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Holst conducting an orchestra

Silhouette of Holst conducting the St Paul’s Girls’ School Orchestra, 1926

Today we’re featuring a favourite of Catherine, who volunteers at the Museum – this silhouette of Holst conducting the orchestra at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, where he taught for 30 years from 1904 until his death in 1934. He was one of several high-profile composers to teach at the exclusive school, including his friends Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, who had taught Imogen Holst at the Royal College of Music.

According to Vaughan Williams, Holst “… did away with the childish sentimentality which schoolgirls were supposed to appreciate and substituted Bach and da Vittoria; a splendid background for immature minds.” He took his job of conducting the orchestra seriously, believing that every child who wished to play in the orchestra should be given a chance, regardless of their ability – and often got good results as a reward for his trust and faith in the students. His lessons tended to be more practical than theoretical – such as having the students making up rounds and singing them throughout the lesson. He composed music for the orchestra, including the St Paul’s Suite, 1913 (published 1922). Several of his pupils went on to have musical careers, such as the soprano Joan Cross and the oboeist and cor anglais player Helen Gaskell, who Holst encouraged to take up woodwind because of a gap in the orchestra.

By 1926 the silhouette was rather an unusual artistic form.  It had had its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with professional silhouette artists able to take a freehand likeness of the person portrayed in minutes. Otherwise, you could use a physiognatrace to copy the person’s likeness and a pantograph to scale it down. The coming of photography put paid to the fashion, but there was a revival of the use of silhouettes in the 1920s alongside that of other graphic arts, like wood engraving.

Each girl in the orchestra is individually portrayed and named. Several of them left the school that year. One of the girls, playing a clarinet, is Celia Johnson, who later became an actress – famed for playing the leading lady, Laura Jesson, in Brief Encounter, 1945.  Jeanne (or Jane) Schofield’s brother, Kenworthy, was also interested in music – founding the Cambridge Morris Men in 1924.  Jane and Kenworthy were both friends of Imogen Holst.  Lady Helen Asquith, the granddaughter of H H Asquith, the former prime minister, and who was another friend of Imogen’s, became a teacher and schools’ inspector. Mary Horder was the leader of the orchestra. She trained as a sculptor, and made wooden toys of Heal & Sons. She married the physicist Jacques Friedel. Ann Fletcher became an opera singer – at least until her marriage to a curate in 1935! Elizabeth Benjamin entered a predominantly male career at that time – she became an architect, despite St Paul’s discouraging it. She worked with leading architect Edwin Lutyens, and practiced in the modernist style – but again stopped at her marriage in 1936. I haven’t been able to find out about the other girls – but I’ve found it a fascinating snapshot into the time, and of the girls whose lives Holst touched.