The authors of this website discovered picture postcards and letters that Elsie Eldridge sent to her parents from Italy in 1934. This prompted them in 2017 to see for themselves in Florence, Assisi, and Ravenna what she wrote about and to research her visits to Rome, Capri, and Venice.

Travelling Scholarship

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A Young English Artist Meets Italian Immortals

When Mildred Elsie Eldridge (known as Elsie) graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 1933, she received a £180 travelling scholarship.

A year later, 1934, several months before her 24th birthday, she used the scholarship money (the equivalent today of a budget of £100 per day) to spend 13 weeks in Italy, studying the works of immortal painters and sculptors, enhancing her own watercolour skills, meeting distinguished women and men, whilst visiting Rome, Capri, Assisi, Florence, Ravenna, Venice, and Bolzano.

Everywhere she went, she looked and looked, sometimes seeing something that amused her.

On Easter Sunday, she was in Saint Peter’s Square, watching as Pope Pius XI was carried out of the basilica “on the papal chair.” He “was rather funny; he looked like some effigy on a wooden throne.”

Sometimes she was alarmed by what she saw. When she stepped down from the train in Rome, she found herself facing “a great crowd of Fascists on the platform – most fierce looking creatures all in black with great pistols.”

In addition to her written descriptions, Elsie filled sheet after sheet of paper with sketches recording every detail of Italian life.

Leatherhead to Genoa

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“A sky so blue that it was alarmingly breathtaking”

Elsie began her trip to Italy around the 20th of March 1934, setting out from home, which was behind her father’s jewellery shop in Leatherhead, 20 miles southwest of London. She travelled by train to the coast, then had “a good Channel crossing and only one other person in the carriage from Calais to Paris.”

The train she boarded in Paris was crowded – “everybody was going out of Paris for skiing and winter sports.” There were “a great many stops” on the way to the French Alps.

Steaming from France into Italy, the train passed through mountain range after mountain range until, suddenly, Elsie saw “the grass unbelievably green in the brilliant sunshine, under a sky so blue that it was alarmingly breathtaking after all the darkness of innumerable tunnels.”

On Friday, the 23rd of March, she sent a postcard to her parents from Genoa, saying that tomorrow she was going on to Rome.

Postcard, The Lighthouse, Genoa.


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“Discovering paintings one knew only as reproductions in a book”

On Saturday, 24th of March, Elsie made her way to Genoa’s Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, located the Stazione Brignole, and boarded the Rome train. She caught “glimpses of the very blue Mediterranean” as the train rolled along the coast.

© British School Rome

When she reached Rome, she went straight to where she was staying, “the British School, a ponderous building in the Valle Giulia. Such enormous entrance doors, about 20 feet high and so heavy that I could not open them.”

Every day in Rome was spent discovering all the paintings and sculptures which one knew only as reproductions in a book.”

“Transfiguration” by Raphael
“Moses” by Michelangelo

Elsie, writing to her father on her train ride from Rome to Naples, said: “I have visited dozens and dozens of churches and galleries and shall really be glad to get south and out of the rain.”


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“Bathing was shared with the myriads of small coloured fishes”

© Italian Ways Alberto Savinio

Sometime before the 15th of April, Elsie traveled by train to Naples, then endured “a rough crossing” to the Isle of Capri, where she signed the register at an albergo.

Colonel John Strachey, an elderly gentleman Elsie had learned to know in Leatherhead, was staying on Capri: “I promised to go to see him and Mrs. Lindsay, who was with him now that he was nearly blind.”

Fifty years later, when she wrote her autobiography, Elsie could still see Capri:

“Many sandy bays between craggy grey stone cliffs, the water in the bays so clear and so greenly blue on the white sand that bathing was shared with the myriads of small coloured fishes swimming all around.”

“I got up as usual at 6 a.m., the loveliest and coolest time of the day, and went up to the top of Monte Solaro and sat on a lovely carpet of wild pink orchis. Vesuvius on the left, Capri down below, the Sorrento peninsula away beyond, and miles and miles of brilliant sea.”

© Italian Ways Alberto Savinio

“When Mrs. Lindsay was invited out to lunch, Strachey and I decided to go on a spree to Anacapri. The only transport was one of the carriages large enough for two. The horses were all decorated most gaily. We chose one with three pheasant feathers, a pale yellow bow on its straw hat, and a spray of wisteria under each ear. In this grand style, we drove up to Anacapri – hairpin bends all the way – and went to the Eden Paradiso Hotel.”


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“We all slept in the most alarming beds”

Elsie left Capri on Tuesday, the 24th of April, and travelled to Assisi, where she “stayed in a Franciscan convent recommended by the British School in Rome.” The nuns “drank the white wine of the district with their meals and we all slept in the most alarming beds with straw pillows and straw mattresses. The pillows made one’s ears so sore that I had to fill the pillowcase with the various woolen jerseys that I had with me.”

Sketch by Elsie 1934

“I made many drawings of the narrow streets – houses crowding in on either side – always nuns walking in the shade made by the closeness of the houses. . . There were many shrines on the walls of the houses in Assisi.”

Elsie walked from the convent up the steep, narrow streets to the Basilica of Saint Francis where she “spent many hours studying the Giotto frescoes – these were even more beautiful than one had supposed.”

Looking closely at the frescoes, she absorbed such details as a hilltop village.

Two decades later, she painted an Italianate hilltop village in panel 1 of The Dance of Life.

I Carceri

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“The cell was even more lovely than the other churches”

One day, Elsie hiked up into the hills to I Carceri – “the prison”, where Saint Francis and his closest associates imprisoned themselves in prayer.

“The cell was even more lovely in its simple cave-like stone quality than the other churches.”

She remembered I Carceri “high on the hillside above the small villages and built on a great rock with forest behind…

…and a lovely stone-built well in the centre of a small courtyard.”

St. Francis

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Elsie’s fascination with Saint Francis receiving the stigmata

Back in Assisi, Elsie pondered an incident in the life of St Francis, painted by Giotto – the moment when he received the stigmata.

As Francis was praying, he had a vision of Christ in the form of a crucified seraph, and wounds appeared in his hands and feet like the wounds of the crucifixion in the hands and feet of Jesus – the stigmata.

While she was still in Italy, Elsie talked with a physician about her fascination with the phenomenon of the stigmata – she was emphatic that he was not a Roman Catholic. He explained, “from experience it has been found possible for a person who is in an excessively nervous state of health on the verge of death, as St Francis was, and living an almost entirely spiritual life, to reproduce in themselves the physical state of others – the stigmata in his case.”

Twenty years later, Elsie included a figure with a pierced foot and a pierced hand in The Dance of Life.


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Sightseeing - The American way

Elsie travelled from Assisi to Florence on Wednesday, the 2nd of May. Leaving the station, she crossed the Arno river to the Piazza del Carmine, where she was going to stay.

Interior Casa Santo Nome di Gesù

The Casa Santo Nome di Gesù, a convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary – “Mostly Irish nuns and all charmingly unworldly.”

Writing to her father, she sums up her impressions of Italy and her approach to sightseeing.

“I can’t say that I like the Italian people but then the country is glorious.” She proposes to sightsee “à l’américaine – read up everything first and learn all about it. Then visit the place and have a really good look at all the things that are of interest to me and give a fleeting glance to all the rest – it is quite impossible to do everything thoroughly – besides being rather silly if it does not interest you.”

Fifty meters from the Casa’s front door, across the Piazza del Carmine, is the 15th- Century Brancacci Chapel, its walls covered with frescos created by three artists, Masaccio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi.

They changed the course of Western art by presenting solid figures in real space. A figure of a mother, holding her child and receiving alms from St Peter, is marked by a deep, almost tragic sense of human dignity.

After a day of ‘really good looking at what interested her and fleeting glances at all the rest’ Elsie could walk back across the piazza and relax in the convent garden.

An Invitation

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Elsie – “a painter of decorations”

A letter for Elsie arrived in the Convent’s post on Saturday, 12th May – an invitation from Mary Berenson, wife of the renowned Renaissance art scholar Bernard Berenson, to come to tea at Villa I Tatti on Monday, the 14th. “I shall certainly be here,” Mary wrote, “and my husband hopes to be.”

Elsie was not the typical guest welcomed by Mary to her home in the hills above Florence. Usually, the visitors were researchers of Renaissance art, wealthy collectors, and famous writers.

One long-time friend said that Mary greeted one with a “radiant smile,” making you feel that “all is well with the world.”

Mary’s diary entry for Monday, 14th May, is brief: “A Miss Eldridge sent by Rothenstein came to tea – a painter of decorations.”

Bernard Berenson
© Theo Bandi
Villa I Tatti
Mary Berenson
© George Charles Beresford

“Rothenstein” refers to Sir William Rothenstein, principal of the Royal College of Art in London when Elsie was a student. He encouraged the College’s tutors and students to paint murals – wall decorations for public spaces– as a way for them to augment their income during the years of the Great Depression.

Villa i Tatti

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“Rather alarming to find oneself … sealed in by books”

When Elsie wrote her autobiography in the 1980s, she remembered having “tea with Mrs. Berenson in
the library”
at Villa I Tatti. “Bernard Berenson was not there.”

“The library appeared to have no door, as the door was camouflaged with rows of books on shelves.
Rather alarming to find oneself there, alone, apparently sealed in by books, with no means of escape.”

Souvenir postcard of the library at Villa I Tatti which Elsie kept all her life

From the 1890s to the 1930s, Bernard Berenson was an outstanding American historian of Italian Renaissance art. Private collectors and museum curators turned to him for verification of works of art. Often, he was able to identify the artist just by looking at the nose or an ear in a painting!

His books dealt with the Renaissance painters of north and central Italy, with art criticism, ethics, and aesthetics. One title seems to sum up his life and to point us towards Elsie Eldridge: The Passionate Sightseer.

Mary’s ability to attribute paintings to particular artists was almost as highly developed as his, and she helped to write his books.

So, when Elsie had tea with Mary Berenson at I Tatti, she was ‘imprisoned’ in the library of a couple who occupied the center of Italian Renaissance art scholarship, the very paintings she had come to Italy to look at, until she ‘lived them’.


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“Look and look and look till we live the painting”

“We must look,” wrote Bernard Berenson, “and look and look till we live the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it.”

© Britannica .com

Some weeks after Elsie had tea with Mary Berenson, she returned for a tour of I Tatti with Bernard Berenson: He “showed me his special treasures – madonnas and altar pieces – so many that one became confused.”


Visible across the fields from I Tatti was Poggio Gherardo, the home of Aubrey and Lina Waterfield. After meeting them, Aubrey would urge Elsie to leave the convent lodgings and stay with them.


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“unacceptable to Mussolini”

Elsie writes: “I had a letter of introduction to Aubrey Waterfield, and eventually went up to Poggio Gherardo, outside the city, with a sheaf of drawings and sketches, for Aubrey Waterfield was a painter.”

The letter of introduction was almost certainly written by Sir William Rothenstein, who also “sent” Elsie to visit the Berensons at I Tatti.

Rothenstein was a friend of Aubrey Waterfield and considered him “an artist of distinction, who also has a scholarly mind” – he was a graduate of the Slade School of Art, London, and of New College, Oxford.

Writing to Aubrey, Sir William said: “All sorts of extreme ‘abstract’ ideas are about, which settle like microbes in the students’ brains, so I sent in your name to the Executive Committee” of the British School.

Aubrey did not get the directorship, not because he was anti-Abstract, but because he and his wife, Lina, were anti-Fascist. The British Ambassador vetoed the idea, declaring the appointment “unacceptable to Mussolini.”

Aubrey Waterfield
Lina Waterfield

Poggio Gherardo

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Lina Waterfield – “Determined not to be cowed by Mussolini”

For 12 years before Elsie met her, Lina Duff Gordon Waterfield, OBE, had been the Italian correspondent for a London newspaper, The Observer. She interviewed Mussolini on several occasions and wrote articles about his dictatorial ways. At one of his mass rallies, she listened to him scream: “Whoever touches [my supporters] meets lead [bullets].” Lina thought: “The man is mad. Poor Italy.”

Lina Waterfield at her desk.

After a state dinner, Mussolini approached Lina, glaring, his chin stuck out: “Ah! There are some explanations which you have to give me.” To which Lina replied, “And I have to receive some from you.”

“I was determined,” she remembered, “not to be cowed by him.” Elsie was about to spend several weeks in the company of this indomitable woman at her estate Poggio Gherardo.

Janet Ross at the same desk
Beppe in the garden

Lina had inherited the property from another indomitable woman, her aunt, Janet Ross. The story goes that one day she tried to cure Beppe, her gardener, of using the Italian curse Porca Madonna (Pig of a Madonna). She ordered him to address her as Porca Padrona (Pig of a Mistress). “I can’t,” he wailed. “Then never let me hear you say Porca Madonna again.” And she never did.

Elsie described Poggio Gherardo as “a rather forbidding four square solid, gray stone affair – with splendid wrought-iron grilles decorating the ground floor windows.”

By the time of Elsie’s visit, “there were eight ‘young ladies’ staying with the Waterfields to be ‘finished’, that is, taught to speak Italian, to paint, and to visit all the museums.”

Aubrey Waterfield

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“disliked nuns”

Mid-May, Elsie went up from the Casa Santo Nome di Gesù Convent where she was staying in Florence to Poggio Gherardo, carrying “a sheaf of drawings and sketches” for Aubrey Waterfield to look at.

“He was delighted with the work,” she recalled, “for it seemed that I used the same blue and gray tones he did.”

Gentians by Elsie 1931
Composition by Aubrey

When Aubrey learned that Elsie had a room in a convent, “he insisted that I should stay at the Poggio Gherardo.” He “disliked nuns. He could not endure anyone who was willing to shut themselves away from the beauty of Italy for whatever reason.”

He disliked art dealers too – their commercialism offended his sense of the artist’s dignity, so he refused to exhibit.

A perfectionist, he laboured over his paintings, never quite satisfied; often so dissatisfied that he abandoned what he was working on.

The Road Ahead by Elsie

Soon Aubrey was Elsie’s tutor. “He taught me to stretch paper for water colours – a method I have used ever since for fifty years – and to use water colour more freely in flat washes and broken colour washes.”

There was a rhythm to Elsie’s life at Poggio Gherardo: one day, she painted and sketched, the next, went sightseeing in Florence. Every evening, she watched fireflies in the garden: “They don’t often come near you but one walked up my arm the other night and it is fun to see a little star walking up your arm!”


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“I made drawings of him so that he would not show any sign of dying”

Beppe by Elsie

Beppe, of “Porca Madonna!” fame, had been the Poggio Gherardo gardener for more than 40 years. “Some of his sons and daughters brought him every morning to sit in the shade – he shelled beans or peas. They were always hoping that he would die there, so that they could claim on the Waterfields for having died at work on their estate. I went on several days to make drawings of him so that he would sit still and relax and not show any sign of dying.”

“The oats and corn were gathered and piled onto huge wagons drawn by slow-stepping white oxen. The olives were knocked from the trees with long canes and immediately taken to the press.”

Beppe on the right
Women at Gherardo by Elsie
Oat field in Italy by Elsie

Elsie painted “women [who worked on the Poggio Gherardo farms] wearing white head scarves and sienna red or black or gray dresses with white aprons.” She “painted in the olive groves with storm clouds gathering over the distant mountains, but which never came to break the golden light on the trees and the ripening oats beneath them.”

Sketch - ink and watercolour by Elsie

“There were many bamboo plantations from which to gather cane to beat the olives and also to make real bamboo pipes and pens which, used with diluted Indian ink, make such beautiful line drawings.”

Lina Waterfield

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The Waterfields “know everything about everything in Florence”

When Elsie stayed with the Waterfields, she would paint and sketch one day, the next, she went sightseeing with them, “who of course know everything about everything in Florence.”

Aubrey was “an artist of distinction who also has a scholarly mind” whilst Lina was tutored in Italian Renaissance art by two authorities in the field, John Addington Symonds and Bernard Berenson.

John Addington Symonds and Madge

Madge Symonds, John’s daughter, was one of Lina’s closest friends. Lina wrote that Symonds, “opened my eyes to the excitement of art.” She watched him sitting “for hours each morning taking notes in front of an easel-picture. It then dawned on me there was a real art in looking at pictures.”

Lina was also a friend of Bernard Berenson for many years. Like Symonds, Berenson insisted on the importance of taking time to look and look at art. He insisted that his wife, Mary, “study a picture in the Uffizi for hours seated on a ladder.”

Lina learned from Mary to identify artists and their paintings by participating in an after-dinner “exercise of observation and memory.” Mary would gather “together a heap of photographs of Italian pictures and spread a sheet of paper over each leaving only a face, hands, or a landscape visible. We then had to guess the artist.”

Bernard & Mary Berenson
© Harvard university

When Lina published her book, Florence: A Short Guide to the Art Treasure of Florence, she dedicated it “To my Friend Bernard Berenson, whose knowledge and encouragement helped me write this pocket-guide.”

In her Preface, she notes: “In the attribution of pictures and frescoes I have followed Mr. Bernard Berenson who, before he became famous, first opened my eyes to the wonders of Italian art.”


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with the Waterfields

Uffizi Gallery 2017

With Lina and Aubrey as Elsie’s tutors and tour guides, sightseeing in Florence was a master class in Italian art and preparation for her to teach art history and appreciation in years to come.

Aubrey, a practicing artist, focused on technique – drawing, composition, balance, shapes, and colors.

Lina, a guidebook author, focused on subject matter – the story told by the work of art, the words of the artists, and the writings of art historians.


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“The first nude statue made in Italy for a thousand years”

Perhaps Elsie was not interested in “the first nude statue made in Italy for a thousand years.” Perhaps she was prepared to give it a “fleeting glance” and move on. Lina however, as her guide kept her focused on Donatello’s place in art history.

Roman statue circa 450 AD
The Bargello in Lina’s guidebook

We can imagine Elsie walking with Lina through the Donatello gallery of the Bargello Museum, looking at one work after another, listening to Lina quoting from her guidebook: “Donatello, the great Florentine sculptor, influenced most of the artists of the day, even Michelangelo. He taught men to draw inspiration from the classical world without servile imitation.”

‘David’ 1408

Lina: “The Florentines had suffered so much from tyranny since the early days of their City, and had fought so gallantly for freedom, that David, the inspired youth, strong through the might of God to overcome brute force, became a popular subject of art.”

Lina: “The bronze David, with a hat shading his dreamy countenance, was made in 1430. It created a great sensation at the time as being the first nude statue made in Italy for a thousand years; it was also Donatello’s first essay in the nude.”

‘David’ 1430


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““A strange feeling to be face to face with Botticelli”

Elsie wrote in her journal many years later: “There was so much to explore in Florence – a strange feeling to be face to face with the Botticelli paintings.”

One of his masterworks seems to have left a deep impression on her – Primavera – The Allegory of Spring. There are echoes of it in a number of her paintings, in particular, The Dance of Life.

In Primavera, the wind god Zephyr emerges from darkness and reaches out to clutch the wood nymph Chloris.

In Elsie’s The Dance of Life, a skeleton slips through the veil of mortality and reaches out to clutch a young woman.

Venus stands with flowers at her feet in the center of Primavera.

A woman, possibly Elsie, stands with flowers at her feet in The Dance of Life, in a similar pose, wearing similar colours of clothing.

Botticelli painted Flora pregnant, personifying spring in Primavera.

Elsie painted a pregnant woman, personifying new life in The Dance of Life.

Both artists painted women together in nature, integrating veils and netting to reveal their artistic skills.

Botticelli painted plants in such detail that botanists can identify forty varieties in Primavera.

Elsie painted birds in such detail that the viewer can identify the different species in The Dance of Life.

Playing with Berenson’s words, we may say that both artists looked and looked and looked till they lived nature and became identified with it.


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“a sense of the sublime that demands silence.”

Elsie remembered: “I saw all the Michelangelo sculptures and paintings.”

Lina Waterfield: In his David, Michelangelo “for the first time conveyed a sense of terribilità” – a quality of provoking awe and wonder in the viewer; a sense of the sublime that demands silence.

From Lina’s guidebook: John Addington Symonds quoted Michelangelo as saying “that within every block of marble or stone are hidden statues that one has to know how to set free. The figure that he saw in the block of marble before beginning work upon it, revealed itself more and more clearly as the superfluous material concealing it was cut away; and his work had to be carried on without interruption, night and day, until the figure conceived in his mind had taken form in the marble. Then he could leave it; for even if it were as yet unfinished, the masterpiece was complete in all its greatness.”

Symonds also observed that Michelangelo’s unfinished figures – often called “prisoners”“appear literally to be growing out of their stone prison, as though they were alive and enclosed there waiting to be delivered.”


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“The mosaics were imposing and full of colours”

On Sunday, the 27th of May, just before 6 a.m., Elsie was waiting on the platform of Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, with Lina, Aubrey, and the young ladies from their finishing school, to board the train to Ravenna.

Elsie: “We went over the Apennines by a very narrow pass and then saw that we had passed the watershed and all rivers were flowing towards the Adriatic.”

“Ravenna itself is rather a dull town with now and again a round tower shooting up from a church or building, which makes the discovery of the mosaics especially remarkable.”

“The mosaics were far more imposing and full of colours than I had thought.”


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“As startling as the line of mosaic sheep”

Elsie wrote to her mother on the 3rd of June: “We had a lovely three days at Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, rather expensive but the scenery and the mosaics in the churches were well worth seeing.”

Five decades later, Elsie recalled: “When we got back to Florence there was a great thunderstorm. How different from the quietness of the Ravenna woods, with wild pink cyclamen growing everywhere under the trees, and the pines against the very blue sky made a pattern as startling as the line of mosaic sheep marching around the walls of the church.”

The mosaic Elsie remembered is in the Basilica of Saint Apollinaris in Classe, where the sheep form a pattern above an arch below a blue sky.

Twenty years after her visit to Ravenna, Elsie painted sheep in a winter landscape. The trees against the sky make a pattern as startling as the line of mosaic sheep.

Did she also have Ezekiel 34:12-13 in mind? “I will rescue them … on a day of clouds and darkness…. And I will feed them on the mountains….by the watercourses…”


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“A“How frightful it must be to be famous”

Sometime after Elsie returned from Ravenna to Florence, she went “with Aubrey Waterfield for a prolonged visit” to his other home, Castello della Brunella, located above the town of Aulla in northwestern Tuscany.

Aubrey and Lina made the medieval castle a place of refuge away from Poggio Gherardo, Florence. In Elsie’s words, away from the “dozens of Countesses, and things with strange names hovering about”. “It only makes one feel,” she wrote to her parents, “how frightful it must be to be famous.”

Frieda Lawrence
DH Lawrence

“Sometimes,” Elsie writes in her autobiography, “Aubrey fell to remembering the many people who had visited them. . . He was only interested in the painters and writers; telling of the day that D. H. Lawrence brought Frieda to lunch at Poggio, he remembered the alarming sight of Frieda ‘bursting out of her bodice’, as he described it, for she was wearing a white blouse and laced-up black bodice.”

Alpine flowers MEE
Cyclamen MEE
Gentians MEE

She continues: Aubrey “was cheered by Lawrence’s knowledge of Italian wild flowers.” More than fifty years later, Elsie noted in her Garden Journal: “I cheer myself by reading D. H. Laurence’s Flowering Tuscany” – so buoyed up that she sent an extract to a friend, perhaps this one: “Spring returns, and on the terrace lips, and in the stony nooks between terraces, up rise the aconites, the crocuses, the narcissus and the asphodel, the inextinguishable wild tulips. There they are, for ever hanging on the precarious brink of existence, but for ever triumphant, never quite losing their footing.”

‘Tulips’ - Aubrey Waterfield

Rooftop Garden

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“Painting until the light faded into the luminous evenings”

Elsie describes a typical day at the Fortezza della Brunella:

Aubrey and I “got up at dawn, about 4 a.m., and worked in the garden which was on the roof of the castle.

As early as that, the white lilies in many groups were silver gray and dark against the snow-covered mountains behind, which were just catching the light of the rising sun.”

Painting by Aubrey Waterfield

From breakfast time at 8 a.m., Aubrey and I slept or read till midday. Then painting till the light faded into the luminous evenings.

“I was able to make studies of the women doing their washing in the river far below.”

Aubrey working on a fresco in the salone
at the castle in Aulla
Fresco in the Salone in Hotel Scotti including
Poggio Gherardo (top left)

“Aubrey had decorated several of the rooms of the Castello with watercolour landscape panels in the grays and blues that he used and which looked splendid on the walls between the tall windows looking down to the river.”

Venice I

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“I can’t think of anything more pathetic...”

Elsie and Aubrey left Aulla and returned to Florence, where they listened to Lina’s account of being in Venice on the 14th of June for Mussolini’s first meeting with Hitler.

Lina: “Hitler, who had been told not to come in uniform, arrived in civilian clothes – black suit and yellow mackintosh and wearing a gray felt hat – whereas Mussolini was resplendent in the uniform of the Fascist Militia . . . The two men shouted at each other as though enraged.”

A few days later, Elsie went with the Waterfields and the young ladies of their finishing school to Venice, no longer resounding with the shouts of dictators.

© Silvani Ferdinando
Elsie’s Postcard from Venice 1934

Elsie: “I stayed in the Casa Fiolla on the Rio della Pallada . . . In the morning, I saw down below on the water, boats which had come into Venice in the very early morning. They had patched sails of orange and dusky yellow and rudders painted bright green.

© Malcolm Surridge

“Everywhere, then, there were still gondoliers, and in the evening many of them would sing. I imagine now [1988] that all has given way to speed boats and other mechanically-propelled horrors.”

Elsie wrote to her parents that she was looking forward to going to Venice with the Waterfields and the girls from their finishing school – it would be “fun to be able to share their gondolas. I can’t think of anything more pathetic than gliding around Venice all alone in a gondola!”

Venice II

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“He swore me to deadly secrecy…”

We went “to see the mosaics in the Duomo of San Marco. It was completely dark after the dazzling glare of the sunshine outside.

Gradually, as eyes became used to the darkness, there came the gradual gleam of the gold in the background of the mosaics which covered every dome. The soaring domes covered in the rich gold and colours of the innumerable mosaics. . . And the pattern of many, many votive candles patterned the darkness.”

“We went one day to see a friend of the Waterfields, who lived in one of the most beautiful of the Venetian palaces. The gondola drew in towards the wide steps in front of the large doorway leading to the enormous darkened low-ceilinged rooms on the ground floor.

© Marc De Tollenaere
© Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

These looked out onto a garden filled with flowers, roses, mimosa and dark cypress trees.”

“Going into the library, Waterfield’s friend hesitatingly suggested that he would like to show Lina and me a painting he had recently acquired. It was medium sized – a group of people – and without thinking I said ‘O, Tiepolo’. He was horrified to think that I could know by whom it was painted for it was his secret, uncatalogued treasure – but it could not possibly have been a painter other than Tiepolo. He swore me to deadly secrecy and hid it away.”

Tiepolo Venus and Vulcan

Elsie said goodbye to the Waterfields – perhaps wondering if she would ever see them again – and traveled north from Venice to the Dolomites.


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“I was afraid if I went by Germany of having a bomb dropped on me”

Elsie: “Bolzano, at the foot of the Dolomites, was an amazing town with rushing streams from the mountains pouring down the main streets in deep, open ‘canals’ or channels.”

“A bus went up into the mountains – meadows full of wild flowers where the snow had managed to melt but otherwise snow and snow – in the evening turning pink and red gold in the light of the setting sun.”

Elsie sent a postcard to her mother with her plans for returning home; the postmark indicates that it was the 30th of June 1934, in the 12th year of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

“Friday July 6th I arrive – rather early I am afraid. So I shall not expect anyone to meet me. I come via Lausanne – I was afraid if I went by Germany of having a bomb dropped on me!

“I have to rush across Paris in a taxi in 10 mins so don’t be surprised if I miss it, tho’ I suppose they know if the incoming train is late – I hope so. Lots of love, Elsie.

Returning Home

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Leatherhead: Elsie returns home

The outline of Elsie’s homeward journey is drawn from 1930s train timetables. Most likely, she traveled by train from Bolzano back to Venice, where she boarded the Simplon Orient-Express to Paris via Milan, the Simplon Tunnel, and Lausanne. Arriving in Paris, she dashed by taxi to the Gare du Nord, caught the boat train to Calais, sailed by ferry to Dover, took the boat train to London, Victoria, and finally one more train to Leatherhead.

Certainly exhausted, probably exuberant, she returned home to 3 Bridge Street, Leatherhead. She had tales to tell about her three months in Italy, the masterworks she had seen, the famous people she had met, and everyday Italian life that she had captured in her sketches.

Brockley School Hall
Panel by Elsie

Elsie had written to her mother from Italy, saying that people at the Royal College of Art seemed “to be in a flutter” about when she would begin work on a mural project at the Brockley School – “it is so silly because I could work much quicker if I leave it till end of July when the boys at the school will be away for summer holidays.” It is reasonable to assume that by the end of July 1934, Elsie was painting her contribution to the set of murals at the Brockley School.

Evelyn Dunbar standing on a trestle in front of the mural

© Geoff Rambler
© Geoff Rambler

Charles Mahoney & Evelyn Dunbar

The principal artists – Charles (Cyril) Mahoney, one of Elsie’s tutors at the Royal College of Art, and Evelyn Dunbar a former RCA student – had each completed a panel the year before; they would continue to work on the project for several more years.

London Reunion

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A reunion

The apple tree, Manafon Rectory, by Elsie

In the autumn of 1943, Elsie and her husband R. S. Thomas went by train from North Wales to London, carrying a gift of apples from their garden for Lina and Aubrey Waterfield. This reunion was rich in memories, as Elsie and the Waterfields recalled their time together in Italy in 1934 and shared the events in their lives when Hitler and Mussolini were darkening the skies over Europe.

‘Monk at La Verna’

Elsie had a one-woman exhibition in 1937 at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London. Twenty out of the sixty paintings exhibited related to her time in Italy. The show was a critical success: “her work is eminently well worth knowing” (The Times); her personal gift is “the strength of complete sincerity and a restraint that refuses to play to the gallery” (The Manchester Guardian).

With war clouds in the air, the Waterfields left Italy in late August 1939 and returned to England. Then, when the clouds did not break, they went back to Italy.

Elsie met R. S. Thomas when both were living in a boarding house in Chirk. They married in July 1940, about the time that Lina and Aubrey were escaping from Italy just ahead of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, who had been dispatched to arrest them. Having caught the last train to cross into France, they stayed at hotels overrun by German soldiers, traveled through France and Spain, and took passage at Lisbon on a cargo ship sailing through submarine-infested waters to Liverpool.

© ‘Liverpool Docks During the Blitz’, painting by John Hamilton

Meanwhile, Elsie and R.S. had moved into the vicarage at Tallarn Green. At night, they often heard German bombers flying towards Liverpool, felt the wind from the explosions, as they watched the sky glow red.

Lina and Aubrey observed one of those raids: Their “gallant ship”, endeavoring to stay offshore from the Liverpool docks, lost its anchor, “bumped on the sand banks” and drifted “among the mine fields,” while they sat “on deck all night, watching a tremendous air raid on Liverpool.”

‘Cymanfa Ganu, Adfa Chapel’ for Recording Britain

Soon after moving to Tallarn Green, Elsie joined a project, Recording Britain, to paint watercolours of buildings, landscapes, and cultural events that could be lost if Hitler’s forces invaded Britain.

In the meantime, the Waterfields had settled into a studio apartment in London, which was shocked nightly by German air raids. Lina prepared a weekly newspaper for Italian-speaking prisoners of war. Aubrey, his health failing, stayed home and by painting “brought something of Italy to London in the war years.”

Some weeks after their reunion, Aubrey shared with Elsie his thoughts about the work of an artist.

Aubrey’s Letter

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“However small one’s contribution, it is ……. part of the great Way.”

Seven months before he died, Aubrey wrote a letter to Elsie. After apologizing for his failure to thank her for “the lovely apples” that she and Ronald brought to Lina and himself in the autumn of 1943, he reflects on what motivates a painter.

“If one is sufficiently humble and sincere, however small one’s contribution, it is as a little path through the wood, but part of the great Way.”

Perhaps, Elsie sensed the distinctiveness of her own path as she continued to read Aubrey’s letter: “The actual urge to paint is the desire of creation, ‘our little bit of Revelation’, and to make plain some infinite small facet of Eternal Beauty and Truth – to others that they too may see it.”

Poplars near Aulla by Aubrey
Tuscany Still Life by Aubrey

Elsie may have realized that her little bit of revelation differed from Aubrey’s, for she was revealing the beauty and truth that exists both beneath and above the surface world that Aubrey painted.

Elsie’s works reveal beauty in death, the truth that lies beneath the surface of life.

Her “little path” leads into the world that is above everyday seeing and thinking – the surreal world.

Elsie also began to realize that a painting may be clear in its revelation of beauty, while being ambiguous in its revelation of truth.

Why is the pregnant young woman in panel six of The Dance of Life holding a mask? Why is the man lifting transparent fabric?

Elsie’s final step on her “little path through the wood” took her into the clearing of the abstract, where there was space for her imagination to run free in her self-portrait.

Typical self-portraits say: “Here I am”; however, Elsie’s self-portrait asks, “Who do you think I am?”

She provides a blue clue: There are two jay feathers, one piercing the flesh of her right foot, the other visible through holes in her left foot. According to tradition, the jay symbolizes walking less-trodden paths.

Aubrey may not have appreciated Elsie’s surreal and abstract works, yet he admired her determination to tread her own “little path through the wood, but part of the great Way.”

Holding on to Italy

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Elsie brought Italy home with her

When Elsie returned from Italy in July 1934, she brought with her sketches of the Italian landscape and the people who worked within it, a model for how an artist and a writer can live together harmoniously, and a sense of personal independence gained from traveling extensively on her own.

Central to these experiences were the Waterfields, whose determination to do their work well and with integrity inspired her.

As Elsie painted alongside Aubrey, she found a model for her career as an artist. He focused, as she did for the rest of her life, on painting a world overflowing with beauty.

Aubrey Waterfield
Lina Waterfield

Elsie found in Lina a model to emulate. She was a clear thinking, determined woman, who realized her potential as a writer. Income from her writings helped maintain the Poggio Gherardo estate. In the years to come, Elsie realized her potential as an artist. Income from selling her paintings paid for her son’s education.

As a couple, Aubrey and Lina modeled for Elsie the marriage of a painter and writer. They lived in the same house, shared meals, had children, kept their hearts together. Yet each needed to be alone to be creative: a private place for Aubrey and his easel, a room of her own for Lina and her typewriter.

When Elsie married R. S. Thomas in 1940, they began to live the Arab proverb, in Elsie’s quotation of it: “Keep your hearts together and your tents separate” – her studio for art, his study for poetry. She was insistent: to “make something . . . one must be alone” – “definitely alone – most necessary.”

A model for a marriage
Elsie brought the Italian landscape and its people home with her

Eighteen years after her time in Italy, Elsie included a self-portrait in the first panel of her masterwork The Dance of Life. Holding bagpipes that she saw in Italy – “bagpipes that appeared to be made of the inflated skin of a whole goat” – She is symbolically the piper for her own dance of life.

A third of a century later, Elsie was still holding Italy in her memory and, quite literally, in her hands, for she was re-reading D. H. Lawrence’s Flowery Tuscany, perhaps ticking these sentences: “Man can live on the earth and by the earth without disfiguring the earth. It has been done here [in Tuscany], on all these sculptured hills and softly, sensitively terraced slopes.”