Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Sunday, 27 September 2015

On an infuriating basis


How to illustrate a rant about an abstract topic? I don't know. Here's a soothing picture of a beautiful dahlia, like an exploding firework or the Big Bang, that I took in a garden in Wallington, Herts, earlier this week instead.

I'm reading Madeleine Bunting's The Plot / A Biography of My Father's English Acre (2009). It's about a small and remote piece of land in North Yorkshire that was leased by the author's father (a very difficult man, it seems) in 1957, and on which he built a Catholic chapel, while his wife and young children lived a few miles away in semi-poverty. He adorned the chapel with his own sculptures (which, frustratingly, are hardly illustrated). The book, despite focusing on a little patch, covers an awful lot of ground: history, families, religion, sheep, Englishness, war, tourism, hunting, forestry, moths, landscape among others. It's excellent, and I recommend it to you. It's written in gritty, chewy, relishable prose.

However, on page 15 this sentence occurs: 'The local tradition is that the old Mrs Bulmer was gathering water by yoke and pail from the stream on a daily basis well into old age.' Bunting has a good ear for language; how can she possibly not have heard the clunkingly cacophonous and cliched phrase 'on a daily basis' booming out like the bummest of bum notes? Why didn't she write 'every day', or just 'daily' instead? 

The construction 'on a such-and-such basis' infects language like an insidious bacillus, worming its way into everything from everyday speech to formal writing. You hear and read it all the time: on  a regular basis, on a temporary basis, on a voluntary basis, on a weekly basis, on a case-by-case basis, as well as other less common versions. There's almost always a shorter, more elegant alternative: what's wrong with, respectively: regularly, temporarily/temporary, voluntarily/voluntary, weekly/every week, case-by-case?

Why have these phrases become so near-universal? Maybe people feel that longer, more convoluted phrases, however ugly and cumbersome, must somehow be more sophisticated and impressive than shorter, simpler phrases. They are wrong. Brevity and grace are qualities to be prized in language (except when the writer or speaker consciously breaks these rules to achieve a particular effect).

I think that those who use this construction should be forced by law to memorise the following paragraph, and to repeat it in front of a panel of linguistic pedants on a monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, and even if necessary a minute-by-minute basis:

On a daily basis he ran for the bus on a fast basis and jumped aboard on a last minute basis. The driver sold him a ticket on a grumpy basis and he sat down on an exhausted basis. The occupant of  the seat next to him was leaking music from his headphones on a noisy basis, and his seat was so hard that he sat on an uncomfortable basis. Thus he did not start his days on a good basis.



Friday, 25 September 2015

The great Stoppardian conspiracy

Tom Stoppard: literary impostor

I’m proud to be able to use my blog to announce to the world a major new literary discovery. You’ll no doubt be reading about my truly stunning revelations in the broadsheets in the next few days.

For half a century Sir Tom Stoppard has been one of the giants of the literary and cultural scene. His erudite and witty plays have entranced audiences in Britain, the English speaking world and beyond. But I ask: is he what he claims to be? Or is he, in fact, nothing but a sham and a fraud?

I can exclusively reveal the truth about the authorship of Tom Stoppard's plays. Stoppard is of course a semi-educated (he didn't even go to university, for goodness sake) non-native English speaker; how could he possibly have written some of the greatest plays of the 20th century? The plays display a depth and breadth of knowledge that’s simply beyond the reach of a non-graduate. Anyone who thinks about the matter, and who’s not constrained by the fetters of critical orthodoxy, will realise that he can’t possibly have written the plays hitherto attributed to him, and that he must be a front for the real author, who wishes to disguise his (or her) true authorship. 

And the true author? My exhaustive research into many arcane documents, along with a detailed close reading of the plays themselves, leads me to the inevitable conclusion that Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and all ‘his’ other works, were in fact written by none other than Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Naturally, it wouldn't be proper for someone of her high social standing to be associated with the common stage, so she has had to adopt this strategy to throw her contemporaries and posterity off the scent.

To take just one example of how the Duchess hides her true authorship in plain sight, an anagram of EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR BY SIR TOM STOPPARD is: VAST PRODS: O SEE MY OPUS V, EV’R’BODY! TROO BARD FERGIE. This all but explicit hint (‘vast prods', indeed) surely silences the doubters once and for all. Of course, those blinded by orthodoxy will object that Stoppard wasn't knighted until 1997, and the play dates from 1977; however, clearly promotion up the social scale was part of the deal that our true bard (or 'troo' as she delightfully and playfully spells it, so typical of the lovably ditzy persona she's adopted to disguise her real character) promised her frontman for pretending to be the author. A knighthood was obviously one of the things she agreed to get him, and true to her word (would we expect anything less of a towering literary genius?) she did so.

At first sight, the reference to the play being her opus V is puzzling, but the answer is clear to anyone who isn't confined by the bounds of academia. The play is 'his' (i.e. her) fifth full length work, after the novel Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, and the plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Jumpers and Travesties.

However, it is appropriate for an aristocrat to write charming children's stories, so she has published the Budgie the Little Helicopter stories, masterpieces of their genre, under her own name, and anyone who reads them with an unbiased mind will find plenty of clues cleverly planted by our heroine to alert the initiated so they can join the arcane club of true believers.

To disguise the truth even more and to allow herself the freedom to flex her outstanding intellectual muscles undetected, she has adopted the persona of a thick upper class twat, a brilliant strategy and a role she plays with consummate skill.

Of course, you will say that Stoppard and Ferguson deny all this, but I will smile at your naivety. Of COURSE they deny it! Don't you see that their denials only prove the truth? The more vehement their denials, and the denials of the cabal of critics and academics who stand to gain from maintaining the sham, the more certain my case becomes.

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is a true literary genius and Stoppard nothing but a hired stooge.

Sarah Ferguson: literary genius

*************


You will by now of course have realised that I’m being satirical. The spur to my satire was an article in the Guardian by James Shapiro about Shakespeare in 1606, and specifically one of the readers’ comments that appeared beneath it. Whenever Shakespeare is mentioned in the Guardian, it seems to be obligatory for an Oxfordian to point out that the plays of Shakespeare weren’t actually written by Shakespeare, but by the Earl of Oxford. The above is a slightly more polished version of what I posted in reply. You can read the original article and subsequent comments here.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Ardeley church, Herts: 'issue one sonn deceased'


Ardeley is one of those churches that used to be open when I first started making a concerted effort to visit all the aesthetically or historically significant places of worship in Hertfordshire (a project still far from complete) in the late 80s, but is now usually locked. But the last time I visited, midweek a few months ago, there was at least an apologetic notice on the door regretting the closure and saying that the church would generally be open at weekends.

Last weekend I decided to investigate if this is indeed true. And I'm very happy to say that it is (or it least it was on one bright early autumn Sunday). I arrived at about midday, and clearly a service had only recently finished: incense was still swirling in the air, brightly lit by the heavenly spotlights of sun spearing down from the clerestory windows. (I'm not religious, but if I were I'd be a High Anglican.)


The main reason I wanted to get into the church was to see this monument again. It commemorates Mary Markham, who died in 1673.


This is a very fine and more than usually moving monument. The architectural elements are pretty standard for their date, but their relative simplicity provides an excellent foil for the sculpture. I especially like the elaborate coat of arms poised between the arms of the open segmental pediment.


The demi-figure of Mary is brilliantly understated. She is expensively dressed but with bare forearms, which perhaps makes her look vulnerable; her puffy sleeves are finely carved. She looks off into the distance; it's hard to read her expression, but it seems to combine noble stoicism and profound suffering. No sentimentality here; the very lack of outward emotion is what makes it so emotional. In her right hand she holds something, I think a book, presumably a prayer book or bible (the book and her hand have been damaged), and her left hand clutches her dress to her chest protectively. Somehow the delicate gesture in which her little finger is separate from the others is very affecting.

What really makes this monument stand out is the swaddled baby on the ledge in front of her. He too is very tenderly carved; his face is almost unbearably touching.



Even without the inscription we can guess the story, no doubt common enough until relatively recently, of a mother dying in childbirth, and the baby dying with her. The inscription confirms our worst suspicions.


We learn that she 'had issue one sonn deceased', and that 'she dyed in the foure and twentieth yeare of her age'. In the face of such tragedy it seems almost impious to take pleasure in the exquisite lettering (see the elegant curls on many of the capitals, and the way the two 'f's in the last two lines (excluding the date) link). The carver felt free to vary the way he cut the letters; compare the 'u' in 'Daughter' with that in 'issue', for example. We can also note in passing that punctuation doesn't seem to have been thought necessary.

Pevsner (or more likely his 2nd edition reviser) attributes the monument to Edward Stanton, and everyone since concurs. The briefest of glances at Rupert Gunnis's Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851, however, shows that this can't possibly be true, as he wasn't born until 1681. The mistake has come about, I imagine, because Edward Stanton is the sculptor of another monument in the church, that to Henry Chauncy, who wrote the first history of Hertfordshire in 1700 (which also, incidentally, has lovely lettering, and endearing rustic putti wearing the draperies like immensely tall hats).


The likeliest author of the monument (though this is a stylistic attribution, and so is open to debate) is Edward's father, William Stanton (1639-1705), one of the best 17th century sculptors. (He is the probable author of the Saunders monument in Flamstead, Herts, about which I'll probably write one day.)

There's plenty more to linger over in the church. The most prominent feature is the richly carved Arts and Crafty rood loft of 1928, by F. C. Eden.






The otherwise plain octagonal font has four big heads poking rather oddly out of its sides. Pevsner speculates that it's 14th century, but no one really knows.



The east window is very striking. It's by the Horwood brothers of Mells, Somerset, (I have to admit I'd never heard of them; Martin Harrison's Victorian Stained Glass doesn't mention them), and commemorates a death in 1868. The faces are free of the sentimentality that so often damages Victorian windows. The leading of the sky in this detail (there are six scenes) is particularly individual.


Immediately outside the church, across the road, is a crescent of thatched cottages and village hall around a brick well and green that at first glance looks ancient, perhaps 16th century, but in fact is by Eden (again) and dates from 1917. Even the statuesque dead tree in the background, looking particularly handsome against a rare blue sky, adds to its rural picturesqueness.


The village hall has a portico with wooden Tuscan columns, (and, on the day I was there, a visiting traffic cone).


Ardeley also has a pub and an open farm with a tea shop. Why would anyone possibly want to go anywhere but here on a beautiful sunny Sunday?


Lead cistern in the churchyard, dated 1775
Fragment of 15th century glass in the south aisle





Wednesday, 16 September 2015

An historical thought experiment

A 'family tree', Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

I’ve been asking my new History classes (they happen to be younger teenagers this year) to take part in a thought experiment. But you don’t have to be young to try it.

It’s hard for anyone to feel that people who lived and incidents that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago have any relevance or importance to us today. It’s especially hard for young people to do this. When you’re (say) 13 you find it very difficult to feel an affinity with life 130 years ago, let alone 1300. The past seems impossibly distant and shapeless, peopled by alien beings. Why should we take any interest in them?

This thought experiment is intended to help create a new perspective on the past, to show that the people who lived then were not utterly unlike us, and to shrink the years down to more tangible proportions. 

Imagine you’re sitting in a medium sized room. (If you’re actually in a medium sized room, such as a classroom, so much the better.) Let’s say that there are thirty chairs in this room, and that you are sitting in one corner of the room. Now imagine that one of your parents is sitting next to you (either your father or mother, it doesn’t matter which, but only one of them). Next, imagine that one of your four grandparents (again, it doesn’t matter which) is sitting next to them. This is very easy; almost everyone knows their parents and at least some of their grandparents, and even if you don’t know them you can still imagine their presence.

You can see what comes next: now imagine that one of your eight great-grandparents is sitting in the fourth chair. This is a bit harder, because a lot of people, perhaps most, never knew their great-grandparents, but they might have seen photos of them or heard relations talk about them. Again, even if you have no knowledge of them, you can still imagine their presence without too much difficulty. The fifth chair is occupied by one of your sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on. A lot of imagination is needed from this point, because we’re unlikely to know anything about our more distant ancestors, but almost everyone, surely, can conjure up in their minds some people, ancestors, to sit in those chairs.

Let’s assume that the average age at which people have children is 33 1/3. How many chairs do we have to ‘fill’ in order to get back to an ancestor who lived at the time of, say, the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, or the Battle of Hastings in 1066? (These are the events my classes are studying first.) The answer is really surprisingly small. If there are three generations per century, then to reach about 400 years ago only twelve chairs need to be occupied – less than half the room. You don’t even need to fill the whole room to reach the Norman Conquest a little less than a thousand years ago (28 or 29 chairs will do it). 

So imagine yourself sitting in this room inhabited by your ancestors, (your bloodline, if you like), all of whom have of course contributed something to what and who you are. They lived through the events that we now think of as history, events that might seem to us remote, irrelevant and uninteresting. We can’t talk with them, and we probably can’t know much about them as individuals, but we can imagine ourselves into their lives. By doing so we can make history come alive.

There are many variations you can play on this theme. Instead of a classroom, imagine a small theatre with 200 seats. Filling this with ancestors takes us back 67 centuries, that is to c.4700 BCE, on the cusp between the Mesolithic and Neolithic in Britain, when agriculture was first introduced to these islands, and centuries before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Two hundred is not that big a number; imagine, a mere 200 people in a room, but stretching back to the Stone Age. It's a thrilling thought, all those men and women sitting side by side, an unbroken chain of forebears linking us to the distant past.

I have to admit that the further you go back in time, the more inaccurate the numbers become, because people must have had children younger in the distant past. Many, if not most, people were dead before they were 33. On the other hand, it's possible to have children at a greater age. There are people alive now whose paternal grandfather was born in the 18th century. This might sound ludicrous. But say you're 100 years old and your father had you when he was 60, that means he was born in 1855. If his father also had his son at 60, he (your grandfather) was born in 1795. In this case, just three chairs in our imaginary room take us back to the Napoleonic Wars, Beethoven and Blake.

Having asserted that the numbers involved are very much smaller than expected, looked at another way they're astonishingly large. We can calculate how many ancestors we had a millennium ago (i.e. 30 generations): 2 to the power of 30 is 1,073,741,820. This is an astoundingly big number. The population of the world is estimated to have been at most 310,000,000 in 1000 CE, a substantially smaller number. How can we possibly have had more ancestors than there were people on the whole earth? The answer to this conundrum is, of course, that many of those ancestors are related to us in multiple ways. Someone say five generations ago is quite possibly my great-great-great-grandparent several times over, because their grandchildren and later generations could have inter-married. (If you marry your first cousin, your children will have six rather than eight great-grandparents.)

This leads to another initially mind-boggling thought: we are all cousins. Not in some abstract, brotherly love, fraternal feeling way, but absolutely literally. If you go back enough generations you're mathematically certain* to be linked genetically with every single other person in the world. We're all related.

Athelhampton House, Dorset

* Or do I mean mathematically almost certain? Someone with a better grasp of statistics than me can answer this.



Monday, 14 September 2015

A bridge and a house by Sir John Soane - Tyringham Hall and Moggerhanger Park



Sir John Soane (1753-1837) must be one of the unluckiest architects. So many of his buildings have been demolished or substantially altered. His masterpiece, the Bank of England, built over 45 years from 1788 to 1833, was mostly knocked down in the 1920s. He made additions to the Palace of Westminster (admittedly, he knocked down the work of earlier architects to do so) in 1824, only to see them (along with the rest of the Palace) burn down ten years later. Many of his country houses no longer exist, at least not in forms he'd recognise.

He worked at Tyringham House, Bucks, from 1792 to 1797. The house itself has been radically altered (in the early 20th century), and is inaccessible to the public, but his bridge and gateway remain as he left them. Pevsner devotes no fewer than 27 lines to the latter, but I'm going to feature the bridge (which gets only four).

It cocks a snook at gravity with dignity, and just a hint of skittishness, as it performs an elegant little leap across the Ouse. The carefully calculated curves, contrasted with a few straight lines, are very pleasing. What's more, the curves aren't simply in the vertical plane (as you'd expect to find in most bridges), but in the horizontal plane too. As can be seen in the photo below, the parapet curves out as it descends to the road - a supremely stylish touch.










Tyringham House (the dome is not by Soane)

Moggerhanger Park, Beds, has thankfully survived when so many of Soane's country houses haven't. He was involved in its building and remodelling from 1791 until the 1830s, but its present form dates mostly from 1809 to 1812. For much of the 20th century it was a hospital; almost miraculously it wasn't irreversibly altered. In the Eating Room (the original Georgian name, apparently) the four Ionic columns were removed, but were stored in an outbuilding and later found to be intact. The house was in a perilous state by 1995, when restoration started, but it's now one of the best preserved Soane houses.

The grounds are open (for free) every day, and there are excellent views of the exterior. Twice a week there are tours of the interior, which I thoroughly recommend (details here). They don't allow photos inside, though, so if you want to see what it looks like, make a visit. 

















Thursday, 10 September 2015

Eric Forbes-Robertson - Post-Impressionism and Peter Pan

Eric Forbes-Robertson, Great Expectations, 1894
A couple of years ago Northampton Museum and Art Gallery held a small exhibition chosen from their collection of British paintings in the decades before the First World War. I won't say it was a revelation, but it did introduce me to quite a few painters I'd never heard of who I wanted to know more about. Harold Speed was one, who, on investigation, proves to be reasonably well known and well represented in galleries. But the picture that struck me most forcefully is the one above. It  is by Eric Forbes-Robertson, a name that was new to me, dates from 1894 and is called Great Expectations. It was shown in the RA's Post-Impressionism exhibition in 1979, but otherwise seems to rarely leave the vaults.

The chances are that Forbes-Robertson is new to any readers this blog might have too. There are only four oils by him in British public collections, (including one in the Tate), and biographical information about him is scanty (though he does at least have a Wikipedia entry). 

I think, on the evidence of this remarkable painting alone, that he deserves to be better known. Stylistically it is advanced for a British painter at this time; there were other artists working in what I suppose we have to call the Post-Impressionist style (though this has always struck me as being a particularly unhelpful categorisation), but they were a long way from the mainstream. (Roger Fry didn't hold the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in Britain - it was Fry who invented the term, indeed -  until 1910, and even then the paintings were mostly derided by the critics and public.)

The bold colours, simplified forms, slightly odd perspective and implicit drama all mark this picture as out of the ordinary. It seems to hint at a narrative, which remains elusive. Two young women are sitting on the floor of a room with very striking wallpaper (does it suggest rising flames?); one of them is dressed in black, the other has some sort of colourful clothing, possibly oriental. Why are they dressed so noticeably differently? The one on the right is staring intently at a younger boy, who is leaning his elbow on a table which has on it a bowl of fruit and a decanter of wine. The one on the left is either staring into space or at the boy (it's hard to tell in a small scale reproduction).

He has his back to them, his eyes closed as if lost in thought or even prayer, and his right hand raised to his mouth (is he sucking his thumb?). He is impassive, while the two women have expressions not altogether easy to read. The one on the right is perhaps looking at the boy urgently, while the other, in black, looks very gloomy or even malignant. It's all very enigmatic.

And what's the significance of the fruit and wine? And the title? (There's no relation to Dickens' novel that I can see.) Are the great expectations those of the two women, who are waiting to eat and drink? If so, why are they waiting? Are they waiting for his permission? Why would they have to have permission from a child? What is the relationship between them? Is he their brother? The composition throws a lot of emphasis on him, (not only the eyeline of at least one woman, but also the edges of the table and the skirting board all lead to him), and keeps him very separate from the two women. Whatever the answer to the mystery is, perhaps it lies in him.

As I've said, it's hard to find out much about Eric Forbes-Robertson. I've trawled the internet (which I realise doesn't count as original research) and I believe that what follows is the most complete online account of his life in one place (though there's a lot that remains undiscovered). (Maybe there are more comprehensive accounts in print, but I don't have access to an academic library.) In particular, I don't think his acting career and army service have been documented alongside his artistic life before.

Eric Forbes-Robertson (1865-1935) was from a cultured and presumably prosperous background. His father, John Forbes-Robertson (1822-1903), originally from Aberdeen, was a London art and theatre critic and journalist. Eric studied at the Royal Academy from 1883, and first went to France in 1885 where he attended the Academie Julian. He visited Pont-Aven, where Paul Gaugin had been working since 1886, in August 1890. He probably went with his close friend, fellow artist and future co-founder of the Camden Town Group Robert Polhill Bevan (1865-1925), who since his centenary exhibition in 1965 has been very much better known than Forbes-Robertson.

Armand Seguin, Eric Forbes-Robertson Reading, c1892
Armand Seguin, Portrait of Eric Forbes-Robertson, c1892
Forbes-Robertson lived in Pont-Aven until 1894, and was on close terms with other artists such as Armand Seguin (?1869-1903), Paul Peruser (1864-1927) and Charles Filigree (1863-1928), and the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). He knew Gaugin well enough to have his portrait painted by him in 1894 (though I haven't been able to find this picture). He was influenced by them all, and no doubt others too, such as Vuillard, Denis and Bonnard, who were members of the loose Pont-Aven school. Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Synthesism - he absorbed them all. During this period he acquired the nickname John le Celte, in reference to his Scottish ancestry.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, page from sketchbook, c1890, V&A


Eric Forbes-Robertson, Breton Child, 1891
He also became friends with Oscar Wilde, probably via his brothers (about whom more later). A substantial number of letters to and from Wilde and the Forbes-Robertsons are extant, relating to Wilde's American lecture tour of 1882 and his 1883 lectures at the RA, and presumably other topics too.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, Breton Children, Pont-Aven, 1893 (Leicester Art Gallery)

He was the only English artist to contribute to the first issue of Jarry's L'Ymagier in January 1895, and in 1899 to the Mercure de France.
Eric Forbes-Robertson, Adam and Eve, from L'Ymagier, 1895


In 1897 Forbes-Robertson married a Polish art student, Janina Flamm, in Jersey. The bridesmaid was Stanislawa de Karlowska (1876-1952), who was to become a notable artist herself (she's now represented in many British public collections). Bevan met her at the wedding and married her in Warsaw later the same year.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, In the Forest, Pont-Aven, c1895 (Tate Gallery)
Eric Forbes-Robertson, Trois Baigneuses, 1897


Forbes-Robertson returned to England in 1900, but continued to spend time in France. This brings to an end his best documented period as an artist, though he exhibited at the Allied Artists Association, a platform for modernist art, from 1911. Unfortunately, it's hard to find images of his pictures from this late period on the web. This might suggest that his early talent had evaporated by the time he was in his mid 30s, or it might just be bad luck that the wonderful pictures he painted later have all disappeared into private collections.

Eric Forbes-Robertson, Untitled, 1915 - This picture is currently for sale for $500 on rubylane.com
When the First World War broke out he was 49, but determined to fight. Being rather old, and having no military experience, his chances of doing so must have seemed slim, but he lied about his age (possibly with the connivance of the authorities), joined the ranks of the Royal Fusiliers as a corporal and went back to France. I wonder what experiences he had; they must have been very different to his earlier adventures in that country. He must have pleased his superiors, though, because he rose to commissioned rank and served in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant.

Forbes-Roberston had ten brothers and sisters, at least four of whom became well known in their own right. His sister Frances (1866-1956) married Henry Dawes Harrod, and, as Frances Forbes-Robertson Harrod, became a prolific late Victorian and Edwardian novelist, producing for example The Potentate in 1898. Some of her books are still available as print on demand editions, so they must still have a readership.

Three of his brothers, Johnston (1853-1937), Norman (1858-1932), and Ian (1859-1936) became actors (Norman sometimes dropped the 'Robertson' from his stage name). Johnstone was generally agreed, by critics such as Bernard Shaw, to be the finest Hamlet of his time (despite apparently not enjoying acting, feeling that he was temperamentally unsuited to the profession). He made six films, including a silent version of Hamlet in 1913, which survives complete; there are some brief extracts from it on Youtube (see here and here), and, even more excitingly, he recorded some Shakespearean speeches, sounding, it has to be said, very stagey and mannered to modern ears (see here). He was knighted in 1913, being among the first actors to be thus honoured, and wrote an autobiography, which presumably contains more details about Eric. As if all this wasn't enough, he was also an accomplished painter (see here). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the name Forbes-Robertson would have meant (Sir) Johnston to most people.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet

Eric was also an actor. He created the almost silent role of Noodler the pirate in the first production of Peter Pan in 1904, and it was his proud boast that he played this role in every production of the play  for 30 years, until his death. There's a contemporary account of him on stage, as a 'tall, bearded petticoated pirate who waggled his Forbes-Robertson fingers when he danced the hornpipe.' Apparently he would vanish completely when the spring tour was over, only to reappear in time for new rehearsals for the next production.

Programme for Peter Pan at the Palladium. 1932, with Eric ('John Kelt') as Noodler, and his niece as Peter
He acted not under his real name but as John Kelt, obviously a jokey reference to his youthful nickname, and this is why (presumably) earlier accounts of him have overlooked this aspect of his life. We can only guess why he adopted a stage name; perhaps he didn't want to upset Johnstone, who was playing serious roles, by bringing his surname into disrepute by associating it with light entertainment. He (Eric) also acted in eight films, including one talkie, Bucket of Blood, based on the Edgar Allen Poe story 'The Tell-Tale Heart'. As far as I can discover, none of these films survive, though there are some stills from Bucket of Blood on the BFI website.

The four acting Forbes-Robertson brothers between them established a stage dynasty. There are too many of them to list here, but, for example, Johnstone was the father of Jean Forbes-Robertson (1905-1962), and Norman the grandfather of Meriel Forbes (1913-2000), who, as well as being an accomplished actress herself, was the wife of Sir Ralph Richardson. The granddaughter of Johnston (and therefore the great niece of Eric) is Joanna Van Gyseghem, born in 1941 and still acting now (her most recent IMDb credit is from 2009), who is a living link with the painter of the picture which initially triggered this indagation.

Haydn Reynolds Mackey (1881-1979), Les Cabotins: Portrait of Eric Forbes-Robertson, the Actor, with the Artist (detail), 1932



Norman was knocked down and killed by a car in Exeter in September 1932, and, sadly, in March 1935 Eric suffered the same fate (I assume in London). He was sixty-nine. He died a Catholic (whether he was a convert, or whether his family were lifelong Catholics, I've been unable to discover); a requiem mass was said for him in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington, and he's buried in the Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green.

There's a great deal more that I'd like to know about him. I'd particularly like to be able to see the pictures he produced after c1900, though it's possible that his creative energies went mostly into his acting career then. (After all, in the title of the above painting, from near the end of his life,  he is described as an actor, not an artist.) Did he produce any art inspired by the war, or the stage? How did his work develop stylistically? Perhaps one day these questions will be answered, but in the meantime we'll have to be satisfied with his small but remarkable known body of work.