Monday, October 30, 2023

Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an Amorous Adventurer and Quail with Scotch


Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) in his 20s

While excavating my bookshelves a few weeks ago, I discovered Unquiet Souls by Mary Lambert - a book I had stashed away and forgotten years ago (yeah, I have serious tsundoku issues - links for the books at the end if you do too).

1895 Souls going-away party for new the Indian Viceroy, Lord Curzon 

The book was about a band of shimmeringly unorthodox, fin de siècle English men and women that were known as The Souls.

1906 Marlborough Set

The Prince of Wales’s crowd, ‘The Marlborough Set’ was the ‘smart set’ of the day.  Smart meant fashionable - the front row seats to the sports and arts and mostly shallow as shallow could be. They were known for their lavish town & country parties filled with DeBrett’s finest top-heavy titles (and a slight sprinkling of the spice of new money to foot the bills). 

Wyndham Sisters by Sargeant


‘The Souls Set’ had what money couldn’t buy. Mostly from old families, they were brilliant artists, writers, poets and statesmen who blossomed in Victoria’s reign and faded with Edwardian Age. They engaged in strong friendships, heady, penetrating conversations and discreet but frequent partner-exchanging romances within the group over the decades. 


Wilifred Scawen Blunt fondly remembered his time with The Souls among the Wyndhams, Lyttletons, Elchos and Balfours, Asquiths,Curzon Custs and Grenfells, “…I turned with redoubled zest to my social pleasures of the year before, and at this time saw much of that interesting group of clever men and pretty women known as the Souls, than whom no section of London Society was better worth frequenting, including as it did all that there was most intellectually amusing and least conventional. It was a group of men and women bent on pleasure, but pleasure of a superior kind, eschewing the vulgarities of racing and card-playing indulged in by the majority of the rich and noble, and looking for their excitement in romance and sentiment."


I saw a good read ahead. Then I noticed the face on the spine of the book beside it ….

Wilfred Blunt 1860s

Next to Unquiet Souls sat another long-lost volume.  I pulled it out and, whoa, the cover! How could I have overlooked the diabolically beautiful face of Wilfred Scawen Blunt with his gimlet eyes drilling into mine!! For all these years the book gathered dust with its neighbor? Tragic.

Blunt on Pharaoh by Anne Blunt

The volumes were rightfully bound together since Blunt had played with, worked with or slept with most of the Souls.  For all the prime ministers,Viceroys and famous creatives of the crowd – Blunt stood apart.

I started reading the Souls book – and enjoyed it – but the image of Blunt kept calling and, in the end, I burned through his story. The book, A Pilgrimage of Passion by Elizabeth Longford was full of tantalizing stories but the writing was a slog.  I got through it but just. Unsated, I ordered Blunt’s grandson’s book and hoped for a better guide to an amazing life -- the Earl of Lytton’s book, Wilfred Scawen Blunt did not disappoint and I was ensorcelled as it escaped most of the turgid technicalities of 19th century geopolitics and spent time with the man.

Esme Howard

Esme Howard remembered Blunt for an Atlantic Article written 15 years after Blunt's death in 1922, “Wilfrid Blunt was a well-known figure in English society, and also in Egypt. Tall, dark, and exceedingly handsome, he had been in the diplomatic service in his youth and was said, with what truth I do not know, to have been the only Englishman who had killed a bull in the bull ring at Madrid.”

Blunt 1881


Howard continued, “He was a poet of no mean order, and his sonnets, published by the Kelmscott Press, are many of them extremely beautiful. Immensely proud, but at the same time a born revolutionary, he gave endless trouble to the British authorities in Egypt by continually and actively taking up the cause of those who, like Arabi Pasha, were using every means in their power, even to the extent of open rebellion against the Khedive, to get the English out of Egypt.”

Lord Curzon

Many of the Souls stayed firmly attached to their ancient estates in England, but, like his friend Lord Curzon, Blunt had a genuinely passionate love for the East and wanted to improve the condition of the native populations that the British Empire overlords and their minions were abusing. Both men were tireless diplomats, learning the local languages to truly absorb the cultures. Both had wives who shared their husband's aspirations and worked to achieve them. But where Curzon was madly, deeply in love with his beautiful wife Mary, Blunt’s love life was more complicated.

Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters


Blunt began his romantic crusades in earnest with a decades-long affair and friendship with one of the great English courtesans (and favorite of the future King of England) Catherine ‘Skitttles’ Walters that started in his 20s in Paris of the 1860s and continued till her death in 1920.  Women were mad for him and most remained close friends after the affairs had lost their fire (and some returned again and again!).  Men enjoyed his conversation and companionship.  Everyone - men and women both - remarked about his beauty.


Anne Noel Blunt (1837-1917), Baroness Wentworth
Anne Noel Blunt (1837-1917), Baroness Wentworth 


Blunt played the field for years, but married Anne, the granddaughter of great romantic poet Lord Byron(1788-1823), in 1869. She remained a steadfast life-partner and fellow world traveler till nearly the end of their lives (when the Blunt brought a live-in mistress into their home – a bridge too far even for the understanding Anne). 


He had dozens of women throughout his long life – many were friends and wives of friends and even daughters of friends. Anne stuck with him – although often living separately from him at one of their many homes and finally staying at Sheykh O'Beyd in Egypt on her own -- with her beloved horses. Blunt remained impossibly amorous till the end.  His notorious, My Diaries by Wilfred Scawen Blunt was locked for 50 years after his death so as not to reveal the secret trysts of the living… it is a GREAT read for the full flavor of the times. 

Anne with Blunt, with her horse Kasida)
Anne and Wilfred Blunt
Anne and Wilfred in Egypt

Blunt was incredibly lucky to have had Anne, a brave and willing partner who accompanied him on many of his most dangerous and exotic travels.  Together they traversed thousands of miles on camels, horses and on foot through wild deserts and mountains, living with the local tribes, trading information and procuring the finest Arab horses and all the while writing poetry and sending diplomatic missives.  Blunt was a polymath force of nature. E.M Forster called Edwin Scawen Blunt “an English gentleman of genius.”  He was also a man who fought for lost causes.

Blunt and Anne on an Irish postcard

He fought for, wrote furiously about, and was jailed in the cause of Irish Independence and against the English  aristocracy's cruel tenant evictions which left a huge swath of farmers starving and homeless. He wrote some rather potent words about his time in Galway Gaol in his 1888 poem,  In Vinculis.  It inspired Oscar Wilde's better known Reading Gaol poem and helped to get Winston Churchill's attention. But Blunt's attempts to exact some kind promises of prison reform from his friend Winston were fruitless - the "convent without god" saw no improvements from his fervent ministrations.



“A prison is a convent without God.
Poverty, Chastity, Obedience
Its precepts are. In this austere abode
None gather wealth of pleasure or of pence.
Woman’s light wit, the heart’s concupiscence
Are banished here. At the least warder’s nod
Thy neck shall bend in mute subservience.
Nor yet for virtue – rather for the rod.



In his day, Wilfred was a well-known poet known for Love Sonnets of Proteus in 1880 and Wind and the Whirlwind in 1883 – much respected in his time but now virtually forgotten. Today he is more remembered for his spicy diary than his poetry.  Much of it is quite good and his correspondence with friends and inamorata were festooned with lovely verses – oh how we are starved for such letters these days.

The Blunt family motto was “respiciendo prospiciendo” looking forward looking back so I thought I would share 2 of his poems to give you the idea of his way with words.

To One Who Would Make A Confession


Oh! leave the past to bury its own dead.
The past is naught to us, the present all.
What need of last year's leaves to strew Love's bed?
What need of ghosts to grace a festival?
I would not, if I could, those days recall,
Those days not ours. For us the feast is spread.
The lamps are lit, and music plays withal.
Then let us love and leave the rest unsaid.
This island is our home. Around it roar
Great gulfs and oceans, channels, straits and seas.
What matter in what wreck we reached the shore, 
So we both reached it? We can mock at these.
Oh! leave the past, if past indeed there be;
I would not know it; I would know but thee.


On the Shortness of Time 


If I could live without the thought of death,
Forgetful of Time's waste, the soul's decay,
I would not ask for other joy than breath,
With light and sound of birds and the sun's ray.
I could sit on untroubled day by day
Watching the grass grow, and the wild flowers range
From blue to yellow and from red to grey
In natural sequence as the seasons change.
I could afford to wait, but for the hurt
Of this dull tick of time which chides my ear.
But now I dare not sit with loins ungirt
And staff unlifted, for death stands too near.
I must be up and doing--ay, each minute.
The grave gives time for rest when we are in it.


There was poetry and then there were his Arabian horses. 

Blunt 1881

The Blunts introduced the finest Arabian horses to England in 1878 and established roots at a magical house in Egypt - Sheykh O’Beyd. In 1895, the Philosopher Frederic Harrison wrote very fondly of his visit and for " the pleasure and instruction I received under his roof and in his tent." He described the estate:  "The garden , which covers around 40 aces, is full of oranges, olives, apricots in blossom and roses in bloom - so that, although it is in the Desert, it is a wilderness of water and greenery.  The fruit trees are now in blossom and the crops are intensely green - the early corn is 2 feet high and the tall grasses are as fresh as cowslips in May.  The house is an airy Egyptian villa in two stories, with a  large flat roof on which we spend early morning and evening, take after noon tea and coffee and lounge - and would sleep if it grew hot enough."

Sheykh O'Beyd in Egypt 
Anne Blunt Drawing of land around house

Thanks more to Anne and his daughter Judith's tireless work, the line of Crabbet Arabian Stud horses are still legendary all over the world.

Crabbet House 
Blunt's daughter Judith (1873-1957) with some of the horses at Crabbet

The intersection of the Souls and Blunt was felt strongly in the formation and celebration of the Crabbet Club which met once a year in June for many years.

Blunt described the formation of the club in the 1870s in his diaries of 1890.  It grew from shared school days and the inclination to keep the spirit going with athletics and contests once a year.  “It was in that summer that the Crabbet Club, which was to acquire a certain social celebrity, was established on a footing which was to gain for it a character almost of importance. It will not be out of place, seeing that our memoir writers of the day have included it, or rather have not left it unnoticed in their recollections, if I say a few words here as to what it really was…” “The Crabbet Club was in its origin a purely convivial gathering, unambitious of any literary aim…”

That Atlantic Magazine article, Recollections of a Respectable Mediocrity, was so titled after the way Esme Howard introduced himself to what he saw as a dazzling assembly at the Crabbet Club - he felt clearly outclassed and humble humor won him a place at the table, “There was also an institution of the early nineties called the Crabbet Club, to which I had the honor to belong. A certain number of young men, I forget how many, and one or two old ones, used to meet for a week-end in June under Wilfrid’s hospitable roof, and he gave a prize for the champion lawn-tennis player and for the best poem.

On the Saturday evening the business of the Club was first transacted; new members were elected, and speeches were made, generally in a vein of pleasantry and satire, proposing and seconding the candidates. As president of the Club, Wilfrid Blunt sat a t the head of the table dressed in gorgeous silks, like an Arab sheik, with an enormous turban.” 

  Blunt recollected in his diary, “The young men thus got together, most of them fresh from the Universities, though also bent on amusement, had tastes more intellectual than their predecessors, and besides our lawn tennis handicaps, we had much after-dinner speaking, and a verse competition with the election of a poet laureate for the year. The Club was in this condition when in 1889 George Wyndham, becoming a member, took it in hand, and seeing its intellectual capabilities brought new blood into it by introducing friends of his own, already holding a certain position in the political world, and who have since no few of them climbed to fame. Among these were George Curzon, Harry Cust, Houghton (now Lord Crewe), Frederick Locker, Umphreville Swinburne, cousin of the poet, St. George Lane Fox, Eddy Tennant, Laurence Currie, George Leveson Gower, Esme Howard, Elcho, Dick Grosvenor, Alfred Douglas, Charles Gatty, Morpeth, and his brother Hubert Howard, and on a single occasion Oscar Wilde, and it was in the company of these that our meetings of the early nineties were held. They were really brilliant meetings, with post-prandial oratory of the most amusing kind, and were productive of verse of a quite high order. The number of the members was limited to twenty, and there was much competition when a vacancy occurred. The poetry of the Crabbet Club has been preserved in print, and is one of the curiosities of literature, deserving a place, I venture to think, in company with the best verse of a not serious kind, including even perhaps that of the Mermaid Tavern. My own part in these meetings, which were essentially convivial, was that of Chairman.

" 1st July, — Crabbet. Annual meeting of the Crabbet Club. We sat down over twenty to dinner, and did not leave the table till half-past one.

" George Curzon was, as usual, the most brilliant, he never flags for an instant either in speech or repartee; after him George Wyndham, Mark Napier, and Webber. The next day, Sunday, Harry Cust won the Tennis Cup, and the Laureateship was adjudged to Curzon.”

Blunt with Pound and Yeats at the Peacock Dinner 1914

“The Club as the " Crabbet Club " was still continued, but reconstructed in later years on different lines with a number of young men.” Oxford undergraduates replaced older members. I think Blunt enjoyed being the elder statesmen and representative of the last century with younger men. He even hosted a famous dinner at New Buildings with a peacock and a marble box of poems the younger poets gave to Blunt. At the dinner were the young poets of the day with Yeats and Pound – who regarded Blunt as “the grandest of old men” and ‘the last of the great Victorians”. The dinner was a bit of a legend.

New Buildings. house

So what to eat?? Blunt lived in a world of incessant house parties, many of them at his own country houses Crabbet and New Buildings.

What better food to share with you than the stuff of weekend hunts and silver chafing dishes on ten foot sideboards? I say game birds sauced with Scotch – warming, filling and decadently delicious. Both of these sauces are heavenly variations on a theme. The squab dish was based on something I’ve made for years based on Catharine Brown’s Scottish Cookery.  It’s divine using the original pheasant or squab as I used thanks to my friends at D’Artagnan but easy to use simple chicken thighs -- which are excellent with the sauce. I also throw in peach scone recipe to have on the next morning's breakfast table after the evening's festivities.

The second recipe was based on The Scotch Cookbook from the 20s (those juniper berries were a great addition), it used game birds which tend to be leaner and chewier. I used a plump
poussin and changed the cooking style – do go back to the original (pictured below) if you are
using grouse or other game birds. It’s all about about the savory oatmeal and that Scotch cream.

                   Squab with Scotch Cream for 2

2 boned squab 

2 oz single malt Scotch (I like a peaty Lagavulin best or Laphroaig)

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

2-3 diced shallots

½ c demiglace 

pinch cayenne

½ t nutmeg

1 t marjoram chopped

bay leaf

salt and pepper

a splash of whisky

½ cup heavy cream

1 t lemon juice

Put the birds in the scotch for an hour or overnight.  Pour off the scotch and reserve. Dry 

the birds and salt and pepper them.

Heat the butter until bubbling  over medium heat and turn the birds in it to brown all over.

Lift the birds from the pot, reduce the heat to medium low and cook the shallots until golden.
Add the reserved whisky.
Add the stock, cayenne, salt and pepper and reduce slightly.
Return the birds to the sauce and cover and cook until tender at low heat, usually in about 5-10 minutes or so.

Remove the birds, add the lemon juice, taste and add a splash more of whiskey if needed - pour sauce over birds and serve 


           Poussin Scotch Stew based on a recipe from  The Scots Cookbook 1929

1 Poussin  or cornish hens  - breasts removed, larger pieces of meat removed and reserved.

2 slices bacon, fried - reserve the fat

3 c stock

2 T demiglace

1 t pepper

1 t salt

6-8 juniper berries slightly crushed

2 sticks of celery - reserve some leaves

2 oz plus 1 T  butter 

2 oz irish oatmeal

1t sage

1T butter

1T redwine

2 T whiskey ( again - a peaty Lagavulin best or Laphroaig)

3 T cream

Cut the Poussin into pieces. Saute in bacon fat to brown slightly. Add the stock, demiglace,
pepper & salt, juniper and celery. Simmer for 2 hours and strain.

Sauté the oatmeal in the butter till slightly brown (if you toast it too much, it will not become creamy). Add triple the amount of stock and sage and cook slowly, covered. till soft and creamy -- about 30 minutes.  Then stir in the most of the rest of the stock - reserving half a cup.  In a separate pan fry the breasts and the rest of the meat in butter till browned and cooked through.  Add the red wine and whisky and cook a bit of the alcohol off.  Add the reserved stock and the cream and cook for a few moments to join the flavors.  You can either combine all of it together or serve the meat on top of the oatmeal.  Sprinkle the bacon over the top with the celery leaves.

Peach Scones (adapted from All Recipes)


6 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 pinch ground nutmeg

1 stick unsalted butter, frozen

½ cup heavy cream

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup peeled and diced fresh peaches (if you can get it – tossed with a splash of Jasmine essence 

  2 tablespoons turbinado sugar


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

 Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and nutmeg together in a large bowl.

Grate in 1/3 of the butter using the large holes of a box grater. Toss lightly with your fingertips until coated with flour. Repeat twice more with remaining butter.

 Whisk cream, egg, and vanilla extract together in a small bowl with a fork. Pour over the flour-butter mixture. Mix with a fork just until large clumps of dough form. Gently fold in peach.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Bring together and gently pat into a 9-inch-long rectangle about 1 inch thick. Sprinkle turbinado sugar on top; press gently to adhere. Cut into 8 triangles with a bench knife or sharp knife. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet.

 Bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 18 minutes. Place baking sheet on a wire rack and let cool.