LIVES – GWEN FARRAR

Researched and written by Jeremy Palmer.

Introduction

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the revue artist “Gwen” (Gwendoline) Farrar, and much information on her life is now in the public domain. To learn more about Gwen, please refer to the short biography here which is intended to provide an introduction to her life and musical career with her partner Norah Blaney.

Short biography of Gwen Farrar     © Jeremy Palmer

This webpage examines what we know about Gwen Farrar’s possible reasons for choosing Effingham for her weekend retreat. Her association with Effingham officially began when she signed a lease on the property named Grove Paddock beginning on June 14th 1934. However, as we will see, she had been visiting the area from at least as early as 1924.

Opening text of the 1934 lease

Photograph © ELHG

Above – Grove Paddock (click to enlarge)
image by permission of Sir Andrew Watson

 

 

 

Left – OS map of Effingham in 1934 showing Grove Paddock (green) and Grove House (blue). The owner of Grove House (Mr. DIamantidi) at this time was also the owner of Grove Paddock.

Life and Career

By 1934 Gwen’s life and career were moving in new directions. She had not been seen in a London revue since “After Dinner” in October 1932, which had opened and closed in the West End within a week. Her long-term musical partner Norah Blaney had retired from the stage following her wedding to the Bradford surgeon, Basil Hughes, in February 1932. Gwen had not retired but equally her quest to find a musical partner to replace Norah was one that would remain unfulfilled throughout the 1930s. Hence the move to Effingham also coincided with Gwen branching into new forms of entertainment, such as supporting roles in British movies beginning with “She Shall Have Music” in 1935, as well as producing and directing plays in London.

Grove Paddock was both a new and an old house, one of three attractive properties relocated from their original sites to Effingham by the property developer Anthony Nicholas Diamantidi. An account of Diamantidi’s life can be read here on this website. Grove Paddock was built on land to the north-east of Diamantidi’s property Grove House (formerly The Villa) which in turn was situated opposite the recently established Effingham Manor Golf Club.

We do not know yet whether Gwen was a member of the Ladies section of the Golf Club but we do know that friends of Gwen from the Stage Golfing Society had played matches at the Club as recently as 1931 and 1932. The Club did have a Ladies section; for example, these caricatures from The Tatler published on October 17th 1934 show a Mrs. Donovan as the “Lady Captain” and the author states that they have “120 members of the gentle sex”.

The original Tatler page can be viewed here:

under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

A substantial collection of Gwen’s belongings remains in the ownership and safekeeping of her relations. On this webpage the collection is referred to as the Gwen Farrar archive.  It contains a number of undated photographs among which are some taken in the back garden of Grove Paddock. Two of these are shown below.

This one shows a party relaxing around Grove Paddock’s swimming pool, a feature which with its stone bench has survived to this day.

image by permission of Sir Andrew Watson
(click to enlarge)

In this photograph only the person seated in the lower left corner has been identified with certainty – she is Audrey Carten, a playwright and one of Gwen’s closest friends. Audrey would later begin a lifelong relationship with Caroline Paget, eldest child of Charles Paget the 6th Marquis of Anglesey; she was a muse of Rex Whistler and was much photographed by Cecil Beaton. Gwen had previously written revue sketches with Audrey, as well as producing the play “Gay Love” – written by Audrey and her sister Waveney – at The Lyric Theatre in March 1933.

image by permission of Sir Andrew Watson
(click to enlarge)

Gwen probably knew Grove Paddock’s owner, Anthony Diamantidi, through his involvement with the Ballets Russes. There is plenty of evidence that dancers from the Ballets Russes were coming down to Grove House for parties in the 1930s. Lena Bridger, the Effingham resident whose transcribed oral history is available here, mentions Gwen and the dancers in this snippet:

One known link from Gwen to the Ballets Russes is via their erstwhile principal dancer, Anton Dolin. He was born in Slinfold, Sussex and had joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1921.
He was also employed in various revues, including Archie de Bear’s “The Punch Bowl” (1925) in which Gwen and Norah had leading roles. Dolin’s and Gwen’s professional lives intersected again two years later, but unfortunately this time in the disastrously misconceived, hugely expensive and short-lived revue “White Birds”, which opened at His Majesty’s Theatre on May 31st 1927.

Dolin is shown at right with Gwen and Norah, in a reference to the production they were starring in – “Wonder Bar” at the Savoy Theatre (from December 5th 1930 to 13th June 13th 1931). This photograph was published in The Sketch on May 6th 1931 and shows Dolin and Norah at the left and Gwen at the right.

under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans
(click to enlarge)

The Grove House weekend parties were mentioned by Irina Baronova in her autobiography Irina: Ballet, Life and Love (published by Penguin/Viking, 2005).

A rare programme for the touring version of “Wonder Bar”, the last revue in which Gwen and Norah appeared

Images from “Wonder Bar” set to Gwen and Norah performing their song “What Angeline says, goes”
(click the full-screen option in the video frame’s tool bar to view the images at their best)

under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

The Gwen Farrar archive also includes this intriguing photograph on the left of a woman, taken outside the entrance porch to Grove Paddock.

image by permission of Sir Andrew Watson
(click to enlarge)

This person has not been definitively identified but she may be Olga Morosova, the wife of Colonel De Basil, the director of the De Basil Ballets Russes. According to Katherine Sorley-Walters’ history of the Company, De Basil and Morosova were frequent visitors to the Diamantidis in the 1930s. The photograph also shows a bassinet but whose cradle this was is again unknown. Although the three stripes down the side of the trousers worn by the woman look remarkably like the Adidas signature pattern, the latter was not used until the late 1940s, which would have been after Gwen’s death in December 1944.

 

Another friend from Gwen’s life in Kensington and Chelsea, now residing at Norwood Farm on Effingham Common, was Lady Audrey Waterhouse. The Gwen Farrar archive confirms that Gwen had an association with Lady Waterhouse that stretched back to at least 1921. This was an important year for Gwen and Norah’s musical act. They were approaching the height of their fame and would perform in front of royalty at the first Royal Variety Performance in October. Off-stage, Gwen and Norah, together with Lady Waterhouse and a woman named Mrs. Dorothy Monteith, opened a venue for young artists named the Chelsea Art Gallery at 91 King’s Road. This was in a building described as a Government aeroplane factory and possibly also used by the Aeronautical Inspectorate Division. The two pictures above and right show Gwen, Norah and Mrs. Monteith inside the Gallery at its opening on February 1st 1921 and appear in cuttings from folders in the Gwen Farrar archive.

images by permission of Sir Andrew Watson

The four women converted the building into a teashop and academy, for the purpose of allowing unknown artists to show their work at five shillings per canvas. However, for the opening of the Gallery the newspapers reported that the walls were hung with paintings by famous artists such as CRW Nevinson, Francisco Sancha and Ethelbert White, among others. Lady Waterhouse’s role was to design the furnishing scheme, including painting the lamp shades and buying the china and curtains. A report in The Pall Mall Gazette reported that she wore:

“… a lovely printed silk frock with a cherry-red ground and collar and hem of beaver…”

Lady Waterhouse seems to have remained a friend of Farrar and Blaney even though the Gallery probably closed within a couple of years. She attended Norah’s engagement party to Philip Durham and was among the guests at their subsequent low-key wedding on September 7th 1922.

In 1923 Gwen and Norah appeared in “Rats!” at the Vaudeville Theatre; the Programme can be viewed here.       pdf scan © Jeremy Palmer

Gwen’s first visit to the Effingham area was possibly in July 1924, when she and Norah performed at a private party held in the neighbouring village of Bookham at Polesden Lacey, the home of the wealthy socialite Dame Margaret (“Maggie”) Helen Greville. This engagement was reported in The Sketch (July 23rd 1924) but Norah also recorded her own memories of the event in the following conversation with the actor Derek Hunt in the 1970s:

click to play ->
(audio by permission of Derek Hunt)

A short silent film of Gwen and Norah made in 1924 by www.britishpathe.com, accompanied here by their song “Percy’s Posh Plus-fours are priceless”

(click the full-screen option in the video frame’s tool bar for the best viewing)

Norah Blaney must have been a regular visitor to Effingham given that Lena Bridger believed that both Norah and Gwen lived at Grove Paddock. Certainly Norah must have rehearsed there with Gwen before their last set of recordings made on February 15th 1935. These comprised two original songs, “Another One Gone” written by Beverley Nichols, and – their finest recording – a unique duet take on “Maybe I’m Wrong Again” by Joe Trent and Jack Bennett. At the same time they recorded two medleys entitled “Old Favourites 1” and “Old Favourites 2”, each featuring snippets of their most famous songs from the 1920s. Norah would later write to the BBC and ask them to not use their 1920s recordings because of their poor quality. These medleys may have been an attempt to capture at least snippets of their songs with improved equipment.

Gwen did not rely for company only upon visits from Norah. Other performers from the West End had also sought out property in the village. Among the first of these had been Gwen’s great friend, the singer, dancer and celebrity Teddie Gerard. Teddie had bought a house named Orchard Cottage on Effingham Common in 1922.

Teddie Gerard at Orchard Cottage: from The Sketch, September 9th 1925
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

Gwen and Teddie formed part of the scene revolving around the American powerboat racer Joe Carstairs, the actress Tallulah Bankhead and many others from London society and the “Bright Young Things”. We know from the diaries of the photographer Barbara Ker Seymer that she paid a visit to Teddie in October 1929 and found Gwen already present. The friendship of Gwen and Teddie went back to at least 1922; like Lady Waterhouse, Teddie was one of the guests at Norah Blaney’s engagement party. Intriguingly, in the Gwen Farrar archive there is also a sequence of undated intimate images showing Gwen and Teddie together at an unknown location:

Teddie and Gwen : image by permission of Sir Andrew Watson

These undated photographs were taken almost certainly in the first half of the 1920s. Whatever the relationship between Gwen and Teddie we can be reasonably certain that Teddie’s presence in Effingham was arguably the main (though probably not the only) inspiration behind Gwen’s choice to rent Grove Paddock. That said, in the 1930s Teddie was dividing her time between Effingham and her villa on Capri, so Effingham may have suited Gwen for other reasons.

Gwen kept her lease on Grove Paddock until May 9th 1938. At this time Diamantidi was in the throes of updating his property portfolio in Effingham and on December 14th 1937 a notable auction of Grove House’s contents had taken place. Thereafter Grove House would begin to be converted into separate dwellings. Gwen may have seen this as a signal to give up the lease and return to London. At the same time she had begun an affair with Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar, whose similar talent for barbed wit came freighted with a considerable ability for self-pity and an array of addictions. Dolly, with her various health issues, needed more personal care than Gwen could provide from a country cottage.

Gwen and Dolly in Paris at a bar on the Champs Élysées : from The Tatler, November 3rd 1937
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans

End of an Era

Gwen’s departure saw the slow dispersal of this particular group. Teddie Gerard returned for good from Capri at the start of the Second World War with the same intention of entertaining the troops as Gwen and Norah had done, but died soon after on August 31st 1942. Lady Waterhouse succumbed to a long illness at Norwood Farm on Friday September 7th 1945, aged 62. Although artists from various disciplines would continue to make Effingham their home, with Gwen and Teddie gone the village must have seemed quieter, with far fewer of the “peculiar things” that Lena Bridger seemed to envy whilst also keeping at arm’s length.