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The Remarkable Albums of Sylvia Drew


By Turtle Bunbury

(This article appeared in The World of Interiors, September 2011)

In my father’s childhood, the albums lay upon a table in the bay window of the Drew family home in the Lake District. There were four of them, 12” x 16” landscapes, bound in burgundy calf leather. After tea was served, friends and relations were invited to turn the pages at their leisure.

The albums were created by Sylvia Drew, my father’s grandmother, with help from her sister Dorothy and, in due course, from her three daughters.

They provide an exceptional and vivid 240-page portrait of the life of a British upper middle class family from the last days of Edwardian England in 1909 to the economic quagmire of the early 1930s.

Each page – or double page spread – combines watercolours and ink drawings by Sylvia with autographs, postcards, sketches, telegrams, photographs and other printed souvenirs from their leisurely social life. But it is the actual design, the bold layouts and the upbeat panache of these pages that commands the most attention.

Sylvia Drew was a lady of considerable elegance, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes intimidating, but always stylish. She was born on Abercrombie Square, Liverpool, in November 1887, eleven months after her parents’ marriage at the British Embassy in Paris.

Her mother’s family had strong ties to Liverpool where Sylvia’s grandfather Dr. William Stewart Trench had served as Medical Officer for the city’s cholera and typhus-riddled populace from 1863 until his death in 1877.

On her fathers’ side, banking ran deep. Her forbears founded the Craven Bank in Yorkshire in 1791, which evolved into the Bank of Liverpool and Martin’s Bank. Sylvia’s father Peart Robinson was a director of both. Family lore holds that he met his wife Edith on a train in Germany where she had been studying music.

Peart and Edith Robinson settled at Reedley Hall, Burnley, Lancashire, where they raised their four sons and three daughters.

In 1909, Sylvia married her neighbour Jack Drew of Lowerhouse, Burnley. The Drews originally hailed from Glasgow where Jack’s great-grandfather was a director of Haldane’s Academy of Art. In the 1860s, Jack’s uncle Alexander Drew moved south to Lancashire where he established a massive Print and Bleach Works in Rochdale. Jack subsequently became a director of this lucrative textile and fabric business, running the company’s Lowerhouse Printworks.

The first of Sylvia’s albums begins in December 1909, four months after Sylvia and Jack’s wedding. Britain is going to the polls and the Drews appear to be throwing their lot in with G.A. Arbuthnot, the victorious Conservative candidate for Burnley.

Over the next 23 years, the albums provide a seamless showcase of the Drew’s daily life, of large family reunions and lengthy road trips in the Berliet, of Caribbean cruises and regattas at Cowes, of picnics in the New Forest, shooting parties in Padiham, golf competitions at Broadstone, tennis tournaments in Yorkshire, racing at Ascot, point-to-points in Ribblesdale.

Theatre and opera are a regular part of the diet and page after page reminds of long-forgotten theatres, as well as the grand restaurants and hotels the Drews attended before and after the curtains were drawn.

In May 1913, Jack and Sylvia embarked upon a journey through the Kaiser’s Germany, taking in Westphalia, Cologne and Munich. In Saxony, they visited Sylvia’s aunt Beatrice Robinson who had married the German novelist Wilhelm von Polenz.

The outbreak of war with Germany a year later inevitably played chaos with their lives. The shadow of war falls across the pages with a silhouetted sketch of large numbers of men marching into the distance.

Like any family, the Drews were devastated by the war. Jack’s only brother Alan died at Neuve Chapelle in 1915. His brother-in-law Harry Hargreaves was slain by a sniper at Gallipoli. G. A. Arbuthnot, M.P. for Burnley, fell at the Somme.

Further sadness followed. A photograph from 1918 shows Sylvia’s sister Dorothy tumbling merrily out of the church in Piccadilly where she had just married Captain Geoffrey Sherston, M.C. Two years later, Dorothy succumbed to puerperal fever. Her only daughter grew up to be Door de Graaf, a key figure in the Dutch branch of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. Door passed away in January 2011.

Away from war, there is much humour in these pages. A menu for the future, etched in 1918, predicts hair soup, devilled dog, mousse of mouse and leather savoury.

On another page, a friend by the name of ‘The Blue Boar’ laments: ‘Why is it that a man never sees the one woman in the world he ought to have married – until long after he has married the one woman in the world he ought never to have seen’.

Sylvia commemorated the birth of each of her five children with a full-page watercolour. Pamela arrives in a stork-delivered basket in 1910. Diana swings down from a crescent moon two years later. Johnny buzzes in on a biplane in 1914. Hermione swoops down by owl express in 1916. Anthony, attached to a kite, serenely drifts from a cloud in August 1918.

Sylvia’s drawing technique showed a tremendous gift for capturing movement. It was a style that carried through to her daughter Hermione whose charmingly illustrated hunting diaries were published as ‘The Oxenholme Hounds’ in 2010.

Over the course of the albums, the Drew children grow from ruddy-cheeked toddlers to gangly teenagers to young adults. Tragedy lay in store when, six months after Jack’s premature death in 1935, 21-year-old Johnny threw himself from the seventh floor of the Dorchester Hotel in London. The family fortune subsequently vanished in a haze, the mists of which were considerably fanned when young Anthony took up with the fun-loving widow of the great British prankster, Horace de Vere Cole.

The fortune was gone but the artistic gift remained. Sylvia had an ability to paint ships, airplanes, trains and motorcars that was unusual for women artists of that time. In one particularly evocative page, the Drew children are splashing in the waters of Bournemouth Bay while the 4th Destroyer Flotilla sprawls upon the skyline. Jack was impressed and, before his death, encouraged his daughters to focus their easels on the industrial landscape.

His eldest daughter Pamela took him literally. In 1937 she married one of Johnny’s school friends from Ireland and became Lady Rathdonnell. In 1952, ‘Pamela Drew’ (she always painted under her maiden name) was commissioned as the official artist for the R.A.F Coronation Review. The following year, she was commissioned by Sir David Eccles, British Works Minister, to paint the Queen’s night departure in the Airliner Canopus on the start of the Royal tour.

As a war artist, Pamela painted much of the Middle East command comprising Cyprus, Aden, Jordan, Iraq and the last chapters of the Mau Mau operations in Kenya. At the time of Sylvia’s death in 1973, she had permanent works on display at Dublin Airport and RAF bases throughout Britain.

This industrial edged feminine style has permeated down to the next generation, as exemplified by Farm 21, the rural design company run by Pamela’s granddaughter Sasha Sykes. It is also evident in the landscapes designer by her grandson Andrew Bunbury.

In one of the early albums, Sylvia’s brother-in-law Alan Drew offers this advice: ‘To every life that God hath given, he hath allotted a work – the fulfilment of that work comes naturally, and its proper accomplishment should form the sole ambition of that life’.

Whether these albums were Sylvia’s sole ambition or not is unknown. Accomplished and complete, they are certainly an incredible legacy.