Edith Olivier appears as a slim poised figure in pale pink holding a cane, standing outside her home at the Daye House, Wilton, in 1942. The scene was painted by Rex Whistler, a young artist whom Edith had befriended in 1925. Their meeting sparked a new chapter in a life already full of incident, and The Daye House became a haven for a certain circle of Bright Young Things – including Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Siegfried Sassoon, William Walton and Osbert Sitwell. Anna Thomasson, in the title of her book, calls it ‘A Curious Friendship’; curious it might have seemed but it was also transformative for both of them. This image now belongs to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum which holds several other works by Whistler – one depicting Edith reclining on a day bed in her garden, another showing her perched on the parapet of a bridge near the entrance gates. Long shadows fall across an idyllic English lawn punctuated with beds of nasturtiums; roses climb the warm stone facade. Edith appears completely at ease, an unselfconscious sitter, now in her sixties, who must have been a source of calm encouragement to the precocious young artist.
The Daye House was originally known as the old dairy cottage on the Wilton estate. Edith’s father was the rector of the New Italianate Church in Wilton and private chaplain to the Earl of Pembroke at Wilton House, and Edith was born at Wilton Rectory in 1872. Her father’s position meant that Edith and her siblings socialised frequently with the Earl’s family and guests, who often included politicians, intellectuals and writers. So although Edith’s studies at Oxford University were cut short by illness, she had already built up reserves of intelligence and social confidence during her youth. After her mother’s death and her father’s retirement, Edith moved with him to the Cathedral Close in Salisbury in 1912. During the First World War she was instrumental in setting up the Wiltshire branch of the Women’s Land Army and gained an MBE for her work. Her father died in 1919, and in 1921 Edith and her sister Mildred were persuaded to move to the old dairy cottage by their childhood friend Reginald, now Lord Pembroke, in 1921. She remained there until her death in 1948.
Edith had always been an inveterate diary writer, barely missing a day until Mildred died of cancer in 1924. But her meeting with Rex Whistler and his contemporaries shortly after this bereavement spurred her into a literary career that flourished throughout the last two decades of her life. Edith first met Rex Whistler in Italy; she had been invited on holiday by her friend Pamela Grey, whose son Stephen Tennant had brought his art school friend with him. Rex had already developed an idiosyncratic style of his own, influenced by 18th century baroque and rococo motifs which he mixed with contemporary figures to produce a charming fantasy world in paint. He was a favourite of the Slade professor Henry Tonks who proposed him for the Tate restaurant murals which made his name. Edith was able to introduce Rex to members of the aristocracy, and private commissions for murals and illustrations swiftly followed. Meanwhile, Edith had written the introduction to a book of recollections in memory of her sister Mildred, which was illustrated by Rex, and her talents as a writer were noticed for the first time. The idea for her debut novel, The Love Child, came to her in the middle of the night – a time when she enjoyed writing as her imagination was allowed free rein – and it was published in 1927. In many ways this strange tale of a spinster conjuring up an imagined daughter who becomes real, only to disappear when their intense bond is broken, was indebted to her friendship with Rex Whistler. The celibate Edith explores themes of emotional reawakening, of maternal love, of romance, and also of the importance of the imagination – as in Rex’s drawings, a fantasy world is allowed to flourish and live.
The creative network that formed around Edith and the Daye House blossomed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rex retreated there to produce illustrations for Gulliver’s Travels and for Edith Sitwell’s book on Alexander Pope, as well as for respite from the social performance of mural painting in grand houses – and he was also finding himself in demand for theatrical set designs. William Walton sent a piano down to Wilton so that he could work on his first symphony in the peace of the Wiltshire countryside, while Cecil Beaton asked Edith to proofread his Book of Beauty – also taking striking images of her dressed as Elizabeth I for a pageant at Wilton in 1932. Siegfried Sassoon, devoted to Stephen Tennant who lived at nearby Wilsford, was working on his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, for which he won the Hawthornden Prize. Edith felt a sense of pride in all of her friends’ achievements, recording all the struggles and the victories in her diaries.
Edith wrote five novels in total between 1927 and 1932, before focusing her attention on biographical subjects, and producing a memoir, ‘Without Knowing Mr Walkley’, in 1938.
Four Victorian Ladies of Wiltshire (1945) is a tribute to various women who had inspired Edith: Miss Annie Moberly, daughter of the Bishop of Salisbury, who had taught her at St Hugh’s College, Oxford; Mrs. Alfred Morrison, chatelaine of Fonthill, art collector and daughter of the previous rector of Wilton; Miss Barbara Townsend, watercolorist and resident of Mompesson House in Salisbury Cathedral Close, who commissioned the Pre-Raphaelite windows in the Cathedral; and Mrs. Percy Wyndham, mother of Pamela Grey and hostess of the intellectual group known as ‘The Souls’ at Clouds House, East Knoyle.
When she was elected mayor of Wilton in 1939, Cecil Beaton was one of a group of friends who commissioned a portrait from Rex: ‘Edith Olivier, First Lady Mayor of Wilton’ (1939-40), owned by Wilton Town Council. It shows the same elegantly dressed figure, though this time more demure in a dark pin-striped suit, a red and black silk scarf draped around her neck, sitting in a wingback armchair in a pale panelled room that must be Rex’s studio, judging by the easel and stacked paintings in the background. It gives her an air of seriousness and authority appropriate for her new role, but which is at odds with the Edith that Rex knew and loved. It is also strange to see her out of the Wiltshire countryside that she loved so well, and which she celebrated in her book, Wiltshire, published posthumously in 1951. Despite the well-connected, metropolitan society she cultivated, Edith remained a lifelong devotee of Wiltshire, feeling spiritually connected to the landscape. In her book on the county she describes its history from Saxon times to her pre-war present, discussing royal visits, local dialects and customs, art and architecture – and, of course, theories about the origins of Stonehenge and the ancient ley lines that run across the rolling hills and valleys.
Rex Whistler had joined the Welsh Guards when war broke out, and died on his first day of active service in 1944. Edith died following a stroke in 1948 and her niece Rosemary gave her paintings and diaries to the Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Archives. For someone who achieved so much she has been undeservedly forgotten in recent times, but in addition to Thomassen’s book Edith is also featured on a website – ‘Her Salisbury Story’ – which ‘aims to celebrate the work and lives of women of Salisbury past and present’, so we can learn about Edith and many other creative, energetic and resourceful Wiltshire women like her.