Lady Filmy Fern, or, the voyage of the window box 

‘Lady Filmy Fern, or, the voyage of the window box’ is a children’s book by Thomas Hennell, written in February 1938 and featuring 18 illustrations by Edward Bawden.  Some might describe it as a surreal adult fairy tale ! The book follows the strange story of retiring social beauty, Lady Filmy Fern, her devoted companion, the carpenter Mr Virgin Cork, and the photographer known as the Welsh Polypod. 

A few years earlier staying as lodgers at Brick House, Great Bardfield, renting half the house, Edward Bawden recalled meeting Thomas Hennell: ‘One morning in 1931 when Eric Ravilious and I came down to the kitchen in Brick House to wash ourselves we found a stranger, stripped to the waist pumping water over his head and making quite a splash in the large slate sink. He was tall, thin with black beady eyes rather close set, dark slightly curly hair and as he greeted us his voice had a deep, booming parsonic ring, echoed even more loudly when he laughed. Outside leaning against the doorpost was a heavy, khaki-coloured Army bike and on it, tied to the bar between saddle and steering wheel, a large and perfect specimen of a corn dollie…..Tom greeted us in the most friendly manner. Our identity was divulged in a matter of seconds and friendship was established immediately’

Brick House, Great Bardfield in 1960 by Ronald Maddox, watercolour. A recent photo of Brick House.

The following year, Bawden married Charlotte Epton and his father bought the whole house for them as a wedding present. Ravilious and Tirzah continued to spend weekends and holidays at Brick House and another regular visitor was Gwyneth Lloyd Thomas an English Don at Cambridge. During the lamp-lit winter evenings they amused themselves inventing three characters – Lady Filmy Fern, Mr Virgin Cork and the Welsh Polypod. Bawden decided to make drawings of these characters and illustrated their adventures. Hennell participated in the tale and was persuaded to write it down. The resulting manuscript was rejected by publishers and pasted into a scrapbook along with the illustrations , where they remained forgotten for the next 45 years.

Edward Bawden’s drawing ‘Garden Party at Brick House’. Thomas Hennell is seated front left with Ravilious behind. Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious) front right with Bawden behind.

Following the outbreak of war Bawden, Ravilious and Hennell were all eventually conscripted as War Artists. Before leaving for North Africa Bawden placed much of his work, including the scrapbook in a water-proof covering, down a well in the garden of Brick House. Ravilious was lost over Iceland in 1942 and Hennell reported ‘missing, believed dead’ in Batavia, 1945. It was not until 1980 that the book was officially published, with more illustrations. 

Thomas Hennell was appointed as a temporary lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 24th May 1944. This photo was taken in a studio near his mother’s house in Folkstone. Edward Bawden as an official war artist. Eric Ravilious pictured with his paintings at the War Artists Exhibition at the National Gallery, 28th May 1942.

Lady Filmy Fern is a reluctant celebrity hunted down by the camera wielding Welsh Polypod, the equivalent of a modern-day paparazzo. To escape the Polypod Lady Filmy Fern and her protector Virgin Cork take to the sea in a window box.

Lady Filmy Fern flees from the attentions of the Welsh Polypod. Lady Filmy Fern and Mr Virgin Cork sailing at night. Lady Filmy Fern and Mr Virgin Cork sailing on the Red Sea

The Welsh Polypod climbs onto a bottle. Lady Filmy Fern and The Welsh Polypod in a dispute with customs officers. The Welsh Polypod climbing on board an aeroplane. The Pilot rescues Lady Filmy Fern and Mr Virgin Cork (who didn’t have a shave for the whole voyage!). The Polypod made his home in the shipwreck of the window-box and used Lady Filmy Fern’s bell-glass for deep-sea diving.

It is thought that the character Lady Filmy Fern was based on a friend of both Hennell and Bawden – Muriel Rose. In 1928 Rose opened the Little Gallery in the heart of Chelsea selling contemporary crafts. Bawden’s wallpapers, made in the attic of Brick House, were sold. alongside the textile designs of Enid Marx and the pottery of Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach. Hennell and Bawden were on holiday with Rose in Switzerland when Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, Britain and France declaring war on Germany two days later. Soon after the start of the war the Little Gallery closed its doors in 1940 , there being no enthusiasm for purchasing crafts.

Muriel Rose. The Little Gallery. The Little Galley by Edward Bawden ?

Graham Bennison, December 2001.

The blog re Thomas Hennell can be found here….

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