At the Minories: A Memory
I used to believe that this fine house stood on the site of the house of the Minor Friars, but apparently not so. I was first taken there by my friend John Bensusan-Butt when I was about twenty-one. I was working at Colchester Public Library – and also at being a poet – and John was an artist. His mother, Dr Ruth Bensusan-Butt was a member of the Library Committee and I recall her chiding me about my ignorance of Henry James. She and her husband ran their careers from the Minories, which was a large and wonderfully ramshackle maze of rooms backing onto a wonderful garden with a terrace and cedars. Similar town houses adjoined it and their gardens formed spacious grounds behind the High Street and East Hill. Much of this was ruined by the crude making of the bus park and the horrible business premises in Queen Street. John Bensusan-Butt did all he could to prevent some of this post-war destruction and development, mostly in vain. But our early friendship established my long connection with his home and I would later come there many times over the years when it became an art gallery.
As well as John, my artist friends now included Sir Cedric Morris, Lett Haines, John and Christine Nash, Richard Bedford, Denis Wirth-Miller, Richard Chopping and I suppose most of the Members of the Colchester Art Society, which I founded in 1947. Both writers and painters would be found at the quite glamorous Private View parties at the Minories, and the exhibitions themselves were usually visited by London critics. I became a full time writer in 1956 but I remember giving lectures at the Minories to help raise funds for the purchase of the adjoining house and of often having meals there with some of the curators, especially Michael Chase and Valerie Thornton. I usually stayed with the Nashes at Wormingford.
One great occasion was the Georgian Assembly which Christine Nash and Mary Doncaster staged in the house in the 1970s when we all wore 18th century clothes. Mine were lent to me by Miss Oates, the sister of the Arctic explorer. Captain Oates had worn them before the First World War. A Mozart band played in the summer-house.
My life was now spent between Aldeburgh, Cambridge and Wormingford but I rarely missed the annual exhibitions at the Minories, partly because they drew so many early friends together and partly because I had an increasing love of art. The Bensusan-Butts were related to the Pissarros and Lucien was often at the Minories, bringing the founders of Impressionism into our midst, as it were. Thus the house became part of my youth and closely associated with my early friends. Much later, when I came to live in John Nash’s house, I was to discover that the descendants of Thomas Boggis, the man who had built the Minories, lived just over the fields from me at Wormingford Grange, and would themselves become dear neighbours and friends.
Wormingford, August 2011