Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Cedra Osborne, the Roberts and Burns Singer

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher's mugshot for 'Living Silver', 1958.

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher’s mugshot for ‘Living Silver’, 1958.

A source on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, apparently not used by Roger Bristow in his 2010 biography of the dynamic duo, is the reminiscence by Cedra Osborne (later Cedra Castellain) published in the April/May 1993 London Magazine. (Though Bristow does cite personal conversations with her.) Selected excerpts (along with bits about them by Anthony Cronin and Julian Maclaren-Ross) will appear on the Colquhoun and MacBryde page here in due course, but meanwhile here is a moment when poet Jimmy Burns Singer (who has two pages on this site) comes very close to planting one on MacBryde:

Sometimes during 1955 [the Roberts] lived in a room above my own [in Chalk Farm], where Colquhoun did some drawings. They brought people with bottles back from Soho, and there were parties in my room, which had the piano. James ‘Burns’ Singer, a poet, brought his agreeable black wife to one of them. She was a child-analyst who, at a previous party, had offered to analyze Colquhoun, saying she was sure she could straighten him out. He was very polite about it. MacBryde used to play the piano for us. His limited repertoire unfortunately included ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’. When he reached it, Jimmy leapt to his feet, crying: ‘I’d have you know my wife is black!’ He made for the piano, but was overcome by weight of numbers. MacBryde retired into the large cupboard (once a larder) off my room, and was heard sobbing. ‘Robert!’ shouted Colquhoun, ‘stop snivelling and come out of there.’ ‘Och, Robert’ came reproachfully from behind the door, ‘you know I like a good cry.’

Singer knew the Roberts well and counted them as friends, so his outrage must have been heartfelt. His later contributions to the TLS show that he became a forceful advocate for black literature and the civil rights movement. Marie Singer’s analysis of Colquhoun would have been worth a listen-in, had he taken up the offer. I assume that “straighten” is not used here in any homophobic sense.

osborne and roberts

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts with Barker children at Tilty Mill

Cedra Osborne, who died in 2006, is an interesting figure in her own right; she also appears in the photo here of the Roberts, George Barker and W S Graham at Tilty Mill – on the right, next to Paul Potts. She took a step up from bohemia in 1955 on becoming secretary to posh portrait painter Pietro Annigoni, but for a while was a bit of a poet herself, judging by the following piece by her from Nimbus 2, Spring 1952 – an early issue of this slim review with contributions by others of the Barker circle, including Cashenden (Betty) Cass.

Ace of Spades

Esther saw me lying dead
In a bitter cold and windy place,
With greasy cobbles underhead
And a knife stuck in my face.

I know the place, a fishing town
Once prosperous but now decayed,
With a small river bringing down
The sewage near the esplanade.

The breakwater courageously
Still stands against the battering shock
Of monstrous seas, and tenderly
Cradles the wrecks with arms of rock.

And there on the deserted quay
At dead of night I deadly lie,
My hair spread out in disarray
And a short knife in my right eye.

What dreadful passions here ran rife!
Who snared me in this fearful skein?
Oh whose the hand that drove the knife?
Oh Esther, read the cards again.

nimbusI like this.  It’s not the deepest poetry ever written, but it has a macabre, balladey smack to it that reminds me of Charles Causley’s “Dying Gunner”: “Oh mother my mouth is full of stars / As cartridges in the tray …”  True, the first verse is the strongest, but even so the poem seems well worth rescuing here. I haven’t come across any other published poems by Cedra Osborne.

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2 responses to “Cedra Osborne, the Roberts and Burns Singer

  1. Peter Morris January 29, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Confused. Who painted the Goat in Snow ?

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