International Day of Friendship: Biographies from the Basement

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. 

On Saturday 30 July  it will be International Day of Friendship, so we are taking this opportunity to look at how friendship features in our Biography Collection at the library.

For most people, friendship is one of the most important things in life, and during the pandemic many of us realised acutely how much we depended on our friends for support, and how much we missed them when unable to get together.  Whether we have a wide circle of diverse friends, or whether we just have one or two, whether we maintain friendships into our old age with people we met as children, or have enjoyed making new friends late in life, friends are the people we share the ups and downs of our lives with, sometimes able to confide in them in ways we can’t manage with family members.

Friendship reflects the full spectrum of human emotion and behaviour – friends can make extraordinary sacrifices on each other’s behalf, and carry out acts of inspiring kindness.  They say ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, and friendship can make the most challenging periods of our lives more bearable, providing solace and sometimes steadfast adherence to someone who has been abandoned by all others.  The catastrophe that overtook Oscar Wilde when he was imprisoned under the homophobic laws of the 1890s saw most of the many friends who had courted him when he was the toast of fashionable London turn away.  Not so his indefatigably loyal friend Robbie Ross, whose story is told in Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde’s Devoted Friend by Jonathan Fryer. 

Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde’s Devoted Friend by Jonathan Fryer

In Iris and the Friends : A Year of Memories, one of his several books about his wife the novelist Iris Murdoch and her struggle with dementia, John Bayley writes movingly of how their social circle negotiated the changes in their beloved Iris with patience and love.  

Iris and the Friends : A Year of Memories by John Bayley

Some friendships grow from the most unpromising soil, sometimes where insurmountable adversity might be expected – so Christo Brand, who aged 18 became Nelson Mandela’s prison guard on Robben Island,  writes of how the two men became deeply fond of one another. Mandela, aged 60 when they first encountered each other, took a paternal attitude to the teenager who began to recognise the evil of the white supremacy he had been brought up to believe in.  Brand risked imprisonment himself by smuggling Mandela’s newborn first grandchild into the prison so that his grandfather could see him, and on becoming President, Mandela found him a job and helped advise on his children’s future careers.  The full amazing story is told in Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend.

Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend by Christo Brand with Barbara Jones

An equally unlikely friendship was that between Raymonda Tawil, Palestinian journalist and mother-in-law of Yasser Arafat, the first President of the Palestinian National Authority, and Ruth Dayan, the wife of Moshe Dayan, Israeli military leader and government minister.  In his aptly titled An Improbable Friendship, Anthony David describes how the women sustained a secret friendship throughout decades of conflict between their peoples.

An Improbable Friendship by Anthony David

As with all areas of human life, friendship can sometimes go wrong, and betrayal and misunderstanding features in some of the books documenting friendship in our collection. Julie Metz was horrified to discover that her husband had been carrying on numerous affairs during their marriage, and the fact that one of his lovers had been the woman she considered her best friend was a devastating blow.  What she could never have imagined was that she would become friends with one of his other lovers and that they would help each other deal with the fall out of it all. 

Perfection by Julie Metz

A more profound and horrifying betrayal cannot be imagined than that of Pieter Menten of his friends the Krumholz family; having socialised with them happily for many years in their Polish village, he later supervised their murder as an SS officer.  The sole survivor, who had emmigrated before the Nazi invasion, spent years tracking Menten down so that he could be brought to justice, and at the same time trying to piece together the psychological drama that could have led to such a grotesque revocation not only of personal friendship but of basic humanity.

The Last Victim: One Man’s Search for Pieter Menten by Malcolm MacPherson

Some of the richest friendships are those between people from very different backgrounds, and across the generations; some involve mentoring, like that between painter, Beauford Delaney and writer, James Baldwin, and some arise when genuine connection is ignited by philanthropic interest, as when upper class socialite, Fanny Howe corresponded with impoverished sex worker, Maimie Pinzer in early 20th century Philadelphia, transforming the lives of both women. 

Some friendships between creative people shed light on their creative processes; such a case is that of poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, whose complete letters we have, spanning 30 years.

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell by Elizabeth Bishop

In other cases, the desire to reach out to someone perceived to be in need of help can run into complicated waters, as when journalist Michael Finkel attempted to befriend the hermit Christopher Knight, who had lived undetected in the forest of Maine for 27 years; divided by huge gulfs of experience and perception, the connection between the two men could only go so far before Knight began to erect barriers.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Finally, I feel I must acknowledge the fact that not all of our dearest friends are human! The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is just one of the many books we have that tell the stories of the love and companionship we can enjoy with our pets – most often these are dogs and cats, but this hilarious and moving memoir by Martin Windrow describes sharing his flat in a high-rise block in South London with a very opinionated and volatile tawny owl.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

We hope there will be something for everyone to enjoy in this display of books on friendship in Kensington Central Library.  Come along and see if any of them appeal to you – and perhaps share them with a friend.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Amplifying the stories of queer artists: LGBT+ History Month

February is the joyous month to celebrate LGBT+ history across the UK. This annual-month long celebration aims to educate and amplify the historic milestones from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Visual artists from our Biography Collection

This year we are excited to shine the light on LGBT+ visual artists from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, which contains many fascinating books exploring the lives of LGBT+ artists, some household names like David Hockney, Gwen John, Francis Bacon and Maggie Hambling, and others far less well known. For this blog post our colleague, Claudia, will be focusing on two very different 20th century artists, from very different backgrounds, whose sexuality and the obstacles society put in their way informed their lives and art.

Romaine Brooks was an American heiress who moved to Paris in the 1890s, while still in her teens, to develop her career as a painter. Having the financial means to avoid the poor areas frequented by struggling garret-dwelling artists, she set up home in the fashionable 16th arondissement, and painted portraits of aristocrats – some of whom, including the Princesse de Polignac, became her lovers.


Copyright: © Photo RMN – Droits réservés

Brooks had previously lived in England, and a spell in St Ives saw her refining her palette from the bright, strong tones of her earlier work, to the muted greys which became her trademark. Brooks favoured masculine attire, cutting a glamorous and elegant figure in austerely tailored coats, wing collars, top hats and a short haircut (long before the shocking “Eton crop” became fashionable for “flappers” in the 1920s). Many of her portraits of women show their subjects in similar outfits, providing a rich record of women subverting the rigidly gendered clothing of the time and signalling their sexual preferences.

Brooks had a 50 year relationship with the writer Natalie Barney, whose salon in the rue Jacob spanned six decades. Brooks was one of a circle of women who were determined to live as their true selves in the face of prejudice, and created great artistic records of the lives of their peers.


Beauford Delaney | Whitney Museum of American Art

Beauford Delaney also made the journey from America to Paris, but sixty years after Brooks did, and in middle age. By this time, he was an established painter, having made his name with his haunting modernist depictions of the homeless and disenfranchised in Depression era New York City.

A native of Tennessee, whose mother had been born enslaved, Delaney began painting at an early age (as did his brother Joseph, who also became a professional artist). His period in New York City coincided with The Harlem Renaissance, a huge flowering of African American art, music and literature, and he was active in radical politics. James Baldwin wrote movingly of Delaney as his “spiritual father”, “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist”.

After Delaney’s death, Baldwin wrote: “He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”

Implicit in these words is Baldwin’s recognition of Delaney’s struggle as a fellow black gay man – although a prominent member of gay Bohemian circles which were carving a place in the arts and society, Delaney struggled with the shadow cast by the homophobia of the time and of the church teaching of his youth. His mental health deteriorated, partly as a result of the pressures of negotiating his sexuality in a hostile society. His work is inflected with the vision of the raw and tender vision of the outsider, the artist seeking to elevate the humane truths of existence above the violence and cruelty of exclusion.