This year marks the 40th anniversary, since The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was published. Amanda Davies looks back at her life, and asks if written today would it be as charming?
Edith Blackwell Holden was a romantic ecologist as well as a celebrated artist. Born on the 26th September 1871, she was one of several children belonging to Arthur and Emma Holden, of Holden and Son’s Paint Factory in Kings Norton. After leaving school Edith trained as an artist and took the opportunity to enhance her skills by spending a year under the tutorship of the painter Joseph Donovan Adam, at the Craighill Art School in Stirling and at the farm that he owned there, sketching the natural world.
Greatly influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement her paintings were displayed both in the Royal Birmingham Society of Arts and The Royal Academy of Arts in 1907 and 1917. In addition she did artwork for four volumes of The Animals Friend, a publication for the 1920’s London based charity National Council for Animal Welfare; plus illustrations for “The Three Goats Gruff” storybook when it was translated into English – a considerable feat in an age when women weren’t supposed to have careers.
From 1906 to 1909 she taught Art at the Solihull School for Girls; and it was for this reason that she made her nature notes – these recordings were never meant to be published; instead they were designed to help structure the course material for her students. In 1911 Edith married Alfred Ernest Smith, eight years her junior; the marriage was frowned upon by her family, so they moved to Chelsea, London, where they associated with Sir George Frampton, the Countess Fedora Gleichen and King Faisal of Arabia.
Edith and Alfred were married for nine years; they didn’t have any children, and it’s reputed that when she met her untimely death on the 18th March 1920 (by falling into the Thames whilst reaching across the bank with the aid of her brolly to gather Chestnut buds to draw,) Alfred never got over it.
So how did we get access to one of the world’s most popular books? The answer is simply down to the insightfulness of her great niece Rowena Stott; who in 1977 (when she herself was an art student,) showed the family’s most treasured pages to a publisher. Seeing the potential of the chronological recordings of the flora and fauna in Edwardian England, it was published in its facsimile form, and has been translated into thirteen different languages; it remains number four in the world’s most popular book list of the last forty years.
In 1984 a twelve-part mini-series was broadcast on television charting her life; and she is as popular today as she ever was – her illustrations are currently being used in adult colouring books, as well as inspirational designs for the home including wallpaper, napkins, and crockery. A leading high-street store still holds the longest continually running licence certificate to produce its annual ladies diary, based on her original works, with quotes and poems and mottos.
If Edith were alive today what would she think of the countryside now? How many of the two-hundred and fifteen plants or seventy-six bird species she documented are around to record now?
When did you last see a Bee Orchid? According to the Woodland Trust, they are common in marshland and native to coastal regions of Wales; you can probably name several flowers in the hedgerow, but can you identify them all? There are native plants including clover, dead nettle and thistle in our gardens; there are many pretty weeds too; what are their names?
There are numerous reports available suggesting that adults and children don’t spend as much time in the outdoors as they should; however, there are also a number of bodies trying to redress the balance; Natural Resources England/Wales and Scotland, have a wealth of information on things to do in the countryside, as does the Woodland Trust and Citizen Scientist too. You can also access the Government’s website that lists all of the currently endangered plant and animal species in the UK – and important advice on legislation when it comes to protecting them.
One innovative American charity, accessible to all online, entitled Children and Nature encourages youngsters to keep a year’s worth of drawings, photographs and notes on what they see in the of the natural world starting in their own backyard. Imagine what the results might be. Closer to home the Facebook group 30 Days Wild encourages everybody to send in a daily update of wildlife in their area.
Possibly record a journal yourself; because who knows, just like the unassuming Edith Holden, in forty years’ time, your memoires could be important too!
© Amanda Jane Davies 2017. A.firstname.lastname@example.org