Artists in Residence - The Fittons of Pond Cottages
by Judy Fitton
My brother and I were pre-war babies, born and bred to the sound of the Dulwich College clock. We consider that we had an ideal childhood. Our parents were happily married: I cannot remember them ever having a row or almost ever using bad language (the occasional expletive from my father when he thought we were out of earshot would give us enormous pleasure). We had meals together at regular times and of course in those days there was no television to disrupt domestic life. Later when TVs became commonplace, my father refused to have one until my brother had left school. We never had children’s birthday parties because our parents considered that the excessive gift-giving involved was bad for us. In fact they never threw parties beyond the occasional intimate dinner party, until they celebrated their golden wedding and invited all the Pond Cottages neighbours in for tea, cake and a glass of champagne. This may sound as if life was conventional and boring – conventional perhaps in some ways, but boring? No.
My parents were both artists, not ostentatiously so, but they were definitely distinctive figures. My father for instance didn’t see anything odd in venturing out in the evening to post a letter (the letter box was half way down Dulwich Common) in a full length red dressing gown. Sometimes he would dash down to the village to buy paints from Mr and Mrs Green (Brian’s parents) in a jacket covered in paint and a shirt with half the buttons missing, giving the impression that my mother didn’t look after us. He was quite tall with prematurely grey hair, strikingly blue eyes and a goatee beard, and he walked and talked at the speed of lightning all his life.
Peggy was beautiful, with long black hair worn up and had very fair skin, she wore longer than fashionable, exotically coloured clothes and was altogether very glamorous. She is perhaps best described by Jacob Epstein (who wanted her to sit for him) as a Best Period Renoir. She was very shy, but very intelligent and an exceptional painter - Anthony Blunt, who was at the time, the art critic of the Spectator, picked her painting Ironing and Airing as being The Best Painting in the 1939 Royal Academy Exhibition. Alfred Bestall, a wonderful artist, best known as the creator of Rupert Bear, was also a long-standing admirer of both her and her painting.
We lived at Ten and Eleven Pond Cottages, a pair of 18th century cottages standing on their own, hidden behind the cottages that face the pond. They were, and still are, captivating. Surrounded by banks of trees which lead to fields and eventually woods and a golf course, you could be in the middle of the countryside. Initially my parents moved into number ten which was in a sorry state - ‘You can move into the workman’s cottage now but it’s in a slum condition ‘- said the Dulwich Estates. It certainly was DIY with a vengeance. They began life there filling in holes in the wall with newspaper and had to use one of the tiny low-ceilinged dark bedrooms as a studio. After several years Percy Houghton, the artist in number eleven, moved out and the College Estates gave permission for the party wall to be demolished to make it into one house. There was more room of course and it was wonderful not to have the inhabitants of number eleven (however pleasant) walking through the garden path in front of the windows on the way to their front door. However it was still pretty primitive, there was no central heating, the French stove had to be sifted out every day and my father still had to use a bedroom as a studio. The two front doors facing the garden, let cold air in every time they were opened (we only used number ten during the winter) but it was a wonderful home to us and our friends. Sometimes, during term time, my brother’s Dulwich College school friends would be seen creeping in the (usually) unlocked door, on the way to the tiny bedroom upstairs to pad themselves with underpants, as armour prior to a beating awarded to them from the school.
Margaret and James (Peggy and Jim) came from very different backgrounds. Jim was born in dusty smoky Oldham, the son of mill-workers – his father, who began work aged seven cleaning the machinery, was an engineer and his mother was a weaver. His precocious passion for drawing first manifested itself when he was hospitalised aged eight after a botched mastoid operation, performed on the kitchen table. In a letter home to his parents he wrote.”...Be sure and bring my paints and paper and my bag of boiled sweets or I shall be vexed”. When Jim left school aged fourteen, having missed a great deal because of hospital treatment for his ear, his headmaster told his father.”.. He’s no good at anything except drawing and that’s women’s work”.
Determined that Jim should not work in the mill but unable to afford to send him to art school, his father took him for an interview with a calico printer where he was taken on as an apprentice. He then enrolled at Manchester School of Art for evening classes as a non fee paying student. Although he was only fourteen, he was allowed to attend life classes, usually forbidden for one so young, until a surprise visit one day from the Bishop of Manchester and other civic dignitaries who, on discovering his age, ordered him to be withdrawn immediately. He was allowed to resume the classes on his sixteenth birthday.
Whilst at evening art school, Jim met fellow student L.S. Lowry who was nearly twice his age and the two began what was to be a lifelong friendship. Later, when Jim won a scholarship to study full-time, he took on night work in the docks, arriving at art school somewhat bleary-eyed the next morning. Lowry on the other hand, who no longer attended classes, would paint all night until his father dimmed the light and would arrive similarly bleary-eyed the following morning at the office where he worked. At weekends, the oddly assorted pair would meet in the afternoon to go sketching together or, if it was raining, to a matinee ‘...We got on a tram, and he took me to the Hulme Hippodrome, a music hall in the poor part of Manchester to see Fred Karno’s Company in The Mumming Birds... which pulverised Lowry with laughter’.
In 1920, James Fitton senior, an active member of the early Labour Party, was appointed National Organiser of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, whose headquarters were in Peckham and soon the family exchanged life in Oldham for one in Woodbine Cottage Dulwich Village. The move proved a violent culture shock for the family, especially the well- stocked garden, full of flowers shrubs and fruit trees, in contrast to the backyard with privy ‘up North’. Jim was then twenty one and began the arduous task of trailing around London with his portfolio looking for work. He was initially engaged as a studio assistant with a firm of printers and received his first commission designing a lithograph for a golf club match box. A more prestigious commission followed which involved designing a mural for the British Gas Association’s stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition. At the same time, he enrolled for evening classes at the Central School of Art where he met his future wife Peggy Cook.
Peggy was a full time student and, in contrast to Jim, came from a family with art and music in its blood for generations. Both of her parents were painters: her grandfather and great- uncle on her mother’s side were composers, and another great-uncle founded the prestigious Cook School of Art in St John’s Wood. The family lived on the border of Hampstead and Kilburn in a rambling, rather dilapidated house, full to the brim with paintings, pottery wheels, and animals, not all of which were typical household pets. The menagerie included tree frogs and parakeets allowed out of their cages (Peggy’s mother was a member of the Zoological Society). Jim was fascinated by the family, particularly Peggy’s creative mother who was always learning new skills - she taught herself to do miniatures in her sixties and subsequently had them accepted for a Royal Academy Exhibition.
Jim and Peggy became, in modern parlance, an ‘item’ quite soon after meeting and left art school at roughly the same time, whereupon Peggy found work as an illustrator at Frederick Warne the publisher. They continued living with their respective parents at opposite ends of London, unable to afford to get married until Jim, worn out by the daily demands of freelancing, with the continuing worries over where the next commission might come from, took a job with an advertising company where he later became Art Director. As soon as he had a steady income, they decided to get married without delay, so quickly in fact that one of Peggy’s uncles withheld his wedding present for nine months suspecting a ‘shot gun’ wedding.
Once established in Ten Pond Cottages, Jim was able to begin painting seriously in the evenings and Peggy painted when and where she could, while they adjusted to married life. Peggy had been obliged to leave her job with Frederick Warne on marriage, as was customary in those days and, being a North Londoner, felt somewhat ‘cut off’ and lonely in the early days in Dulwich. However, with artist friends Margaret and Henry Hoyland living nearby in Pickwick Cottage and upon whom she could call on en route to the village shops, she soon settled in.
In the early thirties in the climate of poverty, unemployment and strikes, Jim was invited to become a founder member of an artists’ pressure group formed in an attempt to promote the working-class and the position of artists in society. Later, with the rise of fascism and the threat of war, it broadened into the Artist International Association (AIA), an anti-fascist movement. The members included Augustus John, Laura Knight, Duncan Grant, John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Margaret Cook (Peggy). Every artistic group from the Royal Academy to Unit One was represented. They contributed posters, sculptures, drawings, paintings and cartoons - the first exhibition being held in a motorcycle stadium and the second coinciding with the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Jim also did sets for Collins Music Hall which featured Tommy Handley, and contributed cartoons and drawings to other publications such as Time and Tide, Everyman and Left Review. In 1934 a collection of his drawings was acquired by the Museum of Modern Western Art in Moscow and featured prominently in an exhibition there.
Against this background of the fight against fascism and mounting fear of Hitler and Germany, it is ironic that my parents should employ Mrs Joyce, a gentle Irishwoman who lived on the other side of the Millpond in Allison Grove, to help with their new baby. Often Mrs Joyce would arrive with two of her teenage sons, Quentin and Robert who would entertain the baby while she did household tasks. My parents thought the boys were extremely well mannered and pleasant and very good with the baby. Sadly, after the outbreak of war, it transpired that the boys were the younger brothers of William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw and Quentin who by then was working for the Air Ministry was interned for the rest of the war. Mrs Joyce, who knew nothing about politics, and her daughter Joan, continued to live in Dulwich and to the credit of the local people, they were treated with the respect they had always received. Joan later married the policeman appointed to guard their house.
Next Time: The War Years, Dulwich Picture Gallery, The Royal Academy and Lady Churchill comes to tea.