Tag Archive: Edward Burra

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.

Edward Burra Jazz Fans

Just about my favourite image of what I imagine to be the world in which Elvira moved (or aspired to move) is this pen and ink study by Edward Burra.

It is entitled “Jazz Fans” and is apparently from 1928 or 1929. Most internet references locate it in New York but I think it is London because Jane Stevenson’s biography states that Burra didn’t get to America until 1933. If it is London then some of the figures in this delightful drawing have probably already made an appearance on this blog.  Hugh Wade told the police that the prime reason for ending the evening of the 31st May at Arthur Jeffress’ flat was to listen to his newly acquired records. This is a different occasion but the sense of  pleasure and “In Crowd” exclusivity is surely similar.

Vinyl (or Shellac) Junkies from several eras will recognise this scene and the presence of a female DJ/Selecta  is a bonus.



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.

“Freak Party” Chelsea 1929

On October 1st Olivia Wyndham and Marjorie Firminger hosted a party at 37 Glebe Place,Chelsea (Olivia’s mother’s house).  The  photographs are revealing for a number of reasons. Firstly, they show the mutuality of the relationship between the media and the Bright Young People, as described by Patrick Balfour in Society Racket (1934) and explored more recently by D.J.Taylor. Secondly, they demonstrate very clearly the overlap between lesbian and gay Bohemia and Society’s “Smart Set”. Finally, they show us what some of Elvira’s circle looked like in full party mode. The term “Freak Party” was a general one for a fairly informal fancy-dress party as opposed to a strictly themed affair. This party is almost certainly the one whose invitations included the phrase  “Come As You Would Like To Be” which, if true, helps explain the visual styles on display.

Hugh Wade with Elizabeth Ponsonby (Mrs.Pelly)

Hugh Armigel Wade, pianist at The Blue Angel and Blue Lantern, was a close friend of Elvira’s and also of Elizabeth Ponsonby, possible the best known of twenties’ party-goers. Olivia Wyndham is the one in the naval cap. The mannish figure next to her might just be Heather Pilkington.

Anyone know who these guests are?

Dennis and Elizabeth Pelly on the bonnet, Marjorie Firminger in white dress.

Dennis Pelly with Harry Melville

Harry Melville had been a friend of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater. He was still going strong in the 1920s – a noted bon viveur, dinner party host and raconteur.He had been a theatrical impresario and latterly a reviewer of Dance records in the Gramophone. He was often seen at BYP gatherings and was treated both as an amusing relic of the Victorian era and as a revered link with an earlier decadent movement. He was said to be in his eighties at the time of this photograph but I’m not so sure about that.

G.W.Goodenough, Miss Dawson and  John Kirkwood

The Miss Dawson is Beatrice “Bumble” Dawson (1908-196) – a contemporary at Chelsea Art College of Edward Burra and Barbara Ker-Seymer. She later became an important costume designer for the British film industry. Of George Goodenough, Edward Burra recalls that at a cocktail party in 1929, having been punched in the face by the hostess, Olivia Wyndham, Goodenough retaliated with interest and flattened her. I assume that this happened some hours after this picture was taken.

Tony de Gandarillas, Brian “Napper” Dean Paul, Marjorie Firminger, Brenda Dean Paul and Jane Carlys

Gandarillas was a Chilean diplomat and notorious gambler. He was the principal lover of the artist Christopher Wood who committed suicide in 1930. Brenda Dean Paul, though still glamorous, looks seriously stoned to me.

Some of the same faces again. The woman with her arm resting on Olivia Wyndham’s shoulder has a vague look of Clover Pritchard, another of the Burra/Ker-Seymer set.

Of the people in these pictures we can only be certain that two, Olivia Wyndham and Hugh Wade, were at Elvira’s cocktail party. However, others may well have been there or at earlier ones. Hugh Wade’s closeness to both Elizabeth Ponsonby and Elvira would also make it likely that these two hard-partying and self-destructive women crossed paths more than occasionally.

UPDATE  these images, like a number of others on the blog, are disappearing – you can find them  by typing Chelsea Party 1929 into Getty Images

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