Sunday, 8 May 2016

A History Of Idealism And Irresponsibility 1909-1972

A handful of snaps of Grantchester meadows, a place central to my teenage years, as my friends and I fished, picnicked, boated, partied and dreamed our way through the summers of those years.


We were by no means the first people to think of doing this. The young people of the village must always have had the river and its meadowlands as their playground. But also the footpath which runs through them has long been a favourite and obvious excursion for all the many young men (mostly men until recently) who come to study at the university. The majority of the great minds that were formed at Cambridge must have taken a break from their dusty books to wander here.



But not many have tried to live here, though every year a few optimistic and idealistic souls pitch their tents down by the river. They don't stay for long; the first July downpour usually sends them scuttling home.



In 1909 however some very flamboyant Bohemian characters took up residence on the meadows. They were the family and friends of the artist Augustus John.



John had long had an interest in Romany or Gypsy life and so it was only a matter of time before he bought himself a traditional horse-drawn caravan. When he was asked to paint the portrait of Jane Ellen Harrison, the Cambridge classicist, he drew his wild entourage on to the meadows where he set up camp.



John's personal life was, to say the least, rather complex and he is rumoured to have fathered 100 children in his life, though I've no idea how they came by this figure. When he came to Grantchester he was accompanied by two "wives" and a large number of children, all boys apparently. The whole family were suntanned and dressed, when they were not undressed as they frequently were, in colourful, ragged clothes. They made quite an impression in the locality; "We cause a great deal of astonishment in this well-bred town", noted John.



While at Grantchester the great portrait artist was visited by Lady Ottiline Morrell who, dressed in all her silk and finery, must have made a picturesque addition to the ragged gypsy encampment. Lady Ottiline may well have been the inspiration for D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley. When he was not working on the Jane Harrison portrait, Augustus entertained himself by drinking and starting fights in the pubs of Cambridge. His devoted womenfolk had a lot to put up with. 



The new neighbours soon attracted the attention of the young poet, Rupert Brooke, who lived in Grantchester. Brooke was also immersing himself a back-to-nature lifestyle, swimming naked in the river, eating fruit and living simply while attempting to support himself by his writing alone.

                         Augustus John                                            his "chief love" Dorelia McNeil
   Noel Olivier                           Rupert Brooke                     Brynhild Olivier 
              
Brooke's circle of friends included the four Olivier sisters (cousins of Sir Laurence), the young Virginia Woolf, the artist Ka Cox, Gwen Darwin (granddaughter of Charles Darwin) and her future husband the French painter Jacques Raverat. He was also an acquaintance of the economist John Maynard Keynes and philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. Russell says he was determined not to like Brooke though he actually found him very likeable.



Within a few short years their idyllic dreams were shattered with the outbreak of the Great War. Brooke died a tragic death before even getting to the battle, but his story was nonetheless converted into a heroic legend. 

John, on the other hand, survived the war - as did his superb beard! He was recruited as a war artist and, despite army regulations, was allowed to keep his whiskers. The only British army officers to have beards during the whole of the war were Augustus John - and His Royal Highness King George V.


Take care.







23 comments:

  1. I love reading your blog great stuff thank you
    for sharing your beautiful pictures and knowledge.
    All the best to you.
    Sheree.

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  2. Fascinating history and beautiful photos?

    Is your Grantchester the same one as in the British series we love so well?

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  3. Such a grand piece of history there. Love these photos and the stories that took place there so long ago. Makes me wonder what draws people to the bohemian, gypsy life. Although, I should probably search my own rebel psyche for that answer!

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  4. I always love your historical tales and beautiful photos! Love your last pic of the blooming trees.

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  5. Wow what a story!
    It's a lovely scenery, and I really like the photo showing the flowers and the cow watching you.

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  6. Great post!!! Wonderful pictures! I couldn't stop reading what you wrote and immediately fell in love with one very flamboyant Bohemian character which is beautiful but doesn't seem very friendly.

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  7. Sounds like an interesting fellow to have a chat with. That may be as far as I'd wish to hang out with him for.

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  8. Beautiful pictures again and interesting tale. I always enjoy reading your blog!
    Judy

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  9. What a beautiful place and what interesting characters!

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  10. So, do I comment on your stunning photos of this lush area? Or mention that our public television just finished a series of "Grantchester," in which that river and meadow were often featured? Or gasp at the idea of 100 children and not think about the processes by which John fathered them?

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  11. You took us on a journey in this post...both with your photos and your words. Thank you :)

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  12. Ah, my new friend, Optimistic Existentialist, is also here. It’s fun to visit new blogs, and, perhaps, make new friends. I got stuck on the part about John’s 100 children, but even without them, I don’t think I would have liked the man. Rupert Brook is another matter. I don’t know of his work, but I very much admire the depth, directness, and intelligence that shines forth from his photo. The pictures you took are beckonly lovely.

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  13. I somehow feel that the present inhabitants of that neck of the woods would not welcome Augustus and his entourage, were he to pitch up there today....

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  14. Enjoyed this post so much John, the images of course but the tales of pre war England.. eccentric and lascivious :) artists and poets.. fabulous, j'adore!

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  15. Beautiful photos and an interesting story of the past inhabitants. Love the cow over the flowers. Were you on your belly?

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  16. Great story. Love the first cow image.

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  17. What a most beautiful landscape. (And I love the cows).

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  18. Interesting as always...how did you happen to know about Augustus John? Did you just grow up knowing about him or did you happen across him later in life.

    Oh, and beautiful pics as usual.

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  19. What fabulous photo's ...
    Enjoyed your post, thank you.

    All the best Jan

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  20. What a a fascinating post. I had no idea that Augustus John and Rupert Brooke knew each other. Some lovely photos illustrating it all too.

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  21. Wonderful post. I am behind and just now catching up....

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