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Will – O –The Wisp – Poet Iris Tree

November 21, 2011

Hat by Melbourne Milliner Thomas Harrison

This beautiful hat by famous Melbourne Milliner Thomas Harrison I have named my Iris Tree Hat. In a biography of Nancy Cunard by Anne Chisholm there is a photo of Poet Iris Tree and writer Nancy Cunard in middle age dining in a café in Venice in the late 50s. Iris Tree is wearing a hat shaped exactly like mine and wearing an orange skirt with yellow stockings. She loved colour in the full sense of the word. The 50’s straw hat I am wearing was given to me by my kind neighbour Margret Plowright.

From childhood to old age, Iris Tree lived a bohemian nomadic lifestyle, whether in the United States or in Europe. Her paternal grandfather Beerbohm immigrated to England from Germany. Iris Tree’s upper-middle-class upbringing exposed her to a glittering and artistic society. Her parents were the actors Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (He founded RADA) and Helen Maud Tree. “They entertained widely, bringing prominent artists, writers, entertainers, and members of fashionable London society into the family home”.

Nancy CumardIris Tree was writing poetry by the age of ten, exchanging original verses with Nancy Cunard, who went to day-school with her. See my post on Nancy Cunard – Mad, Bad and Glad to Know. Unlike Nancy Cunard Iris was not political but she was a pacifist. Her most enduring art seems to have been perfecting a true bohemian lifestyle.

Secretly, Iris rented a studio with Nancy Cunard when she was 17: “there they kept theatrical costumes and makeup for party-going, and met their friends for late-night feasts, poetry readings, and cigarette-smoking”. Like Nancy and in tune with her time and the company she kept, Iris loved to shock, “I have had twenty-eight / lovers, some more / some less.” On the fringes of the intellectual Bloomsbury coterie she modeled for Augustus John, and simultaneously modeled for Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister.

Iris Tree by Cecil BeatonIris enrolled at the famous Slade School of Art where she became friends with many of the famous artists of her day including Dora Carrington. She bobbed her hair before anyone else, leaving her magnificent blonde tresses on a train. That, along with other behaviour, caused much scandal. She was photographed by Man Ray and modeled for artist Jacob Epstein and in the nude for Modigliani. She acted alongside her good friend, actress Lady Diana Cooper in the mid-1920s. She contributed verse to the 1917 Sitwell’s Anthology Wheels; her published collections were Poems (1920) and The Traveller and other Poems (1927).

The Bright Young ThingsIn the 1920s Iris and Nancy became part of the so called “Bright Young Things” – made up of “like minded” bohemian set of mainly English blueblood socialites and artists of all persuasions who loved to shock épater les bourgeois: This was the beginning of the rise of celebrity culture in the 20th century. The impact of the group faded by 1929 when the “Bright Young Things “antics ended “up in pursuit of spectacle for its own sake”

Iris married twice first to New Yorker, Curtis Moffatt where they were living in an open relationship then to Friedrich Ledebur, an impoverished Austrian count. Like a true bohemian she engaged in other relationships with various American and European artists.

In 1959 forced by financial difficulties, Iris accepted to play a rather humiliating role in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She bought herself a car with the money, which enabled her to continue her perapatatic lifestyle. Later many of her unpublished manuscripts, which included articles, poems, an unfinished novel, and a memoir, were lost when her car, which doubled as a filing cabinet and wardrobe, was stolen.

The Enchanted Iris TreeShe maintained her vivacity all her life. In her sixties she would sometimes sniff the powder of hallucinogenic mushrooms as a “nightcap.” Iris Tree at 71 was still writing poetry on her deathbed: her last poem begins, “Bury me under a tree / Because of my name and ancestry.”

Reference Rainbow Picnic: Portrait of Iris Tree by Daphne Fielding. This is rather a sanitized version of Iris Tree’s life. The Hon Daphne Fielding was a blue blooded socialite and part of the 1920s Bright Young Things.

Top Photograph:  John Hoerner
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