I doubt that Helen would ever have sought fame. She was born exactly halfway through the long reign of Victoria into a family of classical Victorian values. Self-aggrandisement was just not on the cards, especially as a woman. Her public profile wasn’t high – half a dozen successful exhibitions during the 20s and 30s; recognition, from four nations, of her services to the wounded of WW1; a couple of marble memorial plaques in Italy.
Her paintings are still visible – if you know where to look – but she is virtually unknown and that is almost certainly how she would have wanted it to be. Her entire death notice in The Times, undoubtably her own words, consisted of four words “No flowers. No mourning.” There was no public funeral; she chose cremation; no headstone marks her life. Should we leave her alone?
I have chosen not to, and I hope this work of dedication will persuade you that I am right.
Apart from her private life – her family, thoughts, motivations – there are three areas that I wish to explore:-
Helen as artist
Helen as philanthropist
Helen as military nurse
All three were publicly recognised during her life and so are “fair game” for the historical researcher. But let me start with an overview of her life and times. It seems convenient to divide this into three parts: England 1868-1898: Italy 1898-1935: England 1935-1946. Let’s begin.
As it turned out, 1917 was the midpoint of the span of Helen Cochranes’s adult years. She could not have known it then nor even thought about it. In 1917 she was too busy stitching up the bodies and souls of broken soldiers.
In every sense that year was the peak of her life’s journey. Her first 49 years had furnished her with the motivations, the abilities and the opportunity. The remaining 29 seemed a gentle, refined dénouement that could not have been more different to the active, somewhat turbulent, first half of her life.
It was also approximately halfway through her marriage to William Percy Cochrane, bisected by their decisive separation in about 1920. It was as if they had come together to create the most wonderful place on earth, generously placed it at the service of mankind during that terrible war and then, the work done, suddenly realised how totally unsuited to each other they had always been. Their love, if that’s what it was, raises many questions. Every piece of evidence shows Helen to have been “a woman’s woman” and Percy “a man’s man”.
The wonderful home – still there and still wonderful – was Villa Rezzola, a classic home stunningly perched in a pass overlooking the Gulf of La Spezia, the islands of Palmyria and Tino, the towns of Lerici and Portovenere and beyond that, the Tyrrhenian Sea. From the time that Percy and Helen settled there in 1900 – through their splendid Edwardian years, the Great War, then a recovery only to be swept into the facist age – until Helen, alone, returned to London in 1935, Villa Rezzola shone splendidly and generously.
In that beautiful location it stood as a focus for the little English community of the Gulf, a haven for artists, writers, travellers (principally, but not always, English) and an enlightened and generous Manor House to the local village. This account will have much to say about this villa and its influence and how that reflected the personality of Helen.
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Her life began in tricky circumstances, although by the time she was old enough to grasp such things, life had improved for the Shaw family and we might assume that she had an idyllic and happy childhood. In short, she was born on the run. Her father, Henry, had been an upright and respected Essex lawyer until he was embroiled in a sharemarket swindle that brought ruin to his wealth and reputation. After a spell in debtors’prison, he and the family began a frantic series of moves in and around London, presumably living on the kindness of friends and family. In 1868, with wife Marion carrying the child who would be Helen, it was decided to leave London for good and go to Weymouth on the Dorset coast. Helen’s birth came in Bath as they passed through.
Growing up on that wild coast with six older brothers there can be no doubt that her senses would have been tuned to nature and adventure, and the love of seacoasts and ports was always with her. When she was about six, the Shaw family’s fortunes turned for the better with Marion’s inheritance of a lovely cottage on the edge of the Gloucester Cotswolds, as gentle as the south coast had been wild. For another six years, perhaps those critically formative ones from the age of 6 until 12, stability and genteel country comfort replaced the daily struggles. Her much-loved father was still being pursued for bankruptcy when he died soon after her 12th birthday. Her childhood was suddenly over.
The family moved once more. By this time, the two eldest brothers had made good in their own right and were now living in Clifton, Bristol. This timing and place proved a lucky break for Helen as she was able to enrol at the new Clifton High School for Girls which was founded on a new and radical rethink on the value of education for women. Helen’s resolve to develop her talents as an artist must have been fostered both here and in the nearby West of England Academy of Art for she was accepted into the Liverpool School of Art after she finished school. (She also later received training at the Westminster School of Art and, during 1890, Helen travelled to Munich for further study under Franz von Lenbach, a leading portraiture teacher.)
That was soon after her eldest brother (Hele’s) appointment as the founding Professor of Engineering at University College of Liverpool. During this period of rapid development in Britain, engineers were the superstars of the day and Hele Shaw was right at the top of the game, associating with the great and good. He was a protégé and friend of Sir Oliver Lodge and married into the prestigious Rathbone family.
It would have been in those Liverpool days that Helen met and, in November 1892, married William Percy Cochrane, son and half-heir to Cochrane and Co., one of the booming iron and steel businesses in the land. They went to live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where Percy had been given control of the family’s coalmining interests as well as being involved in the ironworks at Ormesby. After a Cambridge education, Percy had been working across the family business activities, travelling abroad to wherever Cochranes were doing business – as far away as Australia and New Zealand. At one stage he was appointed French Consul for the northeast of England. He and his younger brother, Cecil, were being groomed as the fourth generation to continue the flourishing business. He had become very active in Masonic circles.
And the newly-wed Helen? We have some watercolours and sketches of Newcastle and the surrounding countryside that date from this time. She was a long way away from her close-knit family, her older and younger sisters especially. Unusually for her family, no children came. These are the mystery years – it is difficult to imagine the vital, intelligent young Helen doing nothing, or just keeping house. There must have been copious correspondence – nothing remains.
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Five years into their marriage, very close to Helen’s 30th birthday in 1898, something unexplained happened. They left England – Percy for ever. It has the whiff of scandal about it. Or perhaps the role of business magnate collapsed him and he just walked away, leaving his brother Cecil to take all the responsibility. In any event, when his father made a new Will in 1900, the Estate and capital was left only to Cecil. Percy was granted a £500 annuity for life and a half-share of the profits arising from the then very profitable Cochrane and Co., but it was an effective disinheriting from the great family business and when it was sold in 1920, that money stopped.
They fetched up at the English colony at Menton, the next stop after (or down from, if you prefer) Monte Carlo and the point at which the thriving French Riviera peters out into the then-wild Ligurian coast of Italy. Initially they rented a charming small villa “La Lodola”, a little out of town and began the life of ease of the idle rich; the tennis club, giving parties and formal dinners. And although the côte d’azur remained an important base for Percy for the rest of his life, very soon something made them move along again. This move, east into an Italy that was wilder, more dangerous, less civilised – above all, less English – was surely Helen’s.
It was to “The Gulf of Poets” – the Gulf of La Spezia – where Dante had written, where Botticelli had painted his Venus, where Trelawney and Byron had found inspiration. Where Shelley had died. The early photographs show Helen revelling in Italian costume or driving a donkey cart (while Percy ran a chauffered Rolls-Royce). She became beloved by the villagers around her, but it seems Percy never really took to Italy. Despite being made Cavaliere (an Italian knighthood) and an honorary citizen, he was back to Menton, later to Monte Carlo, as often and for as long as he could; in 1920, forever. Helen stayed for another 15 years until Mussolini effectively dispossessed her in his fit of pique against the British.
This story is primarily written from Helen’s point of view because there is some great information to use. Percy, in the public record, is almost invisible; oddly so, given his early wealth and position and his fame during the years of the First World War. His life is punctuated by several abrupt and unexplained turn-abouts. The legend in Italy is that he made the money from South African diamonds. His enormous wealth is not accounted for by family money or income from the business. There are tantalising circumstantial indications that he may have been an Admiralty spy or that his health issues may have been symptomatic of syphilis. Was he ultimately an outcast, a man who sought redemption but gave up? In 1937 at Monte Carlo he died in obscure poverty after decades of ill-health, a relict of the great Victorian past, nursed to the end by his faithful Rosa who followed him only a year later. He was buried in perhaps the best-located cemetery in the world, at Cap d’Ail in his beloved France.
Helen, staying on in London, lived long enough to see the end of the Second War; even acting as a firespotter from her apartment rooftop, apparently caring little for her own life. She was on borrowed time by then. There were also personal tragedies and difficulties, family issues but, as always, she was characterised by a courage and an indomitable toughness combined with a certainty in “the right way of doing things”.
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As in all true biographic quests, what matters most here is “Character”. It is all very nice to know the whens and wheres of someone’s life, but the real interests are usually the whys – invariably complex, never wholly explicable. In this case, Helen and Percy seem to provide an example of extreme opposites in most aspects of their lives, interests and behaviour.
Helen never achieved greatness as an artist, mid-level at best, although she exhibited several times in good venues in London during the 1920s and ’30s. Her vast output of watercolours, mainly landscapes and domestic vignettes, are competent and workmanlike, pleasing and unchallenging. In contrast, her much fewer works in tempera rise to near-brilliance, documenting in close detail the working practices of 1920s Italian rural life with much energy and a clearly expressed love of people and land.
The great endeavour in which they truly shared was in the arena of service to others – most publicly in the foundation and operation of two Military Hospitals but just as much in their more private support of their adopted Italian home, the Ligurian village of Pugliola, where strong traces remain a century on.
They were in some sense “the last of the Victorians”, shaped and formed by that age but living on, perhaps to their own surprise, into a vastly different world. Helen managed this transition quite well, Percy not so.