Tag Archive: Barbara Ker-Seymer


Edward Burra

The recent Culture Show documentary on Edward Burra has been uploaded on to Youtube (not by me). There is not much on his “Chelsea” friends unfortunately but the stuff about music and Burra’s fondness for France and Harlem is interesting. The paintings are just wonderful.

I have no evidence that Burra knew Elvira but his comments on two of her Cocktail Party guests (Olivia Wyndham and Ruth Baldwin) provide the liveliest and wittiest portrayal of them and their way of life that we have. These can be found in Edward Burra: 20th Century Eye‘ by Jane Stevenson or, the increasingly expensive, “Well, Dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra” edited by Billy Chappell.

Burra “Portrait of William Chappell”

Burra’s close friend Barbara Ker-Seymer knew quite a few of the named guests very well indeed -Brian Howard, Toni Altmann, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy as well as Ruth and Olivia.If she was around that Monday, it is not unfeasible that she was there herself or maybe at the party/viewing at Mulberry Walk (which is where the above all went afterwards).

Ker-Seymer and Burra would have also known some of the “unnamed” candidates .One witness claimed that Joe Carstairs was there (she denied it) and I have a feeling Marty Mann might have accompanied Olivia Wyndham – they had earlier travelled from New York together.

Anyway many of Burra’s passions, for Jazz and Black Culture, for Parisian nightlife – all of which the programme touches upon, were shared by Elvira and much of the “set”, so it’s worth a look for that, at least.

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Clubs – Ham Yard

Ham Yard, opposite Great Windmill Street in Soho, holds a special place in the history of English club culture. Most famously, it housed the Scene club in the early sixties. The Scene was for many of that generation the Mod club, much written about and still fondly remembered.To a Drinamyl-driven audience, Guy Stevens, the DJ, played the mix of Soul and R&B  that comprised the essential Mod soundtrack and, through his involvement with Sue records (UK),  acted as proselytiser and publicist for the music.  Along with the Flamingo on Wardour Street (blacker, jazzier) and Le Duce on D’Arblay Street (gayer, more Motown-oriented), the Scene was one of those essential spaces that permanently altered the musical and social landscape of post-War England.

However, for all the much vaunted newness of the Modernist movement, the Scene was actually just another phase in Ham Yard’s long connection with clubs, drugs and nocturnal subcultures.In the 1950s, The Scene had been Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club. Although Trad Jazz gets pretty short shrift in most studies of “youth culture”, it was important (Skiffle and the Blues revival came out of it) and Cy Laurie’s club was as Bohemian and free-spirited as you could wish for. This was partly because it was very dancefloor-oriented and partly because of its popularity with St. Martin’s College Art Students. The police saw fit to raid it on a number of occasions.

For more on Cy Laurie see Cy Laurie’s Club

The story goes that both the Scene and Cy Laurie’s were on the same site as the Hambone, which takes us back to Elvira’s era. Here the street numbers become rather confusing.  Ham Yard is always given as the site of the Scene and very often for Cy Laurie’s, but the given address for both clubs was 41 Great Windmill Street , which as Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms and Mac’s Dancing Academy had been around since the 1920s. Curiously, London’s early Modern Jazz venue, Club 11, was in Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms (briefly Moffats Club). Club 11′s existence was short-lived (1948-50)  due to a much-publicised drugs raid. I assume it was the same space but jazz histories give the address as 44 Great Windmill Street. The whole area is so small and a bomb in World War 2 had damaged one side of Ham Yard so we are probably talking about one place –  but it is all a little puzzling.

Club 11 1949

Things get even more complicated when we get back to the 20s and 30s. Ham Yard was apparently  home, simultaneously, to at least ten (!) clubs. Apart from the Hambone (15 Ham Yard) and the Blue Lantern (14), these included  Freddy Ford’s New Avenue, The Pavilion,The Top Hat, Mother Hubbard’s,The Morgue, The Oak ( according to James Laver) The Last Club and the Windmill (according to Horace Wyndham) and, according to one account, Douglas Byng’s The Kinde Dragon.All of these places had live music and most were open all night. Heretical as it might seem to die-hard Mods, the true golden age of Ham Yard night-life appears to be sometime around 1929-1932 – the era of Elvira’s party set.

The Hambone was the earliest, most prestigious and in many ways the  most salubrious of these clubs. Founded in 1922 as a Bohemian cabaret club, its original membership was almost exclusively drawn from the Arts. Founder member and presiding figure was, inevitably, Augustus John. I posted earlier that Freddy Ford was the owner but I don’t now think that is the case – at least not in the club’s halcyon years. An early review characterised it as “a futurist den”  and instead of the usual “Dancing and Cabaret” it advertised itself as offering “Special Artistic Entertainment”.  Dancing there certainly was though, Radclyffe Hall was fond of stepping out there, which must have surely been something to behold. In the latter half of the decade it had fallen into line and had a regular band, Alec Alexander played there before becoming long-term resident at the Gargoyle. Ethel Mannin also danced there and recalled the place as “chronically Bohemian”. She found it hard to believe that the small and densely packed dance-floor had allowed for anything as expansive as the Charleston.

Ethel Mannin

By the mid-twenties the Hambone started to attract writers and journalists as well as a group of heartier, sporty types. Elvira’s fiance, Charles Graves straddled all three categories and it was on his return from a late night drink at the Hambone that the incident with Elvira arrived with the gun (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/charles-graves/ ) . The De Haviland Aero Club held its annual dinner there and hack-novelist Peter Cheyney made it the base from which he observed the Mayfair-Soho connections that feature in many of his books. The club was now officially “Ye Olde Hambone Club” with suitably retro-furnishings (a mock-Adam fireplace) but it remained known as the Hambone. It still valued its original clientele as, unusually it had a graded membership policy.Artists, authors and journalists paid One Guinea, actors Two and business men Three. There was an entrance fee as well but this was cheap compared to  High Society haunts like The Embassy or Uncles, where membership was Eight Guineas plus entrance fee.

The Blue Lantern opened next door in the late twenties (1929?), perhaps to woo some of the younger element away from what was in danger of  becoming a rather masculine venue. It seems to have pitched itself as quintessenially “Modern”, being one of the first clubs to install Thonet steel tubular furniture. It also very quickly got a reputation as catering for the “more dissolute” elements among the Bright Young People. This meant, as it usually did, Elizabeth Ponsonby and her pals, one of whom was the club’s pianist, Hugh Wade.

Breur Thonet Chair 1929

Barbara Ker-Seymer, Freddie Ashton and Billy Chappell were regulars, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy seems to have spent part of most nights there, Tom Driberg loved the place (incidentally,he too refers to Hugh Wade as Hetty Wade), Jocelyn Brooke, Brian Howard, Terence Skeffington-Smythe and Arthur Jeffress were all members. Elvira and Michael were often seen there. Hutch’s lover  Zena  Naylor brought along Evelyn Waugh one night (“very squalid” he wrote in his diary) and Anthony Powell met Tallulah Bankhead (briefly) at the club. All in all, it does seem to merit the status that D.J.Taylor gives it in “Bright Young People” as one of the key hedonistic spaces of the era.Furthermore, given the inter-changeability of the clientele, I’m sure the Blue Angel was in some way an offshoot of the Blue Lantern.

But what of the other establishments in Ham Yard?

Firstly, although Roger Gardiner recalls seeing Hutch perform at the “Kind Dragon in Ham Yard”, this club, run by Douglas Byng, was almost certainly in St Martin’s Lane.” – I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a guest spot at the Blue Lantern he was referring to. Like Hutch, Byng was a favourite of the BYP and may also have had a residency or played in Ham Yard.

But probably not at The Morgue.  According to Jerry White, this was a venture run by “Dalton Murray” after Murray’s club on Beak Street closed temporarily. The owners of Murray’s were Percival “Pops” Murray and Jack May so I’m not sure about “Dalton”. Kate Meyrick’s first club was Dalton’s on Tottenham Court Road so there may be some collapsing of names here. White also mentions a club in Great Windmill Street, The Blue Peter, decked out like a battleship. (White London in the 20th Century). The Morgue sounds even more startling the with the receptionist dressed as a nun, coffins for tables and the waiters sporting devils’ horns. All very proto-Goth and disappointingly tacky – I’d like to think Elvira and her crowd stayed well clear.

Of the rest, Freddy Ford’s New Avenue Club was the most notorious. Known as the Havinoo  to its patrons, it was essentially a hang-out for Soho’s army of criminals, prostitutes and wide boys. The club and its owner feature regularly in court cases throughout  the period – fights and the contravention of licensing laws being the norm. Ford, depending on which account you read, was either an affable rogue or a putative “King of the Underworld”. His long career included convictions for  burglary and receiving stolen goods, but it was as a club-owner and a renter of rooms for prostitution that he made his fortune. At some time or other, he had a share in all the clubs around Ham Yard and may have owned The New Hambones, as the Hambone became in the Second World War.  Significantly, the club was found to be breaking licensing laws in that period.

Racetrack Gang including various Sabinis, Billy Kimber and the MacDonalds

The fact is that Ham Yard generally was a centre of villainy. Throughout the 1920s a series of fights took place there. These, all known as “The Battle of Ham Yard” were to settle disputes between which London gang would have first pickings of the many illegal and semi-legal businesses that bloomed in Soho, not least because of the plethora of night-clubs. Various Sabinis and Cortesis, Billy Kimber’s Brummagem Boys, gangs from Hackney, Kings Cross, Paddington, Hoxton and Elephant and Castle all settled scores with coshes and razors in Ham Yard.

All of which begs the question as to what overlap was there between the louche but largely Upper Class Overground world of the Bohemians and the real Working Class Criminal Underworld? By and large, the two groups would have kept to separate venues but the proximity is interesting. Some of the predilections of the Smart Set would have been of advantage to the Soho gangs. Most forms of betting were then illegal and we know that Michael Stephen was a heavy gambler (and he was surely not the only one). Cocaine and other drug use might also have been a point of crossover. Homosexuality (and its concomitant terror, blackmail) would have played a part.  As far as Soho’s most famous vice is concerned, perhaps he “Piccadilly tart” who arrived with Elizabeth Ponsonby for a drunken weekend at her parent’s house was first encountered in Ham Yard.

Elizabeth Ponsonby and husband

Then there was the “Arminian”  cafe,  a Bohemian haunt on the corner of Great Windmill Street (Epstein dined there) which was also used by gangsters and prostitutes. The same was true of the “Harmony” (the same place, I’m guessing) in the 50s. Modernists and Trad Jazzers argued the respective merits of Dizzy Gillespie and Kid Oliver while the dangerous Jack Spot looked on. Clubland and Criminality have never exactly been strangers so it seems not unreasonable to assume more than a passing glance  took place between the wilder young things and the extensive Wide  community that dwelled in, if not the same precise space, then the club next door. Kate Meyrick boasted that gangsters and lords sat next each other at her clubs. She exaggerated – but not perhaps by much.

Olivia Wyndham in England

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.

Nancy Cunard 

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  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/5-mulberry-walk-chelsea/ 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.

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.

 

 

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.

Olivia c1935

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.

Ruth Baldwin

On Friday June 13th 1930 Evelyn Waugh’s diary entry refers to a party he attended organised by Olivia Wyndham and Ruth Baldwin aboard a Thames steamer.

“It was not enough of an orgy.Masses of Lesbian tarts and joyboys. Only one fight when a Miss Firminger got a black eye. Poor old Hat (Brian Howard) looked like a tragedy queen.”

Marjorie Firminger was the author of “Jam Today” ( see  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/mary-ashliman-heather-pilkington-and-the-blue-angel/). The black eye may well have been delivered by Ruth Baldwin , although both she and Olivia had form here.

Both were at Elvira’s cocktail party and both were key figures in the “Lesbian Bohemia” of the time.I will post more about Olivia Wyndham shortly but let us for the moment look at the remarkable, but largely forgotten, Ruth.

Born in America in 1905, Ruth was the wildest of a wild set. Whether she herself was wealthy or not, I can’t ascertain, but, as Joe Carstairs’ lover and secretary, she spent freely and lived very much for the moment. She was a notoriously heavy drinker, converting her Mulberry Walk kitchen into a bar and I imagine that it was her, doubtless appalled at the choice of sherry or cocktails at Elvira’s party, who left with Michael Scott Stephen, returning with whisky. Apart from a prodigious appetite for drink, Ruth Baldwin used both cocaine and heroin.

She was big (her nickname in some quarters was “Fatty”), “immensely powerful”  and with “a moon face,bold,naughty eyes and thick,auburn hair”.

Promiscuous and possessive in equal measure, her  penchant for fighting  inspired fear but her exuberance  was a source of genuine affection. Edward Burra adored her and his description of what seems to me, a rather terrifying scene, at 19 King’s Road,  is typical.

“Ruth was quite drunk and kept rushing at B (Barbara Ker-Seymer) and biting her. However after a bit more crashing and screams they went off.” Far from condemning this assault on his closest female friend, Burra continues, “Ruth Baldwin is my beau ideal.I think I like them fat. I can’t resist anyone that goes about with an aeroplane in diamonds where there ought to be a tie.”

Ruth was the great love of Joe Carstairs’ life. (See https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/5-mulberry-walk-chelsea/). Apart from her gift of the totemic doll, Sir Todd Wadley, she described Ruth, in many ways a very kindred spirit, as “The first person who ever meant anything to me.” The tears Joe shed on hearing of Ruth’s death were apparently the first time she had ever cried.

The lesbian subculture  that Ruth moved included Marty Mann, another American, who nearly died of drink but went on to become an early member of AA – and in the fifties the movement’s most public figure. Mann’s autobiography mentions endless cocktail parties in London in the early 30s – were Elvira’s some of them?

Other notable figures of the London scene (Paris and Cannes are important too)  were Dolly Wilde (Oscars niece), musician and comedienne Gwen Farrar, the above-mention Barbara Ker-Seymer and Audrey Carten. Carten , an actress and playwright, was rumoured to have had a bizarre fling with Elvira shortly after the trial – bizarre because the night of passion, it was claimed, also included Carten’s brother,Kenneth. This circle generally was more arty than either Elvira or Ruth ever claimed to be but there is undoubtedly considerable overlap because of a shared sexuality and a common liking for intoxicants of various types.

It was at Gwen Farrar or Dolly Wilde’s London flat that Ruth succumbed to a drug overdose and died aged only 31 (1937). Fittingly the assembled guests were listening to a Boxing Match on the radio. Her ashes were taken to Carstairs’ Bahamas island of Whale Cay, where a shrine cum small church was built. On Carstairs’ death in 1993 – the ashes of both women along with those of the doll, Wadley, were interred together.

It is unlikely that Ruth and Elvira were close but they did have friends in common and possibly lovers too. The least one can deduce from Ruth’s presence at the cocktail party was that much of Elvira’s world  was held together by a mixture of narcotics,alcohol and what would have been seen at the time (especially post-Radcliffe Hall) as dangerous and deviant sexualities. This is what the papers and the police knew and pruriently hinted at.What is remarkable about the trial is that the defence managed to downplay all of this and the prosecution failed to exploit it.

The above information comes from “The Queen of Whale Cay” by Kate Summerscale and “Edward Burra -C20th  Eye” by Jane Stevenson