Finding photographs of Titty Altounyan

Titty was the name of an imaginative and ‘highly original’ little girl who Arthur Ransome first got to know in the Lake District when she was aged eight. When I met her niece Barbara Altounyan, she was most amused to hear that I had once played her Auntie Titty.

Sophie Neville as Titty in Swallows and Amazons

~Sophie Neville playing Titty Altounyan in the 1974 film ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Official photograph taken a Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water copyright: StudioCanal~

I’d brought Barbara some long lost family photographs that included some of Titty’s wedding in Aleppo. They are beautiful.

Titty and Ernest - wedding in 1954

Titty on the arm of her father, Dr Ernest Altounyan in Aleppo, 1954

Titty Altounyan's wedding

Titty on her wedding day with her husband Melkon Guzelian, her sister-in-law, her father Ernest Altounyan, her mother Dora and brother Roger, far right. You can also see Roger, Ernest and Dora below, with Roger’s wife standing far right.

Titty's wedding group

There is also a more informal shot.

Titty's wedding in 1954

‘Don’t you want to know about Titty?’ Barbara asked me. ‘She was a very detailed person and quite a perfectionist.’ I knew she was a wonderful artist who had studied under Henry Moore at the Chealsea School of Art. Although she produced a lot of colourful art, she was unwilling to ever attempt to sell her work. I was also told she also had long legs. I only hope that I have represented her well.

Titty with Brigit and Joe,John Sanders, 1953

Titty Altounyan at her sister Brigit’s wedding to John Sanders in 1953

Titty obituary - The Guardian

You can see a couple more family photos on ‘Secret Britain – The Lakes’ has been on BBC iPlayer at about 11.50 minis in. Those in the UK can view the programme here.

(NB: Ransome did not write ‘Swallows and Amazons’ while on holiday on Coniston Water as was stated in the programme. To see a photograph of Low Ludderburn, the house above Windermere where Arthur Ransome lived and wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ please click here and scroll down.)

You can read about what it was like to play the part of Able Seaman Titty in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in this illustrated paperback, available online or to order from libraries worldwide:

Screenshot of The Making of Swallows and Amazons book cover on Instagram

Arthur Ransome, his boats and the Altounyan family

‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s  documentary for BBC Radio 4, portrays the boats owned by the author Arthur Ransome and includes extracts read from his classic book Swallows and Amazons by Kate Taylor.

john-mccarthy
Peter Willis in the Nancy Blackett with John McCarthy

While the broadcast is a portrayal of Arthur Ransome and his boats, it touches on his friendship with the Altounyan family who inspired him to embark on writing the series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books. It is easy to understand this when looking at their photographs.

Family Photo with donkeys

The Altounyan children with friends in Syria.

The girls seem to be Taqui, Brigit and Titty

Could it possibly be Arthur Ransome sitting on the right? He visited the family in Syria in 1932, when he must have been about forty-eight, but was never known to have worn shorts, although it would have been exceptionally hot in the Middle East. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in bow of Peter Duck the boat he took to Syria

Is this Arthur Ransome ? sitting on the bow of Peter Duck in Syria, the chap wearing the same hat and clothes as in the photo above? He took this  dinghy out to Syria as a gift for the Altounyan  children and wrote his novel Peter Duck while he and his wife Evgenia were  staying with the family in Aleppo.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in the Altounyan's dinghy Beetle II on Amouk in Syria

Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria

Dr Ernest Altounyan 1935

Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935

Dora Altounyan 1935

Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935

Was Dora the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?

Roger at Dovedale

Roger Altounyan as a boy


Roger sailing off Peel Island 1978 by Asadour Guzelian

Dr Roger Altounyan sailing ‘Mavis’ on Coniston Water.

Sadly there is no sign of the original Swallow bought at the same time as Mavis by Arthur Ransome and Ernest Altounyan in Barrow-in-Furness, and later sailed by the Ransomes on Windermere.  Mavis was later re-named Amazon by Brigit Altounyan, the youngest of the five Altounyan children, known as The Ship’s Baby.

Brigit seated

Brigit Altounyan as a girl

Brigit married, becoming known as Brigit Sanders and later became President of The Arthur Ransome Society. The original lugsail dinghy Mavis or Amazon can be visited in the Coniston Museum in Cumbria. To read more please click here to see this previous post.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

Dr Ernest Altounyan on Coniston Water with ‘Mavis’, one of the dinghies that inspired ‘Swallows and Amazons’

These unique photographs were recently found in Cheshire by the antiques dealer John Jukes who asked me if I could return them to the Altounyan family. This I have done and show them here by kind permission of Roger’s daughter, Barbara Altounyan. Please do not copy these photos.

To listen to John McCarthy’s  Radio 4 broadcast, please click here

You can read other stories behind ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:

Titty Altounyan

I am assured that Titty’s family will not be offended if I re-publish these news clippings. She has become well-loved by many who I know would like to learn more about her. The Times used her Christian name of Mavis, but she was always known as Titty.

Titty obituary - The GuardianTitty Altounyan 001

Although she was heralded as Arthur Ransome’s muse, I know that Titty Altounyan had no wish to be famous. If anything she gradually disassociated herself with the character in the books, who struck her as being so good and clever. But Titty was her name.

It was a name I have lived with too, for I played the part of Titty in the film of Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973. Children and adults alike still call me Titty all these years later. One summer, when I was sailing Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film, someone took this shot of me. It is as if I am still flying Titty’s inspirational flag, which I do with humility and with honour.

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Sophie Neville lowering Swallow’s sail on Ullswater in 2014

Titty Altounyan in 1938

Titty Altounyan with the Ransome’s flotilla on the Norfolk Broads in 1934 (?)

Mrs Ransome wrote to Titty’s mother, Dora Altounyan, from Wroxham. This postcard was kindly shown to us by Ted Alexander who rescued it from certain destruction.

DSCF2137

I thought I was far too fair to play Titty but Mrs Ransome approved.  Despite Ransome’s book illustrations of girls with dark hair, she was most decisive about casting “An English rose” to play Titty and that the children should have British colouring. The idea was that viewers could easily associate with us. I am of Scots/English/Irish heritage, like three of Titty’s  grandmothers, but have no Armenian blood. I rather wish I did. It’s nuisance having such fair skin. My second name is Rose.

Sophie Neville receiving a Titty haircut

Hairstylist Ronnie Cogan giving Sophie Neville a Titty hair cut on location

I don’t know if Titty ever saw the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She might have done. I only hope that we captured the sense of adventure experienced by the Altounyans when they were little and went camping on Peel Island during the weeks when they stayed with their grandparents, Mr and Mrs WG Collingwood, at Lane Head at the northern end of  Coniston Water.

Titty and John bringing Swallow into the secret harbour
Simon West and Sophie Neville bring Swallow into the Secret Harbour on Wildcat Island (c) Studiocanal

Although they are seen wearing shorts as young children I have been told that the Altounyan girls sailed in dresses, which they tucked up into their knickers if they had to wade ashore, much as I did in the film.

BW Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville as Titty (c) StudioCanal

The reference to Titty’s name coming from the tale of Mrs Tittlemouse in the article feature in The Times above is incorrect. Titty’s name was based on a character in fairy story Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse by Joseph Jacobs published in 1890, that begins when Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse go leasing (or gathering) corn. Here is a later edition. Titty ‘never could resist anything in print.’

You can read the original story here 

Titty and Tatty book

 A version of the story published in 1949

With thanks to Roger Wardale who showed me the handwritten letters that Titty sent him. She had the most beautiful writing.

Titty Altounyan's neice, Barbara Altounyan with Sophie Neville.
Titty’s niece, Barbara Altounyan, with Sophie Neville at a TARS Weekend.

If you would like to read more about the amazing time I had playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons, the first section can be leafed through, free of charge here:

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