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Fiercely unconventional and rampantly seductive: Lorna Wishart, the muse who made Laurie Lee

In her youth, Lorna was Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Becky Sharp rolled into one captivating and maddening creature. 

Luminous blue eyes: Lorna Wishart in the 1940s. Photo: Francis Goodman/NPG

Few novelists today would dare to invent a heroine as seductive as Lorna Wishart. In her youth, she was Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Becky Sharp rolled into one captivating and maddening creature. Visitors to the British Library exhibition “Laurie Lee: Memories of War” – the first of several events this summer celebrating the centenary of Lee’s birth – will come across her name in a recently discovered diary from 1936-37, covering Lee’s rescue from Spain by a British destroyer at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war and his return to the country the following December. What happened in between was that he met and fell in love with the bewitching Lorna.

I first heard of her when I was researching Lee’s biography shortly after he died in 1997. At that time, the much-rehearsed narrative of his life derived chiefly from his three books of memoir: Cider With Rosie (1959), about his childhood in the Gloucestershire village of Slad; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), on how he left home and fiddled his way across Spain in 1935-36; and A Moment of War (1991), on his return to Spain to take part in the civil war. In the last two, he referred to the (unnamed) married woman – “rich and demandingly beautiful, extravagantly generous with her emotions but fanatically jealous” – who turned up in France to bid him a passionate farewell when he went off to the Spanish war and was waiting when he got back to take him to her flat, with “the flowers on the piano, the white sheets on her bed, her deep mouth, and love without honour”.

For six years they were together. She gave birth to his daughter, inspired his poetry, got his verses published in Horizon, launched him into the BBC – and then left him in 1943 for the “sinister boy” who was infatuated by her: the enfant terrible of the art world Lucian Freud.

When Lorna’s magnificent blue gaze first fell on Laurie, one morning on a lonely beach in Cornwall in 1937, he was playing his violin, penniless and unknown. He was 23 – “thin, hungry and gorgeous”, in his own words – with a lock of fair hair falling over his forehead like Rupert Brooke. “Come here and play for me,” commanded Lorna. Laurie was instantly smitten, recalling one of Browning’s lines:

She should never have looked at me
If she meant I should not love her!

Lorna’s luminous eyes were a key to her charm. She was the youngest and by common consent the most beautiful of the seven Garman sisters, daughters of Dr Walter Garman of Oakeswell Hall, Wednesbury, in the Black Country. When Dr Garman died in 1922, the two eldest girls had already launched themselves into London’s artistic and bohemian society: Kathleen was the model, mistress and later wife of Jacob Epstein and Mary married Roy Campbell, the South African poet. Lorna was their precocious little sister, who had jumped over the tennis net at school when told of her father’s death, as it meant freedom. She was still only 14 when their brother, Douglas, an undergraduate at Cambridge, brought home his friend and fellow communist Ernest Wishart, son of Colonel Sir Sidney Wishart, a rich Sussex landowner.

Already a beauty, with a perfect heart-shaped face and velvety voice, Lorna seduced Wishart, almost ten years her senior and known to all as Wish, in a hayrick. As soon as she was 16, they married and shared a house in Bloomsbury with Gerald Barry, editor of the News Chronicle. Wish founded London’s only Marxist publishing company, Lawrence & Wishart, and among its authors Lorna made further conquests. In August 1937, the Wisharts were on holiday at Gunwalloe in Cornwall with their two young sons when Lorna, striding out early one morning as she always did, spied Laurie.

A favourite of grand ladies: Laurie Lee in the 1940s

Bizarrely, by a Dickensian coincidence, Lorna was not the first of the Garman girls Laurie had met. Two years earlier, when he was still travelling through Spain, he had been sawing away at his fiddle in the main square in Toledo when he caught the eye of Lorna’s sister Mary and her husband, Roy Campbell. Mary asked him in French if he was German and he replied in Spanish that he was English. He was promptly swept up by the Campbells and stayed at their house for two heady weeks of poetry and rough red wine.

Nor was Lorna the first woman who tried to guide Laurie’s career as a poet. While in Spain, he had been taken in by Wilma Gregory, the middle-aged wife of Professor Theodore Gregory of the LSE. A former suffragist, a friend of Rebecca West and a formidable busybody, Wilma virtually adopted him, astonished by his gifts for music, poetry and drawing. It was Wilma (never publicly acknowledged by Laurie) who engineered the rescue of Laurie and herself by a British warship, when they were stranded on the Andalusian coast as the Spanish civil war broke out. Back in England, Wilma rented a comfortless cottage in the Berkshire woodland so that Laurie could study art at Reading. After his first year, when his tutors declared him to be “the English Picasso”. Wilma enrolled him in the École des Beaux Arts in Montpellier. But first she enabled him to go to Cornwall, where he encountered the woman she described as “the most beautiful, aggressive and . . . dangerous of his mistresses”.

At 30, Lorna was fiercely unconventional and rampantly seductive. Laurie referred to “her panther tread, voice full of musky secrets, her limbs uncoiling on beds of moonlight”. Others described her as a tiger woman, who stalked and prowled, sylph-like, feline, physically fearless. She drove fast, rode her horses at the gallop at night, drank gin, smoked, swam in icy seas in winter. Witty, intimidating, magnetic, she bestowed aesthetic esteem on anything her eye approved, illuminating everything around her. An old girlfriend of Laurie told me, “She gave off a flavour of strength, or concentration – like a strong whisky.” And she loved Laurie “with fierce abandon”.

Her son Michael described in his memoir, High Diver, how his mother, a mermaid-like figure with “ultramarine” eyes, dressed for dancing in clinging sequins, would lean over his bed before speeding off in her chocolate-brown Bentley, heading for some pleasure-dome nightclub, leaving a lingering scent of Fleurs de Rocaille.

It was the “satiety and indulgence” of Laurie’s affair with Lorna in that summer of 1937 – and his guilt about having fled Spain – that prompted him to accompany Wilma to France. From there he secretly planned to make his way over the Spanish border to enlist. At the end of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he admits his desire to impress the girl with whom he had suddenly fallen in love, an experience that “went deeper than anything I’d known before”. Despite her left-wing associations and instincts, Lorna told him that such heroics were meaningless: if he wanted a cause, she would provide one. Wilma, a staunch anti-fascist, admired his determination to join the International Brigades but had a mother-hen concern for his health, as he was epileptic. She even typed out Laurie’s poems and sent them off from Montpellier to T S Eliot at Faber, eliciting a model letter of polite rejection.

Laurie had already left town – to meet Lorna, who was now in Martigues, where her sister Helen Garman lived. So Laurie and Lorna indulged in a week’s passionate farewell in Provence before he went off alone to cross the snowy Pyrenees on foot, telling the Spanish guards, “I’ve come to fight.” The ensuing war-torn nine weeks, his account of which has been much argued over since his death, ended in his repatriation in February 1938.

Lorna, who had sent him Chanel-soaked pound notes while he was in Spain, waited for him at Victoria Station: “She drew me in with her blue steady gaze,” he wrote of their reunion. The couple set up home in a Bloomsbury flat, Lorna having left her husband and children, and within two months she was pregnant. That year she sent Laurie off on his travels again, to Greece and Cyprus, but he was home in time for the birth of their daughter in February 1939. They named her Yasmin after a poem by James Elroy Flecker and because the letter Y can be seen as two conjoined Ls. “I wanted a poet’s child,” Lorna said, “and I got one.”

Although Lorna returned home to her husband, a thoroughly good and noble man who agreed to bring up the child as his own, Lorna and Laurie continued their affair, first in his London digs and then in Sussex. In 1941-42, Laurie rented a green caravan near the Wisharts’ home, Marsh Farm in Binsted: he lived like a gypsy at the castle gate, scratching a living from his poems. Lorna would arrive daily in her Bentley, tearing down the country lanes, clothed in fabulous frocks and furs, bearing bounteous gifts – champagne, farm eggs, steaks, fresh game and poultry, classical records, books, paintings and flowers – and cooking him aromatic feasts.

He wrote rapturously in his diary of her fine-boned beauty: “like a rare jar decorated with vivid designs of eyes and lips, slashed with brows and shadows, dreaming & overflowing with the warm wine of hair”. He could not resist drawing her naked form. In summer their lovemaking took place outdoors under skies riven by bombers, the earth trembling beneath. Lorna inspired lines such as:

Your lips are turreted with guns
and bullets crack across your kiss,
and death slides down upon a string
to rape the heart of our horizon.

Most of his early poems, collected in the first slim volume, The Sun My Monument (1944), with a dedication “to Lorna”, reflect their ecstatic al fresco interludes. Lorna sent his poems to her friends Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly, who published him in Horizon. This contact led him to the publisher John Lehmann, then to his important friendships with Cecil Day-Lewis and Rosamond Lehmann. In the one letter that remains from Lorna (Laurie threw the rest off Battersea Bridge) she addresses Laurie as “violently dearly beloved” and berates him for being in Slad with his mother: “What’s the good of you being there if you can’t even think of anything to write for Penguin 12, you’d be much better off with me or near me – at least when you were you thought of some poems for Poets of Tomorrow.”

In 1943 Laurie left his caravan and returned to London. He was pursued by Lorna, who now confessed to her new infatuation with the pale-eyed, German-born Lucian Freud, referred to by Laurie as “this mad unpleasant youth”, “dark and decayed-looking”. Lucian, too, fell headlong for Lorna. His earliest, primitive portraits were of Lorna and she again became a muse, fetching things he could paint, including a heron (Dead Heron, 1945) and a stuffed zebra head (The Painter’s Room, 1944).

She flaunted Lucian before Laurie. One night in Piccadilly the two men almost came to blows. Laurie was suicidal. He wrote Lorna a letter vowing that he would never give his heart again and he wore her signet ring until the day he died. Lorna had changed his life: she was the reason that a country boy without money, social status, education or contacts (but possessing artistic gifts and boyish charm) came to mingle on equal terms with the foremost poets and artists of the 1940s and 1950s.

Woman with a Tulip (1945) by Lucian Freud

Of all the many stories that make up Laurie Lee’s life – and he soon became a favourite of grand ladies (and their equally admiring husbands) in exotic villas and exquisite country houses – the episode starring Lorna Wishart is undoubtedly the most romantic. But in a stranger-than-fiction denouement, the two broken-hearted young men, Lee and Freud, embarked – encouraged by Lorna – on a quest to ensnare one of her nieces.

There were three living in the Epstein house on the King’s Road: Kitty and Esther, daughters of Kathleen Garman by Jacob Epstein, and the 14-year-old Kathy, daughter of Helen Garman, from Martigues. Laurie took out all three in turn; he deflowered Kitty, who in 1948 became Lucian Freud’s first wife (and later the wife of the economist Wynne Godley). She was the girl in Freud’s portraits Girl with a Kitten and Girl with a White Dog. The painter John Craxton, Lucian’s friend, told me that after Lorna, Lucian “was determined never to love any woman more than she loved him. Marrying Kitty was his revenge on the Garman family.”

In 1950, as soon as Kathy turned 18, Laurie married her. (And readers wishing to pursue the serpentine aftermath – in which Lucian Freud’s mistress Anne Dunn went on to marry Lorna’s artist son Michael Wishart, who had also had an affair with Lucian – should read Geordie Greig’s Breakfast with Lucian, which details with admirable clarity what he calls “the mind-boggling merry-go-round of liaisons with [Lucian] at the centre”.)

While I was writing my biography in 1998-99, I realised that Laurie’s most spontaneous writing was contained in the Second World War diaries, explaining so much about him in love, in Spain, in the literary world. Lorna was still alive then but in a fog of dementia that had descended in 1996 when she crashed her car, breaking many bones, the day after her son Michael’s funeral. Lucian was still in his threateningly litigious and reclusive stage, so I sent the relevant chapters to his biographer William Feaver and, as my notebook records, “14 October 1999: Wm Feaver rings to say Lucian is not going to sue, and is actually rather tickled.” Lorna died on 12 January 2000, aged 89. Her obituaries hymned her as the first muse of Laurie Lee and Lucian Freud.

A revised and updated edition of “The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee” by Valerie Grove will be published in June by Robson Press

“Laurie Lee: Memories of War” is at the British Library, London NW1, until 20 July Lee’s art is published in “Laurie Lee: a Folio” by Jessy Lee (Unicorn Press, £24.99)