Weekend: A Vision for the Future; out of Wednesbury Came a Remarkable Family Which Made Its Mark on Cultural Life in 20th Century Britain. but It Was a Gift from One Member That Put Neighbouring Walsall on the Map, Says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie

By Beattie, Jason | The Birmingham Post (England), February 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Weekend: A Vision for the Future; out of Wednesbury Came a Remarkable Family Which Made Its Mark on Cultural Life in 20th Century Britain. but It Was a Gift from One Member That Put Neighbouring Walsall on the Map, Says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie


Beattie, Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)


The stark, modern New Art Gallery in Walsall had its beginnings in an equally outstanding building less than three miles away in neighbouring Wednesbury.

Oakeswell Hall, an Elizabethan manor house in the centre of the town, produced one of the most remarkable families ever to come from the West Midlands, if not Great Britain.

It was here that Kathleen Garman was born, who along with her friend Sally Ryan, amassed the collection on show in the Walsall Gallery.

She was the second eldest of nine brothers and sisters all of whom, to various degrees, were involved in the political and artistic life of 20th century Britain.

Wandering through the red-brick streets of Wednesbury today, it is perhaps difficult to believe this was the home town of a bohemian and cosmopolitan family.

Yet from the ornate manor house in Elm Avenue sprang a clutch of siblings who were to have an indelible impact on British cultural life.

Their tale is one of artists, poets, war heroes and film directors. It is a story of generosity, illegitimate children, bizarre marriages and clandestine affairs.

Disgracefully Oakeswell Hall was demolished in the 1950s and only the neighbouring road signs - Manor House Road, Park Lane - give a clue to its existence.

There are no physical remains: the huge iron-work greenhouse, the line of splendid elm trees and the gateposts topped with stone balls have all gone.

It was the home of Dr Walter Chancellor Garman who was appointed the borough's first Medical of Officer of Health in 1884.

According to his grandson, the painter Michael Wishart, he was "an almost legendary doctor still remembered for cantering through nocturnal snowstorms to attend the more remote patients."

Wishart's grandmother, Majorie Frances was a serene and deeply religious woman of whom Wishart said: "Having given birth to nine somewhat bizarre children she deserved the solace she may have found in the Holy Scripture."

In her biography of Laurie Lee, Valerie Grove describes the Dr Garman as "darkly aquiline, not unlike a handsome Spanish don" who ruled his family "with an autocratic, even tyrannical hand. Their mother was Irish, the illegitimate child of Lord Grey (and half gypsy, some said.)"

The eldest child, Mary, was married to the South African poet Roy Campbell who achieved notoriety for supporting Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He died in a car crash in 1957 just after he was reunited with his wife who had had a brazenly open affair with the writer Vita Sackville West.

Her brother Douglas became the Education Secretary of the British Communist Party and later assistant editor of The Calendar of Modern Letters.

He was also the lover of the American art collector and benefactor Peggy Guggenheim whose fortune founded the famous galleries in New York and Bilbao.

It was Douglas who was responsible for bringing up the family after his father's death in 1923.

According to Valerie Grove life at Oakeswell Hall ("piano lessons before breakfast and prayers with the maids") changed dramatically.

"The family had relied totally on Dr Garman's income. Their mother was a dreamer; it was the governess, Miss Thomas, who took over the practicalities, and the kept the remaining children fed and clothed.

"They had the stock of their father's well-stocked library, but the younger ones went somewhat wild," writes Grove.

A year earlier she had met the sculptor Jacob Epstein (whose works can be seen in Coventry Cathedral, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and, of course, the New Art Gallery in Walsall) with whom she began a relationship which was to last until his death in 1959.

Of her other brothers and sisters, Mavin fought on the Republican side (against his brother-in-law?) during the Spanish Civil War before becoming a rancher in Brazil.

Helen married a local fisherman in the south of France and later, after her husband's death, worked for the Free French movement in London during the Second World War. …

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