Obituary: Diana Holman-Hunt
Monday 23 August 1993
BORN in the bed in which the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt had died three years before, the writer Diana Holman-Hunt was to inherit her grandfather's exceptional memory and gifts as a raconteur. These were cultivated by an extraordinary upbringing, which Holman- Hunt brilliantly described in her first book, My Grandmothers and I (1960).
An unwanted only child - whose father, Hilary, was employed in the Public Works Department in Burma - Holman-Hunt was shunted between her wealthy Freeman grandparents in Sussex, and a life of privation with the eccentric Edith Holman-Hunt ('Grand') in Kensington. Brave and resourceful, she soon learnt that adult affection was conditional, in the country, on her ability to entertain - she was constantly exhorted to 'utter' - and, in Melbury Road, Kensington, to take in and cherish anecdotes relating to the Victorian art world and her grandfather in particular. Holman-Hunt fulfilled both roles, but ultimately tired of Grand's canonisation of the great painter.
Her book My Grandfather, His Wives and Loves (1969) dealt with the artist's life up to 1875, when he flouted convention by marrying Edith, his deceased wife's sister. It was based on a wealth of unpublished manuscript material, and provided a welcome corrective to the solemn persona characterising his own self-aggrandising memoirs, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905). The 1969 biography portrayed an intensely passionate, brave and obsessive egomaniac, prone to depression, delusions and paranoia. Hunt's long and unhappy love affair with the beautiful, working-class Annie Miller was explored in detail, and subsequent studies of women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle were heavily indebted to Holman-Hunt's pioneering research.
Diana Holman-Hunt's late flowering gifts as a writer owed nothing to formal education. From the ages of eight to 14 she was sent to an inferior boarding school in Eastbourne, and continued her studies in Florence, Germany, and at art school in Paris. After Grand was killed by an omnibus in 1931, unexpectedly leaving nothing in her will to Diana, she was installed by her father in a flat of her own. By now, she was vivacious and exceptionally tall (her addiction to cigarettes dated from early adolescence when she was told that nicotine might stunt the growth). Her graceful, erect bearing, deep forehead, widely spaced pale blue eyes and generous mouth (which she referred to as my 'pillarbox'), helped to make her extremely attractive to the opposite sex. Having realised that marriage was her only option, she eloped with Bill Bergne in 1933. They were divorced seven years later, leaving her with a son, Paul.
In 1942 Holman-Hunt faced a further trauma: her fiance, the fighter pilot Humphrey Gilbert, was killed when his plane crashed shortly before the wedding. In 1946, with marriage to David Cuthbert, she took on responsibility for a large estate in Northumberland and rose to the challenge of establishing lasting relationships with her three stepchildren. Rather to his disapproval, in the late 1950s she began writing about her grandmothers. Her book became a best-seller the year after his death from cancer in 1959.
Holman-Hunt returned to London, and, though she had many admirers, preferred to live alone, surrounded by a wide circle of friends of all ages, including many artists, artists' descendants (notably the Millais family), and writers. In 1975 she suffered a serious accident in Provence, and spent a year in bed nursing a broken femur. Although she never fully recovered her mobility, this did not cramp her style as a noted party-goer and hostess.
When I first met Diana Holman- Hunt, in June 1977, she was still on crutches. A witty, formidable woman, old-fashioned in her speech (' 'X' is going to motor me down') and Edwardian in her punctiliousness (she disapproved of letters addressed to 'Mrs Diana Cuthbert'), she was nevertheless sharply aware of contemporary trends and current affairs.
Even during her last painful illness, which confined her to bed for over two years, and which she faced with awe-inspiring stoicism and lack of self-pity, she retained her acute intelligence and ability to sustain those she loved. She was working on her autobiography when she died; it is to be hoped that this will find a publisher.
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