Clare Sheridan – A Woman Ahead of Her Time
22 March 2016
Nestled in a few boxes at The Keep are many photographs and negatives (dating from around 1915 to the 1950s) of the fascinating sculptor, photographer, journalist and writer Clare Consuelo Sheridan (nee Frewen).
Jenny Geering, who has been digitising some of this material, writes about this extraordinary woman.
Clare was born in 1885 to Moreton Frewen, a man of good gentry who suffered some financial misadventures, and his wife Clarita, the daughter of an American financier. She had a varied and interesting childhood, enjoying trips to London, seeing her cousin Winston (Churchill) and spending time with her mother and aunts. There were also visits with King Milan of Serbia (he doted on Clare, calling her ‘darling’, and brought all the children gifts; he may also have been her mother’s lover). There was a sense of loneliness too, as her parents did not have much time to spend with their children; they were left under the supervision of a nurse and subsequently a governess.
At the age of 14, Clare was sent to a convent in Paris but this was a miserable time for her. Despite speaking fluent French, she was not able to relate to other girls of her own age and they bullied her for being English. After Clare declared that she wanted to be Catholic, not Protestant, so that she could fit in with the other girls, her mother withdrew her from the convent and sent her to live with a Protestant family in Darmstadt. After some time being ‘finished’ (going to opera and museums), she returned home to her parents.
Becoming an Independent Young Woman
In May 1903, Clare met a young man named Wilfred Sheridan at her first ball and was instantly smitten with this charming and handsome man. He too was taken with her but was aware of her family’s financial problems. Other ‘suitable’ men showed interest in young Clare, but she did not reciprocate. Her cousin Winston stayed in touch via letter and when she shared the fact that she’d like to write a book herself, he supported her dream of finding independence for herself.
At this point, Clare and her parents lived mainly at the beautiful Brede Place in Sussex and they entertained famous characters of that time, including Rudyard Kipling and Henry James. These authors encouraged Clare with her literary pursuits and passions. Soon after this, Clare befriended the Prime Minister’s daughter, Violet Asquith, who asked if she would write an article on her behalf for the National Review; Clare took to this with great gusto and earned her first income.
Despite a proposal from a kind, older suitor, Clare could not escape thoughts of Wilfred. Her Aunt Jennie invited both Clare and Wilfred to dinner and , hearing of her prior proposal, Wilfred himself proposed and Clare accepted. In October 1910, they were married in a large ceremony attended by members of the royal family and the Cabinet.
Children and the First Sculptures
Clare gave birth to a first daughter, Margaret, in 1912 and her second daughter, Elizabeth, in 1913. Sadly Elizabeth became ill with tuberculosis and passed away in 1914. Wanting to create a memorial for Elizabeth’s grave, Clare learned how to sculpt with clay and relished this creative outlet. At the same time, she took many photographs of Margaret, their home and her family and spent time creating sculptures of the heads of her friends’ children.
When the First World War broke out, Wilfred left Clare, who was pregnant again, at home whilst he went and fought. At the end of September 1915, Richard ‘Dick’ Sheridan was born and a few days later Wilfred Sheridan was lost in battle.
Her Own Income
By 1919, Clare’s independence and income were growing – she was able to earn hundreds of pounds a year but it still was not quite enough. Thanks to a very large donation from an American colonel who admired her work, Clare was able to focus more on her bust bronzes – her subjects included her friend Princess Patricia of Connaught, former prime minister Herbert Asquith, and writer HG Wells. In mid-1920, Clare was invited to travel to Russia to sculpt busts of revolutionaries. The British government objected to her going but, being the stubborn, determined young woman she was, she went anyway, and stayed for a couple months, allegedly having affairs with a few of her sitters. Cousin Winston discovered her exploits and was livid, as were many people back in England. Soon after, she left for America.
Initially Clare spent time doing publicity (which she resented) for her new book Mayfair to Moscow but soon she was arranging an exhibition of her art and taking commissions again. She had to stand up to her father (who was never very supportive) and to justify herself as a mother to her own children, but things improved and Clare’s writing became well known across America. She was offered a trip to LA at the expense of MGM Studios as Charlie Chaplin was eager to meet her after reading Mayfair to Moscow. Clare and Charlie got on wonderfully, despite having incredibly different backgrounds, and even little Dick adored him. However the press put pressure on their relationship and it soon came to a close.
She spent the next few years travelling through Europe as a journalist and, after returning to London in the mid-1920s, published two novels on travel in quick succession. During the early 1930s, Clare visited Africa, where she took many photographs, but at around this time Dick became heir to the Frewen House at Frampton, which the family needed to sell.
Tragically, Dick died of complications from appendicitis in 1937, and Clare was inconsolable. Her loss did not stop her travelling, however; she set off for America, where she joined an art colony on a Native American reserve. Here she started carving wood into beautiful art, which she later exhibited.
Second World War
Once war started, Clare returned to Brede Place. By 1942, Winston had asked her to do another bust of him, possibly to represent a time of such prominence for him. After the war, Clare converted to Catholicism and moved to a Franciscan convent in Ireland. Clare still expressed herself with her sculpture whilst living here, moving in to her own house but still visiting the convent. Life had begun to quieten down for Clare by the end of the war but she still wrote and released a book called To the Four Winds. At this point, Clare had really rejected England but still travelled and made her way to Greece, where she began to carve in marble. Clare came down dysentery after visiting Biskra and seeing no improvement, returned to England as she sensed the end was imminent. Clare Sheridan finally passed on, on 31 May 1970 aged 84, leaving a legacy of art, writing, photographs and stories behind her.
The Clare Sheridan material held at The Keep forms part of the Frewen Family Archive. It includes photographs and glass-plate negatives, drawings and illustrations, newspaper cuttings, letters and family papers. The material is currently being catalogued and is not yet available to order, but watch this space for future updates!