Reading about the life and friendships of artist Ida Nettleship John has given doctoral student, Eliza Goodpasture, comfort during lockdown and companionship when friends feel far away.
We had a life fit for queens and princesses, except that they don’t do work, do they? We ran into the sea without garments – Hush whisper it not…It was most beautiful…. We were very merry, and oh I did enjoy it all.
Artist Ida Nettleship wrote this to her friend Dorothy in 1897, recounting her experiences on a holiday in Wales with her friends and fellow students at the Slade School of Art, Edna Waugh and Gwen Salmond. This letter is one of many that Ida and her friends sent to each other in the years around 1900. Others describe crushes, family drama, their work as artists, and their daily challenges and joys. But this one stood out to me because of how familiar it felt. Ida’s description of skinny dipping with her friends – how very merry she felt – sounded like it could be me describing a weekend with my own friends at university. I studied in Maine, by the coast, and my friends and I swam in the deliciously brisk salty waters as often as we could.
Now, I live in England, across the ocean from those women, and I interact with them through screens and voice notes and, sometimes, through actual letters. Their friendship remains one of the most important things in my life, but as we continue to be separated by the pandemic, I feel further from them than ever. I study female friendship among artists, including Ida Nettleship, for my PhD. You might say that I am so obsessed with friendship that I study it full-time. I hoped it would help me channel my love for my friends into something productive and professional. In some ways it has, but it has also forced me to confront my fears that my friendships are drifting away.
It has been over a year since I have physically seen many of my closest friends (over two years in some cases). I still talk to them all the time, but there is only so much you can really tell someone about your life. They haven’t seen where I live, the roads I walk everyday, the places I get groceries, coffee, drinks. And I haven’t seen any of the spaces of their lives, either. This feels important, even though I know that the things that make up who I am and what I care about aren’t found in my small kitchen or the pub around the corner. I still sometimes feel like the more I live and work and grow without them, the farther apart we are. I’ll never be able to catch them up on it all. They are missing my life, and I’m missing theirs. What does a friendship look like when it’s long-distance for this long, maybe forever? Are we pen pals now? Can you maintain a deep connection with someone when you never see their face or hold their hand?
I find some comfort in the stories and letters like Ida’s that I read for my research. Ida’s friend, fellow artist, and later sister-in-law, Gwen John, moved to Paris in 1904 and rarely returned to London, where her close friends lived. She missed them terribly, and her letters are full of requests for visits and loneliness. Edna Waugh, eventually Edna Clarke Hall, was miserably isolated in the country after her marriage and drew endless sketches of scenes from Wuthering Heights, finding kinship with the misery of Cathy and Heathcliff and the loneliness of the Yorkshire moors. I often feel that I am the only one who has ever felt this way, so reminders that I’m actually just the latest in a long history of people who shared some of my feelings helps me let go a little. I feel less alone, seeing the echoes of these women’s lives in mine, over a century later.
When I used to drive to the ocean with my friends on a Saturday afternoon, windows down and music playing, feeling absolutely content, I sometimes rather dramatically thought to myself, “These are the good old days.” And I was right, they were. I haven’t yet figured out what to do with that. Am I resigned to missing the good old days forever? Does it just feel especially hard right now because there are no new friends and new good days to have in a pandemic? Nothing will ever be the same as the heady friendships that grew in those fleeting years, when we were neither children nor adults, but people in the process of becoming ourselves. People who are older than me tell me this with a sigh and a sad smile, almost pitying, like they’ve accepted this hard truth of adulting and are sorry I haven’t yet.
Maybe even though we won’t have that again, we will have things that are as good, but different. I tell myself that, because I catch myself despairing so much more often these days, more so than at the beginning of the pandemic. The time before Covid is so much farther away now. It’s so much harder to remember what it felt like to hug and laugh and be with people. So, as I spend my days reading about other people’s friendships, I am envious. But I am also hopeful that I will feel merry again.
Ida herself, after marrying Gwen John’s brother Augustus, wrote to her Aunt Margaret in 1900, “Some days the curtain seems to lift a little for me, & they are days of inspiration and clearer knowledge. Those days I seem to walk on a little way. The other days I simply fight to keep where I am. Do you feel like that?”
Again, the feelings her words evoke are so familiar to me; that constant fight within myself between walking on and staying stuck. But only three years after her joyful description of living a life fit for queens and princesses, Ida’s life and mood had changed dramatically. Her letters, like this one, are beautifully written and remarkably vulnerable. They paint an intimate portrait of a woman who was full of zest for life, only to be crushed by an intensely challenging marriage, which quickly became a ménage à trois. Augustus’s mistress, Dorelia McNeill, moved into Ida and Augustus’s home in 1903 (this suited Augustus’s bohemian artistic image quite well, but Ida’s desire for creativity and independence, already hampered by two sons, not at all). The three lived together for several years, during which time Dorelia gave birth to four of John’s children and Ida to three more – she died after giving birth to the last, in 1907, at the age of thirty.
Ida’s story is heartbreaking, but throughout her life she viscerally captured the sense of growing up and entering a world that she found to be far different than the one she had imagined. We all face this reckoning in different ways, and as I muddle through my own I am grateful for Ida’s companionship through the letters she left behind.
The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John, edited by Rebecca John and Michael Holroyd, 2017, Bloomsbury.
Gwen John: Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, 2005, Tate Publishing, The National Library of Wales.
Max Browne, “Edna Clarke Hall (1879–1979) and Wuthering Heights.” The British Art Journal 16, no. 2 (2015): 108-18.
About Eliza Goodpasture
Eliza is an American art historian and writer based between Yorkshire and London. She is working on a PhD examining the impact of friendship among female artists working in England at the turn of the twentieth century. She writes a bi-weekly newsletter about art, life, and growing up. You can subscribe here. You can also follow her on Twitter @eliza_g96 and Instagram @elizagoodpasture.
This piece was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We want to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced during the time of COVID-19. We are keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We are also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented on television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important. Are there representations of friendships that have given you hope (such as I May Destroy You or Broad City) or those that have appeared toxic to you (such as that recounted by Natalie Beach about Caroline Calloway). If so, we want to hear from you too.
For the full Call Out and details of how to apply, click here.
Submissions are open until the end of March 2021.
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim, Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.