Obituary: Ida Affleck Graves

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The Independent Culture
SIX MONTHS after her second book of poems - The Calfbearer - was published by the Oxford University Press, Ida Affleck Graves has died at the age of 97.

She was born Ida Florence Graves in 1902 in India, the daughter of Colonel Douglas H. McDonnel Graves, IMS Surgeon to HM Forces in India, and of Mabel Alice Petley, affectionately known as the "Belle of Bangalore". Ida was a collateral descendant of the Bishop of Limerick, from whom the poet and writer Robert Graves was descended.

At the age of six, Ida was sent away to boarding school in England, absented from her adored, pleasure-seeking mother and from the Raj of sultry India to the miseries of a cold, damp climate, unrecognisable food, and a harsh school - a banishment which became a source of anger and obsession, but also one of the lifelong inspirations of her poetry:

I curdled. I am clenched cold, my small soul undone and utterly.

Yes, I am rigid with dread of it, that iron far railway engine.

I must be good, a good girl oh yes, she says or she will leave me.

Woe, nowhere and lost, no party dress, no sun merry air to tread on . . .

(from "Station Platform",

The Calfbearer)

It wasn't until she was about 13 that she was moved to Croham Hurst, a Quaker school in Surrey where at last she found a kindred spirit in Theodora Clark, the Headmistress, who loved and encouraged this unhappy child, and nurtured her talent.

When she was 19, Graves went to University College London, to study English Literature, and at the same time did an evening course in sculpture at Chelsea Art School. In the Twenties she became part of the circle surrounding Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and (as Ida Graves) her first publication was No 5 of the Hogarth Living Poets, The China Cupboard and Other Poems (1929), poems the author herself dismissed in an interview with Blake Morrison over half a century later as "ever so soppy, mostly stuff I'd written at school".

An early marriage, to Herbert Marks, had failed, but there were two children, Anna, and Anthony, who was killed aged 27 in an avalanche accident. In 1930 she met the wood-engraver Blair Hughes-Stanton, with whom she set up the Gemini Press in 1933 with the purpose of producing books that brought together poets and artists; the first volume, Epithalamion: a poem by Ida Graves with wood-engraving by Blair Hughes-Stanton, received the top prize in the book section at the Venice Biennale in 1937. During the Second World War, Hughes-Stanton was taken prisoner. Ida was in London, painting scenery and later sewing costumes for the Covent Garden National Ballet.

Her friends form a cavalcade of 20th-century artists and writers, including, to name only a few, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Ivon Hitchens, David Wright, Kathleen Hale and Stella Gibbons. It was Ida Graves who was suggested as an excellent person to guide Sir Robert Sainsbury in the art world when he began to collect. She urged him to buy works by Epstein and Moore, and her influence is very apparent in the Sainsbury Collection at the University of East Anglia.

Her own works of art took the form of brilliant, embroidered woollen ship and sea pictures, closely associated with her illustrious nautical family on her mother's side. Her fabulous collages and flannel portraits of family and friends have extraordinary flair and humour.

In 1946 the Fortune Press published her long poem Mother and Child; then, during the Fifties, under the pen-name Affleck Graves, she published with Faber and Faber three children's books and two autobiographical novels: Willa, You're Wanted (1952), with a jacket designed by Ronald Searle that captured the spirit of Willa, or Ida, and Elarna Cane (1956).

Silence fell for nearly 40 years, as Ida Affleck Graves continued to write poems, but stuffed them, untyped, into a bottom drawer, until a teacher from Norwich read some of her work in the periodical Rialto. Peter Wallis became her friend, and a sort of informal agent, and it was he who, having typed up her poems, sent them to the Oxford University Press in 1993.

The poems in that collection proved irresistible: quirky, lively, funny, sad, earthy, irreverent, and written in a style of great musical compression. "I hope," wrote Ida Affleck Graves in an unusual author's form entry for the OUP, "the reader will whoop for joy." A Kind Husband was published in the Oxford Poets series in 1994. She was then 92.

It would be easy to say she was an English "eccentric", but she was much more than that, and had a passionate directness and fierceness, a childlike innocence and wickedness, that remained with her all her life. She could be angry at injustice or unfairness; but she would also laugh, and her eyes would sparkle with delight at a play on words, or at her stretching cat Priapus unexpectedly rolling off the Madame de Recamier. She loved animals and birds, which she described with tactile distinctness.

Many of the poems are about the deliberately wild, overgrown garden of her house. The 16th-century, half- timbered weaver's house, bought in 1936 and still completely unmodernised in the late Nineties, became a haven for visitors of all sorts and ages: the door was, literally, always open. Village children came for advice, homework help, good food, to put on plays, and to play charades. Adults came for the same reasons, except their homework took the form of mining Ida's prodigious memory, delighting in the abstruse facts with which she peppered her conversation. Few have had the equal of the informal education she provided in the singular atmosphere of her home, which was also full of beautiful and strange objects.

Her partnership with Blair Hughes-Stanton produced a son and a daughter. In 1953, when Ida was 50, she met Don Nevard, a jazz pianist, then half her age, who became her devoted companion, later husband, and was with her when she died. She is buried in her garden:

Lend me to myself to peer into my grave,

I see an eye wink and the wing feathers of a dove,

Ten tall lovers bending to whip and save.

I dig myself in deeper, with nothing, everything to prove.

Ida Florence Graves (Ida Affleck Graves), writer and artist: born Conoor, India 29 March 1902; married 1924 Herbert Marks (deceased; one daughter, and one son deceased; one son, one daughter by Blair Hughes-Stanton), 1995 Don Nevard; died Stratford St Mary, Suffolk 14 November 1999.