Alex Johnson takes a spin around George Bernard Shaw’s revolving writing hut
A writer’s room tends to be a private place, a sanctuary from domesticity and the excitements of children, pets and unwanted visitors. This is certainly how George Bernard Shaw promoted his writing hut to the world, with himself as something of a creative hermit, tucked away in his modest retreat with only a few pens, a supply of ink, a small table, a narrow bed and a wicker chair for comfort. His biographer Michael Holroyd described it as a kind of “monk’s cell”. The truth is a little more complicated.
Shaw’s writing refuge was a six-square-metre wooden summerhouse, originally intended for his wife Charlotte and inspired by the similar setup owned by his neighbour Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the naturalist who was part of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, which he wrote up as The Worst Journey In The World. The hut was built on a revolving base that used castors on a circular track, essentially a shed on a lazy Susan. This meant the hut, at his home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, could be moved to improve the light or change the view (or indeed just for a bit of exercise). Spectacularly high-tech for its time, it also had an electric heater and a telephone connection to the house as well as an alarm clock to alert the Nobel Prize winner that it was lunchtime. Shaw particularly enjoyed the isolation since it allowed the staff at the house with some degree of honesty to tell callers that “Mr Shaw is out” to prevent interruptions. He also called it “London” for the same reason (“I’m sorry Sir, Mr Shaw is in London”).
“Any place that will hold a bed and a writing table is as characteristic of me as any other,” Shaw said in an interview for the World magazine in July 1900. But this apparent indifference to his writing space belies the way in which he used the hut as a real-life stage to promote his ideas and beliefs.
As a journalist – as well as a playwright and generally prolific writer – Shaw had a keen appreciation of the power of photography as used within the mass media, and kept cuttings of his press appearances in albums. He was certainly not a monk in terms of worldliness. A friend of the US press baron William Randolph Hearst, Shaw ensured that glimpses of his own life were always stage managed to create a specific impression, playing on his reputation as a media celebrity at a time when there was growing interest in the private lives of famous people.
It was also a time when there was growing appreciation of idyllic rural settings – a knock-on effect of which was that people had garden buildings installed. Shaw made the most of this movement, promoting himself as a reclusive thinker toiling in his rustic shelter, away from the intrusions of press and people alike, while at the same time inviting in newspapers and magazines and posing for photos.
Thus, in August 1929, Shaw stood in front of his hut for a photo for Modern Mechanics & Inventions magazine to promote the idea of sunlight as a healing agent (the dramatic postures he effected for these shots were also in line with his interest in eurhythmics, the concept of developing one’s sense of rhythm through movement). He also had windows installed that were made from Vitaglass, a recent invention that allowed UV rays to come through, letting, the makers said, “health into the building”. That move, which was also picked up by newspapers, and indeed his very ownership of a hut with a turntable, placed him in the vanguard of medical thought, since rotating summerhouses were used to treat people suffering from tuberculosis.
However, not all of Shaw’s great outdoors campaigns featured in press photographs; although a supporter of nudism, he always publicised the hut fully clothed.
And of course he showed off his shed to his celebrity friends. In spring 1944 when the actress Vivien Leigh was shooting a movie version of Shaw’s play Caesar & Cleopatra, she and the film’s flamboyant director Gabriel Pascal went to see the author and were taken to his writing hut, where studio photographer Wilfrid Newton took promotional pictures of the meeting. There’s also footage of comedian and actor Danny Kaye visiting Shaw in his garden. Shaw’s house and garden – where he and his wife’s ashes were scattered – are now a National Trust property, so you can visit the famous writing hut for yourself.
Search “national trust shaws corner”.
This column appears in Idler 73, July/August 2020.
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