Shaw at Home – The International Shaw Society Conference

George Bernard Shaw at Shaw's Corner. © LSE

It is not hard to see why George Bernard Shaw chose what is now referred to as “Shaw’s Corner” as his refuge from the outside world, and the brand that was “GBS”. Situated in the tiny Hertfordshire village of Ayot St Lawrence, Shaw’s Corner is a peaceful rural haven, despite being less than 30 miles from central London. What more appropriate place to host the 2013 International Shaw Society conference therefore, than Shaw’s home for 44 years?

Shaw’s Corner is now managed by the National Trust, whose team have been instrumental in their collaboration with the Shaw Societies in bringing together delegates and distinguished speakers from all corners of the globe (including Hong Kong, Canada, India and the USA) for five days of lectures, concerts, day trips and dinners; the first of which we had the opportunity of attending.

The tour of the house itself began with delegates removing their footwear. This wasn’t a maverick Shavian act, but simply because the National Trust had taken the ropes down and were allowing us full access to the dining room, drawing room, study, bedrooms and kitchens – a privilege that is not afforded to the average visitor – and it was necessary to remove our footwear to therefore protect the carpets that Shaw himself had walked on. As is the norm with National Trust properties, a number of highly knowledgeable volunteers were on hand to answer questions those of us with a limited knowledge of Shaw may have had.

The house and Shaw’s possessions are presented, in the main, as they were when Shaw died in 1950. There are touches of his unconventional character throughout the house – from the toolbox on the wall of his study, to the Oscar he used as a doorstop, to the photographs on the mantelpiece in the dining room. My initial reaction to the photograph of Stalin sitting two or three down from the picture of Gandhi was one of surprise bearing in mind Shaw’s peaceful approach to socialism; however it occurs to me that it is entirely possible that the full details of the atrocities committed by Stalin may not have been fully known at that time. I have absolutely no doubt that I shall be corrected on this if it isn’t the case!

Back in the Palladian Church, delegates enjoyed a very warm welcome from the National Trust’s House Steward for Shaw’s Corner, Sue Morgan, the Chairman of the Shaw Society, Alan Knight, and President of the International Shaw Society, Michael O’Hara, prior to the Keynote Address from Shaw’s eminent biographer Sir Michael Holroyd. “A Shavian Tale of Two Cities: From Dublin to London” was a fascinating overview of Shaw and his relationships with the city of his birth and the city his career developed in, delivered with great style and humour.

The theme for the rest of the afternoon session was “The Place of ‘Place’ in Shaw’s Life and Writing”, and Alice McEwan (Ph.D. Research Student at the University of Hertfordshire) presented us a highly detailed and exceptionally well illustrated paper entitled “Shaw’s Living Space in Fact and Fiction: The Playwright’s Interiors as a Critique of the Bourgeois Home”, complimented by the exhibition of Shaw’s photographs of interiors on the walls surrounding the delegates. An avid photographer, Shaw collected and took over 16,000 photographs during his lifetime; a remarkable volume of material considering photography’s relatively short history.

Unfortunately, due to travel arrangements, we were unable to attend the final two papers of the day – Michelle Paull’s “Shaw Not at Home – Early Politics and Playwriting” and Allan David Johnson’s “Building the Modern World: The Architectural Spaces of Shaw’s Dramas”. However, Lizzie Dunford, the Assistant House Steward at Shaw’s Corner (who is clearly imbued with a deep passion for her subject) provided us with the perfect finale to a fascinating day. Her paper, “A Living Shrine: Shaw’s Corner as Reliquary” was a captivating illustration of the far-reaching impact that Shaw continues to have more than half a century after his death; not only upon existing devotees but also in terms of his ability to continually garner a new audience from subsequent generations.

Related Internet Links

The International Shaw Society

The Shaw Society (UK)

Shaw’s Corner (National Trust)

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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