I am very grateful to one very sharp-eyed and well-informed reader for pointing this out to me.

For sale: woman’s labour of love

“A PIECE of embroidery worked by notorious ”bright young thing” Elvira Barney, who was accused of murdering her lover in the thirties, will be sold at auction later this week.

Elvira Dolores Mullens, who became Barney when she married American

entertainer John Barney in 1928, was reputed to have inspired Noel

Coward’s Elvira in Blithe Spirit. She was the daughter of Sir John and

Lady Mullens.

With her marriage on the rocks, she continued on a round of parties,

drinking, dancing and drugs. She lived with dress designer Michael

Stephen for about a year before his murder.

He was found dead in her arms, a gunshot wound in his chest, in May,

1932. In a surprise verdict Elvira was found not guilty. Four years

later, at the age of 30, she died in Paris after a cerebral hameorrhage

caused by excessive alcohol. The embroidered sampler will be auctioned

in Edinburgh on Friday.”

Here is the article plus photograph

Glasgow Herald 1989

Now, even allowing for the depredations of time and the poor quality of the photograph, this does not appear to me as a glowing example of needlecraft. However, it is , I think, quite revealing  with regards Elvira’s character.

In the Hodgkin portrait there is what looks like a needlework sampler, which adds weight to the notion that the background  collage is meant to represent Elvira’s tastes and hobbies.

If the execution is less than the stunning, the style, content and attitude in Elvira’s “work” tell us quite a bit. It is a distinctly modern (perhaps even Modernist) take on a most traditional form of, largely, female creativity. The imagery – musicians, dancers, the telephone and the phonograph – is all very of the moment, very BYP and surely reflects Elvira’s life at the time..

I am struck by the fact that there are are six portraits included – I wonder who they are?

Although one could easily interpret this as a self-pitying and self-justificatory endeavour, I rather think it is intended as an exercise in wit. The traditional “No Place Like Home” motto is replaced by the more cynical and punning “What Is Home Without Another?”. This was a much used phrase, whose popularity had been spread by an influential book of aphorisms, which had, very heavy-handedly, teased Victorian  homilies to home and hearth.

see The Complete Cynic

The poem is the opening verse of A.P. Herbert’s  “SONG FOR A GENTLEMAN ON A COMMON OCCASION”, subtitled  “OR, TACTFUL REPLY TO A NEW LOVE ON HER REFERRING INDELICATELY TO SOME OF THE OLD”. This was from “She-Shanties“, an inexplicably popular book of light verse from 1926 (and one much re-printed in the late 20s).

“AH, call me not inconstant, who
Am constantly in love with two.
We know the frowns of Heaven fall
On him that never loves at all,
From which it follows, does it not ?
That he is best who loves a lot;
And so, my love, look not so blue—
I am too good to be quite true.”

Elvira has changed the “he” to a “she”. Can we read this as Elvira’s statement of her rights to sexual freedom, a claiming by one woman for that promiscuity generally reserved for men? I doubt that she would have considered it in such a high-minded fashion, but, in teasing form, the intention does seem to be along those lines. Viva King says that Elvira’s favourite slogan was “Always in Love, My Dear.” and this is in accordance with that declaration.Of course, bearing in mind what we know of Elvira and given that the “portraits” in the work include men and women, we could see this as a coded gesture towards bisexuality, but I leave that to those of you more at ease with psychoanalytical criticism to speculate upon.

The date is also significant. “Finished – Thank Heaven – April 1929”. This roughly coincides with the return of John Barney to America and the de facto end of Elvira’s unhappy marriage. A wry, comic valete? Why not?

I’d love to see a better reproduction of this sampler. Who brought it to auction, who purchased it, where is it now? While wondering about this (and hoping there are more such knocking around somewhere) I am rather happy that Elvira, despite all her other faults, was not a stranger to playfulness and showed evidence of a mischievous, if not too subtle, sense of humour.

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