Sunday, August 27, 2017

Collision: Norman Dyer Ball, Shelagh Clutton-Brock, Alan Clutton-Brock, Josephine Bell and George Orwell

"I suppose you heard about Alan Clutton-Brock's wife?  A bad job, & he has two small kids, too."

"I used to see Alan Clutton-Brock in 1928--just recently his wife was killed in a motor smash."

                                                          --1936 letters from Eric A. Blair, aka George Orwell


On January 7, 1936, some sixty years before a rather more famous fatal car crash, Dr. Norman Dyer Ball (1895-1936), the husband of Dr. Doris Bell (Collier) Ball (future crime novelist Josephine Bell, 1897-1987), died in a hospital in Dartford, Kent from grievous injuries which he had sustained earlier in the day when the car in which he was riding collided with a lorry on Rochester Road, in the southeastern London borough of Bexleyheath.

The other occupant of the horribly mangled car was Shelagh Mabel Stoney (Archer) Clutton-Brock, wife of Alan Clutton-Brock (1904-1976), who in the 1930s was a Times art critic and author of popular art books. Shelagh, who was killed instantly in the collision, was also the daughter of the Anglo-Irish George Johnston Stoney Archer, a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Ethel Mary Beauchamp. 

The accident that claimed the lives of Norman Dyer Ball and Sheilah Clutton-Brock took place about seven miles down Rochester Road from the district of Blackheath, where the Clutton-Brocks lived with their two young children, Juliet (1933-2015), the late prominent archaeozoologist, and Francis, in a Georgian house overlooking the Thames, "among beautiful objects and chaos overlaid with dust and cobwebs."  (The Clutton-Brocks were "given to a Bohemian lifestyle," notes author Robert Cumming.) 

Stately! Chastleton House
After Shelagh's death, the Clutton-Brock children were sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe, where Francis died from polio.  I assumed these relations were Guy and Molly Clutton-Brock, the famous Rhodesian liberals and racial reformers (in the Thirties Guy was also a social worker in London's East End), but it appears that Alan had only two brothers and that neither of them was Guy.

Later in 1936 Alan married Barbara Mitchell (1912-2005), a young woman who "combined an enthusiasm for party-going and night-clubs with a dedication to radical politics." From 1954 until Alan's death in 1976 the couple resided together at Chastleton House, a "near-perfect example of early 17th-century architecture" which Alan inherited from a distant cousin.  (I always wanted to have such a distant cousin myself.)  In 1955 Alan was made Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge (a three-year term).  One could say that the mid-century smiled upon him!

For some time after their marriage in London in 1923, Norman Dyer Ball and his wife Doris (aka Josephine Bell) appear to have resided at Warwick Mansions at 37 Pond Street in Hampstead and additionally they are said to have practiced medicine in Greenwich, which is very close to Blackheath, where Alan and Shelagh Clutton-Brock had lived in the Thirties, until Shelagh's death.  However, Norman's will stated that he was a resident of Headley, Hampshire, a village near Guildford, Surrey, where Josephine Bell is stated to have moved with the couple's four children only after the death of her husband.

Whatever the case, it seems likely that Josephine Bell and Alan Clutton-Brock were, like their late spouses had been, acquainted at some point in London.  They shared at least a couple of additional points in common, namely their interest in mystery fiction and a certain connection to a much more noted writer, it must be admitted, than either of them: George Orwell

Readers of this blog will know of my interest in Josephine Bell's prolific crime writing, but Alan Clutton-Brock in 1941 contributed a notable mystery to the genre: Murder at Liberty Hall, which I will be blogging about in the next day or so.  It has actually been contended that George Orwell ghosted Murder at Liberty Hall, a claim that seems overdrawn to me, considering, for example, Orwell's professed disdain for the genre.  But it is true that Orwell knew Alan Clutton-Bock, who was an old Eton contemporary of his.

In letters, as quoted above, Orwell noted the tragedy that struck Alan when his wife was killed in the terrible auto collision (without mentioning Normal Ball's presence and demise), and the two men seem to have run into each other from time to time over the years.  In March 1941, according to D. J. Taylor's Orwell: The Life (2003), Orwell wrote the Air Ministry about obtaining a position with the Public Relations Department, a "popular berth for literary men in wartime" that was then being administered by no less than Alan Clutton-Brock. 

A contemporary coworker recalled that Alan, looking "resplendent in his blue squadron-leader's uniform," informally interviewed Orwell at his digs about the position; and he reproduced this amusing scrap of the supposed conversation:

ACB: I can't say anything about the work, of course, but I assure you it's tedious beyond belief.  And the dreadful people you meet!

GO: I wouldn't want a commission, you understand.  I'd be quite happy in the ranks.

ACB: And you have to do six weeks of foot training first--insufferable!  In fact, until it occurred to me to think of the whole thing as a kind of ballet I didn't think I'd survive it!

GO: But I like drills.  I know the Manual by heart.  I need the discipline.


I don't know whether or not this conversation--so reminiscent, on Alan's part, of the comment attributed to the great camp English actor Ernest Thesiger about his service in the Great War ("Oh, my dear!  The noise!  And the people!")--really took place, but, gosh, I sure hope it did!

Unfortunately, Orwell didn't get the job Air Ministry, but he kept busy writing reviews and essays. Some of Alan's Murder at Liberty Hall, which was published in the summer of 1941, may reflect in part the interaction between himself and Orwell that took place around the time of its writing, but see my future post on this.

Josephine Bell's connection to Orwell is more speculative, to be sure, but in 1934-35 Orwell himself lived in Warwick Mansions, in a room in a flat at the top of the building occupied by the owners of Booklovers' Corner, the bookshop on the ground floor where Orwell worked at this time (and which inspired his great, mordant essay "Bookshop Memories," which I quote in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.)

Were Josephine Bell and her husband neighbors of George Orwell, or had they left Warwick Mansions by this time?

George Orwell worked in the former bookshop on the ground floor.

Two decades later after the horrific collision that claimed the lives of their respective spouses, when Alan Clutton-Brock had become Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge, Josephine Bell published her final David Wintringham mystery (of a dozen, extending back to Murder in Hospital, 1937): The Seeing Eye (1958).  The book concerns the murder of a celebrated art critic.  Coincidence? 

In 1935, not long before Alan's and Josephine's personal tragedies, Kenneth Mackenzie Clark (1903-1983), a postwar Slade professor of fine art at Oxford, wrote, with a certain quantity of poison in his pen, to the American art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) that "[Clutton Brock] is a perfect ass in the flesh (also grubby and querulous) but rather good on paper."  We'll see soon how Josephine Bell felt about her fictional (?) art critic in The Seeing Eye!

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