LGBTQIA+ art blog #9: Beth McHattie

Beth McHattie is Communications Consultant for St John's Waterloo and Waterloo Festival, as well as an Associate Director at Flotilla Media and a Trustee at the Churches Conservation Trust. In a previous life, she was Deputy Director of Communications at Historic England.

My LGBT artist is the author, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) one of the greatest women of letters of the 20th century. She is best-known for her novel Lolly Willows, as a writer of short stories for the New Yorker for 40 years, and as the life-long partner of poet and minor Bloomsbury figure Valentine Ackland.

But I always recommend people start with her diaries, edited by Claire Harman. I once spent a summer in the office of publisher Michael Schmidt, founder of Carcanet press. I was there at his generous invitation to read through his correspondence with the poet C. H. Sisson on whom I was doing a dissertation. The office was piled high with books and manuscripts and Michael apologised for the bundles of notebooks under the desk he had cleared for me and which I kept accidentally kicking. “They’re the diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner,” he explained, though I’d never heard of her. “I’m trying to persuade Claire (Harman, then a PhD student of his) to edit them.” He added “Claire thinks she really was a bit of a witch.”

I thought nothing more of Sylvia and returned to Sisson. A few years later, I saw Syliva’s diaries, edited by Claire, newly published in a book shop and spent the rest of that long hot weekend completely absorbed in them. I was already deeply in love with the author, her brilliant wit and ability to extract the unexpected from the everyday when something rather strange occurred. I turned a page and saw that a sentence that should have begun “Both Sylvia and Valentine…” by some strange accident of typography, read “Beth Sylvia and Valentine…”. At that moment, I remembered what Claire had said - and fell very willingly under Sylvia’s spell.

She’s still my favourite author, many years later and having read almost all of her work. She’s more than a favourite author, she’s the person from the past that I would most like to meet and whose facility of expression and cast of mind I most envy. And when I die, I should like to be re-reading An Element of Lavishness, her letters to her New Yorker editor in which she comments on both the great characters and events of the 20th century and the details of domestic life with equal attention and acuity.

There’s an excellent Sylvia Townsend Warner Society should you want to explore further.


As part of Pride Month 2020, Crossbeam and Waterloo Festival are presenting a blog, featuring LGBTQIA+ artists and those who hold LGBTQIA+ art dear to them.

Josh Mock, curating the series, writes:

"It is my hope that by sharing the stories of diverse artists, we can appreciate and celebrate all those who strive to use art as a vehicle for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, activism, and advocacy."