The Knitting Circle

The Knitting Circle: Poetry

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Biography, work, bibliography, press cuttings.

Laurence Housman

Born 18th. July, 1865, in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England; died 20th. February, 1959, in Glastonbury.

British illustrator, poet, novelist, dramatist, and campaigner.

He was the sixth child in a family of five sons and two daughters. His mother was Sarah Jane Williams. His father, Edward Housman, was a solicitor practising in the nearby town of Bromsgrove. Laurence Housman's eldest brother Alfred was also gay, and one of his sisters was a lesbian. When he was born the family were living in Perry Hall at Bromsgrove. When he was five years old his mother died at the age of 41.

When he was six the family moved to Fockbury. A year or so later his father married a cousin, Lucy Housman.

The children were first taught at home by a governess but in 1876 Laurence Housman went to Bromsgrove School at the age of eleven.

The family was at Fockbury for five years but in 1877, it moved back to Perry Hall.

During these years Alfred Housman got his brothers and sisters involved in writing. They started to put together a novel called Veronica with each sibbling being responsible for a character, but the project was not completed. The next project was a play called The Tradegy of Lady Jane Grey, and each sibling was to write an act. Again the project was not completed.

Laurence Housman had a developing interest in the stage but his parents discouraged him from it.

At the end of Laurence Housman's schooling his father insisted that he take the Higher Oxford and Cambridge Local examination that would qualify him for entry to the Universities, just as his four brothers had done. This was despite Laurence Housman's intention not to go to university but to art school. The examiner was the famous Dr Spooner, and when hearing this and that his father had threatened a further year at school if Laurence failed the examination Dr Spooner passed him, even though he had not performed well.

Laurence and his elder sister Clemence were sent to London to study art. Alfred met them at Paddington and helped them to find lodgings. A few weeks later they had found a landlady in Kennington, South London. Clemence was to learn wood-engraving, and they chose Kennington to be near the Arts and Crafts School. They also joined the Miller's Lane School in South Lambeth. Its Head was John Sparkes who was also Principal at South Kensington. An assistant master was William Llewellyn. Among the students at both schools were Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, and another named Hill who was to become 'Ravenhill' of Punch. While Clemence was learning wood-engraving Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon were doing the same in the adjoining room. Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon were in the Seniors at the time, and there was no mixing with the Juniors except when distinguished names were brought in for critiques. Artists and critics invited to view the work were Alma-Tadema, Frank Dicksee, Marks and Yeames, and Edmund Gosse.

Laurence and Clemence were also writing, and Clemence produced a story called The Were Wolf. They submitted it to Alfred W. Pollard who was a College friend of Alfred Housman's and on his recommendation it was published in the Atalanta.

At the age of twenty-two Laurence Housman wrote his first book, Gods and their Makers, but it would be eight years before it was published.

After two years at Kennington Clemence got a job as a wood-engraver in Chancery Lane doing work for the weekly Graphic. Over the following years she also engraved drawings by Reginald Savage, C R Ashbee for the Essex House Press, James Guthrie for his Peartree Press, Paul Woodroffe to illustrate his Aucassin and Nicolette, and F. L. Griggs's drawings of the buildings of Chipping Campden. At the same time as Clemence was starting her career in wood-engraving Laurence gained entry as a student at South Kensington. Also at this time Laurence and Clemence moved home to 61 Marloes Road, Kensington and their landlady moved with them and was their housekeeper for the next fourteen years.

In 1887 Laurence Housman finished his training at South Kensington and John Sparkes got him a job revising Vere Foster's and Poynter's drawing-books. He was also given work as both illustrator and writer by Harry Quilter for the Universal Review.

After his story The Green Gaffer had appeared in the Universal Review along with several of his illustrations Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon invited him to their home in Chelsea, known as the 'Vale', and directed him towards pen-work in the style of Rosetti and the other pre-Raphaelites. During those few years of influence from Charles Ricketts he learned more than he had done at art school. However, after a few years they fell out and preferred not to meet again.

Laurence Housman first met Oscar Wilde at the 'Vale'. He also met Rex Whistler there.

Alfred Pollard became editor of the book-lovers' quarterly Bibliographia and asked Laurence Housman to submit an article on any illustrator of his choice. He chose Arthur Boyd Houghton, and the article was re-issued a year later as a monograph with illustrations drawn mainly from Dalziel's Arabian Nights and early numbers of the Graphic. At that time he had a chance meeting with R. A. M Stevenson who was looking for someone to replace him in his post as art-critic of the Manchester Guardian and asked for an example of Laurence Housman's work. He sent his article on Arthur Boyd Houghton and it secured him the job which he held from 1895 to 1911. For a short while during this period he also stood in for Bowyer Nichols, the art-critic of the Westminster Gazette when he was ill. Laurence Housman got to know a number of the other art-critics, particularly Clutton Brock, and he also learned that Bowyer Nichols was inseparable from another art-critic, D. S. MacColl.

During this time Laurence Housman produced illustrations for the poem Jump-to-Glory Jane by George Meredith and the poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. Aubrey Beardsley asked him to do a drawing for The Yellow Book. He illustrated the re-issue of his sister's The Were Wolf.

Laurence Housman had a show of his own work at the Fine Art Society, Bond Street. He did little further illustration after that as his eyesight was failing and had become more interested in writing.

He became a leading member of George Ives's secret homosexual society the Order of Chaeronea founded in 1897.

He was asked to go and stay for a holiday in Buildwas in Shropshire by Percy and Mabel Dearmer, and there he met and became friends with Evelyn Sharp, Herbert Alexander (Sandro), and his sister Marion. The guests slept in tents in the garden and the days were taken up with sunbathing, swimming, walks, dressing up, and a naked frolic. Herbert Alexander taught Laurence Housman to ride a bicycle. Herbert Alexander and another friend invited Laurence Housman to stay at their vineyard in Florence, and then go on to Venice. In the late summer of 1899 they boarded a ship from Southampton for Genoa. After ten days they arrived in Genoa, and they made their way to the vineyard at Cercina where they took part in the wine-making. After two weeks around Florence they arrived in Venice just in time to see the spectacle of a royal entry down the Grand Canal with the Kaiser saluting.

On the trip back from Italy Laurence Housman visited Paris and met for the second time Oscar Wilde who was in exile. They lunched with friends and as a result Laurence Housman wrote Echo de Paris, which was published twenty-four years later.

"My memory of him on that occasion inclines me to believe that those are right who maintain that as a personality he was more considerable than as a writer. The brilliance of conversation is doubtfully reproduced in the medium of cold print, and I may have wholly failed to convey the peculiar arresting quality of what by word of mouth sounded so well. But the impression left upon me from that occasion is that Oscar Wilde was incomparably the most accomplished talker I have ever met. The smooth-flowing utterance, sedate and self-possessed, oracular in tone, whimsical in substance, carried on without halt or hesitation, or change of word, with the quiet zest of a man perfect at the game, and conscious that, for the moment at least, he was back at his old form again: this, combined with the pleasure, infectious to his listeners, of finding himself once more in a group of friends whose view of his downfall was not the world's view, made memorable to others besides myself a reunion more happily prolonged than this selected portion of it would indicate."

From the preface of Echo de Paris, reproduced in The Unexpected Years, page 183.

During the next three years Laurence and Clemence Housman twice moved home, first to a high flat in York Mansions at 130 Prince of Wales Road in Battersea Park, and then back to Kensington to take over Will Rothenstein's cottage in Edwardes Square. This had a garden containing a studio. One of their visitors was Yone Noguchi who later became professor of English at Tokyo University. Another visitor was G. K. Chesterton.

Laurence Housman produced An Englishwoman's Love-Letters which was published anonymously in 1900. It was a psychological study which was regarded as daring for the time, and variously attributed to Mrs Meynell, Marie Corelli, or Oscar Wilde.

After the publication Laurence Housman found that he had a bank balance of £2000, and decided to use it for something he thought worthwhile. He had met Gordon Craig two years earlier when Paul Woodroffe had introduced him backstage after his production of Acis and Galatea. Laurence Housman had written his first play, a nativity play, Bethlehem, and the composer Joseph Moorat had written some accompanying music. The lord chancellor had banned public performances but Gordon Craig was asked to produce it privately, but he insisted on having a free hand. In fact, much to the writers' dismay, spoken parts were cut and some of the music was cut and substituted. Laurence Housman set up the 'Bethlehem Society' to allow tickets to be sold privately and in 1902 the play was put on for ten days or so at the Great Hall of the University of London.

Laurence Housman was asked to edit a new annual called The Venture which first came out in the autumn of 1903 and had among its contributors Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, G. K. Chesterton, Mrs Meynell, Francis Thompson, Laurence Binyon, Violet Hunt, Stephen Phillips, Havelock Ellis, Somerset Maugham, E. F. Benson, Stephen Gwynn, Richard Garnett, and A. E. Housman. Among its illustrators were Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon, Gordon Craig, Sturge Moore, Paul Woodroffe, Bernard Sleigh, and Lucien Pissarro. The publication was a profit-sharing scheme, and after poor sales, none of the contributors were paid a penny.

Laurence Housman was collaborating with Joseph Moorat in the village of Chipping Campden in Glocestershire and was writing songs and plays to be set to music. In 1902 C R Ashbee arrived in the village with his Guild of Handicraft and Essex House Press. After Harley Granville-Barker had given a lecture to the Guild on Shakespearian theatre Laurence Housman collaborated with him to create the play Prunella with Joseph Moorat providing musical settings. It was put on in the winter of 1904-5 but received poor reviews, and after three weeks it was taken off with a financial loss. However, a revival in 1906 paid its way, in 1907 it made a profit, in 1910 it gave its authors affluence, and in 1914 it ran for a hundred performances in New York and made Laurence Housman more money than his Love-Letters had.

He was a supporter of women's rights and became a member of the men's section of the extremist Women's Social and Political Union. In June 1909 he was at the centre of a disturbance in the central lobby of the House of Commons. He left the group in 1912 when it became too violent for him.

By 1912 he had given up writing for the commercial theatre and produced his first social and political satire John Jingalo in the form of a novel, and was a comment on the Government's treatment of the Woman Suffrage Movement.

Laurence Housman, Edward Carpenter, and George Ives founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology which was formally instituted in April 1914.

During the First World War Laurence Housman gradually became a convinced pacifist, and he supported the ideals of the League of Nations. C R Ashbee made the suggestion that he should go with him and G. Lowes Dickinson on a lecture tour of the USA advocating the League of Nations. They all went to discuss the proposal with Sir Edward Grey of the Foreign Office and he gave them advice about the proposal. At the end of January 1916 he started for New York and was away for twelve weeks.

After the War Clemence and Laurence Housman moved to a cottage at New Milton between the New Forest and the sea.

In 1919 he joined the Independent Labour Party. He also became interested in prison reform. In 1920 he returned to the United States, visiting Sing Sing prison in New York state where Mott Osborne had been running an experiment in self-government under the Mutual Welfare League.

Laurence Housman received a two-edged compliment from George Bernard Shaw who was host at a luncheon and said, "You've got all of Barrie's qualities, but unfortunately you've got intellect as well". At the same luncheon T E Lawrence asked to discuss his first book Green Arras but was whisked away by their host before they could do so.

From 1924 Clemence and Laurence Housman lived at Street in Somerset. Laurence Housman attended the Friends meetings for a number of years and became a Quaker in 1952.

During Alfred Housman's final years of illness he and Laurence went on summer holidays together. In 1934 they stayed at Droitwich and drove through Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire. In the summer of 1935 they stayed in Cambridge and visited churches, abbeys, and cathedrals.

Their sister Clemence died in 1955.


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First uploaded 18th. October, 2006

Last altered 20th. October, 2006