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The Rare and the Beautiful

How the Garman Sisters Captured the Heart of Bohemian London

The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly
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Like the better-known Mitfords, the Garman sisters took center stage in Bohemian London during the first half of the twentieth century. Beautiful, flamboyant, and headstrong, they broke away from middle-class conventions, seducing and inspiring a generation of artists. Kathleen, an enigmatic artist's model and aspiring pianist, was the lover and, later, wife of controversial American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein. Mary married the maverick poet Roy Campbell, whose verse attack on the Bloomsbury group following Mary's affair with Vita Sackville-West was the literary scandal of the epoch. Lorna, the youngest and most beautiful of the sisters, was the lover of both the painter Lucian Freud and the poet Laurie Lee.

The Rare and the Beautiful offers the first portrait of a beguiling band of eccentric siblings who possessed an uncanny ability to turn heads, break hearts, and spark creative genius. Set against the exciting backdrop of London's decadent subculture, it evokes their extraordinary milieu of high culture, drama, and scandal.

HarperCollins; May 2009
336 pages; ISBN 9780061935626
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Rare and the Beautiful
Author: Cressida Connolly

Chapter One

The Black Country

Walsall in the West Midlands has been called the ugliesttown in the world. One visitor described it aslooking like the worst of Ceausescu's Romania, only with fastfoodoutlets. It is notorious for its high incidence of muggingand its low property prices. Many of its shop windows are darkenedby heavy steel bars. There is a pawnbroker and a mothycasino and a pedestrianized shopping street strewn with an urbanconfetti of cigarette butts and chewing gum.

The Garman Ryan Collection had lain all but forgotten inWalsall's old library, where it had been put on view to the publicin 1974. But when it was removed to the specially built NewArt Gallery in 1999, there was a spate of publicity as arts journalistsand broadcasters saw the collection for the first time. Localrenewal schemes followed on the heels of the gallery's success.The disused factories below the gallery began to be converted,the litter-strewn canal basin cleaned and restored. An impressive, architect-designed new bus station was built, and a shoppingmall. Walsall was waking up.

The art collection at the heart of Walsall's improving imagehad been given to the town at the wish of one woman. Lady Epstein,née Kathleen Garman, was born only a handful of milesfrom Walsall. She and her eight brothers and sisters had been amost unusual family. They valued naturalness very highly; theybarely disciplined their children; they spoke their minds. Thesisters wore their hair straight and long when custom calledfor stiff permanent waves. They liked things to look effortless.Elaborate picnics appeared, as if out of nowhere, and theirhouses were models of elegant simplicity in which importantand valuable drawings and paintings would be propped casuallyagainst the walls. They accepted the most extraordinary coincidencesas nothing less than their due.

People fell in love with them. They were lovely to be in lovewith, passionate, generous, beautiful. They sent secret notes atmidnight and left their pillows smelling of scent. They gavepresents: books of poetry, music, wildflowers. They made dramaticentrances and exits, their arms full of lilies, haunting railwaystations throughout Europe, intoxicating their lovers withsudden meetings and long good-byes. On his deathbed, a formerlover finished his last letter to one of the sisters with "I donot forget you ever." To the poet Laurie Lee, Lorna Garmanleft an indelible mark on the rest of his life, an imprint of a"dark one, her panther tread, voice full of musky secrets, herlimbs uncoiling on beds of moonlight."

They sought adventure, emotional altitude. Color mattered. Their letters are full of it: the bright blue sky of the ItalianAlps, the scarlet leaves of a persimmon tree, the light-saturatedpalette of Mediterranean France and Spain, the purple robes ofa bishop at an abbey tea party, the rose-pink buildings of Tuscany,the magnificent vermilion of dahlias. To understand theGarmans, it is necessary to see that this world of color and intensitystood in sharp contrast to the dark, industrial regionthat they came from, in the shadow of the First World War.

Every night the sky was lit up by the flames of the blast furnacesdown in the valley, and in summer the pale roses in thegarden would be covered with tiny flecks of black. Soot fell likesnow. Smoke from the smelting of iron stained the sky, whilecoal inked the earth beneath. Even the trees were darkened, andthe rare black form of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, wasbelieved to have become widespread because it could camouflageitself so well here. Not for nothing was this region, just tothe northwest of Birmingham, called the Black Country. Untilthe late nineteenth century -- and again during the First WorldWar, because of the burgeoning need for munitions -- the areawas a hub of the iron and coal industries. There was so muchiron locally that even the street curbs were made of it. Anchorsand chains were sent all over the world, and the ironwork forthe Crystal Palace, the Avon Suspension Bridge, WestminsterBridge, and Charing Cross railway station was made here. A localvicar wrote, apparently without irony, that the peopleround-about were "never more happy than when enveloped ina cloud of smoke, for then, though the rays of the natural sunbe interrupted, the sun of prosperity gladdens its people."

It was here in the heart of the Black Country, to OakeswellHall in Wednesbury, that Walter Garman brought home hisbride, in the late spring of 1897. Walter was tall and dark, withexpressive eyes and arched brows. He wore a drooping mustacheand a slightly melancholy look, like a Spanish don. He had alreadybeen disappointed in love when a local girl broke off herengagement to him, but his heart gradually opened to the sweetnessof his new companion. Margaret Magill, Marjorie as she wascalled, was just twenty-one, while her husband was in his latethirties. The two had met while Marjorie was at school with threeof Walter's four sisters. When she took up a post as a governess inCoventry, she went frequently to see her best friend, Mabel Garman,at Yew Tree House, Great Barr, the Garman family home,just east of Wednesbury. Mabel had three brothers, and the familyrather expected Marjorie to lose her heart to one of them. Butthey were slightly taken aback that she chose Walter, the eldestson, as if she had blithely taken everyone's favorite chocolatewhen proffered the box. Much as they liked Marjorie, serene andpale and serious, with blue-gray eyes, fair skin, and long, chestnuthair, she was not a catch. Her mother was an impecunious widow,and the daughter, unlike the Garman sisters, was no beauty. Butshe was cultured and intelligent, gentle and kind and true ...

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Kitty Godley -
Mon, 14 Feb 2011 11:30:58 -0800 striking brunette, the then Kitty Garman was introduced to the artist in 1946 by ...