‘I find it extraordinary how casual they are’: meeting Queen Mary in Kew Gardens

Gail Griffiths watches Queen Mary strolling in the park in 1937

This is my mother holding me up as a toddler to get a closer look at Queen Mary, who was strolling through Kew Gardens in London with her lady-in-waiting. I find it extraordinary how casual they are, that there are no barriers or security. I’ve often wondered whether a press photographer got a tip-off, or just happened to be there. Either way, this picture was published somewhere under the headline: “Down to Kew in lilac time”. My mother, Brenda Landon, and her friend curtsied as she walked past.

Queen Mary was married to George V; she would have experienced her husband’s death, followed by the abdication of Edward VIII, the year before. I have little memory of her beyond her wonderful dresses and hats. It looks like two different worlds: the Queen and her lady-in-waiting from one era, and my mother and her friend – slim, with their fashionable dresses and short hair – from another. My mother always looked good.

She was unconventional and a lot of fun, always pointing things out and questioning things. I was an only child, and we lived in Richmond. After the war, she was essentially a single mother. Although she was at home with me, she was a successful artist, and exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Salon in Paris (she was also known, after her second marriage, as Brenda Pye). She had a scholarship to study at Chelsea School of Art in the 1920s. She had always moved in artistic circles: I have a painting of her aged seven, in 1914, hanging at home in London, painted by Henry Strachey, a cousin of Lytton Strachey. She would accept commissions, but only if she could bring me along. I loved watching her work, and was always encouraged to paint and draw.

The second world war started a few years later. We were living in Lewes, East Sussex, and I remember German planes flying over on their way to London and other cities. They would sometimes offload their bombs near us on the way back if they hadn’t dropped them. My mother would put me in the cupboard under the stairs while they passed. I remember making cheese straws and hiding there with sticky fingers – and probably the mixing bowl on my head instead of a hard hat.

She was part of an artists’ group in Lewes, and would sit as a model for life classes, including those of the Bloomsbury set painter Duncan Grant. Later, my mother started a pottery at Glynde Place, a historical house outside Lewes, and taught pottery in Hove.

There were a lot of wonderful women in our family. My great-aunt Bertha Capron was one of the very early women drivers. She always had a man in the passenger seat to change the many punctures she got. She also started a men’s football club in Mortimer, Berkshire.

I don’t feel this is me in the picture. It was so long ago, and it could be any little girl. If my mother hadn’t stopped to look, I’d never have known I was there.

• Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


Hannah Booth

The GuardianTramp

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