Amazing grace

William Simmonds was a modest but extraordinary artist, whose reputation rested on his marionettes and puppets

Daniel Johnson

“Archangel Gabriel” by William Simmonds, which features in Jessica Douglas-Home’s new biography of the artist. Douglas-Home first saw this marionette as a child and  was struck by its “intense, happy eyes”, and “the detail of the carving: the delicacy of the hands and fingers, the feet and toes”. The wings could be opened out to nearly three feet. (Image courtesy of Unicorn Publishing Group. Private collection.)

A special prize should be awarded to biographers who resurrect forgotten subjects from obscurity. The painter, writer and theatre designer Jessica Douglas-Home deserved one already for her life of her great-aunt, the musician Violet Gordon Woodhouse, whose house, Nether Lypiatt Manor, her father inherited. Now she has surpassed herself with her biography of another English genius, who belonged to the same Cotswold circle, whose sculptures of animals, exquisitely carved in wood and ivory, impressed her as a child. He it was, above all, who taught her to draw.

William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement (Unicorn, £20) tells the story of a modest but extraordinary figure, whose reputation rested on his marionettes and puppets, admired throughout Europe, but whose importance as an artist was overshadowed by his more celebrated friends, from John Singer Sargent and William Rothenstein to Max Beerbohm and D.H. Lawrence. With his gifted wife Eve, embroiderer and musician, William Simmonds flourished between the wars. Their idyllic existence was interrupted by the Battle of Britain, when a dogfight above their village, Oakridge, ended with both a Spitfire and a Junkers 88 bomber crashing and three Germans arrested. War also brought Simmonds together with Stafford Cripps, the Labour politician, whom Churchill promoted after a broadcast that may have been influenced by Simmonds. He lived to see the postwar revival of interest in Arts and Crafts; his own works, snapped up in his lifetime by patrons or donated to museums, trigger bidding wars on the rare occasions that they come up for auction. 

There is much more to Jessica Douglas-Home, however, than her artistic and literary achievements. Long before the Iron Curtain opened, she campaigned to preserve the unique architectural heritage of rural Romania, especially Transylvania. The Mihai Eminescu Trust continues her conservation work to this day.

No less remarkable has been Jessica’s role in society and politics. Her life has not been without sadness. She has been widowed twice: her first husband, Charles Douglas-Home, was Editor of The Times; her second, Lord (Rodney) Leach, founded Business for Sterling and Open Europe. Both distinguished themselves in the Conservative cause, and neither could have done so without Jessica, who knows instinctively how to bring intellectuals and politicians together. When the history of the period from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May comes to be written, a unique place will belong to the political salon over which she has presided with true grit and amazing grace. Jessica is the beating heart of English conservatism.

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