Not just a musician…


Watercolour by Imogen Holst, c. 1925 (Copyright: Britten-Pears Foundation)


Imogen’s family, upbringing and education seem to have precluded any career other than that of a musician. As the daughter of Gustav Holst she was introduced to music at a young age, mixed with eminent musicians of the twentieth century, including ‘Uncle Ralph’ (Ralph Vaughan Williams), and was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and later at the Royal College of Music.

The Holst Archive reflects the essential musicality of Imogen’s life: the bulk of Imogen’s papers consist of music manuscripts, published scores, and her research and work as a musicologist. Yet going through her personal papers, every now and then, you catch a glimpse of other interests and of a person who was perhaps quite different from the image she presented in later life.

For any archivist working on the collection of an individual, particularly a figure within living memory, it is important to pay attention to these nuances and not be overly influenced by accepted narratives or dominant perceptions of a person. Without doubt, Imogen’s archive will be of interest primarily to musicians and musicologists. And as she lived the last half of her life here in Aldeburgh, where her papers are kept, the dominant memories of her are of a generous but intensely focused and private individual, in a sensible cardigan carrying a string bag.

But Imogen’s first love was not music but dancing. This love of dancing comes through in her correspondence, her journals and her early association with the English Folk Dancing Society [EFDS]. Her personal papers also reveal an individual with a talent for watercolour sketching, and two notebooks show that for a period in her late teens and early twenties Imogen spent her time composing poetry as well as music. Together these records point to a period of experimentation and exploration at the outset of a creative life and are just as important as those documents that can be considered part of her ‘life’s work’.

In some cases, items that you find in a personal archive seem inexplicably at odds with received perceptions of the individual. This was something I faced last week, when I came across a packet of 1930s studio photographs within a file of legal papers. The photographs turned out to be a series of naked portraits of Imogen taken in London when she was in her twenties. My first reaction was to question whether it was actually Imogen in the photographs, and my second was to momentarily wonder how these images would be catalogued. But these reactions were due largely to recollections and images of Imogen from the latter half of her life. It is probable that Imogen herself was aware that the photographs still existed and there are no immediate family members to consider – so these images will be treated like any other record and will be catalogued along with the photographs of her conducting orchestras and teaching students. Like her sketches, her poetry and her dancing these photographs document a period of Imogen’s life when anything seemed possible.

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