Hm, hm and that was all
The present queen was not the only person to feel, when her grandmother Queen Mary died in 1953, that she ‘could not imagine a world without her’. The ‘old queen’, as she was generally known to the public, had become a totemic figure, rigidly upright in her toque and pearls, a grandmother to the nation. Her daughter-in-law, the queen mother, later fulfilled the same role, but in an entirely different way. Where the ‘queen mum’ was, or appeared to be as long as nobody let her speak in public, twinkly and friendly, fond of gin and jewellery, Queen Mary was cast as grandparent in the severe Victorian mould, a living reminder of an age gone by and not very fondly remembered. For the generation who were in their twenties during the Second World War, which included my parents and their friends, to say that someone ‘sat there like Queen Mary’ was to indicate that a terminal blight had been cast over the occasion. James Pope-Hennessy, born in 1916, belonged to that generation. He came from a distinguished Catholic and literary family and was a friend of many of his most interesting contemporaries, Cecil Beaton and James Lees-Milne among them. He loved female company, was ‘much sought after by hostesses for his sparkling conversation’ and by 1953 had established a reputation as a biographer. Two volumes on the life of Richard Monckton-Milnes, the late Georgian politician and socialite, were followed by a life of Monckton-Milnes’s son, Lord Crewe. The latter was the quid pro quo for access to the archives and was, Pope-Hennessy admitted, ‘less than inspired’. Its appearance in 1955, however, started a train of thought in the mind of Crewe’s daughter Lady Cynthia Colville, who had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. She spoke to Owen Morshead, the royal librarian, and shortly afterwards Pope-Hennessy was surprised and annoyed to be asked to write the official biography.
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Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018
Rosemary Hill, in her piece on Queen Mary, mentions Prince Albert Victor, Victoria’s eldest grandson, known in his time as Prince Eddy, in the usual unflattering terms and in the usual context of the unsavoury scandals that continue to be associated with him (LRB, 6 December). It is perhaps worth pointing out that there was rather more to him than scandal.
In 1881, Prince Eddy along with his younger brother, the future King George V, visited Japan as midshipmen on board the warship HMS Bacchante. At the time Eddy was 17 and he seems to have acquitted himself well in handling the demanding protocol of the Japanese imperial court. At an audience the two boys had with Emperor Meiji and his consort, Eddy acted as spokesman, telling the emperor that a portrait of Queen Victoria was on its way to him as a gesture of friendship, and presenting the empress with two wallabies, which he had acquired during their earlier stay in Australia.
Andrew Cook, in Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had (2006), argues that there is no evidence to substantiate any of the rumours that swirled around his name long after his death. Prince Eddy’s diary and papers were destroyed by his aunt, Princess Beatrice, it seems, after his death, but Prince George’s diary, which is in the Royal Archives, and the private writings of others who accompanied them, such as the diary of Sir Ernest Satow, suggest that they behaved creditably in Australia and Japan, though their interests were rather juvenile for their guardian’s taste and George did insist on getting tattooed.
Prince Eddy was certainly not academically gifted, and it seems that the two boys served in the Royal Navy together because George was known to have a good influence on him. I do not want to suggest that he lived a blameless life, for he did not, but is it not going too far to give credence to the Duchess of Devonshire’s claim, many years after his death at the age of 28 in 1892, that he was ‘mentally deficient’, or to suggest that his death ‘came as pure relief to most people’? Perhaps it did in retrospect, after George had ascended the throne, but Gladstone wrote in the privacy of his diary at the time that his death was ‘a great loss to our party’, for Eddy appears to have had liberal views on the question of Home Rule for Ireland.
Rosemary Hill wonders if Queen Mary’s practice of asking for objects that she took a fancy to on visits to people’s houses could simply be a rumour. John Grigg in Lloyd George: War Leader (2002) describes how the queen, on learning in 1917 that Arthur and Ruth Lee proposed to offer Chequers to the nation as a country residence for the prime minister, asked if a portrait of Charles II at Chequers could be sold to her ‘for the Royal Collection’. As Grigg says, there was only one response open to the Lees in these circumstances, so the portrait was presented to Her Majesty with the Lees’ ‘humble duty’. In return she gave them a signed photograph of herself, framed in Benares brocade.
Vol. 41 No. 2 · 24 January 2019
While I don’t wish to cast aspersions on a lady whose knowledge of antiques was considerable and who did much to encourage the conservation of textiles, in particular embroidery, I can in response to Rosemary Hill’s judicious indecision on the matter give some examples of Queen Mary’s sometimes less than courteous ways of acquiring objects she coveted (LRB, 6 December 2018). My mother worked for some years at a well-known country house and remembered vividly helping to transfer smaller objets d’art and delicate items of furniture from the yellow drawing room to a place of safety for the duration of the queen’s visit for the annual race meeting.
After the Second World War, as companion to a close friend of the then queen mother, my mother learned from her elderly mistress of the visits Queen Mary made to her friend’s home in Berkshire, where many of her precious things were stored. During these visits she enjoyed opening up three or four of the items and regaling her friend and hostess with stories of how and from whom she had acquired them – usually as ‘gifts’. An item admired by a visiting royal was always offered as a gift, so that considerate royal visitors were mindful of what they admired.
Long after I had heard these and other stories – of the jeweller in Chichester, for example, who was careful to lock away his most precious items for her visits; and even then, when Queen Mary selected smaller items to give to staff at Goodwood, he remained unpaid until the Duchess of Richmond heard what had happened and recompensed him – my late husband told me of the visit made by King George V and Queen Mary in 1935 or thereabouts to Stonyhurst. A common tale among boys and staff when my husband was there in the 1940s was that, as this was to be the first visit to a Roman Catholic school by a reigning monarch since the Reformation, every effort was made to ensure their welcome. The queen enormously enjoyed the rich display of Stonyhurst’s famous treasures, to protect which many Jesuits had suffered privations, exile and even death.
Apparently on the procession back to the visitors’ cars, a lady-in-waiting quietly spoke with the rector suggesting that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to accept the offer of one of the charming little embroidery-covered books of devotion she had just been admiring – as a fitting memento of this significant visit. With great care the rector attempted to explain the concept of mortmain for church property and that not only were the books not in his gift or in anyone else’s, but also that they were of great devotional significance for the faithful, for whom Stonyhurst held them in trust. The parting was glacial.
Bosham, West Sussex
Queen Mary didn’t always get what she wanted. In autumn 1968 I visited Old Battersea House, where Mrs A.M.W. Stirling (sister-in-law of William de Morgan, the potter) had lived. Mrs Stirling died in 1965, aged 99, and the 17th-century house was decaying, but it did still house a superb collection of de Morgan pottery, which one could view by appointment. Thus one Saturday afternoon her old manservant, Mr Peters, left me alone to wander round the ill-lit damp-smelling rooms. De Morgan’s fabulous lustre pots gleamed on tables, together with his ‘Persian’ glazed vases. It was a ceramic collector’s dream.
When I said goodbye to Mr Peters in the hall, he mentioned a visit by Queen Mary. As the queen entered she drew attention to an unusual deep-blue ‘Persian’ vase on a high shelf. Mrs Stirling did not rise to the bait. There followed a tour of the house, then the queen made her departure. ‘I like them all, but I like that blue one best,’ she said. ‘So do I,’ replied Mrs Stirling. Queen Mary left empty-handed.
In the Second World War when the nation was urged to Dig for Victory and to Make Do and Mend, my grandmother Elizabeth Lawson turned herself into an expert and innovative basket-weaver. My grandfather roamed the Sussex countryside searching the hedgerows for possible native materials and the bath was frequently occupied overnight by a tangle of old man’s beard and willow and whatnot, soaking to become malleable. Through much experimentation and dogged hard work, she produced a huge variety of shapes and styles, mostly utilitarian, but often with contrasting light and dark stems as well as panache. As a member of the Women’s Institute, she began to give lectures on her techniques and to exhibit examples. The grandest occasion was a collective show of craftwork at which Queen Mary was the guest of honour. She scrutinised everything, then pointed to a charming basket of my grandmother’s, and said: ‘I like that one.’ It was code, of course. More than honoured, Grandma was annoyed.
Ann Lawson Lucas
Beverley, East Yorkshire