Henrietta Garnett: 1945 – 2019

My cousin, Henrietta Garnett, died on Wednesday 4th September 2019...

My cousin, Henrietta Garnett, died on Wednesday 4th September 2019.

On May 15th 1945, the day Henrietta Catherine entered the world, the parties thrown to celebrate the end of the Second World War were barely over. As the daughter of Angelica and David Garnett, she inherited a complex legacy of ambivalent loves and unconventional values. David Garnett and her grandfather – Duncan Grant – had been lovers. Later, David married Duncan’s daughter (by Vanessa Bell) Angelica, who was twenty-six years his junior.

Henrietta was the second of their four daughters. She was taken to Charleston for many a childhood holiday, and was the apple of her grandmother’s eye. She described being painted there by Vanessa – sitting behind her spindly and rickety easel – “mixing the colours on her palette, glancing first at me and then at the portrait, gently stabbing the canvas, so that one could see its back quiver from the impressions she made on it. The glances she sent across the room were extraordinarily intimate and reassuring: an observant nod, an amused smile, in order to encourage me to keep still.”

Henrietta grew up privileged, radiantly beautiful and precocious. Early on she wanted to be an actress – a career that would surely have suited her. “But” – as she once wrote to me – “I never received either one ounce of formal education or of mental discipline in my life.” As a child, I was in awe of my older cousin’s breathtaking loveliness and apparent sophistication. Everything about her, from the overpowering scent of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue over breakfast, to the limitless Gauloises habit (contributing to the bewitching huskiness of her musically purring voice…); from her deft skill with rough-puff pastry, to her passion for the Victorian novel – exuded fascination.

Henrietta claimed that, from the age of ten, she had been always in love. Still a teenager when she married Burgo, the son of Ralph and Frances Partridge, she gave birth to their daughter Sophie in August 1963. She was only eighteen when, just four weeks later, she was widowed following Burgo’s terrifyingly sudden death caused by an aortic aneurysm. At the time, Sophie lay asleep in her crib, Henrietta was in the bath.

A photograph of a woman wearing a red shawl. She is looking at the camera. She has dark hair cut in to a blunt bob with a fringe that sits above her eyebrows.

Henrietta Garnett

After this tragedy my cousin’s colourful life was to take many strange turns. There were the glamorous days, with the young widow rediscovering her joie de vivre among the peacocks, fashionistas, rock stars and artists of 1960s London. There were the vagabond days in Cumbria and Ireland with the aristocratic drop-outs (or “chequebook hippies” as she later called them), who took to the road in painted caravans. There were more love affairs, more marriages, an attempted suicide, a memorable appearance in a TV documentary about love at first sight, a relocation to the south of France, and an impressive self-reinvention as a writer. Her novel Family Skeletons was published to acclaim in 1996. This was followed by Anny: A Life of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (2004) – described by Dame Hermione Lee as ‘talkative, appealing… tender’ – and Wives and Stunners: The Pre-Raphaelites and their Muses (2012). But always, until robbed of it by advancing ill-health, it was Henrietta’s own stunning beauty that would make her the centre of attention. A friend who took her to a Cambridge May Ball in the ’70s described how crowds of party-goers clambered onto chairs and tables to get a better look at her.

Henrietta was kind, witty, mischievous, gracious and extraordinarily charismatic. But she was dealt an unlucky hand. In a troubled life, destabilised by illness, disability and excess, Charleston was a constant source of joy and fixity:

‘Charleston had the most powerful identity of any place that I had known. It reeked of itself: of turpentine and toast, of apples, damp walls and garden flowers. The atmosphere was one of liberty and order, and of a strength which came from its being a house in which the inhabitants were happy…’

– Henrietta Garnett

Her connection with the Trust has been one of mutual support, with Vanessa and Duncan’s oldest granddaughter always welcomed for her insights, generosity and thoroughly Bloomsbury spirit of playfulness and caprice. Many Friends of Charleston will recall her at the May Festival, stylishly adorned in gem-hued colours and beads, an intent presence among the front row audience, and sometimes on the platform too. Sometimes she tried our patience – especially after a glass or three of red wine – with her famously uninhibited interventions: a lack of reserve characteristic of her later years. Backstage in the Green Room, in the convivial familiarity of her grandparents’ house, she was usually the last to leave the party.

All of us who love Charleston will mourn her loss, and will never forget her.