Some years ago, in a second-hand bookshop, I came across Two Flamboyant Fathers, written in 1966 by Nicolette Devas, which is a book that defies categorization.
It’s basically a memoir, and a very funny memoir at that, and above all else it’s extremely well written.
Nicolette Devas (née Macnamara) — whose sister, Caitlin, famously married Dylan Thomas in the 1930s — was the daughter of Francis Macnamara, the Irish poet, and later the wife of Anthony Devas, the acclaimed painter.
And if that sounds as if she was little more than an appendage to others, forget it, because Nicolette Devas was an artist and writer of outstanding talent, who, as a child and young woman, was raised in the bohemian household of artist Augustus John, and the French home of her loving, but ever so slightly batty, Irish grandmother. It was an upbringing that turned her into something very unusual indeed, namely a woman of independent action and thought who — at a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, unless you lived in the John household of course — turned her life experiences into some of the finest paintings to come out of the middle of the 20th century, and a writing talent that is natural, and a joy to read; oh, and she was also a rather good ornithologist, as poet Laurie Lee (who lodged with the Devas’) discovered during World War II, when Nicolette took him to see a colony of owls that had moved into London as a result of the thousands of mice now overrunning the bombed-out buildings.
As a publisher’s editor has written on the sleeve of the book:
From school in France she moved into the John orbit between Salisbury plain and the New Forest, where T.E. Lawrence, Henry Lamb, Lytton Strachey, Stanley Spencer and others might be encountered barging into one another coming in or going out. Nicolette herself went to the Slade, paid for by John, where she met her future husband, the artist Anthony Devas. Not long afterwards her sister Caitlin married Dylan Thomas. And so we are conducted in this fresh and original memoir, into the robust, colourful environment in which geniuses are taken for granted, loved and quarrelled with daily…
This chaotic bohemian life with the extended John family is something Fitzgibbon picks up on where he writes about Caitlin and Nicolette:
“Apart from her parents the most formative influence on the growing girl [Caitlin] was the John family, with whom the Macnamara children were more or less brought up. There were a dozen or so John children, about half of them the sons and daughters of Augustus’s two wives, the rest an illegitimate miscellany. Nicolette Devas, Caitlin’s elder sister, has told me that the atmosphere at Fordingbridge [on the edge of the New Forest] was one of unabashed sexuality, the old patriarch being the least abashed of all. Nicolette has said that the choice for the Macnamara girls was either to dive in, or keep right out, of this eroticism. She kept out: Caitlin dived in, and her first passion, which was not returned, was for one of the John boys fifteen years her senior. Her second, which was returned, was for Augustus himself [this must be questioned as Fitzgibbon was no friend of John), though he sometimes became confused and thought she was his daughter as well.”
It’s a book that takes you into the corners of well- known people’s lives, helping to fill out the larger story of our Dylan Thomas, or Augustus John, and even T.E. Lawrence, as this little snippet shows:
Meeting T.E. Lawrence counts as a star of excitement. His book the Seven Pillars of Wisdom was then going the rounds of our circle and I read it with the reverence that it was accorded by my elders. Gossipy stories of his heroism and eccentricity fed my hero worship.
Lawrence was then calling himself Shaw and was stationed at an aircraft base in Dorset. Augustus was painting him in the afternoons.
He arrived at Fryern on his motor bike with a swish of speed round the laurel bend in the drive, and the gravel scratched as he came to a halt outside the house. With my head full of his book, I substituted a camel for the motor bike, Arab draperies for his breeches and polo-necked sweater, and the desert sun had scorched his face: nothing so plebeian as the Dorset wind could have caused the red peeling skin.
He had a rather… obsequious admiration for Augustus and called him ‘Master’ much to our astonishment. But Augustus lapped up his worship.
Lawrence liked to tell stories of how he lived on a handful of raisins for his daily diet and, with our gobbling young appetites, this impressed us more than his reputation in the desert. We thought of him as a kind of superman… until the day Poppet visited his cottage with Augustus, sneaked into his larder, and came home to tell us that our hero was no hero [and that she] had seen cold chicken, a joint, bread and butter and a pot of marmalade. This destroyed his myth for us.
And if you’re interested in the literary and artistic life of those inter-war years in Britain, it’s an important book.