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Grace Higgens

Canvas Issue 17

The British Library has just taken possession of the archive of Grace Higgens, consisting of diaries, letters and photographs from her long life, more than fifty years of which were spent working for Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Here Alice Phipps gives a flavour of this remarkable collection.

Grace Higgens, née Germany, was born in 1903, the daughter of a smallholder from Banham, Norfolk. At the age of sixteen she applied for a housemaid’s place through Collins Agency in Norwich, arriving at the Gordon Square house of Vanessa Bell in June 1920. She was to remain with the family for over fifty years as housemaid, nurse, cook and finally housekeeper at Charleston, the isolated country house where the Bell family had spent the latter years of the Great War, and which was from 1920 used for holidays. It had no electricity, only coal fires, oil lamps and candles, and the water was pumped daily by hand. Grace was high-spirited, with a robust sense of humour; she read all she could and made great efforts to learn, and often sat for the painters, who much admired her looks. Grace travelled abroad for the first time when she accompanied the family to St Tropez in 1921; the last of several prolonged visits to France was a three-month trip with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in 1960.

In 1934 Grace married a local Sussex man, Walter Higgens, who later worked as the gardener at Charleston, and their only child John was born in 1935. In 1934 she was also installed as housekeeper at Charleston, and named her attic room ‘High Holborn’, as above ‘Bloomsbury’. Despite the unconventionality of the Charleston household, certain formalities above and below stairs were observed: every morning at nine Mrs Bell would visit the kitchen and, seated by the table while Grace stood before her, discuss the menus and requirements for the day. Without a bathroom of their own, Grace and her family were required to take their baths on a Friday night between eight and ten while the Bells were having dinner. After Bell’s death, Grace remained at Charleston, gardening, cleaning and cooking for Duncan Grant until 1971, when she retired to a newly built house in Ringmer with all modern conveniences. Walter Higgens died in 1982 and Grace in 1983.

The archive comprises correspondence from Woolf, Bell, Grant and other members of the Bloomsbury set. Grace’s numerous diaries recount her years in Gordon Square, Charleston and France from the age of 16 until her death; their vivid picture of life beyond the green baize door complements what we know of the ‘above stairs’ world of the Bloomsbury set. Grace was an enthusiastic photographer and cinematographer and the collection includes a large quantity of original photographs, and projector reels and videotapes of films shot by her at Charleston. There are also files of recipes and exhibition catalogues, scrapbooks, and other items.

The diaries start in 1920 with a few brief entries when Grace worked for a Doctor Spowart with ‘an awful temper’ in Norwich. The volume from 1921 gives a lively account of her months in France with the Bells, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry. ‘When we arrived at St Raphael we were quite unprepared & had to rush very quickly to get our luggage out, (which we threw through the window) before the train started again. Mr Fry was waiting on the Platform…’. Grace attempts to swim, with limited success: ‘I had never been in the sea before, & I thought swimming must be very easy as I watched Julian and Quentin, so I dashed into the water, & promptly fell over backwards; I thought I was going to be drowned, I could not get up, I tried to shout, but only got my mouth full of salt water, I had sunk twice, and was just going down for the 3rd time, when Nellie managed to grab me.’ Later excursions bring their share of confusion: ‘Nellie & I going into a little hut to dress, turned Mr Grant out, the poor man having left his trousers inside, had to trot about with his shirt safety-pinned between his legs, to prevent it blowing up.’ Another time, Duncan Grant borrows ‘Julian’s overcoat, I do not think I ever laughed so much, as it reached not quite to his knees, & fitted him so tightly round the waist, so as to show off his figure as if he wore corsets’. Among ‘Things I noticed in St Tropez’ is ‘that the last thing Mr. Fry takes off & the first he puts on, before & after taking a swim, is his hat’.

In 1924 Grace filled two exercise books with detailed entries, the first describing life at Charleston above and below stairs, often echoing the Charleston Bulletin: ‘Mrs Woolf arrived after tea to the great joy of the household, as she is very amusing & helps to cheer them up … I met Mr & Mrs Leonard Woolf, riding on their bicycles to Charleston. They looked absolute freaks, Mr Woolf with a corduroy coat which had split up the back like a swallow tailed, & Mrs Woolf in a costume she has had for years. I hear there has been a meeting up at Tilton of the joint editors of The Statesman … Madame Lopokova & Mr. J.M. Keynes coming to visit us just before dinner … Duncan Grant the Artist, thinking to frighten us dressed up in some weird clothes and hobbled about, Louie thought he was a cow, Mrs Vanessa Bell was very amused … Mr Sebastian Sprott came to stay with us for the weekend on Saturday. I love him (he looks so clean & big)…’. In the second volume Grace is in London. She pays frequent visits to 46 Gordon Square and mentions habitués such as Desmond McCarthy, Stephen Tomlin (‘I like him very much, he is always laughing’), Clive Bell, who ‘came in to lunch & as usual said some very idiotic remarks making me feel very uncomfortable’, Lytton Strachey, who ‘is staying here, a very peculiar man of moods’, and ‘Mr & Mrs Stephens … they were arm in arm & laughing together as if they had not one care in the world, who would think they were living apart & that Mr Stephen was broken hearted & has considered taking his life’.

The years 1958-67 are covered by a leather diary with lock containing different entries for several years. Grace gives details of Duncan Grant’s and Vanessa Bell’s activities as well as her own, and in January 1960 she travels with them to France for three months: ‘I met Mr Grant & Mrs Bell at Victoria Station about 9.15. They had 10 pieces of luggage. I had two.’ There are moving entries about the death and funeral of Vanessa Bell in April 1961: ‘Mr Grant, Angelica, Quentin & I went to the funeral in Firle. There was no one there, no clergyman, no flowers except what I and Angelica took & no service, we did not go into the church, the undertakers just put the coffin into the grave, we looked into it & then left.’ She comments on Bloomsbury art, both approvingly (‘Mr Grant has given me a lovely painting, which he painted of the view from the window of La Souco at Roquebrune’) and less positively, as when her bed is moved ‘under “I said the rook with my little Book”, a ghastly painting by Simon Bussy’.

From 1962-72 Grace was housekeeper to Duncan Grant.

She writes about his work (‘Mr Grant painting V. Bell sitting in a muslin dress, from a photograph’), and gives her views on his self-portrait: ‘Mr Grant painting his own portrait, I told him it looked too serious, he said he felt serious, he was thinking of his importance.’ Grace occasionally acts as model as well as housekeeper: ‘Sat for my portrait after lunch. My eyes keep watering, as Mr Grant insists on me taking off my glasses, I had a peep & think I look a peevish woman.’

The diaries contain memories such as Walter Sickert ‘at a dinner party in 46 Gordon Sq. singing “My young man is sitting in the gallery”‘, ‘the time Mr Bell had a Boars Head served covered in aspic & a lemon in its mouth’, or Frederick Ashton ‘on a summer afternoon leaping about Charleston lawn with red roses threaded in his hair’. Watching television one night, she sees ‘Berta Ruck … I remember when she sang “If it be a sailor send him out to sea” at a party in 46 Gordon Square. She also said, how she enjoyed H.G. Wells’ book (as I did), how she longed to meet him, & how disappointed she was, to find him a little man, with a pink face & squeaky voice (as I was).’ Grace and Lydia Lopokova enjoyed a warm and friendly relationship and entries such as ‘Lady Keynes came in for Gossip’ are frequent: ‘Lady Keynes sat in the car, I asked her how she was, & she said “Gloomy”. I said it was gloomy weather. She sat looking like a little plump Buddha.’ Other visitors to Charleston for meals and weekends included Barbara Bagenal, the Bell family, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Angus Davidson, the Gages at nearby Firle Place and the new Lady Gage (‘She appeared a very nice unassuming person, very different to the first Lady Gage, her grey hair all wind blown & a deep scratch on her bare leg, blood running down her calf’), David Garnett, Lindy Guinness, Francis King, Christopher Mason, Lord Moore, Paul Nash, Anthony d’Offay, David Pape, Frances Partridge, the Roches, James Rushton, Richard Shone, Simon Watney and Leonard Woolf.

In 1970 Grace buys a house but she worries about leaving Duncan Grant and delays her retirement: ‘I’ve just had a chat with Mr Grant, he said he was sad, but realized I must have a place of my own … I told if ever he was in trouble & needed me I would return to look after him, we were both nearly weeping.’ After 50 years of service Grace, too, is anxious about moving into her ‘new house, somehow I dread going to live in it, I hate the idea of leaving Charleston’. On the day she retires, ‘Mr Grant opened a bottle of Champagne to toast our new house, it had been given him by Cyril Connolly’, but she continues to miss her previous life: ‘I hope Angelica is looking after Mr Grant & that he is being well fed, & warm. Poor old dear, he is so helpless … I feel a trifle homesick for Charleston’. She meets the Bloomsbury set at events such as a concert given in Grant’s honour: ‘Mr D’Offay came up for a long chat, & also said Charleston was not the same, he missed my cooking & the garden was uncared for. Barbara Bagenal told me she was living on mud, but I must say she looked well.’

In the diaries covering Grace’s life in Ringmer after she retired from Charleston she records how she keeps in touch with Duncan Grant (‘Feeling guilty, I have a dreadful feeling I talked too much & said all the wrong things at Charleston, wished I had kissed D. Grant when I left, as he looked so helpless, wished I was there to take care of him, although I expect he is happy as he is’), and gives an account of his funeral: ‘The coffin was plain wood painted with flowers & was carried with Duncan Grant’s straw hat on it, it was put in the grave with the coffin.’

Among the correspondence are Vanessa Bell’s courteous, affectionate letters to her housekeeper, showing the domestic side to Bell’s character and her eye for detail and comfort. She writes about her own and her guests’ travel plans (‘Mr & Mrs Keynes want to come to Charleston for Friday and Saturday night … I am sure you will make it all look nice and in good order. I dread Mrs Keynes’s critical eye!’), and sends instructions about food and rooms, chores such as cleaning the studio windows, and forwarding her post. She gives orders about building work and decorations, including the ‘floor of my room. All I want is not to have a dark stain put on it. It will be much prettier in the room if the wood could simply be polished or anyhow have some linseed oil rubbed in it’, and asks Grace to buy seeds for the garden for ‘winter lettuce and spinach, pansies, Shirley poppies, annual chrysanthemums and Brompton stocks’. In 1938 there are fears of war: ‘I suppose the sensible thing to do would be to grow as much food as possible at a place like Charleston – vegetables, pigs, ducks and all we can’. ‘We are naturally all rather agitated about the news here & you must be too – I do hope things will calm down soon, but one simply doesn’t know what to think or expect. The world in general is certainly mad.’

Occasionally Bell writes asking for news: ‘I wonder very much how you are getting on and whether you are enjoying yourself alone in London – perhaps you are hard at work making all kinds of clothes & I shall find you very smart when I return’. When Grace marries, she sends ‘a wedding present from Mr Bell, Mr Grant and myself’ with ‘every affectionate good wish from us all’, and her letters after the birth of Grace’s son are particularly affectionate, especially since ‘It is a pity that I who really adore tiny babies should miss seeing yours’. ‘How I wish I could see him. You must write when you can and tell me exactly what he is like – the colour of his eyes and hair and whether he is good or naughty… do send me a short letter to tell me about yourself and the baby, as you know men aren’t much good at describing babies.’

In other letters, Bell writes from France and Italy creating vivid pictures of their life on holiday: ‘a garden in which we have meals, with roses growing in pots and a vine which completely covers it. Then one can go to other places nearby in buses which take one through the wonderful country where one sees the country people and the oxen drawing carts and the corn already quite tall. The only drawbacks in Italy are the noise – everyone rides motorbicycles which make far more noise than they do in England and the riders make as much as they can – and the food which is partly very good but monotonous’. From Rome a colourful letter describes buying pots and jugs ‘with wonderful dark brown and yellow and green colours’, drives with Mr Fry, and her wish to ‘spend some months here & paint, some of the people are so beautiful & wear such lovely clothes, one longs to paint them & you never saw such flowers. At all the street corners there are masses of carnations & lilies & roses & one is always coming upon fountains unexpectedly.’

The archive will be available to the public from February 2007.

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