Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Edith Holden's Nature Notes in a Country Diary...

Published by Webb and Bower 1979
While trying to clear out the accumulated objects from under my bed this summer, I came across a book that I'd strategically placed there two years earlier. At that time, I had been moving house, and was on a mission to get rid of all things that were unnecessarily cluttering up my life and living space. Feeling a strange surge of sentimentality towards the book in question then, I'd hesitated about giving it away, yet didn't feel sufficiently motivated to read through it either. Consequently the book, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, remained in place, in a literary no-man's land, only disturbed by the cat brushing past it during his forays around the bedroom furniture, dislodging the dust and fluff gathering on its resting place. I can't even remember how long I have had this book exactly, although I do know it was given to me. I also recall being pleased to finally possess it, due to memories it brought back of my teenage years when all types of related 'Edwardian Lady' merchandize seemed to abound everywhere, though I had never managed to get my hands on the actual book itself. I still have a school folder that I decorated with images cut out from themed wrapping paper from the early 80's. Years later I did buy a book that had been brought out following a televised account of the book's creation and the life of its creator, Edith Holden.
My old folder - thirty years on...
In my hands, The Country Diary Companion (Josephine Poole, published by Webb and Bower in 1984) suffered the same fate as the book it was supposed to accompany.... On retrieving both books this summer, I decided it was time to give them the attention that they deserved, with the intention of either handing them on to a new home, or keeping them in the manner required, not simply one of benign neglect. Just as I had hesitated reading The Country Diary two years ago, this time I initially shied away from doing so too. When at last I turned my attention to the book, and learnt about its background I realised that The Country Diary and Edith Holden both seem to have been preserved in a strange aura, caught in a unique sphere that seems to have altered our perception of this artistic endeavour in several ways. 
Written at very beginning of the 20th century, Edith Holden's Nature Notes was never intended to be a diary in the sense we may understand today. There was certainly no, or little intention to inscribe the creator's thoughts on the events or aspirations of her personal life. Nature Notes was precisely that, a collection of watercolour paintings accompanied by remarks, poetry and observations on the natural world that surrounded Edith Holden in the year 1906. This is very far removed indeed from the incessant chatterings of society today, reliant on social networks for self-promotion and endless 'selfie' photographic accounts of the latest exploits... Beyond her art, much of Edith Holden's personal life remains somewhat vague. The facsimile reproduction of Nature Notes burst forth in the 1970's, causing her name to become well known, yet providing little understanding of the person herself.


Nature Notes emerged from obscurity, to become an international bestseller over thirty years ago, having spent virtually seventy years as a 'hidden' family heirloom in the Holden family. When Edith Holden's great niece, Rowena Stott, presented the manuscript of Nature Notes to a publisher in the mid-seventies, it finally received the artistic recognition that it deserved, yet had never actually sought. While Edith Holden was indeed an illustrator who had striven to attain renown during her artistic career, it is ironic that she ultimately acquired this through the work that had never been more than a beautiful study piece to show to art students. This meteoric success also came posthumously, of course, some fifty years after her death in 1920. As glad as I am that this beautiful book became a national treasure, I do think that it has fallen victim to its success over the years, drowning Edith Holden in an superficial and unmerited sea of quaintness. The Country Diaryof an Edwardian Lady represented a marketing gold mine; the subsequent wave of 'pretty-pretty' articles that flooded the market from the seventies onwards created a never-ending line of cosy, safe products. These items appear to have enduring success with older ladies, which isn't a bad thing in itself, and I suppose I'm heading towards that age bracket too... However, Edith Holden appeals little to younger generations and the twee material spin-offs have detracted from the genuine artistic merit of Edith Holden's art. This process of nostalgic 'prettification' has rendered the earthier, natural quality of the original work rather asepticized and created an unblemished, idealized image of country life that surely has little resemblance to reality, then as now. To a degree The Country Diary has been preserved as an comfortable and comforting image of the rural idyll we imagine to have existed in the halcyon Edwardian days before the Great War and industrialized farming techniques ripped this world apart forever. The beauty of Nature Notes is based largely on its purity, tranquility and earnestness; to concentrate on a perceived lacy prettiness is to do Edith Holden's art a great disservice and paint a misleading portrait of the artist herself. 


For my part, I had a very inaccurate image of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, considering it to be simply the artistic pursuit of a lady whose leisurely lifestyle enabled her to pass her time in such a privileged manner. The Country Diary was indeed beautiful, but maybe a bit dainty all the same... How one can be misled by one's own misconceptions! Although Edith Holden certainly enjoyed the privileges that money, education and a certain breeding could offer, her life was far from one of idle pastimes and frivolous pleasures. While she was certainly born into a relatively affluent middle-class milieu, the term lady encourages us to 'read' Edith Holden incorrectly and seems to belittle her achievements due to the connotations of the lady-of-leisure label. Although personal details are slim, enough facts are known about Edith's life to show her as a woman who was quite atypical for her time, lady or not. It is difficult to know just how far she upheld the feminist cause in words and deeds, yet here was a woman whose determination and strength, and rather unconventional lifestyle seem to highlight feminist traits.


 In some ways, her life parallels that of Beatrix Potter, and it is certainly interesting to look at the paths of these two women who were contemporaries. Both Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter were born during Queen Victoria's reign, in 1871 and 1866 respectively. Unlike their monarch, whose personal life was reigned by her marital concerns and rhythmed by maternity, these two Victorians married later in life and were to remain childless. The artistic careers of both were closely linked to a great knowledge and profound respect for nature in all its forms. Likewise, their lives were concerned with the preservation and protection of wilderness and wildlife. Beatrix Potter bought and managed a farm and extensive land in the Lake District, all of which was left to the National Trust, as were many of her original illustrations. Edith supported the work of the National Council for Animal Welfare, using her illustrations for their cause, whilst also producing commissioned images for the RSPCA, donating money and delivering tracts against cruelty towards animals. Naturally, her early death at the age of 49 means that we will never know what Edith Holden would have gone on to accomplish. During her lifetime, she had perhaps fewer strokes of luck than her contemporary. Both women came from supportive families yet Beatrix Potter appears to have suffered less from the weight of family dynamics and disruptions. Edith seems to have been caught up in family feuds and financial concerns that may have hampered her creativity and bound her down through the filial obligations of a spinster daughter. Interestingly, at a late age both women entered marriages which met family disapproval. Of the two, Beatrix Potter seems to have a better sense of business acumen, or perhaps simply had better contacts; the publication of her work through Frederick Warne and Co led to lifelong success. Her determination had already made itself apparent when her early scientific observations and drawings in the field of mycology were rejected since written by an 'amateur female'; she went on to submit them under a male name. Despite having work exhibited several times and illustrations published on numerous occasions, Edith never enjoyed the fame and fortune of her contemporary whose Tale of Peter Rabbit had met great acclaim on publication in 1902. Today, her Country Diary has its own renown, but I still do not think that its creator has the respect she merits.


Born in Moseley, Birmingham (exactly like me!), Edith Holden was the fourth of seven children in the Holden family which had left Bristol to settle in Birmingham in 1865. Edith's middle name, Blackwell, was given in honour of a cousin, a pioneer female doctor, and this choice would serve to reflect the rather unconventional nature of her life. Indeed, from the beginning Edith's background differed from what would be deemed suitable for a 'picture-perfect' Edwardian lady. Firstly the family were religious liberals, of Unitarian faith, who devoted themselves to the Socialist cause. The Holdens were members of the Birmingham Labour Church and Arthur Holden, at the head of the household, played an active role in public life, elected to the Birmingham town council shortly after Edith's birth. Although his position as owner of a varnish and paint factory in Birmingham secured his family a certain affluence, Arthur Holden used his wealth and power to carry out philanthropic work. The Midlands were already under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its reaction against the dehumanising force of an industrialized society and its awareness of the need to help the underprivileged. He was instrumental in setting up the 'Cinderella Club' - an organization that enabled impoverished children from the Brummie slums to be fed and entertained. It is not surprising that many of the Holden children and their partners demonstrated a marked interest in Socialism and performed charity work for the poor and vulnerable. Numerous children were taken into the household over the years, to receive the attentions of the various members of the Holden family, not least Edith herself. Evelyn married a man devoted to charitable causes, and gladly gave up her flourishing artistic career to accompany him in his missions. 


The matriarch of the Holden family, Emma, was a former governess who personally undertook her daughters' education and encouraged their vivid interest in the natural world around them. Artistic, musical and literary skills were manifest in each child, with three daughters going on to become painters and illustrators. Unfortunately the succession of births weakened Emma Holden who suffered from ill health from Edith's childhood years. Edith went to study art at 13 years old at the Birmingham Municipal School, finally satisfying her artistic desires, but her mother's ill health and the practical concerns of the family business cast a long shadow over the whole household. As she grew older, Edith increasingly found herself in an unenviable position since she had neither the artistic acclaim of her two sisters, Violet and Evelyn, nor was she married. Fortunately Edith never met with the fate of 40% of the female population, forced to enter the domestic service workforce, but she did not lead the carefree existence alluded to by the title Edwardian lady. Far from living on a pittance, the Holden family were nevertheless obliged to move several times, leaving behind impressive houses with extensive gardens in favour of ever-modest homes in order to save money. 


In 1891 Edith went to study art near the Highland district, at Craigsmill Art School near Stirling, under the painter Joseph Adam. Her love of the dramatic landscapes of the Highlands and Dartmoor and the flora and fauna therein were to stay with her all her life, and inspired many of her works. Several of these were exhibited by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists between 1890 and 1907, but her Nature Notes manuscript was created when the family lived at Olton, Solihull. Indeed, in 1906 Edith had started to teach art to the older girls in the private Solihull School for Girls and used her own collection of phenological observations for her students to copy. At this time Edith also illustrated her sister Effie's poetry and later produced work for other children's books, including a piece called The Three Goats Gruff. Between 1907 and 1917 Edith had work shown in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, in addition to the Royal Academy of Arts, but it was not until after 1911 that her life was finally based in London. At the age of forty Edith married a sculptor Ernest Smith, several years her junior. That this marriage did not wholly please the family was perhaps due to the inconvenience of losing a dutiful daughter and sibling who could help with family arrangements, although that is speculation. Emma Holden had died in 1904, leaving a bereft husband who was struggling with the ownership of the family company and sorely tested by the family feud that ensued. The only release from this tension and comfort from the loss of a beloved wife and mother were the Spiritualist seances that became a regular occurrence in the Holden household. Emma Holden had always held strong Spiritualist beliefs and had written two religious books but on her death the family turned increasingly to this means of communication with the 'Other Side'. Automatic writing was performed as the Holden sisters transcribed messages sent by their dead mother and these were finally published anonymously by Arthur Holden as Messages from the Unseen, shortly before his death in 1913. Much has been made of this Spiritualist involvement, emphasizing the occult and perhaps even the morbid, yet the Holdens' interest would seem to be driven by a purely positive force and belief in life, both natural and spiritual. It is not surprising that Edith herself proclaimed that she was guided by a spirit called Hope; she certainly needed hope and courage. 


All the Holden siblings were obliged to take sides in the fight over the ethics of the family company, and Edith certainly did not escape the maelstrom of divided loyalties. She supported her long-suffering brother Kenneth, and as such was set against her other brother, Bernard and the sisters who had taken his defense. The gravity of the case was such that it was taken to court with Edith obliged to speak out against both Bernard and Violet. A relative calm in the family was only reached after the death of Kenneth who died in middle age in 1917. By this time Edith had already been married for several years, living in Chelsea, an artistic quarter of London. As assistant sculptor to Countess Feodora Gleichen, Edith's husband encountered many other artists such as George Frampton who sculpted the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and Edith probably benefitted from these new acquaintances. Edith's work Young Bears Playing was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1917, under the name Mrs Ernest Smith and book illustrations continued to be produced during these years. However, it is hard to know if her married years were as happy and fruitful as one would hope. None of the Holden daughters had children and city life, despite its advantages, kept Edith far from her beloved countryside and never brought her lasting artistic acclaim. 


So it was that during an inquest into her accidental death in 1920, aged 49, suicide was put forward as a possible cause. There are veiled allusions to marital infidelity on her husband's part, but this would surely have been the lot of many women. It is difficult to believe that someone for whom art and the love of nature were unwavering constants in life, would have chosen to end existence prematurely. Edith died whilst collecting horse chestnut buds near a water course in Kew Gardens; her body was found the day after the accident, having drowned in the cold March waters. Edith's death seems tragic since she surely had far more to create and contribute. In this manner her life was cut short, depriving us of so much, but above all the knowledge of how her professional and personal life would have developed. Nevertheless, in a strange way, her demise seems a very natural death, in every sense of the word. Edith Holden entered eternal sleep almost a hundred years ago yet was brought back to life through her art, decades after passing away.
A beautiful televised biographical study of Edith's creation of Nature Notes was broadcast by Central Independent TV in 1982. Spread over 12 episodes, devoted to the calendar months of the year, the series combined exquisite views of wildlife, breathtaking scenery and the art of Edith herself (thanks YouTube!). Flashbacks to events in Edith's personal life were thread throughout the whole, to great effect, while the choice of the actress Pippa Guard was wise. Nevertheless, a completely new view of Edith Holden's life is surely long overdue. Her posthumous success has shrouded much of the art and the individual, either in the sentimental blur of Seventies' and Eighties' Edwardiana or the obscure sensationalism of Spiritualism. Having finally retrieved my Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady from under my bed, I have realized that Edith Holden needs to be reclaimed from the shadows and not just relegated to the archives of the years that have been unjustly labelled the 'tasteless' decades.


This summer Laura Ashley held an exhibition to commemorate the founding of the label 60 years ago. Vintage clothing was put on display in ‘Laura Ashley: The Romantic Heroine’ in The Ball Room, Bath. When Laura Ashley's flowing frocks of Victorian-inspired prints burst onto the scene in a flurry of flounces, frills and lace, they were referred to as ‘soft-core femininity’ and ‘Victorian type demureness’ by the Daily Mirror (January 1st 1970). The trend for Victorian, Edwardian and Art Nouveau designs and a thirst for nostalgic hazy images drove a whole generation, and Edith Holden seemed to slot into a public appreciation for all things 'past', though not passé. It is a shame that her work hasn't been honoured in the present. We need to see Edith Holden in her entirety, less the Edwardian lady and more a woman very much of her time, yet unique in her relative independence and lack of conventionality...

6 comments:

  1. I have the original small paperback version of Edith Holden's Diary, but have managed to find a much larger hard covered version. I really love this book and even have found in an OP Shop, a small china teaspoon stand with her song thrush and young (above in your posting) on it.

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  2. Edith Holden's art is treasured by so many people, for a variety of reasons. As I said in the post, I wish a film could be made of her life to bring this work to younger generations... When I look at my copy, it always has a 'physical' effect on me - I find it strangely moving. I suppose it is because the art is so honest, and just natural, for the lack of a better word...
    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Thank you for this interesting post! I'm writing too about Edith, and I find a lot of interesting info in your blog, and I'd like to know where you found its. I know there is a book about Edith's biography by Ina Taylor, it's from this book?
    Thank you (and sorry for my awful english)

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  4. To be honest, I can't now remember where I got the information as this was a while ago, however I did watch a dramatization on her life that was on YouTube, and presumably still is. I also had a book that was the accompaniment to the Diary but that was quite 'light weight'. Edith Holden made a contribution that has been underestimated, I think, as it goes far beyond decorative household items... Good luck with your writing!

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  5. Thank you for your answer! I'll search the drama. I agree with you about Edith Holden, and for this motivation too I wan't find more info about her life and write about!

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  6. I just had a quick look on YouTube and there is a recently updated radio interview with one of Edith's relatives...Certainly well worth listening to....

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