Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Old Park - and a stormy friendship

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I was just looking at the website for Haddon Lake House, a self-build/restoration project in the St Lawrence Undercliff, Isle of Wight. How to make a planning application with style: write a scholarly-researched monograph on the site's geology and history,  The landscape of Old Park. It's interesting reading, in part for its observation about the appeal of the Undercliff to Victorians: that it combined elements of the the now-quaint classification of the "picturesque" (pretty scenery) and the "sublime" (scary scenery).  (You can see in the above image: the picturesque was the coastal plain, the sublime the line of sheer cliff that separates it from the farmland to the north). It also fills in some missing pieces of a story I explored earlier - see The writer, the cancer-merchant, his eccentric wife, and the faux castle - about the interlocking lives and fortunes of the wealthy late 19th century inhabitants of the area.

The large estate of Old Park is now divided - for instance, the house is now Old Park Hotel, and the walled garden area and orchid house redeveloped. However, in 1881 it all belonged to William Spindler, a wealthy German industrialist who had moved to the Undercliff for the benefit of his health. He extensively developed the house and estate, originally developed from a farm property by a Thomas Haddon in the early 1880s, and was seized with a renovating fever for the whole area. Irritated that Ventnor didn't see eye to eye with his plans there ...
If the inhabitants of Ventnor refuse to satisfy modern requirements,’ he growled in 1877. ‘There is no doubt that another town ‘Undercliff’ will spring up.
- Old Park Hotel website
... he focused on the Undercliff.  Along with various philanthropic ventures such as laying on piped water for the nearby Whitwell, he envised the creation of a garden village in the Undercliff.  It got as far as extensive landscaping and tree-planting - which appears to have been a positive contribution to the stability of the landslip terrain - and the creation of an esplanade and seawall at Binnel Bay.  With underlying clay, it was extremely unpromising terrain for the latter, and nothing of it remains except a few blocks of masonry nicknamed "Spindler's Folly": see page 46 of Peter Bruce's Wight Hazards.  After an energetic seven years, Spindler died in 1889.

The lives of the Spindler family - William, his wife, and his artist son Walter - became heavily entwined with that of another wealthy ex-pat living in the Undercliff, the American entrepreneur John Morgan Richards (see The Life of John Oliver Hobbes, pp 24-). Richards rented Old Park from the Spindlers, and from childhood Walter Spindler and Richards' daughter  Pearl (later the novelist Pearl Craigie aka John Oliver Hobbes) were friends - though Walter hoped for more.  The friendship was complicated; according to Stanley Weintraub's 1979 The London Yankees: portraits of American writers and artists in England, 1894-1914, Spindler was "hopelessly in love with her", but their relationship was marked by quarrels and long silences, and despite rumours of an engagement in The Bookman in 1897, it appears she juggled him as an option between other male friends (see pp 167-8, Air-bird in the water: the life and works of Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbes), Mildred Davis Harding).  Spindler illustrated her books, painted her portrait, and decorated for her the villa now known as Craigie Lodge; possibly her clearest response was her poetic dedication to him at the end of her book A Bundle of Life:

AH, not for me—to learn the truth by dreaming,
To hear the cries of earth in melody,
To know 'tis night but when the stars are gleaming,—
Ah, not for me.

Music of form and colour's mystery,
The joy of fashioning in fairest seeming
Life's dullest clay and Winter's barest tree ;

To count the years as moments—only deeming
That truly Time which makes thy Art to thee
The one thing needful and the all-redeeming,—
Ah, not for me !

September 23, 1893
_ page 155, A Bundle of Life, JS Tait, New York
It's hard to say what exactly the poem means, but - written to an artist, saying art is not enough in life -  it seems to be a kiss-off. Almost certainly her position as a divorcee-turned-devout-Catholic strongly contributed to her relationship problems. The situation was resolved by her early death from heart disease in 1906.  Walter Spindler died in 1940. Neither his art nor Pearl Craigie's novels are much remembered.

Addendum: see Spindler's List (24th April 2014) for a fuller account of William Spindler's life and work.

- Ray

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