JET - JOAN EVEYLN THOMSON 1914 - 1993

Here follows a biography of JET’s life, which provides the context for the 20 years from 1933 to the end of the 1950’s during which she created the portfolio of designs from which the JET Collection has been developed.  Of independent means, impulsive and free from the traditional expectations for a girl of her background, she was able to lead a fascinating life, during a significant part of which she was able to follow her desire to study design and then draw on this education and the exciting influences around at the time in Paris, Vienna and Britain to create a portfolio of designs of such enduring quality.  Her life story also explains how they came to be set aside until Susanna White found them and then developed the JET Collection.

JET outside her Kensington Place home with poodle and prize winning window box

Early Life - World War 1 and 1920's

Joan Evelyn Thomson was born in 1914 shortly after her mother returned from India on the eve of the First World War. She was the only and adored child of a middle-aged tea planter and his much younger pretty, deaf second wife.

While her father spent time in India and Singapore trading tea and jute, she and her mother, Sylvia, lived in a large family house in Camberley. In the evenings Jet peeped through staircase spindles to sneak views of visiting Indians and other well dressed dinner guests. During the day, Sylvia dressed Jet in fairy costumes and regaled her with romantic tales of forbears saving Scottish princes from wolves and a tenuous connection to Mary Queen of Scots.

Sylvia’s interests were stoked by the fashions of the day - the Art Nouveau and later Arts and Crafts movements - and fuelled by her study of fine art prior to marriage.

When Jet’s father died in the early 1920s, the dinners stopped abruptly and Jet was sent briefly to Elmhurst ballet school, newly set up in Camberley, which sparked a lifelong appreciation of the physicality of dance if not of music. The travel did not stop, though. Photographs track JET as a ten-year old with her mother, a competitive ice-skater and golfer, visiting friends and relatives in Belgium, Holland and Bavaria.

Then Sylvia also died very suddenly from a chill and JET was left alone with a grandmother and an aunt, and a mutual dislike of both.

Early Life Pictures of an introspective early 20th century only child with Posybackdrop

1930's Yorkshire adolescence and off to art school

She became the ward of her uncle by marriage, Major General George Kelly, based by then in Catterick. He was always Boo in the albums, while her Aunt - her mother’s sister - is always referred to formally as Mrs Kelly. The 16-year old Jet was launched into Yorkshire society where she rode side-saddle to hounds, played tennis, picnicked by wide fishing rivers and attended house parties all recorded in fading sepia. It looks jolly but school friends from a long defunct boarding school for young ladies recorded that the adolescent and strong willed JET was, unsurprisingly, deeply lonely.

In 1933 there is a picture of JET and a car on the wide Regency drive with the caption “Self off to Art School” - a year’s foundation course at York, we assume. The car illustrates that unlike heroines of fiction, JET inheritance had given her considerable independence.

Yorkshire 1930's country life before art school direction change with Hunters backdrop

Study and adventure in Paris and America

By 1935 JET was in Paris under the supervision of Comte Marcel Frochot, a friend of General Kelly from the First World War. JET and Frochot’s childless wife bonded at once. With a crumbling but beautiful Chateau near Vienne and a vast address book, Tante Jehanne launched JET into Parisian society in borrowed House of Worth dresses. In April 1935 even as she partied with Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, she was enrolled in a course concentrating on the study of textiles. Paris was leading the world, not only in fine art but also in fashion, architecture and design. The Exposition Internationales des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925 had paraded new and wondrous textiles from France, Austria and Germany, heavily inspired by a combination of modern art, the jazz age and The Art Deco Movement.

Paris, despite being gripped by economic depression, remained at the forefront of movements from cubism, abstraction, surrealism and the chic and the fashionable rubbed shoulders with the talented and European avant-garde. JET’s notes of pattern were written in fluent French, which is strange as she strenuously denied any ability to speak French as an older woman. Undoubtedly the heady egalitarian atmosphere was a revelation that shaped her social life until death.

There was some sort of affair with a much older American at this time and December 1935 JET, chaperoned by Tante Jehanne, sailed to New York on SS Lafayette with a view to seeing if he was suitable for marriage. His surname was Bush, but she never revealed more, although we found a diary entry “Bush” and a very chic address in NY. She later reported that she was a little too Bohemian for the Bushes and that she had found WASP Society staid and constraining. However, she was, maybe unconsciously, impressed by New York’s transatlantic variant of The Jazz Age, which is obvious in some of her contemporary designs. The romance petered out even if the friendship persisted. JET revealed in the 1980’s, when pushed hard by her family, that she always had tea at the Dorchester with Mr Bush and his wife when they were in London.

Chateau de Verrieres, with African Queen backdrop

Austria 

JET at 21 and of age leaves Paris for Vienna with a school friend Susi Barnes (Susi later married Maxwell Knight, the spymaster-naturalist who was Ian Flemings’s model for M). These feisty and financially independent young women split their time between being waltzing in Vienna, studying textile design, and climbing mountains with ice picks in the Tyrol near Salzburg. JET developed a love of the traditional, local peasant designs as well as interest in the more sophisticated influences of the one time centre of the Hapsburg empire. One of her more outré designs of the time is titled in her hand as “London Day Dress”. There was quite a European community in Austria in 1935, who enjoyed skiing and rock climbing, flirting and parties and were at least initially unaware of the rise of Nazi Germany. But the mood-swing against Jewish friends became palpable, spreading in the cities to a general suspicion of foreigners. JET said later that there was a definite, but still undefined threat in the air, particularly in Vienna.

In 1936 David Milne drove into their village. He had suffered from polio as a teenager and had all but lost the use of his legs. At 23, battered by a failed love affair and years of vicious treatments, he was bent on proving his independence - to himself and his family. He had persuaded his anxious parents to allow him to tour Europe with friends. He did not tell them that he was on his own or that he had lost all his money in the casinos on arriving in Vienna. He looked a little out of place in a mountain resort. But he was charming and the hotel valet took pity on him and told him of these English girls in the mountains. And the girls turned out to be pretty and vivacious and he was looking for a mild, unchaperoned adventure.

Austria pictures with Rites of Spring backdrop

Marriage, World War 2

Within weeks, David had mischievously fired off a telegram to his family to say that he was proposing to marry an Alpine barmaid. His stuffy family received her with little grace. The Milne family - the Milne in the Manchester store Kendal Milne & Co - had acted as an agent for William Morris long before the socialist designer-poet became collectable. But by 1936, the family were living a conventional county life in Gloucestershire. JET in turn did not warm to her in-laws. It didn’t bode well for the marriage. David and Jet did however share a love of design, textiles and ballet, associating with the Ballet Russes. Their friends were a mix of writers, actors, musicians and artists. But as World War II loomed, they and their two children moved to Chideock in Dorset. The war years became increasingly difficult. David, guilty that he was unable to serve in the armed forces, lived well beyond his means as a solicitor. Together he and Jet began to work through her inheritance. His depression and her deep insecurity widened the gulf between them.

Dorset in World War 2 with Leaf Trail backdrop

Edward  Wolfe

It was during this time that Jet formed a friendship that lasted for half a century.

In about 1940 Edward Wolfe RA and his mother fled London for Chideock. The South African’s artists career had stalled after a glittering start. As a young man, just before the First World War, he had caught the eye of Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury set and he worked for Roger Fry in The Omega Workshops, an enterprise, founded in 1913, encouraging artists to have equal regard for decorative works as fine art and to design and produce their own textiles, wallpapers and ceramics. Although the project came to an end in 1919, the Omega Workshop had a profound influence on 20th Century design. Indeed screen-printed textiles by the Bloomsbury Grant for Alan Walton Textiles in the 1930’s definitely influenced JET’s aesthetic.

By the end of the war, JET and David’s marriage had failed and she returned to London determined to reclaim her life and career. Wolfe encouraged her, worked with her on several designs (his drawings were found in her portfolio) and painted her frequently, robed and unrobed. She actively sought work, not particularly in need of finance but definitely in need of reclaiming her soul and there are draft letters to British Manufacturers asking for employment.

Susan, her eldest daughter, remembers ‘long periods’ during her childhood when her mother was absent working for the iconic Zika Ascher. Ascher persuaded famous European artists to design fabrics. Cocteau, Moore, Matisse, Sutherland, Piper and Picasso among many others produced designs for his silk square scarves, which are still in fantastic demand by collectors today. We are not sure for how long JET was in the employ of Zika Ascher.

Wolfe and JET with Pine Backdrop

Second marriage and TM

Teddy Wolfe introduced JET to Thomas Smith Fairley. Before long, the couple had married, to the confusion of their friends, who assumed (wrongly) that Tommy and Teddy were lovers. Tommy was an elusive character. He was not just a publisher but during the war he was consul in Mexico and also a spy who was involved in the planning of ‘The Spy That Never Was’. In 1950 he was Chief Press Officer to The Festival of Britain. Allen Lane, the publisher and founder of Penguin Books acted as best man. He was just one of Tommy’s circle of scientists, journalists, artists such as Edward Ardizone and writers such as Graham Greene, who also worked for MI6 in the 1940s. This was probably the happiest time in JET’s life. Her work and aspirations were discarded and her designs were relegated to the back of a Regency secretaire.

At 49, JET lost the most loved person in her life. Tommy died of cancer leaving her still young, heart-broken and perhaps a little bitter. This is when I first remember my Grandmother Vicky, so called after her standard poodle, one of the many poodles who helped her through the first years of widowhood. Then Teddy Wolfe introduced JET to Transcendental Meditation. That filled the void left by Tommy better than anything else, propelling her headlong into life of the 1960s and 70s. As a small child, I yawned when she talked of meeting some “muddled boys” in a band called ‘The Bugs’. Had she called them by their real name “The Beatles”, my reaction would have been different.

Perhaps TM ignited childhood associations with India. Certainly her friends expanded to include rock stars, classical musicians, students, sound recordists, BBC broadcasters as well as dowagers and dukes, all squashed into local Campden Hill eateries that knew she NEVER carried her bank card. Her little blue painted house in Kensington Place was now The West London Centre for Transcendental Meditation and full to the brim - as my Mother reported rather suspiciously - with “all sorts”.

A new relationship with Grandmother and her possessions and designs with Bird and Basket backdrop 

JET and I became cautious friends. She alluded briefly to her time at art school and her young life but was more preoccupied with filling her present up with words from The Maharishi. It was more than twenty years after her death, that I rifled through the drawers of the secretaire and discovered a large collection of drawings. It was a portfolio of JET’s hand drawn textile designs along with scrappy shedding tracing papers plotting the pattern through repeat, some notebooks and British Council catalogue of yarn colours. Granny had intended me to inherit a vast and whimsical Edwardian portrait of her as a small, overdressed child clutching a flower, which went to a cousin by accident. However, in the end, I got something so much more precious and rare and I hope that JET would feel that her work was in safe hands.

With Thanks to:


Robert and Georgina Hamilton of Hamilton & Weston who helped us develop the first wallpaper designs.

Emma Crichton-Miller, with valuable contribution from sister Kate, who we commissioned to write a potted biography about JET with help from the photograph albums and anything else we could find to help her extract the woman out of the Grandmother. From this work she then provided the text to our debut World of Interiors Article in October 2017.

My Mum, Susan Burgess, for enduring my endless questioning with her limitless patience whilst being so horribly and terminally ill (1937-2018).

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