Juanita Casey: Writer, artist and horse breeder who lived the archetypal bohemian life

 

Juanita Casey's writing won her fans in Britain, Ireland and the United States. Rich with imagery and a deep understanding of the human condition, her short stories, novels and poetry are peopled with carefully observed characters who come to life through an empathy, wit and a great grasp of dialect. Her signature drawings, particularly of horses, captured the spirit which she perceived in the animal world and which she conveyed in a style all her own.

Casey's best known novel, The Horse of Selene (Dolmen, 1971), exploring the freedom of spirit which characterised the late 1960s, brought her a cult following particularly in the US and Ireland; the New York Times called it "a remarkable first novel by a remarkable woman". In the 1980s one of her stories, "The Seagull", included in her first book of short stories Hath the Rain a Father (1966, Phoenix House) became a GCSE set text.

Born in 1925 and adopted as Joy Barlow (she was renamed Juanita by her uncle after his favourite circus lion), she was brought up in Southampton by a family of brewers still clinging to Edwardian sensibilities and rituals. Her uncle, on the other hand, was a flamboyant and enigmatic personality who had connections with circus and Romany folk and instilled in Casey, with little persuasion, a sense of the fantastic and imaginary world. Horses quickly became important and her passion for everything equine remained throughout her life as a well-respected breeder and handler.

Her "comet-like progress through life", as she once put it, included three marriages. The first, at 16 while working on the land in Dorset during the Second World War, was to John "Crusoe" Fisher, who farmed a large estate in Mappowder, Dorset. Here she met and became friends with Theodore Powys and his family.

After the war, they lived and sailed in a number of vessels, among them Brixham trawlers. Their son William was born in 1947, but soon after, Juanita, drawing and painting and selling her work to the Newlyn Art Gallery while moored in Penzance, was introduced to the St Ives artist, Sven Berlin.

By 1948 Casey and her gypsy wagon were parked outside Berlin's studio, The Tower on the Island, in St Ives. They were a bohemian couple, Sven being one of the main attractions of the burgeoning art colony. Juanita found herself slightly outside the wild and often inebriated social life, but is still remembered in St Ives as she and Berlin drove through Carbis Bay in a Bullnose Morris tourer with her black hair flowing. (Some of Berlin's many portraits of her were exhibited recently at Penlee House in Penzance.)

With their new son Jasper as best man, she and Berlin were married in 1953 and soon after, with Berlin increasingly ostracised thanks to his controversial autobiography The Dark Monarch, they left Cornwall and travelled by gypsy caravan to the New Forest. Having maintained her links with the gypsy community, Juanita was welcomed by the gypsies of Shave Green and lived first in their wagon in the forest, followed by a wooden chalet in a field of a local smallholder. The composer Vaughan Williams visited and collected Juanita's version of Raggle Taggle Gypsies Oh! while artists and writers such as Robert Graves, Denys Val Baker, Bryan Wynter and Augustus John sought them out.

An inheritance enabled Juanita to buy Home Farm in Emery Down nearby, and there she indulged her love of horse breeding, including keeping Appaloosas and training liberty groups for circuses; among the horses at stud was Queen Elizabeth's Russian stallion Zaman. At the same time Juanita was aiming to produce a zorse – a hybrid of horse and zebra (the latter she would ride around the lanes of the village led by the Irish groom, Fergus Casey).

They were divorced in 1963, Juanita having left with Fergus and begun a new chapter in her life in Ireland. The years that followed involved numerous moves between Devon, Cornwall, the New Forest and Ireland, where she concentrated on writing – working on Hath the Rain a Father and the acclaimed Dolmen Press, as well as producing a short-lived newspaper while she was living in Drogheda.

Casey wrote that her children looked upon her "the way steam enthusiasts admire a hissing antique boiler." Often, she would be the first to admit, her creativity and spontaneity took over from her domestic duties and responsibilities. But the birth of her daughter Sheba in 1963 while she living in Lerryn, near Lostwithiel, brought a new adventure.

Fergus, while working as a journalist, was found drowned in Galway and Juanita and Sheba had to fend for themselves, moving to Sneem in Co Kerry, where she worked in a pottery, decorating plates and pots and continued to write. With three books already published she was welcomed as a literary figure at the Listowel Writers Week and just before the publication of The Circus by the Dolmen Press in 1974 the two returned to the UK and settled in Okehampton, Devon. Shortly after, Juanita joined Roberts' Circus as Horsemaster.

Her other passions included King Charles spaniels, of which she had several, collecting fossils, on which she was a considerable expert and her quest to discover the truth about her heritage, which may well remain something of an intriguing mystery.

I had the delightful task of editing and publishing her extraordinary 2008 autobiography Azerbaijan! It was an indelible experience, including a memorable discussion on precisely how many paragraphs could be devoted to the specific nature of Irish feet. Casey's work will continue to be treasured; we can carry on marvelling at her ingenuity, her turns of phrase and the simple beauty of her imagery.

Joy (Juanita) Barlow, writer, artist and horse breeder: born 10 October 1925; married firstly John Fisher (one son), 1953 Sven Berlin (divorced 1963; one son), thirdly Fergus Casey (deceased; one daughter); died Okehampton, Devon 24 October 2012.

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