Saturday, 30 January 2021

PART ONE:The Story Of Bertha & Ralph Wright Plus Their Miniatures Revealed!

This story began for me back in 2016 when I received a bundle of unusual dolls house furniture from an online auction, which resulted in this following article called "A Collection Of Miniature Treasures Made By Bertha & Ralph Wright".

Well, here we are four years later, and I am delighted to say that through the power of the internet my plea for more information about the Wrights and their miniatures has been answered twofold, as not only did Richard Wright (grandson of Ralph Wright) kindly get in touch, but so too did Patrick Daw (grandson of Bertha). Huge thanks to Richard & Patrick, and their respective families for all the information that they have given so freely. There is so much to tell that for logistical reasons I have had to split this article into two parts. Here below you can see Part One of their input and what a story! Part Two will follow shortly on my next posting. I hope you find it interesting. 

Bertha Gwendoline Wright (Formerly Penrose) (née Baker)

Bertha as a child plus her father, stepmother & half siblings, from "Bad Aunt Bertha" (a publication collated and printed by the Baker-Penrose family). 

Bertha Gwendoline Baker was born in London into a Quaker family in 1897. Her mother Mabel (née Main) was an Australian and her father Philip Baker was Canadian, one of four Baker brothers who all worked for the family’s London based firm Joseph Baker & Sons Ltd., (later became Baker Perkins). Tragically her mother died when Bertha was just 3 weeks old. However, in 1901 her father married Amy (née Dell) and much to Bertha’s great delight gained two half siblings – Olive and Barton. After school, although Bertha initially trained and worked as a secretary, she clearly had artistic ability and yearned to get a place at the “Slade School of Art” in London.

Her wish was finally granted, but it appears that early on during her time at Slade in 1918 she also began courting Alexander (Alec) Penrose, and due to the distractions of her courtship and life, her studies suffered. She left after only a couple of terms and married Alec in 1919. He was one of four brothers from the wealthy Penrose family – see “A Collection of MiniatureTreasures Made by Bertha and Ralph Wright” for more information about the Penrose family. They had two daughters together - Sheila and Angela but unfortunately, according to Bertha’s memoirs, her marriage was not a happy one almost from the start it seems. They finally divorced at the end of the 1920s. David Garnett (prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group) had introduced her to Ralph Wright in the mid-1920s, and their relationship progressed over time. They would eventually go on to marry a few years after her divorce.

 Bertha Wright aged 35, from "Bad Aunt Bertha" (a publication collated and printed by the Baker-Penrose family).

She married Ralph in Marseilles in 1933 which is around the time their work in miniatures began. In the latter half of the 1930s Bertha joined the Communist Party (influenced by Ralph who had already joined), spending many hours assisting at meetings and visiting houses on behalf of the party for the “Care Committee”. During the years leading up to WW2, both Ralph and Bertha attended regular meetings, rallies, marches, and demonstrations. Bertha remained married to Ralph until his death in 1961. In the 1970s she moved over to France to live with her daughter Angela and husband Jo, and it is there that she lived out the rest of her days until her death in 1985.

“Bad Aunt Bertha” – The Memoirs Of Bertha Wright

The loaned copy of Bad Aunt Bertha.

Richard very kindly lent me a copy of his step-grandmother’s memoirs “Bad Aunt Bertha”, published as a limited edition by the Baker- Penrose family more than two decades after her death and meant for private consumption only (for obvious reasons). I have read it from cover to cover and will say that she was clearly a colourful character who embraced life, and that the title was apt! Through the social circles that she moved in, she encountered many well-known society characters of the time, including authors, poets, artists, etc. and of course, several from the infamous Bloomsbury Group. One of her affairs which is well documented in the public domain was with Clive Bell, husband of artist Vanessa Bell (sister of author Virginia Woolf) …all prominent characters from the Bloomsbury Group. Interestingly, Bertha’s memoirs only lead up to the beginning of WW2, so the information on what happened to her and Ralph after that time, has mostly been sourced from her grandsons.   

Ralph Fletcher Wright

The Mahler Family - Ralph Wright sitting crossed legged at front, Doro seated right of middle row. Image courtesy of the Wright Family.

Ralph Fletcher Wright was born in 1888 and grew up near Chirk, in North Wales. He was the third of seven children and attended Bradfield College. During the holidays Ralph established a close friendship and romance with Dorothea Mahler. They went on to marry in 1913 and had four children - Margaret, Peter, Roger, and Christopher.

*Ralph & friend Ronald Frankau in WW1 (Frankau went on to become a successful comedian & entertainer in film and radio). Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

Ralph served in the Army Cyclist Corps during WW1 right through to the end of the war, acting in reconnaissance and communications. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant and was along-side his brother King at Gallipoli in 1915. It was at Gallipoli that King was killed on the beaches, and from which Ralph was sent home with dysentery.  During the final months of the war, Ralph also lost his eldest brother Peter - tragedies from which Ralph was never to fully recover.

After the war, Ralph and Doro lived in Beckenham with their young family. During this time Ralph was working in London at the Central Library for Students, where he met writers David Garnett and Frankie Birrell. Ralph was invited to become a partner in their Soho antiquarian bookshop - Birrell and Garnett Booksellers, a famous rendezvous at the time within Bloomsbury circles.  The company favoured French and English literature from the 18th and 19th centuries, which was an area of Ralph's expertise. Ralph is described by Garnett in his biography as: "... a rather short man, whose head of glossy black hair, brushed straight back resembled a seal's head, emerging from the water. He was sympathetic, sensitive and warm; particularly well versed in French and English literature and a flair for conversation."

Image of Ralph Wright at his desk at the Daily Worker. Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

All of this meant that Ralph socialised on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, along with other famous authors, poets, etc. who were around at that time during the 1920s and beyond. The bookshop changed hands in 1927. It was through his friend David Garnet at a lunch in Soho during the mid-1920s, that he was introduced to Bertha and from then on they met regularly in London and holidayed together in Cassis (France) amongst many of their friends.  His marriage to Doro finally ended, and as already mentioned above, Bertha & Ralph finally married in 1933

During the mid-thirties, Ralph had yet another lifestyle change, as he joined the Communist Party. Ralph was not a passive member and was soon appointed literary editor at The Daily Worker. He would work all week in London and return home to Marden for weekends. Eventually Bertha joined the Communist Party too. They continued their regular visits to France and in fact it was during a family camping holiday in 1939 when they heard news of the outbreak of war. Ralph felt betrayed by the Communist Party and immediately resigned his membership. However, he was to maintain a strong socialist philosophy for the rest of his life. During WW2 Ralph became an ARP warden in Marden. Sadly, tragedy was to strike the Wright family again in 1943 when Ralph and Doro’s second son Roger was killed in action at Salerno during the allied invasion of Italy. 

Shortly after the war Ralph suffered severe heart problems which resulted in him living a more sedate lifestyle in Marden during the 1950s.  Ralph and Bertha continued their trips to France during this time, both to Cassis and to Montcuq where Bertha’s daughter Angela and family lived. He retired to his letters, occasionally reviewing books for The New Statesman and began the mammoth project of translating the Memoirs of St Simon, which sadly he never finished. He died in 1961. Bertha’s youngest daughter Angela was quoted as saying “It seemed such a miracle to Ralph to be alive in 1918 that he asked very little of life after that, just his books, his glass of wine, his log fire, his Times every morning, and the woman he loved….” 

So How Did Ralph & Bertha Get Into Miniatures And Dolls Houses?

The Old House at Marden in Kent. Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

In 1929 Bertha and her two daughters moved into “The Old House” which was situated in the Kent village of Marden, a house bought by Alec for Bertha, presumably as part of their divorce settlement. Ralph, whose marriage had also ended around then, was a frequent visitor, along with many of her society friends. Ralph’s and Bertha’s romance flourished. From then on, they would set off to France regularly three times each year, alternating residence between the Kent house and France.  The Kent house was rented out during their absence to gain much needed revenue to keep their lifestyle going (*Ralph’s friend from the army days Ronald Frankau, the well-known comedian, was one of the tenants and a regular face in Marden).

A picture of a Cassis house by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of the Wright family. 

Cassis, a town on the French Mediterranean coast and a Mecca for artists and authors, was one of Bertha and Ralph’s favourite places. It was a place first introduced to Bertha back in the mid-1920s by Alec’s surrealist artist brother, Roland Penrose. Amongst many of their long-time friends in Cassis was a renowned experimental artist and collage maker Jean Yanko Varda.

Bertha’s Picture Boxes

Bertha Wright exhibiting her picture boxes at some time during the 1960s, the exact event is unknown. Image courtesy of the Wright Family. 

It was from Varda that Bertha bought a box of modelling wax in every colour imaginable, after finding a discarded wooden box on a beach at Cassis, which once housed little cream cheeses. She discovered that a mirror from her handbag fitted perfectly when slotted into the back of the box. Then using red, pink, and green wax she created tiny fish, and hung them on fine human hair (from her blonde friends) at different heights from the roof. Seaweed was made from frayed knitting wools in green and brown colours, starfish were made of wax, and reefs on the floor were made up of tiny shells. Spurred on by this, she collected more “petit-suisse boxes”, sanded them down and had small mirrors cut to fit the backs. She glazed the front of each box with glass, when the box was tapped the fish moved, and the mirror gave an illusion of there being multiple fishes. Bertha honed her modelling skills and staging of weeds, shells, and rocks so that by the Christmas of 1932 she had a fine collection of “useless fantasies” (her description) to inflict on friends as gifts! After their marriage in March 1933, they returned from France to The Old House full of ideas. It was then that their work in miniatures began properly. They turned the playroom into a workshop/studio and set up a workbench.

Victorian Parlour Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Once back in Kent, Bertha paid Mr Christopher Hoad, a local carpenter/cabinet maker, to make the wooden casements for her picture boxes out of American white wood, an arrangement that continued for several years.  Bertha spent hours experimenting with various arrangements of mirrors and was delighted with the little German waxes that she had purchased off Varda. When warmed they could be mixed like paint, but one had to warm the discs of wax thoroughly to body heat- not near a flame or fire, or else the outsides would have melted leaving the centres hard. She discovered an ingenious method of warming the wax by placing the discs down her bra! As well as wax she used other bits and bobs to create her scene.

The Fun Fair Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1933. Image courtesy of Peter Daw.

Apparently, Bertha left eighteen picture boxes behind when she departed the UK in 1976 to live with her daughter in France, and all were distributed amongst the family. A selection of some of those picture boxes can be seen in this article belonging to Patrick, sister Daisy Macdonald and his brothers Peter Daw and James Derville. All have kindly given permission to allow their photos to be featured in this article. The box measurements generally vary from about 7” to 12” wide x 6” deep, with a fully glazed sliding front and each have a smaller glass panel in the top.

French Town Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Patrick explains that some of the picture boxes have the rear wall lined with a mirror, and some have additional mirrors angled in such a skilful way to provide interesting vistas using the backs of the forefront features in reflection, or longer views at apparent angles. An illustration of this technique can be seen in the French Town Picture Box, seen above and below.

Another view of the French Town Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

In some of the scenes Bertha has made a specific feature in part form only eg. a tree and positioned it against the junction of two mirrors to create its wholeness completely (a technique used by ship designers who use a half -hull attached to a mirror). The scale of the scenes internally vary radically from box to box, some figures and animals are inches high, others are tiny. Portions of the features such as buildings have been carved out of wood. All the sculpted items within the boxes are made from coloured wax rendering them very fragile, while other bits and pieces are wood or found objects eg. a mother of pearl button for a clock face. As you will see in one or two of the photos, some of the wax models have succumbed to a little heat damage over time, particularly those that belong to Patrick’s brother James who lives in Toulouse where the hot climate particularly has taken its toll. However, Patrick believes they should not be too difficult to restore.

Victorian Bedroom Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw.

In the summer of 1933 Bertha took some of her picture boxes to a highly sceptical Mr Honeyman, manager of Lefevre Galleries in London. But it turned out that he was completely enchanted when he actually saw them, and described her work as “pure Dounaier Rousseau”, resulting in an invitation to exhibit her picture boxes in the December of that year at the gallery. She had to work flat out to supply around 24 picture boxes for the exhibition and it was a great success, so much so that the gallery invited her to travel up to Glasgow to exhibit her picture boxes there too. Unfortunately, the Glasgow trip was not quite as successful and apparently, she only sold two picture boxes.

 Circus Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1936. Image courtesy of James Derville. 

Bertha says in her memoirs about that time in her life: “I was living in a fairyland, a Lilliput of my own conception and was carried away by the excitement and success of creating these little people, animals and scenes out of wax with my own fingers. They became real tiny characters to me- the villages, jungles and so on, real places I had dreamed of, all tiny and perfect. I always make sketches from life or in museums or zoos of everything I wanted to model and took a lot of trouble over costumes.”

For those miniaturists amongst you reading Bertha’s statement, I am sure you will be able to relate to these sentiments completely. Possibly part of the attraction of the miniatures hobby is that one can switch off from the real world, and totally immerse oneself into a make believe and more perfect world of our own creating, which can be incredibly therapeutic.  

Jungle Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of James Derville. 
Chimps In The Jungle Box by Bertha Wright c1933. Image courtesy of Peter Daw. 

As time went on, she obtained various commissions. One noteworthy order was by Clough Williams-Ellis to make a model of his famous Italian village hotel at Portmeirion in Wales, sadly there is no known photo of this creation. Her model incorporated a slot for people to drop 3d into which enabled the scene to light up momentarily. As part of the preparation for the commission, she spent a week drawing to scale every building in the place, including the trees and statues. It took her weeks to make but Bertha felt that it was not as interesting as her own little invented scenes, which I find quite a curious statement.

Flower Show Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Another memorable commission was for Misha Black (a distinguished British architect) of the Industrial Design Partnership to make a number of models measuring 2’ x 1’ x 1’ depicting English village life. They were to be exhibited at THE WORLD’S FAIR, an exhibition in New York during the summer of 1939. The room box themes included A Working Man’s Club, A Play By The WI, A Young Farmer’s Heifer Show, Armistice Day In The Village and A Flower Show. I wonder if the Flower Show Box seen above was like the one Bertha made for the exhibition. Sadly, there do not appear to be any photos of Bertha’s specific creations made for the exhibition and presumably they stayed in the US. Apparently, she was paid £200 for this commission, which was a lot in those days – I understand the equivalent in today’s money is around £13,000!

French Landscape Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1947. Image courtesy of Patrick Daw. 

Ship In Ice Picture Box by Bertha Wright. Image courtesy of Peter Daw. 

One of her last commissions she talks about in her memoirs was one ordered by her cousin Nettie around the early part of WW2 (this was Jannette Braithwaite who was married to John Braithwaite, who later became chairman of the London Stock Exchange after the war). She asked her to make a model of an imaginary air raid in the east end of London. It was three feet long, incorporating as much gory detail that she could muster, including a dead horse, a lot of blood lying around and a little boy being sick. It took many weeks to make and ended up in a Hendon “peace shop”. It was fitted with penny-in-the-slot lighting. Now this is another of those picture boxes that I would have loved to have seen, I wonder if that still exists somewhere too.

Chinese Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1936. Image courtesy of James Derville. 

The French Landscape picture box seen just a little further up on here is dated 1947. The photo of Bertha exhibiting her picture boxes seen even further up is believed to have been taken in the 1960s and I had assumed that by 1960 she was no longer creating…but then more photos of Bertha’s picture boxes landed in my inbox, taken by Patrick’s sister Daisy!

French Street Market Picture Box By Bertha Wright, c1966. Image courtesy of Daisy Macdonald. 

One being The French Street Market seen above which is dated 1966. And another, Persian Palace seen below is dated 1970.  What strikes me after seeing all these wonderful images of Bertha’s picture boxes is that she was clearly an accomplished artist and sculptor, with great innovation and imagination. To have had the ability to create such diverse scenes in her picture boxes and special commission models, was something quite extraordinary indeed.   

Persian Palace Picture Box by Bertha Wright c1970. Image courtesy of Daisy Macdonald. 

I hope you have enjoyed this first part of Bertha & Ralph's story, and seeing Bertha's truly stunning and innovative miniature picture boxes.  Many thanks to Richard Wright, Patrick Daw and their respective families for supplying not just their photos but information too, and of course giving me permission to publish it all on here. 

© - Celia Thomas

Coming shortly will be Part Two of "The Story Of Bertha & Ralph Wright Plus Their Miniatures", which will include their dolls houses, furniture and much more...


Matthew Bain, grandson of Ronald Frankau, got in touch a couple of weeks ago after coming across the original 2016 article about Bertha & Ralph and sent the following:

'Aunt Bertha' and Ralph (pronounced 'Rafe') were the guardians of my mother Rosie and her sister Robbie during WWII. Rosemary and Roberta Frankau (to give them their full names) were the daughters of Ronald Frankau, a well-known entertainer of the '30s and '40s. Ronald and Ralph met when they served together in the First World War. I met Bertha myself on a few occasions when she came to our house, my mother was enduringly fond of her. My mother sadly died in 2017 (obituary) however I forwarded the article to Aunt Robbie and she has shared the following recollections:

"Well, well Matthew, what a find!  Yes, indeed I remember Bert’s (as she was called then) boxes when Rosie and I lived with her and Ralph in school holidays from about 1943 to 1945/6.  By then they were mirrored and were amazing French bar scenes and tropical animals!  Because of the mirrors they went on and on into the distance. Quite lovely. There was a special insert in their huge fireplace wall (where we lived, in their 16th century house in Marden, Kent) where she put them, changing them intermittently. No memory of doll’s houses.  By that time, we were living with them he was suffering from what we now call PTSD. One of his 4 sons was killed in the 2nd world war, and he had been in the first war (with Ronald). So all he did was read (and to me) and put logs ("Georges") on the fire and play the piano when he was ready for dinner! Rosie and I adored him." 

SPECIAL THANKS to Matthew Bain and his aunt Roberta Tovell (née Frankau), for giving me their kind permission to add their information to this article.


Robin said...

What a truly enthralling story about Bertha - what a fabulous read!! The pictures, most not having been seen before are terrific, your research fascinating and the co-operation of Bertha's family exceptional. Thank you and well done!

Drora's minimundo said...

Fascinating read. I couldn't stop once I began reading. Thank you so much for sharing the photos.

Susan@minicrochetmad said...

What an amazing life! Thanks so much for the compilation,

Ilona said...

This is a fascinating story, it's a very interesting read. The Picture Boxes, made by Bertha, must have been very rare in that times, and they are so artistic, genius. I loved seeing the colors and all those tiny scenes, I wish I was very very little so I could walk in those boxes to see how everyhting looked like.
Thank you so much for sharing this compilation of stories, Celia.
Kind regards, Ilona

KT Miniatures said...

Robin - cheers mate for the brilliant plug on your blog! Now you can see the amazing pictures about the story I have been telling you about over these past few months whilst I have been researching this fascinating story!

Drora & Susan- Am so glad you enjoyed the story, it has been quite a journey writing this.

Ilona - yes I agree, Bertha's picture boxes would have been utterly unique for that time in the 1930s, and even post war. I suppose due to the fact that she mixed in society circles which included famous artists, writers, poets, etc. and many of whom were her friends, could have influenced and help stimulate her creativity, but clearly she was an accomplished artist.


Karin F. said...

totally amazing and really well written. I can hardly wait for the 2nd half!

KT Miniatures said...

Thanks for dropping by Karin. Glad you enjoyed this first part of the story, it is an amazing story isn't it! The second part is now available and follows on in the next post on here, I hope you enjoy Part Two just as much. Celia