A Biography of Jet
Joan Evelyn Thomson born in 1914, was the only and adored child of the union between a tea planter and his much younger pretty and deaf second wife. JET lived for much of the time in a large family house in Sunningdale. While her Father spent time in India and Singapore pursuing his interest in tea and jute, her Mother, Sylvia, dressed her beloved child in fairy costumes and indulged her with romantic tales of lineage to thanes saved from wolves by forebears and later morganatic connections to Mary Queen of Scots. This interest in lineage might have been stoked up by Sylvia’s interest in the fashions of the day, as influenced by the Art Nouveau and later Arts and Crafts movements fuelled by the study of fine art prior to her seemingly rather conventional marriage. Memories of peeping through the staircase spindles to sneak views of visiting, exotic Indians and other well dressed dinner guests suddenly came to an abrupt halt when her Father died. Endless photographs track JET as a ten year travelling with her Mother extensively around Europe visiting countries, friends and relatives in Belgium, Holland and Bavaria until Sylvia also died very suddenly from the fatal consequences of a chill.
Like a character in a Francis Hodgeson Burnett novel, JET was left on her own with a Grandmother and Aunt, and a mutual dislike of both. JET became the ward of her uncle by marriage, General Kelly who is always Boo in the albums, whilst her Aunt and his wife is always referred to very formally as Mrs. Kelly. General Kelly was in charge of the army in the North of England and based at Catterick, where the 16 year old JET was expected to ride side-saddle to hounds, play tennis, join in picnic parties by the wide fishing rivers and attend the endless house parties all recorded in fading sepia. It looks very jolly but school friends from a long defunct boarding school for young ladies recorded that the adolescent and strong willed JET was, unsurprisingly, deeply lonely and adrift.
In 1933 there is a picture of JET and a car on the wide Regency drive with the caption “Self off to Art School”. It is assumed that this was a year’s foundation course at York. Unlike many of the little Burnett heroines, JET had inherited a generous sum of money, which gave her probably more independence than many of her contemporaries, as illustrated by the very young woman owning and driving a car.
By 1935 JET was in Paris under the supervision of Marie-Joseph Marcel Frochat, who had forged a great friendship with General Kelly when they were both involved at The Treaty of Versailles. JET and Frochat’s childless wife bonded at once and she became a very important adopted aunt. With a crumbling but beautiful Chateaux near Vienne and a vast address book, Tante Jehanne had launched JET into Parisian society in borrowed House of Worth dresses amid whirling European debutantes.In April 1935 and in stark contrast to parties with Princess Marina, she was enrolled in a course concentrating on the study of textiles. Paris was leading the world, not only in fine art but also in fashion, architecture and design. The Exposition Internationales des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925 had paraded new and wondrous textiles from France, Austria and Germany, heavily inspired by a combination of modern art, the jazz age and The Art Deco Movement. By 1931 Paris was gripped by economic depression and yet still remained the city of creative imagination at the forefront of movements from cubism, abstraction, surrealism and the chic and the fashionable rubbed shoulders with the talented and European avant-garde. JET’s notes of pattern were written in fluent French, which is strange as she strenuously denied any ability to speak French as an older woman. Undoubtedly the heady atmosphere of a more egalitarian society based on common interest rather than birth and creed was a revelation to her and this shaped her social life until death.
There is some sort of affair with an older American at this time and a young JET chaperoned by Tante Jehanne headed for New York with a view to seeing if he was suitable for marriage. His surname was Bush, but she never revealed any more of the name, although we found a diary with the entry of Bush and a very chic address in NYNY. The union did not take place and she later reported that she had found WASP Society very staid and constraining although she was , maybe unconsciously, impressed by New York’s transatlantic variant of The Jazz Age, which is obvious in some of her contemporary designs. She revealed in the 1980’s, when much pushed by her family, that she always had tea at the Dorchester with Mr Bush and his wife when they were in London but intriguingly refused to be drawn out further.
JET at 21 and of age leaves Paris for Vienna with a school friend called Suzy Barnes (Suzy later married Maxwell Knight who was Ian Flemings’s model for M and headed MI6 for a time). These feisty and financially independent young women spent much time in both Vienna and the Tyrol Mountains.JET continued her studies in textile design in Vienna and developed a love of the traditional, local peasant designs as well as interest in the more sophisticated. One of her more outré designs of the time is titled in her hand as “London Day Dress”. There was quite a European community, who enjoyed skiing and rock climbing, flirting and parties and initially unaware of the deepening grip of Nazi Germany. A mood swing against Jewish friends became more main stream in the Cities spreading to a general suspicion of foreigners and JET said later that there was a definite, but still undefined threat in the air, particularly in Vienna.
It was about this time that David Milne appeared in their village. He had suffered from polio and had lost the use of his legs and looked a little out of place in the mountain resort. Having had vicious treatment for polio for years, including much time in a Swiss clinic, David had persuaded his concerned parents that he should be allowed to tour Europe with friends. He did not tell them that he would be on his own or that he had lost all his money in the casinos of Vienna on arrival. He was charming and the hotel valet took pity on him and told him of these English girls in the mountains. David wanted to extend his stay in a modest environment and thereby be able to show his family that he was capable of independence. Besides, the girls were reportedly pretty and vivacious and he was on the rebound from a failed love affair and looking for a mild, un-chaperoned adventure. A love affair emerged and before they came back to England, David had mischievously telegrammed to his family to say that he was proposing to marry an Alpine barmaid and his stuffy family received her with little grace. JET in turn did not warm to their county intellect and the marriage was not a great success. David and Jet did however have a shared love of design and textiles, his family having been involved in the shop Kendal Milne & Co in Manchester, who acted as agents for William Morris, long before Morris became vastly collected. David and JET had association with The Ballet Russes and had many writers and artists as friends. They moved to Chideock in Dorset and had two children. These years became increasingly difficult as David felt seriously guilty that he was unable to serve in the armed forces. His depression and her deep insecurity led to a gulf in their relationship and it is suggested that he had several affairs at this time.
Edward Wolfe RA and his Mother were billeted on them from London and Edward and JET became the greatest of friends for the rest of their lives. Edward had come from South Africa and was picked up by Duncan Grant and worked for Roger Fry in The Omega Workshops, an enterprise, founded in 1913, encouraging artists to have equal regard for decorative works as fine art and to design and produce their own textiles, wallpapers and ceramics. Although the project came to an end in 1919, The Omega Workshop had a profound influence on 20th Century design. Indeed screen-printed textiles by the Bloomsbury Grant for Alan Walton Textiles in the 1930’s definitely influenced JET’s aesthetic.
JET and David’s marriage failed and she went back to London determined to reclaim her life and career. Wolfe encouraged her and his drawings were found in her portfolio as they had obviously worked together on several designs, which she signed with her married name Milne. Wolfe painted her a lot as he was always looking for a life model and she seemed perfectly willing to disrobe for him. She actively sought work, not particularly in need of finance but definitely in need of reclaiming her soul and there are draft letters to British Manufacturers asking for employment.
Susan, her eldest daughter remembers seemingly ‘ long periods’ when her Mother was absent working for the iconic Zika Ascher. Ascher persuaded famous European artists to design fabrics. Cocteau, Moore, Matisse, Sutherland, Piper and Picasso among many others produced designs for his silk square scarves, which are still in fantastic demand by collectors today. Susan’s childhood memory is not accurate in her assessment of her divorcing Mother’s absence and so we are not sure for how long JET was in the employ of Zika Ascher.
Teddy Wolfe introduced JET to Thomas Smith Fairley and their circle were quite confused when they married as it had been assumed (wrongly) that perhaps Thomas was Teddy’s lover. Allen Lane, the publisher and founder of Penguin Books acted as best man and was one of a very interesting group of people that Tommy bought to JET’s life. Tommy was a publisher who had been a spy during the war and deeply involved in the planning of ‘The Spy That Never Was’, a consul in Mexico and Chief Press Officer to The Festival of Britain and this was probably the happiest time in JET’s life. Her work and aspirations were discarded and her designs were relegated to the back of a Regency Secretaire.
At 49, JET lost the most loved person in her life. Tommy died of cancer leaving a heart-broken widow, still young but exhausted and full of grief. This is when I first remember my Grandmother Vicky, so called after her standard poodle. Her loved and trusted poodles helped her through the first years and Teddy Wolfe introduced JET to Trancendental Meditation, which filled the void left by Tommy better than anything else. She talked of a boy band called ‘The Bugs’ and as her small grandchild I yawned with boredom. Had she called them by their real name “The Beatles”, the reaction would have been rather different.
Perhaps TM ignited childhood associations with India? Certainly her friends were varied in make-up, from dowagers and rock stars to classical musicians, students and sound recordists and other disciplines from the BBC, all squashed into local Campden Hill eateries that knew she NEVER carried her bank card. Her little blue painted house in Kensington Place was now acting as The West London Centre for Trancendental Meditation and was full to the brim with as my Mother reported rather suspiciously “all sorts”.
I now called my Grandmother ‘JET’ and we became cautious friends. She alluded briefly to her time at art school and her young life but really she was more preoccupied with filling her present up with words from The Maharishi. Over twenty years after her death, I was rifling through the drawers of the now inherited Regency Secretaire and discovered a large collection of drawings. On further inspection, I discovered that these were the content of a portfolio of JET’s hand drawn textile designs along with scrappy shedding tracing papers plotting the pattern through repeat, some notebooks and British Council catalogue of yarn colours. I was supposed to have inherited a vast and sentimental Edwardian portrait of her as a small, overdressed child clutching a flower, which went to a cousin by accident. However, in the end, I got something so much more precious and rare and I hope that JET would feel that her work was in safe hands?
With Thanks to
Robert and Georgina Hamilton of Hamilton & Weston who loved the designs and helped us develop the first wallpaper designs.
Emma Crichton-Miller, who we commissioned to write a potted biography about JET with help from the photograph albums and anything else we could find to help her extract the woman out of the Grandmother. From this work she then provided the text to our debut World of Interiors Article in October 2017.
My Mum, Susan Burgess, for enduring my endless questioning with her limitless patience whilst being so horribly and terminally ill. 1937-2018
And of course, John