The Glamorous Garman Sisters

The Garman family

"No other contemporary women had much poetry, good, bad and indifferent, written about them, or had so many portraits or busts made of them." - Roy Campbell

It seems like the Garman sisters have been on the edge of my periphery for ages now. Just recently I read about them in article on Lucien Freud in the February issue of Vanity Fair.  Douglas Garman had a long affair with Peggy Guggenheim, who was the subject of an earlier blog post here at Scandalous Women. Pick up any biography of the Bloomsbury Group and you will see their names. Like the better-known Mitfords, the Garman sisters took center stage in Bohemian London during the first half of the twentieth century. Unconventionally beautiful, flamboyant, and headstrong, they broke away from middle-class conventions, seducing and inspiring a generation of artists. While all of the Garmans were artistic in their own right, it seems that their greatest gift to the world was to inspire other artists. These siblings seemed to possess an uncanny ability to turn heads, break hearts, and spark creative genius.

Like the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore show, these three women “could turn on the world on with her smile, who can take a nothing place and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile…” As their biographer Cressida Connolly put it in her biography, “People fell in love with them. They were lovely to be in love with, passionate, generous, and beautiful. They sent secret notes at midnight and left their pillows smelling of scent. They gave presents: books of poetry, music, wildflowers. They made dramatic entrances and exits, their arms full of lilies, haunting railway stations throughout Europe, intoxicating their lovers with sudden meetings and long goodbyes.” Seriously who wouldn’t want to know someone like that?

There were 9 children in all, 7 sisters and 2 brothers, in the Garman family but this post will only focus on the three who had the most impact on the world. The eldest sister Mary (1898-1989) married the maverick poet Roy Campbell. Kathleen (1901-1989), an enigmatic artist's model and aspiring pianist, was the lover and, later, the wife of controversial American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein. And the youngest and considered the most beautiful of the sisters, Lorna (1911-2000), was the lover of both the painter Lucian Freud and the poet Laurie Lee.

The children grew up at Oakeswell Hall in what is known as “The Black Country” near Birmingham in England. Their father was a prosperous doctor, a proper Victorian father, twenty years older than their mother. Although the family was not rich, there was enough money for the usual servants that you find in a big house, including a governess. The children lived an idyllic late Victorian/early Edwardian childhood of picnics interspersed with lessons and piano practice. From the beginning, however, Mary and Kathleen showed signs of rebellion against the stultifying conventions of their middle class upbringing. They stole knickknacks from the drawing room, using their younger siblings to fence the goods for cash. With the proceeds, they bought cigarettes and French novels. When their father, Walter, caught them reading Flaubert’s racy Madame Bovary, he snatched it out of their hands and consigned it to the fire. His actions only made them rebel more; there were forays into town to buy drinks at the pub, and excursions to the cinema.

Mary Garman

Kathleen Garman during the early years of her affair with Jacob Epstein

After the war, the two sisters ran off to London. Mary took a job driving a delivery van for Lyon’s Corner Houses while Kathleen took a job working with the horses that pulled the carriages for Harrods.  When their father found out, he was appalled at their behavior, but when he realized that they were serious, he gave them an allowance which allowed them to quit their jobs. Instead they both enrolled in art school. One night in 1921, Kathleen and Mary were having dinner out when they became aware that a strange man kept staring at them. The waiter brought over a note, asking them to join him to dine. Although they were amused and flattered, they declined. The man turned out to be the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein. When Kathleen went back to the restaurant a few days later, Epstein was there again. This time Kathleen agreed to sit with him. Kathleen was twenty, and Jacob was twenty years older. A few days later, she had agreed to sit for him. Before long, she was not only his model but his mistress, beginning a more than thirty-year relationship, marred only by his wife’s shooting her with a pearl-handled revolver in 1923. It seems that while Mrs. Epstein tolerated her husband’s infidelities, she instinctively knew that Kathleen was different from the other women her husband had been involved with, and she was not happy. When shooting Kathleen didn’t scare her off, she took the tactic of encouraging her husband to pursue other lovers, hoping that his love for Kathleen would fade away. No such luck! The incident left Kathleen with a permanent scar, and unable to wear sleeveless dresses but it didn’t end the affair.  Kathleen was so devoted to Epstein, that she didn’t press charges because he asked her not too. She even went so far as to agree to ride around Hyde Park in an open cab with his wife so that newspaper reporters could see that there was no enmity between them. Kathleen further scandalized society by giving birth to three children by Epstein, Theo, Kitty and Esther (a fourth child died of SIDS while Kathleen was playing piano in the same room). All three children bore their mother’s last name. It wasn’t until after Margaret’s death, and his knighthood in 1954, that Epstein and Kathleen were married, making her Lady Epstein.

A bust of Kathleen by Jacob Epstein

Not to be outdone by her younger sister, Mary soon met and married the South African poet Roy Campbell, despite the fact that he hung her out of a fourth floor window so that she would gain some respect for him. Cressida Connolly has pointed out: "Within three days he had moved into the girls' studio room. Tall and thin, with startlingly blue eyes, he was already writing poetry, living on beer and forgetting to eat - or eating only radishes, their leaves and all, bought from a market stall. The girls decided to fatten him up, and the three of them would lie, arm in arm, in front of the fire while he read them fragments from the poems which would become his first book."

She wore black with a gold veil to the wedding. It was a tempestuous marriage from the beginning. The couple lived on the edge of poverty for years, poetry not being incredibly lucrative. They had two daughters Tess and Annie, but Mary soon fell under the spell, like many before her, of Vita Sackville-West. In Vita, Mary had found the perfect combination of mother figure and lover. But Vita was an all-together cooler customer. While she had many lovers, her marriage to Harold Nicolson provided the perfect escape route when things got too sticky. Campbell’s verse attack on the Bloomsbury group following the affair was the literary scandal of the epoch. Sackville-West’s other lover, Virginia Woolf, was moved to write Orlando in response to the affair. There were threats and tears, until the family finally decamped to the South of France.

Lorna Garman

Lorna, the youngest, was perhaps the wildest of all. “She was amoral really,” her daughter Yasmin later said. “But everyone forgave her because she was such a life-giver.” She wore exotic clothing, rode her horse at night, and swam naked in the lake. At the tender age of 14, she seduced her brother’s college friend Ernest Wishart who was 9 years her senior, and should have known better. When she turned 16, they were married. Of the three sisters, while Kathleen bagged the great artist, Lorna bagged herself a member of the landed gentry. She would be the only one of the three sisters who was financially well-off (during the Spanish Civil War, she sent Laurie Lee pound notes soaked in Chanel No. 5). By the time she was 21, Lorna had given birth to two sons, Michael and Luke. Because she was so young when they married, her husband turned a blind eye to her affairs, even raising her daughter Yasmin by Laurie Lee as his, until she asked if one of her lovers could move into a cottage on their estate. Even that was too much for her forgiving husband. Her relationship with the much younger Freud (she gave him the Zebra head that appears in several of his paintings) ended when she discovered that he was also involved with a younger actress. She told him, “I thought I was giving you up for Lent but I’m giving you up for good.” Both of her former lovers married her nieces, Lucien to Kitty Garman (Kathleen’s daughter) and Laurie Lee to her sister Helen’s daughter Kathy Pologe.

There is a tragic side to the Garman’s story. Mary’s husband Roy died in a car accident in Spain in 1957. Although they inspired great love and affection from their lovers, they were not the best mothers. Mary pretty much expected her daughters to raise themselves. “We were never told how to sit and a table….or how important it was to change our knickers every so often,” Anna later said. Her neglect led Tessa to suffer for years from anorexia. Kathleen spent most of her time at Epstein's beck and call, which left little time to be a mother. She sent her two daughters to live in the country to be raised by their grandmother while she kept her son Theo with her. A promising painter, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in his twenties. He died unexpectedly at the age of 29. Her daughter Esther, distraught over her brother’s death and the suicide of a young man whose marriage proposal she had rejected, committed suicide less than a year later. Lorna and her children basically grew up together.

Later in life, both Lorna and Mary became devout Catholics. Kathleen, after Epstein’s death, became the keeper of his flame, donating many of his works to museums in Israel as well as becoming a collector in her own right. Her collection forms part of the Garman/Ryan Collection at the Walsall Library.


Cressida Connolly - The Rare and The Beautiful: The Lives of the Garmans


Amazing post!
Laurie Lee first met Mary Garman and Roy Campbell at Toledo (Spain) in 1935. This was the first contact between Lee and the Garman´s circle. For further information:

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