The Dinner Puzzle, like Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies, brings to life the world of Lady Rhondda. This ongoing project all began when I unearthed the complete guest list, 100 women, 29 men, table allocation included, of a dinner held on a warm evening, 23rd March 1933, at the Rembrandt Rooms, Knightsbridge, to celebrate the life of Lady Rhondda and to present her with a secretly commissioned portrait by the up-and-coming Alice Mary Burton. The guest list – a remarkable group – was in the archive left by my grandfather, the Rev. J.T. Rhys, former private secretary at No. 10 to Mrs Lloyd George, who once worked with Lady Rhondda’s mother, Lady (Sibyl) Rhondda.
The Dinner Puzzle profiles all the guests: their upbringing; their life at the time of the dinner; and later achievements. Some were in their eighties, some were teenagers. By teasing out what may have been on their own minds that evening, and their relationships with others at their table, we start to reimagine their conversation and the mood of the evening.
The dinner was held just one week after the publication of Lady Rhondda’s autobiography, This Was My World, and was attended by her friends and colleagues in publishing, the arts, entertainment, sport, medicine, her Welsh business network, and by fellow suffragettes. Reflecting the significance of the dinner, all the “Key Individuals”currently on the Time and Tide site were there.
Six “Key Individuals”, were at the Top Table. The lives of the famous being well-documented, The Dinner Puzzledigs out little extras: that Winifred Cullis, chair of the dinner, and Cicely Hamilton, must have liked the portrait so much, they had their own painted by Alice. Early puzzling found Winifred Holtby’s amusing recollections of “a most delightful lunch given at Boulestin’s, a French underground restaurant near Covent Garden, by Lady Rhondda to meet contributors to Time and Tide”. Boulestin’s was owned by Holtby’s fellow Dinner Puzzle guest Xavier Boulestin, and also present at the lunch were Dinner Puzzle guests and Time and Tide contributors Vera Brittain and E. M. Delafield. EMD’s Dinner Puzzle pen portrait also highlights Time and Tide links to Punch magazine contributors, some, including Marion Jean Lyon, at the dinner. Rebecca West was one of the few guests accompanied by a partner, the somewhat mysterious Henry Andrews. For an exclusive, we have my grandfather’s hitherto unpublished short essay on Lady Rhondda’s maiden speech.
Helen Archdale, whose strongest relations with Lady Rhondda were past, and Theodora Bosanquet, whose relationship with her was very soon to blossom, hosted their own tables. Helen and daughter Betty surrounded themselves with suffragettes – a table of jailbirds. Theodora was with super-mum Theresa Dillon and one of her high-flying daughters, physicist Tess Dillon (sister Una founded the eponymous bookseller), and with high-ranking civil servant, Myra Curtis, later Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.
Also hosting her own table was Sylvia Lynd, with publisher Jonathan Cape, suffrage actress Eva Moore and a puzzling family of four that included the ticket seller for the dinner. No free lunch.
At least two dozen guests wrote for Time and Tide, including four Top Table men: the Dublin born St. John Ervine, Ulsterman Stephen Gwynn, new Literary Editor Richard Ellis-Roberts (albeit with a short tenure), and one of the evening’s speakers, Norman Angell, trying to keep his Nobel Prize bid afloat. Another table was entirely past or future Time and Tide contributors: Clara Smith, fiction and book reviewer, and proof reader of Lady Rhondda’s autobiography; Margaret West, recently departed for the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press; Mrs. A.M. Mortimer, hitherto Time and Tide General Manager; and Lorna Concanen Lewis, book reviewer, organiser-of-choice, and great friend of E.M. Delafield.
The challenging puzzles have been the less well known, especially if listed simply as Miss Gross or Miss Blunt. Will someone’s diary resurface with recollections of the evening? I am filling in the gaps, finding photographs, and developing a new network of friends amongst relatives from Las Vegas to New South Wales, from Capetown to Canada – who have recognised their forebears, responded to my enquiries or who I have met by chance. This history lay in my family box for nearly a century. Now others are looking in attics, re-reading old letters, and making connections. I am tagging some guests – such as the American contralto and the Olympic fencing silver medallist – as my “Favourite Finds”.
I have also unearthed the photo of the Top Table, and that of Alice at her easel, putting the finishing touches to the portrait, watched by her dog, Jane. The portrait is more relaxed than the more formal one by Alice now hanging in the House of Lords. The greatest find of all, perhaps, would be the original portrait: an almost exact copy now hangs in the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff. Can you help?
The only member of Lady Rhondda’s family present was her aunt, writer and natural scientist Rose Haig-Thomas. Lady Rhondda’s mother was sailing to Madeira.
Development of The Dinner Puzzle, since 2018, has coincided with a revival of interest in Lady Rhondda: the Welsh National Opera’s Rhondda Rips it Up, the Lady Rhondda Statue Project and now the Time and Tide Centenary – alongside Angela V. John’s biography of Margaret Rhondda, Turning the Tide and Catherine Clay’s Time and Tide. A rising tide of grassroots research lifts all boats?
The Dinner Puzzle has been created by Richard Rhys O’Brien with great assistance from filmmaker and campaigner Liz Smith, and from Angela V. John.
By Richard Rhys O’Brien