Angela Thirkell and Three Houses (1890 - 1961)

ANGELA THIRKELL (1890 - 1961) Angela Margaret Mackail was born on January 30, 1890 at 27 Young Street, Kensington Square, London. Her grandfather was Sir Edward Burne-Jones the pre-Raphaelite painter and partner in the design firm of Morris and Company for whom he designed many stained glass windows - seven of which are in St Margaret's Church in Rottingdean, West Sussex. Her grandmother was Georgiana Macdonald, one of a precocious family which included among others, Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, and Rudyard Kipling. Angela's brother, Denis Mackail, was also a prolific and successful novelist. Angela's mother, Margaret Burne-Jones, married John Mackail - an administrator at the Ministry of Education and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

Angela married James Campbell McInnes in 1911. James was a professional Baritone and performed at concert halls throughout the UK. In 1912 their first son Graham was born and in 1914 a second son, Colin. A daughter was born in 1917 at the same time her marriage was breaking up. In November 1917 a divorce was granted and Angela and the children went to live with her parents in Pembroke Gardens in London. The child, Mary, died the next year. 

Angela then met and married George Lancelot Thirkell in 1918 and in 1920 they traveled on a troop ship to George's hometown in Australia. Their adventures on the "Friedricksruh" are recounted in her Trooper to the Southern Cross published in 1934. In 1921, in Melbourne Australia, her youngest son Lancelot George was born. Angela left Australia in 1929 with 8 year old Lance and never returned. Although living with her parents in London she badly needed to earn a living so she set forth on the difficult road of the professional writer. Her first book, Three Houses, a memoir of her happy childhood was published in 1931 and was an immediate success. The first of her novels set in Trollope's mythical county of Barsetshire was Demon in the House, followed by 28 others, one each year. 

Angela also wrote a book of children's stories entitled The Grateful Sparrow using Ludwig Richter's illustrations; a biography of Harriette Wilson, The Fortunes of Harriette; an historical novel, Coronation Summer, an account of the events in London during Queen Victoria's Coronation in 1838; and three semi-autobiographical novels, Ankle Deep and Oh, These Men, These Men and Trooper to the Southern Cross. When Angela died on the 29th of January 1961 she left unfinished the last of her books, Three Score and Ten which was completed by her friend, Caroline LeJeune. Angela is buried in Rottingdean alongside her daughter Mary and her Burne-Jones grandparents. 

'There is always in our minds the hope that we may find again those golden unhastening days and wake up and dream'

 In this beautifully nostalgic memoir, eminent author Angela Thirkell recalls in rich detail the three houses in which she grew up. Focusing first on 'The Grange', where her grandfather, the celebrated painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, set the cultivated tone, Thirkell also reminisces about her parents' home in Kensington Square and the Burne-Jones' seaside retreat, where Angela's cousin, Rudyard Kipling, lived across the green in a house called Rottingdean from 1897-1903. A tale of forbidden explorations, Punch and Judy shows, and adventures in the garden, Three Houses is beautifully evocative of the innocent quality of childhood. From the busy literary centre of London to the English coast, this stunning memoir is both reminiscent of the golden days of youth and an interesting vision of a writer and the early influences that informed her later work. 

Rottingdean:  She spent much time at the home of her Burne-Jones grandparents, North End House.  It is lovingly described in her Three Houses (1931) as is The Elms, also in Rottingdean.  She was of course a cousin of the Kiplings and the Baldwins, and there is quite a lot of material on this at The Grange, Rottingdean. (Kipling lived in Rottingdean from 1897 to 1903 before moving to Burwash because of a lack of privacy). Angela Thirkell died in 1961, still writing, and is buried in the churchyard of St. Margaret's Church in Rottingdean next to her daughter, Mary, who died young.

NORTH END HOUSE: In 1880 Prospect Cottage and Aubrey Cottage were purchased by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. He then merged the two into one house, which he named North End House after his London residence, and lived there until his death in 1898. In 1920 the house was bought by another artist, Sir William Nicholson, and then in 1923 by Sir Roderick Jones and his wife, the writer Enid Bagnold (1889-1981). Jones also purchased the adjacent Gothic House, and combined it with the other two to form one very large residence still known as North End House. In the 1980s the buildings were restored again into three separate houses, but Gothic House has retained the name North End House.

All three are listed buildings and date from the eighteenth century. Prospect Cottage bears a plaque to Burne-Jones, while Aubrey Cottage is an unusual building with a wooden balustrade and many windows. North End House is an elegant building with a Doric porch and is faced with black glazed mathematical tiles.

Why did Mr. and Mrs. Burne-Jones move into 'The Grange?'  According to Burne-Jones biographer, Penelope Fitzgerald, in an article she wrote for the Morris Society she explains, 'North End contained two brewers, a horse-dealer, and a private asylum for ladies. This in itself shows how remote the place was, since private asylums had to be as far as possible from any form of transport, and although the Thames Junction Railway ran through the fields below The Grange, trains didn't stop there. Milk was still delivered in pails and there were briar roses in the lanes (but Burne-Jones was never a countryman anyway - the country, he complained, was so noisy). The north house, which was the onc they chose of the two, had the advantage of a good north light and an indoor studio, but even with two children it was too big for them, and the rates were high in Fulharn. They had in fact to share it at first with an old Birmingham friend, Wilfred Heelcy, and his wife, who were waiting to go out to India, or they could never have managed the rent at all. 

The Grange, then, had almost nothing to recommend it to Georgie except inaccessibility. The directions were said to be 'Go down the Cromwell Road till your cabhorse drops dead, and then ask someone.' But, as it turned out almost immediately, it was nor inaccessible enough.'

The Grange dining room painted by T.M. Rooke

 ln Three Houses The Grange appears as a children's paradise even more paradisal than it had been to Rudyard Kipling (Ruddie) in the 1870s, partly because while Kipling was understood and most kindly treated, Angela was grossly spoiled. When she was born Burne-Jones was having a rivalry with Gladstone as to which of them could spoil their granddaughters the most. Angela
always sat next to him at lunch, blew the froth off his beer, had her bread buttered
on both sides, rushed into the kitchen to talk to Robert the parrot. The children
were free to roam the whole house, except the studio, and yet she saw William
Morris only once, in Georgie's sitting room. She saw him as 'an old man (or so I
thought him) with the aggressive mop of white hair who was talking, between fits
of coughing, to my grandmother.'
And yet Morris was often in the house. Having become a printer, he assumed
that Burne-Jones would be the chief illustrator for the Kelmscott Press. The Sunday morning breakfasts returned and seem to have been times of heroic and unwise eating on Morris's part - sausages, haddock, tongue and plover's eggs, according to Rooke, 'and then he would go to the side-table and wish he had had something else.' And then, in the February of 1896, Morris suddenly leant his forehead on his hand in a way that Ned and Georgie had never seen before - never, in all the time they had known him.'

portrait painting of Angela Thirkell by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Sir Edward Burne-Jones with grandson and granddaughter, both became authors

Feel free to comment,


David said…
Burne-Jones was a fascinating man and a brilliant painter. Very interesting post, thanks!
Maggie Peters said…
Great post. I've always wondered what happened to that little girl in the photos.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi David and Maggie, thanks so much for commenting.
Angela Bell said…
Great post. Thanks for the book title ,will try to get it.We have some of Angela Thirkells books in the library where I work.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Angela, Thank goodness for libraries! I would be lost without mine. How lucky you get to work in one. I have to check my local library and see what Angela Thirkell books they may have. Thanks for leaving a comment.
Hermes said…
Great post, only point worth mentioning is that Georgina took part in local politics one of the first women to do, One of the great if's of history is if she had married William Morris instead,

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