When Janet Stone and her husband, the engraver and painter Reynolds Stone, married in 1938, their Dorset home became a getaway for everyone from Iris Murdoch to a young Daniel Day-Lewis, as Alan Bennett explains
John and Myfanwy Piper; Reynolds and Janet Stone; Geoffrey and Jane Grigson; Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor: couples whose houses and hospitality flavour the literary life – and the literary country life – of England in the 1930s and after. I know them only through memoirs but lucky guests! What a treat to be asked down to Dorset and Litton Cheney to stay with the Stones in their bohemian paradise. But while Reynolds Stone’s work is well known and widespread, Janet Stone has remained a more shadowy figure. These photographs, which she took almost casually, should help to remedy that.
Intimate and unselfconscious, they are a visual diary of what now seems a charmed life. So here is a picture of Reynolds Stone at work; Betjeman caught, for once, not being Betjeman but himself; and already, at eight, a serious young man, Daniel Day-Lewis. This is not to mention Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Iris Murdoch and (never unselfconscious) Kenneth Clark. Yet here it doesn’t look grand or daunting. Maybe therein lies the skill of Janet Stone.
Because it is a society. Oh to have been a fly on that sunlit wall!
Daughter of the Bishop of Lichfield Edward Woods and his wife Clemence Barclay, Janet was one of five siblings. She enjoyed making people feel at home and indulging them, especially if they made her laugh. Over a period of three decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s, she recorded her life, her growing family (she had four children with her husband, Reynolds) and their rich mix of friends in hundreds of photographs.
Murdoch was photographed numerous times by Janet Stone – some shots were taken for official purposes such as book jackets; others simply recorded day-to-day pleasures during her frequent visits to Litton Cheney with her husband, John Bayley. There were many picnics, either among the stones at Portland Bill, on Chesil Beach or at various places in the garden. Reynolds Stone and Bayley were once so deep in conversation at Chesil Beach that they failed to notice that Murdoch was in difficulties in the sea in front of them, and she very nearly drowned.
The Old Rectory
The garden of the Stones’s 18th-century home served as a kind of Arcadia: it was nine acres with a spring, a large boating pond, dozens of mature trees, ferns, shrubs and giant hogweed. There was also a tennis court and a shabby Victorian summer house, which was all overgrown with polygonum. Inside the main house, the first impression was the heady, lingering smell of woodsmoke in the hallway. There was a blur of faded William Morris ‘Willow Bough’ wallpaper and an all-round air of settled, slightly boho, comfort.
Tamasin and Daniel Day-Lewis
The son and daughter of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis and actress Jill Balcon often visited the Old Rectory with their parents. They stayed for the Christmas holidays, entertaining their hosts in the evenings by reading poetry. Daniel appears in several photographs dressed up in a suit of armour or a policeman’s helmet.
Iris Murdoch, Reynolds Stone and John Bayley in a churchyard
When visiting the Stones, Murdoch and Bayley worked during the day in their bedroom. (Murdoch's novel The Italian Girl, published in 1964, has a setting not unlike the Old Rectory.) In Janet Stone’s photos, Bayley often displayed his sense of the absurd. No doubt it was his idea to lie as if dead in front of various gravestones or to line up with their heads across a disused railway track.
Extracted from Through the Lens of Janet Stone: Portraits 1953-1979, by Ian Archie Beck (Bodleian Library Publishing, £20). Introduction by Alan Bennett. Captions extracted and abridged from the book.