Margaret MacGregor Angus was born in Chile on the 9th November 1904, in a railway station, the eleventh of thirteen children of a Scottish railway engineer. She spent her first five years in Chile.
The children’s upbringing was entrusted to nanny Nurse Graham who taught them to read and write. Peggy’s parents were, however, involved in the bringing up of the children and most nights would be spent singing to mum Mary’s accompaniment on the piano. Father David taught the children songs by Robert Burns, cementing an extensive musical repertoire and a fierce pride in Peggy’s ancestry.
Peggy’s father resigned his civil engineering post following a dispute with head office and the family returned to Britain taking up residence in Muswell Hill, London.
Aged fifteen Peggy visited the ancient Barnet Horse Fair and befriended a family of Romany travellers. Peggy invited the Romany family home with Nurse Graham crying: “Lor keep us ! Here’s old Peggy’s gypsies again !“
At the Royal College of Art Peggy kept ‘Memory Books’ packed with sketches. Here the Romany families of Barnet. A Portrait of the Brinkley Family in Bog lane, Barnet.
The Romany lifestyle had a great influence on Peggy, a keen Girl Guide, who had developed a love of camping, travelling and the simple outdoor life. The Great War brought family tragedy as Peggy’s brother Archie died in battle followed by elder brother Stewart.
Post war, elder daughter Nancy worked for the American Graves Registration Department and with Peggy’s parents in reduced financial circumstances it was Nancy who paid for Peggy to attend North London Collegiate School in Camden Town (founded 1850). The school took pride in its organ that required to be pumped by hand in order to work. Peggy being musical was one of the blowers with her assistant Ishbel Macdonald, daughter of Ramsey Macdonald, the first Labour Prime Minister. Peggy was also a talented pupil of the school sketch club.
Ishbel MacDonald. Portrait of Ishbel MacDonald by Peggy Angus 1924.
At 17 she entered the Royal College of Art, subsequently winning a painting and teaching scholarship to Paris. At the RCA, her contemporaries included sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, painters Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Percy Horton, Douglas Percy-Bliss and illustrators Barnett Freedman and Enid Marx – a group described by tutor Paul Nash as ‘an outbreak of talent’.
Peggy was one of the youngest of those 1922 Painting School entrants and having lost two brothers she would have been eligible for a charity scholarship if admitted. Principal Rothenstein was not averse to entry straight from school; he had come to see the previous year’s intake, with its high proportion of older students from provincial art colleges, as resistant to the working methods and naturalism he favoured. Nevertheless, feeling Angus was just too young, he upset her by suggesting that she would benefit from a year elsewhere before reapplying; but on learning of her straitened family circumstances and fear of losing the scholarship, he relented. Peggy had to rush home to fill her quota of work on the family knitting machine in the evenings instead of enjoying the camaraderie of the Student Common Room.
Peggy’s 1923 Memory Book recorded scenes of London Life.
Self Portrait Peggy Angus, late 1920’s. Chelsea Arts Ball 1923.
Peggy struggled in the Painting School, where men outnumbered women by three to one, and in the third term, attracted by the possibilities of illustration, she transferred to the Design School; seen by some as a step down, it was in fact a fortunate move to classes where women predominated and where she would gain the enduring friendship of another young student, Helen Binyon, who had also arrived straight from private school.
In 1925 Peggy submitted illustrations for Treasure Island to publishers Bodley Head but sadly, these were rejected.
Eric Ravilious helped Peggy with block printing, and she eventually excelled at printed pattern design, particularly of tiles and wallpapers.
A trip to Northern France in 1925.
Peggy finished her time at the RCA in 1926, completing a teaching course, this as a matter of duty. Peggy’s father’s death obliged her to seek paid work straight away. On passing with distinction she wept, fearing that teaching would frustrate her development as an artist. She started her first teaching post that year as Head of Art at a school in Nuneaton. Peggy described it as ‘being marooned in the Midlands’, far away from the London art scene.
Later she taught art in Eastbourne but eventually came back to London to teach in Hampstead in the early 1930s.
The MacDonald Family by Peggy Angus 1929/30.
Peggy’s painting of the Ramsay MacDonald family hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Ishbel MacDonald became a lifelong friend; they attended political meetings together and trips abroad. Following MacDonald’s second term as Prime Minister in 1929 Peggy was a frequent guest at Downing Street where she could enjoy having a bath! Peggy occasionally stayed at Chequers and enjoyed the subversiveness of drawing cartoons for the Daily Worker while she was there.
Peggy maintained her contact with fellow student Percy Horton whose socialist ideals she shared. Horton had been a conscientious objector during WW1 and was imprisoned. Peggy had a disastrous romance with Horton’s brother Ronald but that failed to dent what was to become a lifelong friendship with Percy.
Part 2 will move on to Eastbourne. Many thanks to Nick Gray for proof reading and making welcome adjustments.
Graham Bennison, May 2021. https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist/