Tag Archive: Heather Pilkington

“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

The police described Mary Ashliman as “a dance club hostess”. She herself preferred “manageress and hostess”.  The term “Hostess” had then and retained through the forties and fifties  rather ambiguous connotations. Ruth Ellis, the most notorious “hostess” of the post war period, insisted on being called the manageress of The Little Club.

Miss Ashliman lived at No.6 Regents Park Road, two doors up from from Cecil Sharp House – home of the English Folkdance and Song society, which had opened its doors in 1930. She is listed in the 1932 London phone directory but other than that seems to have left no trace on recorded history.

6 Regent’s Park Road

Her police statement tells us that the club secretaries of The Blue Angel (52 Dean Street)  were John Bell of 75 Anlaby Road, Hull and Frederick John Hicks of 37a Dennington Park Road, West Hampstead. The only Frederick Hicks in the phone books of the era is, tantalisingly, a dispensing chemist.

The statement goes on to say,

“I know Mrs.Barney. She is not a member of the club but has been there three or four times.The first time was on the 10th of May, when she was signed in by a Mr.Hugh Wade, 64a King’s Road, Chelsea.The second time, on the 24th of May, When she was signed in by Mrs. Heather Pilkington of St.Mary’s Cottage, Farnham Common, Bucks., and the third occasion was last night, the 30th of May, when she came in with Mr.Stephens and Mr. Arthur Jeffress, who is a member and signed both Mrs. Barney and Mr.Stephens in.On one occasion Mr.Stephens came to the club with Mr. T. Skeffington Smith, 19 Orchard Street, who is a member.

On the 30th May, Mr. Jeffress,Mr.Stephens and Mrs.Barney came to the club between 11.30 and 11.45. They had a pair of kippers each. To drink they had two double whiskeys each. They all three left the club at about 12.40 am. The party appeared to be quite friendly and they had no quarrel while they were in the club. They did not say they were going anywhere else. They all appeared to be sober.”

The interesting name here is Heather Pilkington. She was the original of the character “Bracken Dilitor” in Marjorie Firminger’s ill-fated roman a clef  “Jam Today” (Obelisk Press 1931).Firminger, a minor actress – like so many of the young women in this circle – had co-hosted a number of parties with Olivia Wyndham. More unwisely, she had become infatuated with Wyndham Lewis. Lewis was possibly a genius but also one of the most unpleasant figures of the English modernist movement. He had asked Firminger to introduce him to some genuine Lesbians (or Sapphists,as he termed them). Firminger obliged and chose Heather Pilkington. She also tried to impress Lewis with a “warts and all” novel using thinly disguised real people. Lewis had,of course, just done the same thing in the magnificent (but largely unreadable) “Apes of God”.

In the novel Pilkington is described as “mannishly suited and with cropped hair, often to be seen in Chelsea driving her huge car, her dalmatian alongside, probably en route to her beloved, the wife of a theatrical manager.”

That wife was Wyn Henderson, friend and collaborator of Nancy Cunard, and subject to an equally blunt portrayal in “Jam Today” – which novel, it is fair to say, ruined Firminger’s social life, lost her a lot of friends and was no success artistically. Nor did it impress the odious Lewis. Wyn was the mother of Nigel Henderson whose surrealist-inspired photographs of the East End owe much to the pre-war artists her mother introduced him to.

Going back to the Barney affair, once again, we find that Elvira is closer to the artistic and  lesbian Bohemia of the era than is usually imagined. The “mannish” woman who leaves the cocktail party with Michael to replenish whisky stocks was thought by neighbours to be Joe Carstairs. I think it was Ruth Baldwin but it is just possible that it was Heather Pilkington.

More on “Jam Today”  in Neil Pearson’s book on the Obelisk Press, “Obelisk”, which cannot be recommended too highly.