Figures & Landscapes
My mother’s earliest public recognition came at the age of eight when she won an award in a competition organised by Chilprufe underwear. The competition was for a picture of a toy bear wearing a Chilprufe vest. My mother drew her own toy bear and the prize was another Chilprufe vest, this time for the bear.
As the years passed she was to become a part of that renaissance in wood and copper engraving and etching which was an exciting feature of the art scene of the twenties and thirties, a renaissance which included, among many others, Clifford Webb, John Buckland Wright, John O’Connor and John Petts.
Over the years her work was shown in mixed shows at the Anthony Blond, the New English Art Club, Gallery One, and other galleries in London, and she later exhibited in many shows featuring local Herefordshire artists, in one at Hereford Museum called ‘Lettice Sandford and the Golden Cockerel Press’, and a very successful final show at the Kilvert Gallery in Clyro.
For this exhibition Lettice had printed some special artists proofs of her favourite engravings. At this time she also looked through her papers and discovered some prints that had originally been done for her own delight and never appeared in public. All these were printed from the original blocks by Reg Boulton, with the exception of one which was printed by John Randall.
At one point she had decided that my two sisters were ‘too much for me’ and took me away with her for a holiday in Bognor, and later Weymouth. She was working on her etchings, but the dim lights of the hotel strained her eyes, and not long after this she had to give up wood engraving and etching. In later works, such as Aucusson and Nicholette, and her childrens books Coo-My-Doo, and Roocoo and Panessa, both about fantail pigeons, based on the pigeons that fluttered round the eaves of our home, she used pen and ink.
She produced very little artwork between 1950 and the 1980s . Then, after a gap of many years, she returned to the life of an artist. Unlike her prints, which were mainly celebrations of the human form, her later work, usually in watercolour, was a record of those things that she found most delightful in the Herefordshire countryside, its buildings, meadows, hills, uplands, coppices and groves. Her finest work of all is probably nearly all to be found in books published by my father’s Boars Head and Golden Cockerell Presses.
She was born Lettice Mackintosh Rate. Her mother had died young and her father (my grandfather) was fairly remote, so she and her four sisters to a large degree brought up themselves, while however observing customs of the utmost decorum, and with the aid of nannies, governesses, musical and artistic instructors, and chaperones. The names Lettice Mackintosh were considered eccentric by some, and at school she was nicknamed Watercress Waterproof.
They were a talented family. The eldest sister, Muriel, some years older than Lettice and known to most of her friends as Robin, studied at the Royal College of Music under Herbert Howells. Her subject was conducting, at that time an even less usual occupation for a woman than now. A friend of Cecil Sharpe's, Robin was interested in the traditional songs still being sung by some women to ease their daily work. On one typical expedition my mother went with her to discover hitherto unrecorded songs on the islands of Col and Tiree.
Another sister, Peggy, was musical and a third, Elizabeth (Betty), studied music and modern dancing. All four were inspired by the revival of folk dance and music of the twenties and gave public performances in aid of various charities, in period costume. The group, in which passing men were occasionally granted walk on parts, was called the Greenwood Players.
My mother's grandmother, a talented and sensitive woman who read Dante’s ‘Il Paradiso’ in Italian, had a London house and a country house called Milton Court near Dorking in Surrey. Family legend has it that she was the great granddaughter of the Prince Regent, who later was to become George IV.
The Prince had fallen in love with Mlle Papinot, one of the ladies in waiting at the Royal Court. The offspring of their love was called Charles. Mlle Papinot, as then often happened with royal mistresses, was married off to an obliging subject, doubtless with a suitably large cash reward. He was a merchant called Candy and Charles Candy, a debonaire young man, was later known by his friends as Beau Candy or Sugar Candy. He lived at Chipstead in Surrey.
One year Beau Candy’s granddaughter, my great grandmother Alice, rented another house in Seymour Street in Mayfair, for my mother and her sisters to live in and have an experience of city life.
Once a week my mother went to draw fonts and well heads in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These, situated near the entrance, were felt to be safer subjects than those rather more naked artworks which might lie further into the museum. Even on these apparently innocuous trips a chaperone was thought necessary and this role was undertaken by her grandmother's personal maid, Mrs Rose.
Upstairs at Milton Court near Dorking, the grandmother's large Jacobean country home, my mother copied the designs on a cassone decorated by Uccello. Later, when the place was inherited by her father and he and his daughters moved in, the cassone was sold to pay for the installation of electric light in the huge residence.
The huge barns of the home farm appear in some of my mother's works of this date, including The Miracle and The Jesse Tree. My mother also remembers drawing her sister Betty's feet standing barefoot on a bridge over a tributary of the river Mole, which ran through the gardens.
She was sent to boarding school at The Manor House, Brondesbury, in North London. It had been founded by Miss Soulsby, a high minded Victorian educationalist, who was succeeded by Miss Abbott who was headmistress in my mother's time.
My mother remembers a lino covered staircase, up and down which the students thundered on their way to classes many times a day. Its walls were hung with uplifting quotations and one that my mother remembered went;
'E'en the light hairbell lifts her head
Elastic from her airy tread.'
These were World War I years, and one term there was an unexpected holiday during the construction of a gun emplacement outside the school, to be used in the hurling of missiles at passing Zepellins.
My mother explains that she was not much good at sport, unlike her younger sister Betty. The exception was swimming, in which she gained a Life Saving Certificate. She also received tuition in fencing because it was felt to be beneficial to young ladies of that time who were required to have very straight backs. Other lessons took place flat on her back on a long board with a hole in it for her head, for the same reason.
Art was what she was best at and the art master, who was important to my mother, was Percy Jowett. He had not been able to go to war because of a gammy leg. At art classes the chaperone was Mlle Couchoux, who also taught French.
Her sister Robin brought back from Italy reproductions of Renaissance Italian painting and these my mother later felt had been a strong influence on her, especially the oval Renaissance faces which surfaced sometimes in her own work.
Her father Lachlan Rate was persuaded to let her go to art school. A place was found for her in austere but high minded lodgings at Harrington Gardens, South Kensington, run by the Girls Diocesan Association, and she attended the Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole school of art on Camden Hill. For three terms she and the other pupils copied plaster casts. Of an evening they were allowed to paint brief sketches in oils.
My mother never liked oil paint as a medium very much. Watercolour, of which she was already very fond, was not then held in as much esteem as now. Her Japan black paint box was put away, to languish many years unused. In the course of her studies on Camden Hill, she became interested in book illustration and moved on to the Chelsea Polytechnic in Manresa Road in Chelsea, where she was delighted to find that the Art Department was now being run by her old friend and teacher Percy Jowett. Another teacher was Robert Day who taught her engraving on wood, and she became part of a small and dedicated class in etching run by Graham Sutherland.
‘At that time’, says my mother, ‘he was in his earliest stage of engraving nature in extreme detail so that each leaf or stalk could be recognised as of that particular tree or shrub and he had a delight in country scenes that followed in the tradition of Palmer and Calvert. He encouraged us to seek out their work.’
To this period belongs my mother’s big drawing, The Jesse Tree, which has the home farm buildings at Milton in the background, and the etching ‘The Miracle’ which shows the Virgin Mary appearing to a homely figure who is amazed as she digs the cabbages, and in which the very fine lines of the Virgin Mary now seem to have miraculously disappeared from the copper plate altogether.
The wonderful large wood engraving ‘The Isles of the Blest’ also dates from this period and, so my mother explained, ‘Although it was one of my most successful, I actually forgot about its existence, so it was never seen or exhibited or even printed until I rediscovered it in an old drawer in 1980’.
On leaving the Polytechnic in 1927 Lettice went on a skiing holiday with her sister Betty to Maloya, in Switzerland. It was there that she met Christopher Sandford, my father.
Of Anglo Irish descent, he was at that time extremely fond of the new sport of motoring, which he combined with a passion of his, for old English churches and especially mediæval stained glass. Lettice and Christopher had in common a love of printing, he of the printed word and she of the printed image.
My mother’s first commissioned job was for the Christmas issues of the Illustrated London News in 1931 and 1932. It was to illustrate with wood engravings some Tibetan folk tales, which had been collected and transcribed by Barbara Bingley.
‘Meanwhile,’ Lettice told me, ‘Christopher and I both got so interested in finely produced books that The Boars Head Press came into being, named after the Sandford family crest. We ran the press as a joint enterprise, I illustrated many of the books, and Christopher set the type and printed them, using the facilities of the Chiswick Press, of which he was a director.’
Together they also chose the bindings, and my mother's work for the earliest of these, in books like Clervis and Bellamie and The Magic Forest, has something of the atmosphere and appearance of Mediaeval woodcuts.
She was experimenting in other styles in wood and copper and was very excited by the edition of Comus, with illustrations by Blair Hughes Stanton, that was published by the Gregynog Press. ‘I admired his use of black figures set off by his intricate use of the graver,’ she told me, ‘and he had a tremendous influence on the direction my work would take, which can first be seen in my illustrations for Thalamos, with its rhythmic and free expression. This was the first time I thought of trying a black figure with white lines.’
Lettice illustrated the few fragments of poetry that have survived from Sapho, the poetess of Lesbos, for another volume from the Boars Head Press and of these my favourite is a picture of myself, as a small shepherd boy, herding sheep. The cottage in the background is Heather Combe, on the edge of Dartmoor, which my parents rented and where many of the Boars Head Press books were designed. At this time it was, I think, my parents’ spiritual home, although they also had a house in Kensington.
Lettice also did illustrations for Hero and Leander which were published by another of Christopher’s enterprises, the Golden Hours Press.
A year or so after this she saw some copper engravings by Matisse and was enchanted by his ‘sparse technique’. My father had now acquired from Robert Gibbings the Golden Cockerel Press and Matisse’s freehand inspired my mother in her illustrations for three great Cockerel books, The Golden Bed of Kydno, The Song of Songs, on copper, and The Cockerel Greek Anthology on zinc. ‘All these,’ my mother told me, ‘relied on a very sensuous line that seemed appropriate to the texts.’
In 1936 Lettice and Christopher moved to Eye, a manor house in North Herefordshire, built for Ferdinando Gorges in 1680. She was delighted with the move and this delight was manifest in the family Christmas Card for 1938 in which she showed her three children and other things she loved such as the weeping ash, the manor house, Creeping Jenny, her mother in law’s caravan in which she had travelled over the Alps behind oxen and the little GWR railway station of Berrington and Eye. This was a private edition for friends only, so that only later did it come to be seen by the general public.
‘In those last idyllic years before the war,’ Lettice told me, ‘I decided to write and illustrate a couple of children's books, inspired partly by the Baba books. My stories were about pigeons called RooCoo and Panessa and Coo-My-Doo, and for models I had the forty fantail pigeons which lived in a dovecot at Eye Manor at that time.’
The house was a rendezvous for many of the artists and writers commissioned by my father to work for the Golden Cockerell Press. A typical day is celebrated in a poem, ‘Sunday at Eye’, by their author and poet friend Christopher Whitfield.
‘Sunday at Eye, that house of rural calm,
Where History sleeps, her head upon her arm,
Where Rodney's younger sons spent tranquil days,
Proud of their port, and wise in rustick ways!
The day begins, and from the freezing night
Rises reluctant with its Wintry light.
See, where the woods come creeping down the hill,
The bare trees white with frozen rime, and still!
See the flat fields, hoary and hard all day,
Where cattle stand, and chew their whispy hay!
See the grey sky where, in the cold dawn's light
The daws and rooks pass by in silent flight,
While the red sun blinks through the frozen haze,
And in Eye's windows sees his own red face!
The morning stirs, the children's voices sound,
Lighting the house with laughter from all round;
And by the ha-ha, through the cold there goes
The parson, muffled to his dripping nose,
While singly from the solitary bell
The notes sound out, the solemn hour to tell.
A child or two and two old ladies go
Into the church; the Sexton follows slow.
Now the bell stops, and seeing all is clear,
Daphnis and Chloe and their Friend appear.
The pigeons flutter to the opened door,
Fed but an hour since, yet demanding more.
The car is started, and with Tigger too,
The rural trio seek for rustick pleasures new.’
Daphnis and Chloe are of course my parents, thus named because my father had recently published their story. Tigger was their golden cocker spaniel. After a visit to the Black Mountains in Wales, they return for tea and;
‘Now to Eye's fireside do the trio wend
Their way through dusk that marks the day's chill end.
There the logs crackle, and with joy they see
Steam in their cups the aromatick tea.
The shutters closed, the curtains closely drawn,
They re-explore the day from dusk to dawn,
Take down the books that Daphnis' press creates,
While Chloe for her children, stitching, waits.
The busy brood arrives, and games begin
That turn to wisdom Adam's venial sin.
Shouts, laughter, children's joys, fill all the air;
What sweet domestick scene could be more fair?
But soon fair Chloe, lifting up her head,
Rises, and calls the happy brood to bed.
So goes the day. And when the house is still
And Chloe's cares are done, they take their fill
Of wise converse, forgetting not the jest
That lends the serious hour its wonted zest.
But night draws on, and soon they take their way
To bed, and sleep, to meet another day.
The Friend awhile reads verse of ancient Greece,
By Daphnis printed for delight's increase,
With fair engravings by fair Chloe made,
One of a hare loved by a simple maid.
Happy, he sleeps, though he with day must leave
These pleasant scenes for cares that make him grieve.
And, though his stay is short, his thanks come deep
From a touched heart that hopes their friendship long to keep.’
War came. Troops were stationed at Eye. Galvanised sheds were built as garages for vehicles and ammunition store, and subterranean hideouts constructed throughout the county. My father slept by day. He was busy, usually by night, setting up a resistance movement to be brought into action in the event of enemy invasion. The cellars at Eye had become a secret guerilla headquarters with Christopher in control.
Many things that my parents had planned had to be abandoned with the arrival of war and petrol rationing. Even shopping was difficult. Twice a week my mother and I rode the four miles to Leominster on bicycles with baskets fore and aft, returning laden with tins of powdered milk, small portions of whale meat, and other wartime delicacies, such as raw carrots to be made into Woolton Pie. Hens now perched in the shrubbery, pigs snorted in a specially constructed pig sheds, nine evacuee children and their schoolteachers moved in, and horses grazed the once immaculate lawns.
As so much more devolved on her, my mother had little time for art.
The war came to an end and slowly all sorts of things became possible again. My mother was becoming increasingly intrigued by a series of artefacts as ancient perhaps or even older than woodcut, and certainly stranger in their provenance. She was introduced to them by Miss Philla Davis, a council craftworker who, travelling by motorcycle, passed a night at Eye once a week to give classes in the school or village hall. The motorcycle of this remarkable woman was hung round with whatever was needed for that week of craft work, vital bits of hessian, old legs for restored stools, rope and straw, bolts of cloth, men’s boots, goggles, rush for chair seats, dummy figures, half upholstered chairs.
Inspired by Philla, my mother was to play a major part in the regeneration of the ancient craft of corn dolly making. She travelled far and wide on tours of discovery to learn the secrets of traditional makers, and regional variations. The closest maker of corndollies she visited was in the Herefordshire hamlet of Stockton Hennor, the furthest lived in Exmouth.
She wrote, and co-wrote with Philla, pamphlets and books, and for more than a decade hosted a long series of over a hundred 3-day corn dolly making courses at Eye. Also she travelled to America to teach. Once, squirrels broke into her marquee and ate many of her specially imported demonstration corn dollies. Besides recreating the ancient models she also embarked on new designs of her own. Among the most unusual of all her creations were two gigantic seven foot ‘corn maidens’ for the harvest celebrations in the opera Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden. Many of her corn dollies are now on permanent display in the Churchill Gardens Museum and Gallery in Hereford.
During this period my mother was also directing drama for Eye Womens Institute. ‘We became involved in a charming world of make believe, culminating in the yearly County Drama League Competition,’ she told me. ‘Whole winters were spent in making props and costumes, and producing plays with actors from our own community.’ There was the Chester Play of the Deluge, in which the part of God was played by the vicar, the Rev. Meredith Davies, standing behind a sheet on a step ladder, speaking through a megaphone. In ‘the Bodenham Bogey’, a thriller by their friend, the Herefordshire writer Jessica Frazer, the bogey was played by my father, emerging from a well in mid stage, heavily made up in green greasepaint, wearing a green hessian outfit, with long and unkempt locks made of green bast.
My mother was also active with the local Womens Institute, and rose to be president of the Herefordshire Federation of Womens Institutes. There were many other activities such as bottling and dress making to fill the days, and she designed and superintended the work on a largish number of embroidered banners for local Womens Institutes.
Even more engrossing than any of these was the operation of opening Eye Manor to the public. My mother assembled collections of clothes, dolls, corndollies. Period furniture, old masters, the Golden Cockerel books and her illustrations were on show.
Despite all these other activities in the post war years, my mother had found the time to illustrate some books, now using pen and ink. There were Aucassin and Nicolette, Arabian Love Tales, and Lancelot and Guinevere for the Folio Society, and The Letters of Maria Edgeworth for the Golden Cockerel.
It was subsequent to my father's death, and with the move to a pleasant cottage in the stable yard at Eye, that my mother returned to her early passion for watercolour. She once again got out her black Japan paintbox and returned to Norwich to look once again at the paintings of John Sell Cotman and the Norwich School of Watercolour. She joined the Hereford Painting Club, a group of some thirty artists which goes once a week to a country house or farmhouse or other picturesque spot to paint.
‘I began with the Club a series of paintings chronicling aspects of Herefordshire. Llandinabo Court, for example, with its number of bulls looking enormously rustic and chewing the cud peacefully, in a wonderful assortment of old and new barns.’
‘I remember especially, too, the edge of the lawn at Tedstone Court with its distant view of hills, sheep and donkey, magnificent pine in the foreground, and lych gate and church just visible.’
‘I love the cleanness of the statement of watercolour. We live in a watercolour world, and especially in these border climes in which water has made itself so much a part of everything. I've always loved the country and all of its seasons. This is a way of putting down what I feel about them.’
Of this, which was to be the last decade of her life, she said; ‘I don't want to go abroad or travel or anything. This is what I want to do.’
The artist Eugene Fisk, who sometimes taught on the courses, says; ‘With her large straw hat, her small folding chair and trolley easel, she was very much the traditional British woman painter, and was frequently the first to arrive and the last to leave.’
Besides the glory of her earlier engravings, my mother's watercolours will remain as record of a rustic bucolic Herefordshire which may one day be a thing of the past.
As Samuel Palmer said of William Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, her paintings and engravings are ‘visions of little dells and nooks and corners of paradise’.
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