor to ceiling with books, had a pale-green fitted carpet.

Paintings were everywhere on the walls, by Grant and Bell of course, but there were also originals by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso.  The huge stone-flagged kitchen had a dishwasher – the first I had ever come across – and contained then unknown foods, at least to me, such as caviar and yoghurt. There were wine racks filled with French wine and all round the house, lots of musical instruments: violins, cellos, pianos, harpsichords.

Outside there was a farm where David Garnett kept a small herd of Jersey cows, an outdoor swimming pool, a dovehouse – where Angelica painted – and an orchard.  It was a magic garden such as I had never seen before and in the garden were sculptures by Stephen Tomlin, who I had never heard of at the time but who became noted for his heads of Bloomsbury Group members such as Virginia Woolf.

I was very nervous and shy when confronted with all this high culture and knew I could never invite any of the Garnetts back to my own bleak suburban home which contained no literature or art of any kind.  Here was the ultimate contrast; the Garnetts, whose literary and artistic heritage went back centuries and my own, where people barely survived. Instead of going to Cambridge and translating Russian literature, my own grandmother had gone out to service at 12.

Yet we became ever closer, bunking off school to go to exhibitions and London art galleries and – the final touch of glamour -  hanging out in Vanessa Bell’s London flat.  We went on Ban the Bomb marches, where we sat next to philosopher Bertrand Russell, then aged about 90 and a huge icon for youth of the time.  Naturally, he had been a close friend of David Garnett, who had sent his son Richard, from his first marriage, to Russell’s progressive school, Beacon Hill.

The Garnetts were exotic ingredients in my mundane world and it seemed certain they would, as adults, make a significant mark in the wider world.

So did it come to pass?

Amaryllis left school at 16, by now a tall, elegant teenager, to go to Cranborne Chase, an exclusive girls’ boarding school.  Her fees were paid by a rich American benefactor who was an early Bloomsbury groupie, so our tight little circle was diminished.  We stayed in touch though, meeting up in the holidays, going to the cinema and punting on the river Cam.  She then went to drama school and suddenly became very actressy, calling everybody ‘darling’ in best Thespian style.

By now, Henrietta was attracting boys at every turn and was secretly seeing one special boyfriend in London.  He was Burgo Partridge, 10 years older and the only son of diarist Frances Partridge, the sister of David Garnett’s first wife Ray.  So again, there was almost uncomfortably close intertwining.  Aged 17, she rang me up one day and said: “You’ll never guess in a million years!”  I guessed immediately: “You’re getting married.”

I was right.  A wedding was hastily arranged in December 1962, just as her own parents’ marriage was finally falling apart. The following August, aged just 18, she had a baby, by Caesarean section.  Only three weeks later her husband dropped down dead in front of her, of a totally unexpected heart attack.  It took Henrietta several years, and several more husbands, to get back on track.  She spent the years following Burgo’s death as a wild gipsyish bohemian, while others looked after Sophie, her daughter.  She never had any more children and in the event, was the only one of the four girls to marry or reproduce.

Amaryllis duly became an actress and was championed by Harold Pinter, who found her a small part in his film adaptation of The Go-Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates and directed by Joseph Losey. Soon after that, her life disintegrated badly and she was living on a houseboat on the Thames, having become wildly extravagant with no visible means of support.  She drowned in the Thames, aged just 29, in a ghastly echo of her great-aunt Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning.

As for the tomboyish twins, their great artistic promise was never fulfilled, either. Nerissa won a scholarship to the Slade and experimented with many art forms, yet never really found a niche.  The last time I saw her, she had just left Findhorn, the alternative community in Scotland where she had spent several years living in a caravan, studying spiritual movements.  By then, Aspects of Love had been made into a musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the three remaining Garnett girls found themselves rich. Nerissa died in 2004.  Fanny became a farmer in France, fading right out of the limelight, by her own choice.  Perhaps all that heritage was just too heavy for her.

Henrietta, who finally found her feet and became an acclaimed biographer, now also gives amusing, entertaining public talks about her family.  Unsentimental about her background, she acknowledges that the tremendous gifts and privileges have been mixed with almost equal tragedy.

Yes a high price was exacted for the great achievements of your family but, Garnett girls, I am proud and privileged to have known you.  You will never know how greatly you enhanced my teenage years.


Henrietta Garnett’s biography of the pre-Raphaelite women, Wives and Stunners, will be published by Macmillan in August. 




Daily Mail - May 2012