Many of the people in Elvira’s social orbit found themselves commemorated, in thinly disguised fictional form, in various strands of what Julian McLaren Ross called “the party novel” . The were memorably portrayed as comic or grotesque (by Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Beverley Nichols)) or exotic and vaguely sinister (the writings of Jocelyn Brooke).Most commonly they were used as symbols of a shallow modernity – amusing but essential superficial. Rarely were they drawn with sympathy or approval.
One late exception is Francis Wyndham’s “Mrs. Henderson and Other Stories” (1985). In the novelette-length “Ursula” Wyndham ( best known for resuscitating Jean Rhys’ career in the 1960s) writes with deep affection and humour about his aunt, the remarkable Olivia Wyndham. It is pretty much straight biography, the events and personalities accord absolutely with what we know of Olivia/Ursula’s life and loves. It is a nostalgic and delightful read and offers a welcome alternative to the more acidic view of “Bright Young Bohemia” that dominates English literature.
Francis Wyndham by Lucian Freud 1993
One could dismiss it as the rose-tinted view of a star-struck nephew remembering an eccentric aunt (indeed that is part of the story’s charm.). However, Francis Wyndham’s fondness for his aunt does seem to have been shared by many others. Although she engaged in all the excesses associated with her set, Olivia was genuinely and widely liked – not something that can be said with confidence about the majority of Elvira’s cocktail guests.
By the time of her appearance at 21 William Mews, Olivia Wyndham had been at the heart of The Bright Young People phenomenon for many years. According to Sir Frederick Ashton she was the real “instigator” of the whole scene. As Freddie Ashton had been part of the Edmund Burra/Barbara Ker-Seymer gang, he was well situated to comment. Olivia appears in most narratives of the period, as the hostess who handed out cocaine at Chelsea parties or as the guest in the most outlandish of costumes. Most importantly, she brings together many of the different cliques that together constitute the Bright Young People . From an aristocratic background, part of the London lesbian sub-culture, heavy drinker, drug-taker, photographer and archetypal Chelsea Bohemian – she is in all the right places, doing the “right” things at the right time.
Olivia in Sailor Suit
Born in 1898 (as Olivia Madeline Grace Mary Wyndham) into a wealthy family of often aesthetically-inclined aristocrats, she spent much of her childhood in various country houses that have achieved a fame of their own. Her grandparents lived at Clouds near East Knoyle in Wiltshire. Designed by Philip Webb with decor by William Morris and Burne Jones, it was a centre for intellectual and artistic life in the late Victorian era and the spiritual home of the influential patrons of the Arts, “The Souls” - as high-minded as they were high-born.
The Wyndham Sisters (Olivia’s Aunts) by John Singer Sargent (1897)
The 1911 census finds her at Wilsford, staying with her cousins, the young David and Stephen Tennant. David, as owner of the Gargoyle and husband of Hermione Baddely, was soon to be among the best known figures on the Bright Young scene, outshone only by the iconic Stephen Tennant. Stephen, after a few years as the brightest light on the London circuit, retired to Wilsford and spent the rest of his days there as a semi-recluse.
Wilsford Manor and Stephen Tennant
So Olivia was well connected, socially and artistically. When the post-War party craze began she was in the vanguard.Like many women of her background she had worked, during the War, for the VAD in France. Like many she was not prepared to return home and “settle down”. Having tried her hand at a Dance School, she moved into the newly-fashionable area of photography.At the same time she was rapidly becoming known as the “Queen of the London Lesbian scene” – or at least its younger, brasher twenties’ incarnation.
With Curtis Moffat she launched the M Studio in Fitzroy Square. Moffat was a wealthy American, married to the legendary Iris Tree. He had been studying photography in Paris with Man Ray and thus Wyndham and Moffat can be credited with introducing photographic surrealism to English audiences.In modified form, through the work of Cecil Beaton, Madame Yevonde and Barbara Ker-Seymer, this became one of the most distinctive styles of portraiture between the wars. Both Moffat and Wyndham used their considerable social connections to entice sitters to showcase the “new” look.Nancy Cunard (close to Tree and later an important figure in Wyndham’s life), The Sitwells, Tallulah Bankhead and Cecil Beaton were all regular subjects.
It is likely that Olivia’s contribution was more as a manager and publicist than as practitioner. She was not, according to her peers, a great talent. Depending on who you read, she was either not sufficiently technically proficient or too permanently drunk to cope with the demands of the camera. She was responsible, though, for a series of unique “portraits”. These are of Lord Tod Wadley, the doll that featured so centrally in the life of Joe Carstairs. see
Wadley was the star of a specially commissioned album – pictured on holiday,behind the wheels of a car and, most appropriately, at a cocktail party.
Wadley and Carstairs
Wyndham was by this time located at 19 King’s Road. This address became the main meeting ground for Olivia’s lesbian friends and a number of young artists and dancers associated with Chelsea Art College. Ruth Baldwin was a frequent (and occasionally violent) visitor.Marty Mann moved in in 1930 on her arrival from America (she and Olivia had met in Harlem).It was Edward Burra’s favourite London resting place and his circle of friends became Olivia’s. These included Sophie Fedorovich, Billy Chappell, Frederick Ashton, Bumbles Dawson and, most importantly, Barbara Ker-Seymer.
It is reasonably safe to say that Olivia introduced Ker-Seymer to the joys of both lesbianism and professional photography. By 1929, part of 19 King’s Road had been turned into a studio. Ker-Seymer proved as technically adept as Olivia had been inept and was to become an integral, if now somewhat overlooked, figure in thirties portraiture, often collaborating with artists within their social circle such as John Banting and Sophie Fedorovitch.
In the meantime Olivia was gaining notoriety as the hostess who offered her guests drugs along with cocktails and it is clear that by the late twenties heavy drug use was being added to an already prodigious appetite for drink. Cocaine first and then, probably through her friendship with Ruth Baldwin or Brenda Dean Paul, various opiates. Olivia Wyndham was for the rest of her reasonably long life, given the circumstances, an addict.
None of which seemed to affect her popularity. In fact nothing about her, including rampant promiscuity and the odd punch-up, stopped people liking Olivia. She was, nearly everyone said, “generous”. Not just with money, in fact she was by no means wealthy thanks to a cock-up over inheritance, but with her time and friendship. Quick-tempered and full of flaws herself, she was able to overlook failings in others. This was particularly noted during her long residence in Harlem (see forthcoming post) but it may explain her ease in the company of the impossibly temperamental Elvira Barney.
Olivia knew Elvira through the Chelsea party scene and through mutual acquaintances such as Napper Dean Paul and Hugh Wade. They were not, as far as is known, close friends but they were at least sexually and alcoholically compatible. Olivia’s appearance at the cocktail party on May 30th 1932 was undoubtedly more down to the fact that Brian Howard, Ruth Baldwin and probably Marty Mann were going, but who knows? The overlapping sub-cultures that made up Elvira’s world and those of Olivia were markedly similar. There is also the distinct possibility that the acquisition of drugs might have been a reason to call on Elvira prior to the party at Ruth’s flat – and this may have applied to more people in the room than Olivia.
Olivia would have been the oldest person there (34 or 35). Like Elvira, her lifestyle was beginning to tell in her face. She too looked older than her years but, unlike Elvira, had ceased to care about her appearance. She was also now a visitor from abroad – the night was for Olivia one of reunions. She was not interviewed about the case and may have been back in Harlem by the time of the trial. It is unlikely that she would have had anything to say about Elvira and Michael that other witnesses had not expressed but she would have had good reasons of her own not to come forward.
Her career in England was now over and she is remembered, if at all, as the woman who dressed up as Minerva at Brian Howard’s fairly disastrous Great Urban Dionysia Ball or the person with live snakes coiled around her at Norman Hartnell’s Circus Party. But she was more than a bit-part player in the Bright Young saga. She typifies much that is most characteristic of the era and, though no great artist hersel,f she was instrumental in promoting the careers of others. She also, unusually in this set, appears to have been devoid of snobbishness. These qualities would further show themselves during her long sojourn in America.