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Natasha Spender papers

 Collection

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Journals, correspondence, working and literary papers, photographs, art works and audio-visual material by and relating to Natasha Spender, her parents Ray Litvin and Edwin Evans, and her husband Stephen Spender.

Dates

  • c. 1800-2011, n.d.

Extent

27.0 Linear metres (180 physical shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

English, French

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, e.g. MS. 6647/3].
Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. 6647/1-173, MSS. 6647 photogr. 1-7

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 6647, 6766

Overview

Correspondence and papers of Natasha Spender, concert pianist, academic, writer, and wife of the British poet Stephen Spender.

Biographical / Historical

Natasha Spender, Lady Spender, nee Litvin (or Evans), was born on 18 April 1919, the illegitimate daughter of Rachel (Ray) Litvin and (though Natasha did not find this out until she was twelve years old) Edwin Evans, a well-respected, and married, Times music critic. Ray Litvin (d. 1977) was from a Lithuanian Jewish refugee family and raised in Glasgow. She became an actress and was by 1915 a regular with Lilian Baylis's Old Vic theatre company in London. In 1926, however, she fell ill with typhoid and became profoundly deaf, which seriously limited her career and income. Natasha, meanwhile, spent her early years fostered out, chiefly to a woman from Maidenhead called Mrs. Busby, and then spent her holidays with the wealthy and very musical family of George Booth (son of the social researcher Charles Booth) and his wife Margaret at their home Funtington in West Sussex.

A gifted pianist, Natasha trained first at the Tobias Matthay School in London and then at the age of 16 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where she won the Challen Gold Medal for a solo performance with the College Orchestra. Following graduation, she studied with Clifford Curzon and Franz Osborn and started her professional career as a musician. During the war, she gave concerts for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and in 1943 she, along with Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Cecil Day-Lewis, founded the Apollo Society which presented poetry with a musical accompaniment. She appeared often on television and radio including as the soloist in the first concert televised by the BBC. She also gave recitals in the UK and abroad in the US, France, Germany (including a concert for recovering prisoners from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp), Italy, Greece and Australia. She performed at the Proms in 1947.

After surgery for breast cancer (diagnosed in September 1964) which weakened her arm muscles, she gave up her music career. She had already entered academia, starting with her A-levels, and then gained a degree in psychology. From 1970 until 1984 she taught music psychology and visual perception at the Royal College of Art. She later contributed to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

In 1940, she met the poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) at a lunch party hosted by Horizon, a literary journal that Stephen was co-editing at the time. They married in 1941. Their first child, Matthew, was born in March 1945 and the same month, the Spenders moved to a rented house in Loudoun Road, St. John's Wood, London, where they lived until they died. A second child, Elizabeth (Lizzie) was born in 1950.

The Spenders were notable figures and hosts on the London literary scene and abroad, with Stephen Spender's career as a visiting professor, lecturer, editor and delegate taking them all over the world, with long periods in America. In the 1950s, she became friends with the author Raymond Chandler, who fell in love with her, and the exact nature of their relationship became an ongoing source of speculation. This, along with controversies over unauthorized biographies and interpretations of Stephen Spender's life led to Natasha fighting hard for the rights of biographical subjects and particularly for her husband's reputation. Following Stephen Spender's death in 1995, Natasha collaborated with John Sutherland on an official biography (published in 2004) and with Lara Feigel on an updated edition of Spender's journals (published in 2012). She also wrote articles about friends and associates, including Dame Edith Sitwell and Raymond Chandler, and the archive includes an unfinished memoir covering the early years of her life and marriage.

In 1964 the Spenders acquired a ruined farmhouse in Provence, Mas St Jerome, and Natasha designed its garden, and also contributed to the garden design of the Chateau Mouton, the home of the Spenders' friend Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The Spenders rented out Mas St Jerome for much of the year but also hosted friends including frequent visitor Iris Murdoch. In 1999, at the age of 81, Natasha published a book about the garden at Mas St. Jerome, An English Garden in Provence, just shortly before the house was devastated by a wildfire. She recovered and restored the house and garden, a project that was completed in 2002, while continuing to work on projects in London, including the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which, among other things, funds poetry in translation.

She died on 21 October 2010 at the age of 91.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Deposited Apr 2011 and Dec 2011 by the Spender family and accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Bodleian Library, 2012.
Title
Archive of Natasha Spender
Status
completed
Author
Finding aid prepared by Charlotte McKillop-Mash
Date
2019
Language of description
English
Sponsor
Cataloguing funded by the T.S. Eliot Foundation

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Contact:
Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom