She is the almost forgotten patron of Virginia Woolf, Eliot, Huxley (and so many others)
For women of the 19th English aristocracy it was not easy to escape from the role that society imposed on them. Aristocrats had to live up to a huge amount of expectations and interests that were almost impossible to avoid. Lady Ottoline Morrell, however, managed to find, within the restricted space that she had been assigned, ways of transcending those limits that would have definitive repercussions in 20th century English art and politics.
In Gower Street, London, there is a plaque on a façade that reads: “Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1873-1938, Literary Hostess and Patron of the Arts, lived here.” As well as being an art buyer, and one of the main patrons of post-impressionism in England, for years she offered food and lodging to authors including Virginia Woolf, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves and Bertrand Russell.
Her artistic concerns were channeled into her vocation as a hostess. Somebody, probably Oscar Wilde, said that those who could not make art should be art. This was the precept Lady Ottoline followed all her life. She focused her creativity on her look, her dress and her role as a hostess.
In her house, Garsington Manor, she organized infamous parties, masked balls and picnics in the gardens. Despite coming from a well-to-do family, her expenses were so excessive that they slowly drove her to ruin.
Garsington Manor played a fundamental role in the First World War. There, Lady Ottoline received and protected many conscientious objectors, who worked on the farm that they set up as an alibi, as the government considered farms to be essential to the country’s wartime development. Among Ottoline’s lovers was Bertrand Russell (among many others) and she was married to Philip Morrell, a politician who listened to Ottoline’s pacifist ideas and took them to parliament.
It is not strange then, given the circumstances, that Lady Ottoline would become the subject of numerous works of art, of portraits and works of fiction. Many of the writers that she supported turned her into a caricature in their works, an object of mockery. Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence wrote novels in which they portrayed her as a frivolous and ridiculous woman. It is said that she inspired Lawrence to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both the protagonist of that novel and Lady Ottoline took their gardeners as lovers. Lady Ottoline was deeply in love with her gardener Tiger, who sadly died very young.
As Ottoline aged and her fortune diminished, her friends abandoned her. Two of them, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, were at her side until the end. When she died, the two writers commissioned an epitaph, and which reads: “A brave spirit, unbroken, Delighting in beauty and goodness, And the love of her friends.” Perhaps that was Lady Ottoline’s greatest virtue, beyond her philanthropy and her capacity to forgive and help her friends; her life and work, after all, was friendship.
Geoffrey Nelson; Hon. Dorothy Eugénie Brett; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Mr Blay; Mark Gertler… / National Portrait Gallery
‘T.S.’ Eliot with his sister and his cousin, by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934) / National Portrait Gallery
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