On 24th March 1834 one of the most significant figures of the Victorian age was born at Elm House in Walthamstow, Essex. An artist, poet, designer and social reformer, this
“perfect craftsman” was one of Britain’s greatest creative geniuses.
William Morris, son of a very successful City broker and a mother who came from a wealthy, landed family, grew up with his siblings at Woodford Hall, Woodford on lands adjacent to Epping Forest.
He was schooled at a local Essex preparatory school and from an early age developed an enthusiasm for Medieval tales, church architecture and the countryside around his home including the forest and the Iron Age hill fort remains at Loughton.
Upon the sudden death of his father, the family moved to Water House in Walthamstow,
which today is the home of the William Morris Gallery.
In 1852 Morris went to Oxford where he met Edward Burne-Jones who was to become his life-long friend and collaborator, both being interested in Medieval History and in particular,
the tales and times of King Arthur. Although he had intended to take Holy Orders, on a subsequent visit to France to study Medieval cathedrals and churches, “Ted and Topsy” – as they called themselves – decided to pursue careers in the Arts.
Morris became an architect with London firm George Edmund Street . Although he was fascinated by life in the Capital, he hated the pollution, poverty and industrialisation that went with it and he became increasingly fascinated with the idealistic Medievalist depictions of rural life which were appearing in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites with whom Burne - Jones was apprenticed. Morris – who was financially independent anyway - abandoned his apprenticeship and took up painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style, encouraged by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Unfortunately, Morris was not as talented as the rest of the Pre-Raphaelites and only one of his paintings remains, that of Queen Guinevere, modelled by his beautiful wife Jane with whom he had an unhappy marriage. (She had at least two affairs - one with Rossetti – and although she bore Morris two daughters, she later admitted that she had never loved him.)
- Southend has many litrary associations but with Warwick Deeping born in Southend , into a family of doctors, in 1877. on the High Street in Prospect House right opposite the Royal Hotel. His birthplace would be famously remembered as being a library which is even more appropriate concerning the career path Mr Deeping would take as a novellist. Warwick Deeping went on to write some 60 books
Warwick Deeping was educated at Merchant Taylors' School. He proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study medicine and science., then went to Middlesex Hospital to finish his medical training.
During the First World War, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Deeping later gave up his job as a doctor to become a full-time writer He married Phyllis Maude Merrill and lived for the rest of his life in "Eastlands" on Brooklands Road, Weybridge, Surre
He was one of the best-selling authors of the 1920s and 1930s, with seven of his novels making the best-seller list. Deeping was a prolific writer of short stories,historical romances. His later novels more usually dealt with modern life, and were critical of many tendencies of twentieth-century civilisation. His standpoint was generally that of a passionate individualism, distrustful both of ruling elites and of the lower classes, who were often presented as a threat to his embattled middle-class protagonists. His most celebrated hero is Captain Sorrell M.C., the ex-officer who after the First World War is reduced to a menial occupation in which he is bullied by those of a lower social class and less education.
Robert Graves once said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” One man –
whose work has been likened to that of Mr Graves - is Robert Nye, who ardently pursued
poetry in all its forms in a career which spanned over half a century.
Robert Nye was born in London on March 15th 1939 to a civil servant and a farmer’s
daughter, from whom he inherited a love of the countryside.
The family soon uprooted to Southend where Robert was educated at Hamlet Court School
and subsequently Southend High For Boys.
His talent was already flourishing and by the time he left Southend High at the age of 16, his
first poem “Kingfisher” had been published in the London Magazine. He decided not pursue
any further formal education but continued to write poetry which appeared in many of the
important literary magazines of that time, both here and across the Atlantic.
Like many writers, poets and artists, Nye was a conscientious objector and was given an
exemption from military National Service, instead serving as a medical orderly in the Friends Ambulance Unit at Rochford Hospital which, at the time, was a centre for infectious
diseases, TB and chronic illnesses. Following this, he worked locally as a milkman, postman,
gardener and newspaper reporter.
Nye married his first wife in 1959 and two years later moved to a remote part of Wales
where he devoted all his time to writing.
It is in Wales that his career took a slightly different path. He began to write stories for his
three young sons which were ultimately published. He wrote his first adult novel
“Doubtfire” to critical acclaim in 1967. The following year he married his second wife and
moved to Scotland where he then proceeded to write radio plays and opera librettos. He
received the Guardian Fiction prize and the Hawthornden Prize for “Falstaff” , was literary
editor of the Scotsman and poetry critic for The Times. Inspired by myths and legends of the
Celts and ancient Britons – stories of our collective past - other books followed; “Merlin”,
“Faust”, “The Voyage of Destiny”…..
In 1990 he published his masterpiece – “The life and Death of My Lord Gilles de Rais”.
Literary critic Allan Massie said, “ it is a work of learning, wit and humanity....its
understanding of depravity is extraordinary, the judgement impeccable...It is I think, the
book he has worked all his life to write, and it is perfectly done; yes indeed a masterpiece”.
In the last two years of his life, a stroke prevented him from writing. But Poetry was, and
remained his first love. When he passed away on 2nd July 2016 in a County Cork hospice,
surrounded by his family, he had at his side a copy of “Almost a Dancer”, his last collection
of poems. And although it is his fate to be remembered more as a writer, it is his poetry, and
this body of work in particular, of which he was most proud.
An Almost Dancer
Once, on a hill in Wales, one summer’s day
I almost danced for what I thought was joy.
An hour or more I’d lain there on my back
Watching the clouds as I gazed dreaming up.
As I lay there I heard a skylark sing
A song so sweet it touched the edge of pain.
I dreamt my hair was one with all the leaves
And that my legs sent shoots into the earth.
Laughing awake, I lay there in the sun
And knew that there was nothing to be known.
Small wonder then that when I stood upright
I felt like dancing. Oh, I almost danced,
I almost danced for joy, I almost did.
But some do not, and there’s an end of it.
One night no doubt I shall lie down for good
And when I do perhaps I’ll dance at last.
Meanwhile I keep this memory of that day
I was an almost dancer, once, in Wales.
ROBERT NYE (2010)
In the same manner that we tend not to visit our local tourist attractions or historic places, we often fail to celebrate the lives of those writers, artists, poets, scientists and philosophers who have lived amongst us.
One such is Southend artist Alan Sorrell.
Born in Tooting on 11 February 1904, Sorrell moved to Southend when he was two. Being a rather sickly child with a suspected heart condition, he spent most of his childhood confined to a bath chair which prevented him from attending school in his early years, but he was
able to accompany his father, a local jeweller and watchmaker, on trips out to study landscape drawing.
He ultimately gained a place at Southend Municipal School of Art and, following a brief spell as a commercial artist, attended the Royal College of Art (RCA) between 1924-1927 where he was awarded the prestigious and coveted two-year scholarship to the British School in
Rome. Here he studied mural painting, making copies of the work of the great Italian Masters and developing compositional skills.
On his return, he was appointed Drawing Master at the RCA and received his first mural commission for Southend Public Library which had been built in 1905 with funding from Andrew Carnegie.
As Drawing Master, he began to work on archaeological reconstruction drawings after a chance meeting in 1936 with leading British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon on a dig of a Roman site in Leicester. Further commissions followed at various ancient sites around the UK from North Yorkshire to the Kent coast.
During World War II, Sorrell, who had failed to be appointed an official war artist, undertook some part time work for the RAF including helping to camouflage aerodromes and working on terrain models to assist with bombing missions.
After the war Sorrell's archaeological work took up more of his time. Projects included the Roman Temple of Mithras, discovered in 1954 at the ancient site of Walbrook in the City of London. The site became the most famous 20th-century Roman “find” in London and his
subsequent commissions ranged from The Illustrated London News through many publications (starting with Roman Britain in 1961), as well as drawings commissioned for TV series such as Who Were the British?
Throughout this post-war period, Sorrell still found time for his more creative and imaginative work including “Metres of Mermaids” a commission which was displayed as part of the Festival of Britain. His works were exhibited at various prestigious venues including the Royal Watercolour Society, where he had been elected a member in 1937, and the Royal Academy.
The artist was married twice, first to Irene Agnes Mary Oldershaw in 1932 and then to the noted watercolour artist Elizabeth Tanner in 1947. They moved into a small converted chapel in Daws Heath where they raised their three children Richard (an artist), Mark (a
writer) and Julia (also an artist).
With a great love of the countryside, Sorrell worked to preserve local ancient woodlands and was an active member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England – one of the longest running environmental pressure groups in the UK. The CPRE has greatly influenced public
policy relating to town and country planning and in particular in the formation of the National Parks which celebrate their 70th Anniversary this year.
Alan Sorrell died in 1974 and he is buried in Sutton Cemetery, along with his wife.
The Guardian newspaper called him “a remarkable visionary of archeological sites and mermaids alike”. He illustrated books ranging from Saxon England and Nubia: a Drowning Land to Reconstructing the Past and The Holy Bible.
Today his paintings grace some of the UK’s most prestigious venues: The Tate, The British Museum, The Imperial War Museum, The National Museum of Cardiff and Manchester ArtGallery.