Adoring, hidden letters exchanged between the Cider With Rosie author Laurie Lee and the painter Yasmin David, his secret daughter from an illicit affair with a prominent member of the Bloomsbury group, have been unearthed in lockdown.
The emotional correspondence, found concealed in an old chest in the David family home in Devon, is full of the pair’s delight at finding each other and contains moving details about their efforts to build a relationship.
The unseen letters date from the 1960s, when they first met up as adults, until Lee’s death in 1996. They came to light when Yasmin’s daughter, Clio, was sorting through her late mother’s possessions last year.
“They were all in a drawer inside the chest … When I opened it up, I was amazed how many letters there were; by just how much they had written to each other,” said Clio David, a film-maker who lives in London.
“In the first letters they talk about meeting at the Queen Anne pub in Fulham, London, which Laurie liked. My mother had initially walked out, after seeing him inside, but he followed her out. Laurie admits he also once covertly visited her art college in Worthing, standing outside just to see her,” David told the Observer.
Yasmin was 19 when she discovered the identity of her real father, and many of the letters are “tinged with a sadness”, according to her daughter. Typical of the tone of the early correspondence are the author’s lines to his daughter written from Germany just after Christmas in 1960.
“Don’t desert me whatever you do. You are the one spark in my shadowy life and I’m not complaining,” Lee writes. “The stable clock has just struck six, and there is snow all over the landscape and the moon is shining, and the birds in the aviary (which include several peacocks and golden pheasants) are making nocturnal tropical noises in spite of the winter cold. Darling, I have thoughts of you every day and dreamt of you.”
His daughter’s emotional reply is just as lyrical:
“Don’t forget me! I have missed you too much this past fortnight, although I have been too busy, all the meals and things to do. But two weeks, after just re-finding you is too long, maybe this sounds comical to you after twenty-one years. Sitting here on the drawing room floor I can watch the seagulls diving backwards and forwards over the willows, such a winter light, threatening snow, the one time the ground and trees feel more frail than the sky.”
Stowed away with the letters was a cache of David’s own notebooks of poetry and nature observations, along with unknown paintings and drawings that clearly display her inherited joy in observing plants and wildlife. These are now being exhibited together at the New Art Gallery Walsall in a show that opens this weekend and runs until December.
“They both wrote in a similar way about birds and landscape and had a similar feel for nature,” said David, 49.
Yasmin, who died in 2009, was the result of a passionate six-year affair between the writer and Lorna Garman Wishart, a married and wealthy bohemian who eventually left him to become the mistress and muse of the painter Lucian Freud. Impulsive and striking, she has been characterised by Lee’s biographer, Valerie Grove, as a combination of the fictional figures of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Becky Sharp, all “rolled into one captivating and maddening creature”. Lee had met her as he played violin on a beach in Cornwall in 1937, just after his first travels in Spain, portrayed in his memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
Journals uncovered after his death revealed an affair with an anonymous married woman “rich and demandingly beautiful, extravagantly generous with her emotions but fanatically jealous”.
While growing up in the David family home of Luscombe Farm, near Dartmoor, Clio had been told she was really the granddaughter of the famous writer. Lee had, after all, dedicated his first book of war poetry, The Sun My Monument, to Lorna and to Y. Like her mother, Clio would meet her grandfather occasionally in the “clandestine way” he preferred.
“It really was a secret,” said David this weekend. “That is the right word because it was not just ‘private’, and we accepted that. Some people at school did know, because we had studied Cider with Rosie, but it came out nationally when more documents were found.”
The identity of the daughter became public in 1997, after further biographical research into Lee’s life. Yasmin was called the author’s “love child” in media coverage of yet another fascinating chapter in the tale of the talented Garman family. Lorna’s elder sister was Kathleen Garman, who became the second wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose art collection the New Art Gallery Walsall was built to house. What is more, Epstein and Kathleen’s daughter, Kitty, later became the first wife of Lucian Freud, after she was introduced to him by Lorna once their own affair had ended. Stranger still, Laurie Lee would go on to marry another of Lorna’s nieces.
Yasmin David’s half-brother, Michael Wishart, Lorna’s son by her husband, was also an acclaimed painter and friend of Francis Bacon, but his sister’s work was not exhibited in her lifetime. Her daughter Clio and the gallery in Walsall now plan to put this right by showing some of the newly uncovered work alongside passages from her notebooks and poetry. “Her paintings and writing are now being contextualised by academics, and that is exactly what I wanted for my mother’s work,” said David.