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In the Time of Moss Roses, Stephen Tennant's Library - Livres du Mois

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

In January's Livres du Mois I share with you The Contents of Wilsford Manor, a catalogue containing the sale of the contents of Stephen Tennant's home including, what I personally consider to be most important, his books. I found that when one looked at the list of books they didn't really paint a picture of his collection, so I took it upon myself to track down the books listed in the catalogue and recreate Stephen Tennant's library. This has been the most engaging piece of work I have ever put together and after the entire (lengthy) process I feel like I have spent this month looking over Stephen's shoulder in the library as he reads his conchology book, reciting out loud to me the favourite shells he collected on his holiday in Scilly, and I hope that by the time you reach the last book, you will too.

Swainson’s Exotic Conchology

Gifted to Stephen by Siegfried Sassoon on their holiday in Italy. The title page is inscribed:


War has its idiot Shells:

How different are these,

Designed by diligent Nature

For her Devotees…

From SS Oct. 3 1929’

Siegfried gifted many books to Stephen on shells and plants, pictured above is Stephen reading another encyclopaedia, Reeve and Sowerby's Conchologia Iconica, in the Library of Wilsford Manor 1929.









The Happy Hypocrite


Max Beerbohm

1897 first edition with an insert photograph of Beerbohm, taken at Villino Chiaro in April 1930, so inscribed by Siegfried Sassoon, and an inserted autograph letter from the author to Stephen thanking him for a card: "Floreat your exquisite draughtsmanship."

Siegfried and Stephen paid a second visit to Rapallo together in April 1930, where they called again many times upon Mr and Mrs Max Beerbohm at their house, the Villino Chiaro. Since they had last met the previous November, Siegfried had been working on the manuscript for his latest book, The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Now Beerbohm was able to read the work. A great admirer of the older writer, Siegfried confided to his diary on 30th April "My manuscript is embellished with a few pencillings by him - surely a very pleasant thing to contemplate. I don’t know of anyone whose pencilling could please me more".



John Clare Poems from Edmund Blunden

John Clare Poems from Edmund Blunden, inscribed by Blunden to Stephen with a seven line fragment entitled:

Clare's last Poem Spring: Warm glows the south...

Tis spring warm glows the south

Chaffinches carry the moss in his mouth

To filbert Hedges all day long

And charms the poet with his beautiful song

The wind blows blea oer the sedgey fen

But warm the sunshines by the little wood

Where the old Cow at her leisure chews her cud

For Stephen from his obliged bard, Edmund Blunden, August 27 1929



Willa Cather The Novels and Stories

Stephen initially wrote to Willa Cather when still a teenager in the early 1920s, although they did not meet for another 10 years. At the end of his life, he recalled the morning when the reply to that first letter arrived at Wilsford; he ran through the house long before breakfast rousing all the guests in his excitement. A little time later, on 24 September 1927, he jotted in his journals:

"this evening I have received the first glorious bundle of American literary papers - I could shout for joy!… Saw a new Willa Cather announced. I had heard in a treasured and honoured letter I once had from her that she was writing a long novel… The new Willa Cather it's called 'Death Comes for the Archbishop'… She is my favourite living writer."

In her book, Willa Cather, Living (New York, 1953), Edith Lewis observed "One of the friendships that counted most for (Willa Cather) was that with her English friend Stephen Tennant, youngest son of Lord and Lady Glenconner. He had written to her about A Lost Lady while he was still student at the Slade School in London. They had corresponded ever since. She kept all his letters. His visits to America about this time (mid-1930s) gave her a kind of stimulus and delight entirely new; for he was the only one among the new generation of writers with whom she could talk about writing on an absolutely equal plane, with complete freedom and - though their views were in many different ways so different - with complete sympathy and accord. On one of his visits he told her how warmly Thomas Hardy had spoken to him of A Lost Lady. I think no other tribute gave her so much pleasure, for she admired Hardy as the greatest of living novelists".



E.M. Forster Alexandria A History and A Guide

Stephen was introduced to Forster by Siegfried probably during the late 1920s according to Firbank, Stephen "Admired Forster extravagantly, considering him a "meet" and a "sublime malcontent", and noticing - percipiently - Forster's suppressed love of the exotic (they would talk about Persian poetry).

The friendship lasted many years and it was Forster to whom Stephen dedicated his book Leaves from a Missionaries Notebook when it was eventually published in 1937. Like a number of Stephen's close confidants Forster was generous of his advice in the matter of the projected novel the Lascar.



The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Third edition, 1636. The flyleaf is inscribed to Stephen from Siegfried, 21st of April 1929 with a six line quotation from Bacons essays.



Edith Olivier and the Will-o'-the-Wisp

Edith Olivier The Seraphim Room, first edition inscribed by the author to Stephen 1932. The pillow book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Arthur Waley first edition autograph letter signed from the translator to Stephen "I had wanted to send you the Pillow Book. But I feared it was too outlandish" alongside a separate inscription by Edith Olivier to Stephen, 1928.

Edith Olivier, who lived at the Daye house, Wilton Park, not far from Wilsford Manor where she was a frequent visitor, had been known to Stephen since his childhood. In her middle-age she enjoyed the company of aspiring young writers and artists, becoming the mentor of Lord David Cecil, Rex Whistler and the circle. Cecil Beaton, too, was a friend; she found Ashcombe for him in 1930 and she also helped with the text of his book of beauty. Of Stephen Tennant, Miss Olivier wrote in her book of personal memories page 255, Without knowing Mr Walkley 1938:

"he is the most sparkling talker who ever comes to my house, and perhaps the most amusing. He dances like a will-o'-the-wisp where other people stick in the mud. Though his really kindred spirits are the most exotic people he can find, he also greatly enjoys a talk with some extremely common place person, when he pretends that he thinks they mean something which they never thought of in their lives. He can be by turns poetic, malicious, and nonsensical. His talk is very pictorial and he handles words as if they were paint on a brush. When Stephen is alone with one friend he is often drawn to speak very grave and profound subjects, and then he becomes unhappy, for he is never sure about what he loves and believes in, and he would like to love and believe in so much."



"… Your sense of the sea will make it like a shell held to the ear… "

Vita Sackville West, Pepita, inscribed by the author to Stephen with an autograph letter signed from the author 1947, Another World Than This… an anthology compiled by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson, inscribed by Vita to Stephen and four others by the same author 1921-1947.

Vita Sackville West and Stephen Tennant had already known each other for a number of years when the mutual interest in gardens drew them closer in the period immediately after the end of the Second World War. In December 1945, having just returned from a trip to Sissinghurst, Stephen wrote:

"Wonderful visit to Vita… Vita reading the Phoenix & Turtle aloud – quoting from the sonnets. I loved glimpsing, in these 2 days, her legend . . . The evening of my arrival she looked quite wonderful – hatless with gold gypsy earrings – & riding britches & holding back a big Alsatian". Journals, 15th of December 1945.

In her letter tucked amongst the pages of Another World Than This, written from Sissinghurst Castle and dated January 18 1949, Vita Sackville West proposes that Stephen should come to stay at Sissinghurst since he cannot make the lunch they had arranged. She mentioned some incense-scented apple logs she has:

"I am sorry about our projected luncheon on Feb 8th, but of course if you are gone to Paris before then it can't be helped. I would love you to spend a night here before you go, could you come Friday Jan 28 or Friday Feb 4th? Do if you can. I have got some apple logs from an old apple tree blown down in the recent gales - and they smell like incense on the fire - and they might remind you of Catholic churches in Venice as well as of apple orchards in England - and so we could sit and talk about Italy and England and Spain and North Africa, with Northern winter winds blowing around us and the scent of incense in our nostrils - and poetry in our hearts..."

Your Lovin V

December 12th 1945




'Given me by Siegfried in the time of moss-roses'

Throughout their relationship Siegfried gifted Stephen dozens of wonderful books, ranging from his own personal works to antique encyclopaedias on plants and shells and the few rare pieces they made together. Each book held an inscription in Siegfried's flowing handwriting, a poem just for Stephen, a few lines from an essay by a poet they both loved and sometimes letters tucked between the pages, to be forgotten about perhaps until Stephen goes to identify a shell and the letter reveals itself again. I think there is no greater romance than gifting books with hand written inscriptions of poetry on the title page and love letters used as bookmarks.

Gerard Manley Hopkins


G.F. Lahey

First edition with a coloured drawing by Stephen of a heart and a rose and the inscription:

'Given me by Siegfried in the time of moss-roses 1930'

In the language of flowers moss roses are a confession of love.

A Room of One's Own


Virginia Wolf

First edition inscribed by Siegfried with a poem by Shelly.

'Stephen from S, November 11, 1929"

"Thy light alone like mist o'er mountains driven,

Or music by the night-wind sent

Through strings of some still instrument,

Or moonlight on a midnight stream,

Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream."

The Savoy Illustrated quarterly, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley - a 22nd birthday gift from Siegfried to Stephen, 1928.



"I read and think of Shelley all day..."

Adonais by Shelley, 1909 edition, inscribed by Rex Whistler to Stephen with a decorative initial 'S' by Whistler. In April 1926, Rex Whistler gave his friend Stephen, probably as a twentieth birthday present, a book of Shelley's verse. Two years later in May, 1928, Stephen made 'a wonderful impersonation' of the poet to Oliver Messel's Byron at the Countess of Birkenhead's charity matinée at Daly's Theatre, Leicester Square, entitled 'The Pageant of Hyde Park'. Rex designed the suit for the production.

"Yesterday morning" wrote Stephen in the autumn of 1928 "while staying with the Sitwells at the castle of Montegufoni three carloads of us set off at 10 for Viareggio... I thought of Shelly all the time… a sort of dull agony swept over me that he was dead (but) I felt grateful for his help, and for his beauty." And the following day: " and now I am sitting up in bed in my shrill green check pyjamas and pink ice dressing gown… I read and think of Shelley all day..." Journals 23rd and 24 September 1928.





The End


Stephen Tennant on a Syrie Maugham day bed, photographed by Cecil Beaton in the Study of Wilsford Manor, April 1938



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