Arthur Ransome at the Langham

An unsigned portrait by Cyrus Cuneo executed at the Langham Sketching Club c.1914

Arthur Ransome and the painter Cyrus Cuneo were both members of the Langham Sketching Club in London. An unsigned portrait of a balding, moustached gentleman, has come to light that is believed to be a sketch of Ransome dated between 1912 and 1914. He is wearing a round glasses, a stiff white collar and sandy-coloured jacket, painting at a desk in front of dark bookcases. You can just see a hint of the pipe in his mouth.

In 2021, Rosebery’s Auctions in London listed this 45.5cm x 30cm oil-on-board painting in their catalogue as ‘a portrait of the artist’ Cyrus Cuneo, but he was dark, clean-shaven and heavy shouldered, having been a professional boxer, as depicted below. When this was pointed out, Rosebery’s replied that it was, ‘just a self-portrait of an artist at the Langham.’ The setting is backed up by a label on the reverse, but the painting is unsigned.

Cyrus Cincinnato Cuneo, special artist of the Illustrated London News, pictured at work.

The painting is similar to the portrait Dora Altounyan painted of Arthur Ransome in early 1932, which was bequeathed by Evgenia Ransome to Abbot Hall museum in Kendal, now curated by Lakeland Arts. He is wearing exactly the same kind of jacket, but has hair the same colour, with a shorter haircut.

Arthur Ransome, aged 48 by Dora Altounyan (c) Altounyan family Lakeland Arts Trust http://www.artuk.org/artworks/arthur-ransome-18841967-145234

In photographs taken before the First World War, Ransome’s hair looks fuller and darker but could, presumably, have been lathered with pomade. He is wearing the pince-nez glasses and holding the same design of pipe in the photo used on the cover of Hugh Brogan’s The Life of Arthur Ransome taken in 1907 when he was twenty-five and kept by his daughter, Tabitha.

Ransome aged 25 in about 1909

He had lost a lot of hair by the time he was photographed skipping down a lane with Tabitha, in 1917 as can be seen in this and another archive shot kept at the Brotherton Library in Leeds.

(c) Leeds digital

The Langham Sketching Club was set up at a stable yard in Gray’s Inn Lane in 1823 as ‘there was a need for a society where professional men could develop life drawing, improve work standards and meet in the company of like-minded artists’. It moved to 1 Langham Chambers, All Souls Place, London WI in 1938 and was henceforth known as The Langham, not to be confused with the Langham hotel.

JP Gulich’s painting of the Langham at about the time Ransome was sketching there, shown here by permission of the Langham Sketching Club

Artists met for two hours every Friday evening in the winter to sketch, take dinner and chat. Members still gather today, bringing food for a candlelit dinner. Ladies were not incorporated until 2018 but there are now as many women as men. They meet on Wednesday evenings in The Upper Hall at St Columba’s in Pont Street.

The Langham only closed after being bombed in WWII – but went online during Lockdown (c) David Eccles 2021

Cyrus Cuneo, who studied art in Paris under Whistler, joined ‘The Langham’, as it is known, about 1903 and became Chairman in 1908. His son, the artist Terence Cuneo, was born in 1907. Cyrus sadly died of blood poisoning in 1916 after getting scratched by a hat pin at a dance, but his wife and biographer, Nellie Cuneo described ‘some gay, mad times’. Fellow members included the equine artist Alfred Munnings and Arthur Ransome. A reference in early 1914 states: ‘About this time Cyrus gave up doing the two hour sketches at the Langham Sketch Club, and started doing portraits of the members at work. Afterwards some of these were sold to sitters, who included Arthur Ransome.’

Arthur Ransome? At what age? The ears and cheeks are particularly characteristic. Photo(c)Sophie Neville

How well does this painting compare with a photographic portrait dated 1932? The eyebrows look right.

In Bohemia in London, published in 1907, Arthur Ransome writes: ‘Another famous artists’ club is the Langham Sketch Club, whose rooms are close behind the Queen’s Hall. Artists meet there regularly, and draw and make pictures all in a room together, with a time limit set for the performance. At intervals they exhibit the harvest of their evenings on the walls. They also have merry parties, for men only, when the doors are opened by fantastical figures, and scratch entertainments go on all the time, and there are songs and jovial recitations. Nights are as merry as any, and the rooms are full of celebrated men, and men about to be celebrated; for the club does not tolerate bunglers.’ (In the Studios p.81)

Steven Spurrier’s illustration for Swallows and Amazons, a version of which was used on the cover when it was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1930

The artist Steven Spurrier, who drew the iconic map of Ransome’s ‘Great Lake in the North’ used on the dust jacket of the first editions of Swallows and Amazons, joined the club in 1906. He sketched groups sitting at different levels, on an assortment of furniture, as they drew. Some are balding and mustached, pipe smoking gentlemen, sketching under electric light. Most are wearing a jacket with a collar and tie. One could almost be Ransome.

Steven Spurrier RA, RBA,ROI (1878-1961) worked in charcoal or ink and wash, capturing the informal atmosphere. Did Ransome ever meet him at the club? He so loathed his illustrations commissioned by Jonathan Cape that, apart from the map, they were never used. Clifford Webb took on the challenge before Ransome produced his own line drawings and maps for Peter Duck, as if they had been drawn by his characters.

Nellie Tenison Cuneo illustrated a large number of books including The Girl Crusoes: A Story of the South Seas by Mrs Herbert Strang. Take one look at her paintings of girls with boats inside and you can imagine the impact they would have on Titty’s character.

Illustrations by Nell Cuneo

Carole Cuneo, President of the Cuneo Society, recognised the portrait. ‘Yes, definitely by Cyrus, from the Langham Sketch Club, and definitely of Arthur Ransome.’ Although, as quoted above, her grandmother claimed, ‘some of these (portraits) were sold to sitters, who included Arthur Ransome’ one can only presume that he did not buy this one. Could there be another?

Carole first knew this picture in the 1950’s. It hung on the wall of her father, Terence Cuneo’s studio at Ember Lane in East Molesey, London, until after his death in 1996, when she inherited it. Carole clearly remembers Terence saying it was a portrait of Arthur Ransome. She had sold it, with other paintings to Sim Fine Art in about 2011, when it was sold again before turning up at Rosebery’s auction. It was purchased for £480, just under the estimated price, by the editor of the Cuneo Society Journal. Carole has provided him with a written statement to record the painting’s provenance for the future. He contacted me to find out about other portraits of Ransome and I was able to see the framed painting at his house in 2021. This shows an open box of paints and a vessel that could have held water. Magnus Smith of The Arthur Ransome Society points out that whilst Arthur Ransome’s pencil sketches and pen and ink drawings are well known, did he ever use paints?

Sophie Neville with the portrait by Cyrus Cuneo

Cyrus Cuneo, who exhibited at the Royal Academy, Royal Institute of Oil Painters and Glasgow Institute of Fine Art, was a distinguished illustrator and figurist, originating from America. If this is a hither-to unknown portrait of Arthur Ransome, it is an important discovery that will be of interest to the Arthur Ransome Trust, Lakeland Arts and members of The Arthur Ransome Society worldwide.

Ref: ‘Cyrus’ Ransome’ by David Bennett, Cuneo Society Journal Vol 5 Number 2

You can read more about Cyrus Cuneo here and about the history of the Langham Sketching Club here.

Terence Cueno’s art studio can bee seen in this film but I couldn’t spot the portrait of Ransome.

The prolific artist Terence Cuneo, Cyrus’s son

First published in Mixed Moss 2022, the Journal of The Arthur Ransome Society

Dame Virginia McKenna and her work on the classic film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Virginia McKenna in 'Swallows and Amazons' (1974) by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu
Virginia McKenna in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) immortalized by the film poster artist Arnaldo Putzu (c) StudioCanal

I was so thrilled to read that Virginia McKenna has been awarded a DBE for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare in the New Year Honours. When I last spoke to her, she was working tirelessly for the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded with her son Will Travers OBE.

I first met Dame Virginia in 1973 when she agreed to star in the first big screen adaptation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, produced by Richard Pilbrow, directed by Claude Whatham and released by EMI Films in 1974. She played the part of my mother, Mary Walker. The movie was shot entirely on location in the Lake District where Arthur Ransome set his classic series of children’s books.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm
Dame Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

The film has been broadcast on British television more than any other but it is when you watch it on the big screen that you can appreciate what made Virginia McKenna such a great star. Her face conveys a thousand tiny emotions that sweep you into a long-forgotten time when children were able to run free. 

Virginia McKenna holding the telegramme
Dame Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground in Cumbria ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia had originally been scheduled to come up to Cumbria for the first ten days of the seven-week shoot but, since wet weather closed in, she was obliged to return when the sun came out for the famous scene when Roger tacks up the field at Holly Howe to receive ‘despatches’ in the form of the cryptic telegram BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. 

Virginia McKenna with Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan
Dame Virginia McKenna with Ronnie Cogan ~ photo:Daphne Neville (c)

Dame Virginia enjoyed the discipline and focus of concentration on set and helped centre us from the start. If you watch other movies made at the time, such as ‘The Railway Children’ (1970), most of the adult actresses are wearing wigs with a district nineteen-seventies feel to their costume and make-up.  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ owes its timeless appeal to the fact that Virginia simply had had lovely thick hair scooped into a bun and wore her original 1929 garments with grace.

Sophie Neville as Titty
Sophie Neville as Titty in 1973 – photo: Daphne Neville (c)

I played Titty Walker who inveigled her mother into playing Man Friday to her Robinson Crusoe when she came to visit Wild Cat Island. The sequences were shot on Peel Island on Coniston Water where Ransome was taken as a boy by his own parents and met the Collingwood family in the 1890’s. He later became a good friend of Dora Collingwood whose five children became the inspiration for the story ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Her third daughter, the dreamer, was nicknamed Titty.

Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island
Dame Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville on Peel Island ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

It can not have been easy for Virginia to act with me, a child of twelve, while frying pemmican in butter on a camp fire. I was self-conscious about having lost an eye-tooth the night before and had rather a sore mouth and she later had to row from the island with a 35mm Panavision camera in her boat.

What I’d forgotten until recently was that Bill Travers watched the filming that day on Peel Island. He’d been a hero of mine ever since he played George Adamson in ‘Born Free’ and Gavin Maxwell in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ opposite Virginia. Their film, ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, was released as a double bill with ‘Swallows and Amazons’

You can see a few more behind-the-scenes photos here and I’ve written more about being Robinson Crusoe here.

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville
‘They were very savage savages’ ~ Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

Looking back, I realise how fortunate we were to be able to play out the scenes from the iconic book in the actual locations, such as Bank Ground Farm where the Collingwood children had stayed one holiday as children, so they could visit their grandparents who lived at Tent Lodge next door and were too unwell to have them in the house.

The Walker Family at Holly Howe
Sten Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville at Bank Ground Farm, in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville (c)

We were not so keen on the publicity photographs taken for the film even though Virginia tried to make it fun. Right from the the very first day of filming, she worked hard to bring us together as a cast, playing games such as ‘Consequences’ to help us laugh and relax, while concentrating on the task of bringing the book to life.

The Walker family played by Suzanna Hamilton Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginnia McKenna and Simon West at Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria
Suzanna Hamilton Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Dame Virginia McKenna and Simon West – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 1980, I went to work for Ginny and her husband Bill Travers, as a housekeeper for a few months. She needed domestic help while she was appearing with Yule Brynner in ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium, for which she won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a musical.  I looked after her youngest son, Dan, who later worked as a safety officer and consultant on the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I met him at the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square.

– Dan Travers and Sophie Neville in 2016 –

Ginny and I kept in touch. She was ever-supportive, encouraging me to keep raising funds for anti-poaching in South Africa, where she had been evacuated as a child during WWII. 

It was only when I heard her speak at the Kempsford  Literary Festival in the Cotswolds that I learnt that other ships in her convoy to Cape Town had been torpedoed and sunk crossing the Bay of Biscay. By some miracle, her ship had been delayed in Liverpool but she described finding the flotsam left by the ships that had been hit.

Having written a number of books herself, Ginny encouraged me to write, urging me to keep focused on one thing.

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground

Her letters and cards also inspired me to keep raising funds for wildlife conservation in Africa.

Merry Christmas African animals card design by Sophie Neville
A Christmas card design by Sophie Neville

In turn, I supported the Born Free Foundation, printing them greeting cards, donating a Christmas card design for their catalogue and a picture that was auctioned at the Big Cat Open Day in Kent.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2000
Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001 – photo Daphne Neville (c)

In 2014, StudioCanal invited us both to appear in the DVD Extras package for the 40th anniversary DVD of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974). While we were waiting for the crew, she told me that she’d appeared in more than thirty movies. I know she’s made a few more since then.

You can watch her interview here:

Interview with Virginia Mckenna

I released the first edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for which Virginia graciously provided a quote. You can read the first few pages in the preview of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons 1974’ here

To hear Virginia and her son Will Travers talking about receiving her DBE, please click here for BBC Sounds

~ ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons 1974’~

Swallow, the dinghy that starred in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow
(c)StudioCanal

BBC Antiques Roadshow featured Swallow, the dinghy used in the original feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in their first episode at Windermere Jetty repeated recently on BBC One. You can read about how she was valued by Rupert Maas on an earlier post on this blog here.

I wrote a little more about her history in an article for Practical Boat Owner, Britain’s most popular sailing magazine. The story opens in 2010, when I nearly bought her myself:

Swallow is coming up for auction,’ my father said, sending me the details of a clinker-built sailing dinghy stored in Mike Turk’s warehouse in Twickenham. It was the Spring of 2010. I took one look at the online photographs and wept.

Swallow stored in Twickenham

The letters WK were carved on her transom. It was the twelve-foot, all-purpose, run-around vessel built by William King of Burnham-on-Sea that had been purchased by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 to feature as Swallow in the original feature film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons.

Swallow built by William King of Burnham-on-Crouch

I knew the little ship intimately. She looked a bit dried out but my husband thought we ought to buy her. I had played the part of Able-seaman Titty, the nine year-old girl who Ransome so cleverly made into the heroine of the story when she grabbed a chance to capture the Amazon, which enabled the Swallows to win the war set to determine ‘who should be the flag-ship’. In mooring her prize overnight near Cormorant Island, Titty witnessed Captain Flint’s stolen treasure chest being buried and was eventually able to rescue it. She was rewarded by the gift of a green parrot.

‘Did you know how to sail before playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons?’ people often asked. The truth was that I had crewed for my father in a similar dinghy and felt confident in a boat. I had grown up living by a lake in the Cotswolds where we had a Thames skiff, which I was used to handling. This was important as Titty does quite a bit of rowing in the film. She and Roger become galley-slaves rowing back from the charcoal burners’, they row out to Cormorant Island and she takes the Amazon out of Secret Harbour. This I did alone, in one take, later rowing some distance from Peel Island with the lighting cameraman and his 35mm Panavision Camera onboard. No one had thought about the implications of this when we first tried out the two boats on Windermere but being aged twelve, rather than nine, I just about coped and grew adept at launching Swallow and moving about in her. As the book was written in 1929, we did not wear life-jackets.

Swallow with Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton (c) StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome described Swallow as being thirteen-foot long with a keel, rather than a centre board. In the illustrations she is painted white, a common way of protecting wood in the 1930s. I am pretty sure that Richard Pilbrow, the producer of the movie, bought the dinghy we used when we where in Burnham-on-Sea to audition for the parts in March 1973. She was varnished but had, or was given, the red-brown sail and balanced lug-sail as described in the books.

Simon West who played Captain John, aged only eleven, was a capable sailor with an understanding of the wind that enabled him to cope with gusty Lakeland conditions. Swallow had no buoyancy. In the scenes when we first sail to the island she was laden with camping gear, including heavy canvas tents, the lighthouse tree lantern and a shallow basket of kitchen utensils I shifted every time we went about.

My father Martin Neville on the shore of Coniston Water

My father was an experienced sailor, used to racing yachts having frequently crossed the Solent in his own clinker-built dinghy as a boy. He was looking after us children when he agreed to appear in costume as a ‘native’ aboard the MV Tern on Windermere, which bares down on the Swallows in the story. He watched, terrified, as we sailed towards it. The Victorian steamer only had a notch throttle and an inexperienced skipper. He realised that Claude Whatham, the film director had not anticipated the fact that we would lose our wind in the lee of the passenger ferry and gave Simon a cue over the radio that was far too late. We only just went about in time, being pushed away from the larger vessel by the bow wave. Watch the film and you can see how very close we got. I was about to reach out and feebly fend off.

Dad spoke sternly to the producer that afternoon, pointing out that we could have all gone down. Sten Grendon, who played the Boy Roger, was only aged eight and could hardly swim. I could have become entangled in the camping gear. My father tested the old BOAC life jackets we wore for rehearsals and to travel out to film locations. They failed to inflate. He nearly took me off the film.

Swallow and Amazon on the Puffin cover

Another tricky scene to film was when John, Susan and Roger set off from the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island leaving Titty to guard the camp and light the lanterns as they hoped to capture the Amazon and sail home after dark. I had push them off, grabbing the telescope at the last minute. Since Swallow’s mast was liable to catch in tree branches, I needed to wade out and give her a hard, one-handed shove. I slipped on a rock and fell up to my waste in water. Knowing it would be difficult to set up the shot a second time, I struggled to my feet and waved them off, dripping wet. By this time John had the mainsheet out as far as the knot and stood to grab the boom to avoid a Chinese gybe as Swallow was hit by a fresh gust of wind as he cleared the headland at the northern end of the island and sped northwards toward Coniston Old Man.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from Peel Island.

Having spent nearly seven weeks filming in the Lake District, the film was post-synced at Elstree studios. We arrived to sing out our lines to find Swallow there. She had been set in a tank so that the sounds of sailing could be captured. It is something you tend to take for granted as a viewer while it draws you into the experience. I last saw Swallow looking dejected outside the studio and was worried about what had become of her. Although she was offered to someone who had advised on the film, she was kept safely at Mike Turk’s prop hire company. Richard Pilbrow was hoping to make another film in the series.

Swallow at
Swallow at Mike Turk’s store in London

When Mike retired, many boats that had featured in movies came up for auction. I knew Swallow would be costly and in need of renovation. After fans of the film and members of The Arthur Ransome Society contacted me, we clubbed together to make a bid. In the end about eighty members of a hastily formed group called SailRansome spent approximately £5,700 on the purchase.

I contacted Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, the film producer who was gaining the rights to make a new movie, hoping we could be able to re-coup costs by renting her back to him. Nick came up to Coniston Water to watch me re-launch Swallow in April 2011, sloshing brandy wine on her bow in true Ransome style. I helped him to raise finance for the new film, which was made in the summer of 2015 and released in 2016, starring Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker, Rafe Spall as Captain Flint and Andrew Scott as a Russian spy. In the end, he decided to use fourteen-foot RNSAs dinghies for Swallow and Amazon as they satisfied the film insurance company who demanded that two identical dinghies were used for Swallow.

This article was first published in Practical Boat Owner magazine

Joining SailRansome was pivotal for me as I was asked by the Nancy Blackett Trust and The Arthur Ransome Society to give a series of talks on how the old film, and the BBC serialization of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ was made. I ended up speaking at a number of literary festivals, on BBC Radio and even ITV’s News at Ten, promoting the societies and urging people to help get young people out on the water. I ended up taking Swallow out on Ullswater, the Orwell and River Alde, remembering how difficult she is to turn, but enjoying her speed. She ended up being featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow when I brought movie memorabilia up to Windermere Jetty museum for two episodes first screened in 2021.

Sophie Neville with Swallow on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville after re-launching Swallow on Coniston Water in 2011

You can sail Swallow yourself, in the company of an experienced skipper, by contacting SailRansome.org who are looking for volunteers to help care for her. As you can see from this clip, she was in need of restoration when first acquired by Sailransome

You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)‘ by Sophie Neville, published by the Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, online retailers and to order from all good bookshops including Waterstones.

An article by Sophie Neville first published in Practical Boat Owner. A subscription to this bestselling UK magazine makes a great Christmas present.

Sophie Neville has been speaking at the Stroud Christian Book Festival.

A write up of Sophie’s talk for BookBlest – the first Stroud Christian Book Festival – on The Making of Swallows and Amazons can be found on this website here

If you missed Sophie’s talk on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, you can read about her adventures in one of these editions, available online.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

There is a brief resume of the talk on this website, here Prepare to be taken back to the 1970s:

Sophie Neville speaking at the Southampton International Boat Show #SIBS22

Inspirational speaker, Sophie Neville
Southampton International Boat Show 2022

Swallow, the iconic dinghy who starred in the original film Swallows and Amazons is currently on display at the Southampton International Boat Show, greeting families as they arrive.

Sophie Neville who once played Titty Walker with her good little ship

I have been giving talks on filming afloat and how we made the movie on location in the Lake District nearly fifty years ago.

Over 103,000 people are expected to visit the show this year. Although busy, it does not feel crowded. There is a lot to see and do.

Speaker Sophie Neville
Sophie Neville speaking on the Foredeck Stage at #SIBS22

Thanks to the help of excellent technicians, my presentations proved popular, ‘inspiring talks on the Foredeck Stage’.

On the cover or Britain’s bestselling boating magazine

I later sign copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons‘ at Future Publishing’s corner stand. It has been a great opportunity to meet film fans, readers and feature writers.

Nick Jeffery the yacht publicist with Sophie Neville at the Southampton Boat Show

You can find a four-page feature on how we clubbed together to buy Swallow in this month’s Practical Boat Owner magazine.

A 4-page feature article in the bestselling magazine Practical Boat Owner

You can apply to SailRansome to take her out yourself. She is sea-worthy but we are looking for sponsorship from a boatbuilding company to help re-varnish her and repair a small hole in her bow.

Sophie Neville with Swallow from Swallows and Amazons (1974)

If you were are unable to get to the Southampton International Boat Show this year, you can watch an in-depth interview released this week by Your Take:

Your Take interview Sophie Neville on Zoom

Writers and illustrators inspired by Swallows and Amazons

Tom Stoppard, the playwright, said he turned books over as a child hoping they might be ‘Swallows and Amazons’. (The Guardian) In Hermione Lee’s recent biography of Tom Stoppard, she notes that as an eight-year-old boy, ‘The first real book he picked up, soon after getting to England, was Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck, the third in the Swallows and Amazons series, a 1930s epic of Atlantic Ocean travel, shipwreck, hostile pursuit and secret treasure. He spotted on the jacket that Ransome had written some other books too. ‘My method of searching for these books had a sort of pathos about it: I simply went around picking up any book I saw lying about to see if it was called Swallows and Amazons. But it never was.’ Luckily he found a full set of Arthur Ransome books at school. ‘Stoppard, that enchanting master of the English language, was a Czech refugee, and Ransome was therefore one of his early English-language influencers.’

Melanie Philips lists Swallows and Amazons as one of the ‘great childhood books’ that ‘stay with us for ever’. ‘Books that make a profound impression on us in childhood can form part of our mental scaffolding throughout our lives.’ The Times

When asked , “What was it that first gave you the reading bug,” author Sarah Moss said, “Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons. I was an outdoor child — though not always by choice — and I knew and loved the landscapes where the series is set. I re-read them with my children and they are classics with strong, likeable, flawed characters, a family dynamic that’s in some ways more interesting to me as an adult (John has some serious issues with the patriarchy) and a satisfying interest in fruit cake and pork pies. (Daily Mail)

Tony Ross – illustrator of Horrid Henry and The Little Princess, said, “I absolutely loved this book as a boy. I read it when I was ill with the mumps. The simple line drawings were just wonderful; they gave the feeling of wide open spaces and freedom. When you’re bound up in bed, when your jaw is aching and your face is the size of a football, it’s nice to be wafted out into the water. Swallows and Amazons gave me a lifelong love of sailing. I’m a bad sailor, but I love messing about on boats.” Daily Telegraph

Puffin edition of Swallows and Amazons
1974 Puffin edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Sir Antony Jay, the author and co-writer of Yes, Minister and Yes,Prime Minister, who was editor of the BBC Tonight programme and Head of Television Talk Features, was a fan. Janet Means of the Arthur Ransome Group said that when she was a child, and he was a very young BBC producer, that he used to lend her Swallows and Amazons books.

I had been asking if Agatha Christie referred to any of Arthur Ransome’s books. She didn’t, but I’ve been told that in the recent adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie Derwent reads Swallows and Amazons aloud to a young boy who has had a traumatic experience that day, as he falls asleep. The passage she reads includes: “But the big hills up at the lake helped to make him feel that the houseboat man did not matter. The hills had been there before Captain Flint. They would be there for ever. That, somehow was comforting.” The book was adapted for television by Hugh Laurie.

Julian Fellowes acted in the BBC adaptation of Coot Club but I’m not sure if he has referred to Swallows and Amazons in any of his novels of screenplays.

Tony Collins, who brought out 1,400 books as a publisher, mentions that he grew up reading Swallows and Amazons in the first page of his new memoir How to Make Mistakes in Publishing.

Sometimes it’s the Swallows and Amazons lifestyle that people speak of. Santa Montefiore ~ ‘I had an idyllic Swallows and Amazons childhood growing up in a beautiful Jacobean house on a farm in Hampshire.’ Guardian 

Frances Wheen who wrote the a-claimed biography of Karl Marx joined us at Pin Mill for a marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea hosted by the Nancy Blackett Trust

Janet Mearns, of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook, spotted several references to Swallows and Amazons and Titty, ‘with the assumption that the Radio 4 audience would understand the reference’, in series 6 of the Radio 4 sitcom No Commitments written by Simon Brett.

Brian Doyle, the publicist of many iconic movies including the original film of Swallows and Amazons, wrote about Arthur Ransome in his book, The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature, claiming that he launched a ‘new age’ in children’s literature by writing about his own childhood by the lakes he loved so much. He is featured in these books about making the film, available from all the usual sites online

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville'
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville’

For a list of other well known writers who have been inspired by Arthur Ransome, please click here.

20 Novelists who mention Swallows and Amazons or other Arthur Ransome books in their work

Many esteemed authors have written biographies of Author Ransome and the places that inspired him. Here, I list novelists who acknowledge Ransome as an inspiration or have references to his books within their own work. It is a list that will no doubt grow. Please add copiously to the comments below.

Sir William Golding, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, mentions Swallows and Amazons in Lord of the Flies.

Debbie Welch points out that Monica Edwards has her character Andrea reading We didn’t mean to go to sea in Punchbowl Midnight. ‘She slams it down when Peter has let Midnight (the calf) out.’ TARS member Elizabeth Williams said that Pigeon Post is being read in Summer of the Great Secret. “Monica Edwards was a great Ransome fan. She wrote a letter to him after the publication of Great Northern? There isn’t a record of a reply.”

Nevil Shute mentions Swallows and Amazons in No Highway. Eddie Castellan of the Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook writes: ‘Ronnie Clarke is spotted reading Coot Club as a bedtime story in the closing pages of The Rainbow and the Rose.’

Coniston Water in the rain

Katie Fforde, president of the Romantic Novelists Association, mentions Arthur Ransome in her novel A Vintage Wedding. Martin Allott spotted this, explaining, ‘It’s a gentle romance about the love lives of three female friends who set up a wedding planning business… Lindy mentions some favourite books, one of which is Old Peter’s Russian Tales.’

Liz Taylorson has recently brought out a romance entitled Summer Showers at Elder Fell Farm that not only features the book Swallows and Amazons but makes quite a thing of Titty’s name. You can find the extract here.

Kit Pearson wrote the Guests of War trilogy (The Sky is Falling, Looking at the Moon and The Lights Go On Again). Adam Quinan explained that they are about a British sister and brother evacuated to Canada during the early days of the Second World War. ‘The older sister loved Ransome’s books and compares his stories to Ontario lakeside cottage life.’

In Red Letter Holiday by Virginia Pye the mother of the family is reading Swallows and Amazons aloud.

Magnus Smith says that How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger and Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr mention Ransome’s books.

In The Boyhood of Grace Jones by Jane Langton, an American book from 1972, the main character is obsessed by the books, and fantasizes about being as good a sailor as John Walker.

Catherine Lamont from Australia said, “Just read a 2020 book mentioning ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (someone spotted in a bookshelf belonging to one of the main characters): The Enigma Game, by Elizabeth Wein.” Elizabeth Wein wrote in to say, “Not just in The Enigma Game – I namedropped Swallows & Amazons in my novel Code Name Verity, too! It was given to me by my grandmother’s best friend when I was seven and was one of my favorites. My own children, who never actually read it, were huge fans of the film”.

The Slate Quay on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Libby Purves, now President of The Arthur Ransome Society, mentions Swallows and Amazons in her novel Regatta. I need reminding if she mentions Ransome in her other books.

Victor Watson references Swallows and Amazons in his Paradise Barn quartet. I think one of the kids wants to borrow it from the library.

The Swallows and Amazon series gets mentioned An Island of our Own by Sally Nicholls, Coming Home by Rosamun Pilcher and Impossible! by Michelle Magorian. Does she also mention We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea in Goodnight Mr Tom?

Clare Havens refers to Swallows and Amazons in The Bellamy Bird, a novel which she asked Virginia McKenna to narrate when it came out as an audiobook.

Tessa Hadley wrote about the Mate Susan being dull, tame and sensible in her short story entitled Bad Dreams. Tessa Jordan says that it, ‘contains the most remarkable depiction of the spell cast by Swallows and Amazons.’ It was reviewed in the Guardian here.

Other authors, playwrights and illustrators have expressed their love for the Swallows and Amazon series:

Garth Nix who wrote The Left-Handed Book Sellers of London specifically calls out ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as an inspiration at the end of his book.

Philip Pullman chose We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea as one of his 40 favourite children’s books in a Waterstones promotion and borrows Ransome’s phrase ‘signaling to Mars’ from Winter Holiday in La Belle Sauvage.

Jeanne Birdsall‘s Penderwicks books are highly recommended for young Ransome fans. Alan Kennedy has also written in what has become a Ransome genre.

Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock were young fans of Arthur Ransome who helped and encouraged them to publish their novel The Far-Distant Oxus.

Jon Tucker has written a series five Those Kids books set in Tasmania and New Zealand that bring Ransome into the 21st Century.

BJ Pitman references Swallows and Amazons in Airmid and Satori in the Banduri series.

Inspired by Ransome, Duncan Hall brought out the Brambleholme series of books for children aged 8-80 set in the Yorkshire Dales.

Windermere, Cumbria

Julia Jones, whose Strong Winds series begins around the Shotley Peninsular where the Ransomes once lived, is a great fan of the Swallows and Amazons series. She has been sailing Arthur Ransome’s yacht Peter Duck since she was a little girl and mentions his books in her novels. She writes on behalf of other authors who quote Swallows and Amazons: ‘All of us are honest about our inspiration: we acknowledge Arthur Ransome in our credits / we join The Arthur Ransome Society / introduce a Swallows and Amazons-reading child into our stories and in my case, at least, get our lead characters thinking desperately ‘what would the Swallows do next?” You can read more in her article about authors who have been inspired by Ransome’s writing entitled X Marks the Legacy.

Julia Jones and Frances Wheen at Pin Mill with Sophie Neville

Julia reminds me that Marcus Sedgwick has written a whole novel based on Arthur Ransome’s adventures in Russia where he met Evgenia, the woman who was to become his second wife, entitled Blood Red, Snow White. I have a copy.

The science fiction author Charles Stross also features Ransome in Russia during the Civil War in one of The Laundry Files novels: The Apocalypse Codex.

Please leave any other connections who might have spotted in the comments below.

Celebrities who love ‘Swallows and Amazons’

When Jonathan Cape first published Swallows and Amazons on 21st July 1930 for the price of 7/6d, it was eagerly received by numerous authors including JRR Tolkein and AA Milne. I’m often asked which well known people alive today have expressed an interest in Arthur Ransome’s series of books.

Griff Rhys Jones, who presented The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome using clips of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons in which I played Titty, joined me at Pin Mill in Suffolk for a marathon reading We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, the book that tells of the Swallows’ hair-raising voyage to Flushing. You can find Griff’s books here.

Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill for a reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea’

John Sergeant, the veteran newscaster, has made a number of documentaries about Arthur Ransome, chatting to Griff on The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome, and The Secret Life of Books.

Geraint Lewis of The Arthur Ransome Trust sailing with John Sergeant

Ben Fogle interviewed Suzanna Hamilton and myself on Countryfile and Big Screen Britain after exploring the locations around Coniston Water. You can watch the episode here.

Ben Fogle interviewing Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Countryfile

Libby Purves, author and broadcaster, is now President of The Arthur Ransome Society. She refers to Swallows and Amazons in at least one of her novels.

Libby Purves afloat

A keen sailor, she also took part in the marathon reading of We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea organised by The Nancy Blackett Trust who own and look after the Goblin, the yacht portrayed in the story.

Libby Purves reading ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’

Dame Ellen McArthur, yachtswoman and Patron of The Nancy Blackett Trust, claims that Arthur Ransome’s novels inspired her to sail. She gives Swallows and Amazons a good mention in her book Taking on the World. Ellen was portrayed by Suzanna Hamilton in a Stephen Sharkey play at a festival at the Southall Playhouse. Suzanna played Susan Walker in the 1974 film of Swalllows and Amazons.

Sir Richard Branson often says how much he loved the book as a boy, describing it as, “a lovely kids’ adventure book.” He told The New York Times: “As a very young kid, I loved the Arthur Ransome novel Swallows and Amazons. It’s about a group of children having adventures in England. Now I read it to my grandkids. It’s a beautiful book.” I met Richard years ago when I worked on The Russell Harty Show. To may amazement, he recognised me when I was filming in the street in Kensington months later, so perhaps he has watched the original film of Swallows and Amazons.

John McCarthy, the journalist and keen sailor, made a radio programme called Paddling with Peter Duck, sailing Swallow, the dinghy featured in the 1974 film. You can sail her yourself via SailRansome.com

Peter Willis on Ransome’s yacht Nancy Blackett with Kevin Dawson and John McCarthy

Theresa May said she loves Swallows and Amazons. ‘When she was young she appears to have enjoyed reading… listing… Swallows and Amazons among her favourites.’ Mirror and Daily Mail She gave a copy to Baroness Davidson, once leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Dame Judi Dench also read the book as a girl: “…Swallows and Amazons, I remember that very well indeed.” Good Housekeeping

David Dimbleby loves gaff-rigged boats and recently helped with PR at the London Boat Show. He visited us on the set of the BBC Drama serial Swallows and Amazons For Ever! filmed on location in Norfolk.

Sophie Neville with David Dimbleby on location in Norfolk back in 1983

Sir Ben Ainslie ~ Steven Morris of the Guardian reports: “He recalled how he started sailing in Cornwall on the creeks around Falmouth as a boy. Ainslie has called it a Swallows and Amazons kind of childhood. He had friends on the other side of the creek so he sailed over to see them.”

Ben lived in Lymington – and came to our club to celebrate after the Olympics.  

Congratulating Ben Ainslie on his Olympic gold medal

Nikki Henderson, the youngest ever Clipper Around The World yachtswoman was inspired by the book Swallows and Amazons naming Swallow and one of the coolest sailing boats ever in Yachting World as reported by the Nancy Blackett Trust.

Alan Smith of BBC Radio 4, appeared as a boy in the scenes shot at Bowness. He was on location at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in May 1973 on the first day of filming Swallows and Amazons(1974) with Virginia McKenna who starred in the film as Mrs Walker. To read more, please click here.

Alan Smith in the doorway of the train with his friend John Eccles

Miranda Hart (Miranda, Call the Midwife, Not Going Out) “Oh, I love these wonderful stories about outdoor life in one of the most beautiful parts of our country – the Lake District. Camping, sailing, exploring, discovering – it’s still the stuff of dreams for me. My favourite character was Peggy. She was shy and a little nervy but always kept up with her sister, who was captain of their boat. It was rather like me and my sister; although I was the elder, I was the shyer one, and often had to rely on my little sis to do the grown-up things. And I have to say Peggy is my favourite character still, because that’s partly who my dog is named after. I love that this book celebrates the importance and joy of friendship. But above all it harks back to a time when children had to use nature and their imagination to have fun through the long summer holidays. No iPads on tap here. I hope it inspires kids and adults who may have forgotten about the bliss and thrill and beauty of nature to rediscover it.” You magazine.

The list continues in the next post here.

The end-title theme music to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ composed by Wilfred Josephs

You can read about The Making of Swallows and Amazons in paperback or on Kindle. The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons is available on all the ebook platforms. There is a review here.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons by Sophie Neville
Different editions of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville

Sophie Neville interviewed by Jadzia Smeaton on The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)

Sophie Neville author of The Making of Swallows and Amazons
Sophie Neville

What is most memorable about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for you?

I love exploring the places Arthur Ransome features in his stories. We were privileged to live out the pages of the book on location in the Lake District, but sailing in nothing but a short cotton dress and a pair of navy blue gym knickers was decidedly chilly – we earned our passage.

Would you consider Susan to be an influence on Titty within the story?

Susan made camping on the island possible. Suzanna Hamilton, the remarkable British actress who played Susan in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, became our rock without becoming prim or losing the joy and excitement of adventure. She went on to play leading roles in a number of major movies including ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep and ‘1984’ with John Hurt and Richard Burton. She is still working on cutting edge productions and recently had a guest appearance in ‘Eastenders’.

Time Out – April 1974

Is there anything you think should always be included in different versions of ‘Swallows and Amazons’?

You must feature the green parrot! It’s vital to enter the world of a 9-12 year old child, capturing the trepidation. It would be interesting to adapt Arthur Ransome’s books without featuring adults, or only including them as shadowy facilitators.

How did you feel about playing a part where you were able to be the cunning and playful younger sister?

In real life, I was the elder of three sisters so took on the roles of both John and Susan. Playing Titty felt something of a release. I was freed from the responsibility of taking the helm.

Titty is well-read and bright, creative and imaginative but I wouldn’t call her cunning. She longs to be alone on the island to experience what it was like to be Robinson Crusoe, which is why she volunteers to stay behind to light the candles, but is that a cunning plot? She is an innocent.

What was your favourite line in Swallows and Amazons?

Titty’s lines are challenging and can only be uttered with humour and an acceleration of charm. I rather enjoyed, ‘X marks the spot where we ate six missionaries’, although I don’t think it can be found in the book. ‘Thank you so much for letting us see your lovely serpent’ would probably be disallowed these days.

Did you have a favourite scene?

Finding the lighthouse tree was a short sequence that worked well. We shot it on the banks of Derwentwater towards the end of the filming. But I most enjoyed our day with the charcoal burners. They were wonderful.

What did you enjoy most about filming in the Lake District?

We loved High Force, the waterfall, and exploring the mossy woodlands. Secret Harbour on Peel Island is very special, as is One Tree Island where we found the treasure.

Do you feel that you and your character influenced children?

Even now, nearly 48 years after the film was released, I receive correspondence from people telling me how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced their lives or helped carry them through a tough patch. It is always wonderful to hear how Titty has inspired others.

Maurice Thomas who used to live in Cockermouth wrote: ‘My mum and my Auntie Gladys took me to see this little children’s flick in 1974/5 as it was a double bill with ‘The Railway Children‘. I remember ‘The Railway Children‘ reasonably fondly, but ‘Swallows & Amazons‘ had me utterly mesmerised.’

If you were to give any advice to actors wanting to perform in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ what would it be?

Visit the locations. Go to Bank Ground Farm and run, fast, down the field to dip your hands in the lake as Arthur Ransome did as a child. Capture that feeling and carry it with you as you sing out the lines.

And be prepared for the impact the story will have. It could follow you all your life.

To read another recent interview with Authors Reach please click here

If you would like to read more about the secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons, you can ‘Look inside’ the ebook free of charge here:

Titty’s Tooth in The Times

Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville – trying to row with her mouth shut.

The story of my missing tooth published in The Times! A great honour. The indignity of being toothless still rankles but I now have a full set.

You can find the whole story on The Nancy Blackett Trust website

It’s possible to spot the gap by watching the film trailer for the 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with further information on the International movie data base also seen here:

Sophie Neville, aged 12, without tooth. Suzanna Hamilton, aged 12, with beautiful teeth.

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