Back row: Marian, Albert, Charles Francis (father), John Cowper, Theodore,
Middle row: Philippa (Katie), Littleton,
Mary Cowper (mother), Margaret (wife of JCP), Gertrude,
Front row: Llewelyn, William, Lucy.
‘One huge many-headed Powys’
The brothers John Cowper Powys, Theodore Francis Powys and Llewelyn Powys were members of a family of eleven children whose parents were the Reverend C F Powys, vicar of Montacute for thirty-two years, and his wife Mary Cowper Johnson. All the children were formidable individualists but Louis Wilkinson once wrote that when they were together they became “one huge many-headed Powys”. It was their strong sense of family and their passionate love of nature that united them; it was their sometimes anguished quests for separate identity that drew them into a remarkable variety of careers: from schoolmaster to farmer, from poet to architect.
A R (‘Bertie’) Powys, Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, published a number of books on architectural subjects.
Philippa Powys was a novelist and poet (author of The Blackthorn Winter, Sorrel Barn and Driftwood), as was Mary Casey, daughter of Lucy, the youngest Powys.
Littleton Powys, a much admired headmaster, published two volumes of autobiography (The Joy Of It and Still The Joy Of It) and edited the Letters of his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Myers.
Alyse Gregory, American writer and novelist, was married to Llewelyn Powys.
Littleton Powys on the family:
In July 1914, just before the outbreak of the War, my mother died; and thankful I am that her sensitive spirit knew nothing of it. My father manfully struggled on, though obviously failing; but in 1918 we persuaded him to resign. He withdrew to Weymouth to await his end, as his mother had done before him. With my sister Gertrude gently tending him he lived till August 1923. The family now were scattered in all directions, each member employed with his or her own affairs of life. But they were then and they are now bound closely together by two unbreakable bonds, a deep affection each for the other and a love of Nature shared alike by all. And as I think of them all living their different but interesting lives, I like to try to picture them as they were in the old days at Montacute, no easy task for one who has seen each one developing from the cradle or almost the cradle to manhood or womanhood; it can only be a blend of impressions. There is Lucy, the youngest, full of intelligence and deep feeling, but fearful and retiring like her mother whose side she rarely leaves; Willy with a mass of close fair curls and large brown eyes devoted to the fox terrier, Nip, and in after life at home with every animal; Katie affectionate, emotional, self-willed and overflowing with imagination; Llewelyn the most sunny, happy, winning small boy it was ever my lot to see; Marian with her brown curls and brown eyes, alive to everything that was going on, independent and self-reliant; Bertie, handsome, reserved and shy, but very definite in his views and determined even then to be an architect; Nelly, who died when only thirteen, most versatile and brilliant in all she undertook, full of the poetry of life and full of love; Gertrude with her happy temperament, rarely ruffled, with a gift for drawing and painting, Gertrude who in these latter years has been the very centre of the family; Theodore who always went his own way, and thought his own thoughts, and dreamt his own dreams, but who had the best manners of us all; and then myself and John, the firstborn, so unlike each other in temperament and tastes, and yet so devoted to each other and loyal to each other through all the chances and changes of our life. What would any one of us give to be allowed just for a brief moment of time to enjoy once again one of those happy gatherings of childhood at Montacute, our home, with our father and mother and brothers and sisters all there, just as they were in those far-off days? Dreams, idle dreams, but ah! how real, how precious!
“There is my sister Gertrude, round whom like the sun we
different members of the family like the planets revolve; of her no word of
praise is too high; and I rejoice that now at last she has more time to devote
to the art which for so many years has kept on calling to her.”
JCP on his brother A.R. Powys: “Nothing in his life was at random. Nothing was wanton or wilful. In dress, in ablution, in food, in drink, in the minutest arrangements of his time, of the objects around him, of his rooms, of his garden, of his household utensils, in lighting a fire, in opening a bottle, in whittling a stick, in driving a nail, in hanging a picture, in washing a dish, in chopping a log, in cutting a loaf, he would always follow a carefully considered method of his own, for which when challenged…he would bring forth a most confounding and irrefutable weight of elaborate justification.”
Will Powys was first and last a farmer, not an intellectual; nevertheless the creativity that ran in his family was in him too. In undeveloped countries, farming is in itself creative; with virgin land as his canvas, the farmer translates his vision into fields and pastures, crops and cattle, as an artist will apply his paint. The artist in Will expressed itself both in husbandry and, like his sister Gertrude, in paint. He painted the landscapes he loved, and used to offer a picture as a birthday present to each of the children. 'Choose any scene you like,' he would say, 'and I'll paint it for you.' The child in question would pick a scene and he would set up his easel. 'Somehow or other . . . . Mt. Kenya nearly always seemed to come in.'
In old age Will would sometimes tire before he completed a painting, and call on his servant to finish it off under his direction -- in the tradition, perhaps, of those Old Masters whose pupils would fill in the details. All his pleasures centred on his family, his sheep and cattle and his properties: Kisima, Ngare Ndare and Il Pinguan. ‘Don't you ever need a holiday?’ someone asked him. ‘But all my life has been a holiday,’ he replied.
Elspeth Huxley, Out in the Midday Sun
Glen Cavaliero on the Powyses:
“For when we talk of the Powyses, either individually or as a group, we do not speak of personalities merely, for their various works and characters interact with those of their readers and create new realms of experience. To adapt Auden’s poem ‘Edward Lear’, they have become a land, and those who explore it can appropriate to themselves what they find there. To that extent they themselves are witness to the Powys mystique and may justifiably feel grateful for their citizenship of this complex and endlessly accommodating province of the corporate literary imagination.”
From That Goblin Race: The Powys Family Mystique by Glen Cavaliero (The Powys Journal Vol. XIX 2009)
Jacqueline Peltier, The Powys Women
The text of the informal presentation given by Jacqueline Peltier on 5 June 2010 at the Society’s Powys Day in Dorchester, discussing the sisters and mother of the Powys brothers, and showing how, in spite of the unfairness they suffered, and also of the fact they did not receive the same level of education as their brothers, they were able to overcome these handicaps and make a success of their lives.
“The legacy of enthusiasm and accurate knowledge left in certain published works is an enduring source of inspiration and information that becomes more valuable to students and scholars as time elapses. Lace and Lace-making by Marian Powys is just such a book”. — June Burns Bové
Two articles by June Burns Bové on the notebooks and scrapbooks by Marian Powys are available to read online: