Betjeman Burnishes Female Jeweller’s Reputation From Beyond the Grave with Previously Unpublished Letters

. November 29, 2007

AuctionPublicity.com – Bonhams will be hosting a retrospective of the work of Helen Holmes, jeweller and much admired friend of John Betjeman. A collection of intimate and previously unpublished letters from Betjeman will be revealed, along with a signed copy of his 1962 verse autobiography “Summoned by Bells”. The exhibition will be held at Bonhams in Knowle from the 3 rd-6 th and 10 th- 12 th November then at Bonhams’ Bath salesroom from 7 th- 12 th December. Some of the exhibits will also be auctioned by Bonhams in May at Knowle.

Betjeman was enchanted by her work, repeatedly commissioning pieces for his loved ones, and once wrote:

‘I’m sure that “in the perspective of eternity” your silver is just as valuable creative work as my poems – in fact more so & more lasting’

This revelation of the life and work of Helen Holmes fittingly comes to light at the same time as a statue of Betjeman is to be unveiled at the redeveloped St Pancras Station, a building he fought to save from demolition in the 1960’s.

Helen Holmes was a true artisan, who not only made jewellery but also painted, worked in leather and produced metal ware. Yet she modestly described herself as a “Metal Worker” and never ventured out of her hometown of Bath.

Born in 1876, she was a feisty and witty character, a far cry from the quiet, retiring ideal for a woman at the time. The eldest daughter of a carpenter, she endured a tumultuous childhood. One of her brothers was deaf and mute, her sister died aged just 21 and her father lost a leg in a building accident. But, dissatisfied with the primitive false leg provided, he designed his own which was so sophisticated that he started a business making prosthetics. A fascinating collection of photographs survives recording the many First World War amputees for whom he fitted prosthetics.

Helen inherited this innovative and determined streak. She grew up in a time when women were battling for emancipation and was committed to pursuing her chosen career. In 1896, she eventually won the consent of parents to attend the Bath School of Art, at a time when women had only recently been allowed to attend art schools. She was almost 30 years old by the time she married as she refused to be rushed, exhibiting widely and working for various artistic bodies rather than raising children. Indeed, marriage and children did not impede her prolific production and she carried on working until well into her eighties, living to the grand old age of 96.

Betjeman and Holmes met in 1944 when he was billeted to Bath, a few years after she was widowed. A meeting of similar minds, they struck up a strong friendship immediately and, after their first meeting, Betjeman wrote to her “I would like to see you again and somehow I must manage to do it”. His letters over the next ten years display an unstinting admiration for her work, as he commissions pieces for his goddaughters, always unable to choose as “I don’t want to part with any of the delightful necklaces which you sent to me”. He shared with her musings on the art of writing, declaring that “One just has to go on and on writing, knowing quite often that what one writes is indifferent and trivial” and shows a touching concern for her increasing frailty in her later years.

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