Thursday 9th September 2004
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2004
REVIEWS   BY Illtyd Harrington

The Garmans in 1913 – from left Kathleen, Lorna, Mavin, Mary, Rosalind, Douglas, Ruth, Sylvia, Helen.




Three sisters with a love, and lust, for life
The lovers of three Bloomsbury sisters’ included Lucian Freud, Jacob Epstein and Laurie Lee. A book about them fascinated Illtyd Harrington

The Rare and the Beautiful – The Lives of the Garmans by Cressida Connolly, Fourth Estate, £16.99

I T was 1919, the Great War had ended a year before. It was the eve of the Roaring Twenties when into Bloomsbury came two attractive and penniless sisters Kathleen and Mary Garman. They were two of the nine children born to a kindly GP and his wife, Dr Walter and Marjorie of Walsall, who produced this family between 1901 and 1916.
They were followed by their sister Lorna and afterwards by their brother Douglas.
Cressida Connolly concentrates on the three sisters whose relationships and influence grew. But Douglas is looked over but his idealistic but effective membership of the Communist Party is just as interesting.
Kathleen and Mary made house in a one-room studio in 13 Regent Square, Camden. Quickly they attracted admirers and suitors.
Roy Campbell, the wild South African poet and later Mary’s husband, listed their entourage as “high-brows, Jews, poets, authoresses, painters, singers, ballet dancers, and even an economist.” That was probably John Maynard Keynes.
They frequented exotic West End clubs such as The Gargoyle, The Harlequin and The Cave of the Golden Calf, the latter decorated by the brilliant and controversial American sculptor Jacob Epstein.
One fatal day in 1929, Kathleen while sitting in the Harlequin noticed a man gazing rapturously at her. It was Jacob Epstein and he became besotted by her.
Mrs Epstein was not. Meanwhile, Mary took up with Roy Campbell, the mercurial poet, who punched people more often than a typewriter.
Perverse as ever, he backed Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Mrs Epstein, in a vain attempt to remove Jacob from temptation, took him to live in far off Epping. A woman of direct action, she invited Kathleen around in 1923, producing not a drink but a revolver and shot her in the shoulder.
Shortly afterwards sister Lorna entered and was wooed and wedded by Ernest Wishart, a Cambridge friend of her brother Douglas. Ernest was very rich and a committed Communist Party member. His firm, Lawrence and Wishart, became the party’s publishing house.
Lorna lived in great style in rural Sussex, and among her lovers were Laurie Lee and our greatest living painter, Lucian Freud.
Mary meanwhile had become the lover of Vita Sackville West, who managed that affair with an ongoing one with Virginia Woolf and other women besides and remaining married to her diplomat husband Harold Nicholson.
Roy Campbell did not condone Mary’s extra-marital conduct.
The late 1920s and early 1930s were never more passionately lived than around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia.
It was politics, poetry, partying and promiscuity. The sisters’ passions and brother Douglas’s politics are fascinating, more real than the Mitford saga or the dry wit of Evelyn Waugh’s writing of this period. Mary later became a fanatical Roman Catholic.
Epstein’s love letters to Kitty, as she liked to be known, are moving, and the sisters’ volatile beliefs and attachments are a rollercoaster.
Kitty, who eventually married Epstein in 1955, had four children by him.
There is schizophrenia, suicide and terrible sadness in their lives, but also a lust for living. Douglas remained a constant communist until his death in 1969.
Lady Kitty generously organised Epstein’s work after his death.
She died in 1979, as did Mary, in the arms of the church.
Lorna survived until her 89th birthday in January 2000, a pillar of the county Catholic community around Arundel, in west Sussex.
Cressida Connolly has given people from Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury such powerful and striking personalities that I for one regret I wasn’t there on that particular night when Roy Campbell hung Mary out of an upstairs window in a vain attempt to teach her wifely obedience.