Olga Davenport: the woman

Olga Davenport was born Olga Edwardes in South Africa, from whence she came to England at the age of sixteen. The family arrived penniless and it fell to Olga to shape some sort of living. House decorating and painting lampshades were two of her skilled undertakings in the search for remunerative employment. Here in London she studied painting, ballet and acting. Her younger brother Paul studied at Imperial College London and attended lectures by the socialist and Fabian, Harold Laski, whose modern enlightened thinking would have complemented and leant strength to Olga’s political leanings.

She first exhibited her work in Cape Town when she was fifteen; and so painting has been a constant feature of her life even when other creative diversions directed her attention elsewhere. The vast open spaces and distant mountains would remain with her through her career. She persistently remembered the slow movement of the agapanthus bed outside the window of her childhood home. Her father, J. M. Solomon, was a major architect who was apprenticed with Herbert Baker in Cape Town. He designed the successful Johannesburg Art Gallery early in his career and in Cape Town he converted the old Town House into the Michaelis Gallery. Jo Solomon wanted to create a cultural realm for South Africa. His involvement in the Michaelis Gallery project, and his friendship with Hugh Lane, enabled Max Michaelis to buy forty-two Dutch and Flemish masters from Lane, the basis of the Michaelis Gallery collection. He went on to plan the University of Cape Town by the time he was thirty-four years old. In his brief residence in London he had come to know H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett as well as most of the leading academicians and scientists. He died, in tragic circumstances, when he was thirty-six years of age.

On stage she was Olga Edwardes and she first danced in a company of Anton Dolin. As an actress, her work included leading roles in the West End theatre, in Shakespeare at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon as well as in films, radio and television. During the war, she spent a year with the BBC Repertory Company and appeared with John Gielgud in Landslide. She starred in the Oxford Repertory Company before returning to cinema where she appeared in Gabriel Pascal’s film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, amongst other films. She worked with Alexander Korda and starred in his The Angel and the Trumpet. She was also, for a time, a television presenter. When, eventually, she returned to painting from her career as an actress, Gielgud wrote to her to say that he thought it a great pity she had given up the theatre.

Her first marriage, in 1941, was to Anthony Baerlein, who had kept wicket at Eton in 1930. Baerlein was a writer, a novelist (his first novel, Daze the Magician had been highly praised) and journalist who wrote features for the Daily Express. He was an extremely handsome man who met Miss Edwardes backstage during a performance at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Olga was standing in the wings when she fell in love with a seemingly disembodied voice calling, ‘Bring up the dawn, Ted’. Baerlein joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 and flew bombers over Germany. Baerlein and Olga married in 1940. A notice in his own Daily Express, Monday, October 27, 1941, reads,

The Daily Express regrets to announce the death in action of Pilot Officer Anthony M. Baerlein, who left its editorial staff to join the Royal Air Force last year.

Baerlein was twenty-nine years old when he was killed.

Her second marriage, during the war, was to Nicholas Davenport, the radical city economist. Davenport describes their meeting in his Memoirs,

…I saw across the room a beautiful brunette talking to a guest animatedly. She had a retroussé nose, the high cheekbones of the Slav, long dark eyelashes, the heavy lidded eyes of an infant Buddha, and a very clear, cultured English voice. She was unique. I went over to intervene in the conversation, in the rude way tolerated at cocktail parties and was immediately, but with charm and humour, put in my place. This made me determined to take her out to dinner and after the party, emboldened by many gins, I pushed aside a man who was actually getting her into a taxi and before she had time to protest I told the driver to go to L’Ecu de France, a restaurant where I was well known and could be sure of a table. There over dinner I proposed. She raised a quizzical eyebrow and said: ‘Perhaps you will ask me again when you are sober’. I did.

The Davenports lived at Hinton Manor where they entertained economists, philosophers and politicians at grand gatherings that included conservative elements to whom, as we have seen, Olga made her feelings clear. Nicholas, however, had his own interest in the arts, being invited to join the board of the Alexander Korda Company, set up as an amalgamation of MGM and Korda production interests in Great Britain. Davenport’s great love was for the Baroque, which he was able to collect cheaply, because out of fashion. Olga’s paintings sat happily with these works at Hinton Manor, where she expended huge design energy on the house. It was possible to travel long corridors between the sombre faces of ancients then open the door into a room full of Modernist colour.

Far from being conservative, Nicholas Davenport was seen as a radical economist and wrote in favour of the Beveridge Plan and its likely emancipatory effects upon women. (In 1941 the coalition government commissioned a report into the ways in which Britain should be re-constructed after the war. William Beveridge, a Liberal social reformer and Oxford don, published his report in 1942 recommending that the government find ways of defeating the five ‘Giant Evils’ of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’ The plan was the basis upon which has been built the welfare state.)

Nevertheless, Olga’s creative personality would have been Bohemian in the social scene centred on Hinton and it is here that we see her attraction to art as irresistible. She returned to study fine art in the nineteen-fifties, studying painting at the Chelsea Polytechnic, at the Royal College of Art and at Peter Lanyon’s school in St Ives. She exhibited with the London Group and with the Women’s International Art Club. Since then she has shown in a number of group exhibitions including an Arts Council tour, at the Leicester Galleries, at the Whitechapel, the A. I. A., the Drian Gallery, Galerie Creuse, Paris, House of Fine Arts, Athens, ‘Women in the Arts Today’ at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford, Grabowski Gallery, and at the Demarco Gallery.

She has had two one-person shows at the Piccadilly Gallery in London’s Cork Street in 1969 and in 1976; and in 1978 she had a solo show of oils at the Oxford Gallery. Her works are in the permanent collections of the Nuffield Foundation, St Anne’s College Oxford, Warwick University, the Department of the Environment, and in private collections in England, Switzerland, South Africa, Belgium and the United States of America.

I mentioned that Anthony Baerlein was a handsome man. Nicholas Davenport was an amazing intellect. In his own words, he tells how striking Olga Edwardes was; and how stricken was he. She was, as a young woman, an astounding beauty. She was also an impressive creative force. It is a heady combination. Men chucked caution to the wind.
There is a bust of Olga by the sculptor F. E. McWilliam; two portrait drawings of her in her collection by the British artist, Theyre Lee-Elliott; and another gouache drawing of her dancing by Lee-Elliott, with a verse by the artist on the reverse dedicated to her. His was not the only verse inspired by Olga’s muse:

As a young actress she was going to catch a train one day to play in a theatre at Frinton-on-Sea when she met A. P. Herbert in Piccadilly. As she had no time to stop and chat he said he would travel down to Frinton with her and catch the next train back. The following day she received this poem which he had written in the train on the way home:

Is he so mad who travels to the shore
Then back at once to where he was before?
Does not the ocean under Olga’s sway,
Commit the same sweet folly twice a day?
Thus the mad fish pursue the moon in vain,
But will, as happily, pursue again.
Thus climbers, having made the steep ascent,
Salute the stars, and then return – content.