Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Kathleen Scott as diarist

Kathleen Scott, Baroness Kennet, was born 130 years ago today. She lived an extraordinary life, a friend of Auguste Rodin, Isidora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw, Herbert Asquith - to name but a few. She was also a highly regarded sculptor, perhaps the most significant British woman sculptor before Barbara Hepworth. She was married to Captain Robert Scott, he who died during his second Antarctic expedition, and subsequently to politician Hilton Young. For 35 years she kept private diaries - colourful, interesting and informative - which have only recently been opened to the public. It’s time for these to be edited and published.

Kathleen Bruce was born on 27 March 1878 in Lindrick, Nottinghamshire, the youngest of eleven children in a clergyman’s family. She was orphaned at the age of 8, and was brought up in Edinburgh by her great-uncle, an historian. She attended boarding schools in England, and went on to study at Slade School of Fine Art in London. Seeking a higher level of instruction in sculpture she moved to Paris in 1902 to enrol at the Académie Colarossi. She remained in Paris until 1906, living a Bohemian life, befriended by Auguste Rodin and Isadora Duncan among many other now-famous names. Back in London, she was embraced by the city’s literary and artistic society, George Bernard Shaw, for example, and Max Beerbohm. Before long she had met Captain Robert Falcon Scott (see Race to the South Pole) whom she marred in 1908. They had one son, Peter, who became an ornithologist and conservationist - see Scott’s wild goose chase.

The marriage was to prove all too brief as Robert Scott died in 1912 during his ill-fated second expedition to the Antarctic. Following his death, Kathleen did much to glorify her husband’s legacy, not least with a bronze statue of him completed in 1915 (now in Waterloo Place, London). During the war she took on various roles: helping set up an ambulance service in northern France, acting as a private secretary in the Ministry of Pensions, and creating models to help with facial reconstruction for the wounded. She remained oddly opposed to women’s suffrage, but Mark Stocker, author of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry about her, says this side of her was ‘founded partly on Victorian conservatism and partly on dislike of special pleading’.

In 1922, Scott married the politician Edward Hilton Young, and they had one son. She continued to sculpt, mostly busts and statuettes of eminent male contemporaries or idealistic youths. Four of her models were prime ministers, and she had many other famous friends besides. The diarist James Lees-Milne observed that there ‘seemed to be no public figure with whom she was not on intimate terms’. Stocker comments: ‘The products of such friendships are vigorously modelled busts and statuettes which provide a valuable visual record of contemporary celebrities’. In 1935, Young was raised to the Peerage as Baron Kennet, though Baroness Kennet continued to work professionally under the name of Scott.

According to Stocker: ‘By the end of Kathleen’s life her output had slowed, and she appeared increasingly stylistically reactionary. Her unrelenting hostility towards the sculpture of Jacob Epstein, Frank Dobson, and Henry Moore compounded this view and helps to explain why her work has been accorded less art historical recognition than it deserves. While the comparison would not have appealed to either of them, Kathleen Scott was the most significant and prolific British woman sculptor before Barbara Hepworth.’ She died in 1947. Apart from the ODNB (log-in required) which has by far the most comprehensive bio online, some further information is available at Wikipedia, with almost nothing more elsewhere.

Kathleen Kennet kept diaries for much of her adult life. She used a few extracts for her own autobiography written in 1932. This was published posthumously by John Murray in 1949 as Self-Portrait of an Artist. This has long been out of print, but more recently, in 1995, Macmillan published A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott, by Kennet’s granddaughter, Louisa Young, which relies on many extracts from her grandmother’s diaries. In the introduction, Young explains: ‘She started them for Con when he went South; they were to be a record for him of their son and of her day-to-day activities. After she learnt that Con was not coming back she kept them up. No one knew she did.’

Young also enthuses over the content of the diaries: ‘Her handwriting races along, illegible unless you really practise reading it, recording adventures, anecdotes and observations, interspersed with photographs and little sketches, from 1910 to 1946. They cover politics and exploration, art and sex, literature and travel. Mexican trains and plastic surgery, love and death, folly and creativity, child-birth and flying, iguanas and vicars and eating chicken sandwiches out of her coronet at the coronation of King George VI. They notably lack self-absorption, self-pity and self-indulgence.’

Two years ago, in April 2016, University of Cambridge announced that Kennet’s diaries would, from then on, be available to researchers in its library. This followed a deal with the government through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, under which £400,000 of inheritance tax was offset against the transfer of a large number of Kennet papers, including Kathleen’s diaries, into the public domain. At the time, the university put out a press release, rather dismissively referring to her in the headline as ‘Captain Scott’s widow’. The press release stated: ‘Of particular importance are the papers and letters relating to [Kathleen’s] first husband Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Together with her diaries covering the period of Scott’s last Antarctic expedition, the material is of the utmost interest for our understanding of the legendary explorer. The papers also reflect the fascinating careers, interests and connections of Lord and Lady Kennet and are of importance for the study of British military and political history, as well as of literary and cultural attitudes and concerns during the first half of the 20th century.’

Hopefully, Kathleen Kennet’s colourful and fascinating diaries might now receive some serious attention, and be edited for publication. She is little remembered today as a sculptor, and her importance as a diarist has never even be considered; but, her less-than-progressive positions on social issues should be no barrier to attention from biography specialists. The following extracts from Kennet’s diaries are taken from A Great Task of Happiness. Some pages of the book can also be read online at Amazon and Googlebooks.

19 January 1911
‘At the end of lunch he told me quite casually that that morning he had come upon a 2nd dynasty tomb, about 3600, probably the earliest ever found. He said he had left the sarcophagus untouched as he thought I might like to help him uncover it. I was of course most awfully excited. Together we descended a shaft, rather a climb, and there was the sarcophagus, a large wooden box, much eaten by white ants. We had to prop up the sides with sods before he dared lift off the lid. We found three mummies inside, greatly decayed and indeed little left but bones. They had been buried in a contracted position. One set of bones was to be sent to a professor at the museum at Manchester. He numbered each set of bones. I helped him. As I was lifting out one of the heads he said “I suppose you know how to prevent the teeth falling out of the lower jaw?” As though I’d been at it all my life! It was a great burial place and there were many tombs of varying dates up till comparatively recent times. We hoped to find jewels or papyrus in our tomb, but there were neither. Mr Bruce sat at the top of the hole, smoking and regarding us as harmless lunatics. I did enjoy myself.’

20 September 1911
‘Rather a horrid day today. I woke up having had a bad dream about you, and then Peter came very close to me and said emphatically “Daddy won’t come back”, as though in answer to my silly thoughts. By the time you read this you will probably be comfortably lounging in an armchair on a P&O near Colombo or somethaing and will say contentedly “silly little maid” and you’ll be quite right.’

19 February 1913
‘Got my wireless. I was sitting on deck after breakfast not feeling very well [she had her period]. The captain came and said he wanted to speak to me in his room. It didn’t occur to me in the slightest what he wanted but I went. Poor old chap’s hands were trembling when he said “I’ve got some news for you but I don’t see how I can tell you.” I said “The Expedition?” and he said “Yes”. “Well,” I said, “Let’s have it” and he showed me the message which ran “Captain Scott and six others perished in blizzard after reaching S Pole Jan. 18th.” I remember I said without the least truth “Oh well, never mind, I expected that - thanks very much - I’ll go and think about it” and I went downstairs.’

28 December 1915
‘I came back from Vickers to find the PM had been twice. He wrote later saying he had tramped the streets waiting for me, as he was “in great need of me”. I did wish I hadn’t been out. However he came again the next evening. There is great dissension in the cabinet about conscription [Asquith was trying to introduce conscription for single men because not enough of them had volunteered for him to be able to to keep his promise not to make married men join up] and today McKenna [Reginald, Chancellor of the Exchequer], Runciman [President of the Board of Trade], Grey [Foreign Secretary] and John Simon [Home Secretary] have all resigned. He showed me the letters - Grey’s stupid and selfish, I thought - 2 sheets saying that as close friends of his were leaving, he must too; that his eyes are bad, and he had thought of resigning before. A childish effusion, but saying that he had not conspired with his friend Runciman. Simon’s letter was a very dear nice letter, brokenhearted at having to abandon the PM but convinced that forcing anyone is wrong. Runciman and McKenna were excited and not very nice; McK saying we couldn’t afford the enlarging army and Runciman saying he couldn’t spare the men from industry - as the PM pointed out this is not the moment to discuss either issue. The compulsion of unmarried men does not fix the size of the army, not [sic] does it prevent the staying of those requisite for trade. The PM was very very sad, he said he had come to me for two things, 1) wisdom 2) sympathy. I told him I could dispense the second but not the first, however I was awfully touched and flattered. He said I was one of the only discreet women he’d ever met, and told me I helped him enormously. That night he wrote me a little letter saying I made “all the difference”. Poor darling how he hates these tussles.’

20 September 1916
‘. . . The war has sucked up so much of what was most loveable and full of promise, [Asquith wrote to Kathleen] that I have always been haunted by a fear that a toll would be exacted from me also. But when I saw him last - exactly a fortnight ago today - he was so radiantly strong and confident that I came away from France with an easier mind . . . Whatever pride I had in the past, and whatever hope I had for the future - by much the largest part of both was invested in him. And now all that is gone. It will take me a few days more to try to get back my bearings . . .’

29 September 1917
‘We had a dinner party, oh such a funny dinner party! There were Stephen McKenna, Gilbert Cannan, Sidney Russell Cooke, Geoffrey Dearmer and me. In the middle a very bad air raid started. A strange girl came in who was going to dance later. The parlour maid came in hysterical and collapsed on the drawing room sofa. The cook panted behind, and Wink [Peter’s nanny] arrived with her hair down. We fetched Pete down in his pyjamas - we were a mottled party. First we watched from the balcony then we shut shutters, lit lights and Sidney turned on the pianola. Gilbert never uttered a word. Stephen sat and made magic - ‘evil magic’, he said. Sidney and I sustained animated conversation, to which Pete contributed a good deal of sound information about aerial matters. More people came as the night went on, and we danced until three am.’

3 September 1926
‘Very sadly left the Lacket leaving behind me my two little sons. As they both stood by the little gate in the sun to see me off I had to work very hard not to weep at the sheer beauty of them with their sun-bleached hair and their russet skin, my big one and my little one, each looking healthier than the other . . . It’s so insane but I never leave either of them without thinking ‘There, I shall probably never see them again’. These feelings are disgustingly morbid.

15 February 1928
‘Asquith died early this morning. It’s odd I’ve had two weeks to prepare, I knew on Feb 1 that he wouldn’t live, and yet now he’s actually dead I feel all upheaved. He certainly was for some years a very large thing in my life. Probably it was more the excitement of discretion that was so thrilling, more than his actual love. It was a marvellous acrobatic stunt knowing everything that the Prime Minister knew during the War and yet not only not talking, but not letting anyone know I knew. Even Violet who I saw constantly I know had no notion that I was seeing him almost daily for several years. I can’t write to anybody to say I’m sorry. Indeed I’m not, I have wanted him to die for ten years. It’s rather a bore I can’t write to him. To him of 12 years ago.’

26 March 1930
‘I think the way you pay for even falling in love with someone other than your mate is that it lessens and weakens the pleasure you take in your mate, and therefore maybe my natural self protection of my hedonism would prevent [my] succumbing to the ephemeral attractions of beautiful young creatures who encircle one with flattery and cajolery.’

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