Finding Tilly’s footsteps: writer-in-residence at West Dean College

In early December I spent a week as writer-in-residence at West Dean College near Chichester in West Sussex. I had a wonderful few days, meeting students studying on the MA in Creative Writing, giving a talk on my first book, Little Gold, walking in the beautiful grounds and writing in the library.

I’m very grateful to have had this unique opportunity.

As is often the case for writers, a change of scene made me very productive and I did a lot of useful work on my next novel.

But I also became fascinated by this carpet that runs up the spiral staircase in the house.

More specifically, I became fascinated by Tilly Losch, the woman whose footprints those are, captured for nearly a century now, in the wool of the carpet.

Tilly was a dancer.

I walked up the stairs, laid my booted foot beside the print of her bare foot, and found there wasn’t much in it when it came to size. But Tilly was no plodding writer, Tilly was swift and slight and expressed story and emotion through her body in a way I could never hope to do.

She was a choreographer as well as a dancer and she’s best known for a piece called Dance of Her Hands. She acted, starred in films too and, in her later years, painted.

Of course, West Dean is famous for having been the home of a man called Edward James, who was a friend and patron of some of the most famous artists of his era. He supported the work of people like Dali and Magritte. He was fabulously wealthy and was able to support artists for months at a time and was often rewarded with treasures, some of which are to be found at West Dean. But Tilly Losch wasn’t an artist for whom he acted as patron or friend, she was, briefly, his wife.

The story of the carpet is that one day (in James’ Monkton House on the West Dean estate) Tilly Losch ran up the stairs barefoot from her bath and left wet footprints. He was so taken with this that he commissioned a carpet into which her prints are woven.

I have to confess that this story appealed to me on pretty much every level. The thought of having the money to indulge such a fancy, to capture the particular transient intimacy of a lover’s wet footprint, this is the sort of romantic nonsense I rather like.

However, it took only a little reading to discover that Edward James and Tilly Losch’s marriage was a short one that ended in a bitter divorce. He went on to commission another such carpet that was woven with the footprints of his dog…

But who was Tilly Losch? What happened to her in the decades after her marriage to James? I can’t claim that I have carried out extensive research in the weeks since I left West Dean, but I have read what I could on the internet and obtained a couple of books. Clearly there’s a lot more digging I could do, and maybe I will.

But in my reading about her so far, the facts of her career, her dancing, the films, the marriages to two wealthy men, I’ve yet to find her. I find others’ adoration of her as a beauty, or judgement of her as promiscuous, or suspicion of her as a gold-digger. She clearly broke the rules of what a ‘decent’ woman should be in her era, but, then, that was part of what she was meant to do, surely? Dancers, actresses, film stars, they weren’t meant to be good girls.

Good girls disappear from history. But women like Tilly disappear too. They disappear into stereotypes.

On YouTube there she is, in film, dancing, erotic, intense, alive, but I find barely a word spoken.

Tantalising for me are the brief mentions of her relationships with women. Marlene Dietrich? Certainly, it seems, Lotte Lenya. Was Tilly this? ‘A leading doyenne of the Berlin lesbian bar scene.’ (Spoto, Donald. Blue Angel: the life of Marlene Dietrich. Roman and Littlefield, 2000 cited in: Cross, William. Catherine and Tilly: Porchey Carnarvon’s two duped wives. Cross/Book Midden Publishing, 2013)

Yet, nothing, so far, gives me any indication of what her relationships with women meant to her.

This, from a newspaper interview, speaks to me of a woman who had drive and knew herself to stand, ultimately, alone.

‘There are certain people who must find their own way… For instance, I have to go on groping in the dark to find my own little light even if no-one else liked that light.’ (New York Evening Post, 3rd May 1944 cited in: Cross, William. Tilly Losch ‘Schlagobers’: sweet fragments from her life. Cross/Book Midden Publishing, 2015)

But that’s a lot of assumptions I’ve hung on a short quote, eh? No, I don’t really know much. But I do know those are her footprints in the carpet.

I wrote this while I was at West Dean, surrounded by all that treasure and creativity. I wrote this, aware that I’m making her up in my head. Writers are awful ones for making things up. But at least we know we’re doing it. And it was what I was there to do.

Finding Tilly’s footsteps

Her wet foot steams as she lifts it from the stair,
the wool left darkened by the contact.
She brings this alteration of the world
in a sequence of brief touches.

Tilly ran between bath and bed,
prey to something urgent.
He sought to weave her transient feet
into a semblance of permanence.

I trace her step, spiralling up,
crouch to touch with fingers.
Longing, madly, to find it wet
from something swift and intimate.

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2 comments

  1. You have become your own Harriet Vane!!!! Fascinating. And I think we all yearn for a bit of romantic nonsense at times xxx

  2. I wonder if Edward sensed from the start that his relationship with Tilly might be a fleeting one and the footsteps in the carpet could be his attempt to capture an exotic spirit that wouldn’t be constricted anywhere for long? I find the image simultaneously uplifting and sad. What will happen when the carpet inevitably crumbles to nothing? Or will the West Dean conservators perform their magic? JimG / WD Creative Writers

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