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To Joyce, with love and scribbles. By John Ward

Blog | Feb 13, 2024

John Ward's 1954 portrait of Joyce in her flat, ‘against a dresser full of china, some fine, some hideous’

When Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979) commissioned artist John Ward (1917-2007) to paint her portrait, it was the start of an enduring friendship, and an unusual correspondence

I first met Joyce Grenfell in 1950, when I was making drawings for a stunt that Stephen Potter (the Gamesmanship man) had thought up to illustrate accents and modes of speaking throughout the Kingdom, as part of the Festival of Britain. It took place in the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion. Joyce and Hermione Gingold did the voices – Cockney, Scottish, Irish, etc. – and I did the illustrations. My drawings impressed Stephen Potter: he sat for a portrait drawing, and through him I cadged a sitting from Joyce in her dressing-room at the St Martin’s Theatre – a rather frantic effort, drawn directly in Indian ink and wash.

With typical informality, she appeared one day on the doorstep of our studio on Glebe Place. Would I make a small watercolour drawing of her sitting in her flat, just down the King’s Road? She lived above a sweetshop, and she wanted to be drawn against a dresser full of china, some fine, some hideous. The hideous pieces were precious gifts, with great sentimental value. We were separated by a table, and she explained that she was in the dining-room and I was in the kitchen. The sink was behind me.

This commission came at a moment when I was scratching around for a foothold in the portrait world, and I had the notion that one might return to the custom of people being drawn or painted in their own rooms, surrounded by their own things. Joyce liked my idea, and when I had finished her portrait, over which immense care was taken by both of us, she sent me along to draw her friends: Virginia Graham; Victor Stiebel; the doorman at her favourite theatre; Mrs Agos, her ‘help’; Dick Addinsell, who wrote many of her songs, and even her fearsome aunt, Nancy Astor. The fact that Joyce also dabbled in watercolours helped our friendship, and no one could have been an easier or more encouraging patron.It was after we had moved out of London to Kent that our exchange of letters began. I had always been a prize bad speller, and I hit on the idea that this might not look so awful if accompanied by some scribbles. A painter and draughtsman is forever making studies – hands, heads, poses, etc., bits of drawing of no consequence – around which I could string my letter.

Joyce was the best of correspondents: her answers were prompt, and business was conducted efficiently but with a light, amused touch. Her efficiency was as formidable as her generosity, and both were demonstrated when I told her about the Stour Music Festival, which I was helping to organise with Alfred Deller, the great counter-tenor. Funds were urgently needed, for although distinguished foreign musicians would travel to Kent and play for peanuts for Alfred, more trumpets were always needed and pianos had to be hired.

‘Oh,’ Joyce said, ‘I’ll come to Canterbury and give an evening show.’

A hall was booked, and down she came. She examined the piano, for her splendid accompanist Bill Blezard was to be in attendance, asked all who were working there their names, and never got a name wrong thereafter.

The show was a sell-out. There was some dismay when the bouquet gathered from the extensive gardens of Wye Agricultural College was given to a nervous Alfred Deller to present – he left it on a radiator and the droop was all too clear. Joyce cottoned on to what had happened at once, and it probably became one of those incidents on which her repertoire was founded.

I illustrated two books for her – George, Don’t Do That and Stately as a Galleon. She insisted that the royalties should be shared, and I still get a nice dribble of money from the Public Lending Rights. Richard Garnett of Macmillan’s watched over the publication, and he had to be drawn for the series.

Any contact with Joyce seemed to lead to odd wonders. She was a great fan and friend of Walter de la Mare, and I was sent to draw him. At some point in the sitting he nodded to a china cat ornamenting the fireplace. ‘What name would you give that cat?’ I can’t remember what I said, but later I discovered that the naming of cats was one of Edward Lear’s tests of imagination.

Joyce opened windows to so much for me, and I remember her with great affection and love.