Women Writers And Italy: Dorothy Nevile Lees

Plaque at Via Foscola, 32, in Florence

Plaque at Via Foscola, 32, in Florence

Dorothy Nevile Lees was born in Wolverhampton in 1880, the youngest of the seven children of William and Rose Lees.  The Lees were a long-established Wolverhampton family and in the 1891 census Dorothy’s father was described as  a ‘justice of the peace, Mediterranean merchant and manufacturer of tinned japanned wares’. Ten years later the family were living in Old Ivy House, Lower Street, Tettenhall. For further information about Old Ivy House see here.

In 1903 Dorothy Lees travelled to Italy, arriving on 4 November in Florence, where she was to remain for the rest of her life. On 7 November her brother, Gerald, set sail for Montreal to work there as an agent for Mander Bros, the leading Wolverhampton manufacturer of paint and varnish. In the 1901 Gerald had been working as a clerk his father’s company. I sense that there may have been some kind of business failure, for in 1911 the eldest Lees son, Lawrence, was working as a’ needle manufacturer’, living with his parents, his father being described as ‘a retired export merchant’ (incidentally this is the only 1911 census form that I have seen on which the information has been typed rather than handwritten). When William Lees died in 1917 he left only £300 or so and this may be some kind of explanation as to why Dorothy left home; it was then very much cheaper to live in Italy and, if she hoped to earn money from writing, there was more picturesque ‘copy’ in Florence than in Tettenhall. In 1907 she published two books, Scenes and Shrines in Tuscany  and Tuscan Feasts and Friends. She dedicated the latter book to her brother, Gerald, ‘Oceans part not kindred hearts/While they remain akin’. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter, demonstrating the potency of the Tuscan dream that has captivated English women throughout the centuries.

Lees Tuscan

‘From the first moment when, in the afternoon sunshine of a day sweet and unforgettable, a bend in the road revealed it, the Villa took prisoner of my heart.

The Villa, strictly speaking, was not beautiful; its time-stained platstered walls, its lofty height, its heavily-barred windows were a little guant and forbidding; and yet, as I stepped down from the carriage, I felt instinctively that I had found the place of dreams and peace.

It was a house to enchant any lover of antiquity, with its furniture of dark oak and antique gilded leather, its ancient bronze and silver lamps, its tapestries, its painted ‘Cassoni’, in which the brides of a past day brought home their gear; its portraits of old-time Florentines in lucco  or parti-coloured hose, in wigs and ruffles and brocaded coats; of ladies in Medicean costume of grave-faced priors and dashing cavaliers, some of whom lived in, and, no doubt, still haunt, the queit rooms on which they down gaze down!

Yes, it was a story-book house. So I decided that night in my quanit little bedroom, with its high wagon-roof and red-paved floor, while the moon, low in the west above the dark huddle of the woods, shone in through the window, drawing the close-crossed bars, with which Italians guard all lower casements, in clear black outline upon the opposite wall. Watching the quiet silver light, which seemed like a benediction, making the little room a holy place, and listening to the dripping of the fountain and the hooting of the owls in the profound stillness of the September night, I could but fall asleep murmuring, ‘the lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground’, since the guiding star of fortune had stood still for me above a place so sweet.’

Dorothy Lees’ Tuscan idyll did not, however, find fulfillment as the consort of an Italian conte or marchese, her lot was not be mistress of a Tuscan estate, but to be a life-long handmaid to Edward Gordon Graig, actor and director.

Edward Gordon Craig

Edward Gordon Craig

For it was in early 1907 that, in Florence, Dorothy met  Craig,  the illegitimate son of the actress, Ellen Terry, and the architect, Edward Godwin, and from then on devoted herself to him for the rest of their lives.  She was the mother of one of his eight children; her son, David, was born in September 1917.  Craig was by no means a constant, or appreciative, companion; Isadora Duncan was another of his lovers.

the mask

Dorothy Lees collaborated with Craig on the publication of The Mask, the journal through which he aimed to disseminate his philosophy of the theatre and to demonstrate methods of putting his ideas into practice. Dorothy was the journal’s managing editor and provided financial support from money she earned as a journalist. After Craig left Italy, Dorothy Lees lived on in Florence, rescuing his archive from the attention of the Nazis and, after the war, building up a collection of Craig-related publications for the British Institute.

Dorothy Lees’ papers are held in Harvard University – click here for a full and excellent listing of the collection. Below are descriptions of a few of the letters sent by Craig to Dorothy Lees around the time their son was born.

  • (915) Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966. Letter to Dorothy Nevile Lees, 1917 Sept. 5. 1 letter.
    Publication business; words of encouragement for facing sad things in life; signed “ever yours.”

  • (916) Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966. Letter to Dorothy Nevile Lees, 1917 Sept. 13. 1 letter.
    On arrangements for DNL in hospital; should not register under EGC’s name; [baby] should have plain name.

  • (917) Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966. Letter to Dorothy Nevile Lees, 1917 Sept. 17. 1 letter.
    Concerning baptism; EGC does not want name in it (on it?) at all.

  • (918) Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966. Letter to Dorothy Nevile Lees, 1917 Sept. 20. 1 letter.
    New prospectus for the Marionnette.

  • (919) Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966. Letter to Dorothy Nevile Lees, 1917 Sept. 24. 1 letter.
    Glad for DNL’s sake news is good; his dissatisfaction with Mr. Furst.

  • (920) Craig, Edward Gordon, 1872-1966. Letter to Dorothy Nevile Lees, 1917 Sept. 26. 1 letter.
    On Mr. Furst as a worker; his “young apache;” on proper relationship between men and women; “women could make the world a much more pleasant place and life a far more pleasant time for all people if they would do what they [are] told to or asked to do.”

I think this small sample give a flavour of their relationship. Doubtless, for Dorothy life in Florence, which she describes in the opening page of Tuscan Feasts as a ‘dream city’,  provided the balm to what must have been a constantly wounding – but self-chosen – way of life. Her son, David Lees, who died in 2004, was renowned as a photographer; several photographs of his father are held by the National Portrait Gallery. Alas, although surely David Lees must have photographed his mother, I cannot locate any photograph of Dorothy. Such is the fate of handmaidens through history.

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