23-31 December 1914: Christmas at Foxwold

Foxwold, by James W. Herald, c.1894

Foxwold, by James W. Herald, c.1894

Christmas Day 1914 was a Friday. Two days before, George and Kittie Calderon, together with their Belgian refugees Jean Ryckaert and Raymond Dereume, made their way by train to Sevenoaks, where they changed for Brasted. At Brasted station they were collected by pony and trap, most probably, and taken to the rather grand, but architecturally eccentric country house Foxwold (see parts of the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film Room with a View). They returned to Hampstead on New Year’s Eve and on 1 January 1915 George wrote a cracking letter to William Rothenstein which will form my next posting.

Foxwold, which was owned by the thirty-five-year-old Captain C.E. Pym (‘Evey’), provided the perfect family Christmas for the Calderons. They adored his thirty-two-year-old wife Violet (‘Wiley’), her soldierly husband, and their three small children, who have featured in ‘Calderonia’ ever since my first posting on 30 July. Other Pym family members were there for Christmas, too. Just up the road was Violet’s parents’ home, Emmetts (see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/emmetts), which also had a full house this Christmas, and festivities were shared between the two houses.

The family connection between the Pyms and the Calderons was that Violet’s mother, Catherine Lubbock, née Gurney, was the half-sister of Kittie’s first husband, Archie Ripley (1866-98), who had been a close friend of George’s from their Oxford days. The Lubbocks were a large and famous family, a national treasure indeed. Violet was Catherine and Frederic’s only daughter. Her brothers were Guy, Cecil, Samuel, Percy, Roy and Alan, at least four of whom were present at this Foxwold-Emmetts Christmas.

One feels that Christmas at Foxwold must have been English and Dickensian par excellence. Evey Pym was frugal, but his father Horace, for whom Foxwold was built in 1885 , had famously entertained there, was a very successful Victorian ‘confidential solicitor’, a bibliophile, raconteur, and great admirer of Charles Dickens (whose sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth stayed at Foxwold for ten days in 1896). Surely something of Horace’s expansive conviviality rubbed off on the way his son kept Christmas in 1914?

The presence of children was vital to the festivities and to George and Kittie’s enjoyment. George was a master at organising games and charades, and according to Percy Lubbock he taught Ryckaert and Dereume to ‘build a toy theatre’ — presumably in order to stage a performance on it for the children. The construction probably took place in the largest room at Foxwold, Horace Pym’s L-shaped library. George painted the proscenium and Evey the Royal Arms at the top:

Toy theatre proscenium by George Calderon and C.E. Pym, Christmas 1914

Toy theatre proscenium by George Calderon and C.E. Pym, Christmas 1914

Calderon was ‘at his kindest and sunniest’, Percy Lubbock recalled: ‘What I see is his whimsical, interested face as he describes the delight of searching a ruinous farm-house in the dark, where a German sniper is concealed.’ He coached the Belgians in billiards and even ‘acted polyglot charades with them’. At Ypres on Christmas Day some of George’s former regiment, the Warwickshires, met their enemies in no man’s land.

On 27th there was a heavy fall of snow across Britain.

It was presumably at this point that, in Kittie’s words, ‘one of those glorified charades that George was so splendid at evolving was got up for the soldiers quartered in the village’. It was performed in the village hall. Unfortunately, we have no evidence that George acted in it himself as he had in his uproarious ‘Ibsen Pantomime’ at Emmetts in the festive season of 1911/12. ‘It was extraordinarily funny and clever’, Kittie wrote, and George ‘thoroughly, as usual, enjoyed his time at Foxwold’.

But, of course, the war was at the back of everyone’s minds. Percy Lubbock wrote in 1921:

That Christmas party had travelled far in a few months […] I seem to remember a frame of mind in which two firm convictions dwelt side by side — that the war must certainly end within a few months more, and that it would somehow not end after all; it was impossible to suppose that it would last, it was unimaginable that it should cease. But George himself was little concerned with this dilemma; he looked neither backward nor forward, he had work on hand that made the moment all-sufficient. He was a soldier in the war, slightly damaged for the time being, but well enough to be planning his return to activity […] I think of him as the one member of the party who seemed to live serenely in the midst of the upheaval, on sure foundations that he could trust. All around him were trying, more or less successfully, to adjust their balance to the new conditions; he, from the first moment of the war, was firmly on his feet, and never had to think of the matter again. […] He was one of the few whom the war found ready, morally and intellectually; he had no further preparations to make.

Kittie Calderon saw only the rehearsals for George’s show at Brasted village hall; she was not well enough to attend the performance. She had, in fact, not been well for some time. One would give a lot to know what her mystery illness was, but one can imagine some factors that influenced it.

All the images illustrating posts connected with Foxwold, and a huge amount of the information these posts contain, have been supplied with unstinting kindness and generosity by the descendants of Violet and Evey today. I am sure that followers of ‘Calderonia’ will want to join me in wishing the Pym family the most Dickensian of cheer this Christmas, one hundred years later and in happier times.

Next entry: 1 January 1915

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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