A New Woman in a new age, Kathleen Hale blazed a trail as she waltzed into the midst of the British literati.
‘Twice in my life,’ Kathleen Hale’s memoir begins, ‘I have narrowly escaped fearful retribution for ‘indecency’ and ‘immorality’.’ The first, for absent-mindedly doodling bare-breasted mermaids in the margins of a scripture textbook; the second, for cutting her hair to a defiantly short bob and fringe at the age of 18 at college, ‘where decorum demanded that I lengthen my skirts and put up my hair.’ Summoned to be sent down by her governors, ‘I must have been inspired for I remember clearly saying that I had not cut off my morals with my hair.’ The hair stayed cropped for the rest of her life.
Kathleen Hale Construction
By the time Hale died in 2000 at the age of 101, she must have seemed a relic of the past. Her work, ranging from character sketches to book illustration – particularly the luscious backdrops and costumes that make the Orlando books a riot for little, wandering eyes – offers a delightful slice of Edwardian imagination today, though most were published after the Second World War in the latter half of her life. Tellingly, the story of her autobiography, A Slender Reputation, ends more or less in 1976, just shy of ten years after her husband died. We hear nothing of Orlando until Chapter 17 – some 200 pages in to a 280-page book – though it was he who provoked its title, when Hale’s friend, the artist and plantsman Cedric Morris, said of his success: ‘Do you mean to tell me, Kathleen, that you have hung your slender reputation on the broad shoulders of a eunuch cat?’
Hale’s extraordinary life spanned the entirety of the 20th century, and she spent it in search of creative, exciting companionship, landing herself time after time in the midst of Brtiain’s artistic high circles. But the stories she told – the memories she clung to, and which made their way invariably into her art – were of the Victorian clutches from which she escaped as a young woman, and her emergence as an artist in a world between wars.
Desperate to establish herself within a new generation, a love of art and a developing talent for drawing formed part of the gently resistant and naïve rebellion she would continue into later life: against her mother’s philistinism, the ‘ponderous’ 19th century décor of their home, against her sister’s ‘serious young men’ and their highbrow erudition, against the tedium of turn-of-the-century education, against the sanctimony of the church in which her mother, daughter of a vicar, had grown up. Even Reading University, where Hale would continue the art studies she had begun at Manchester Art School, promising Oxonian dreaming spires, disappointed with its dark, Victorian, red brick edifice. When, over a decade later, Hale and her husband moved to Rabley Willow, their late Victorian home – ‘the ugliest house in Hertfordshire’, according to the neighbours – she hid the old red and yellow brick with white paint and espaliered fruit trees up its walls. Shoots of greengage intruded through the skirting boards into the sitting room, where the old fireplace niches, wrapped in new copper sheets, soon turned to verdigris with the territorial spraying of Crocus, a Siamese tom-cat.
Capricorn, 1994, watercolour, gouache and ink
Hale’s story is of a similar metamorphosis, a journey from her drab suburban background to Soho, from Victoriana to a new age of sexual liberation and professional independence. As a young girl, she had danced nude Isadora Duncan moves before her mirror, enwreathed in the Indian silks she had been gifted by an older lodger with the family (from another neighbour she acquired sets of Arthur Rackham and Edmond Dulac illustrated books; an early inspiration).
She was a budding feminist in an outmoded household, using art as a form of self-discovery, painfully aware of the standards and scruples of the time in which she was living. Hale’s father, a travelling piano salesman, died early of syphilitic paralysis, leaving her mother no other recourse but to continue the business herself. She was left to be raised by a bitter and domineering aunt: a period of religious obeisance, austerity and domestic drudgery that proved enough to sow the early seeds of atheism and a desire for adventure and creativity. She remembered her mother returning to make a home for them in suburban Manchester, the business having failed, ‘hampered by what today would be called ‘sexual harassment’, for Mother was a remarkably beautiful woman.’ Outside the town lay a virtually pre-industrial, rural farming world of macabre cruelty that helped instil a love for animals. It was also, vividly, a man’s world, as she discovered working with a cart horse during the First World War who would only obey when shouted at with virile gusto: ‘I was speaking to him in a foreign language: he had been always handled by men with rough voices and swear words. I imitated a male voice and used all the ‘Bs’ and ‘Fs’ I could think of, and he obeyed at once.’
Suzanna and the Elders, watercolour & pencil
When she arrived in London, her heart set on a career in art – any art, any career – she did so at a time when no women except those accompanied by a man were allowed entry to the Café Royal. One literary agent, who owned a bedsit in which she stayed, would at client parties ‘flop out her pink little tits and offer them to the guests’. Advances from otherwise friendly, helpful, loving male acquaintances were made as casually as ‘Shall I rape you?’ It is difficult to know whether to feel distressed or heartened by the matter-of-fact way such episodes are related in her writing: distressed at the apparent normality, and frequency, of it all; heartened by the fact that they, like every other later difficulty Hale seemed to face, from destitution to marital disharmony, seemed to slip off her back like water off a duck. She was now within a world of sexual discovery that only a ‘gauche innocence’ would protect her from, ‘carapaced in suburban virginity and apt to laugh at any serious proposition.’
That attitude will have served her well when she was famously hired as Augustus John’s secretary – for £2 a week, a spare bedroom and meals provided. She met him in middleage, twenty years older than her and at the height of his fame, and remembered him as a fundamentally shy man, intelligent, with ‘a feminine ability to draw people out by asking the right questions, even if he knew nothing of the subject’ – an ideal quality in a society portraitist. ‘I always felt that there was more to Augustus than he could ever express, and, though he appeared uninhibited, he seemed to me to be always trying to break through tremendous frustration’. Like the other women in his life, she was subject to ‘mock battles’, ‘scuffles that always began and ended in laughter – hardly the atmosphere for passion. I have always found laughter as good as a chastity belt. Once, though, out of curiosity, I allowed him to seduce me. The sex barrier down, this aberration only added a certain warmth to our friendship.’ But it was ultimately Dorelia who was to outshine him. Her arrival had been at her consent: ‘Is there room for Kathleen Hale?’, John is supposed to have asked his mistress. The John children, apparently omnipresent and quietly but deeply interested in their adult conversation, made a lasting impression. It was a position that lasted only 16 months, but coloured her life forever: Orlando, we are told, was largely based on her later husband, but there is an element of Augustus to him: louche, gourmand, a bon viveur but, in his own quiet, peculiar way, a social revolutionary.
The other major male figure of the time was Frank Potter, painter of the murals that adorned the walls of the Studio Club (fellow members were Frank Dobson, Christopher Nevinson, and the critic Jan Gordon). Together they shared in a starvation ‘punctuated by rich dinners’ that saw her moved even to pawn the hank of hair she had whacked off at college for a not inconsiderable £5.
Potter introduced her to Post-Impressionism and the antiquities of the British Museum, a world of avant-garde influence she would always struggle to engage with, rooted visually in the memory of the Victorian watercolours that hung in her childhood home: ‘…however hard I try to paint in a broad and impress-ionistic manner, back I go like snapped elastic to this early and precise influence.’
Men were often her introductions to new sights and ways of seeing, but it was a sign of her independence that she never felt she owed them anything: a recurring theme of her memoirs is of suitors – among them the socialist Stewart Gray and C.K. Ogden – hurled out of doors and off carts back into the dirt.
When Potter moved to Étaples to sketch the locals, he asked her to join him. The colony was popular with Australian and American painters, and the Scottish colourists John D. Fergusson and Samuel Peploe, as well as Jessica Dismorr, studying under her American teacher Max Bohm. It was big, cheap, picturesque: a place where regional costume and public pissoirs were still commonplace. As had Dorelia and Gwen John, Kathleen sketched local fisher-women, their mothers, their children: an enterprising exercise at a time when women artists were still restricted in their access to life models. ‘Even when the women were heavily pregnant, they pushed out their cumbersome shrimp nets every day at dawn, and waded through the cold sea water which rose higher than their swollen bellies.’
This period produced some of Hale’s very best work: fearless portraits that succumbed to none of the Romantic artificialism other chroniclers of Étaple’s industry had. She and Potter survived on a comically stereotypical diet of bitter coffee, baguettes, fried eggs and camembert for breakfast, lunch and supper. But Frank, who had served in WWI, was apparently cursed with PTSD and a consequent ‘painter’s block’. A third party was asked to intervene, requesting that Hale return to England: her progress was making life difficult for her floundering partner. Her drawings came back with her, and were exhibited at the New English Arts Club, earning an introduction to work in William Rothenstein’s studio (which she eventually turned down).
She returned to cosmopolitan, down-and-out Fitzrovia – a Paris in London, ‘the city of artists, where I had always intended to live’, haunted by Sickert, Kramer, Bomberg, Meninsky, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (who delicately taught her the value of colour painting imitation marble). After the heaviness of her childhood décor, she took pride in the ‘blissful humility’ of her rooms.
More than a fascination, art had until then been her lifeline. She had illustrated dust jackets for W.H. Smith and painted theatrical figurines for the Russian Ballet, but it had rarely been enough to sustain independent living for long. Her marriage to the pathologist Douglas McClean in 1926 gave her the financial freedom to pick and choose her design commissions, and to enrol at the Central School of Art to learn how to paint in oils under Bernard Meninsky. The later success of the Orlando series would see the situation reversed, her husband pushed into a higher tax bracket thanks to the ballooning sales of his wife’s work.
Domestic silence seemed to stifle Hale. She was an essentially active person, and an ‘open’ marriage allowed her to keep up with the bacchanal festivities of her Bohemian acquaintances. She would visit the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting established at Benton End in Hadleigh by long-term friends Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines (the latter of whom she had a one-off affair with, at the suggestion of a psychiatrist). A young Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling were among the stand-out students in this ‘dry corner of Suffolk’, as Ronald Blythe remembered it, ‘the garden spiky with easels. The house had Newlyn blue doors and reeked of wine and candles. It was Provence in Suffolk.’
The variety of the company Hale kept, and whose influence rubbed off on her, provoked a body of work that is peculiar: eccentric, individual, inconsistent but with flashes of strange brilliance for every handful of untutored sketches. She had a caricaturist’s talent for character reading, both with the pencil and on the page, and a brief stint teaching children emboldened the innocence, naivety, lack of inhibition – whatever we should want to call it – that could lend even the most cursory life studies a surreal, Proustian significance (In Search of Lost Time was her choice of book on Desert Island Discs, gifted to her by Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland: ‘Suddenly, as though through a magnifying glass, I saw every moment of my daily life, every tiny object, scent and sound as a matter of the greatest impact.’).
There was also a deliciously twee aspect to her personality: on visiting an exhibition of Alexander Calder’s miraculous mobiles, for example, she was moved to make ‘her own’, but with decorative animals cut from tin. Her trials led to the small series of cut metal vignettes – some imitating underwater aquaria – which she exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery (‘Adult toys’, approved a delighted Stanley Spencer).
Orlando, The Marmalade Cat, 1950, lithograph
But it is Orlando, named after the real Marmalade Cat who kept close company with her two sons, for which Hale will be best remembered – Orlando, who inevitably starved her of the ‘despairs and exultations’ of painting, consuming her creative practice. The first Orlando stories she made out of exasperation at the lack of quality children’s books available at the time, finding most to be the products of ‘hack-workers without the least under-standing of childhood’. But she invested a personal resonance in the united family she had created, and which, ‘after the death of my father and the separation from my mother, I had never had.’
When an initial proposal fell through, it was Noel Carrington, Editor of Country Life and brother to Dora, who would take Orlando on and introduced Hale to the printing firm Cowells who would print him. After the labours of colour-matching the first Orlando volume, Hale volunteered to autolithograph all subsequent books – work for which, of course, she was not paid, but that gave her creative control over the cornucopia of details she liked to provide in back-ground scenes. She worked closely with the firm’s apprenticed printers, who soon gave up trying to curb her enthusiasm and told her instead to join the union. Her £5 postal cheque was rejected: women, apparently, were not admitted.
At the time, stone lithographic plates were being replaced with zinc, which had to be submerged in acid with layers of vibrating marbles to roughen the surface to emulate the original chalk drawings. But these were still cumbersome to handle – sent by rail freight to Rabley Willow, where they were uncrated, worked up, and sent back to the printers. When Cowells invented their patented plastic plates, ‘finer than the thinnest tracing paper’, Hale was one of the first to adapt to the new medium. Noel Carrington promoted the process in the 1950 Penrose Annual, with an illustration from Hale’s Orlando Keeps a Dog and a figure by Henry Moore on the reverse – a sign of the cut-through she wielded, and the company she could comfortably keep.