Siegfried Sassoon

Robert Ross

Siegfried Sassoon first met the art expert and literary critic Robert Ross in June 1913, at a party given by Sir Edmund Gosse. Ross, eighteen years older than Sassoon, was a patron of emerging actors, poets and writers, but was better known as the lover of Oscar Wilde. After Wilde’s death, Ross was persecuted by Wilde’s long term lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, aided by T.W.H. Crosland (Crosland was instrumental in helping Sassoon’s career as can be seen on other pages on this site). Sassoon and Ross met again at another of Gosse’s parties in October 1914, they had been corresponding since their first meeting.

Ross liked to entertain his friends in the evening at his suite of rooms at Half Moon Street, near the Ritz. Ross’s rooms were single gentlemen’s apartments supervised by Miss Nellie Burton who had been maid to Ross’s mother. Nellie knew that her gentlemen were part of London’s homosexual network and jealously safeguarded their privacy. In 1916 Ross took Sassoon to meet Lady Ottoline Morrell at her mansion, Garsington, near Oxford. There he met many pacifists including Bertrand Russell who were to have a great effect on his thinking.

Robbie Ross 202

Ross, had now taken it upon himself to push forward Sassoon’s literary career and introduced him to William Heinemann who expressed a desire to publish Sasoon’s poems. A contract was agreed and Sassoon began to choose the first of his poems to be published by the well-known company of Heinemann. Ross now began to have an even more significant effect on Sassoon’s work by encouraging him to write poetry critical of the military hierarchy. Ross particularly disliked the military mandarins and the complacency rife in the country.

Although critical of the war, Ross was very unhappy when he heard about Sassoon’s protest and his refusal to return to the front. He wrote:

    “I am quite appalled by what you have done. I can only hope that the C.O. at Litherland will absolutely ignore your letter. I am terrified lest you should be put under arrest.”

As we know, Sassoon was not arrested, but sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, supposedly suffering from shell-shock. There he met the emerging poet, Wilfred Owen on whose work Sassoon had such a great influence. When they parted, Sassoon gave Owen a letter of introduction to Ross and a ten pound note. Later, Owen stayed at Half Moon Street, where Ross introduced him to a number of important literary figures including Edward Marsh.

In 1918, Ross was preparing to travel to Melbourne, Australia to open an exhibition at the National Gallery when he died suddenly, an event which caused great grief to his many friends. In 1950, on the 50th anniversary of Wilde's death, Ross's ashes were added to Wilde's tomb in the eLe Pre Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.

I have recently been fortunate enough to obtain a letter (below) written by Robert Ross from 40, Half Moon Street. The letter does not mention Sassoon, however it does mention Nellie Burton and also contains some very interesting and vivid desriptions of life during the First World War German blitz of London.

Letter written by Robert Ross

“October 17th, 1917

My dear Curlos

I have long owed you a letter, but life is really too empty these days, at least with me, that there is nothing to say worth saying. Everything not worth saying is said by the news papers and I am sure you will have heard from relatives and friends various accounts of the undoubtedly very thrilling air raids.

Half Moon Street, much to the delight of Miss Burton, was not without its “bit”, a large dud-shell came through the roof of 39 next door to us & alighted on the bed of a fair lady whose husband is at the front. Indeed she would have been killed except that she was committing adultery that evening & the incident led to the painful discovery that she was still alive, with “fig leaves in her hair”.

The comment of the landlady was “what a lesson for her”! 

I do not profess to understand the train of thought and it would require St. Thomas Aquinas to explain suchdispensation of providence. I laid the case before the Bishop of Birmingham, a very liberal minded Anglican. He referred to the Tower of Siloam, but I do not think the analogy exact.

The violent improbability of shrapnel raining down for two and a half hours on the London streets makes one realise that we are living in a new age. One night I was caught & was obliged to take refuge under an archway in Pall Mall & after waiting an hour sneaked along Pall Mall from porch to porch till I got to the Automobile just as shrapnel [rained] down through the glass roof into the hall. This was my [only war] adventure.

The most singular ruin I have been able to see is that of the Academy. Outside we could not tell that any damage was done at all, but the secretary, Wallis-Lamb took me [over to the place] a few days ago. Great secrecy about it is presumed for one reason or other. The bomb fell into gallery IX and passed through the parquet floor, exploding in the antique school, where it exploded lifting away the floor of gallery IX & X, and of course the remainder of the roof. The mutilated plaster casts of the antique school produce the most weird effect and give you a vivid idea of what the effect of a bomb is when it falls into a cellar where people have gone, by directions of the police – something like Pompeii must have seemed just after the first explosion of Vesuvius. I should add that except at the Academy all [the] bombed places I have seen (only from the outside) surprise you by the small amount of damage at all events visible. But if this is considerable exaggeration about the bombs, the bravery & calmness of the population is much overestimated. I have witnessed one very disturbing scene.

One night I found an unhappy old woman bent double with age making unhappy dives across the road in Piccadilly just as the guns had begun firing. I took her to the Ritz Hotel & asked if they would allow her to wait in the hall, this was refused on the ground of her dirt and miserable appearance!! With some difficulty I got her to the Dover Street tube. I wrote to the authorities on the matter & I am bound to recount that the Ritz has now a notice board out “Refuge in Air Raids”. I observe a different porter to the one who refused us admission.

It is fashionable to say that the tubes are all filled with Jews and foreigners when the Gothas are signalled. I descended one evening to verify this. No doubt in the East End the statement is true, but in this part of the world it is quite untrue. The vast majority belong to the shop keeping and servant girl class, & a great many people from my own class but the latter nearly always with children as you would like it. The platforms are a sort of mosaic of children, it is really a wonderful sight, but the stench and atmosphere are so terrible that I would much rather be bombed than stand such another experience. [I] Sometimes wonder if anyone will ever dare write a true description of what does happen & is happening in London for AD 1917. And I wonder if official despatches about our victories have the same relation to the truth that newspaper accounts of raids have to the actual circumstances. I hope to live long enough to read ‘Memoirs’ of the time. I trust they may not seem as tedious as this letter. My love & homage to madam.

Ever yours,

Robbie.”

Nellie Burton’s books which became part of the library of Siegfried Sassoon

The Autobiography of Margot Asquith

Nellie Burton's ownership stamp

Sassoon's Monogram from Sotheby's

The two books above which have recently come into my possession once belonged to Nellie Burton. Nellie was the landlady of 40 Half Moon Street, Piccadilly, where Robbie Ross (once Oscar Wilde's closest and most loyal friend) offered hospitality in the First World War to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Owen, Robert Graves and other young soldiers on leave from the front. Sassoon, who was for some time in a relationship with Ross, called her “Dame Nellie.” Nellie had originally been Ross's mother's maid. She was a 'huge, forthright woman whom Sassoon came to adore - she called him "my beloved Saint Siegfried" - and was a fierce protector of her gentleman lodgers'. (Egremont, Sassoon 2005 p84).

The two books have the Sassoon, double-S Monogram pasted to the inside front cover as provenance that they were originally from his library when most of it was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on Thursday 18th July, 1991.

Inside each front cover at the top is the stamp of N. Burton, showing that these two volumes originally belonged to Nellie and were later taken into Sassoon’s library. There is no way of knowing how this came about, however it is wonderful to have such a solid connection with Nellie Burton and Robert Ross in the story of Siegfried Sassoon, and I am very excited to be able to add them to this collection.

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