the Violet
Robert Barnes

Robert Barnes was a friend of David Lindsay’s during the interwar years, and is quoted by both Bernard Sellin and J B Pick as a source in their biographies. From these we learn Barnes was a musician and painter, that he bought the Lindsays a piano while they were living in Ferring,[1] that he was the basis for the painter Peter Copping in Devil’s Tor,[2] and that he created a small plaster sculpture of a witch “in neo-classical style”[3] (though E H Visiak described it as being a “wild eldritch-looking effigy”[4]), that Lindsay kept before him while writing his final novel. Neither Sellin nor Pick provides much biographical information about him, though, other than that he and Lindsay met in 1921, when Barnes was 21,[5] and that he died in 1988[6] (though this last detail proved to be out by a year).

For a long time I couldn’t find out anything more about him, until I went through the 1939 Register (a census of the UK) looking at every Robert Barnes born around the turn of the century to see if I could find one who was an artist or musician. There was one obvious candidate, a “Professional Artist and Art Teacher” living in Croydon.[7] I started finding out more about him, and though he looked more and more likely, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to definitely link him to Lindsay. But it was through Lindsay’s sister that I finally made that link, as she gives Robert Barnes’s (and his mother’s) address as her last UK address before departing on a boat-trip to Madeira,[8] where her and David’s cousin had married a hotelier. (On her next trip, the following year, she gives David Lindsay’s address in Ferring, and travels with David’s wife Jacqueline.)

This, then, is what I’ve been able to find out about David Lindsay’s painter friend.

He was born Robert Henry Barnes on 15th July, 1899,[9] in Kennington,[10] a South London district of the Borough of Lambeth. His father, Henry William Barnes (born 1870) was an “engineer, turner”,[11] i.e. a lathe-machinist, at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich.[12] Henry seems to have met his wife, Florence Mary Loadder (born 1869) whilst lodging at her family’s house on Kennington Park Road as a young man. (That’s where he is for the census in 1891. The other lodger in the Loadder house at the time, Thomas Philip Cadman, is another worker at the Royal Arsenal, and would also marry one of the Loadder girls, becoming Henry’s brother-in-law.) The Royal Arsenal employed a lot of people. During the First World War, when its workforce increased significantly, it employed around 79,000 civilians.[13])

Entrance to the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.

Henry and Florence married in 1894. Their first child, Stanley William Barnes, was born in 1898. Some time after Robert’s birth in 1899, they moved further east (closer to Henry’s workplace), to Foyle Road in Greenwich. The next census (1911) sees them living in Humber Road, Blackheath, which is actually just around the corner from Foyle Road. Blackheath is where David Lindsay was born, and throughout this decade the Barnes family are living in the same area as the Lindsays. (After Humber Road, they move to 113 High Road, Lee,[14] now known as the Lee High Road, and part of Lewisham, where Lindsay lived. See the map, where I’ve included the Lindsay household among the addresses I have for the Barnes family around this time.)

Key addresses in Robert Barnes’s early life, plus David Lindsay’s home at Blackheath Rise. Click to magnify.

In the 1911 census, Henry is no longer an iron-turner, but has worked his way up to "engineer foreman". In 1915, the world now being at war, Robert’s brother Stanley, then working as a laboratory assistant, is assessed for his fitness to join the Royal Flying Corps. The odd thing is, though he seems to have passed the medical examinations and been approved, the approval is crossed out in red by an army major, who has underlined the point by putting “not” and “do not” above the words “approve” and “appoint” on the form. So Stanley was discharged, “not being likely to become an efficient soldier” — for the time being, at least.[15]

Stanley Barnes’s first assessment as a soldier.

The following year, on 16th September, Robert and Stanley’s father Henry dies at the age of 46.[16] His death certificate gives the cause as “General paralysis of the insane, duration indefinite”, and at the time he was in what was then known as Cane Hill Asylum, a psychiatric hospital later called Cane Hill Hospital, and known for housing, among others, Charlie Chaplin’s mother, Michael Caine’s brother, and David Bowie’s half-brother (the building itself appears on the US cover of The Man Who Sold the World). The hospital, opened in 1882, was closed in 1991. The building became celebrated as a spooky abandoned site for urban explorers to visit (see for, instance, this article), until demolition and fire destroyed it by 2010.

In 1917, Stanley was again assessed for fitness in the army, and this time was approved. He became part of the Royal Engineers, and was assigned to “N” Special Company.[17] The Special Companies were formed in reaction to the German use of poisoned gas. Although this use led to exclamations of horror in the media at the time, the British Army was quick to decide it had to respond in kind. Stanley, previously a laboratory assistant and now a chemist, was ideal for this role. (The Special Companies didn’t do the work of developing chemical weapons, but were trained in deploying them, through the use of smoke candles and “projectors” that launched gas canisters at the enemy. See The Special Companies of the Royal Engineers for more.)

Stanley’s army records are quite lengthy, and prove he wasn’t entirely (as that major in 1915 had perhaps realised) the army’s idea of an “efficient soldier”. He’s penalised three times for not obeying orders. The first is when he goes AWOL for 46 hours and 20 minutes, for which he receives 14 days’ field punishment. Another time, he gets 7 days’ confinement to barracks for “not complying with an order given by a superior officer”. Yet another, he displays “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, viz: obtaining double rations”. He’s fined 7 days’ pay, plus spends 7 days confined to camp. Stanley was obviously not the sort to simply do as he was told, World War or no, and the attempt to get double rations, at least, makes him seem like something of a cheeky lad.

St Peter's Church, Tunbridge Wells

Although I can’t find a specific record of Robert’s conscription into the army (which would have happened on his turning 18, in 1917), there’s an interesting record which at least implies it. On 11th September 1918, at the age of 19, he was baptised at St Peter’s in Tunbridge Wells. The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Charles Kenneth Woollcombe, who had been made a temporary Chaplain to the Forces in May that year.[18] (This is the only baptism he performs in the register where Robert’s is recorded, making it fairly certain Robert was in the army at the time.) There was at least one army camp in or near Tunbridge Wells, at Bayhall (where the Rev. Woollcombe is noted as giving a speech on 30th June, in the Kent & Sussex Courier[19]). It’s significant that Robert had turned 19 only a few months before, as soldiers were not sent overseas and into action before the age of 19. Now he was of an age to enter the Great War, it’s easy to see him taking what spiritual solace he can beforehand...

But, two months later, the Great War ended. Robert may have never got outside the country. Sadly, though, the same was not true for his brother. The 11th of November marked the end of hostilities, but death on such a scale has a momentum of its own. Stanley came down with bronchial pneumonia “due to exposure whilst on military duty”. He was hospitalised, and died ten days after the ceasefire. He’s buried at Étaples Military Cemetery in France, “A dear son loved & honoured by his mother for his great devotion to her”.[20]

In 1919, with the war over, Robert’s mother Florence remarried. Her husband, Herbert James Score Allen, 66 years old to Florence’s 50, was already twice widowed by this time, and had several grown children. He had worked as an auctioneer’s clerk, auctioneer’s manager, and auctioneer surveyor — all terms linked with what we’d now call estate agency in the UK, though by this point he might have been retired.

Barnes's painting signature, from 1953

In the 1921 Census, Robert lists his occupation as a full-time architecture student, but in December 1923 he became a student at the Royal Academy of Arts.[21] He remained there until 1928. It was a difficult period for the Royal Academy. In contrast to the other major London art schools, Slade and the Royal College of Art, the Royal Academy at the time was seen as conservative and traditionalist, emphasising realism while the other schools looked more towards the bright colours and post-Impressionist styles of the continent. And this seems to have been as much about expectations from outside as conservative forces from within. Charles Sims, appointed Keeper of the Royal Academy’s teaching side in 1920, exhibited a portrait of King George V in 1924 that so offended the King it was withdrawn and eventually burned.[22] After that, Sims didn’t return to teaching at the Royal Academy, though he remained its Keeper till 1926. In 1928, he had his final paintings accepted as part of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, but committed suicide before the exhibition opened. (Sims’s mental disturbances were around long before he took up his position at the Royal Academy, but feeling confined by a conservatism he couldn’t support, and receiving such a blow to his artistic standing, can’t have helped.)

Catalogue for the 1924 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions are significant for being open to anyone, though there’s a fierce competition for inclusion, as space is limited. Robert H Barnes (as he’s listed in the catalogues) had several paintings exhibited at these Summer Exhibitions, both during his time as a student and after.[23]

In 1924 he had two paintings, “Head of a Girl” and “Deposition”; in 1926 he had “Saint Joan”; in 1933 he had “Rima” and “Leda”; in 1935, he had “Apollo” and “Ballet Fantasy”; in 1936, there was “Poseidon and Aphrodite (unfinished)” (unfinished because Barnes came down with flu and could only sketch in the background[24]), and in 1937, “Cupid and Psyche”. “Studio Composition”, in 1940, marked a break until “Jean”, his last, in 1953. All were oil paintings.

A good few of these are mythological subjects. “Saint Joan” may have been suggested by Shaw’s play of the same name, which premiered three years prior. “Rima”, from 1933, has an interesting title, as it’s the name of the main character of W H Hudson’s 1904 novel, Green Mansions, which David Lindsay also admired.[25] “Ballet Fantasy”, from 1935, was mentioned in a couple of newspaper reviews of the exhibition, so although I can’t find a picture of it, we do at least have a description of it. According to The Stage, it was of “a nude figure, dancing with carefully pointed toes, in purple-blue light among mysterious pillars”;[26] The West Sussex Gazette says this painting demonstrates Barnes’s “control of tone and decorative imagination.”[27]

(Barnes also exhibited at shows run by the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, the Walker Art Gallery, the Liverpool Gallery, the Royal Society of British Artists,[28] and the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.[29])

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition catalogues give addresses for the artists. In 1926, Barnes is still at Lee High Road, but in 1933 he’s at The Crest, Mapledale Avenue, East Croydon. This is the address Margaret Lindsay gives when she travels to Madeira in 1932, and it’s also the address given when Barnes’s stepfather dies in June 1933.[30]

Barnes taught life-drawing, modelling, and painting at the Sutton and Cheam School of Art and Craft from 1934 to 1940,[31] and although this was part-time he seems to have become head of painting there.[32] This school (whose name has changed throughout the years) was at the Throwley Road, less than a mile from where Barnes was living, as recorded in the 1939 Register, on the Bridgeford Road. By this point he had married the 20-year-old[33] Joy Dennington Harvey Shead (the marriage taking place in 1938).[34] The couple had two sons, Robin (in 1940) and Jasen (in 1942).

It’s from this point I’m less sure what happens. Obviously the Second World War began, and Robert would have been eligible to serve, though whether he did or not, I don’t know.

Barnes's art career including designing stained glass windows,[35] and being invited to produce designs for a leading luxury liner company[36]. At some point he shared a studio with his friend Graham Sutherland,[37] who went on to have a successful career as a painter. This passage from an article[38] about Sutherland perhaps gives a good idea of the cultural milieu faced by painters of Barnes's generation:

[Sutherland's] career perhaps sums up the quandary of British artists born around the turn of this century. Having grown up with Post-Impressionism and Cubism just across the Channel, they could hardly fail to be influenced, however ‘insular’ their approach; at the same time they... retained a fastidious sensitivity wholly English which prevented them from finally taking the leap into the unknown demanded by total abstraction.”

Portrait of Peter Llewelyn Rhodes, by Robert H Barnes, 1953

In the 1950s, he drifted away from art, though he had a painting, “Jean”, in the 1953 Royal Academy Exhibition. At this point he was living in Bridgnorth in Shropshire (where his mother died in 1962, leaving her effects to “Robert Henry Barnes, draughtsman”[39]), where he worked for an engineering firm.[40] His friendship with Peter Llewelyn Rhodes (1918–2014), a GP in the area, resulted in a number of plays and musicals written by the pair, Rhodes providing the storylines and Barnes the music. (One such piece, “Etheria, a musical play in two acts”, was registered in the US Library of Congress Catalogue of Copyright Entries for 1955.[41]) When he was 65, Barnes moved for a while to Japan, marrying a younger Japanese woman, Akiko. (Thanks to Tim Rhodes for this information, and for providing the image of Barnes’s portrait of Peter Llewelyn Rhodes.) This also marked his return to painting, and, according to his (brief) Daily Telegraph obituary, in Japan “his visionary paintings were received with enthusiasm”.

In the early 1980s, he lived at least for a time in the Essex village of Little Maplestead.[42] He died, not in 1988 as J B Pick says, but on his 90th birthday, in 1989, in Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon.[43]

I’ll update this article if I learn more (and any more information is gratefully received), but hopefully this provides a bit more character to the man who was one of David Lindsay’s closer friends throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

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  • 1^ — Pick, Wilson & Visiak, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay, p. 23
  • 2^ — J B Pick, The Great Shadow House, p. 150
  • 3^ — Bernard Sellin, The Life & Works of David Lindsay, p. 237
  • 4^ — Pick, Wilson & Visiak, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay, p. 97
  • 5^ — Bernard Sellin, The Life & Works of David Lindsay, p. 37
  • 6^ — J B Pick, The Great Shadow House, p. 150
  • 7^ — 1939 Census for 11 Bridgeford Road
  • 8^ — The Arundel Castle, departing Southampton Dec. 2, 1932
  • 9^ — 1939 Census for 11 Bridgeford Road
  • 10^ — 1901 Census for Newlands, Foyle Road, Greenwich
  • 11^ — 1891 Census for 28 Kennington Park Road, Lambeth, London
  • 12^ — See the 1911 Census for Thomas Philip Cadman, 26 Kennington Park Road
  • 13^ — See the video at Royal Arsenal History, about the 50 minute point.
  • 14^ — See Stanley William Barnes's 1917 Army Records, Enrolment Paper
  • 15^ — Royal Flying Corps Attestation documents for Stanley William Barnes, 1917
  • 16^ — Henry William Barnes death certificate.
  • 17^ — Record of Service Army documents for Stanley William Barnes, 1917
  • 18^ — The London Gazette, supplements August 1914–January 1920
  • 19^ — Kent & Sussex Courier, July 5 1918, p. 5
  • 20^ — See his Commonwealth War Graves Commission page.
  • 21^ — See Robert Henry Barnes at the Royal Academy site.
  • 22^ — See The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, for 1924.
  • 23^ — See The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle index Ba-Bc, though this misses off his 1940 painting.
  • 24^Artist Biographies, BARNES Robert Henry.
  • 25^ — Bernard Sellin, The Life & Works of David Lindsay, p. 60
  • 26^ — The Stage, May 9, 1935, p. 11, "Royal Academy. Stage Pictures."
  • 27^ — West Sussex Gazette, May 16, 1935, p. 6
  • 28^ — All these from Artist Biographies, BARNES Robert Henry, ibid.
  • 29^ — The Birmingham Mail, 16th March 1951, p3.
  • 30^ — Probate Index for 1932, p. 44
  • 31^ — The Croydon Times, 4th May 1940, p. 9, article entitled “Cheam Artist’s Academy Picture”.
  • 32^ — Artist Biographies, BARNES Robert Henry, ibid.
  • 33^ — Born 15 November 1917. Thanks to Douglas Anderson for this information.
  • 34^ — Marriage certificate for Robert Henry Barnes and Joy Dennington Harvey Shead, 11th August 1938.
  • 35^ — Robert H. Barnes (Obituary), The Daily Telegraph, 12th July 1989, p. 21.
  • 36^ — Artist Biographies, BARNES Robert Henry, ibid.
  • 37^ — Robert H. Barnes (Obituary), The Daily Telegraph, ibid.
  • 38^ — 'Artist who spoke for a generation' by Robert Waterhouse, The Guardian, 18 Feb 1980, p. 9
  • 39^ — Probate Index for 1962, p. 103
  • 40^ — Robert H. Barnes (Obituary), The Daily Telegraph, ibid.
  • 41^ — Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries: Dramas and Works Prepared for Oral Delivery, Current Registrations, Jan-Jun 1955, p. 5.
  • 42^ — This address given in his will, written in 1983
  • 43^ — Probate record and will of Robert Henry Barnes. The will says he's an artist, and was drawn up by a solicitor in Bridgnorth, so it's most likely the same man