Wednesday, 18 February 2009

It is her!!

Not only have I found my own muse. I have also found Louis MacNeice's (pictured). Her name was Nancy Coldstream formerly Sharp, laterly Spender, an artist and friend and collaborator with some of the most famous names of 20th Century Britain. (See her portrait of MacNeice at Or search for it at the National Portrait Gallery. She had the most exciting and tragic life - a book and film of her life would be sensational. The world knew that she had lived in it. Fellow artsist Nicolette Devas recalled Nancy Sharp as "a long-legged bouncing girl with a lively intelligence who seemed to carry the zest of her native Bude sea breezes in her blood". Their studio was "a barrack-like place with a glass-domed roof. And there we slept and had parties. We lived in squalor. The beds were like old dog baskets. Our dirty washing and laundry piled up in a corner for weeks.
"The stews were wreathed in fungus and the food rotted in saucepans. The washing up fouled the sink until we washed up in desperation so that we could eat. The mice approved of our way of living and multiplied. We were terribly happy."

She even inspired Auden to consider an affair, despite being gay, he opted instead to remain her lodger.
Read about her and MacNeice in some of the obituary extracts below ( she died in 2001).

"Early in 1936, Auden introduced Nancy Coldstream to Louis MacNeice at the Cafe Royal. That autumn, MacNeice came across Mrs Coldstream pushing her pram back from Hampstead Heath and they stopped and talked. His "black velvet voice" brought to her mind a sentence from Isaiah, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire." "I felt cheered, not to say warmed, for the next half-hour," she recalled.
The next January, Auden had MacNeice to supper at the Coldstreams, and after several more meetings - including a visit to Crufts Dog Show - Nancy Coldstream and MacNeice began a passionate affair.
When MacNeice was commissioned to follow in the footsteps of Dr Johnson in the Western Isles, he took Nancy Coldstream with him to provide the illustrations for his book, published as I Crossed The Minch (1938). William Coldstream raised no objection, perhaps having in mind Auden's candid observation that "Louis could be very convenient" keeping Nancy happy, while he got on with his painting.
The romance of the Hebridean trip was tempered by the rain - their beds were so damp that they slept in their greatcoats - and when she later read MacNeice's book she was struck by the grim memories that did not appear. But they delighted in each other's company and even talked of marriage, he promising her a bull mastiff bitch puppy for a wedding present.
As soon as they got home, however, she telephoned MacNeice telling him that she could not leave her husband. The affair nevertheless continued for some 18 months, much to the disgust of the nanny who looked after MacNeice's young son. This woman was besotted with her employer and would start doing the washing-up, with much banging and crashing, whenever MacNeice brought Nancy home for the night. "Louis got in a frenzy and couldn't operate at all, and I got furious," Nancy remembered.
MacNeice later returned to the Hebrides on his own and wrote for Nancy Coldstream the poem Leaving Barra: ". . . you who to me among women/Stand for so much that I wish for,/I thank you, my dear, for the example/Of living like a fugue and moving." He dedicated his new volume of poetry The Earth Compels (1938) to her, and included a powerful tribute in the poem many consider to be his masterpiece, Autumn Journal.
Nancy was beginning to find MacNeice tiresomely importunate and possessive. In the long poem he was working on, Autumn Journal, he included a long and evocative tribute to her. "September has come, it is hers / whose vitality leaps in the autumn," he wrote, but by then Nancy had met and fallen in love with Michael Spender, a scientist and explorer, and the elder brother of the poet Stephen. "The thing about Michael was that he had a foot in two worlds," she said, "which made Louis's world seem more and more claustrophobic." The affair with MacNeice was over, though they remained friends all his life.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, she left her children with her mother and became an ambulance driver, driving her vehicle bravely - if erratically - throughout the Blitz. The Coldstreams were divorced in 1942, and the next year she married Michael Spender, with whom she had a son, Philip. Her husband became a squadron leader in the RAF and an expert in aerial photography, but was killed in an air crash in the last week of the war.

Read the rest of the tale of her exciting life or or

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