"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".
The Lacock archive is as full of references to cats as there are currently cats living in and around the abbey. Although these are mostly photographs, there are also text references to cats. The earliest reference I’ve found is from the 19th century. Charles Henry Talbot, who owned Lacock from 1877, kept most of the letters written to him (although sadly didn’t make copies of the ones he sent) and from there we can find several interesting references to his home life and relationships with his family and friends – and animals! We know from correspondence that Charles had at least two cats in the last part of the 19th century, called Stripy and Bunny. It appears that he was very fond of them. Matilda Talbot, who inherited Lacock from her uncle Charles, was equally fond of them and many photographs of cats have appeared from amongst her papers.
In a letter to his uncle of 1893, William Gilchrist-Clark advises Charles regarding the mange that his pet is suffering from: “On my way from Brighton I heard of your cat’s illness. I said to Auntie Monie [Rosamond Talbot] that I thought it must be mange, and she asks me by letter this morning to write to you about it. I thought the cat was not in a healthy state when I saw it in Jan – the hair was too matted and it didn’t look right. The regular vet is laid up, but I am sure the best thing you could do would be to have the matted hair cut off as much as possible and the skin dressed with sulphur and hair oil – the cat would be in an unpleasant state for a bit and would hardly do for the house – but if it was kept in a stable for a bit it would soon feel right again – you could get the dressing from any local vet, and at the same time find out if it was the best thing to use – I always use it for dogs myself.” Personally, I think the first thing I’d do is visit the vet, and find out if it was suitable before I even considered buying the dressing. But it is interesting to see how people dealt with animals’ illnesses. Charles must have been very worried about his cat, and William likewise as he wrote to him so quickly. Let’s hope the strange concoction for the cat’s skin worked, and 1893’s “Grumpy Cat” (I would be if I was kept in a stable and dressed with sulphur) got over his mange and his health improved!
A letter from Rosamond Talbot to Charles of 1898 suggests that Charles has had to find a new home for one of his cats due to it possibly hunting his chickens, and she is helping: “We think that a good home has offered for poor old Bunny, in Somersetshire – people who want a grown up tame cat, so I must see about it when I get home. I cannot think that she has been interfering with the chickens again, now that they are grown so much older – besides she has been so constantly and carefully kept indoors during the middle of the day when the chickens are free, but still it is best to be on the safe side, if we can, for the future. Do you think the fox has put in an appearance again?” The phrase “poor old Bunny” is very apt here. It appears that the poor cat was rehomed as a scapegoat for the fox, although we cannot rule out the possibility of Bunny being a natural hunter and deciding that actually, grown-up chickens were also quite appealing. It is not known if Bunny was eventually rehomed. Maybe Charles decided to just be a bit more careful about where she was kept in relation to the chickens.
For my blog on Lacock this time I want to look at a bundle of documents only recently discovered in the Lacock archive, during my listing of some final boxes. The documents concern the 200th anniversary of the commemoration of the Great Hall in Lacock, which was rebuilt by John Ivory Talbot, the owner of Lacock at that time.
Talbot and the architect Sanderson Miller designed the Great Hall in a Gothic style and anyone who has been to Lacock will vividly remember the prowess of the room, with its great high ceilings, coats of arms decorating the ceiling, and breathtaking sculptures adorning the walls. Outside, Talbot built some grand steps.
In 1755, Talbot invited the friends whose coats of arms he had had put on the new ceiling to a commemoration event at Lacock Abbey to celebrate the completion of the work. Talbot invited 40 of his friends and neighbours to the event. An article in the Wiltshire Times 200 years later said that the emblazoning of the coats of arms “was most original, and a graceful compliment to his neighbours”. Whilst many sceptics would say that it was a way of really getting in with the local nobility, it is clear that Talbot himself was a high-standing member of the community and I’d like to think that his neighbours were pleased to be represented on that ceiling. The party brought together the local nobility and must have been a very grand event – if it happened. Unfortunately only a letter suggesting the possibility of an event was found, not any documents confirming that it had taken place.
200 years later, the final owner of Lacock Abbey before its presentation to the National Trust, Matilda Talbot, decided to host an anniversary event to commemorate the commemoration, and her intention was to recreate the event of 200 years earlier, by inviting representatives of those friends and neighbours of Matilda’s ancestor to the party. Although Matilda no longer owned the abbey, she continued to live there from 1944 until her death in 1956. Members of her family, the Burnett-Brown family who were descendants of her brother William, were living at the abbey as well and they also attended the event. The family and some acquaintances did some tireless research to find representatives of the 1755 party. Peter Summers of the Kingswood School did most of the research, which involved firstly trying to work out who some of the coats of arms on the ceiling were for anyway, and then painstakingly tracing their descendants down to the family member who appeared to be their most ideal representative. Those representatives were then invited to the commemoration event.
We’re all starting to think about the summer and maybe some of us are concerned that the results of the large appetites gained over Christmas and the numerous Easter eggs consumed are not being shifted in time for our holidays. Well, fear not, because an answer has been found in the Lacock archive!
Casually sifting through a box of varied documents, mostly belonging to Matilda Talbot, I was intrigued and amused to discover these four pages of handwritten exercises. The exercises were created and drawn by the International Association of Margaret Morris Movement. Margaret Morris Movement still exists today (and runs classes throughout the UK and overseas, if anyone is interested!) and specialises in creative dance movement, particularly breathing techniques. Although the exercises are unfortunately undated, it can be assumed that they were written around the 1930s. They contain breathing and movement exercises, and, wonderfully, also contain diagrams of how the exercise should be done.