By Jess Owen
One of the more glaring omissions in Mike Pentelow’s Characters of Fitzrovia is Ford Maddox Hueffer. A grandson of the artist Ford Maddox Brown, he spent his childhood years at 37 Fitzroy Square.
A poet, critic, editor and novelist; he helped transform English letters. But for him, it all began in Fitzrovia. He regarded 37 Fitzroy Square as the “house [where]… my eyes first opened, if not to the light of day, at least to any visual impression that has not since been effaced” (1)
Hueffer, who changed his name to Ford in 1919, was born at Merton in 1873. His family moved to the Fitzroy Square home of his grandfather in 1874, when his aunt married William Michael Rossetti, one of three poetical siblings. (The fourth was a biographer of Dante.)
Ford’s first published poem is reputed to have appeared in The Torch a publication produced in Fitzrovia by his cousins, Olive and Arthur Rossetti. It was sold at the ‘Reformers Tree’ in Hyde Park. It is mentioned on the opening page of Conrad’s Secret Agent, displayed in the window of Verloc’s shop, alongside; “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls”.
In 1892 Ford became a Catholic (2) Some years later he embarked on a string of affairs that left a couple of court cases and a prison term in their wake. Yet it is for his literary work that he is today being rediscovered.
Already an accomplished poet and novelist, in 1909, he founded The English Review. His intention was to publish the best of contemporary writing. In its pages appeared the young Joyce, Lawrence and Pound in conjunction with the renowned Hardy and Henry James.
The Review was a seminal venture in English publishing, the forerunner of the ‘little magazines’ where quality of writing was held to be more important than the profit motive. It preceded Harold Monro’s tenurship of Poetry Review by several years, and became the model for a number of successors. Its diverse contents were probably much indebted to the model of European Literary ventures such as Mercure de France, Van Nu En Straks and De Nieuwe Gids.
The Review suffered from chronic financial troubles. Partly through undercapitalisation at its foundation, but mostly through Ford’s own lack of regularity in financial matters.
After he was ousted from the editorial chair by Alfred Mond, the industrialist and social engineer in 1910, Ford commenced on a series of works that were to form the basis of his reputation. A stream of books and newspaper articles flowed from his pen
Of particular note amongst them were the literary portraits written for The Outlook. From 1913 he supplied them with pen sketches of contemporary authors along with a review of their latest work. His column combined affectionate parody with acute observation.
Of Arthur Symons he wrote: “his writing is beautiful stuff. And I think it a sin and a shame that I have never thought it beautiful before. It is not really my fault– it is the fault of the bad hearts of us men” (3)
No less important than his critiques were his poems. These are mostly collected in an edition of 1913. The volume received little attention on publication. It sold fewer than 300 copies and the bulk of the remainder was acquired by Martin Secker for reissue as a nominal ‘second edition’ in 1916. Sales were initially relatively brisk, as with other poetry, between 1916 and 1920. By 1935 they had reached just over a further 300. The remaining sheets, still unbound, were destroyed by bombing during the second war.
Of the few reviews that appeared, Ezra Pound’s, for the US Poetry Review, was the most enthusiastic. It remains widely reprinted today.But the really important opinion came from Edward Thomas who suggested; “the book is to be read for its contradictory infinite variety” Noting, with a future poets’ eye that Ford “only used verse when he was very sure that it was the right thing to do, and has not merely versified the prettiest things left over from essays and romances” (4)
One of the more striking poems in the collection is Castles in the Fog;
As we come up from Baker Street,
Where Tubes and Trains and ‘Buses meet,
There’s a touch of frost and a touch of sleet
And mist and mud up Hampstead way
Towards the shutting in of day….
You should be a Queen—or a Duchess rather,
Reigning in place of a warlike father,
In peaceful times, in a tiny town,
With crooked streets all winding down
From your little palace,—a small, old place
Where every soul should know your face,
And love you well—That’s what I mean—
A small Grand-Duchess—no distant Queen
Lost in a great land, sitting alone
In a marble palace upon a throne….
But here we are at Finchley Road,
With a drizzling rain and a skidding ‘bus
Several more important works appeared during the next three years, including two of the finest poems dealing with the outbreak of WW1.
The old houses of Flanders,
They watch by the high cathedrals;
They have eyes, mournful, tolerant and sardonic, for the ways of men,
In the high, white, tiled gables.
The rain and the night have settled down on Flanders;
It is all wet darkness; you can see nothing.
Then those old eyes, mournful, tolerant and sardonic,
Look at great, sudden, red lights,
Look upon the shades of the cathedral
And the golden rods of the illuminated rain,
For a second….
And those old eyes,
Very old eyes that have watched the ways of men for generations,
Close for ever.
The high white shoulders of the gables
Slouch together for a consultation,
Slant drunkenly over in the lea of the flaming cathedrals.
They are no more, the old houses of Flanders.(6)
He was enlisted by Mastermans’ Propaganda Department, but joined a line regiment in 1915. Shell shocked in 1916, the consequences consigned him to duties behind the front line for the rest of the war. The post-war years were not immediately kind to him, and he moved to Paris, and then the United States’ On the way he founded another periodical; the Transatlantic Review.
Ford died in 1939. He is remembered now as a novelist, but he saw his own metier as a being a poet. Indeed, he was part of a seminal group, Wilfrid Gibson, Richard Aldington, HD, John Rodker and Jessie Dissmorr who frequented Fitzrovia, and effected real change in English poetry during the first two decades of the 20th c
1. Ancient Lights pp 1-2; Greene Vol I, Saunders, A Dual Life Oxford 1996, Vol I p.2626
2. ibid p.54
3. Ford, Literary Portraits XVI, The Outlook Dec 27 1913
4. Thomas, The Bookman, XLV Jan 1914. rpr Harvey Bibliography, 1962. E 258 p 317
5. Ford, Castles in the Fog (Finchley Road)rpr, From Songs From London , 1910. M Saunders, Selected Poems, 1997
6. Ford, The Old Houses of Flanders; In On Heaven And Poems Written on Active Service 1918); Selected Poems 1997 ,