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An Unsinkable Woman

Robert O’Byrne

Bricks and Flowers: An Anglo-Irish Memoir, by Katherine Everett, Somerville Press, 252 pp, €17, ISBN: 978-1999997021

In 2017 British charity Art UK announced that the artist with the largest number of oil paintings in the UK’s public collection was a little-known maritime painter called Herbert Everett (1876-1949). As a young man, John Everett, as he preferred to be called, shared studio space with William Orpen, who around 1900 painted his friend lounging in a chair. The picture is as good as one of Sargent’s swagger portraits, its subject superbly insouciant, a silver-topped cane leaning against one thigh, black silk top hat worn at a rakish angle, the lower portion of his face concealed by splendidly groomed whiskers. He looks as though even the very thought of a stroll to his club would require exertion, but this impression is misleading. Two years before Orpen painted his portrait Everett had left the Slade Art School in London and signed on as second mate in a deep-sea merchant sailing ship, working his passage as a member of the crew and, seemingly, regularly climbing to the top of the rigging in bare feet. Thereafter, almost annually, he undertook a sea voyage, one of the longest being in 1901 when he was accompanied by his new wife, Katherine.

The couple were first cousins but had only come to know each other when both were art students. Katherine Herbert had been raised in Ireland, on her father’s property just outside Killarney. Henry Herbert belonged to the junior branch of the family, the main branch of which, until the end of the nineteenth century, had owned Muckross House: it is said the costly entertainments they organised in 1861 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to stay for a couple of nights contributed to their financial downfall and the enforced sale of Muckross.

Henry was not much more affluent than his cousins, his economic situation permanently damaged by having the original family house at Cahernane demolished in the mid-1870s and replaced by a more modern property. His daughter Katherine lamented the loss of the older building, seemingly one of the few Queen Anne houses then still surviving in Ireland, but her mother had insisted on the work. Arriving in Kerry as a young bride, Mrs Herbert discovered her new home had no internal sanitary arrangements, only a row of lavatories enclosed in boxes in the garden. Every time she wanted to use one of these, an elderly retainer called Patrick Doran would insist on accompanying her and selecting which was to be occupied, standing directly outside until she emerged to be escorted back to the house. “It was all odious,” she told Katherine, “and I made your father see how much I disliked it, and everything else about the place.”

And so beautiful old Cahernane was torn down and the present house constructed. Today a boutique hotel, one suspects its owners would not care for Katherine Everett’s description of the place as “a vast cube of grey cement which turned almost black in the constant rain”, the monotonous facade intermittently broken by doors and window frames of Bath stone “which grew a monstrous green mould”.

Cahernane’s present website assures guests that they can expect to “retreat from the hectic pace of life into a cocoon of calmness and serenity”, but the atmosphere was very different at the end of the nineteenth century. Mrs Herbert was an unhappy woman, suffering the sundry neuroses that often afflict those who have more intelligence than occupation. Unable to escape her circumstances, she brought misery to her husband and children, keeping them all in constant dread of her wrath. On one occasion, young Katherine, seeing a jam roll brought into the dining room at the end of a meal, involuntarily exclaimed “Oh, what a lovely pudding.” To which her mother retorted, “If you think it ‘lovely’ you can look at it and not eat it” and made sure her daughter’s plate was left empty.

If not quite as dreadful as the Victorian childhood described by Augustus Hare in The Story of My Life, Katherine Everett’s early years were marked by a constant necessity to monitor her mother’s mood without ever knowing for sure what would or would not cause an outbreak of rage. It taught her resilience and her memoirs are devoid of complaint or self-pity. As Elizabeth Grubgeld has noted (in Anglo-Irish Autobiography: Class, Gender and the Forms of Narrative), Everett avoids mentioning loss of property and status, instead adopting a resolutely optimistic tone. On the other hand, she benefited from unexpected turns of fortune, beginning in her teens when she was scooped up by a neighbour, the rich Countess of Kenmare. Calling on the Herberts one day, she invited Everett to come and stay at Killarney House, built around the same date as Cahernane but much more luxuriously appointed. Determined never to return to her mother’s tyranny, for the next decade or so Everett was a roving house guest, sometimes staying with wealthy relatives, sometimes acting as unpaid – but comfortably accommodated – companion. The role requires specific skills, not least resourcefulness and an abundance of the easy charm which permeates her text.

These qualities would be required following her marriage, Herbert Everett not being inclined to domesticity. She pithily describes the end of the relationship: “In the past if things had been uncomfortable, as for instance, directly after my babies were born, Herbert went away, perhaps to Paris or to Cornwall, or I might not know where he was. This time he informed me that his disappearance was to be final.” He never played any part in her life again. In 1914, just as the First World War began, she found herself alone with two young sons to support and no income. She got through the next few years first by working as a nurse, including a brief stint at Mercer’s Hospital, Dublin, and then by becoming a gardener-companion for a member of the Baring banking family.

As war came to an end, she looked for a new position and found it, once more thanks to a relative. In 1871 Lady Olivia Hedges-White had married Sir Arthur Guinness, future Lord Ardilaun. The couple had no children and following her husband’s death in 1915 Lady Ardilaun found herself marooned in a series of enormous houses, not least St Anne’s, a Vanderbilt-like palace in what is now the Dublin suburb of Clontarf. Lady Gregory, who saw her in those days, recalled “a lonely figure in her wealth, childless and feeling the old life shattered around her”. As well as being a distant cousin, Lady Ardilaun was also Katherine Everett’s godmother, and she now invited the latter and her two sons to live in a Georgian house called Sybil Hill adjacent to St Anne’s.

Now a secondary school for boys called St Paul’s College, the former parkland of Sybil Hill was in the news of late as local residents successfully campaigned to have planning permission for 500 homes there overturned by An Bord Pleanála. A century ago none of the housing estates that today surround both St Anne’s Park and St Paul’s College had been built, and the area was well outside the city boundaries. During the War of Independence, Everett would leave Olive Ardilaun after dinner and cycle back to Sybil Hill, her passage picked out by the torches of Sinn Féin members who used the grounds at night for covert meetings. Fearlessness and fitness served her well in 1922 when she had to travel through the country at the height of the Civil War. One of the properties owned by Olive Ardilaun was Macroom Castle, Co Cork and word reached her that it had been occupied by anti-Treaty forces, and possibly set on fire. She asked Everett, who had already gone there to rescue items when the castle was occupied by the Black and Tans, to make a second journey and see what contents might be salvaged. Everett managed to get as far as Limerick by train but had to use her bicycle to cover the rest of the route, some 110 kilometres; she was then aged fifty. Her account of passing through dangerous territory, avoiding contact with anyone who might impede her passage, and then negotiating with different, sometimes hostile, groups amid the smoking remains of Macroom Castle serves as a counterpoint to blustery narratives of the same period written by the likes of Ernie O’Malley and Tom Barry.

Along with many members of her caste and generation, Everett had no difficulty defining herself as both Irish and British, and therefore struggled to understand what was taking place in the country of her birth. Following Olive Ardilaun’s death in December 1925 she left Ireland and seems never to have returned, moving to Italy for a few years before settling in England, where she first published her memoirs in 1949. Throughout her life, although neither architect nor horticulturist, she was responsible for designing and restoring houses and gardens, both for her pleasure and as a means of raising money, but clearly she also had literary talent. As a chronicle of this period of transition in Ireland’s history, Bricks and Flowers merits being as widely read as her near contemporary Daisy Fingall’s Seventy Years Young. Herbert Everett may have more pictures than any other artist in Britain’s public collections, but his former wife was the more fascinating character and certainly more deserving of acclaim.

1/1/2019

Robert O’Byrne's The Irish Aesthete will be published in 2019.

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