When Leaf and Note are Gone by my Aunt Lilla

Poetry by I M Birtwistle
Poetry by I M Birtwistle

When my aunt Lilla died in 2006, there were obituaries in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent. In fact, the only paper not to run one was The Telegraph, which she would have been the one she’d have read if she hadn’t gone blind. I’ve included these Obituaries from The Guardian and The Independent as they are free. The Times described her as an “Inspiring poet and gallery owner who nurtured young artists despite losing her sight”.

I’ve also included some of her poems below and The Tablet review of the When Leaf and Note Are Gone book of her poems published posthumously by my mother.

Aunt Lilla in her Gallery

It’s fair to say she could be demanding, as The Guardian points out, and in more ways than one. I remember a story about an estate agent giving her a valuation on her home, and when she asked why he though it was worth so little he unwisely suggested that it wasn’t a particularly attractive house. She then remarked that any man wearing his particular kind of aftershave wasn’t in a position to be discussing aesthetics ;-)

She could also be particularly kind and helped my godmother Jini Fiennes (neé Lash) through a particular difficult time. She even played the role of matchmaker by introducing Jini to her future husband Mark. There’s an entry on the Wikipedia for Jini (aka Jennifer Lash) here, she sadly died of cancer in 1993. I have a painting of hers and there’s some sketches of my elder brother and sister by her which I will add to this blog at some point. In the meantime, I found this entry on the actor Ralph Fienneswebsite about the close bond between Jini and Lilla:

At 17, she took a job as an au pair in Suffolk, to the three adopted sons of Iris Birtwistle, a grande dame who had been a literary It Girl, writing lyric poetry and developing a passion for art. Her gallery was an incubator for young talent, and she sold drawings by David Hockney when he was unknown. Spotting Jennifer’s potential, Birtwistle took it upon herself to heal and educate her; she renamed her Jini and sent her to a Jungian analyst, who said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.” This instilled a tangible confidence, and Iris saw “a beauty come through”, along with a hunger for anything creative. Jini devoured the books in Iris’s library, and, while working in the gallery, discovered a talent of her own for painting. At 21, she wrote her first novel, “The Burial”, a cathartic interior monologue about her childhood, dedicated to Iris.

by Peter Stanford

Sometimes writers’ personalities can overshadow their work.  This was particularly true of the poet and gallery owner, IM (Iris – though she hated the name) Birtwistle who died in 2006.  The Art Review once wrote of her eclectic galleries in Suffolk and Norfolk, ‘don’t go unless you appreciate the qualities of good art.  Mrs Birtwistle takes no prisoners’.

She became, in her dotage, a celebrated figure, not least because for the last 20 years of her life, she was losing her sight, but did not let it stop her championing her artists.

Lilla, as she was known to her friends, had been a lyric poet before she decided running galleries fitted in better with raising her three sons. Her work appeared regularly in the forties and fifties in many publications, including The Tablet. TS Eliot, Muriel Spark and CV Wedgewood all included her in magazines or anthologies they published, while Robert Graves, one of her most fervent admirers, allowed the professional to become personal when he asked her to be his muse, an offer she firmly declined as a woman of unwavering Catholic principle.

Now almost three years after Birtwistle’s death, Angela Kirby has edited a collection of her older sister’s poetry, complete with jacket endorsements from Piers Plowright and Nick Cave.   This slim volume is both a revelation, and a confirmation of all I ever felt about Lilla.  In her later years, unable to see the manuscripts of her poems so as to revise them, she clutched them close, away from the world.  They were, she said, like her children.  She knew their flaws and so wanted to protect them.

She need not have feared.  When Leaf and Note Are Gone contains many treasures.  There are engrossing narrative poems – a form unfashionable and therefore rarely heard today – such as ‘Village Idiot’ and ‘The Ballad of Apple Jane’.

Her pumpkin cheeks were riper
Than any fruit-tree’s pride,
And many a dreamy youth
Looked to a mellow bride.

Religion is a recurrent theme, sometimes directly in “Star of the Sea’ and sometimes more hauntingly, as in her account of evil (she was a firm believer in the devil) in ‘Winter Has Beset The House’.   There are images that just leap from the page –  Fog is a cold companion, stretching/Wet-wool arms around shoulders and heart from ‘Your Train Is Late’ – but my own favourite is her simple tale of a broken heart in ‘It Takes Time’.

If, when we next meet
My lips alight a butterfly on yours,
Do not cast me aside –
Old ways take time to overcome.

If, when we next meet,
I should walk leaning on your arm,
Do not shake me off like a dead leaf

– Friendship takes time to overcome.

If, when we next meet,
I should hold your eyes too long in mine,
Have patience, I seek a lost reflection

– Love takes time to overcome


This piteous apparition
A-chatter in the lane
Was once the village lovely,
They called her Apple Jane.
Her pumpkin cheeks were riper
|Than any fruit-tree’s pride,
And many a dreamy youth
Looked to a mellow bride.

Her mind now roams unfettered,
It soars among the birds
And only doe-eyed children
Can translate broken words.
She gathers slender tendrils
To lattice falling,
As colder bind the seasons
Numbed limbs dance unawares.

The summer finds her muffled
In folds of scarecrow coat,
Through winter she runs raw-foot
With web-wisps at her throat.
She scours the stream for pennies
Among the waters cold
And counts the mallow petals
As misers check their gold.

She is the patient midwife
At every wild thing’s birth,
Her kingdoms are unnumbered,
Her larder is the earth.
She scorns a hovel shelter
And sleeps against the sky,
She neither fears the living
Nor is afraid to die.

I M Birtwistle


Your letter rouses quiet answer,
Lazy acknowledgement of loud
Jungle-beat from bizarre city.
My day uncomplicated, lined
With few friends and multiple shelves
In shut-mouth peace of book and paint.
Field-moated, the isolated house
Kneels among sonorous streets
And tamed garden patch,
The season’s hat, worn at
A rakish angle, supports
Conventional fruit and flower.

Benevolent postmen feed
Letters to a yawning door.
The undemonstrative hour
Excites no speculative bells.
I make reply in country terms –

Each day a holiday with work
And pleasure, baked under blue tents.
Sun, ripe for picking off the wall
Reverberates my drowsy drum.
Ink’s river low, words show their ribs –
I’ll sign the page, these is no news.

(Poetry Review, 1950, ed. Muriel Spark)




Should a ragged dream child
Steal out across the page

And should you hear her wild song
Echo mysterious words

That raise a tree of memory
In your hand – then let it be

For retrospective flowers
To hang their blooms upon –

And hang each branch with stars
When leaf and note are gone.

(Review Fifty, 1951)

Perceptive and demanding poet and gallery owner whose aesthetic gave her a cult status in the British art world

Peter Stanford, Friday 23 June 2006

The gallery owner and lyric poet IM Birtwistle, who has died aged 88, was never that keen on you delving into her past. Names would occasionally crop up in conversation – dancing with Clark Gable (who apparently had bad breath), holidaying with Robert Graves on Majorca, debating religion with Muriel Spark – but just when you wanted more detail, she would sidestep your questions. “The box is so much more interesting than the contents,” she would say with a laugh, and return to the present and the future.

Gossip did not interest her. It was ideas that excited her. Her determination always to look forwards, to listen and learn from others, was part of the secret behind a long and colourful life lived always at full tilt. The rest was her extraordinary passion – for poetry, for music, for people, for her children and grandchildren, and for the painters she represented, some of them for almost 50 years.

In her galleries, first at Walberswick in Suffolk, then in Ipswich, and later, in the mid-1970s, at Deepdale Exhibitions, on the bleak but beautiful north Norfolk coast, she championed the likes of Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Jeffrey Camp and Philip Sutton, all painters who went on to take their place in the canon of 20th-century British art. She sold drawings for a fiver by the young David Hockney – before anyone knew who he was.

In metropolitan terms, her galleries may have been in the back of beyond – in Norfolk, part of it was in a caravan – but her demanding aesthetic gave her a cult-like status in the British art world. Its bible, the Art Review, was a devotee, but attached a health warning to its otherwise rhapsodic endorsement. “Don’t go to this gallery unless you appreciate the qualities of good art. Mrs Birtwistle is an enthusiast and takes no prisoners.”

Her achievement was all the more remarkable because at the age of 49, Lilla, as she was known to those closest to her, began to lose her sight as a result of hereditary glaucoma. At 75 she was totally blind, after a botched cataract operation, but she did not let it affect her work. The gallery remained open and some customers probably would not even have realised that behind her dark glasses she could not see. For those who did, and asked, she would explain that she believed a good painting could still speak to her. She needed to know only the size and subject, then she would hold it. “It either has a visual weight about it or it doesn’t,” she would say. “If it’s not flimsy or slight, I am aware that it has a measure of profundity.”

She worried constantly – and out loud – that this almost mystical communication made her a fake, but the quality of the paintings she continued to display dispelled any such doubts in the minds of her artists and customers. Something magical was clearly going on. As her great friend, the rock musician Nick Cave, once remarked after seeing her talking to a young hopeful about his paintings, “What she said about them, even though she couldn’t see them, was absolutely right.”

Her tastes were essentially modern – latterly she sold poetic abstract landscapes by Judith Foster and mixed-media works by Petrina Ferrey and Jenny Smith, who won Scotland’s top award for a young artist – but her approach to the technique of painting was medieval. “When you approach all art in a medieval way,” she remarked, “you don’t end up producing advertising or parading your psychopathology. You’ve got to come to terms with your medium. You’ve got to understand what you’re working with. You’ve got to be on your knees in front of your material. You’ve got to love it, be tender with it, know how to extend it, how to make it do things it doesn’t know how to do.” A good artist, she insisted, could not help but have a spiritual dimension.

It was not always a line that the art establishment agreed with, but Birt- wistle was never afraid to speak her mind. Tracey Emin – “the girl with the bed” – was simply “a self-publicist” whom Birtwistle found “dead boring”. Such candour made her a maverick, but for those on her wavelength she was a profound inspiration and a peerless source of encouragement. If she believed in an artist, she had that rare capacity to make them feel supremely confident in their own ability and so brought out the best in them.

Birtwistle was born near Blackburn, Lancashire. She never liked her Christian name, Iris, and preferred to use her initials. Her father was a wealthy cotton-mill owner and her childhood was privileged and happy. From her mother, she inherited her Catholicism and her interest in the arts. In the 1930s, she studied at the Bauhaus-influenced Reimann Art School in London, but realised that she did not have what it took to be a good painter. She turned her attention to writing lyric poetry. When the second world war broke out, she became an officer in the Wrens. She always put her “astringent voice” down to shouting commands against an east wind on an Orkneys base.

With the return of peace, her poems made her something of a literary It-girl. They appeared in all the major journals, and she was befriended by the leading writers of her day. Spark credited her with hastening her conversion to Catholicism. In the early 1950s, though, Birtwistle turned her back on London and settled in Suffolk to raise the three sons she, although unmarred, had adopted. She tried her hand at portrait photography, but soon set up her first gallery, scouring the art schools for new talent.

Her assistant was an unhappy 17-year-old, who had come to live with her in an effort to get her life in order. Jennifer Lash – or Jinni, as Birtwistle renamed her – met her husband, Mark, through Birtwistle and went on to dedicate her first novel to her. The couple’s six talented children, who include the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, and the film-makers Martha and Sophie Fiennes, remained close ever after to Birtwistle.

In her early 80s, she was amused and flattered that her closeness with Cave – he described their relationship as “love at first sight”, after they were introduced by a mutual friend – brought fresh media interest in her, but she sought always to deflect it on to her artists. The two shared a love of poetry and an unusual interest in spirituality. Cave’s lyrics are strongly influenced by his perception of the divine, while Birtwistle remained a devout Catholic. Her faith sustained her as she coped in the most robust way with her blindness. She refused to talk about health. It was an old person’s affliction, she said, and she was never an old person, though she once admitted that losing her sight had been a very hard thing to accept. “If I hadn’t been a Catholic, I think I would have blown my brains out.”

Her faith was much more than a crutch. In her religion as in her art, she mixed the medieval with the modern. She hankered after the metaphysical magic of Latin masses, spoke of the devil as a real presence, but also admired the radical priests who espoused liberation theology in South America – and wished she could join them working with street children.

Retirement was never in her vocabulary. Life inevitably changed – there were now six grandchildren to delight her – but her gallery remained, as ever, a unique mixture of a place for discussion of serious questions, a home-from-home, and somewhere that resounded with laughter and fizzed with vitality. Her passions were infectious, her knowledge vast, her courage immeasurable and her friendship a precious gift that will stay with me always. She is survived by her sons, her sister, the poet Angela Kirby, and her brother, Anthony.

Nick Cave writes: When I was first ushered into her cramped and booklined living room, Lilla, stared up at me and asked, in that powerful and deliberate voice, “Are you a papist?” These were her first words. I answered that I was not. “Then where do you get your spirituality from?” she challenged – and what continued from there was a conversation that lasted the next 10 years.

When I say conversation, I added little, I think. Her world view was so vast and well formed, and her arguments so razor-sharp, original, exasperating and always brilliant, that I felt that much of the time I was simply chasing and grasping at the effulgence of her extraordinary mind. “You’ve charged an old girl’s batteries,” she would say, but of course it were mine that had been charged. As I think of her now, it is that overriding image that I remember: Lilla, in her room, in dark glasses and fedora, altering the course of my life and enriching my world beyond measure.

Iris Mary Birtwistle, lyric poet and gallery owner, born May 29 1918; died June 20 2006

Iris Mary Birtwistle, art dealer and poet: born Hoghton, Lancashire 29 May 1918; (three adopted sons); died Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk 20 June 2006.I. M. Birtwistle was no ordinary art dealer. When you went to her gallery, buying a painting was the least important prospect – almost an add-on to the cultural experience. Her reputation rested on her continuing to run her business, and her ability still to “see” works of art, despite becoming totally blind by 1993.

Magdalen Evans, Thursday, 29 June 2006

“One couldn’t fail to be inspired by her,” says David Greenall, a fisherman turned landscape painter who was encouraged by her to go to art school. The gallery, Deepdale Exhibitions, partly based in a caravan, at Burnham Deepdale on the north Norfolk coast, provided the focus for her enthusiasm and a venue for younger generations of visitors. The novelty of its position gave it some publicity, but her main aim was to get individual people to recognise the honesty of an individual work of art.

Iris Mary Birtwistle was born in Hoghton, Lancashire, in the last year of the First World War, one of eight children from a recusant Roman Catholic family.

Her father’s forebears had lost their faith during the 19th century: he was a prosperous cotton-mill owner whose extended family remained resolutely anti-Catholic. Her mother, one of whose brothers was Dom Stephen Marwood, a Benedictine monk at Ampleforth, brought the Catholicism back into the family and Iris, who preferred to be known by her initials or “Lilla” to close friends, was continuously inspired by her religion.

Her uncle and his colleague Father Bernard McElligott, an expert on Gregorian plain chant who often wrote the sleeve notes for new recordings, had a profound influence on her early perception of Catholicism and its relationship with music.

She was sent to boarding school, where she became a good violinist, playing in the school orchestra and loved riding (then hunting latterly) and games at school. Upon returning for the holidays she formed a weekly club for girls, playing 78rpm records on a wind-up gramophone in the village hall between Hoghton and Brindle, recognising that the privileges she was experiencing were not universal. Her mother encouraged her to apply to the Reimann Art School in London; there she began to write poetry – many of her poems were to appear in the periodicals of the Forties.

Upon the outbreak of the Second World War she joined the WRNS, where she also started up a musical appreciation society, and was stationed in the Orkneys and in Kent. She was a keen sailor and used to race a whaler at Portsmouth.

In 1950 she moved to Suffolk, opening her first gallery in Walberswick (later it would move to Ipswich), and taking black-and-white portrait photographs: a memorable one being that of the photographer Mark Fiennes, which was used for his retrospective exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London in 2003.

Infuriated by the assumption that becoming blind must have heightened her other remaining four senses, she none the less possessed what might be described as a sixth sense: the broadcaster Piers Plowright relates her description of being billeted to Ashford during the war and immediately feeling she couldn’t sleep the night there: only later it emerged that Aleister Crowley had celebrated black masses there. She talked often about guardian angels and once sprinkled holy water round after a kind neighbour, thinking he had already left the worst bits out, read her explicit passages from his autobiography.

Birtwistle’s interest in music was a constant thread: artists, instead of receiving inventories of paintings they had consigned to her, were given recommendations for music to listen to and books to read. She eschewed the duller aspects of running a gallery yet was always professional – constantly selling, or even buying work in advance if she recognised it would really help an artist, paying up promptly; and the trust was returned. Academicians such as Jeffrey Camp, Philip Sutton and, when still unknown, David Hockney showed with her and she became great friends with some, including the sculptress Ros Stracey.

Her taste was mostly figurative, though the abstract collagist David Hazelwood was championed extensively, and her reach sometimes international: Franz Meyer from Switzerland, whom she first met through her gallery in Walberswick, was invited over. Her artists, also including Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Petrina Ferrey, Judith Foster and Jenny Smith, often swapped work with each other and she was delighted to witness this without thinking of charging a commission.

She remained unintimidated by the art establishment: in order to categorise her, some commentators, particularly those from television, tried to put her into a box; but in person she defied stereotypes.

Catholic writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Penelope Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark provided her with inspiration and she liked to have the Divine Office read to her before sleep. She contributed a chapter to last year’s anthology Why I Am Still a Catholic, edited by Peter Stanford, and the defining sentence, amidst some nostalgia and occasional downright disapproval, could be its opening one – “Catholicism is a great solace at my stage of life, but it doesn’t get any more straightforward.” Her constant questioning and search for people to discuss the answers with energised what might have become a peaceful rural retirement.

During the day the radio was on constantly: one lunch guest recalls her suddenly leaving the table saying she had to listen to the Radio 3 lunchtime concert; conversation could resume only when it was over. If she liked what she had heard she would follow it through: that is how she regained touch with the Fiennes family – when Mark Fiennes’s wife Jini (the novelist Jennifer Lash) had worked for her in the early 1950s, Birtwistle had been a great source of strength. Their daughter Martha Fiennes, the film-maker, had been on the radio some seven years ago and upon receiving a letter from Birtwistle hastened up to Norfolk to meet her. She admits to being bowled over by how sharp Birtwistle’s observations and wit remained. Others charmed by her rare and extraordinary grasp, and ability to “say it straight”, included the singer Nick Cave.

Birtwistle brought up three adopted sons on her own, and in her later years she came to rely on her assistant Ruth Dunne, known as “Tootoo” (as in “too too good”), who helped to keep the gallery going. Her surviving younger sister, the poet Angela Kirby, plans to publish a long-awaited book of her poetry, ideally illustrated by colour plates of the work she championed from the 1950s to the present day.

6 thoughts on “When Leaf and Note are Gone by my Aunt Lilla

  1. It is so interesting! I am a design historian trying to gather materials on the Reimann School in London where Mrs Birtwistle went. Do you have any notes, comments, or works related to it? I would be most grateful if you could let me know!

    1. Yasuka … I’ll speak to my mother. She’s probably the only person I know who might be able to help. I’ll send you an email if you get any feedback. Best Justin

    2. Yasuko … I spoke to my mother but she doesn’t remember much. My aunt’s papers were all give to an American academic, so we are going to try and track him down and give you his details. One thing my mother did remember is that the poet John Benjamin taught at the school, or at least was a guest lecturer there.

    3. There are a few watercolours by Iris Birtwistle in my folder from that period, 1930’s. I guess she was an artist in her own right. Nigel Bennett. Suffolk.

      1. Nigel … Thanks for this info, I knew she had been to art school so had assumed she had painted, but I’m not sure I ever saw any of her examples. My mother has some of her brother’s work though so I’ll mention it to her.



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