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Cornwall 1947 - 1948 pt 2: Zennor and St Ives

Kathrine Talbot

Kathrine Talbot (1921 - 2006) was the pen name of novelist Ilse Barker. Ilse was married to Kit Barker - artist-brother of George Barker the poet - and lived in West Cornwall in the immediate post-war period. Her memories of that time, and of friends like W.S. Graham, David Houghton and Bryan Wynter, were first published in 1994 in a limited edition booklet.

 




I think we had known from the start that our tenancy of the Sail Loft was only temporary, and when November came we were told that we would have to move out. The Sail Loft was to be made into a pilchard cannery. We searched for a cottage to rent, but couldn't find anything. Bill McKenzie, David (Haughton) and Lali, and Bryan Wynter over in Zennor asked around. Finally somebody told us of an empty cottage on the moors above Zennor which might be available. It belonged to a farm and had been used by the Boy Scouts. We were told that the owners didn't really want to let it, but that it was worth trying. I don't know why I went to see it on my own. I took the bus to Zennor where I had never been, and walked up to Foage Farm, I well remember my interview with the farmer's wife. We sat in her parlour having a cup of tea. I was pretty desperate. She later accused me of crying (I don't think I did, but she may have been right) and of telling her that I was expecting a baby. That was certainly untrue - the constant fear of pregnancy, which was part of life for all of us at that time, would have prevented me from telling such a lie and 'tempting fate.' She took me to the cottage and agreed to rent it to us at 1 a month. It was called 'Noon Veor' which, I was told, means Evening Star.

We moved in during a dry spell shortly before Christmas. Someone with a van brought our bits of furniture to the top of the moors, from where we manhandled them to the cottage with the help of a farm boy. Exclaiming that the Dulcitone was surely a 'babby's coffin,' he almost dropped it when, jolted over the rutted ground, it began to play a few notes.

 



The cottage was long and low under a Cornish stone-slab roof with a chimney each end like two short ears. There was one room downstairs with an iron cooking range which doubled as open fire, a recess where we cooked on the primus and washed. Two windows and a door faced south over a T-shaped garden. Facing north and the view down to Zennor, there was a dark and windowless scullery, good for nothing but the paraffin can and boots. Upstairs also had one room, much smaller because of the pitch of the roof. Here stood the brass bed and a chest of drawers, what clothes we had were strung on a string across one corner. The room had no ceiling but went straight up into the roof. I had a fantasy that, should anyone try to take the cottage from us, I would cling to the roof beams. The privy was near the north-facing front gate at the end of the front Garden. We had a water-butt by the scullery door. The rain from the roof kept it full in winter and provided our water for cooking, washing and drinking, but the following summer we emptied its murky remains during a short drought and, deciding to take the opportunity to clean it, found rusty and faded toys and an ancient bar of yellow soap in the bottom. For a while we had to fetch water from the farm, carrying it ten minutes uphill over the moors.

Now we had left southern West Penwith for a northern aspect. From the gate we looked down the valley to Zennor church tower and a triangle of sea. On the hill to the right (blue with bluebells in the spring, purple with heather in summer and then tawny with bracken), twenty minutes walk across the moors, was Zennor carn and Bryan Wynter's Carn Cottage. More or less the same distance, but in the other direction, going south, was Nancledra and David and Lali's 'Croftpool.' It took us half an hour to walk up from Zennor and the bus. There was no path beyond the farm, and crossing the five intervening fields was a muddy and, with heavy shopping and paraffin, a weary haul. It was almost always wet, and before we got to our gate we had to cross a narrow gully which, though originally a path leading from east to west (possibly from Bodmin to Lands End, we were told), was more like a brook. Because of lack of money, our Wellington boots were second-hand and full of holes. We mended them with bicycle-tyre mending patches, but they never stuck for long, and our socks and feet were always soaking.

We also carried some of our coal in small sacks when the farmer had no occasion to come up with the tractor. Almost as heavy as the cans of paraffin were the glass accumulators, batteries for the radio, which had to be charged at the garage. These were for ever running out, especially towards the end of the Shakespeare plays the BBC broadcast at that time.

Though we often saw David and Lali, went to their local and stayed the night with them, we now had Bryan Wynter as a neighbour too, the Tinner's Arms' in Zennor as our pub, and St. Ives within bus or even (long) walking distance. We saw a good deal of Bryan, and his paintings influenced Kit in the year we spent at Noon Veor. Bryan, like David, had been to the Slade but, older than David, indeed older than we were, he had been there earlier. He had had his first one-man exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in London that year and was already an accomplished painter with a variety of subjects, painting the Cornish landscape in oils, watercolours and gouaches as well as making wonderful drawings and watercolours of birds in cages and other animals. Kit told me that he had had a kinkajou (its habit of shitting from a great height had curtailed its residence at Carn Cottage). Now he had a hedgehog called Hodge in a box beside the fire.

We were friends, but I now feel that our relationship with the local painters and their partners was not a very close one. This was partly, I think, because I was so preoccupied with my own affairs, life with Kit, writing my novel, partly due to Kit's shyness and lack of self-confidence.

Though Kit said at the time that he was glad he had not gone to art college, and his self-taught freedom lent his work originality and freshness, I am sure he was conscious of his lack of status among so many painters who had been students at the great art schools. His schooling had been minimal due to illness, and there had been no money for college. In retrospect it seems possible that scholarships or other help could have been found. But in the family, higher education was never considered. It put the other painters, there was no doubt about it, into another category.

The years they had spent in the sixth form and in college, had been, for Kit, times of educating himself, reading in the libraries, and of a variety of occupations, living at home. For a while he and his friend Maurice Carpenter had had a pottery in Fulham. One of my plants stands in a bowl with their mark, a phoenix, on the bottom. Later they printed books on a small Adana hand-press under their imprint of 'The Phoenix Press.' The first had been a book of twelve poems by Maurice, then, in 1935, a book of medieval poems by Kit under his full given name, 'Albert Gordon Barker.' After that they printed a novel, an arduous job when typesetting by hand. Maurice was a passionate Communist and, I think, probably sacrificed his gift as a poet to a life committed to an idealism more and more difficult to sustain.

Once war started, Kit became an inspector at an aircraft factory, then joined the army and, in REME, was trained in tanks as an engineer. Later he moved to the Army Educational Corps. His time in the army had been acutely unhappy, and he seldom spoke of it. In our forty years of marriage, I never found out what had made him join (he had an Irish passport which could have exempted him), and why, since he had only one eye, they had taken him.

Even in his early days he never doubted his vocation as a painter, and by the time we met when he was 32, he had produced a small body of work, mainly surrealist, and shown and sold one or two paintings in a Bond Street Gallery. But he had been a slow developer, and his early circumstances, his illness, (he had been in bed for a year after diphtheria at twelve) and the loss of his eye in his later teens, had undermined his confidence. He had lived in the shadow of his famous brother, and his lack of self-assurance was a burden he only overcame when, in the United States and later in London, he became an exhibited, praised and financially successful painter.
 




In the meantime we bought the occasional tube of paint, he acquired surfaces to paint on, and Bryan, endlessly kind, occasionally 'lent' him the tail end of a tube. David, whom we considered affluent, was also sometimes on the scrounge. He came by Noon Veor one day and suggested he and Kit went to visit Bryan to see what they could do. David may have had some special colour he needed in mind. They left to stride across the moors.

Carn Cottage was said to be haunted. Alistair Crowley had visited it and perhaps held a seance. During the war, a young woman ill in bed while her husband was away, a friend sitting with her, had woken from a deep sleep and, it was said, seen a figure at the foot of her bed. She had given a cry and died. Kit. sensitive to supernatural phenomena, told me that when he had first visited Bryan, knowing nothing of the cottage's reputation, he had suddenly felt cold, and had had to go outside.
That day, after a brisk walk, Kit and David, arriving at Carn Cottage, heard voices inside.
'Good,' they said, 'Bryan and Sue are there.'
Inside, the voices were raised. Male and female. Not a good time to call. They nevertheless knocked, then knocked again. The dispute inside continued, but nobody came to the door. In the end they turned the handle and went into the cottage which was empty. Nor was there anyone in sight out of doors. The cottage on its high moor overlooked miles of empty countryside. They made themselves a cup of tea and left a note, Bryan, when we next met, said he was sorry. He'd been in St. Ives. Another time they should help themselves to a tube of paint, if a special colour was urgently needed.

On a later occasion, Kit and I walked back from St. Ives and, taking a short cut, went home by way of the Carn. There was a little quarry beside the road from St. Ives which was always referred to as 'the old Ford,' for the van Kit and Bill had driven down used to stand there. Now Bryan had a jeep which would climb right up to the cottage in two ruts. One of Bryan's 'party pieces' was to drive up to the Carn after an evening at the 'Tinners' and get out of the jeep half way up to have a pee, while the jeep chugged gently on to be rejoined eventually by its driver.

This occasion Bryan was again away from home, but we had to get our breath back, and there was a standing invitation to make tea. We therefore lit the primus and settled down with a mug of tea. And while we were sitting there, admiring the painting on the easel and some of Bryan's new books, the painting on the wall opposite, a reproduction of Picasso's 'Absinthe Drinker' came off its nail and sailed over the bathtub full of water which had stood underneath, crashing down in the middle of the room. I took it calmly, but Kit was not amused.

Though Sue spent a good deal of time at Carn Cottage, she had her own house in St. Ives as well as a thriving business, The Toy Trumpet. Here she made wooden toys which she sold to such grand places as Harrods. They were beautiful, the kind of toy one saw nowhere else so soon after the war. She had a lathe and had one or two people who worked for her. Towards the end of the summer, when our money ran out, she employed us to paint tove for her. We would collect a box of skittle soldiers, or the Sicillian carts lacking their flowers and curlicues, barrows with (eventually) striped awnings, and paint them at Noon Veor. Since Kit was working on his own paintings, this was really my job, but I am hopelessly cack-handed and had often to ask for help as I laboriously put faces on the busbied soldiers or striped the barrow boys' awnings.

Sue was beautiful, red-haired, said to be formidable. I liked and admired her, she was always kind to us, and we appreciated her help. Now times were hard, we would buy half a pound of beef sausages, being unable to afford a pound, and I remember bursting into tears in the grocers because they had no quarter pound packets of cocoa, and I couldn't afford a half.

Earlier that year, visitors had begun to arrive at Noon Veor. Louis Adeane arrived from Mevagissey (in a fog at night), and Maurice Carpenter came down from London and spent a long weekend. David Wright came to stay. In his duffle bag he brought us a tinned ham his mother had sent him from Johannesburg - what a treat! He made the cottage seem very crowded with his height and the clumsiness which was a result of his deafness, but he was a most welcome guest, a warm and amusing man. He was twenty eight then, already grey-haired, had been at Oxford and was beginning to be known among the young poets, publishing in the 'little magazines.' He must have been uncomfortable, his feet sticking out at the end of the camp bed in the living room. He stayed with us for a while, went back to London, and when he returned lived at Higher Tregerthen with David Lewis and Kit's nephew John Fairfax. finally sharing 'Cove Cottage' below Gurnards Head with John. He stayed on in Cornwall for a while after we had left.

I remember David writing poetry while he was staying with us. The light from the oil-lamp showed through the cracks between the planks of the bedroom floor as he sat below, thumping the table to establish the rhythm of the poem he was composing. Everybody liked him, he was much teased, being supposedly 'close,' reluctant to buy his round at the pub. He played up, cadging drinks and cigarettes, always broke. He was in fact generous within the means of his small income. No doubt he paid the Cove Cottage rent. Because he could not hear us speak, we mouthed our part of the conversation to make lip-reading easier. Some of the local inhabitants, I remember, started a rumour that we were dumb, David the only one who could speak (his immense laugh and sometimes 'rude' words could be heard all over the bus). Alternatively that we were all mad, possibly escaped from an asylum.

Walking across the fields from the Gurnards Head pub one evening. I was deep in conversation with David. He must have found the conversation interesting too, for every time I wanted to reply, he lit a match to illuminate my lips, so that he could see what I was saying. In the pub, if things got serious, philosophizing, or there was talk of poetry and literature, a piece of paper was brought out for the occasional difficult word. It was when the conversation jumped about that pencil and paper, sometimes the inside of a cigarette packet, were needed to bridge the gap to the next topic.

Friends from London brought us the latest Soho news. Family news came from Mumma, Kit's mother, whose chatty scrawled letters were always full of gossip. I went down to the farm every afternoon to collect milk in a pint tin can with a handle and a lid. One of the farm people filled it for me and handed me the mail which had been delivered by the postwoman who walked up with her satchel and long staff. Mumma's letters sometimes contained a ten shilling note which would help with the shopping or the rent, a tube of paint or the two or three shillings a week we spent at the pub.

Other members of the family wrote occasionally, George, who had received a Somerset Maugham travelling fellowship that spring and had gone to Collioure with Cass, sent postcards. Kit's nephew John Fairfax wrote that he was unhappy in London. Could he come down? He was writing poetry, wanted the freedom to be a poet. Kit wrote to say he was welcome. I think there were one or two false starts, but eventually he took to his bike and joined us. He was seventeen, a handsome and lively boy who soon fitted into the group. He was the youngest, and ever after known as 'Young John.' He too was teased, chiefly for being the only one of the Barker men who couldn't sing in tune, though always keen, 'The Cutty Wren' his special favourite.

The only girl who sang (Nessie was in Mevagissey) was Sue, encouraged by the men for her 'Mother She Is Having Trouble.' I remember a party at her house in St. Ives, a great affair with many people whom I don't now remember. Kit and I had little opportunity for joining the St. Ives painters or going to the St. Ives pubs.

We had met Peter and Sheila Lanyon and used sometimes to go to their house to have tea. They were always warm and welcoming and offered us a bath whenever we called, a great help. Kit talked painting with Peter. I remember that they had a copy of a 'Yellow Book' on their bookshelves which impressed me deeply. Anything to do with James and Conrad and their circle, with Ford Maddox Ford, was holy writ to me.

We also met Sven Berlin, then chiefly a sculptor. He had a fine studio, a stone tower on 'The Island' in St. Ives, and he once let us spend a night there on our way to London while he was away.

We too had a party once at Noon Veor. We may have had a windfall, or there may have been some other reason. There were quite a lot of people, certainly David and Lali, David Wright and Young John, possibly John Heath-Stubbs whom I remember at the cottage on that or other occasions. He came down several times that year to join David Wright, and there was a joke about David and Heath-Stubbs crossing the dangerous streets in St. Ives. David unable to hear, Heath-Stubbs unable to see the traffic. Guido Morris, the printer, was there, probably also David Lewis with whom David Wright and Young John lived until they moved to Coastguard Cottage on a ledge of cliff below the Gurnards Head pub, a tiny place with a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It was reached from above by a precipitous path skirting dangerous shafts.

What I remember best is our expedition to fetch beer for this party. David Haughton had suggested we order a small barrel at his pub, where the landlord would agree to such an arrangement. We took the camp bed and carried it over the moors, met David and, at the pub, collected the barrel which the landlord had tapped for us. We had brought a mug, and as we hauled our precious burden back across the top of Cornwall, we stopped every now and again to refresh ourselves. The barrel sat very neatly on the canvas of the bed, we marched, taking turns, one in front and one behind, as if the bed was a stretcher and the evening's refreshments a sick man or a corpse. After the party the barrel stood about for a few days before being returned. There was always a little left in the bottom, full of sediment; hops and malt, almost undrinkable - but beer!

Kit and I went to London for a few days in early June, and while there decided to get married. George and Cass came back from Collioure, there was a big and happy family wedding party at Kit's family home. The Cornish contingent was there too: David Wright was one of our witnesses. Young John was with us, also Maurice Carpenter and the Scottish painters, Mac Bryde and Colquhoun.

Soon after we had hitch-hiked back to Zennor, George and Cass came to join us. They stayed with us for some time before finding a cottage in Zennor Village: No.1 The Row. Add George to any number of people, and things began to fizz. He was stimulating company, his brilliant talk always exciting, but he was never a comfortable guest, and since their visit coincided with our running out of money, it was fairly fraught as far as I was concerned, and I was glad when they moved into the village.

Their cottage was at the end of a little row of houses not many steps from the Tinner's Arms and close to the old church with its famous mermaid. There was no shop in Zennor, only a few scattered houses, and a rocky path that lead down to the wild sea. On the coast road leading up the hill to Eagle's Nest and on eventually to St. Ives stood the little post office shack.

We saw a lot of them, of course, both in the evenings and in the daytime when George helped Kit to put a car on the road which Kit had bought with our 25 wedding present from his father. This turned into a saga and took five months, during which the car stood in a field full of cows below the cottage, and Kit and George worked on it a great deal of the time.

Cass often came up to Noon Veor with George. She was a beautiful girl in her early twenties. She looked like a young Lauren Bacall and dressed to match. I see her always in a tightly belted trench-coat with her long blond hair caught in a scarlet knitted cap, the end of which dangled half-way down her back. This was very unlike the rest of us who were wearing the clothes we had worn all through the war, 'fashion' being something for other people. She was very quiet, spoke little, and was encouraged by George to be 'moody.' She had been working for a film company. She was very kind to me, but I was in awe of her because of her beauty, and since she was so reserved and withdrawn, we did not become friends until later.

There were some fine days that summer. Walking across the moors was a pleasure then, and Lali sometimes came over to have a cup of tea. I remember sitting reading in the garden one afternoon, Kit was out, when a young man came round the house. This was Bruce Bernard, a London friend of Bryan's and Kit's whom I had not met before. He was probably just short of 20 then and had walked up from Zennor pulling up a brussels-sprout stalk as a stave, a handsome, round-faced young man who proved good company, if shy. He went to live on the other side of the peninsula and stayed there after we had left.

Since we moved to Noon Veor, Kit had been able to paint more. We had been working hard that spring - I finished my novel, began to write stories, sitting with my typewriter at the round table while Kit painted, his canvas (fertiliser bag) stretched on ancient stretchers which we had bought for a few pennies at Junk shops in Penzance, propped on a wooden chair against the wall. Or he joined me at the table, drawing spidery elongated nudes, or skulls and shells in sepia ink with a fine nib, sometimes on tinted paper.

Kit had tried to interest London Galleries in his work when we were in Newlyn. Now the St.George's Gallery in Grosvenor Street accepted two paintings for their summer show, 'noticed' by H. M. Middleton in the Spectator of July 9th 1948. He exhibited some paintings in the Crypt in St. Ives in July-August with a group of West Penwith painters and sculptors and, in October showed with Bryan Wynter at Downing's Bookshop in St. Ives.



 


It must have been a great occasion, a first two-man show. I remember the paintings but not the exhibition, not even the opening. Perhaps it was all too new to me, perhaps there was no 'Private View', or it was overshadowed by the difficulties of life. Bryan showed 19 pieces, Kit 12. Bryan's 'Birds disturbing the sleep of a town,' which was shown there priced 25 guineas was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in the 'St. Ives 1939-64' exhibition in 1985. Like the 'Cow's Skull' paintings and the Cornish landscapes, it was very much a painting of the time.

Kit showed a fairly large oil 'Europa,' some gouaches, drawings and two wax etchings I still have: 'Head of a Poet' and 'Satir and Nymph.' These engravings into layers of wax, revealing rubbed-in powder colour, were forerunners of a later series which were exhibited and much commented on in New York in 1951. Another wax etching, 'Hand Plough' appears to have been sold for 4 guineas. The 'Europa' was long and narrow, the figure of the woman stretched on - almost fused with - the back of the galloping bull. Of several bulls Kit painted at that time. David Wright still owns a small oil on a piece of wood.

The Noon Veor painting I remember best but which was never shown, was a 'Whistling Woman,' probably about 40 inches tall by 28, a three quarter figure painted on a sack stretched over the lid of a chest. The face was pink, the prominent mouth poised in a whistle to give it an almost snoutlike appearance. Though I had difficulties in not finding it 'ugly,' it was certainly arresting, and I think Kit felt that it was a step forward. A little later he painted a largish 'St. Michael's Mount,' the almost abstract island floating in a luminous pale blue, the triangles of sails echoed in the planes of the rocks and reflections. This painting was sold to a friend the following year but has never come to light. But another painting of the time 'Nancledra Pool,' obviously influenced by Bryan Wynter's 'bird' paintings, was shown in London in 1985, 'found' in a St. Ives collection (photo above).

That autumn the Cornish idyll began to fray at the edges. NOT that I would have admitted it at the time. I felt deeply committed, especially to what was our first real home. But life was hard, and the lack of money or of any prospect was dispiriting. Looking back, we seemed to be always walking somewhere, not somewhere ten minutes away, but for miles and miles, and keeping the cottage supplied with paraffin and coal, keeping lamps cleaned and trimmed, filling stoves, washing, shopping, just ordinary everyday 'living' seemed to take one's time and strength. Perhaps our energy was sapped by not enough, or not the right food.
 





 

Even at the best of times, that is before we were so short of money, our diet was probably rather poor. Many things were put in the wrong way round. Kit spent many hours lying in the wet grass under the car. Later we tried the occasional outing. It would go - for a while. There was a good deal of pushing. Often we had to walk home.

But by mid-December the car was pronounced road-worthy, was taxed. We were ready to go. George and Cass felt their adventure in Cornwall had also come to an end. Young John was leaving with us. The farmer's wife agreed to take the brass bed and some other possessions in lieu of rent and milk money. So we set off early one mid-December morning: Kit and George in front, Cass, John and I in the back with, on our laps, Cassis cat, and ours. Our possessions were in the boot and tied on top of it. Some of Kit's paintings were strapped against the sides. It took us 36 hours to reach London, shedding along the way cheques for petrol (some good, some doubtful), George's watch to pay for the final fill-up, the last 5s from my post office book. There was much pushing, much filling up of the leaky radiator, George was apprehended in Salisbury (where we got lost at 2 a.m. and asked a policeman the way) for driving with an out-of-date licence. We arrived to find our welcome-feast eaten the evening before, were offered kippers and champagne. The car never went again.

The day I arrived in Mevagissey in May 1947, the village was shrouded in mist. Among the houses, passing the war memorial and the 'Fountain' pub, one might have been anywhere. I went into a cafe and booked myself a room, then went up the first street I came to, houses on my left, white mist to my right. Where I could see cottage gardens, the spring flowers were in bloom after the hard, long winter. Everything was neat, white curtains at the windows, the heavy stone roofs shone with moisture. I climbed, and after a while there were no more houses, and I was enveloped in white nothingness. Finally I came to a bench and what was obviously a lookout point. I had hitch-hiked from Totnes that morning and was tired. I sat down and stared into that infinity of seamist. They call it 'the planet' in Mevagissey. After a while it became more and more luminous, hurting my eyes, then I could see transparent blueness - sea or sky. Slowly the mist dissolved and the view was revealed: the enormous sky and the sea, a huge bay, calm and blue and glittering, and below me the village and the arms of the sea walls embracing the double harbour. The fishing fleet lay at anchor in the inner harbour, tiny people were at work on the quay. It was like a new world.

Above Zennor, Noon Veor was often enveloped in fog. I once came across the moors at sunset knee deep in pink mist. At night the cottage could be frighteningly isolated, worst when one was away from home and had to walk across the moors. When we spent the evening at Zennor or at Bryan Wynter's cottage, swinging our lighted hurricane lamp on the way back, we left a tiny oil-lamp in our one small north-facing window to guide us home. We never walked from Nancledra in the dark: our cottage lay below..... (missing text)

 

 

 

Originally published in 1994 by The Book Gallery as 'KIT BARKER - CORNWALL 1947 - 1948 - Recollections of Painters and Writers'. Please get in touch if you have a copy of this limited edition booklet and are able to provide us with the missing last page!

See interview with Joy Wilson for more on Mevagissey writers: http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/Joy_Wilson_Colin_Stanley2.htm. David Tremlett too has his own memories of this part of Cornwall: http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/David_Tremlett.htm

This interview with Michael Bird has more on Bryan Wynter: http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/Michael_Bird_on_Bryan_Wynter_and_St_Ives.htm

An obituary for Isle Barker is here https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/jun/03/guardianobituaries.germany

With thanks to Blair Todd