This picture used to hang in the dining room of a house called Derwen, which nestled among acres of gardens along a country lane in the village of Churt in Surrey. Many of the older items to be featured in this blog came from there. The house belonged to its sole occupant, a woman named Mabel Zoe Watson who was my Grandad Lane‘s cousin. We just called her “Auntie”.
Auntie was a remarkable woman. She looked after her blind, invalid father, a very rich but miserly doctor, until his death. She then moved in to Derwen with her friend Elsie Fry (of the famous Quaker, prison-reforming Frys). The house had been built for Elsie’s mother, but after her death Elsie could not afford the upkeep on her own. Auntie bought a half share in it, and they lived there together until Elsie’s death in the 1950s. These two feisty, independent women had many adventures together, driving around the country in their car, Bessie, or travelling abroad to Europe. After Elsie’s death, Auntie continued to live alone at Derwen for the rest of her life, with the assistance of her gardener and housekeeper Mr & Mrs Larby.
Auntie was as generous with the fortune her parsimonious father had left her, as he himself had been mean. Whole chapels and hospital wings were built in her name, and no weekly Radio 4 appeal ever went unaided. When my grandfather left his wife and children – a shameful event for their time and class, shrouded in some mysterious scandal – Auntie was the only member of his wealthy family to show them any kindness. She remained very close to our family for the rest of her life.
So I have blissful memories of the first 9 years of mine, when we spent most of our school holidays at Derwen. It was simply idyllic; looking back it seems like a glimpse of an earlier era, almost like Brideshead Revisited before the war. There was the house itself: all wooden panelling, open fires, dark oil portraits of genteel families whose eyes followed you round the room, thick hushed carpets and the deep booming TICK … TOCK of the grandfather clock echoing in the pine-cone scented hall. Then the were the grounds. Acres of land for 3 mischievous children to run around in: climbing the pine trees in the copse, where it didn’t matter if you fell out because the pine needles made a soft mattress 3 feet thick; reading in the shade of the black lacquered summerhouse; finding a toad in the rose garden and naming it Live-In-A-Flowerbed. There was the vegetable garden, the bamboo bushes outside the scullery door (scullery!!), and afternoon tea on the perfect lawn in front of the house. Tea was sandwiches, either plain butter or jam (and you couldn’t have any jam ones until you’d eaten all the plain butter ones) and Mrs Larby’s home baked Victoria sponge. Every sunny day without fail, Auntie would be out there on her knees in a hat, blouse, long dark skirt and gumboots, weeding that lawn.
When Auntie died in 1970, most of her belongings came to our house, so I have lived with them all my life (many of them will feature on this blog).
They are now divided between my brothers’ homes and mine. I chose to keep this picture because I have always loved it and because, as children, we all believed that this painting in the dining room was of Auntie tending her garden. Since then of course I have discovered it to be a print of “June in the Austrian Tyrol” by John MacWhirter, which hangs in the Tate. But to me, it will always be Auntie, weeding her lawn.