Writer, broadcaster, and resident of Ashtead and HamAuthor of more than 60 books and plays, (John) Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) is perhaps best remembered as a writer for Woman’s Own; and for his gardening books, the first of which, Down the Garden Path, has been in print almost continuously since 1932. Resident at Merry Hall, Ashtead, from 1946 to 1956, Nichols was relatively open about his sexuality and had a partner for 40 years.
Books and houses
The son of a wealthy solicitor, Nichols was educated at Marlborough and then at Balliol College, Oxford. After flirting with politics and abandoning a career in law, he drifted into journalism and became famous for his shrewd and refreshingly imprudent views. Between his first novel Prelude (1920) and last Twilight (1982), he wrote more than 60 works on topics ranging from travel to politics, religion to cats, plus children’s stories, detective mysteries and autobiographies. His most famous work Down the Garden Path (1932), was illustrated by Rex Whistler.
Between 1951 and 1956 Nichols wrote a trilogy Merry Hall which documents his travails renovating a Georgian manor house and its gardens in Agates Lane, Ashtead, where he lived from 1946 to 1956. A second trilogy (1963-1969), concern Nichols’ late 18th-century cottage Sudbrook, at Ham, near Richmond.
Friends and rivals
Nichols met the actor Godfrey Winn through his theatrical contacts and their paths crossed over a number of years. They became rivals as newspaper columnists but struck up an awkward friendship and visited each other’s houses. This disintegrated when Beverley Nichols wrote A Case of Human Bondage (1966), which appeared to be critical of Somerset Maugham, who had been Godfrey Winn’s lover for a time.
Nichols became great friends with Constance Spry, the well-known cook and flower-arranger who at one time lived near Haslemere, and the two would confer over flower designs and colours, and gardening schemes.
Nichols’ long-term partner was Cyril Butcher with whom he had a relationship for 40 years. He was relatively open about his sexuality in public lectures, though not in his radio broadcasts. In later life he publicly challenged anti-homosexual legislation and homophobic behaviour. In old age, he apparently became more comfortable with his effeminate, even camp, style.
A lasting wit
Nichols died in 1983 in Kingston. The day after his death a celebration of his life took place at St Paul’s, Covent Garden. Ned Sherrin arranged the programme comprising extracts from Nichols works, which included Derek Jacobi reading A Bluebell from Twilight.
Nichols will be remembered for his trademark rapier wit. In Are they the same at home? (1933), he wrote of Noel Coward:
“I have written about Noel Coward before and I shall have no hesitation in doing so again.He does everything wrong on the stage which it is possible to do. He stands in the wrong place, opens a door with the wrong hand, puts the wrong emphasis on his lines, and makes, often enough, the wrong faces. And he gets away with it, simply through the immense nervous force surging through him.”
Nichols is an LGBT history icon.
Find out more about Beverley Nichols
A selection of Beverley Nichols’ published works can be studied at Surrey History Centre
Find out more about Beverley Nichols with the official Beverley Nichols website http://www.beverleynichols.com/
The Elvira Barney blog, states that Beverley Nichols, visited lesbian music hall performer, Gwen Farrar, at her Chelsea residence, and described her as “grotesque but endearing”! Find out more about Gwen Farrar here.