Shirley Williams MP

Baroness Williams of Crosby (1930 – 2021)

Shirley Williams MP in her office at the Houses of Parliament,
photographed by Adrian Flowers, for the Observer, 20th July 1973

On 20th July 1973, accompanied by his son Matthew (2nd assistant at that time, 1st assistant was Steve Garforth – see previous post from July 2020 ), Adrian Flowers brought his camera equipment to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, to photograph Shirley Williams, for an article for the Observer. Williams at that time was poised to become the first woman prime minister, but in the event she stepped aside to allow James Callaghan to take up the leadership of the Labour Party. The photographs taken in 1973 provide a vivid record of a woman who was at the heart of British politics. Dressed in a white safari suit, her red leather handbag sitting on a desk strewn with papers and files, Williams was totally at ease with the camera. She had long been one of Flowers’ heroes, and her championing of progressive policies on education, race relations and society tied in closely with his own views. Just three weeks earlier, in Parliament, Williams had railed against the new Immigration Act, the wording of which was open to varying interpretations. She pointed out that people stopped for minor traffic offences were being taken to police stations and questioned about their status as immigrants: “There are particularly sensitive areas which the House must consider. One of these is the relations between the immigrants and the police. The relations between the police and in particular the Asian community have, by and large, been good. . . Civil liberties do not erode at the top: they erode at the bottom, among the most under-privileged, the most poor, the least popular. If the House cares—and I believe that it has always cared—about civil liberties, it must tonight take the not wholly popular but deeply important step of satisfying itself that the constitutional rights and civil rights of these people have been adequately protected by us.” [Hansard HC Deb 26 June 1973 vol 858 cc1405-70] But a few days later Williams, ever mindful of the well-being of all sectors of society, was seeking improved allowances for police officers based in London. As a member of Parliament, and then of the House of Lords, Williams devoted almost her entire life to politics and public service.
Born in 1930, Shirley Williams (née Brittain) was brought up in a resolutely left-wing household, albeit one in which social commitment was matched with a degree of prosperity. Her mother, Vera Brittain, originally from Staffordshire, was a prolific author and political activist: in 2014 Testament of Youth, an autobiographical memoir of her experiences as a nurse in the First World War, was made into a film by the BBC. Her daughter’s life was also shaped by war. Evacuated from Britain during WWII, Shirley Williams spent several years in St. Paul Minnesota, where she attended St. Paul’s school. Her father, George Catlin, while lecturing at Cornell University in the early 1940’s, was an advisor to American presidential candidates. Returning to Britain after the war, Williams attended St Paul’s School in London (where her father had also been educated) then studied at Oxford, before working as a journalist, and then entering politics. Much of her life was dedicated to breaking down those barriers of class and privilege that had paradoxically, during her formative years, given her access to inspirational figures including T. S. Eliot and Jawaharal Nehru. There were other paradoxes in her political life; motivated perhaps by her Catholic upbringing, during the 1960’s she opposed liberalising divorce and abortion, and was later opposed to gay marriage. As Minister for Education in James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1974, she championed comprehensive education but cut resources for teacher training.

Although she served in the Labour governments of both Wilson and Callaghan, she resigned from the Labour Party in 1981, to found, along with three other rebels, the Social Democratic party, which later merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats. Her first husband Bernard Williams, who she married in 1955, was an academic and later a philosophy don, while her second husband Richard Neustadt, like her father, was an academic who served also as advisor to American presidents including J F Kennedy and Bill Clinton. He and Williams met during her time as lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. After a distinguished parliamentary career, in 1993 Williams was appointed a member of the House of Lords, a post from which she resigned in 2016. Her own autobiography Climbing the Bookshelves was published in 2009. She died on April 12th 2021.

Text: Peter Murray

All images subject to copyright

Nina Hamnett

1890 – 1956

Nina Hamnett photographed by Adrian Flowers, July 1955

On 7th July 1955, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited the artist Nina Hamnett in her London flat. The photographs Adrian took that evening are among the last visual records of this legendary ‘Queen of Bohemia’. Seated on her bed, Hamnett held forth for her visitors, recounting tales of her life as an artist in Edwardian London and Paris. Cheerful, ravaged, her face like that of an weather-beaten mariner, Hamnett sat, her crutches on the bed beside her. Also on the bed sat a man wearing a vest and smoking a cigarette, his expression thoughtful and pensive. Angela remembers him as a merchant seaman, a friend of Nina’s. There was also a young woman, a journalist. The photographs capture details of Hamnett’s home life, and her love of books and art; above the fireplace were stacked shelves of books, with paintings propped against the wall. A framed drawing of a classical head may have been the same student work for which Hamnett had been awarded a prize, half a century before, at the Portsmouth School of Art. A single candle, on a small footstool beside the fireplace, was likely the only source of illumination when the electricity meter ran out.

Nina Hamnett with journalist, July 1955.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1955, Hamnett’s second book of memoirs, Is She a Lady?, had just been published, and she was enjoying her time in the limelight. Other photographs taken by Flowers, either on that day or close to it, show her sitting at a bar, with Angela, and also talking to others around her. However, Hamnett’s recollections of her own life were often embellished for literary effect. She told different versions of the same story, and invented episodes, to increase the dramatic effect. She was clearly delighted with the photography session, and dressed up for the occasion.

Nina Hamnett and Angela Flowers, July 1955, at the Bridge House.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Angela recalls the visit to the bar as having taken place at Little Venice, just north of Paddington Station. The bar was probably in the Bridge House, at Delamere Terrace, close to the Regent’s Canal bridge, an ironwork structure that appears in a 1947 watercolour by Hamnett. In 2019, Kate Thorogood curated an exhibition of Nina Hamnet’s work at the Fitzrovia Chapel, in the course of which she debunked some mythologies, principally the story that Hamnett died in a fall from her flat in Fitzrovia. In fact, Hamnett appears to have moved to Paddington some years earlier: “It is understood that in 1947, there was a fire in her block of flats from which a girl tried to escape by leaping out of the window, only to be impaled on the railings below. Later, Nina would hear this story being told as if she were the one who tragically died. Having been made homeless by the fire and by all accounts refused a place in Marylebone Workhouse, Nina was rehoused in Paddington, not Fitzrovia. It was here she died, also from a fall out of a window. There are many versions of the story of her death, including some in which she dies impaled on the railings. Some claim there was a drunken stumble; others a suicide attempt.” At the time of the Flowers’ visit, Hamnett was just sixty-five, but she was destined to live for just one more year. In 1956, several days after the fall—which was probably accidental—she died in hospital.

Nina Hamnett and friend July 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Although her death took place in tragic circumstances, Hamnett remains alive in the minds and memories of many, both as a cultural inspiration and a cautionary tale. The story of her life has a stellar quality, but a desire to be the centre of attention led her to forego her own talents as an artist, and to instead become model, dancer, companion, and lover and muse to others, while neglecting her own creative work. Born in 1890, a rackety childhood in Tenby with a grandmother, a couple of years in Ireland with an improvident military father, and teenage forays into London’s bohemia had ill-prepared Hamnett for the conventional career expected of her, of completing a secretarial course, becoming a typist, and settling into suburban life. Having studied at the Metropolitan School in Dublin, then Portsmouth, then the London School of Art, she far preferred the company of sculptors, painters and writers, and, with her hair cut page-boy style and wearing brightly-patterned clothes, enjoyed being stared at by passers-by on the Tottenham Court Road.

Nina Hamnett in July 1955. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1914, at the outset of the First World War, Hamnett was in Paris, hard up, but contriving to remain at the heart of the artistic world that revolved around Montparnasse and La Rotonde. She drank with Zadkine and modelled for Modigliani, in much the same way as, while in London, she had modelled for Roger Fry, Walter Sickert and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In Paris, she took off her clothes at parties and, in the manner of Isadora Duncan, danced with a veil, applauded as much by the older women present as by the young avant-garde artists who delighted in this expression of artistic freedom. Although she had male lovers, Hamnett’s friendships with women were often more important to her. She married the Norwegian artist Edgar de Bergen (Roald Kristian) in 1914, but having brought him to England found he was a bore, and was not overly dismayed when he failed to register and was deported back to the Continent as an ‘undesirable alien’. Hamnett then threw herself into the artistic life of London with gusto, dining with Augustus John at the Tour Eiffel restaurant, sketching George Moore and Lord Alfred Douglas at the Café Royal, and working with Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops. In 1917-18 she taught at the Westminster School of Art, and her portraits from these years are among her best. In the 1920’s she moved back to Paris and re-joined the avant-garde, counting Cocteau, Stravinsky and Eric Satie among her friends. These were Hamnett’s most productive years, and she travelled back to London several times to attend openings of exhibitions of her paintings. Two volumes of autobiography preserve the outline, if not the emotional form, of these intense years; published in 1932, Laughing Torso is a window into the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and London, while twenty-three years later, Is She a Lady? brought readers up to date on her spiced-up adventures. Like many of her generation, the First World War had cast a long shadow over Hamnett’s life, and the onset of a second war in 1939 meant that again she could not travel to Paris, and so, over the following two decades, she continued with her bohemian life, holding court at the Fitzroy Tavern in Soho. With alcohol gradually replacing painting, she acquired notoriety, while her friends, in time, disappeared, to be replaced by drinking companions, who to a greater or lesser degree abetted her in this fall from grace. In her formative years, Hamnett’s father, an army officer, had been an overbearing and negative influence, fully expecting his daughter to fail in her determination to live an artistic life. After his death, she went some way towards making up for that disappointment, but remains nonetheless a compelling figure in the world of British avant-garde art.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©