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Saturday, 23 March 2013


(Read Part One here!) My great great grandfather’s nephew Kingsbury Jameson fell in love with theatre and his future wife Grace MacDonald at the same time, while he was chaplain of the Anglican Church in Bordighera, Liguria. The MacDonald family had moved there in 1880 for the good of their health.

The family of George MacDonald (centre with beard) and Louisa Powell (behind him) pictured in 1876 – four of their eleven children would die of tuberculosis within fifteen years

The illness which haunted them was tuberculosis, such a frequent presence that they nicknamed it “the family attendant.” By the time the family arrived in Bordighera Grace had already lost a brother and a sister to it, and she too had contracted it by the time Kingsbury married her.

Kingsbury took roles in the MacDonald family stage production of Pilgrim’s Progress when Grace’s brother Ronald was too ill to perform. When Grace’s illness forced her too to miss performances her parts, Mercy and Piety, were taken by Octavia Hill, a family friend better known today as a co-founder of the National Trust and social reformer. Many performances of Pilgrim’s Progress were given in support of her campaigning work, and when Kingsbury and Grace were blessed with a daughter in 1882, they named her Octavia.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) namesake of Kingsbury Jameson’s daughter

Life was good; the Ligurian air was sweet; and the landscape so bright that Claude Monet, who came to paint in Bordighera in 1884, declared that to paint it “I would need a palette of diamonds and jewellery.” But that year, after only three years of marriage, Grace died of tuberculosis. She is buried in Bordighera and commemorated in a plaque within Kingsbury’s church there. Worse was to come when nine-year old Octavia fell to the contagious disease, dying in 1891. Grace’s oldest sister Lilia, who had nursed so many members of her family through the illness, also caught and died from tuberculosis that year.

In time Kingsbury Jameson left Bordighera and returned to England, where he took a job as chaplain to Highfield Girls’ Boarding School in Golder’s Green. There he met Mary Agnes (Dysart) Morewood, a widow, and the couple were married in 1896. After the loss of his wife and daughter within seven years of each other, Kingsbury was at last rebuilding his life, and perhaps it was while at Highfield that he reconnected with the theatre too. Certainly he cuts a cheerful figure in this photograph of 1898.

Kingsbury Jameson (1856-1943) photographed by Gwendolyn Marjorie Howard, one of his Highfield pupils, in 1898

At the age of 60 Kingsbury accepted a position as vicar-chaplain of St Edward’s Church in Cambridge, but only on condition that he preached as little as possible. Instead he invited friends and celebrities to cover for him in the pulpit – among them Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch the legendary literary critic, and Sir Oliver Lodge the physicist. It was said of him that “Jameson expects every man to do HIS duty.” But it was also said that if you hadn’t preached in St Edward’s as Jameson’s locum, you hadn’t really made it socially in Cambridge.

Life in the university town suited him very well indeed. Freed of most of his ministerial duties he threw himself back into amateur dramatics; and although he preferred not to act, he welcomed (according to Cambridge publisher S.C. Roberts in his 1966 memoir Adventures with Authors) “any job, however humble, in the mechanics of production – properties, noises off, the curtain, anything provided that it gave him a part in the production.”

At the age of 80 he was still spritely and an instantly recognisable character around Cambridge in a Norfolk jacket, a pair of knickerbockers and a cloud of pipe smoke. At 83 he was mounting a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida – Shaw, who had been a regular guest in the home of his father in law George MacDonald in the days before Bordighera.

Bordighera, by Claude Monet (1884)

Today actors talk about the power of Doctor Theatre – the power of the stage to help actors overcome illness and injury in order that The Show may go on. It seems to have worked for Jameson too and he lived to the age of 87. However there was one aspect of old age that Doc Theatre could not deal with: in his 70s Kingsbury was so deaf that he couldn’t always hear his cues. S.C. Roberts, who was also an amateur actor and whom Jameson cast in his Candida, recalls on more than one occasion having to hiss from the stage in a very loud stage whisper, “HOUSE LIGHTS!”

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