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Sheridan, Clare

Category: Explorer or adventurer

 

Clare Consuelo Sheridan (née Frewen), (9 September 1885 – 31 May 1970), was an English sculptress, journalist and writer.  She worked in clay, carved stone and was also able to work in wood, and her famous busts of her first cousin Churchill can be found at Blenheim Palace, Chartwell, Harrow School and Hastings Town Hall; the original plaster is in the possession of her great-nephew Jonathan Frewen.

Some items from her large collection of Native American artifacts are on display at Hastings Museum and in the Frewen family's ancestral village of Brede in Sussex. Sheridan's sculptures are often shown at Rye Art Gallery. Several of her later works can be found in churches or churchyards, for example at Peper Harrow near Guildford, at St. Catherine's in Hoogstraeten in Belgium, at the Church of Christ the King Salthill in Galway, Ireland and at Allington Castle in Maidstone.

 She was also, however, a most intrepid adventurer.  And she wrote about her adventures in a style that is without bravado or self-congratulation, but with all the excitement that true adventure can bring.  And this is why she is in this section.

Life

Brede place

Clare Consuelo Frewen was born in London, the daughter of Moreton Frewen, the Irish owner of Brede Place in East Sussex, and his American wife, the former Clarita "Clara" Jerome.

Jerome's mother was the elder sister of Lady Randolph Churchill which made Clare Sheridan a cousin to Winston Churchill. Her godmother and namesake was Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough. She had a circle of friends that included Princess Margaret of Sweden, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Lady Diana Cooper, Vita Sackville-West and Vivien Leigh.

Sheridan was educated by governesses at home in Sussex and at a family property in Inishannon, County Cork, before briefly attending a Paris convent school and a German finishing school. She was a debutante at the age of seventeen, but turned away from that social scene to attempt to write novels. She was encouraged in this by family friends, who included both Henry James and Rudyard Kipling.

 

At this stage you might be thinking she was just another woman, who used her wealth to jaunt around the world in comfort, accompanied by all the privileged sense of superiority governesses,  nannies and finishing schools can bestow.  But, in fact she was none of these things.  She admittedly occasionally shows a complete lack of sensitivity or good sense, but she appears to have inherited a great deal of Irish charm from her father and gets away with her gaffs every time.  For example, she bought a black bear as a ‘pet’ and chained it up by her cabin on the Indian reservation where she stayed for several months.  She bought cases of canned plums and honey for the bear, even though the family she lived with -- like the other enrolled people -- were starving on government allotments of meat.  But the family didn’t appear to have resented what the bear ate -- they were as fascinated as Clare was.  In the end, of course, the bear had to be released in Banff, too cranky to be a pet anymore. 

In the end she was greatly liked by the Native Americans with whom she eventually lived on their reservation, and was given an Indian name.  She did not live a privileged life, she helped them, supported them and acted like one of the family.

She constantly gave gifts to her adopted family (often materials) and they, likewise, gave gifts back to her (usually things they made), which is why the museums are now full of the fine things she collected.

It is possible that the unusual down to earth nature she showed – given her upbringing – might have been due to the tragedy that stalked her life.  It was a constant reminder that money really buys you very little and that even the very rich can lose the things that are the most valuable – people they love.

Clare with Richard and Margaret

Clare married Wilfred, known as William, Frederick Sheridan in 1910 at St. Margaret's, Westminster. They had two daughters.  Margaret Sheridan, thereafter known as Mary Motley was born in 1912.  She lived just 10 years longer than her mother. 

Elizabeth Sheridan was born in 1913.  Elizabeth died in February 1914, and Clare Sheridan made a sculpture of a small weeping angel for the child's grave. But from the grief that produced this miniature work of art, Clare discovered her talent for sculpting.

Wilfred Sheridan, her husband, was a Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade during World War I and was killed while leading his men at the Battle of Loos in 1915, a few days after the birth of the couple's third child, their son Richard.

Richard died in 1937, aged only 22.  He died of appendicitis at Constantine in Algeria, as such she was not even at his bedside when he died. Sheridan took a large oak tree from the family home, Brede Place, in Sussex and carved it into his memorial.

with Charlie Chaplin

Clare did not marry again, but instead engaged in love affairs, most of which were doomed to fail. 

She was good friends with Willie Seabrook. Another adventurer in all sorts of things.

While visiting America, Sheridan had a love affair with Charlie Chaplin.

Whilst in Russia, she stayed in the Kremlin for two months, where her sculpting subjects included Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky and Kamenev.

Wikipedia
While in Russia, Sheridan is reputed to have had affairs with more than one of her sitters. Her reputed relationship with Kamenev is thought to have led to his divorce from his first wife, Olga Kameneva. The author Robert Service claimed, in 2009, that there was an affair between Sheridan and Trotsky. Trotsky signed and dedicated a painting of himself to Sheridan and invited her to stay in Russia and set up a studio.

‘Reputed’, a funny word, as is ‘claimed’.  How do they know?  The answer is we do not know.  Clare never mentions affairs or lovers in her adventure books, although men do appear to be attracted to her in droves.

After the war she converted to Roman Catholicism, travelling to Assisi for that purpose before moving to live in a guest house run by the Franciscan convent at Hope Castle at Castleblayney in Ireland.

From there she continued to sculpt, albeit subjects and icons of religious importance before returning to live in Belmont House in Hastings, Sussex in 1956. She died in 1970 at the age of 84, having outlived two of her three children. She is buried in the churchyard of St George's, Brede, Sussex beside her nephew Roger Frewen [d 1972] and her great-niece Selina Frewen [d 1972] and near the memorial she had carved to her son.

 

The adventures of Clare Sheridan

Clare was to all intents a ‘socialist’ in the old sense of the word.  As a consequence she had idealistic communist sympathies, without perhaps the full knowledge that her cousin Winston Churchill had of what was happening in Russia politically.   

 

Sheridan had studied sculpture under John Tweed and Professor Édouard Lantéri. An exhibition of her work was a success and led to a number of commissions including a bust portrait of H. H. Asquith for the Oxford Union.

In the summer of 1920 the first Soviet Russian trade delegation to visit London invited Sheridan to travel to Russia to make busts of notable revolutionaries. The British authorities refused to issue her visa but she sailed with the delegation to Stockholm where Lev Kamanev obtained an Estonian visa for her.

She became both a political embarrassment as well as a liability, given her family and position.  During her stay, the Russian Civil War was being fought and Winston Churchill, as Secretary of State for War, was 'furious' to learn of Sheridan's activities. She had knowledge which, if Russia became an enemy would give Russia great advantage.  Sheridan's dalliance with Russia even earned her the suspicions of the Security Service. She had an MI5 file that noted:
 "She has conducted herself in a disloyal manner in various foreign countries, adopting a consistently anti-British attitude."

 

Which given that she was half Irish and half American seems an odd comment.

When she returned to London, Churchill refused to see her and finding herself widely shunned in polite society, she moved to America.  This was not the first time that Clare showed a sort of innocence, a complete lack of understanding of the political climate and risks.  Or maybe she did know and this was rebellion.  England at the turn of the century was a very repressed society for someone with fire in their heart and adventure in their heads.  Her books really give no clues. 

Once in America, Clare was introduced to Herbert Swope, the editor of the New York World who, impressed by her account of her time in Russia which had been published as Russian Portraits, offered her a job as the papers' roving European correspondent. In this role she obtained a number of notable scoops for the paper.

During the Irish Civil War she managed to interview both Michael Collins and Rory O'Connor.

She filed vivid accounts from the occupied city of Smyrna during the Greco-Turkish War.  And Clare interviewed Aleksandar Stamboliyski in Bulgaria, Benito Mussolini in Rome and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

A second trip to Russia in 1923 ended in her becoming disillusioned with the course of the Revolution and she was declared 'persona non grata' in the country. Despite this, Clare persuaded the Soviet representative to London to issue an entry visa for her and her brother to tour the south of the country.

 

In 1924, Sheridan and her brother, Royal Navy officer Oswald Frewen, made a then-daring long-distance motorcycle riding journey from Sussex through Europe to the USSR, ending in Odessa. The 4,226-mile (6,801 km) ride occurred between July and September 1924 with Frewen at the controls of a 799 cc, 7 hp AJS motorcycle and Sheridan in the sidecar.

The AJS, nicknamed Satanella, is said to have been the first British motorcycle in the Soviet Union. Clare published a memoir of the journey, Across Europe with Satanella in 1925.

 

After the trip, Clare moved to Constantinople with her two children and gave up journalism to focus on sculpture.  Later in 1925 Sheridan moved to Algeria, where it was noted by MI5 that "she appeared to be comfortably off and debt-free for the first time in 10 years". She built a house on the edge of the Sahara at Biskra.

In the summer of 1937 just as Europe teetered on the brink of what would become WWII, Clare left the docks of New York City to drive her Brit V-8 with right-hand steering cross-country to the Blackfeet Reservation.  She made slow progress because of a radiator that constantly boiled over until a German-American mechanic simply replaced the radiator.  She had accidents that landed her in a ditch.  But alone, she made her way across the continent.  Her goal was the Winold and Hans Reiss’ art school on the banks of St. Mary’s Lake. At the end of her long stay she drove from there to San Francisco and took a ship through the Panama Canal for home. 
She became great friends with a number of both the Blood and Blackfeet communities and lived with them on the reservation.  The stay is described in “Redskin Interlude” – an unfortunate title but simply reflecting the naming of the day. 

a portraitof Hans by his brother

Winold Reiss’ was well known for his portraits of Blackfeet and his sponsorship of young tribal artists who later became famous.  The C.M. Russell Museum owns many works.  Clare was very good friends with Winold’s brother Hans, a mountain climber and trekker as well as a sculptor.  He was the one who guided Clare to the school and taught her how to carve tree trunks. 

 “Redskin Interlude” gives a very good account of how a lass already well used to roughing it, gradually gets drawn into a half-Irish household of tribal people.  [Esto one of her friends is half Irish].  Clare was a very good observer.  Along with some historical accounts to provide a perspective of the Baker Massacre, she also provides good descriptions of Medicine Pipe Bundles and Sun Dances, without sparing us the gruesomeness of the ceremonies.

Clare has been described as “an intrepid amateur anthropologist, qualified by her ability to fall in love (ama-teur) as well as closely observe”.  Her other books are very much the same, they show she had a gift for friendship with people nothing like herself in cultures totally different to hers.  She does not shy away from hardship, does not complain, and never considers herself something apart or superior to the people she met.  As humanity they were one, even though culturally they were totally different.  Unity in difference.

Blog Posted by Mary Strachan Scriver at 4:18 AM December 22, 2012

Other artists and writers have visited this “last best place” but most of them have had neither the grace nor the intelligence of Clare Sheridan, to say nothing of what may have been a secret portfolio in a war to save civilization.

References

  • Russian Portraits (Cape, 1921); published in the U.S as Mayfair to Moscow: Clare Sheridan's Diary (1921)
  • My American Diary (New York, Boni and Liveright, 1922)
  • In Many Places (Cape, 1923)
  • West to East (1923)
  • Stella Defiant (Duckworth, 1923)
  • Across Europe with Satanella (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1925)
  • The Thirteenth (Duckworth, 1925)
  • A Turkish Kaleidoscope (Duckworth, 1926)
  • Nuda Veritas (Butterworth, 1927); published in the U.S. as Naked Truth (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1928)
  • Green Amber (1929)
  • The Substitute Bride (1931)
  • Arab Interlude (1936)
  • Redskin Interlude (1938)
  • Without End (1939)
  • My Crowded Sanctuary (Methuen, 1945)
  • To the Four Winds (1957)

Observations

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