Book of the Month – The People’s Album of London Statues

Posted by Tenby Museum on Sep 24, 2018 Blog No Comments


Described by Osbert Sitwell

Drawn by Nina Hamnett

In explanation of the somewhat unusual subject for this book, the author states in the foreword that “translated into the medium of drawing, many of these statues manifest a charm that has been overlooked, and he who came to scoff may yet stay to bless”.

The book was published in 1928 by Duckworth of London. It consists of 131 pages, with illustrations with three essays on statues. The light brown coloured cloth-covered hardback has a line drawing of Richard Green on the front board.

The dedication from the author reads: “To Alice because of her beauty, and because she understands more things in two minutes than most people in twenty, the author most gratefully offers this book” and the dedication from the artist states, “To Violette, who understands England the artist offers the drawings in this book”.

The contents of the book include descriptions and line drawings of various statues, from Oliver Cromwell, The Duke of Bedford and Achilles, to Robert Burns, Captain Cook and Abraham Lincoln amongst many more. All, says the author, “selected on rigid principle: chosen because she [Nina Hamnett] wished to draw them” and his aim was to “infuse into the notes accompanying each plate the same spirit of freedom.”

Nina Hamnett was born in 1890 in Tenby and she writes colorfully about her childhood in the first part of her autobiography Laughing Torso (1932). She studied at the Pelham Art School and then at the London School of Art before going to Paris, aged 24, to study at the Russian painter Marie Vassilieff’s Academy. It was in Paris that Nina became a part of the avant-garde movement and counted Modigliani, Picasso, Dighilev (founder of Ballets Russe) and Cocteau as her friends. Nina’s own work was well regarded, but it was said that she lacked dedication and did not easily take advice.

Living up to her nickname, the Queen of Bohemia, Nina was unconventional and promiscuously bisexual with many lovers. She also partied hard and drank heavily, becoming a well-known figure amongst the Bohemian artists and writers of Paris. She returned to London around WWI to exhibit her work and also teach. Nina’s favourite hangout was The Fitzroy Tavern, where she associated with her friend Augustus John (also born in Tenby) and later, another Welshman abroad, the poet Dylan Thomas.

In 1932 Nina published Laughing Torso, the story of her incredible Bohemian life and it became a bestseller in both the UK and the US but it was marred by a libel case by self-proclaimed magician Aleister Crowley against her that, although she won, was said to profoundly affect the rest of her life. Alcoholism subdued her talents and she spent most of the last years of her life propping up the bar, usually in The Fitzroy Tavern. Nina sadly died in 1956 from complications after falling 40 feet from her apartment and being impaled on the fence below – it is not known for certain whether it was a suicide attempt or a drunken accident. Her last words were recorded as being “Why don’t they let me die?”

Osbert Sitwell or Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, 5th Baronet was born in London in 1892. He was an English writer devoted to art and literature as much as his title and ancestry. Sitwell studied at Eton and ended up as a Grenadier Guard at the Tower of London where he would attend theatres and art galleries in his off-duty time. He went to the trenches of France in WWI where he wrote his first poetry and left the army as a Captain in 1918 to move into politics but poetry, journalism and art criticism were his main focus. In the mid-1920s he met the crime fiction novelist David Stuart Horner, who became his lover and partner for most of his life.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Sitwell wrote and published over a dozen books of poetry, fiction, travel writing and short stories. In 1943 he succeeded to the baronetcy after his father’s death and started his memoirs – which ran to four volumes. George Orwell declared they “must be among the best autobiographies of our time.” Ziegler of The Times later wrote that Sitwell’s pride in his ancestry opposed his artistic sensibilities and “only in his autobiography, where his background and upbringing were triumphantly transmuted into art, did these two ill-suited elements achieve complete reconciliation.”

Unfortunately, Sitwell suffered from Parkinson’s Disease from the 1950s and by the mid-60s he had to give up writing. He died in 1969 in Italy and his ashes were buried in Florence, together with a copy of his first work, Before The Bombardment (1926).

In his introduction Sitwell talks of “the tombs of forgotten men, their statues in public places: these are the skeletons at our feast of fame” and how “it is possible to estimate the character of this cultured age by the nature of the men it celebrated: never, scarcely, a musician, poet, painter or philosopher, but instead, the inventors of engines and spinning-jennies, politicians and contractors, aldermen and plumbers, while its bump of veneration is attested by the invariable sprinkling and admixture of Royalty and the nobility; and towards the end, as it died away in a cheap flash of bloody imperialism, by the eruptions of scarlet generals on prancing horses that broke out in every city…It is the humble hope of the author that the pleasure that the artist so evidently found in executing [the drawings], and that himself discovered in writing them, will be communicated to the reader.”