Thereare very few people left who remember Lydia Lopokova, the Russian dancer who married Maynard Keynes. She was an enchanting character, almost extravagantly different from anyone else. Her beguiling vocabulary and way of talking prompted E.M. Forster to say that her ‘every word … should be recorded.’ Virginia Woolf wrote of ‘her genius of personality’ and borrowed some of her characteristics (her rapidity of gesture and quick changes of mood) for Lucrezia, Septimus’s wife in Mrs Dalloway. After Keynes’s death in 1946, Lydia gradually withdrew from the world and refused to be interviewed about her past as one of the leading dancers of the Ballets Russes under Sergei Diaghilev – ‘Big Serge’, as she always called him – or about her husband ‘May-nar’ (with the emphasis on the second syllable).

Lydia lived in a substantial house called Tilton at the foot of Firle Beacon, one of the highest of the South Downs. It was set among farm buildings, a pond and a handful of cottages. It could be reached from the main Eastbourne-Lewes road by an unmade track which, as it approached the broad slope of the beacon, abruptly divided, the right-hand fork leading to Charleston and the left to Tilton and the farm Keynes rented from the Gage Estate. The impression was one of seclusion rather than remoteness. There was nothing to surprise walkers in this landscape, but if they trespassed through a gate, they would have seen through the windows of Tilton House works by Delacroix, Cézanne, Seurat, Picasso and Braque, closely hung, rather high. It was a different kind of surprise from the one awaiting visitors to Charleston. There, the pictures were surrounded by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s exuberant decorations: patterned curtains and stencilled walls, painted door panels and richly emblazoned pottery.

At Tilton the rooms were not so well proportioned and there was no flourishing garden. Lydia was not particularly interested in her domestic surroundings and when I visited it seemed that little had changed since Keynes’s death twenty years before. It was all rather shabby and haphazard. It was not for want of money – Lydia was very well off, though Richard Kahn, a Cambridge economist and Keynes’s literary executor, was tight-fisted with her allowance. The pictures were not well arranged or dusted – when I took one down, the skeleton of a small bird fell out from behind it. ‘They do not belong to me,’ Lydia would say emphatically, and in most cases this was true. Keynes had bequeathed them to King’s College, Cambridge, stipulating that they should remain with Lydia during her lifetime. In fact, from the late 1960s onwards, the more valuable French pictures were gradually removed to King’s and some were shown at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Burglaries in the area had made Kahn and the Keynes family anxious. At some point, Lydia had the most important paintings hung high on the sitting-room walls because, as she told me, ‘burglars are always very short people.’ There was an alarm connected to Lewes police station, a few miles away; it occasionally went off accidentally but a few bottles of beer would placate ‘the very nice men’ who drove out to investigate. She herself said nothing about the pictures, which she took for granted; but I remember her saying that Keynes would occasionally tap the frame of one or another as he passed, smiling as though he were greeting an old friend.

It was during my second visit to Charleston, in April 1966, when I was sixteen, that Duncan Grant suggested I see the pictures at Tilton and meet Lydia. He telephoned her just before lunch and said he would like to bring a friend in the afternoon. Giving her hardly any notice was the best way of ‘cornering’ her, he said. At about three o’clock we entered the house and Duncan called out ‘Lydia! Lydia!’ to no reply. We began looking at the pictures in the sitting room to the right of the wide hall. There was Seurat’s oil study of the standing couple in La Grande Jatte; Cézanne’s early Abduction over the mantelpiece; two small paintings by Delacroix; a still life by Picasso; and a Braque reclining nude. Also Duncan’s portrait of Lydia, painted in the early 1920s and one of his finest works. It showed her wearing a dress based on Ingres’s portrait of Mlle Rivière.

Eventually, Lydia stepped rapidly in, wearing an apron over her clothes and carrying the Times, a dog-eared copy of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems and a box of Player’s cigarettes. She was small, with a lined, tanned face, and had a scarf or two knotted over her head. She was much given to saying ‘O-ah’, a Russian exclamation suited to all eventualities. After an introduction, she disappeared again. ‘I think we’ve got her in a good mood,’ Duncan reassured me. She returned with a bottle of Liebfraumilch which we drank over the next hour or so. It wasn’t long before she turned the conversation to the Russian Ballet, her consuming topic. She had just heard from her old friend Tamara Karsavina (the other great Russian dancer then living in England) who, with not much money, was leading a confined widow’s life in Hampstead. They had known each other at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg. When Duncan mentioned Ninette de Valois, recently retired as director of the Royal Ballet, Lydia became serious: ‘I do not like women in power.’ Then she told a story about a catastrophe during a performance in Paris of Poulenc’s Les Biches. Lydia Sokolova, dancing the hostess, was wearing a long string of pearls which broke during the Rag-Mazurka and scattered over the stage ‘like drops of mercury’. Dancers fell to the ground. ‘O-ah! It was like Hamlet’s end!’

Duncan egged Lydia on. Scenes were realised with a few gestures, the unexpected word was chosen and delivered in her formidable accent; then a movement forward to touch Duncan’s knee while they both laughed. Next: Big Serge. ‘So,’ she said, ‘all the chambermaids were rushing down the hotel corridors with warm towels and hot water. It was Big Serge’s night with Nijinsky!’ She clapped her hands with delight and then turned to Duncan with the air of a naughty child. ‘He’s not too young to ’ear me tell this?’ I answered for him, riveted if not entirely understanding: ‘Please go on.’

Lydia and her former stage partner Léonide Massine – in 1919 they had thrilled London audiences by dancing the can-can in La Boutique fantasque – were no longer in touch; she thought he was ambitious and self-centred. But her personality on stage had helped shape Massine’s conception of what was possible in dance. She showed me a photograph on the mantelpiece: it was of a drawing depicting herself and Massine dancing the can-can, inscribed: ‘Pour Lydia en attendant l’original. Picasso’. In the end Picasso couldn’t find it and sent another drawing of Lydia and Massine in rehearsal. When Picasso visited London in 1950, he and Lydia danced a few steps on the pavement outside her house at 46 Gordon Square, where she retained rooms for her increasingly rare visits to London. (Picasso’s wife Olga Koklova, a friend of Lydia’s from the corps de ballet, had acted as a chaperone when Picasso drew Lydia’s portrait in his rooms at the Savoy Hotel. ‘Who knows what might have happened?’ she said. ‘No woman was safe.’) Abruptly, she got up. It was time for us to go. In the hall, she put her hands up to my cheeks: ‘You ’ave a very sensitive face.’ And as a parting line: ‘Everyone loves Duncan.’

After this first visit I saw Lydia several times. We even corresponded a little. ‘Many thanks for your charming note,’ she wrote in 1968, ‘I do appreciate as I go nowhere through my old age; it is nice to hear about Cecil Beaton’s exhibition – he is a master of his art.’ (The show included a fine photograph of Lydia smiling in the kitchen at Gordon Square.) Another card reads: ‘Glad you have seen Nijinska’s Noces. A masterpiece of intellect. I admire it but from a big distance.’ Once at Tilton she demonstrated some steps from The Firebird, inspired by a framed page from the score in Stravinsky’s hand, which he had given to her. She venerated George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton as choreographers, and delighted in Margot Fonteyn. In early 1969 I asked to borrow some of Duncan’s paintings from Tilton for an exhibition in Cambridge. I went on the arranged day but Lydia was nowhere to be seen. Her voice came from upstairs: ‘Go anywhere you like except in ’ere. Take anything you want. They are not mine.’ It was then that I discovered a superb Degas drawing – one of four Keynes had bought at the sale of Degas’s atelier in 1919 – hanging precariously on the back of the cloakroom door. I also noticed rows of tinned food, principally peaches and pears, along the hall skirting board. These were the remnants of a buying spree at the start of the Second World War when Maynard warned Lydia there would be food shortages.

Her domestic life was rather mysterious. She complained she had too much housework to do (hence the apron or nylon housecoat she habitually wore over layers of freely assorted clothes), yet she had lots of help. Besides Ruby Weller, the cook, and Mrs Whiter, the housekeeper, there was the large, friendly, taciturn figure of Logan Thompson, the Yorkshireman who managed Keynes’s farm. When Logan retired he moved into Tilton. He would drive ‘Madame’ in a Land Rover up Firle Beacon for an ‘airing’, or take her to lunch at the White Hart in Lewes or the Cavendish Hotel in Eastbourne. I would sometimes see this curious couple on the farm track – receiving a genial acknowledgment from Logan and a look of puzzlement from the tiny, swathed figure beside him, only just able to see out of the windscreen.

Sometimes they drove up to Charleston – once to deliver a brace of pheasants which Duncan immediately painted before handing the birds over to the kitchen. But there was unexpectedly little interaction between the two households: some of the awkwardness caused by Keynes and Lydia’s marriage in 1925 still lingered. Vanessa had not liked the idea and foretold disaster. There had been one or two scenes in London before the wedding which Duncan described as extremely painful (Keynes and Vanessa were his closest friends). But he had no reservations about taking people to see the pictures at Tilton, many of which he’d selected for Keynes to buy. Duncan rarely judged people, and for him Lydia was a delightful fact of life. ‘Completely Russian – as far as I know the Russian people.’

Eventually, Lydia was moved to a nursing home in Seaford where I went to see her. She didn’t recognise me, but we talked happily for a few minutes, Lydia mixing Russian with English. She died in 1981, a few months shy of ninety. Logan Thompson continued to live in Tilton, occupying one of the two deep armchairs in the hall that had become his and Madame’s favourite place to sit (there was underfloor heating). Copies of the Daily Mail replaced piles of the Times.

In 1979 I went to Tilton with Angelica Garnett, who wanted a further look at the works there by her parents, Duncan and Vanessa. Logan had suffered a mild stroke a year or two before. Echoing Lydia, he told us to go anywhere we liked. Neither of us knew the upstairs rooms, where we found a mass of works: a nude by Spencer Gore, Henry Moore’s shelter drawings, paintings and drawings by William Roberts and Ivon Hitchens, an impressive Omega firescreen embroidered in silks, a large, startling Sickert of two prostitutes in a hotel bar. There was a different surprise in a small dressing room: shoes in Imelda-like profusion, some ranged on the floor, others hanging in plastic shoe bags, their heels sticking out in a faintly sinister way, like dead game in a poulterer’s. Many seemed almost new, though they dated from years earlier. On a wooden stand was a smart, witty red hat, worn, perhaps, when Lydia accompanied Keynes on his wartime missions to America.

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