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So Long, Polly Hope

November 25, 2013
by the gentle author

Polly Hope, long-term resident of Heneage St, died last week and I am republishing my profile of her today as a tribute to a spirited woman who will be fondly remembered in Spitalfields.

Polly Hope, 1933-2013

Polly Hope did not go out too much. And why should she, when she had her own dreamlike world to inhabit at the heart of Spitalfields? Stepping off Brick Lane, going through the tall gate, across the courtyard, past the hen house, through the studio, up the stairs and into the brewery – you would find Polly attended by the huge dogs and small cats, and a menagerie of other creatures that shared the complex of old buildings which had been her home for more than forty years.

Here, Polly had her sculpture workshop, her painting studio, her kiln, her print room, her library and her office. It went on and on. At every turn, there were myriad examples of Polly’s lifetime of boundless creativity – statues, paintings, quilts, ceramics and more. And, possessing extravagant flowing blonde hair and the statuesque physique of a dancer, Polly was a goddess to behold. One who knew who she was and what she thought, and one who did not suffer fools gladly.

So, while I was on my mettle when I visited Polly’s extraordinary dominion, equally I was intoxicated to be in the presence of one so wholly her own woman, capable of articulating all manner of surprising truths, and always speaking with unmediated candour from her rich experience of life.

“I don’t know where it comes from. My father was a general in the British Army with generations of soldiers behind him. There were no artists on the family, and I have never found any great grandmother’s tapestry or grandfather’s watercolours.

I went to Chelsea and the Slade, and hated it. They wanted to teach you how to express yourself, but I wanted to learn how to make things. So I went to live in a tiny village in Greece because it was cheap, and I supported myself and my family by writing novels under a pseudonym. That was where I discovered textiles because they still make quilts there, and I was looking for a way to make large works of art which I could transport in my car. So I used the quiltmaker to help with the sewing. Today there’s various wall hangings of mine in different places around the world.

My second husband, Theo Crosby, and I liked East London, and Mark Girouard – who was a friend – showed us this place and we bought it for tuppence ha-penny in the early seventies. At that point, the professional classes hadn’t realised Spitalfields was five minutes walk from the City, but we cottoned onto it. This was one of the little breweries put up in the eighteen forties to get the rookeries off gin and onto beer, and make a few pounds into the bargain. Brick Lane was not the area of play it is now, it was a working place then with drycleaners, ironmongers, chemists, all the usual High St shops – and I could buy everything I needed for my textiles.

I decided it was time to do some community work, so I got everyone involved. Even those who couldn’t sew for toffee apples counted sequins for me. I did all the design and oversaw the work. The plan was to make a series of tableaux to hang down either side of Christ Church but we only completed the first two – the Creation of the World and the Garden of Eden – and they hang in the crypt now. I’ve done a lot for churches, I was asked to design a reredos for St Augustine’s at Scaynes Hill, but when I saw it – it was a perfect Arts & Crafts church – I said, “What you need is a Byzantine mosaic,” and they said, ‘”Yes.” And it took six years – we offered to include people’s pets in the design in return for five hundred pounds donation and that paid for the materials.

I am jack of all trades, tapestry, embroidery, painting, ceramics, stained glass windows, illustration, graphics, pots, candlesticks and bronzes. My ambition is to be a small town artist, so if you need decorations for the street party, or an inn sign painted, or a wedding dress designed, I could do it. I can understand techniques easily. When I worked with craftsmen in Sri Lanka, or with Ikat weavers, I learnt not to go into the workshop and ask them to make what you want, instead you get them to show you their techniques and you find a way to work with that. Techniques that have been refined over hundreds of years fascinate me. I don’t see any line between craft and art, I think it’s a mistake that crept in during the nineteenth century – high art and low craft.

I’m a countrywoman and I grew up on a mountain in Wales where there were always animals around. Living here, I play Marie Antoinette with my pets which all have opera names. My step-daughter Dido even brought her geese once to stay for Christmas. I have a mixed bag of chickens which give me four or five eggs a day – one’s not pulling her weight at the moment but I don’t know which it is. When they grow old, they retire to my niece in Kent. She takes my geriatric ones. I used to have more lurchers but one died and went to the big dog in the sky, now I have a new poodle I got six months ago and a yorkie who always takes a siesta with the au pair, as well as two cats. And I always had parrots, but the last one died. I got the original one, Figaro, from the Club Row animal market. One day I found him dead at the bottom of his cage. I just like living with animals, always have done all my life. A house is not a home without creatures in it.”

Once we had emptied Polly’s teapot, we set out on a tour of the premises with a small procession of four legged creatures behind us. Polly showed me her merry-go-round horse from Jones Beach, and her hen house designed after the foundling Hospital in Florence, and her case of Staffordshire figures with some of her own slipped in among them, and the ceramic zodiac she made for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, complementing the building designed by her husband Theo Crosby. And then we came upon the portraits of Polly’s military ancestors in bearskins and plaid trousers, in images dating back into the nineteenth century, and then we opened the cupboard of postcards of her work, and then we pulled box files of photographs off the shelf to rummage.

We lost track of time as it grew dark outside, and I thought – if I created a private world as absorbing as Polly Hope’s, I  do not think I would ever go out either.

Monty & Fred, deer hound brothers, 2009.

Oscar, golden retriever.

Portrait of Theo Crosby, with one of the Club Row parrots and a lurcher.

Portrait of Roy Strong and his cat.

Portrait of Laura Williams depicted as Ariel.

Wall hanging at St Augustine’s, Scaynes Hill, West Sussex.

The Marriage at Canaa.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand.

The Red Flower, applique and quilting.

Archaeological Dig, applique and quilting.

Portrait of Polly Hope copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

Artworks copyright © Polly Hope

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenny Towndrow permalink
    November 25, 2013

    I am writing this from Sydney ; Polly had family connections in Australia and I had always hoped that she might visit us here…but why should she when she had created such a magical world around her in Spitalfields ? I have just heard that she has died, devastating news and for me, now so far distant, totally unexpected. Polly, always so strong, so vital and above all , as described in my memoir Love and Madness, the most creative woman I have ever known, freely, joyously creative in every imaginable way.
    When we left London in 2005 I knew how much I would miss Polly and her inimitable generous hospitality; intimate afternoon teas, studio lunches, memorable dinners, concerts and above all those marvellous Midsummer parties, where it seemed, all those I held dear in my life in the Northern Hemisphere, would reappear each year to celebrate Polly and the creative spirit she embodied.
    If there is to be any sort of memorial celebration I would most grateful if someone would recount at it these thoughts and memories , with all our love.
    Jenny Towndrow Wilson and David Wilson
    The Rocks Sydney NSW 2000

  2. Peter Turner permalink
    November 25, 2013

    A beautiful lady,how blessed to have met her,thankyou for sharing.

  3. Glenn permalink
    November 25, 2013

    Her artwork is lovely,

  4. November 25, 2013

    Sorry to hear that she has died, I think she will be brightening up the Big Home above the skies with her wonderful ideas and creations. Valerie

  5. November 25, 2013

    Thank you for the wonderful derful report about Polly. Will a book come soon?
    May she rest in peace, a Renaissance woman who did all things well and wore her honours lightly

  6. Viky permalink
    November 25, 2013

    What an inspiring Lady.

  7. November 25, 2013

    Dear Polly , I saw her work giant cliches in 1987 in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall , I still have the poster for it , huge hand made ball gowns with embroidered cliches written in to them , it blew me away at the time.. I love the thought of her being trailed around by a procession of animals. I do hope a museum can be made of her premises to inspire others to a world of being an artisanal artist, an artist who celebrated the making and craft and skills of the artist.

  8. Emma permalink
    November 25, 2013

    This is very moving. I have never come across this lady before now, but reading this beautifully written piece and then looking at Polly’s own website it is clear that we have lost a unique talent and personality in Polly.

    I raise a glass to you, Polly.

  9. Nicole Ottrey permalink
    December 16, 2013

    Oh my goodness, I am so saddened by this tragic news. I came from Australian and worked with Polly on the portrait of Sir Roy Strong and his cat in 1984 I think. Then my next trip wasnt until January 2012; we had a lovely catch up and talked about how I should come back and we could make bags and shoes. Polly gave me a great bag of buttons and fabrics to take back to Tasmania and her wonderful sketch of the Globe Theatre. I am so glad I have these things to remember her by as she was a truly inspirational and amazing lady. Her death will be mourned by many and my deepest sympathies go out to her son and his family.

  10. Jose Cruanes Ballester permalink
    April 4, 2014

    Dear Polly and family;
    I am writting to you all to express how deeply sorry I am for our loss, you taught me for 5 years of my life how to understand to love as a family, to fight for the things we want and to respect others as beeing such a strong woman you are, thank you very much because you made me part of who I am and I will always feel that you are my English mum.
    Missing you

  11. Jose Cruanes Ballester permalink
    April 4, 2014

    As you use to tell me;
    Techniques can be learned, art cannot

  12. Bela Romer permalink
    May 3, 2014

    Dear All,

    I know Polly from 1999 , when she asked me to turn the house into a theatre as she got a brand new opera produced in her great home. I was a just finishing my course at the Guildhall and with the Opera Class we produced a great opera there. It was a great opportunity
    As I was going thru my stuff I found a letter from Polly and looked her up and sadly found she past away.

    Thanky you Polly for the opportunity to have meet you

    Bela Romer

  13. Jonathan Weightman permalink
    July 24, 2015

    I’ve had a lovely Polly Hope work in my possession for many years and am delighted to discover this website to discover a bit more about Polly Hope and her world. It’s an ink and gouache (I think) in pinks and purples of a boy and a horse lying down together in a field and signed December 1959. All I know about it is that it was given to my mother (Xila MacLeod) by Michael Trevor-Williams, the manager of Portmeirion hotel in the early sixties because he said it would frighten/shock the guests if hung in the hotel! Unfortunately this mail doesn’t accept attachments so I can’t send a pic of this early work of PH.


  14. July 21, 2018

    Today, July 21st 2018 I realised really for the first time how incredibly much I miss you. We had quarrelled too much which lay like a dark pall over all the amazing great wonder of you, the so many treasures you created, the brilliant treasures you brought and deposited wherever you were. I never experienced such rich gifts anywhere else in my life and the space you left empty at your departure is just so immense. So very much art including even the many small creature friends always also included, your fabulous prodigality with which you actually blessed all around you BUT I was never able to understand your temperament, could never understand to just shut up and enjoy. And NOW I so miss you and long for just one tiny quarrel to help me face the weirdness of our times. I am ashamed that I was just too slow and stupid to even begin to understand my own stupidity. Gerda

  15. Francois de Louisville permalink
    December 17, 2019

    A beautiful lady who always had lunch ready, had one of my female Bengal cat. I am a collector of her work, represented in my book published by Phaidon in the UK and Rizzolli in the US.

  16. Francois-Eudes Alexander Marquis de Louiville H.S.H. Prince Mdivani permalink
    December 18, 2019

    An TRUE friend.

  17. Peter Moran permalink
    November 15, 2021

    I lie here deep in Southern Greece, a fellow philhellene looking at my treasured Byron ceramic with rekindled admiration for Polly’s prodigious skills and grieve at her sad passing… ‘ελευθερια η θανατος’ (freedom or death….)

  18. Brendan Kennelly permalink
    June 15, 2022

    This morning I broke my treasured Polly Hope Globe Theatre coffee mug I purchased when visiting the theatre in 2012. I didn’t know anything of Polly until today…really happy to read about her and discover more of her work.

    I’ll try to mend my mug for now and ill hope to be fortunate enough to have some of her other work in the future.

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