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Remembering a

Most Remarkable Woman

Jo’s mother and mine had been close friends in Calcutta in the 1930s, but had lost contact after we had moved to Cape Town from 1942. Six years later, and by an extraordinary coincidence, Jo’s older brother Julian and I found ourselves at the same boarding school in North Dorset.

Jo’s family had returned to England after the war and her parents had bought Trewarne, a beautiful, compact Jacobean manor just a few miles from north Cornwall’s magnificent coast and the Camel estuary. Our two families were reunited and for several years my mother, my brother Jeremy and I stayed at Trewarne each summer; these visits were high points in our family’s life.

I so clearly recall meeting Jo for the first time on our arrival at Trewarne. She was about 11 and although naturally shy to begin with, was at once engaging and an absolute delight to be with. I can still hear her infectious laugh (which sometimes followed a mildly outrageous remark, particularly as she grew older). Initially I think she may have felt a bit “surrounded” at times by three young males- her brother, Jeremy and me- but this did not constrain her from organising us and cooking delicious suppers with a no-fuss assurance. (The grown-ups ate later- after their cocktail hour). We would go on daily excursions to one of the many beaches, which in those days were mostly relatively uncrowded. We all swam a lot - in all weathers (no wet suits of course!). They were happy times.

Our family’s abiding memories took place in Trewarne’s beautiful drawing room, which doubled as a music room. At one end stood the magnificent grand piano on which Jo’s special talents flowered year by year. Her progress was dazzling, with a developing mastery of a growing range of increasingly demanding piano music.

I remember hovering around the passage outside the drawing room listening to her practicing (as she did for most of the mornings). In fact there were not many parts of the house where her playing could not be heard as she tackled pieces calling for a wide range of interpretations- sometimes played with passion, sometimes with sensitive fluidity and at other times with that almost effortless clarity from rapid finger work which became a hallmark of her later playing on her square pianos.

As she matured through her teens so she developed her views on how she wanted to interpret each work she was playing. She was a perfectionist and consequently she would on occasions give herself a hard time if she felt she had fallen short of her own very high standards; that is the prerogative of a consummate artist- and the mark of one.

There is a Schubert Impromptu (in E flat D.889 No.2) which I felt then perfectly illustrated her gifts when she first mastered it in those early Trewarne years at the age of, I think, 12 or 13. It still thrills me to hear it played because it reminds me of her wonderful talents and our visits.

Trewarne’s drawing room was also the setting for some lighter moments. In one of the later years someone had the idea of ending our little, informal concert (a feature of each stay) with a ballet scene. Jo provided the “orchestral” accompaniment on the piano. Julian, for whom ballet was a complete anathema, was eventually persuaded to become the male dancer, dressed in tights- with appropriate “support”- while Jeremy and I drew the short straws and became prima ballerinas (dressed distinctly primitively with “ballet” shoes better suited to a work-out in a gymnasium). Jo decided to dash off a couple of suitable Chopin waltzes during which Julian would shove Jeremy and me through a series of movements involving lifts (difficult, notwithstanding Julian’s considerable strength) and what in polished ballet circles would be called pirouettes. This promising performance was brought to a premature and unscheduled end with Jo overcome by uncontrollable giggles and we three dancers swung into a perspiring heap on Trewarne’s drawing room floor.

Back to those early recollections of Jo, it was a joyful privilege for our family to have heard and watched her piano playing for those years during our visits to Trewarne, and to have experienced her blossoming into one of the outstanding musicians of her time in her field.

Michael Robson

Michael Robson - Memories of Jo at Trewarne