“The story of Langford Grove School is a period piece. It is the story of the remarkable headmistress and sole proprietor, Elizabeth Curtis. Whether it was gin and scallops for lunch with Frank Auerbach; a fireside chat with David Wynne; Sir Thomas Beecham holding up his orchestra until Curty took her seat; driving Vanessa Bell’s daughter Angelica to Blakeney Point; encouraging early orienteering on Bodmin Moor; caring for and educating Basque children escaping Franco’s cruelty; deciding at the drop of a hat that all lessons one particular term should be learnt in French; or following the Wartime exploits of her Naval Officer son, on whom Ian Fleming was said to have based some James Bond characteristics – this was “Curty”. Curty was a progressive educationalist who wanted the very best in artistic experiences in beautiful surroundings for the sixty or so pupils in her care at Langford Grove,” from the Preface by Lucinda Curtis, grand-daughter of “Curty”
A century ago, being an educated and intelligent woman meant learning a European language, singing, dancing and music. Women who wanted to go to university were referred to as “blue stockings” (from the group of women who in the 1750s held “conversations” to which they invited men of letters and members of the aristocracy with literary interests.)
The Story of Langford Grove School 1923-62 by Juliet Cory Wright and Julia Ramos offers an intimate snapshot of an unconventional boarding school for girls, far from the influences of the city, which focused on music, literature and the arts. The children were from the local community, mostly of artists and writers, whose families were overseas, or whose fathers were in the forces. Their parents clearly wanted them to have the freedom to develop their own ideas and personalities. Originally based in Essex, the political turmoil leading up to, and during, World War Two necessitated evacuations to Dorset and Herefordshire, and when peace came, Sussex.
The “eccentric and carefree” founder and head of the school, Elizabeth Curtis, had been widowed in the First World War. Her great wit, charm and style were a magnet for many of the cultural figures of the time. Her enthusiasm for humane rather than authoritarian pedagogy was underpinned by remarkable resilience and steely determination. Her son left Oxford in 1933 with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics and was conversant in French and German, which would prove useful during World War Two. He was awarded a DSC for his action at the St Nazaire raid in 1942 which put the largest dock on the French Atlantic coast out of action.
A bohemian childhood
A mix of memoir, anecdotes from various Langfordians, testimonials, sketches and diary entries illustrated with over thirty pages of photos, play programmes and a selection of the pupils’ paintings from 1938-45 housed at the National Art Education Archive in Yorkshire, this exploration is a far cry from the usual life in boarding schools depicted in children’s fiction, or from the misery documented in memoirs about the abuse and isolation suffered as a child.
The Story of Langford Grove School 1923-62 is redolent of the ideas, values and aesthetics of the influential Bloomsbury group of artists, writers and intellectuals known for their personalities and lifestyles which broke with the rigid, formal conservatism of the time. The idyllic world portrayed of artistic immersion, pastoral beauty and freedom from rigid etiquette and intolerance, evokes that children’s classic, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
“Robin Wallace taught art; followed by Angelica Bell who returned to the school a short time before she married David Garnett in 1942, and was provided with a loft above the stables. Here she worked on decorations that were destined for Berwick Church in Sussex, where today, the Charleston murals are much visited and admired. In addition Angelica Bell taught mime with some art lessons too. She used the aesthetic language heard at home, which meant little to small girls who got very confused,” writes the Suffolk artist, Julia Rushbury. A previous generation of schoolgirls had had their work shown at Zwemmer Gallery.
As the world around us gets increasingly harsh and money obsessed, and a feeling of powerlessness and frustration grows, cultural escapism is a necessary antidote. The Story of Langford Grove School is perfect for viewers who flocked to their TV screens to watch Life in Squares based on the lives of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, or else Downton Abbey or The Crown.
The Story of Langford Grove School 1923-62 by Juliet Cory Wright and Julia Ramos | 92 pp PB illus. 29cm x 20cm | ISBN 9 781999 326531 Blue Horizon Publishing
Virginia Nicholson’s Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 is the perfect companion read. From simple living to high bohemia . . . domesticity and finances to love, sex and family . . . sartorial style to cooking and having fun with friends . . . Nicolson’s insights into the living habits and domestic lives of artists and writers in the run up to World war Two is Second World War is a riveting read.
“Unfortunately the avant-garde has always had to live with the awkward fact that, sooner or later, it creates a following, and that its lonely journey into the unknown can start to seem a little well-trodden after the passage of a few years. Bohemia’s greatest achievement may well have been the complete assimilation by today’s society of its victories against the establishment . . . Today, the Bohemians’ emphasis on a new, informal way of living, with friendship for its own sake, the right to personal liberty, sexual freedom, feminism, deviations in dress and manners, foreign food, experimentation with interior decoration are all taken for granted. They have, in their battle with the establishment, created the norms of a new establishment,” Virginia Nicolson
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