Holden, Edith B. (1871–1920)

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Holden, Edith B. (1871–1920)

English illustrator and writer whose Nature Notes, found years after her death, were released as Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and became a literary sensation. Name variations: Edith Blackwell Smith. Born Edith Blackwell Holden at Holly Green, in Church Road, Moseley, near Birmingham, England, on September 26, 1871; drowned in the Thames on March 15, 1920; fourth child of Arthur Holden (an industrialist) and Emma Wearing Holden; sister of Effie Margaret (b. 1867), Violet Mary (b. 1873), and Evelyn Holden (1877–c. 1969); married Alfred Ernest Smith (a sculptor), on June 1, 1911 (died 1938).

Selected writings:

(illustrator) Margaret Gatty's Daily Bread (1910); (illus.) Woodland Whisperings (1911); (illus.) Mrs. Strang's Annual for Children (1914–c. 1925); (illus.) Animals Around Us (1912); The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (1977); The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady (1989).

Edith Blackwell Holden, whose middle name was borrowed from her trail-blazing cousin Elizabeth Blackwell , was born near Birmingham, England, on September 26, 1871, the daughter of a Non-Conformist, liberal father. Arthur Holden, whose Unitarian religion and actions tended toward socialism, owned a varnish firm and took good care of his workers. He was also active in his community and on the town council. Edith's mother was Emma Wearing Holden , an erstwhile governess, well-educated for her time. Also a Unitarian, Emma had published two slight books for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Ursula's Girl-hood and Beatrice of St. Mawse. Both parents believed in the supernatural and the possibility of transmitted thought, while Emma dabbled in automatic writing.

Of delicate health, Emma's seven pregnancies left her frail, and she never totally recovered her strength. Even so, she took over the education of her brood—five girls and two boys. The Holdens had a passion for art, poetry, and books. They also enjoyed walks in the countryside and were fairly versed in the birds and local fauna. Emma's greatest love was her garden.

Edith Holden spent her first nine years in a large house called The Elms in the village of Acocks Green, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Birmingham. In 1880, as Birmingham expanded and the area built up, Arthur moved his family to Darley Green, a farming village in Packwood, 15 miles from Birmingham, where they frequently trod the country lanes and revelled in the births of farm animals. While the daughters continued their home tutoring, the sons were packed off to school.

During those periods when Emma took to her bed, the older girls ran the household. When an aunt suggested that one or two of the girls might live with her to lighten Emma's load, the eldest Effie volunteered and moved to Bristol. Thirteen-year-old Edith entered the Birmingham School of Art, one of the best provincial art schools in the nation, passing with an Excellent in freehand her first year.

In 1890, when sisters Evelyn and Violet joined 19-year-old Edith at the School of Art, the family moved once again to a house named Gowan Bank, with its extensive gardens and staff cottage, 300 yards from Kingswood station, to be nearer the railway for the daily 16-mile commute into Birmingham. That year, Edith had her first painting, A Cosy Quartette, exhibited in the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists' autumn show. She began to specialize in animal painting, as well as plants.

In August 1891, age 20, Edith was sent to study with animal painter J. Denovan Adam and 25 other students at his Craigmill studio, just out-side Stirling, Scotland. Twelve months later, she returned home and began to produce four paintings a year for the Royal Birmingham exhibitions. As many of her paintings reflect, she would visit Scotland six weeks annually and make other excursions to Dousland in Dartmoor, becoming close with a family who ran the local post office.

The house at Gowan Bank had frequent visitors, especially socialists or spiritualists who had come to speak in Birmingham; the family also held weekly seances, with Emma Holden sometimes acting as medium. Well into adulthood, the younger Holdens and their friends put on theatrical productions in the unused chapel at the side of the garden. One close friend of Edith's, Edith Matthison , later became a professional actress.

In 1897, seeking a smaller house, Arthur Holden moved his entourage once more, this time to Dorridge, a few miles from Kingswood. Daughter Winnie had taken over the running of the house, since Emma Holden, now 61, spent most of her time in bed or on the chaise-longue in the drawing room or garden. Emma died of cancer a few months after her daughter Evelyn was married in 1904. The family was soon convinced that Emma was transferring messages to them through Winnie.

At this time, Arthur Holden's extremely successful firm fell on hard times, and there was a split in the family as to how to handle the situation. When a smaller house was unavoidable, Arthur, Winnie, Edith, and Violet returned to Gowan Bank in March 1905. Edith, unsettled by the family feuds, put even more energy into her paintings and began writing her "nature notes" of 1905 and 1906. Traversing lanes and fields on foot and bicycle, happily alone, she went in search of the violet wood or the Wild Canterbury Bell, climbing to the top of craggy hills with paintbox and canvas tucked under her arm. Her notes, abundantly illustrated, had a charming narration:

May 1st. Very windy, but bright sunshine. Walked to Yelverton and sat on the moor. Watched a handsome little black-headed Stone-chat 'jinkin' thro' the gorse; Follow'd him to another patch of furse and sat down to watch. He scolded terribly and presently the hen-bird came with a beakful of small caterpillars and began to scold too. I moved my station and sat but the hen-bird followed after swallowing her collection of grubs and scolded and chattered at me for half an hour…. Ikept very quiet and at last had my reward.

Holden, Effie M. (b. 1867)

English poet. Name variations: E.M. Holden; Effie Margaret Heath. Born Effie Margaret Holden in 1867; first child of Arthur Holden (an industrialist) and Emma Wearing Holden; sister of Edith Holden (1871–1920); married Carl Heath (an artist), in 1900.

In 1891, Effie Holden journeyed to Sweden to study the arts and crafts movement. While there, she met fellow student Carl Heath; they were married in 1900 and became involved with the Humanitarian League, participating in Socialist and Fabian debates. Rather than art, Effie began to be recognized by friends as a writer of poetry; as such, she corresponded and met some of the leading literary figures of her day. By 1905, the 38-year-old Effie had published two books of poetry, including The Songs of Christine, which sold out in 1901 and was reprinted in 1903. In all, she published 11 volumes of poetry under the name E.M. Holden. Effie wrote a short book about Lucy Stone .

Holden, Evelyn (1877–c. 1969)

English artist and book illustrator. Born in 1877; died around 1969; daughter of Arthur Holden (an industrialist) and Emma Wearing Holden; sister of Edith Holden (1871–1920); attended Birmingham Art School; married Frank Matthews, in 1904.

A successful book illustrator, Evelyn Holden also exhibited with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. Her strength was pen and ink, and her watercolors were much bolder than her sister Edith Holden 's. In 1904, Evelyn married Frank Matthews and joined him in his commitment to work with crippled children in the slums. Despite being of delicate health since babyhood, Evelyn was over 90 when she died.

Holden, Violet (b. 1873)

English artist and book illustrator. Born in 1873; daughter of Arthur Holden (an industrialist) and Emma Wearing Holden; sister of Edith Holden (1871–1920); attended Birmingham Art School.

Violet Holden was also a successful book illustrator. Together with her sister Evelyn Holden , Violet illustrated The Real Princess, a fairy story by Blanche Atkinson , in 1894. The sisters published their own book of nursery rhymes a year later. In 1904, Violet joined the teaching staff of the Birmingham Art School; she specialized in writing and illumination.

The mother bird led her to "a cosy nest hidden away very carefully among the dry grass at the roots of the gorse with five baby stone-chats in it, nearly fledged."

November 7th. Yesterday I erected a short pole in the garden with a small flat board on top, to serve as a breakfast table for the birds; I strewed it with crumbs and bits of meat; but all day yesterday the birds left it severely alone.

A starling arrived, then two Tom-tits. "After that there was a constant succession of visitors all through the day."

From 1906 to 1909, Holden taught art on Friday afternoons at the Solihull School for Girls, for her friend Miss Burd, the headmistress. "The girls found Edith reserved and reticent about herself," wrote Ina Taylor . "She had fairish hair drawn back and usually wore a high-necked blouse and long skirt. She had a very quiet personality and never belittled anyone's efforts, but she demanded high standards from her pupils." Holden continued to exhibit in Birmingham and began to contribute illustrations to the Animals' Friend magazine and art work to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In 1907, Holden entered The Rowan Tree for the Royal Academy summer exhibition in London, where she stayed with her sister Effie. As active members of the Christian Socialist Society, the Fellowship of New Life (which would become the Fabian Society), the Humanitarian League, and the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, Effie and her husband Carl soon broadened Edith's horizons. Holden was fascinated with her sister's lifestyle and, through Effie, made many new friends, including the sculptor Ernest Smith, who was then attending the Royal College of Art.

The situation at home grew worse. As her father's paint-and-varnish business provided an income for all the Holdens, money was in short supply. Edith supplemented her income with her art. Becoming known as an animal illustrator, she began to acquire commissions to illustrate children's books: Margaret Gatty 's Daily Bread (1910), Mrs. Strang's Annual for Children (1914–c. 1925), Woodland Whisperings (1911), and Animals Around Us (1912).

In 1911, 40-year-old Edith married Ernest Smith, who was seven years her junior and had been invited to assist the Countess Feodora Gleichen , a gifted sculptor, in her studio in St. James's Palace. Though always welcome there, Edith continued her own career in book illustrating. In 1917, she again exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Not much is known about Edith Holden's nine-year marriage. What is known is that on Monday morning, March 15, 1920, while living at 2 Oakley Crescent, Chelsea, she complained of a headache to her husband before he left for work in the St. James's studio. She also told him that she would probably go down to the river to watch the university crews practice that day. When he returned from work, Holden was not there, though the table had been set for dinner. Her body was found by a constable at 6 o'clock on Tuesday morning, lying face down, clutching a bunch of twigs. She had drowned in a backwater of the Thames, near Kew Gardens Walk. An inquest speculated that, while standing on two stumps of wood, Holden had been reaching for a branch of chestnut buds with her umbrella and fallen into the river. There were some who openly wondered about suicide, but many remembered that Edith condemned suicide because of her religious views. She was 48.

Following Edith Holden's death, though her art work has been lost, her Nature Notes for 1906 remained with her husband's family. (Ernest Smith died in 1938.) Eventually, Holden's great-niece, artist Rowena Stott , inherited them and, in 1976, took the heavily illustrated diaries to the publishers Webb and Bower. Joining with Michael Joseph, a top London house, Richard Webb and Delian Bower oversaw the publication of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady on June 13, 1977. The reviews were euphoric, and the book landed on top of the bestseller list the following week. There it stayed for 64 weeks, selling over three million copies in Sweden, Germany, France, America, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Finland, Japan, Spain, and Portugal. Under the label "The Country Diary Collection," Nigel French Enterprises began to manufacture Holden's designs: 1,000 items, everything from crockery to bed linen, sold in 20 countries. As well, a 12-part television series on Holden's life was produced by Central Independent Television and broadcast in England in spring 1984.

In 1988, there was an amazing discovery. Holden's Nature Notes of 1905—until that time no one was even aware they existed—were found in a dining-room cupboard in Southsea, Hampshire, in the possession of a family completely unrelated to the Holdens. The find was greeted with skepticism until Sotheby's confirmed the authorship. It is thought that the family obtained the manuscript in the 1940s at auction. Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady was published in October 5, 1989, again topping the bestseller list.


Holden, Edith. The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady. Devon, England: Webb and Bower, 1989.

Taylor, Ina. The Edwardian Lady: The Story of Edith Holden. Devon, England: Webb and Bower, 1980, rev. ed., 1990.

related media:

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, a 12-part television series, produced by Central Independent Television, starring Pippa Guard , broadcast in England, spring 1984.

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Holden, Edith B. (1871–1920)

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