From my mother-in-law’s original book of Ellen Terry’s life…

The joy of writing books is that research is needed, though it is time consuming. I do inwardly smile when people say they want to write books but are not prepared to put in the time and effort. This is rather like me wanting to paint good pictures.

My current book research has taken me from Bude to Exeter, the Lizard in Cornwall, Smallhythe in Kent and soon, to London. I’ve also had a good deal of communication with interesting and knowledgeable people, and read immense a lot of other people’s words, trying to add together pieces of my ongoing jigsaw that is the mystery of Pamela Colman – Smith’s life. She is often said to have been under-appreciated in her lifetime, so maybe my book will go some way towards remedying that.

So, last week, I popped to Kent, after a quick break in Sweden. Although it was a two hour drive away, it was comparatively near!

Smallhythe is an absolute delight of a place now owned by the National Trust, but once home to Ellen Terry and her daughter, Edy Craig, about whom I have read so much. I always enjoy a sixteenth century house. Smallhythe is not only this, with all the utter charm this entails, but it also contains hundreds of Terry’s family and theatre artefacts. It is a feast upon which I need to dine more. The Kent countryside is a rare sight for me, but despite the grey sky, the substantial gardens on my visit were teeming with birdsong, and glowing with daffodils. Hyacinths lined the front of the house. Inside, it was even more enticing with an eclectic collection of items ranging from a gramophone to costumes.

Ellen Terry, from my reading, was an unusually talented and charismatic, (predominantly) Shakespearean actress, with the most stunning eyes, which an artist friend likened to a husky. The house contains her brilliant green Lady Macbeth dress made from luminescent beetle wings, which features in paintings by John Singer Sargent. She came from a theatrical family and it is sad to think that she, who could memorise huge amounts of Shakespeare’s lines, ended her life blind (unable to read scripts) and with dementia. She was quite a celebrity in her day, well-loved and admired by many. Her lifestyle was pretty unconventional, but then so was that of the whole Smallhythe crew.

The reason I was there was because of Pamela Colman-Smith, who was part of the Lyceum/Smallhythe crowd for a small part of her life. She is said to have looked upon Ellen Terry as a mother figure and saw Edy as a very close friend. Ellen Terry was well known for picking up waifs and strays. She had come from a poor background and had known what it was like to struggle.

Edy was, as Cockin says, a costumier, a director, a feminist and a suffrage activist, so a busy woman in her own right, and no doubt fascinating, though never terribly self-sufficient financially. She lived with two other women, Christabel Marshall (who changed her name to Christopher Marie St John) and Clare (Tony) Atwood in a so-called menage a trois.  Edy and her brother, among others, pretty much lived off the celebrity status of their mother, so they were privileged to have the freedom to play at drama and art, seemingly as much as they liked. Smallhythe was then something of a rural idyll where the women might don their smocks and live a bucolic existence, romping around the garden, though it was also only two hours by train from London. Transport was so much better then, as reaching Tenterden by train now would be a substantial task.

What is wonderful about my ongoing research (will it ever be finished?) is that one snippet of information leads to another, one contact to another. When trying to paint a rounded picture of someone about whom there is little information, it is important to also check out the circles in which they moved and lived, to get some idea of their life lived.

Smallhythe is but a tiny part of the Pamela Colman-Smith story, but indeed, a fascinating one.