Wednesday December 6 2017
Every month, a member of staff from the Britten-Pears Foundation choose their favourite item or object from the collections. This month Abigail Williams, our Archive Graduate Trainee contributes:
‘Nigel Luckhurst’s photograph of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Peter Pears’ hands clasped illustrates a friendship between the two formed late in their lives, glimpses of which can be found throughout the archive at the Britten-Pears Foundation and Warner’s other writings.
Pears and Warner’s friendship began when Pears was in his sixties, Warner her late seventies, because of the artist and fisherman John Craske. Warner was a friend of Craske’s while he was alive. In 1970, hoping to protect his legacy, she wrote to Pears on the advice of a mutual friend to suggest an exhibition. She invited Pears to see her Craske collection at her home. ‘I liked him a great deal,’ her diary records of Pears’ visit. ‘He has the ardour of his singing’. Immediately after that entry, Warner goes on to write about her partner of over thirty years, Valentine Ackland, who had died a year earlier. ‘The house is full of her. I cannot believe in this sunset glow.’ (344 Diaries).
From the beginning, tracing a line through Pears and Warner’s friendship means also tracing a line through Warner’s grief. She writes movingly in her diary of Pears’ kindness in the face of it: ‘A single magpie crossed the road. “One for sorrow,” I said, to myself rather than to Peter. He has a very compassionate heart: for as we drove home, & another magpie flew, he commented that this made two. Which it didn’t. But it was said very gently & kindly’. (364 Diaries).
You get a sense of emotional intimacy from Warner’s letters to Pears, held here in the archive at the Britten-Pears Foundation. ‘Come again!’ she writes in 1972 to ‘endeared Peter’: ‘You are the most comfortable of visitors, the most reviving, the most reassuring. You make me feel as stroked as the cats.’ (19.vii.72). By 1974 the pair are writing to each other about a room in Warner’s house which Pears refers to as ‘”my” room’; ‘”your” room’, writes Warner, ‘will always be ready for you’.
In 1976, Pears’ own bereavement was added to this relationship when Britten, his partner, died. Warner wrote matter-of-factly to a friend that she and Pears spoke to each other about their loss: ‘we discussed’, she explains of a recent visit, ‘the problem of going on living after one has been cut in half.’ (Letters 294)
By 1977, Pears had arranged a ‘tribute’ concert to Warner, which was put on at Snape Maltings with Warner as a guest of honour. (‘My initial dishevelment was abated’, Warner wrote when Pears initially suggested this, ‘when I realised […] I might well be dead by then.’) [Diaries 393]. The poems of Warner’s collected for that concert were later published with a preface by Pears, in which he describes her ‘extraordinary achievement’ as a writer.
So, Nigel Luckhurst’s photograph illustrates, to me, the friendship between Warner and Pears. A friendship formed in Warner’s case only eight years before her death, it unfolded around mutual admiration in a decade when both parties lost their life partners. It illustrates, in turn, something about archival collections, and how friendships and human connection can live on as echoes in them. Maybe it’s intrusive, but that’s a problem with archives, which preserve not just the cold facts documented in official documents but the intimate lives recorded in personal correspondence and photographs.
Warner and Pears’ friendship may have started with Craske; it also finishes with him. In March 1978, just over a month before her death, Warner wrote her final letter to Pears; Pears wrote that he ‘treasured’ it.
‘This may be my last letter. I want to send you my love and my thanks for all the beauty that your music has meant to me. And keep an eye on the Crasks [sic].
‘[…] Sing on, my darling.’
Due to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Peter Pears’ collaborations on the work of John Craske, including arranging two exhibitions of Craske at Aldeburgh, we hold archival material related to Craske’s life and work. We’ve just finished cataloguing the Craske archive, which you can see more about here.