Nessie Dunsmuir

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NESSIE DUNSMUIR was the widow of the poet W. S. Graham. As his reputation grew and he was increasingly invited to give readings, he frequently asked for his wife's expenses to be covered too, for, as he put it, "Nessie is necessary."

The youngest of the nine children born to David and Mary Dunsmuir, she was educated at Hamilton Academy, and became an expert Comptometer operator before gaining a place on a residential course at Newbattle Abbey, a college for mature students outside Edinburgh. It was there that, in 1938, she met Sydney Graham, a structural engineer from Greenock, an event which was to alter radically the nature and course of her life.

Having been brought up in a strict working-class family (her father was a miner and an admirer of Keir Hardie) she was, with Sydney, to meet and make friends with many of the most creative artists and writers in Scotland, Soho and Cornwall, where in 1944 she joined Sydney, who was living in a friend's caravan. Here began a tough life, bereft not only of luxury (it was still wartime) but of what most people would call necessities.

They were both writing poetry and meeting artists and writers already in Cornwall, such as Ben Nicholson, Sven Berlin and Bryan Wynter. Friends from London, including John Minton, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde and David Wright, came at various times to stay and Burns Singer, who regarded Sydney as his poetry master, installed himself in a tent nearby for several weeks.

Increasingly, Nessie became more and more a part of Sydney's poetry and felt no need to pursue her own writing, despite Sydney's encouragement. It appears to have been a natural process because of her complete empathy with his poetry. She remained so much a part of it that, in later years, if asked for a clarification on some obscure point, she would sometimes be unable to distance herself from the poem and exclaim with gentle surprise, "I never thought of that before." Again, if asked why she had written only 10 poems, she replied, "That's all there ever were." Those fine 10 were published as Ten Poems in 1988.

After a few years they separated and Nessie went to teach English in a school for orphans in Italy. Disliking the direction of the community there, she left to teach for two years in the Berlitz School in Paris. She was considering marriage to a wealthy Frenchman when Sydney turned up from his travels in the United States and Italy. It was instant rapport and, in Nessie's own words, "Sydney was the man for me." So it was that she chose a life which, she knew from experience, would very likely be hard and financially insecure, but dedicated to Sydney and his work. They were married in October 1954 at Blantyre Registry Office and the artist Robert Frame was best man.

They went to live in an old coastguard cottage in west Cornwall. Their circle of friends grew and included many of the St Ives artists such as Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Roger Hilton. They survived on Nessie's seasonal hotel work, tiny publication fees, and help from interested friends. In 1967 they were given a rent-free cottage in Madron, near Penzance. Later there were small grants from the Arts Council and eventually Sydney was awarded a Civil List pension for his work. His Collected Poems 1942- 1977 appeared in 1979, and an Uncollected Poems in 1990; he died in 1986. Nessie's own selection from his work was published, by the Greville Press, last year.

Combined with Nessie Dunsmuir's gentle charm and Scottish courtesy was a strong independent intelligence and willpower. She was equally at home in the salon or the local inn and her delightful singing of the Scottish songs will be affectionately remembered.

Agnes Kilpatrick Dunsmuir, writer: born Blantyre, Lanarkshire 13 September 1909; married 1954 William Sydney Graham (died 1986); died Penzance, Cornwall 27 May 1999.