Friendship, Sex and the R.A.F. – a 1933 Letter from T.E. Lawrence

Why? It seems reasonable to ask. When an author leaves behind volumes of published work, what compels our attention to their mere correspondence? We write today to share an intriguing letter by T.E. Lawrence that helps answer the question.

Central to the life story of T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935) is his military odyssey in Arabia during the First World War. There he found fame as instigator, organizer, hero, and tragic figure of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence began the First World War as an eccentric junior intelligence officer and ended as “Lawrence of Arabia.” This time defined Lawrence with indelible experience and celebrity which he would spend the rest of his famously short life struggling to reconcile and reject, to recount and repress.

However, Lawrence’s literary and intellectual reach far exceeded the world and words of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Lawrence’s friend and admirer Winston Churchill said:  “Lawrence had a full measure of the versatility of genius…  He was a savant as well as a soldier.  He was an archaeologist as well as a man of action.  He was an accomplished scholar as well as an Arab partisan.  He was a mechanic as well as a philosopher.  His background of somber experience and reflection only seemed to set forth more brightly the charm and gaiety of his companionship, and the generous majesty of his nature.”  (Great Contemporaries, p. 166)

Personal correspondence is ephemeral, unpolished, and personal in a manner fundamentally different than published literary works. Perhaps that is precisely why the brilliant, complex, and deeply conflicted facets of Lawrence’s character often glint most tantalizingly in his personal correspondence.

To the point is an original, autograph signed letter dated 2 March 1933 from T. E. Lawrence to his friend and fellow writer Henry Williamson. A mere 125 words long, the letter is nonetheless rich in both references and inferences. Penned at Mount Batten R.A.F. station, the letter is a window into Lawrence’s friendship with Williams, as well as his friendship with writer Robert Graves, and references Lawrence’s angst about ending his R.A.F. career. The letter also eerily presages correspondence regarding meeting with Williamson that would inadvertently precipitate Lawrence’s death a little more than two years later.

The letter is headed: Mount Batten | II.iii.33.

“Mount Batten” was a Royal Air Force station and flying boat base at Mount Batten, a peninsula in Plymouth Sound, Devon, England. A “small and isolated” station and “one of the most enjoyable of Lawrence’s postings.” (Wilson, Lawrence, p.850)

Lawrence himself described it as “about 100 airmen, pressed tightly on a rock half-awash in the Sound; a peninsula really, like a fossil lizard swimming from Mount batten golf-links across the harbor towards Plymouth town. The sea is thirty yards from out hut one way, and seventy yards the other.” (Letter of 20 March 1929)

Lawrence writes:

Dear H. W. | Your letters made me laugh, and then | think hard. You are really two entirely different people,| and if only they could come together what a book we | should have!

“H. W.” is the English writer Henry William Williamson (1895-1977). The “You really are two entirely different people, and if only they could come together…” comment is fascinating. Williamson was “a skillful and supremely observant writer, but nevertheless a man who was introspective, egocentric, insecure, and intensely lonely” – words which could easily be used to characterize Lawrence himself. This is not an incidental parallel. It is interesting that Lawrence’s official biographer, Jeremy Wilson, also observed that from Williamon’s letters “it seems to me that Williamson allowed reality and fantasy to intermingle in his everyday thinking. When that happened, the first casualty… was often the truth. Nevertheless, there were other times when he could write with disarming honesty and self-criticism.” (Wilson, T.E. Lawrence Correspondence with Henry Williamson, p.xii)

When Lawrence read Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter in 1928, he recognized that its author had extraordinary descriptive power: ‘I put Williamson very high as a writer,’ he later wrote. From this beginning grew a significant correspondence that lasted until Lawrence’s death in 1935. “While the two were different in so many ways, the similarity that Williamson sensed was real. He was writing to someone he could understand.” Williamson damaged the relationship in 1933 by including Lawrence, unasked, as a character called ‘G.B. Everest’ in The Gold Falcon – even quoting from his letters. Though Lawrence made light of it, his uneasy relationship with publicity and the need to avoid it in order to remain in the R.A.F. ranks put constraints on the friendship. Williamson’s disclosure of acute emotional distress associated with extra-marital entanglements did not help matters. But “Despite these reservations, there really was an unusual quality in their relationship.”

I didn’t answer because you said you were | coming, and now I am sorry you may not. I am | away from Thursday to Monday of next week – this week | it will be before the letter reaches you – but constantly in | the station for the rest.

It is eerie and fascinating to note that Lawrence’s correspondence with Williamson inadvertently precipitated Lawrence’s death. On 11 May 1935 Lawrence received a letter from Williamson proposing to call at Clouds Hill. “the only way Lawrence could be sure of getting a reply to Devon before Williamson set out was to send a telegram.” In mid-morning of 13 May, Lawrence rode his Brough to the post office at Bovington Camp and sent a wire to Williamson. On the way back to his cottage he suffered the accident that put him in a coma and, six days later, took his life. (Wilson, Lawrence, p.934)

My R.A.F. life is very near its end: not to let | it gutter away I am leaving voluntarily next month. | For what? Heaven knows.

In a state of nervous exhaustion following the First World War, his work on the post-war settlement, and writing and re-writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in 1922, Lawrence enlisted in the ranks of the R.A.F. under the name of John Hume Ross. Lawrence’s time with the R.A.F. proved remarkably revealing – of his talents, both literary and technical, and of the dynamic tension in his life between his need for quiet anonymity and his fame and engagement with the famous.

It is telling that The Mint, Lawrence’s unstintingly candid portrait about life in the Royal Air Force Ranks, paralleled Seven Pillars – with a tortuous writing, editing, and publishing history culminating in posthumous publication.

Lawrence’s celebrity – and perhaps, as well, his own conflicted feelings about his fame – was a constant threat to his R.A.F life. Though Lawrence references “next month”, he actually submitted his formal request for discharge on 6 March 1933, just four days after he wrote this letter to Williamson: “I, No.338171 A/C Shaw, E., respectfully request that I may be granted an interview with the Commanding Officer, to ask him to forward my application to be released from further service in the Royal Air Force as from the sixth of April, 1933.” The request was granted (though on 19 April Lawrence withdrew his discharge application when offered a posting to the RAF Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe, where he was again able to work on RAF boats.)

Graves has been very good. Then family jars and | two women overset him. He will recover, I think.

“Graves” is Robert von Ranke Graves (1895-1985), the English poet and novelist, with whom Lawrence had a difficult relationship at this time, owing in no small part because of Graves’s romantic relationship with the writer Laura Riding (1901-1991). The reference to Graves indicates Lawrence’s complicated and uncomfortable relationship with sexuality. Lawrence’s official biographer, Jeremy Wilson, confirms Lawrence’s feelings about Laura Riding: “Lawrence disliked Laura Riding intensely.” Wilson also confirms that the root of Lawrence’s dislike was sexual: Lawrence “felt that both of them had allowed their lives to be dominated by carnality”. (Wilson, Lawrence, p.870) Lawrence had written of the couple in a 1929 letter: “I cannot have patience with people who tickle up their sex until it seems to fill all their lives and bodies.”

The other of the “two women” referenced is likely Nancy Nicholson, Graves’s wife; the three had untenably cohabitated until the menage was upended and Nicholson was left to raise her and Graves’s children alone.

Equally of note, in 1934 Lawrence was similarly put off by Williamson’s emotional disclosure about romantic entanglements.

A cut hand: so I can’t write properly.

 

It is difficult to just take the postscript literally and not to regard the metaphor for a man who was as brilliant, gifted, and accomplished as he was damaged, confined by his own demons and ultimately cut short in both life and letters.

We offer this letter for sale HERE.

Churchill’s friendship with painter Paul Maze

“Paint like you write or speak. You can do it – every stroke of the brush must be a statement felt & seen…”

  • Paul Maze, letter to Winston Churchill, 12 November 1936

As a wordsmith, Churchill was famous for weaving seemingly disparate threads of history and experience, sentiment and perspective to create a cogent and compelling vision. So perhaps it should not be surprising that Churchill was an accomplished and devoted amateur painter; for Churchill, compellingly sharing his perspective was literal as well as figurative, and recreation as well as vocation.

Churchill first took up painting during the First World War. May 1915 saw Churchill scapegoated for failure in the Dardanelles and slaughter at Gallipoli and forced from his Cabinet position at the Admiralty. By November 1915 Churchill was serving at the Front, leading a battalion in the trenches. But during the summer of 1915, as he battled depression, he rented Hoe Farm in Surrey, which he frequented with his wife and three children. One day in June, Churchill noticed his brother’s wife, Gwendeline, sketching in watercolors. Churchill borrowed her brush and swiftly found solace in painting, which would be a passion and source of release and renewal for the remaining half century of his long life.

This passion would bind Churchill to French-born painter Paul Maze, Churchill’s close friend, “companion of the brush” and artistic mentor, known as the “last of the Impressionists”. This blog post is prompted by our recent acquisition of a first edition set of Churchill’s Marlborough, inscribed by Churchill to Maze (discussed at the end of this post).

Paul Lucien Maze (1887-1979) was regarded as one of the great artists of his generation and “learned the rudiments of painting from family friends that included Renoir, Monet, Dufy and Pissarro.” His work is held in the collections of many major galleries including The Tate Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum.

Though born in La Havre, Maze was sent to school in Southampton, “where he began a lifelong love affair with all things English.” During the First World War Maze served as an interpreter and engaged in dangerous reconnaissance “as a non-commissioned liaison officer with the British Expeditionary force, using his sketching skills with great bravery to document landscape details in advance of action.” (Coombs, Sir Winston Churchill’s Life Through His Paintings, p.146) He was wounded several times and highly decorated (awarded the DCM, MM and Bar, Legion d’Honneur, and Croix de Guerre). Maze met Churchill on the Western Front in 1916. Churchill had only recently discovered painting, the passion which Maze would encourage and guide as both friend and mentor for the rest of Churchill’s life. Along with Charles Montag, Maze became one of Churchill’s two most important “companions of the brush.”

Maze was naturalized as a British subject in 1920 after marrying the widow of a wartime friend and “took to painting the London scene with great enthusiasm, relishing, like so many French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the fogs and dingy back streets as much as the pageantry and grandeur of the City’s setting.”

Churchill’s official Biographer, Martin Gilbert, called Maze “One of Churchill’s closest French friends.” (Gilbert, VI, p.856) This friendship transcended painting, as is evident from shared moments, perspective, and correspondence between them during Churchill’s 1930s “wilderness years”.

Winston Churchill’s monumental biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, took 10 years of research and writing and is Churchill’s most substantial published work of the 1930s. This decade saw Churchill pass into his sixties with his own future as uncertain as that of his nation. Churchill may have wondered more than once if the life history he was writing about a great ancestor might ultimately eclipse his own.

Maze, too, was writing about the past. In 1934, the year after Churchill inscribed a copy of his first volume of Marlborough to Maze, Churchill contributed a Foreword to Maze’s First World War memoirs, A Frenchman in Khaki. Churchill wrote: “we have the battle-scenes of Armageddon recorded by one who not only loved the fighting troops and shared their perils, but perceived the beauties of light and shade, of form and colour, of which even the horrors of war cannot rob the progress of the sun.”

Richard Langworth has written “To understand the Churchill of the Second World War, the majestic blending of his commanding English with historical precedent, one has to read Marlborough.”

Maze knew and regarded this Churchill – the statesman and wordsmith – just as well as Churchill the painter.

In 1936, while Churchill was still fully engaged in writing Marlborough, he was also publishing articles on the growing Nazi threat. (“Marlborough alone is a crusher – then there are always articles to boil the pot!” 1/7/1937 letter to Clementine) Maze, who shared his friend’s concerns, wrote to Churchill on 13 March 1936 “How right you have been, as events alas now prove. The public is slowly beginning to see it… Do write to the papers all you can… Keep well – England needs you now more than ever…”

In 12 November 1936, Maze attended the House of Commons to watch Churchill speak and wrote to him afterwards: “I was thrilled by every word you said in the House yesterday – as I went down, the usher downstairs said to me ‘you chose a good day to come, he is always fine – none left like him – he always does one good’. I nearly embraced him – I feel so much what he said! I have sent you some brushes… Paint like you write or speak. You can do it – every stroke of the brush must be a statement felt & seen…”

On the eve of war in 1939, Churchill wrote a Foreword to the catalogue of his friend’s first New York exhibition: “With the fewest of strokes, he can create an impression at once true and beautiful. Here is no toiling seeker after preconceived effects, but a vivid and powerful interpreter to us of the forces and harmony of Nature.”

 Later that year, on 20 August 1939, Churchill was painting alongside Maze (at Chateau de Saint-Georges-Motel) when he “suddenly turned” to his friend and said: “This is the last picture we shall paint in peace for a very long time.”

Maze recorded:

“What amazed me was his concentration over his painting. No one but he could have understood more what the possibility of war meant, and how ill prepared we were. As he worked, he would now and then make statements as to the relative strengths of the German Army or the French Army. ‘They are strong, I tell you, they are strong,’ he would say. Then his jaw would clench his large cigar, and I felt the determination of his will. ‘Ah’ he would say, ‘with it all, we shall have him.’”

Maze recorded that Churchill was depressed as he left: “I had written a letter to him ‘only to read when he was over the Channel’: ‘Don’t worry Winston you know that you will be Prime Minister and lead us to victory…’” (Gilbert, V, p.1103)

On 1 September Nazi Germany invaded Poland and on 3 September Churchill returned to the Admiralty and to war. In May 1940 Churchill became wartime Prime Minister. The next month, Maze “managed to escape through Bordeaux… bringing with him a convoy of orphans.” Maze would serve in the Home Guard in Hampshire before serving as an RAF staff officer. (Gilbert, VI, p.857)

As Churchill’s wilderness years and his friendship with Paul Maze remind us, painting was doubtless a vital stillness in the great and turbulent sweep of Churchill’s otherwise tremendously public life. When he finally published a book on the subject in 1948, Churchill wrote of his and Maze’s shared passion: “Painting is a friend who makes no undue demands, excites to no exhausting pursuits, keeps faithful pace even with feeble steps, and holds her canvas as a screen between us and the envious eyes of Time or the surly advance of Decrepitude.” (Painting as a Pastime).

Post-war, Maze’s friendship with Churchill continued, as did the twining of their respective paths. Churchill served as Queen Elizabeth II’s first Prime Minister, Maze as the Official Painter of her Coronation. Maze was a frequent Chartwell guest, he and Churchill painting together into Churchill’s final years, both in England and in Maze’s native France.

The friendship was posthumously sealed by family alliance when, in 1979, Paul Maze’s grand-daughter, Jeanne Maze, married Winston Churchill’s first cousin once removed, Robert W.C. Spencer-Churchill.

Two months after Volume I was published, on 12 December 1933, T.E. Lawrence wrote to Churchill: “I finished it only yesterday.  I wish I had not… Marlborough has the big scene-painting, the informed pictures of men, the sober comment on political method, the humour, irony and understanding of your normal writing: but beyond that it shows more discipline and strength: and great dignity.  It is history, solemn and decorative.” Given the role of painting in settling and steadying Churchill during the turbulent 1930s, it is fascinatingly apt and trenchant that a fellow wordsmith like Lawrence would use the “scene-painting” metaphor.

We are pleased to have just listed a full, four-volume set of British first edition, first printings of Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times inscribed in the first volume in the month of publication to Paul Maze. The four-line, inked inscription on the Volume I half-title reads: “Paul Maze | from | Winston S. Churchill | Oct. 1933”. The set is magnificently bound in full orange morocco (evocative of the Publisher’s original signed and limited issue of the first edition), featuring gilt-bordered, raised spine bands, brown morocco title and author labels, gilt front cover frame rules, beveled edge boards, head and foot bands, hand-marbled endpapers, and freshly gilt top edges, and tissue guard bound in preceding the inscription. The set is housed in a stout brown cloth slipcase with brown satin ribbon pull. A full description of the set may be found HERE.