Lady Sybil Myra Caroline Primrose who was born in 1859, was destined to become one of the great British upper class eccentrics. Some episodes in her extraordinary and occasionally comic life story read as if they had been written by P.G. Wodehouse.
Lady Sybil was more than just a pretty name. Her social credentials were impeccable. Her father, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, was Prime Minister in the 1890s. Her mother, Hannah de Rothschild, was reputed to be the richest woman in Britain. At around the age of six, she was painted in full aristocratic splendour by no less an artist than Lord Frederic Leighton.
In 1903, Lady Sybil married Charles Grant, a soldier, who had fought in the Boer War and was later to see action in the First World War. Charles was a descendant of the family which had founded the Grant’s Whisky business – although he was not tempted by the world of commerce himself and remained in the army for his entire working life. He retired in 1940 having attained the rank of General and been knighted in the process. General Sir Charles and Lady Sybil had one child, a son, Charles Robert Archibald Grant, who was born in 1903.
Her husband’s military career meant that Lady Sybil (now Lady Sybil Grant)must inevitably have been left to her own devices much of the time. She certainly managed a remarkably diverse range of achievements in early adulthood. In the years before the Great War, she gained a modest reputation as a writer of poetry and romantic fiction. Her novels, some of which were serialised in the London Magazine, included such splendidly florid titles as The Kisses That Never Were Given and A Three-Cornered Secret. She was also a published song-writer, with such distinctly Caledonian-sounding songs as Alistair and Come awa hame to me to her credit.
This all makes Lady Sybil sound pretty busy but she obviously felt she still had a bit of time to spare. During this same period she developed a reputation as a notable breeder of Suffolk Punch draught horses and, in true Wodehouse fashion, began to indulge an enthusiasm for dogs. She introduced the Pyrenean Mountain Dog into the UK and is also credited with saving an unusual breed, the Shetland Toy Collie, from extinction – although it has to be reported that Collie Folio journal was doubtful on the matter, noting rather sniffily in 1908, that Lady Sybil “appears to have been informed that [these dogs] are a pure and distinct breed”. On receiving Lady Sybil’s assurance that the breed was “very, very rare”, Collie Folio was prompted to rub salt into the earlier wound by adding, “Thank goodness they are, as they possess not a single attractive feature”.*
After the war began, Lady Sybil developed an rather unexpected but abiding interest in airships and aircraft, and became an official photographer to the Royal Naval Air Service. She even dabbled in moving pictures; the British Film Institute lists in its archive a 1918 film of hers shot on a Royal Flying Corps airfield. In 1919 she set up a fund-raising exhibition in London called Airships in Peace and War. For the entire duration of the Great War, she also edited a weekly newspaper for soldiers of the Coldstream Guards
After the war Lady Sybil gradually adopted an “artisitic” and bohemian lifestyle. She became interested in gypsy culture and encouraged gypsy encampments on land she owned on the Surrey Downs. Eventually indeed, she took to living occasionally in a caravan herself and to dressing in romanticised “gypsy” clothes. During this period she also turned her attention to the visual arts, concentrating particularly on making small ceramic items, many of which were decorated with her own drawings of her own horses
As she got older Lady Sybil became increasingly eccentric (that’s if you don’t think she was already heading well out to left field). She is known, for example, to have spent considerable time living in the famous tree-house at another of her homes, Pitchford House in Shropshire. This tree-house, which is still there, is thought to be the oldest such structure in the world. From her perch up in the foliage she could often be heard shouting instructions to her butler through a megaphone. Maintaining the gypsy theme from earlier in her life, Lady Sybil would also tell people’s fortunes. Almost inevitably she acquired a local reputation as a witch. During one glorious period, she took to dyeing her hair orange, wearing orange clothes, applying orange lipstick and living in her orangery – a pleasingly consistent form of barmy behaviour.
The charming, child-size umbrella pictured left is now in my possession. It was given to Lady Sybil by her father when she was a child. Lady Sybil, in turn, gave the umbrella to her own son, marking the occasion by having the silver handle engraved with the words, “Given to Sybil Grant as a child from her father and from her to C.R.A.G., Dec. 1906”.
The umbrella must then have stayed in the Grant family as it was sold at the Christie’s sale of the contents of Pitchford House in 1992 (it sill has its auction label). At that time Pitchford House was owned by the socialite Caroline Colthurst who had inherited it from her stepfather, the younger Charles Grant (i.e. the C.R.A.G. of the engraving).
Caroline, though not a blood relative of Lady Sybil, certainly carried on the family tradition of living a full and interesting life, having been, among other things a fashion model in Swinging London, a co-founder of Anabel’s night club, the owner of a boutique selling clothes for the fuller figure, and a writer for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Caroline Colthurst, who died in 2010, was forced to sell up as a consequence of enormous personal losses in the Lloyds crash in the 1980s.
The umbrella is a jolly nice memento of a distinguished and interesting family. Its handle and stem are hallmarked for 1882. The silver also has the maker’s mark “ED”, for Edward Dimier. The umbrella itself is made by Brigg & Sons of London, who are still in business making a better class of umbrella than that that you and I are ever likely to buy. The mechanism of Lady Sybil’s umbrella still works satisfyingly well but the fabric is fragile and it is not really advisable to put it up too much. I use it only when the rain leaks through the roof of my tree house.
* With acknowledgements to www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk