The Rare and the Beautiful: The Art, Loves, and Lives of the Garman Sisters
by Cressida Connolly
Ecco, 320 pp., $25.95
The Rare and the Beautiful is a multiple biography whose title is a quote from the reply that one of the Garman sisters—Kathleen—made to a young man who wanted to write her biography. By this time she was Lady Epstein, widow of the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose huge symbolic figures swoop around various parts of London—by the gate from Knightsbridge into Hyde Park, for instance, and over the entrance of the BBC headquarters: “It’s time you went, now,” Kathleen said to her would-be biographer.
I can’t even discuss such a ridiculous proposition. Words fail me! The mind boggles, in the famous words of the taxi driver. What muddy pitfalls one inadvertently steps into in search of the rare and the beautiful.
Kathleen was born in 1901, the third of the Garman sisters. There were seven of them, and two brothers. Kathleen and the eldest, Mary (born 1898), were the most famous in their day. They both married men who were more seriously famous—Mary’s husband was the South African poet Roy Campbell. The book is really about Mary, Kathleen, Lorna (the youngest sister, born 1911), and Douglas, the elder of the brothers. He was born in 1903, and welcomed with a flag flying outside the house, because he was the first boy in the family.
Connolly explains that the reason she chose these four was that their lives are the best documented. So this seems the moment to complain that although she provides an index, a bibliography, and a list of people she interviewed for each chapter, her book lacks a family tree. Most of the siblings had children and grandchildren, legitimate, illegitimate, and step, and there are several Kathys, Kittys, and Peggys among them; plus an extra Peggy in the shape of Peggy Guggenheim, who had an affair with Douglas Garman, and sounds much nicer in this book than she does in most others.
You can see how complicated it can get when, at the end of Chapter 10, Connolly announces that “both Lorna’s lovers had found a wife, and each bride was one of her own nieces.” The brides were Kathleen’s daughter Kitty, and Helen’s daughter Kathy by an amazingly handsome fisherman she met and married in the South of France. The bridegrooms were the poet Laurie Lee and the painter Lucian Freud, some of whose best-known and most beautiful paintings are portraits of Kitty.
The nine siblings were born in a large country house in the Midlands. All of them were exceptionally good-looking. Their father was a doctor, and very pious. He once burned a copy of Madame Bovary in front of all the children, because he found Mary and Kathleen reading it. He would have liked them to marry clergymen, “but they had other ideas. They knew he would not give his permission for them to leave home, so [in 1919] Mary and Kathleen packed their things and ran away.” To London, of course, where they …