Personal and literary archive of the Garstin family of Penzance

Item date: 1870s-1970s
Grant Value: £2,000 [Smaller Libraries Fund]
Item cost: £9,400
Item date acquired: 2016
Item institution: Cornwall Record Office - Kresen Kernow
Town/City: Redruth
County: Cornwall

In 1886, the artist Norman Garstin (1847-1926) and his wife Louisa joined the blossoming artistic community in Newlyn and Penzance and it became home for them and their three children.  All of the family were exceptionally gifted and excelled in their chosen spheres.

Norman was a core member of the Newlyn art colony, both socially and professionally. During his career, he exhibited at least 32 paintings at the Royal Academy and his works feature in major galleries in Britain, Ireland and overseas.  Norman also had significant impact as a teacher of painting and through the articles he published on art and literature. Alethea (1894-1978) studied painting with her father and also became a professional artist: she was only 17 when the Royal Academy exhibited her painting, The Chair Menders.  She devoted her adult life to her twin passions of painting and travel. Alethea’s brothers, Crosbie (1887-1930) and Denis (1890-1918), started writing poetry and stories in childhood.  Crosbie worked in Canada and South Africa before enlisting during WWI.  He subsequently concentrated on writing and published poetry, semi-autobiographical accounts of his wartime experiences and overseas travels, and a trilogy of novels set in 18th century Cornwall, drawing on local legends of adventure, pirates and smuggling.  His final novel, China Seas, was made into a Hollywood film. While at Cambridge University, Denis edited Granta, the student magazine, and wrote articles and poems for Punch.  In 1911, he became a private tutor with a Russian family in the Crimea, learnt Russian and produced articles for British newspapers about life in the country; he subsequently brought these together in Friendly Russia (1915).  Denis’ second book, The Shilling Soldiers (1918), a collection of short stories, diary entries and pen portraits, encapsulated his experiences with a machine gun corps on the Western Front.

The Garstin archive includes draft manuscripts, photographs, business papers and letters from fellow artists and writers.  However, the core of the collection consists of over one thousand letters written by the Garstin family to each other during the course of their lives: love letters shared by Norman and Louisa, letters between parents and children during childhood, and letters exchanged among the family as adults. The correspondence is affectionate, often humorous, and includes poems and sketches.  All of the family excelled in writing engaging and descriptive accounts of the people and places they encountered, creating fascinating vignettes. 

Overall, the archive provides valuable information on the artistic and literary circles in which the Garstin family moved, as well as insights into life in West Cornwall and the delights and challenges of overseas travel in the early 20th century.  It also offers first-hand accounts of significant 20th century historical events.  Crosbie was with the British Army in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916 and described the tense atmosphere to his parents.  Meanwhile, Denis was seconded by the British government to undertake special propaganda work in St Petersburg from 1916-1918.  He got to know Lenin and sat in on Bolshevik conferences. His eloquent letters home document the tumultuous situation and reveal the opinions of ordinary Russians.  Most significantly, the collection reveals the personalities, passions and zest for life of a group of talented individuals about whom little has been written until recently, but whose creative output and personal experiences deserve to be better known