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A Bohemian from Bury
Oxford was losing its young men. It was the winter of 1914, and the streets were unnaturally quiet, the quadrangles deserted by those undergraduates who had joined the British army. But the university was not entirely empty. A number of Americans had arrived to fill the gaps, to the extent that at Merton College the Junior Common Room proposed the motion, "that this society abhors the Americanisation of Oxford." The resolution failed by two votes, after a recently arrived graduate student in philosophy named Thomas Stearns Eliot pointed out to his fellows how much they owed to "Amurrican culcher . . . in the movies, in music, in the cocktail, and in the dance."
As spring arrived, the presence of the Americans attracted eager young women, short of partners in the first year of the Great War. One such visitor to Oxford was Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a vivacious artist's daughter from Hampstead who, one sunny afternoon, hired a punt on the River Cherwell. She was a slight girl with huge grey eyes, a governess with pretensions to culture. As the boat glided under the willows, Vivienne bent over her phonograph and placed the needle upon the record. The sound of ragtime drifted over the water.
The familiar tune attracted the attention of Eliot, the tall, nervous young American from Merton who had also taken a punt on the river. It reminded him of home in St. Louis, Missouri, where as a child he used to listen to the music from the honky-tonks, and promised an antidote to the gloom of wartime Oxford where he had been "plugging away at Husserl" and finding it terribly hard. To his old Harvard friend, Conrad Aiken, Eliot had written on New Year's Eve 1914, "I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books and hideous pictures on the walls . . . Oxford is very pretty, but I don't like to be dead."
Now, catching sight of Vivienne, one of the "river girls," as the press of that time described such light-hearted young women, Tom Eliot saw a way out of his gloom. For in the punt with her was another American he thought he recognised: Lucy Thayer, a cousin of Scofield Thayer, Tom's fellow alumnus from Milton Academy in Massachusetts, a young man who came from the same distinguished New England milieu as Eliot, and who was also studying at Oxford, at Magdalen College, conveniently close to Merton. And Scofield was about to give a luncheon party to which Eliot was invited. Watching Vivienne and Lucy, laughing in their white dresses, his spirits began to lift. It only needed a word in Scofield's ear . . .
This tale was related by Eliot's friend Sacheverell Sitwell, and may well be apocryphal, although Vivienne was introduced to Tom Eliot at a lunch party in Scofield's rooms at Magdalen. And she did love the river. One of her only surviving sketches is of a punt moored under the willows. For Vivienne, it seems, one glance was enough. She fell in love. It was a violent lovefierce, uncompromising and loyal. "Father and Tom, Tom and father, those two of my heart," she whispered in 1934 as she walked by her father's grave.
The attraction between Vivienne and Tom was instantand mutual. She admired his accent, which she described in her diary as "the real middle westerner's deep and thrilling voice," although in fact Eliot had been at some pains to lose his childhood accent in favour of the clipped tones of Boston. To Vivienne, the handsome American symbolised the heroic spirit of the Wild West, "the call to the wild that is in men"; but she had mistaken her man. It was to be but one of several fundamental misunderstandings. Eliot, too, had misjudged Vivienne. Unschooled in the complexities of the English class system, however well schooled he was in philosophy, Eliot was as impressed by Vivienne's leisured and apparently wealthy background as he was by her lively personality: her father, Charles Haigh-Wood, a retired member of the Royal Academy, lived on his unearned income and was the possessor of several houses, in Hampstead, Buckinghamshire and Anglesey; his son Maurice, educated at public school, was at Sandhurst training to be an army officer. But Vivienne's roots were, in fact, very different from what Eliot imagined.
Born in Bury, amidst the factory chimneys of the booming Lancashire cotton town, Vivienne Haigh-Wood made an unexpected arrival into this world on 28 May 1888. Her parents, local-boy-made-good Charles Haigh-Wood and his wife, Rose Esther, had taken lodgings near the railway station at Knowsley Street, having travelled north from London to mount an exhibition of the artist's pictures at a gentleman's club in his home town.7 It was a long journey for the pregnant Rose, and perhaps one which brought on the birth inconveniently early. Had time allowed, Rose might have preferred her confinement to take place in the comfortable villa owned by her in-laws, Charles and Mary Wood, in Walmersley Road, nearby. As it was, the small, dark-haired baby arrived to the sound of trains, loaded with bales of raw cotton for the mills, steaming into Bury from Liverpool.
The artist was busy with his one-man show in Manchester Road, and not until 4 July did he find time to register the birth of his first child, "Vivienne Haigh in the sub-district of Bury South in the county of Lancaster." Charles gave his occupation as "Artist (Painter)." The entry suggests a certain desire on the part of Haigh-Wood, as the artist styled himself, to avoid any confusion with his artisan father, plain Charles Wood, a gilder and picture framer born in nearby Bolton. It also suggests Haigh-Wood's pride in his success, for by 1888 the boy from Bury had become a Royal Academician whose fame had spread far beyond the cotton town in which he grew up.
In later life, Vivienne was ashamed of her northern roots. Writing to her new brother-in-law, Henry Ware Eliot, in October 1916 as she sat on the train to Manchester on her way to stay with a childhood friend, she declared: "I know I shall hate it. I know my Father was (is) a Lancashire (and Yorkshire) man, and I was born in Lancs, altho' I only lived there three weeks! But we have a number of old friends who live in Lancashire and North Wales. They are the most dreadful people reallyvery very rich manufacturing peopleso provincial . . ." Yet Vivienne had spent many childhood holidays at the "beautiful" country houses of the Lancashire manufacturers she affected to despise, and her upbringing had greater significance for her than she acknowledged. Her childhood was split between north and south, as was Eliot's, and there is a genuine sense of "not belonging" in her confession to Henry that she is a different person from the girl who sat on the same train just two years ago, on her way to be bridesmaid to her hostess: "I have got out of the way of these people now(not that I ever was in the wayhaving lived in London and in such a different set all my life) but I was more used to them." Vivienne's upbringing left her self-conscious and snobbish, with an underlying sense of social inferiority when she mixed with "old money," such as that exemplified by Lady Ottoline Morrell, half-sister of the Duke of Portland. Yet Vivienne also inherited northern grit and determination, of which she was to have need in the coming years, as she attempted to follow the path of Victorian upward mobility set by her grandfather Wood.
Vivienne's father, Charles, was born over the shop owned by his father in 22 Fleet Street, opposite the parish church in the centre of Bury. As a boy he heard the heavy tramp of the women's clogs on the cobbles below as they hurried to the mill. His father, also Charles, a master craftsman, had moved his workshop from Bolton to Bury, where business flourished as the looms whirred in the cotton factories and the mill owners embellished their homes with pictures framed by Wood. A shrewd marriage consolidated Wood's position. His bride was Mary Haigh, an Anglo-Irish Protestant girl from Dublin with financial expectations, about seven years his junior, who had sailed from Kingstown to Liverpool, sometime after the 1845 potato famine. It was a period of busy traffic between Liverpool, Holyhead and Dublin, where the British government maintained a military garrison; the Haighs were a family of means, and Mary Haigh's marriage may have seemed like a misalliance to her family. Nevertheless, by 1851, she and Charles Wood had set up home in the four rooms over the shop in Bury, where five children were born in quick succession. Young Charles arrived in 1856, three years after the birth of the couple's first child, Laura Amy. Another son followed, James, who died young, and two more daughters, Emily and Sarah. There was Kate, too, an Irish servant girl Mary had brought over from Kilkenny, and soon the cramped rooms over the shop were uncomfortably crowded. But by the 1870s Charles Senior's business had prospered under the patronage of the mill owners, and he diversified into picture-dealing; soon he was able to move into a substantial new house at 14 Albion Place, Walmersley Road. He had laid the foundations for his rise from artisan to gentleman.
Young Charles Wood was not only as ambitious as his father, but precociously talented artistically. As a boy he was sent to nearby Bethel Sunday School in Henry Street, an independent Congregationalist chapel, and attended the local grammar school, but his sights were set on the world outside Bury. At some point in his upbringing he decided to combine his parents' surnames as Haigh Wood (later hyphenated), perhaps when his mother Mary inherited property in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire). The rents from the seven semi-detached houses made a difference to the family fortunes, and may have made it possible for Charles Wood to sign the 999-year lease on the house at 14 Albion Place for 780 pounds, a not inconsiderable sum in the late nineteenth century. Wood sent his promising son to Manchester Art College, where he won several prizes. In 1873 Charles shook the dust of Bury from his feet, arriving in London at just seventeen to attend the Royal Academy School.
His rise in the art world was rapid. Charles later recalled how, when he was training at the Academy, he was noticed by the editor of the Art Journal, S. C. Hall, a "discriminating art critic," who praised his work; by the age of twenty-one he was exhibiting at the Academy and elected a member. Three years of travelling and studying the Renaissance masters in Italy followed, before he returned to settle in a little house at Taplow, on the upper reaches of the Thames. Nevertheless Haigh-Wood kept his links with the north. His ability to catch a likeness and his technical virtuosity brought him an increasing number of commissions from the local worthies of Bury and its neighbouring towns, Bolton and Rochdale, and he kept a studio at Castle Chambers in Market Street, Bury. His sister Sarah married into the Heap family, drapers in the same street as Charles Wood, and Mayor Heap was the subject of one of Charles's portraits in 1880. In 1899 he was still painting the aldermen and mayors of the neighbourhood, working on a portrait of Alderman Baron, who was about to be presented with the freedom of Rochdale. Three years earlier Charles had painted the portrait of Alderman Turner, Mayor of Rochdale.
These portraits demonstrate Charles Haigh-Wood's ability to penetrate to the personality behind the mayoral robes, but he probably regarded them as bread-and-butter work. The pictures of which he was most proud were the drawing-room "conversation pieces" which made him a fashionable genre painter in the late nineteenth centuryscenes of polite society in which gentlemen wooed elegant young ladies, and coy studies of children. His paintings carried titles like Chatterboxes and The Old Love and the New. So popular did this cloyingly sentimental style make him that all his pictures were sold before the doors of the Academy opened in 1899, two to the greeting-card manufacturers Raphael Tuck and Son for reproduction. Galleries from as far away as Australia were bidding for his pictures, the artist proudly recalled.
Despite his comfortable circumstances, Haigh-Wood complained to a reporter from the Bury Times in 1899 that although in France the government fostered art, "here in England the artist struggles on, sometimes receiving from purchasers the patronage necessary to keep him in comfort, but more often sighing for such assistance. An English artist, unless he is possessed of private means, can seldom afford to wait for the appreciation accorded to the highest form of art. He would be painting above the understanding of his public."
These protests were hardly justified, for in fact Haigh-Wood had no need to live by his brush alone. On his father's death in 1881 the house in Albion Place passed to his mother, Mary, and on her death in 1890, two years after Vivienne's birth, to his sister Sarah. But Charles, the only son, inherited the bulk of his mother's fortune. She left him her properties in Kingstown, then a fashionable watering place. Charles rented these properties out to the town corporation. "Dad collected and lived on the rent," remembered his son Maurice. In addition, Haigh-Wood inherited Eglinton House, a substantial property in the same neighbourhood. He became, through this lucky legacy, not a struggling artist but an English Protestant landlord, living off the rents of his Irish tenants. As a fashionable painter with a private income, it was time to think about a change of lifestyle.
His first move was to leave Buckinghamshire for Hampstead, since "The Porch," his house at Taplow, though pretty, "did not in other respects answer my expectations." Perhaps Rose, at home with the new baby, missed the proximity of her family. The couple moved to Hampstead in about 1891, taking a sixty-year lease on a house at 3 Compayne Gardens, the house which Vivienne was always to think of as home. Rose, nee Robinson, had originally come from North London, and her sister Lillia Symes lived nearby, at Broadhurst Gardens. Soon the Haigh-Wood family settled into comfortable bourgeois life.
Charles no longer had the need to prostitute his art to the public. Paintings such as A Fisherman's Cottage, Runswick 1886 show the social realism of which he was capable when he painted the Yorkshire fishing folk. This charming study of a young woman and her daughter, carrying apples down a path from their cottage, anticipates the Newlyn School. Yet Haigh-Wood never fulfilled his promise: he continued to churn out the mannered conversation pieces which reproduced so well as greeting cards, and when in 1910 his home town decided to honour him with a retrospective exhibition, it met with hostile reviews. The Bury Times said: "Mr. Haigh-Wood's art suffers much from the tyranny of fashion," while the Manchester Guardian was even more critical: " 'Is it Yea or Nay?' or 'Will He Come?' are the sort of questions the pictures ask; the trouble is that if the stories do not interest the spectator profoundly he is likely to find little else to satisfy him in the pictures."