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About the Author
Rosemary Sassoon is an independent consultant and the author of more than twenty books on handwriting, design, and other subjects.
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Early life and design work
It is always said that our characters are formed partly by nature and partly by nurture. Today our genes are probably mostly held responsible, but even that seems simplistic. What about coincidences and other happenings quite outside our control? My education could be termed a casualty of the Second World War, and it seems to me that my whole adult life has been influenced by a series of coincidences. A discarded newspaper led me to a new design job when I was desperate, an offer to write a book came out of the blue, then a somewhat inappropriate and an unwanted request to deal with handwriting problems, at first educational and then medical, led to a whole new career. I did not seek any of these opportunities. They just fell into my lap, and in doing so pushed my area of interest out wider and wider, until I have got to the stage now that when people ask me what is my profession I do not know how to answer.
In this book I will try to record how this all occurred. When I started out, in the late 1940s, few women were expected to have a meaningful career. A few good teachers along the way, and later good mentors certainly helped, but I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a satisfying and productive career. It was all rather like my husband who said that he had never done a days work in his life that he would not have done for nothing - except that I quite often actually had to work for nothing!
As for nurture, my family was fairly conventional, probably typical of the time between the wars. I was the third girl of parents who really only wanted sons, in other words, the last straw. Born in 1931, I lived in the nursery, looked after by my much-loved nanny and saw little of my parents in my early days. Nanny stayed as a valued member of the family until the end of her life, being there to see all our children born as well. My background was fairly international. My maternal grandfather was Russian. He was a diplomat who dealt with the problems following the Russian-Japanese War. Then, luckily, he was in the embassy in Washington during the years of the revolution, before returning to live in London.
My father's grandfather was the ancestor I really wish I had known. He was a musician and artist with many interests, but sadly he died very young. Why his son, my gentle grandfather, joined the stock exchange I cannot understand. The story is that he only prospered because friends loved him and sent him business. After being in the army in the First World War, my father, Frank Waley, joined his father in the family firm. A practical man, I am sure he would have been happier as an architect or almost anything else. He spent much of his spare time, rather like a Victorian plant hunter, exploring the mountain ranges of Europe. He looked for unknown species of plants and brought then back to England to naturalize. In spring his garden was covered with rare narcissi, cyclamen and other bulbs that sometimes bore his name. His beloved garden contributed to his end at the age of 94. At the end of the 1980s the south of England was struck by a hurricane. It blew down the pine trees that grew on his hillside garden. Still strong, he rushed out to try and to pull the trunks off his precious shrubs. He suffered a mild heart attack but refused treatment saying that if his garden was ruined he did not want to go on.
My mother, who had had an unusual childhood travelling the world, spoke several languages, and deserved to have had a much more interesting life and career. However, constrained by the times, her main interest was playing bridge. In later life, almost every day she drove twenty-six miles to London to play at the well-known club, Crockfords, more or less as a professional. Travel, her dogs, her flowers, and later her vegetable garden kept her relatively content. Compared with her life, her two close cousins who came out of Russia in very straightened circumstances, both had satisfying careers. There were relations on both sides of the family all over Europe for us to visit after the war. My favourites, apart from my French godmother, lived in Denmark.
Before the war we lived in a large, rather ugly redbrick Victorian house, perched on a hill conveniently above Sevenoaks station. From the 1923 advertisement you can see it had eight bedrooms but only one bathroom. By the time we lived in it, it had several more bathrooms. I remember the main bedroom and a spare room for visitors plus three nursery rooms. I suspect the three attic rooms were originally intended for servants. The entire road had been built up at the time of the coming of the railway, expressly for the purpose of those who wished to commute – not that it would have been called that in those days. My father went to the city each day and returned early probably to tend his beloved plants. His view of the garden differed somewhat from ours. Sir John Kirk, an African explorer, had lived in the house before my parents bought it. He had planted a large grove of bamboos to house a collection of skeletons of big game. It remained as a somewhat unusual playground for us.
At the bottom of the hill, just opposite the station was the site of Sevenoaks market that took place every Monday. As we got older this was another exciting place to explore. Early in the war the cattle and sheep pens were used to house the hundreds of children ready to be evacuated to safer parts of the country.
In 1938, when I was seven, the house was sold and a modern one erected on half the garden. My mother was delighted, she got what she had always wanted, a white house. It was not to keep its pristine colour for long – a white house on the top of a hill above a railway was too good a guide for bombers on the way to London. It had to be camouflaged, and remained a dirty khaki colour for quite a few years. The old house was occupied by a succession of evacuees and was eventually demolished and replaced by a hideous post war block of flats. My father was in the army again in the Second World War, not abroad, but as a staff officer in the south of England. Those years were strangely some of my mother's happiest – doing real jobs like fire watching. She also grew and harvested potatoes on a large plot of land, as her contribution to the war effort, as well as growing all the family food in the garden.
As for me, at the age of about four I went to a kindergarten, nursery school or whatever they were called in those days, run by a remarkable lady called Miss Evans who had previously been a governess to Nigel Nicolson at Sissinghurst Castle. In the next couple of years I must have learned to read and write, as I still have some little books that I won as prizes there. The only distinct memories of those happy years are of the subtly coloured sketchbooks that we used when learning to observe and draw flowers and simple objects. Real school was a disappointment, and I remember surprisingly little of the next few years. I just have a vague memory of a large bullying classroom teacher and some uncomfortable mats that were put on the floor for us to rest on after lunch. I cannot remember much of how or what we were taught. I find, in retrospect that it is only the happy memories of those early years that remain. My last memory was of the trenches being dug in the playground just before the war disrupted my education.
After a brief stay in Dorset at the height of the blitz, we were invited to New York to stay with relatives. My sister and I started our journey from Liverpool, on a ship called Eastern Prince, in the middle of heavy bombing, so I was told later on. We were, however, seemingly oblivious of danger. What I can remember was the fun we had on board, a huge crowd of kids with plenty of exciting activities, all unaware that we were the last children to make that transatlantic journey. The ship just in front of us, the City of Benares, was torpedoed and almost all the people on board were lost.
It was quite a change to live in a rather luxurious apartment on Park Avenue, not that the home life there was all that happy. We were lucky enough, however, to get a scholarship to a wonderful school. Now in its 100th year, Nightingale was, and still is, exceptional. Latin was a subject taught by a gentle scholar in a way that has lasted all my life. A teacher from France taught us French so accent became as important as having an extensive vocabulary, maths was made fascinating and so on. I excelled, made the honour board each year and even skipped a grade. The only lesson that I neither enjoyed nor was any good at was art. I think that the tensions of those years somewhat stifled any artistic activity. As it happened those were the only three years of proper education I received. Later, I realised that those years gave me the confidence to know that I was actually intelligent, creative and could achieve something. Just recently I found a quote that backed up this sentiment. In a book called The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, talking about his mother he said: 'In the early 1950s she and her classmates were told something that no generation of women prior to theirs had ever heard, and by the Headmistress herself: that they could do anything and be anything – and have a husband and children to boot'. She had attended Brearley School. That is where, fitted with their green uniform, I would have gone had not Nightingale offered me a full scholarship. Both those schools were way ahead of their time.
All this confidence was completely obliterated by the depressing treatment I received on returning home. My parents quite rightly reasoned that, after the main dangers of invasion had passed, we should return home. Otherwise we would become too alienated from our own generation. In time for the assault of the Doodlebugs and V2s, we sailed back in a battered banana boat from New Orleans to Lisbon, and after various adventures and delays, we eventually flew back to England. The first delay was caused by my sister catching measles, or was it chicken pox, while we were staying in a rather smart hotel in Estoril. Then a plane was shot down on the same route we were using to fly back to England. Because a famous actor was on board it got a lot of publicity, and caused more worry and more delay.
In my old school, both staff and students had had a difficult war. In retrospect, I can excuse what happened. However, all that I knew was derided and ignored. I knew the wrong things, all about Aztecs and Incas, but not the wives of Henry the Eighth. Long division of pounds, shillings and pence was a problem. The worst deprivation was that I was stopped abruptly from studying any science. I was judged to be too dangerous to be in the laboratory, as I supposedly did not know their rules. Luckily in those days I had a very good memory. All I could do was to memorise the curriculum and pass the necessary exams, in this case matriculation, at the age of fifteen. The basic examination was the School Certificate. To matriculate it was necessary to take certain special subjects and to achieve either distinction or credit in every one. The only problem was my banishment from the laboratory, but luckily geography came to the rescue, being classified somehow as a science, one of the essential subjects. Before the previous year and the passing of the 1945 Education Act, that would have been enough for university entrance.
My refuge was the art room. The new teacher, Margaret Gash, was gentle and understanding, very different from the rest of the staff. I could retreat and draw flowers, or better still learn lettering, which was one of her skills. Her influence on my life was incalculable, and we remained friends until she died recently, aged 99. It is amazing what you can do if you have to, and after two years, aged fifteen, almost the only subject I did not get a distinction for in my matriculation was art. Evidently my design for a headscarf did not impress the examiners.
My parents did not agree with university education for girls, but had I gone it would probably have been to study languages, because they were my strongest subject, and what career would that eventually have led to? However, when the time came to escape from school, the only thing that I could think of was to go to art school. It was not with any expectation of becoming an artist, but somehow it felt right. At the local art school I felt that finally I fitted in and it certainly turned out to be the right choice.
It led to a fascinating career that encompassed study and practice in several other unexpected areas. Opportunities arose in a series of lucky breaks and pure coincidences. Maybe the way such happenings are taken advantage of is influenced by one's nature, or maybe it was just that I had more than my share of good luck
It was just as well that I had no aspirations to be an artist, as at the local art school, the only qualification offered was the Art Teacher Diploma. This was also not what I wanted – I had already decided that I wanted to be a designer. From the early days I got little satisfaction either from lettering or flower painting unless the work was going to be used in some way, and not just put up on the wall. I was lucky in my main subject. Geoffrey Holden was a charismatic teacher, just graduated from the Royal College and a student of M C Oliver. I spent every possible moment in his weekly lettering classes. At the end of the year he said he had taught me all he could and suggested that I tried to go to his own teacher for further study. I was not the only person whose life he influenced. I noticed in later years that two of the mischievous young boys who caused so much havoc in his jewellery workshops, that I also joined, became owners of the two largest jewellers shops in the local town. Such is the power of a really good teacher.
I was not so lucky with textile classes. The girl who taught us had obviously never had any experience in the field. I remember her pouring scorn on a series of all-over abstract patterns that I produced. It was with huge satisfaction that all but one of those designs sold some years later to Liberty of Regent Street. Much needed life drawing classes were not much help either. On Mondays the teacher wore fancy waistcoats and a bow tie and he insisted that we all used 6h pencils and cross hatching for shading. On Fridays the other teacher made us use 6b pencils and our thumbs to shade the drawing. Between the two of them I never learned much about life drawing, but what I did learn was not to trust those who insisted on students copying their techniques (or to teach that way myself).
I probably dreamed of going on to another art school to continue my studies, most likely the Central School of Art (now Central Saint Martins). In retrospect it is just as well that this did not happen, because the practical experience that I obtained better suited me, and my aspirations to be a designer. This has made me consider whether an art school, or a university art degree as it has now become, is the best route for everyone. I have met several young people recently whose creativity has been stifled by such courses. They knew just what they wanted to do, and might have done better with a placement in a studio, or an apprenticeship. This leads me to question that creativity can certainly be stifled, but can it actually be taught?
After one year at art school my parents pronounced that I should get a job to show that I could not support myself with my ridiculous idea of being a designer. I could not, and still cannot, think of any better motivation to succeed than to prove them wrong. Sometimes I feel that I am still doing just that long after they have gone. Luckily a family friend knew of a textile design studio needing staff so, armed with my rather pitiful portfolio, I went for an interview. Haward studio was situated in Turnham Green, in south-west London near Chiswick, and had obviously been quite important in the past, judging by the examples on the walls. However, the studio had been left to relatives who knew little about the business. Anyhow, the chief designer was Sanderson trained, and he was in charge, which was all that mattered. I soon realised that what they wanted was cheap labour under the pretence that they were providing a good training. Well, I suppose that was so, but I soon negotiated a day a week to continue my lettering studies, which was just as well considering what happened later on. I have described the way we worked in the days before computers and even photographic colour separation, in Textile Designing in the Mid 20th Century published by the Book Guild.
Back at the studio we learned a lot from repeating the older designers' work, and there was always plenty more to do such as grinding and matching the body colours for finished drawings. Even so, there was enough time left for us to produce our own water colour sketches, working with our mahl sticks, standing up at our easels. There were three of us, working in the attic of the old red brick house. Though neither of the other girls had had any training they had already worked out their specialities. I chose mostly floral subjects to design to start with. Luckily we often had to produce designs for woven fabrics, as well as printed ones, in view of what happened some ten years later. While travelling home for over an hour on the underground and then the railway I would dream up ideas for designs and colour schemes.
Our sketches were taken away, presumably shown to clients, and that was the last we saw of them. It was exciting to hear that one of ours had been chosen, however, we were not allowed to do our own finished drawings. The chief designer took over from that stage onwards. Presumably he could alter our work if he or the client wished. During the three years that I worked there I never saw any finished product. Designers were not considered important in those days.
Excerpted from "By Accident Or Design"
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Early life and design work 7
Less productive years
Lettering as a decorative art
My first book
Part 2 Changing direction 35
Handwriting in schools
My first handwriting book
An introduction to the Medical Research Council
Towards a doctoral thesis
Part 3 The wider implications of handwriting problems 57
The medical aspects of handwriting
Writing and travelling
Part 4 A stroke, getting older and some conclusions 75
The effects of a stroke