Edgar Graham, Curator of Brantwood, 1945- 1965

This document is a reprint of Chapter 9 of ‘Brantwood on the Brink’ by Michael Sharp in 2002.

Chapter 9

The Role of Edgar Graham

How Whitehouse managed to secure the services of Edgar Graham is not clear. We have seen that Graham turned down the initial offer of a post at Brantwood. He had come to Coniston in the employ of a Professor Cohen from Leeds whom he served as butler and handyman. Cohen’ lived at Thwaite Cottage but was also the owner of’South View’the house where the Gral1am family·now lived.

During the war Edgar was a member of the Home Guard and would have met some of the Bembridge staff that were in the same Company. Perhaps this was the link by which JHW first made contact with him.

Sometime in 1945, working part time for Whitehouse, Graham was earning about £2 per week. But he was still working part time also for Mr Cohen, and three days per week for the residents of Thurston the large property on the east side ofthe lake. 

It was not until 1949 when Cohen moved away, shortly followed by the residents of Thurston, that Graham became fully available to JHW . His worth as an employee was realised and Whitehouse readily took him on full-time.

Graham performed a variety of practical tasks at Brantwood and quickly became JHW’s factotum in Coniston; he might fairly be described as an estate manager, for anything that needed to be done, not only at Brantwood but also across the lake (the four cottages, Lake Villas, Oaklands, etc., all owned by JHW) would be handled by Graham. Reporting of problems, liaison with tenants, arranging the attendance of tradesmen, interior decoration, sending of garden produce to Bembridge, all became part of his job. 

His daughter, Anne McGregor, recalls: “He really loved Brantwood and during his last days Mummy dare not mention it – the tears were in his eyes immediately. As to what he did – There were no other staff, and he kept it open to the public, prepared for and helped, parties of young students when they arrived; created a couple of little flats for visitors (having everything clean and ready for !hem on arrival- with a box of shopping to start them off! The Ruskin Rooms, as they were known then, were polished to perfection; walls freshened each Spring; pictures taken down and cleaned, etc. In his lunch hour, he chased off to Beck Leven on his bicycle to collect 1 shilling from parked motorists! All this between escorting visitors round the house.”

Of course, Graham also sent a weekly report to JHW of all events and income/expenses. He was clearly a most valuable and reliable servant. Although he had not been a reader of Ruskin prior to his arrival in Coniston he certainly became devoted to his work and was appreciated by the many visitors to Ruskin’s home. His ‘reign’ at Brantwood was about 20 years. A close friend was Frederick James Sharp of Barrow-in-Furness who was an avid collector of Ruskin manuscripts, pictures and books.

Sharp and his housekeeper, Mrs Holmes, used to visit South View and have tea with the Graham family, so it is not surprising that the kindly Sharp gave Graham a number of treasures that he had acquired in the auctions at Brantwood in the early 1930’s.

For a short while the Brantwood gardens were in the care of Gordon Cartwright, a single man, but soon after the war he went to France,having accepted a job tending the war graves. But real progress was made on the estate when Walter Coward came along (1949). Good quantities of vegetables and fruit were produced. There were two greenhouses where tomatoes, cucumbers and marrows were grown. Potatoes, onions, cabbages, broccoli, etc., were being dispatched by rail to Bembridge School while lettuces, raspberries, gooseberries and the like were sometimes sent by post. Apples, however, did not always arrive in good condition and, on one occasion, had to be thrown out. 

Graham sometimes helped Coward with clearance work because so much of the ground had become overgrown with weeds, saplings and scrub. But the picture is one of great productivity. Clearly Walter Coward was a most useful member of the staff. He was also a tenant of one of JHW’s cottages at Station Hill, having previously kept a small farm at what is now known as Low Houses, opposite Coniston Methodist Chapel. A man of many parts, he had even held the contract for ‘night soil.’ collection at one time! He had a horse-drawn flat cart which served, not only for delivering goods around the area, but also, on occasions, to carry casualties off the fells, there being no Land Rovers at the disposal of the Mountain Rescue volunteers of those days!

The productivity of the Brantwood gardens was often marred by the predations of rabbits and mice. Wire netting around the vegetable plots did not, at first, protect the crop from rabbits. Whole sowings of lettuce were destroyed on occasion and the height of the netting had to be doubled. In the greenhouses, as well as outside, many mice had to be trapped but not before they had ruined cucumbers, marrows, etc. But eventually the crops were in sufficient quantities that, besides Bembridge, local shops could sometimes be supplied and the resulting cash paid into the Education Trust’s account at Martin’s Bank in Coniston. 

Although Walter Coward’s success was recognised by JHW, there was an uncomfortable series of events in 1950 when Whitehouse tried to reduce Coward’s weekly wage (£4.0.0) by 5 shillings, claiming that Coward should pay his own insurance. This was contrary to the original agreement. To support his contention, JWH claimed that the gardener was living at low rent in one of the cottages at Station Hill and had the use of Harry Field (adjoining his house) at peppercorn rent. Coward was unsettled by this and hinted that he would leave. The bluff (if such it was) succeeded for JHW eventually increased Coward’s wage by 5 shillings but warned him that if he were to quit he would lose the house because it would be needed for the next gardener.

Whitehouse and F. J. Sharp

FHW’s first meeting with Frederick James Sharp was at Sharp’s home in Westgate Road, Barrow-in-Furness in August 1947. In his own way, this man was as devoted to Ruskin as was the Warden of Bembridge School, having amassed a highly significant collection of the Professor’s manuscripts, books, drawings and memorabilia in his terraced dwelling.

After the visit FHW sent Sharp a copy of his book ‘Ruskin the Painter and his works at Bembridge’, suitably inscribed. Sharp was grateful for the gift which, in those days, was a most interesting record (illustrated, but only in monochrome) of the pictures collected by Whitehouse. He wrote, (23 October 1947):

“Dear Mr Whitehouse,

…Mrs Holmes and myself were pleased you favoured us with a visit, she said it seemed as though you were already known to us, no doubt the result of many conversations in which your name has figured.

The pity was that you were already fatigued and time was so short, personally, I can only look at things when I have time to dwell upon them, I think that I am naturally slow in assimilating.

These Ruskin treasures do give one some concern as to what should or ought to be done with them and at times one feels rather selfish in enjoying possessions for self only, the getting together of them was an exciting endeavour, and as I told you I offered some of them to the St George’s Guild, but the offer came to nothing owing, I believe, because the Guild lacked funds, or was it interest?

I had thought that if it were not necessary for me to part with some of them, I ought to leave them to go to the National Portrait Gallery, the self-portrait of R. is certainly up to N.P.G. standard and I think the silhouette of R. as a child is also up to standard.

How remarkable that it has never been published, E. T Cook does not seem to have known about it, I do not think he and the Severns mixed very well. I have a letter from C. E. Norton to Mrs Severn in which Wedderburn Allen are weighed in the balance. Your suggestion as regards sending these items to Brantwood does make one wonder what ought to be done, I feel much indebted to you for all you say and suggest for the time being please bear with me in my weakness in not being able to make definite decision and to say it.

Believe me to be

Sincerely Yours, F J. Sharp.”

Real progress at Brantwood

1949 was a year of real progress at Brantwood. Much care was lavished upon the buildings and gardens and a modest number of visitors attended. Edgar Graham worked tirelessly in the many rooms, especially after the electricians had installed wiring and fittings and the long awaited power supply was switched on. 

The coming of electricity was a great boon but the upheaval during installation created an enormous amount of work. Most of the house had to be cleaned and redecorated thoroughly. Graham related much of the detail in his letters and spoke of the difficulties involved, for example – high ceilings reached by standing on a ladder precariously perched on a tabletop. In such an old house there were, inevitably, many faults to be remedied.

Builders, plumbers, carpenters, painters and timber merchants were frequent visitors to Brantwood.

The water supply from the wells above the house often failed because the pipes were old and it became necessary for fresh piping to be installed. Internal pipe work similarly caused leaks requiring replacement or repair.

It is perhaps not realised by many how important Brantwood has been to the local economy over the years. Even in Ruskin’s time, some tradesmen could reckon to get “a winter’s work” out of Brantwood. If there was a lull during the 1920’s (Severns) and again during the second World War, things were now on the move again, so that employees and contractors reaped the rewards. 

It is, perhaps, surprising to the younger generation that the outside decoration of houses following the war could only be done after obtaining a licence. Similarly the felling of trees was subject to government control. 

Bembridge School benefited greatly from the vegetables and fruit grown at Brantwood. During the appropriate seasons, Graham was dispatching boxes of these by rail at frequent intervals, the empty boxes being returned by the same route. It should be remembered that during this post-war period many commodities were in short supply. Even cleaning cloths were hard to come by, probably because people wore tl1eir clothes much longer owing to the rationing. 

On one occasion when JHW stayed at Brantwood he ‘borrowed’ some of Graham’s precious butter ration, but repaid this debt by sending some to him (in the post!) when he returned to Bembridge.

In November 1950 Graham managed to purchase for £5 on JHW’s behalf, at auction, a small cupboard that had previously been part of Brantwood’s furniture.

Evidently a Mr Rich (now deceased) had acquired it at the dispersal sales in the 1930’s. It was believed that Rich had also acquired some of Ruskin’s drawings and JHW was anxious to purchase these if, indeed, they existed. He set Graham the task of pursuing the executors in order to buy the pictures but regrettably the correspondence does not give more detail.

JHW was evidently pleased to have the cupboard back at Brantwood. Rich had lived at Rosecroft in Lake Road, almost opposite Waverley.

JHW wrote to Graham:

“I should not be interested in the house but I should be interested in its contents. I believe that a large number of crystals in his garden came from Brantwood. That awful man used Brantwood as a rich hunting ground for treasures.”

We learn from one of Graham’s letters (that the meadow near Beck Leven, once intended for an Adult Education College, was ploughed up by a tenant farmer and planted with potatoes and turnips.

Students from Manchester University were allowed to camp on the high meadow in summer. They hoped to have use of a room over the Coach House but it was discovered that the floor was badly worm-eaten and permission had to be denied.

In September 1951 the Annual Meeting of the Ruskin Society was held at Brantwood, Graham making arrangements for accommodation and a supply of cakes, etc., for tea.

JHW made other visits to Brantwood, even spending Christmas there in 1951. For this he sent a couple of ladies from Bembridge to look after domestic matters and arranged through Graham for a suitable turkey, plum pudding and other provisions to be supplied from local sources. It may be noted that many food items were still rationed at this time and, when available, quite expensive. Graham could not obtain all that JHW requested without the necessary Ration Book. A party of eight persons sat down for Christmas dinner that year though the guests did not stay overnight.

Mrs McGregor recalls that there used to be a large harp in one of the rooms at Brantwood. We may only guess that this belonged to JHW’s wife who was a fine harpist.

We have no information about visits to Brantwood by Mrs Whitehouse and indeed her name rarely occurs in the correspondence. We have, however, reminiscence from one of the Bembridge boys whose school dormitory, during the war, was on the upper floor of the Waterhead Hotel. He recalls that one night he was restless after ‘lights out’ and a member of staff brought him a glass of water. Not wanting the water he emptied the glass out of the window where, unfortunately, the Warden and his wife were standing on the balcony below!

The couple took this misdemeanour in the kindliest way and there were no unpleasant consequences for the offender.

JHW was not a supporter of the various attempts upon the Water Speed Record that took place on the lake. He wrote that he was “glad that Donald Campbell has gone to Italy” . The absence was short, however, for Campbell returned the following month.

Nellie Wilkinson was still in residence (early 1950’s) at the Lodge with her bed-ridden father, Joe, and was able to assist Graham with a few small tasks when necessary, including the baking of a special cake at Christmas in the Brantwood oven. Like Edgar Graham, she had become something of an ‘institution’ at Brantwood.

Having been a children’s nanny in her younger days she was of a kindly, caring disposition. Anne McGregor remembers her with great affection as a daughter who virtually gave her life to care for Dad’ (Joe).

The old coachman’s bedroom was beautifully kept, the sheets and pillowcases immaculately clean and starched. Some time after her father died in 1955 Nellie moved out of the Lodge, into one of the cottages at Station Hill, taking with her Joe’s huge brass bed which almost filled her new bedroom.

For a time, the Lodge was then occupied by the gardener; another Cartwright.

Reading through the correspondence and speaking to Coniston residents who knew Edgar Graham, one is increasingly impressed with the man and his importance in the life of Brantwood. By the end of 1951 JHW must have realised what a valuable man Graham was to himHe increased his salary by £10.00!

Post-war inflation was a problem and Graham was glad of even this small help. His letters now were all sent as from Brantwood whereas previously they had been headed ‘South View’. But Graham never went to live at Brantwood, though he stayed overnight on occasions when groups of young people were accommodated in the house. He was always smartly dressed “with collar and tie” even when gardening. The Grahams were regarded as very good neighbours, always ready to help.

For a wage of around £6-10-0d a week, Edgar was not only caring for Brantwood and its visitors, but acting as agent for seven of Whitehouse’s smaller properties in Coniston, all rented to tenants. There is a surprising amount of detail in Graham’s letters about the tenants, the regularity of their payments of rents, the property repairs undertaken, etc. JHW relied upon the man very heavily, entrusting to him much of the decision-making.

He sought Graham’s advice upon a wide variety of matters and seldom rejected it. It may be noted that JHW, now quite elderly and overburdened by the worry of the legal tussle with Oxford, often forgot matters or lost papers. Without Graham’s integrity it is hard to see how Brantwood could have survived at that time.

When Whitehouse died in 1955, Brantwood matters were overseen by Mr R. G. Lloyd, chairman of the Trust, and administered by Niel Rocke at Bembridge School. Visitor numbers began to increase and, on occasions, there would be around 30 people accommodated in the house.

The burden upon Graham was very considerable. Not the least of his problems was the fact that mains water was still not being piped to the property. In dry weather the reservoirs on the estate could dry up or the pipes become blocked. He had good reason to be thankful for heavy rain to restore the supply.

Mains water was not connected until 1981 ·

The change of management at Bernbridge occasionally led to frustration and communication problems. Graham had more than enough duties to cope with but he was required to take on tasks that were possibly outside the remit of his original role. For example, he did not enjoy having to measure up and draw plans of land, thick with nettles and brambles, in foul weather, when Harry Field was to be offered for sale. 

One cottage, for which he was responsible for collecting rent, was sold to the tenant without a mention of the sale being communicated to Graham.

He greatly missed the Warden – see copy of letter of 24 May 1957.

After Whitehouse

Following the demise of John Howard Whitehouse, Edgar Graham and Brantwood came under the authority of Rhys Gerran Lloyd, the Trust’s new chairnan, though Niel Rocke, at Bembridge, handled the accounts. Lloyd also called upon the assistance of Michael Prince, accountant, “helping me” he wrote, “to make ends meet at Brantwood”. Since none of his bosses were on hand to instruct, advise and guide him, Graham’s correspondence with them – and virtually countless other persons and bodies – was a very considerable task which added greatly to his work and responsibility.

Not infrequently there were ‘crossed wires’, especially if Graham consulted Lloyd on matters which the latter regarded as minor and bothersome) or which, in his view, ought to have been passed to someone else. As a busy London barrister whose work sometimes took him overseas, Lloyd, too, found himself occasionally overburdened by the extra workload that Brantwood entailed. He was dedicated to making Whitehouse’s scheme work but the heavy expenses of maintaining and running Brantwood were a constant drain upon his own finances.

Although Graham was well schooled by JHW in the art of doing everything as inexpensively as possible, his new employer had yet to learn how reliable and trustworthy the custodian of Brantwood could be, and a few sharp notes were dispatched before the relationship settled down. “… You have no authority to run about buying things …” and “I know all the difficulties so do not write me a long letter about … “. 

Poor Graham had some uncomfortable times, but his own integrity and strength of character prevailed. He was almost irreplaceable. Guests and visitors at Brantwood found him the most helpful and accommodating of hosts, as many letters of appreciation demonstrate. The Lloyd family too came to rely upon him very heavily, particularly when they spent their holidays at Brantwood, and later letters express their deep appreciation for his diligence and hard work.

There can be no doubt that Edgar Graham did a great deal for Brantwood that was ‘above and beyond the call of duty’. Although the workload increased tremendously over the years he seldom complained and visitors continued to express their pleasure at the beautiful way that the house was kept, so neat and clean and well polished.

Graham’s correspondence file is very enlightening. There are many hundreds of letters from Lloyd, Dearden,  Rocke, various solicitors, accountants, tradesmen, scholars, leaders of visiting groups and courses, etc. 

All of his own letters were handwritten, since he had no typewriter, and consequently there are no copies of them here. The vast majority of his mail required some specific action or enquiry on his part and one can only marvel that he coped so well with the scope and extent of the work required of him.

Edgar was a most vital cog in the machine. Without his selfless input the whole scheme might well have foundered. Whitehouse and the Education Trust were exceedingly fortunate to have had the services of such a man.