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    Women in art: Dame Rebecca West

    Rebecca west 700 x 700

    By Jasmine Mansbridge

    I first came across Dame Rebecca West (who here on after I will refer to as Rebecca), when I was reading the biography of the famous English writer H.G Wells, (think War of the Worlds and The Time Machine). I immediately found her intriguing and wanted to find out more about her.

    Rebecca was a woman ahead of her time. She was of the generation of women who had to fight for very basic rights, which we now accept today as the norm. Rebecca is remembered for her brilliant journalistic skills and as a writer of fine prose. She was a constant source of literary output for an impressive seven decades.

    The Early Years

    Rebecca West was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in London in 1892. Her mother Isabella was a Scotswoman and an accomplished pianist. Her father, Charles Fairfield had spent his early years in the Army then went on to make and then lose a fortune in various business ventures. He was a great writer and one for political debate and Rebecca’s childhood home is said to have been a lively one, full of music, books and stimulating conversation. Rebecca was the youngest of the couple’s three daughters.

    When Rebecca was eight years old, her father left the family permanently. He travelled to Africa and upon his return died in a boarding house in Liverpool. Rebecca was twelve at the time and it was her mother who supported the family by training as a typist. Rebecca recalls this being humbling for her mother who had chosen marriage over the promise of successful musical career as a young woman. Essentially, Rebecca was raised by a single mother, an independent woman fighting against poverty and hardship. No doubt this upbringing laid a foundation for her future as an ardent champion of women’s issues.

    Rebecca’s family financial situation meant that she did not receive formal schooling until the age of sixteen, when she began attending the George Watson Ladies College in Scotland. Despite her difficult upbringing, she was intelligent and her lack of formal education did not affect her long-term opportunities. It was later on while Rebecca was training as an actress in London that she decided to take the name Rebecca West after she played the rebellious young heroine in the play Rosmersholm by Henrik IbsenFriends said Rebecca felt the name suited her more than the name given to her at birth. Rebecca’s attraction to the dramatic spilled out into her writing and her own life, and it has been said she could have done well as an actress if she had stuck with that career path.

    On her career

    Rebecca and her older sisters were vocally involved in the Women’s Suffragette Movement, participating in meetings and street protests. No doubt Rebecca’s own experiences were at the forefront of her mind when she got involved with the suffragette movement. In 1911, when she was nineteen, Rebecca began working as a journalist for the feminist publication Freewoman. It was in this position that she began developing her sharp writing style. Her pieces were evocative and well written as she sought to drum up support for the suffragette cause.

    Rebecca’s reputation as an ardent feminist and vocal spokesperson for feminist and socialist causes grew. She was known for speaking the truth as she saw it. She had a quick temper and a quick tongue. She was an opinionated critic, turning out essays and reviews for many different publications including, The New Republic, New York Herald Tribune, New York American, New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, and many more newspapers and magazines.

    Through out her lifetime Rebecca was deeply interested in politics and how it affected ordinary people. She was determined to see through the agendas of the powers at be and to discuss these matters openly in her writing. This approach cost her many friendships over the years, but Rebecca was not one to be bought. She was fearless when it came to speaking the truth and did not hold back her opinions on the leaders and policy makers of her time.

    One person Rebecca did admire was Margaret Thatcher, not for Thatcher’s policies, but for Thatcher’s achievement in rising to the top of a male-dominated sphere. Rebecca’s first book was published in 1916. It was critical biography of the author Henry James. This was to be the first of many books.

    During the 1920s, Rebecca began a lifelong habit of visits to America to give lectures, meet artists, and get involved in the political scene. There, she befriended many significant figures of the day, including CIA founder Allen Dulles, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Ross of The New Yorker, just to name just a few. Her lifelong relationship with the United States was rewarded in 1948, when President Truman presented her with the Women’s Press Club Award for Journalism, calling her “the world’s best reporter”.

    Rebecca’s writing brought her financial success and with her considerable wealth, she purchased a Rolls Royce and a grand country estate, Ibstone House, in southern England. Some of Rebecca’s most notable career achievements were the coverage of the Nuremberg Military Trials between 1945 and 1946; her election as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950; and travelling to South Africa in 1960 to report on the Apartheid in a series of articles for the Sunday Times. 

    It seems that during her lifetime, if there was a major event happening Rebecca saw it first hand if she could, and then wrote about it. In 1959 she was honoured for her services to Britain and made a Dame. Those who knew Rebecca described her as dynamic, tenacious, intelligent, intimidating and loyal, with a brilliant wit and way with words. She was known for embellishing the truth and for never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

    Relationships and family

    It was a scathing review that Rebecca wrote for Freewoman in 1912 about the aforementioned H.G Wells’ book Marriage that first caught Well’s attention. Wells was at the height of his fame as an author and extended an invitation to Rebecca to lunch at his home. The two writers eventually became lovers and their ten-year tumultuous affair produced a son, Anthony West, who was born on 4 August 1914.

    Wells was himself married, although his was an ‘open’ marriage, as he was testing out his own theories of a ‘Utopia’ where relationships did not need to be monogamous. This added a challenge to his and Rebecca’s relationship as she had their son to look after and that made it hard for her to maintain her independence and keep writing. Wells cared for her financially, and at one point he deposited her in a cottage in the countryside to be visited at his convenience.

    This time in Rebecca’s life was an enormous challenge for her, having a child as an unmarried mother typically carried a huge burden of shame and prejudice. Their relationship eventually ended as a result. They still remained friends, consulting each other about their various writing and other projects. Wells was an important figure though out Rebecca’s lifetime and their friendship lasted until his death in 1946.

    After her relationship ended with Wells, Rebecca was linked romantically with several other men of influence. She eventually married in 1930, at the age of 37, to a banker, Henry Maxwell Andrews. There are various accounts of their relationship, many suggesting that theirs was a marriage largely based on formality. Rebecca was free to travel and write throughout the marriage and was tolerant of her husband’s extramarital relationships until his death in 1968. Although there are also suggestions that Rebecca herself also enjoyed liaisons whilst being married to Andrews.

    Anthony was to be Rebecca’s only child and there are various reports on what was ultimately a strained adult relationship. Some well publicised grievances by Anthony include his mother’s insistence that he call her Aunty during his early childhood years, (this was due to her sensitivity at times to being an unmarried mother) and her ‘abandonment’ of him for her career and travels at different stages of his life. Anthony followed in both his parent’s footsteps and went on to be a talented author. It was in writing his father’s biography, H.G Wells: Aspects of a Life, in 1984, that he ultimately wounded Rebecca, drawing attention to the flaws he saw in her, but at the same time idolising his father and overlooking Wells’ obvious mistakes as a parent.

    I think it interesting to note that in some ways, little has progressed for women as parents since Rebecca’s time. Rebecca was subject to extra criticism for her parenting, purely because she was a woman and the expectations of what she should give up were different than the expectations on Wells. Wells was free to keep his career as his number one priority, without question or criticism by his son. Women of today are still often made to feel guilty over decisions about their work/home life balance, decisions that men rarely have to consider.

    When researching Rebecca, there is much made of her relationship choices. The fact is that she was one of the first women to go ahead and acknowledge that woman also had a need for sex. That it wasn’t just all about the man. It was the early 1900s and she was experimenting with the unchartered territory of the life of a liberated woman. Her and Wells were both wanting to see how far they could push the old boundaries of traditional relationships.

    I do feel like some writers have focussed far too much on this part of Rebecca’s life, rather than on her lifetime of extraordinary achievements as a writer.

    Like Rebecca, her two older sisters also went on to achieve notable things. The oldest and best educated of the three, Leticia, studied on a scholarship and became one of the first fully qualified female doctors in Britain, later also training as a barrister. Winifred, the middle sister, married Norman Macleod, Principal Assistant Secretary in the Admiralty, who eventually became director general of Greenwich Hospital. The three sisters were united in their work for the suffragette cause during their lifetime.

    Rebecca was known to be a loyal friend, with the capacity to make those at the centre of her attention feel they were the most important people in a room. She sung the praises of those she admired, while equally being caustic about those whom she disapproved of.

    Her capacity to love and feel generously and fiercely came through in every aspect of her life and her work, and her writing shows her deep understanding of the human psyche and her curiosity about the world around her.

    Later life

    As Rebecca grew older, she turned her sights increasingly to broader political and social issues. She was taken by human nature and it’s propensity to inflict violence and injustice upon itself. She had always found people themselves an endless source of fascination, and her writing reveals this.

    Proving herself to be a compassionate person, during World War II Rebecca housed Yugoslav refugees in the spare rooms of her blacked-out manor. She turned the grounds into a small dairy farm and vegetable plot, agricultural pursuits that continued there long after the war had ended.

    She also continued to travel widely during World War II, collecting material for her books. These trips added to her reputation for being fearless. In 1936–38, she made three trips to Yugoslavia, a country she came to love, Her non-fiction masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the sum of her impressions from these trips. I read this book myself while researching Rebecca. Her descriptive writing style is beautifully engaging and in the honest, non-politically-correct tone necessary for authors of our own time. The reader is drawn in from the start and it is easy to understand why she was such a popular author. Rebecca was one of the first female writers to write in the travel book genre.

    Rebecca loved to travel and did so extensively, well into her later years. In 1966 and 1969, she undertook two long journeys to Mexico, becoming fascinated by the indigenous culture of the country and its population. She stayed with friends in Mexico City and elsewhere if she could. Even into her late 70s she continued travelling, she visited Lebanon, Venice, Monte Carlo, and always went back to the United States. She gathered together a large number of travel impressions and wrote tens of thousands of words for a volume similar to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, tentatively titled Survivors in Mexico. The work, however, was never finished, and only saw publication posthumously in 2003.

    Rebecca eventually moved into London, to an apartment next door to the Iranian Embassy and across from Hyde Park. She kept up a very active social life, making friends with many of the influential people of her time. Actors, directors, writers, artists and scholars all enjoyed her company.

    She wrote at steady pace, and as she got on in years, did not let poor health or difficult personal circumstances affect her output.  She continued to pen masterful reviews for the Sunday Telegraph, publishing the The Birds Fall Down in 1966 and then overseeing the film version of the story by the BBC in 1978.

    The last work published in her lifetime was 1900 in 1982. 1900 explored the last year of Queen Victoria’s long reign, which was a watershed in many cultural and political respects.

    Rebecca spent a lot of time trying to write an autobiography, without coming to closure on it. I personally think this is a great shame as the biographies written about Rebecca, (by Victoria Glendinning in 1987, Carl Rollyson in 1996, and Lorna Gibb 2013), all come with varied reviews. It seems that an autobiography by Rebecca herself would have been a truly insightful read.

    In her final years Rebecca started many stories without finishing them and much of her work from the late phase of her life was published posthumously.  Family MemoriesThis Real NightCousin RosamundThe Only Poet, and the travel book Survivors in Mexico in 2003. Unfinished works from her early writing period, notably Sunflower (1986) and The Sentinel (2001) were also published after her death, so that about one-third of all her work was actually published by posthumously.

    West suffered from failing eyesight and high blood pressure and by the late 1970s she had become increasingly frail. Her last months were mostly spent in bed, sometimes delirious, sometimes lucid, and she complained that she was dying too slowly. She died on 15 March 1983 at the age of 89.

    Takeaways from Rebecca’s story

    • You can take the challenges in your life and turned them into opportunities. The difficulties of Rebecca’s upbringing gave her the cause and passion to be a champion for the rights of women.
    • The harsh reality that the balancing act of being a working parent and a pursuing a career might not always be achievable, and that there is a risk that relationships and family may suffer if work is number one.
    • Women still have a way to go when it comes to equality, most women and men still have different expectations when it comes to work/home life commitments.
    • You can live a full, productive life right until the end of one’s life. Rebecca published a book the year before she died.
    • You should never stop doing the things you are passionate about, Rebecca continued to travel and write well into her later years.
    • Being popular isn’t as important as fearlessly telling the truth. The world needs more truth tellers.

    For more about Dame Rebecca West, see this review, this biography or this interview .

    Jasmine Mansbridge is a painter and mum to five kids. She regularly blogs about the intersection of creative work and family life at www.jasminemansbridge.com, and you can also find her on Instagram @jasminemansbridge.


    Tags: artist, regular columns, writer
    Posted by: Emma Clark
    Categories: women in art | Comments Off
    Posted on

    Five creative workspaces


    By Diana Scully

    Following my previous post, how to design your own creative workspaceI set myself the task of answering a few questions about creative women’s workspaces: What is the ideal workspace? Are there any similarities between the workspaces of creatives in different industries? How do others personalise their work space?

    Through The Circle Database, I found five CWC Members from varying industries and asked them to share some details of their own workspaces. Here’s what I discovered… 

    The Photographer

    Photo: Elizabeth Bull

    Photo: Elizabeth Bull

    Elizabeth Bull owns and manages One Fine Print, an business that collaborates with talented photographers to bring unique, bold and distinct photographic prints into the home. 

    Describe your workspace (or spaces) in five words.
    Industrial – Creative – Light – Productive – Fun

    Do you have more than one workspace?
    Occasionally, just for a change of scenery I’ll work from home or if I’m finding I’m getting stuck on something, I’ll wander to my local cafe with a note pad and work from there for a while. I usually find the change of scenery and the walk helps get the creativity flowing again.

    How have you personalised your own workspace?
    Many big beautiful bold photographic prints, timber desks, old cameras, greenery and a hammock!

    Do you share your space with anyone else? A partner, pet?
    We are attached to a communal warehouse which houses many photographers and designers. We love being part of a community of creatives.

    What are your essential ingredients for a productive but engaging workspace?
    I’ve worked from quite a few spaces, and I’ve learnt that the most important thing for me to look for in a space is natural light and big windows. That combined with great people makes for a place I want to work from every day. 

    The Florist

    Photo: Meghan Fletcher

    Photo: Martina Gemmola

     Meghan Fletcher, floral designer for weddings and events and director of her own business, Good, Grace and Humour. 

    Describe your workspace (or spaces) in five words.
    Homely – transient – innovative – tuneful – fragrant. 

    Do you have more than one workspace?
    The majority of my work is completed from home. But, if it counts, I would consider my second workspace or ‘workspaces’ to be the venues I install into for each event. I take along my tool kit and set up and pack down in some fantastic spaces. 

    How have you personalised your own workspace?
    For now, my workspace at home is transient so it’s difficult to create a permanent workplace personality. My home needs to be functional for my family at the end of each day, so arrangements and tools need to be stored so they’re not eaten by my toddler! If I were to separate my workspace from my home, as is the plan in the near future, I suspect the personalities would be similar – I’m a sucker for colour, abstract art and clean lines. 

    Do you share your space with anyone else? A partner, pet?
    Home and work can often be a colourful and collaborative coexistence. I share my space with my husband, our son and our cat. Part of the house is dedicated to storing GG&H items. One room used to be big enough for me to work in and store items, but as GG&H expands, I’ve had to become more innovative with storage and workspace solutions. Not that my husband or son seem to mind eating their brekky while I bring flowers into the kitchen! 

    What are your essential ingredients for a productive but engaging workspace?
    In my case, being able to balance work and home life with storage solutions, comfortable and waterproof (!) workspaces, and efficient and sustainable set-up and pack-down practices, along with a nice place to sit with the laptop and a cuppa. I’m hoping to have a permanent studio space for next season where I can incorporate all of these really practical elements, along with the little personal touches that permanence encourages. 

    The Furniture Maker


    Photo: Anne-Claire Petre

    Photo: Anne-Claire Petre

    Anne-Claire Petre is a furniture designer and owner of her own business, Anaca Studio, which offers a range of furniture and accessories with a focus on using responsibly sourced timber and other sustainable material and finishes.

    Describe your workspace (or spaces) in five words.
    Light-filled – uncluttered – inspiring – green – zen.

    Do you have more than one workspace?
    I have one studio where I work from when I’m not doing pick-ups or visiting clients. However within this, I have two “workspaces”, my main desk where I do most computer work and drawing / sketching and another desk for anything requiring assemblies / cutting / finishing or sewing / “crafting” at times…

    How have you personalised your own workspace?
    I have only recently move into my Collingwood studio, so unfortunately I haven’t yet done much in the way of personal decorative arrangement… Except for my little golden hatted gnome from Hunting for George which makes me smile… Walls are in great need of some artwork!! But to make up for that I have brought in quite a few plants and adding to the collection fairly frequently! Never enough green!

    Do you share your space with anyone else? A partner, pet?
    No, it’s just me and the gnome! Until recently, I was working from home so my two gorgeous cats were my companions, although quite distracting at times! The studio is part of a complex of other artists and designers so I always bump into other fellow creatives at some point in the day, which is nice. It gets a bit boring being in your own head for too long!

    What are your essential ingredients for a productive but engaging workspace?
    For me, cluttered space = cluttered mind. So I try to keep the space as tidy as possible. Every night before I leave, I do a bit of a tidy up, feels so much better when you get in in the morning. I also turn on the music and plug in my essential oil diffuser. Plenty of natural light is key. That’s what got me when I first visited the studio – massive windows and height ceiling… It felt really inspiring. Quirky objects are also essential to light up the mood!


    The Lawyer

    Image: Yasmin Naghavi

    Image: Yasmin Naghavi

    Yasmin Naghavi is a solicitor at Media Art Lawyers, a boutique entertainment and media law firm.

    Describe your workspace (or spaces) in five words.
    Not – a – corporate – law – firm.

    Do you have more than one workspace?
    I mostly work at my desk but also use the boardroom and meeting areas downstairs when I’m meeting clients. I sometimes meet clients in their workplace, but the majority of my work can be conducted by phone and email. I also get the opportunity to work from our Sydney and Auckland offices from time to time which is always a refreshing change.

    How have you personalised your own workspace?
    Mostly by bringing in plants, records, posters, books and a couple of comfy armchairs – I wanted the space to feel like my living room. Our space was initially just one room, but we added a bookshelf to store our vinyl records as well as act as a bit of a room divider. If I had my way we’d change the lighting, because fluorescents are just plain sad. Luckily we have a huge window above the stairwell which means we get heaps of natural light and a view of the treetops in front of our building.

    Do you share your space with anyone else? A partner, pet?
    Well, there are up to 12 people in the building on most days but the type of work we do is very autonomous so we spend most of the day at our respective desks. I work on the second floor with one of the partners of the firm (who also doubles as my husband) and our dog, Wilco (pictured). Wilco prefers to conduct his business outdoors.

    What are your essential ingredients for a productive but engaging workspace?
    Communication is always key to an effective workspace, but so is working with people you respect and colleagues who have a quick wit (you need a sense of humour in this line of work).


    The Writer

    Image: Madeleine Dore

    Image: Madeleine Dore


    Madeleine Dore is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub by day, and in her free time, runs an online project called Extraordinary Routines, where she interviews creative people about their daily lives – from what time they wake up in the morning, to their views on life and creativity.

    Describe your workspace (or spaces) in five words.
    Filled – with – to-do – lists.

    Do you have more than one workspace? 
    For my day job I work in a city based office, but have set up a desk in my share house to work on Extraordinary Routines. I also have a fondness for sitting in cafes – one of my favourite places to work is John Gorilla in West Brunswick. They have this adorable little nook by the window, which is perfect for just one person. Also Moat (below the Wheeler Centre) and £1000 Pound Bend are great places in the city.

    How have you personalised your own workspace?
    I recently got around to framing a watercolour by illustrator Monica Ramos and a beautiful embossed poster created by Maria Popova of Brainpickings - my favourite website. It’s nice to have something beautiful to stare at in those moments of absent-mindedness and distraction! I also like to collect cards from exhibitions and have them dotted on the wall. I’m not very good with plants, but have managed to keep a Sweet Chico alive for a month now, and so it has been nice to have some greenery on my desk. I also have a giant desk planner from Kikki K and I’m addicted to writing to do lists and pinning them around my desk.

    Do you share your space with anyone else? A partner, pet? 
    My desk is set up right beside my roommate’s identical IKEA trestle desk, so we often sit side by side in the evening working on our projects. It’s very cosy, and nice to have company when you’re working into the night!

    What are your essential ingredients for a productive but engaging workspace?
    Even though my mind works best when I’m working on something individually, it really helps to have other people around me – if I can see them working, it motivates me to get cracking on something instead of just scanning Facebook! In the absence of people, there’s always Spotify.  I really like having my planners, diaries, and lists nearby so I know what tasks I have ahead. Similarly, I don’t like clutter, and often need to neaten my desk before getting onto the task of writing. As I writer, I also think it is really important to make sure your screen is at eye level to avoid hunching – I stack my laptop on books and use a remote keyboard. Natural light never goes astray, too!

    Interior Designer, Diana Scully owns and operates her own interior design firm, Spaces by Diana that’s all about designing beautiful, personalised homes to reflect the people who live in it. Diana also has her own lifestyle blog, Spaces + Places, where she regularly writes about inspiring spaces to see and visit from around the world and shares her recent travel adventures. This year she has plans to spend time abroad in the US. Follow Diana on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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