Monday, 8 November 2010

Biographies: Greville MacDonald

Greville Matheson MacDonald was born in 1856 in Manchester, the first son of George MacDonald (the famous Scottish writer) and Louisa MacDonald (nee Powell).  Louisa's elder sister Phoebe was Joseph King's mother.  Greville's involvement with the Peasant Arts movement included partly financing the movement and launching the Vineyard magazine.

Greville and Joseph being cousins explains how Greville was linked to the Peasant Arts movement in Haslemere.  Out of the five main members of the Peasant Arts movement, it is possible to know the most about Greville as he published his autobiography, ‘Reminiscences of a Specialist’ in 1932.
Greville MacDonald, from Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932

Aside from Greville’s involvement in the Peasant Arts movement, his family life is very interesting due to his experiences as George MacDonald’s son, his father being one of the most famous writers at the time.  His reputation and lifestyle led Greville to friendships with a number of well-known people.

The family left Manchester when Greville was 3 weeks old due to George MacDonald’s health – he was diagnosed as ‘dying of haemorrhage from the lungs’ when Greville was born, and it was advised that the family leave the ‘fogs of an over-chimneyed city’ (MacDonald, 1932, Reminiscences of a Specialist, London, George Allen and Unwin) – and spent the Winter in Algiers with ‘much help’ from Lady Byron who Greville describes as an ‘unfailing friend’ of his father, having been attracted to his father’s first book ‘Within and Without’.
George MacDonald with Greville MacDonald, from Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932

In 1861 the MacDonald’s are living in Hastings, they then moved to Kensington and from there in 1867 to Hammersmith, London.  Greville describes this house, recorded on the census as ‘The Retreat’ as facing the river with an acre of old garden, the family however decided to move as they believed the location was responsible for Greville’s sister Mary contracting tuberculosis.  They sold the house to William Morris in 1878, who lived there until his death in 1896.  Morris renamed the house Kelmscott House and made it a famous address.
Greville MacDonald drawn in kilt by Lewis Carroll, Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932

Greville is famous for having read ‘Uncle Dodgson’s’ (Reverend Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carrol) Alice in Wonderland when Dodgson was wondering whether to publish it.  Greville’s mother read the book to the children to gauge its worth if published, and Greville remembers his ‘braggart avowal that I wished there were 60,000 volumes of it’.  The above picture was sketched by Lewis Carroll whilst Greville was modelling for Alex Munro, whose resulting statue now resides in Hyde Park.  It refers to a joke that they were having about the advantage of having a marble head, 'for then it would never suffer from combing its curls and could not be expected to learn lessons', and that such a head would terrify the sculptor Alex Munro.  Greville is shown holding the said marble head.

Greville attributes his understanding of Latin to Octavia Hill (who became a co-founder of the National Trust in 1895, along with Haslemere’s Sir Robert Hunter) who joined the family on holiday in 1867 at Bude, and became a life-long friend of Greville. 

Greville went to Kings College School and then went to train at Kings College Hospital.  Despite suffering from partial deafness which degenerated with age, Greville became an ear, nose and throat doctor of some distinction, residing at 85 Harley Street until he moved to Wildwood, Weydown Road, Haslemere in 1919.  Greville’s autobiography describes him as a ‘consulting physician to Kings College Hospital’ and ‘Fellow and Emeritus Professor, Kings College, London’.   Greville married his wife Elizabeth Phoebe Winn in 1887, they had no children, but from a dedication in one of his books, it would appear that he adopted a girl, ‘Mollie Gamble’.

Statute that Greville modelled for as a boy, Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932
Greville was no stranger to Haslemere, in 1900 Greville’s parents moved to St George’s Wood, Grayswood Road, Haslemere, into a house that he had had built for them, where his frail father spent his final few years.  What Greville describes as his ‘best friends’ Joseph King, Maude Egerton King, Godfrey Blount and Ethel Blount lived there, and he had visited and stayed with them often.  In 1913 Greville’s wife ‘lost a leg’ and that seems to be part of the reason behind his move to the country.  Greville describes his involvement in the Peasant Arts movement as ‘happy that I might possibly help them, I soon assigned my scanty leisure, along with some too easily earned money, to the support of their Society.’ 

It was Greville who negotiated the purchase of the Museum of Peasant Arts from Reverend Gerald Davies in 1908, ‘at a price well below its value, but on the condition that it should never be displayed in any City Museum, where, he thought, its beauties might be swamped, and its materials damaged by smoke.  Realizing the national worth of the collection I put it, by Trust Deed, in the hands of the Founders of the Peasant Arts Guild for the public benefit, thus protecting it against any possible mishap to the Guild’.  Greville describes himself as launching The Vineyard Magazine in 1910. 

Greville wrote a number of books on widely varied subjects, including a biography of his father and mother ‘George MacDonald and his Wife’, some complex works such as ‘The Sanity of William Blake’, ‘The Religious Sense in its Scientific Aspect’, and fairy tales such as ‘Count Billy’ and ‘The Magic Crook Or the Stolen Baby’.   Greville's autobiography 'Reminiscences of a Specialist' has proved invaluable in providing these insights.


  1. Hi Kate. My name is Andy Smithyman ( I would be really interested in getting in contact with you concerning your research into the Peasant Art Movement. My own loose connection to this movement is through Grenville's father, George.

    I fully understand this may seem weird, a stranger making contact like this, but if possible, it would be great if we could make contact. What is the best way?


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I did reply and left my e-mail address here for months but I have now removed it



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