Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

40. Bacon, eggs and FY

As they had done in previous years, in 1923 Filson’s mother Sarah and sister Ben left their home in Bramhall for their usual summer holiday at St Ives, the Cornish seaside town where Sarah’s other daughter Janie lived with her doctor husband, and that, for them, had taken the place of the Portaferry of forty years before. Sarah was now eighty-two and frail, so she and Ben decided to leave Bramhall for good (88) and settle in a semi-detached house on the main road facing the sea at Carbis Bay, near St Ives. Filson named the house Carbis Water, after the little torrent that rushed down past the house from the moor behind. Sarah died in 1925 but Ben stayed on at Carbis Water and Filson, his marriage disintegrating, spent more and more time there; he had always been particularly close to Ben. From now on he divided his time between London and western Cornwall. It was also in 1923 that Filson first met the remarkable Bernard Walke (89), Vicar of St Hilary, Marazion, as influential in his later years as Kendrick Pyne, Grant Richards and David Beatty in their different ways had been earlier. But his involvement with ‘Father Ber’ and his church developed gradually; to begin with Filson was more concerned with the colony of artists at Newlyn near Penzance.

These artists included the painters Ernest Procter and his wife Dorothy (Dod), Harold and Laura Knight, Gladys Hynes and Harold Harvey; Harold Harvey and Ernest Procter had founded the ‘Harvey and Procter’ school of art at Newlyn and both had taken pupils as lovers (90). When Filson met her, Dod was in her mid-thirties and her work was beginning to be known; an attractive woman of charm and humour, very clothes-conscious like most of the women Filson admired (91). She and her husband both had a succession of lovers but it was Ernest who remained the central figure in her life. She did not feel emotionally secure unless she knew he was there in the background. She was also in love with the idea of love, needing other men to admire and desire her but not willing to commit herself to the warmth and involvement necessary to keep a relationship alive – perhaps precisely because of her deep involvement with Ernest. She kept her lovers’ letters tied up in separate batches by different coloured ribbons together with handwritten copies of the letters she sent them. These were studied compositions: one grief-stricken letter to Filson who had accused her of ‘spoiling it all’ because she could not give herself sufficiently to him was heavily based on a famous passage in Dosteovsky’s The Idiot, of which she kept a well-used copy on her shelves.

Some at Newlyn resented Filson’s involvement with Dod not only because they saw it as a threat to her marriage (which as things turned out it wasn’t, though the fact that it worried them perhaps indicates a deeper than usual involvement on Dod’s part), but also because they didn’t welcome what they saw as the intrusion of a vulgar London impresario into an artists’ retreat. But since Dod and Ernest were beginning to be known as artists it was inevitable that the outside world would begin to pay them attention, and it was natural that they should welcome this attention even if their friends didn’t. At a one-woman show of Dod’s paintings in London they shuddered at the sight of Filson smartly dressed and proprietorial, and were horrified when Dod offered them cigarettes from a massive and ostentatious gold cigarette case he had given her. ‘What made Filson Young?’ they whispered wickedly to one another, and gave the answer: ‘Dod knows.’ She was known to like a drink, so it was, ‘How odd of Dod to choose the booze,’ and ‘She took to gin and he took to Waters’ (Ernest had a girlfriend called Billie Waters).

Some thought Filson’s ostentatiously extravagant patronage was spoiling Dod’s innocence. When one day on the beach at Newlyn he snatched away a ring he had given her and flung it into the sea, the parsimonious Dod was more upset by the waste of money than by any emotional significance in the gesture. In London, carrying her cardboard suitcases to his car, he was heard to remark savagely that it was like carrying a housemaid’s luggage (he himself used only the best and heaviest leather suitcases, even when towards the end of his life others had to carry them upstairs for him because of his weak heart).

Filson’s promotional activities on Dod’s behalf reached their climax a few months after the Alec Filson tragedy and his divorce action against Vera, when in April 1927 Dod’s serenely beautiful painting ‘Morning’ was voted picture of the year at the Royal Academy exhibition. A sturdy, shapely girl (in fact modelled on Cissie Barnes, the 16-year-old daughter of a Newlyn fish merchant) lies asleep in the silvery pinkish bluish grey of first light, one hand behind her head and the other on her stomach. The calm and detachment of the treatment – almost as if the girl and her bed were carved from stone – can also be found in other paintings by Dod Procter, and perhaps indicate a deep stillness at the centre of her superficially turbulent life (92). The critics endorsed ‘Morning’as the picture of the year, and the public flocked to see it. Filson, amid a good deal of publicity, persuaded the Daily Mail to buy it and present it to the nation. Today it hangs almost forgotten in the Tate Gallery’s store at Acton [is that still so??], though in ?1999 it was briefly seen in the bookshops when Michèle Roberts reproduced it on the front cover of the hardback edition of her novel ?Y, where it remained as arresting as ever.

Filson, characteristically, blamed Dod for not devoting herself to him even though he was carrying on with other women himself. In Hampstead he pursued Diantha Burnett (née Harvey) and her close friend Valentine Watts (née Savage). Valentine Watts, a small pretty woman whose brother Henry had once edited a gipsy paper, astonished Filson by resisting his advances. Her friends gleefully noted that this treatment drove him ‘absolutely haywire’ (93). Diantha Burnett was more accommodating, though the progress of Filson’s relationship with her was followed with misgiving in some circles, not least by the Rev Bernard Walke’s wife, who was never one of Filson’s admirers in any sense of the word. Annie Walke wrote to a friend:

Yesterday everybody got in a rage – very hot it was. First Filson arguing for two hours because I refused to dine with him and a party at the Queens, having previously said I would because I didn’t know what to say … Filson and Dod still continue their dalliance, at least I suppose so. Yes, certainly I always thought we took it too seriously. Filson is taking Diantha back with him in the Cornwall-London bus [i.e.Filson's AC car ‘Prudence'] next time. She has been very firm with him but has relented thus far.(94)

In London Filson and Diantha slept together at his new bachelor establishment, 2 Campden Grove. His friends gossiped. ‘I’m in trouble,’ Filson complained. ‘They say I’ve been unfaithful to Dod,’ ‘He’s sailing a bit close to the wind, isn’t he?’ remarked Bernard Walke calmly to the Rev Dick Sheppard, who a few years earlier had christened both Filson’s sons at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Diantha was an American with money of her own, married to a solid, respectable businessman and war veteran known as ‘Tanks’ Burnett, who let her go her own way. She was kind, vivacious, good-looking, unintellectual and hopelessly unpractical. She could not cook and had no sense of time. Once Bernard and Annie Walke arrived at her cottage by invitation for dinner to find she had no food in the house. Unabashed, Diantha plied them liberally with drink, and despite the fact that it was after eight in the evening, set off to disturb the shopkeepers of Penzance in their homes.

Back at the cottage, her small son made polite conversation with the Walkes, conscious of his responsibilities as host. ‘Are you getting hungry?’ he said, ‘I sometimes get hungry. I sometimes eat grass.’ Dinner was eventually ready at about 10.30. Suffering from a circulatory disease following the birth of a handicapped child that did not survive (her husband’s presumably) and knowing she had not long to live, Diantha spent her money freely. When she died in about 1930, Filson composed a setting of the Latin text ‘Tantum ergo’ for St Hilary church in her memory. During Filson’s relationship with Diantha, his sister Ben, used to caring for children temporarily deprived for one reason or another of their parents, often looked after Diantha’s son, making him so happy that his father Tanks, though hating Filson, was happy to let the boy stay with Ben at ‘Carbis Water’.

Another woman in Filson’s life at this time was Helen Gosse, granddaughter of his old friend the critic Edmund Gosse, who died in 1928. Helen was only 17 or 18 when she became Filson’s lover, a large dramatic girl with enormous legs who took up a lot of room (95). She became famous for saying that having been raped at twelve (96), she saw no reason why men should not have sex with her if that was what they wanted; because so far as she was concerned it was no different from shaking hands. Women dismissed her as ‘a slut with painted nails’ (97), but men thought her magnificent. She and Filson were lovers for a year or two but eventually, tiring of her, he encouraged her to marry his godson John, youngest and most retiring of Hugh Chisholm’s three sons, who had first met her at a party in Oxford when she was dressed in tight-fitting black satin and smoking a cigar. John and Helen married in 1931 [check at family centre] but their union was not a success.  John, lying beside her in bed, would hear her murmur in her sleep, ‘Bacon and eggs and Filson.’ (98)


88  According to Katharine Graham (in conversation with SM, Aug 1975), Ben’s life was spoilt by the selfishness of her parents, who exploited her to look after themselves; she also looked after, even brought up, many others, including for about ten years Katharine’s mother Margaret Bell, whose parents lived in Trinidad (where they had been Filson’s embarrassed hosts in 1910).

89  Pronounced ‘walk’.

90  Many of the stories in this chapter are based on oral information to SM in the late 1970s from John Chisholm, Elizabeth Dixon, Katharine Graham, Hugh Hynes, Sheeleh Hynes, Eleanor Nance, Phoebe Procter and Alec Waugh, plus a letter from David Blelloch.

91  Dod Procter (née Doris Margaret Shaw, 1892-1972) and Ernest Procter (1886-1935), met as art students at Newlyn, near Penzance, in about 1907 and married in 1912.

92  Morning was so popular with the public that it was toured round regional galleries in Britian, being seen by 60,638 visitors at Birmingham City Art Gallery during February 1928. It was sent to New York on the ship Queen Elizabeth , and on its return was given to the Tate Gallery. An illustrated article entitled ‘Painting the picture of the Year’ described the artist as: Not very tall, slight and dark, modern looking and extremely feminine … [with] her shingled head , her pearl stud earrings, slim, silk-stockinged legs and neat feet … her legs crossed, her large dark eyes reflective, a long, thin, black cigarette holder in her extremely sensitive, slender hand … surround an outstanding personality illuminated brilliantly from within when art, which is the real business of her being, is under discuission. Then there is clarity and conviction in everything she says. Her home for nearly fifty years from 1923 was an old fisherman’s cottage where she and Ernest created a magical garden, with grottoes and brilliant patches of coloured painting, all surrounded and protected by a high granite wall; this garden features in many of her paintings. (Information taken from the article on Dod Procter by Judith Collins in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004,vol 45 p 456-7).

A visitor to her home in Newlyn shortly after Ernest’s death in 1935 described Dod as ‘very attractive – very detached – very unaggressive – very sure and secure in herself’ (Programme note by ‘Gluck’ for the Fine Art Society’s exhibition of Dod’s and Ernest’s work, London, Sept 1973).

93  When on 15 April 1976 I met Shelah Hynes, sister of Dr Hugh Hynes and the artist Gladys Hynes,  she said of Valentine Watts, ‘What a pity she died last summer as she would have loved to talk.’ She added, eyes twinkling: ‘I wish you could have met Filson’s Waterloo!’

94  Annie Walke to Hugh Hynes, 5 Aug [year unknown].

95  Helen Gosse’s cousin Alec Waugh in conversation with SM, Feb 1976.

96  There is no evidence that Filson had anything to do with this.

97  Katharine Graham in conversation with SM, Aug 1975.

98  John R.H.Chisholm in conversation with SM, 11 March 1976. His brother Archie Chisholm later commented to SM (4 May 1976), ‘She was much too high-powered for poor John!’

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