I am fortunate in being able to talk to John Newall, brother of Dr Venetia Newall who passed away last Easter in her 82nd year. Venetia was distinguished in many fields of life, and regarded it as necessary, because she was a dedicated feminist, always to be smartly and stylishly turned out – Fashion Journalist, Haefele
Can you comment on her feelings about this?
Answer: To stress their equal status in society, Venetia was determined that women should show themselves to best advantage, and her smart appearance helped her to gain the respect which she rightly believed all women deserve.
Did the outset of her career tie in with her feminist principles?
Answer: Yes. Following her return to Britain and completing the secondary education she went on to St. Andrews University, famous academically and as Britain’s third oldest. After getting a reasonable degree in English Language and Literature, the university honoured her with a doctorate a dozen years later.
What was the background to her doctorate?
Answer: In 1971 Venetia had published her first book, An Egg at Easter, a study of Easter traditions and comparable customs outside the Christian world. It remained in print for at least two decades and ran into many editions, both in Britain and the United States. Most importantly, it won the Chicago International Folklore Prize for pioneering work in the field. In fact, even before 1971, she had published many articles on Easter traditions, and this, plus her work in various other similar areas, spurred St. Andrews to honour her with a doctorate.
What were her other interests over that period?
Answer: Very widespread. Before receiving the doctorate in 1978, she had two further books to her credit: Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts (1971; a new appeared edition in 2008) and The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Magic (1974), and she had also edited the 18 volumes on The Folklore of the British Isles (1973-78) published by Batsford. She also participated in numerous multi-authored books, over a dozen by 1978, and, incidentally, as many again by the end of the century. Over the years, and without separating pre-and post-1978, she published papers in academic journals from many European countries and the States. I know of about seventy, and there were more.
Were these all in the field of folklore and tradition?
Answer: Mostly, but by no means all. Apart from some poems written in 1960, “Remote Albania” in the May 1961 issue of the magazine Exploration saw her name in print for the first time. She had been to Albania with me in 1958, on my second visit. We both became interested in the stunning traditional costumes worn there, and she eventually put together a sizeable collection, being lucky to know the country before regular modern clothes took over. That, I believe, was what sparked her enthusiasm for a costume, and she eventually had an extensive wardrobe of wearable traditional garments. These, in fact, were mostly from a distinguished Indian atelier in London. She liked to wear them in combination with Asian jewellery, some also Indian but often from the Middle East. She was fond of visiting South America, another source for her jewellery.
Did Venetia have a particular affinity for India?
Answer: She made several visits to India and had close Indian and Pakistani friends. She also published some papers on Indian traditions. That was associated with her interest in immigrant communities, the source of the rich diversity of culture in Britain about which she was very enthusiastic. Regarding women as, in effect, an underprivileged minority, she felt strong empathy for the various other undervalued or grudgingly accepted minorities in the country.
Can you elaborate on that?
Answer: Of course. The first serious job she did in the late 1950s, after graduating was as joint Secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society. She rightly viewed it as a gross distortion of the law that sexual activity between gay men – the law did not target women – should be a criminal offence when it occurred in private. That is none of the law’s business, and the three years during which she worked for the law reform society brought substantial progress towards establishing gay rights. A change in the law, a big step in the right direction, was achieved in 1967.
What notably helped towards the change?
Answer: Success in involving people in the public eye. These included Members of Parliament from all three major parties (among them the leader of the Liberals), a world-famous athlete, dignitaries of the Church of England and so on.
Did Venetia have any particular church affiliation?
Answer: She was a very active member of the Anglo-Catholic branch of the English Church, in fact, the type of Christianity envisaged by King Henny VIII when he separated the church here from Rome. While this is now a minority part of English Christian practice, Venetia approved of the beautiful clerical garments worn by the priesthood in this branch of the Church – including her closest friend, Father Scott – as well as the elaborate ritual and lovely music, all of which she felt was to the glory of God.
Am I right in thinking that she campaigned for women to be admitted into the Priesthood?
Answer: Yes. That was a hard-fought and successful campaign. The restriction of the priesthood to men has no biblical support, and while it was a long struggle, the Church of England now has female priests. Other branches of Protestant Christianity got there first, and there was a female Rabbi in Germany in the 1930s, although bizarrely she was not allowed to officiate.
When I attended Venetia’s last pre-Christmas party in December 2016, a Bishop was present,
several priests and some Rabbis. Was that always so?
Answer: Increasingly so. Venetia’s December parties had been going on for 30 years and got steadily larger: She timed them for early December as an occasion for Christians to celebrate Christmas and Jews the slightly earlier festival of lights, Chanukah. When Eid, marking the end of Ramadan, worked round to December, she would no doubt have brought that in as well, but at present, it is in the middle of the year. A few Muslim friends were always there, a pleasure to her, and it was a particular joy that Britain’s first woman Rabbi, a friend of hers, always came. It was a very ecumenical event.
Did Venetia have particular links to the ecumenical movement?
Answer: Where Jewish-Christian relations were concerned, yes. She was a long-term committee member of both the Council of Christians and Jews and the London Council of Jews and Christians. This introduced her to Sigmund Sternberg, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who was intensely active in that field, apparently, the only practising Jew who was also honoured by being made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. He was who provided her with another of her enthusiasms.
What was that?
Answer: The London Rotary Club, the oldest group of Rotarians outside America. She was the second female member and, in 2004-05, the first woman President. Sigmund Sternberg admired the Rotary Club for its charitable work, but also because of its all-embracing internationalism. Venetia’s Presidency coincided with the Rotary centenary and even with the ceremony, rotating between several European cities, surrounding the Leonardo da Vinci Prize-giving. An award for innovation in the field of art, sometimes incidentally fashion, this involves a large-scale international meeting attended by Rotarians from all over the world. On this occasion, the prize went to a silversmith, and the whole celebration was a three-day event with cultural outings, visits to historic sites, banquets and so on for those attending. Venetia organised it brilliantly well.
Considerable skill needed to do that, I imagine. Had she done that kind of thing before?
Many times, for fewer ambitions events like a Seminar on Folklore, and Anti-Semitism at University College London where she was a Research Fellow, or a public meeting there on Black Britain: The Jamaicans and their Folklore. But there were large-scale conferences too. In 1968, the year after she became Secretary of the English Folklore Society, the oldest such society anywhere, she organised an Anglo-American Folklore Conference at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, in fact, attended by English, Scottish and Irish folklore specialists as well as American academics. Ten years later it was the centenary conference of the Folklore Society. Held at Royal Holloway College, it brought together academics from over 20 countries, and the proceedings were published in a large volume edited by Venetia. As secretary for thirteen years, then President in 2005-07, Venetia was the backbone of the Folklore Society for about two decades, interrupted only when she went to the University of California at Berkeley to take up a temporary visiting Professorship. In 1981 she founded and edited for fifteen years an annual academic journal, International Folklore Review. She aimed with this to give practical expression to her belief that knowing about each other’s favourite traditions contributes to international understanding and goodwill.
Is there anything I should have asked about but haven’t?
Answer: Not really. I suppose we could say something about Venetia’s spare time interests and relaxations. She loved music, especially opera and, while I don’t know if you will use them, I have given you a few pictures of her dressed for the opera in her lovely Indian dresses. She also wore something that you designed for her; maybe you have a view? She loved the theatre, too, and travel was another enthusiasm. On an entirely different tack, she was devoted to animals, and for a 75th birthday treat we took her to Monkey World, an open-air zoo near Dorchester, an outing that gave her enormous pleasure. In her Will, she mostly provided for Christian and Jewish charities, but also remembered a great favourite of hers, Canine Partners for Independence. Their organisation trains dog very successfully to look after disabled people, and their training centre was one of the excursions she arranged for the large Rotarian gathering in London for the international Leonardo da Vinci Prize event. Selected dogs from among the trainees are blessed at a central London church each year before Christmas, something Venetia would have been unhappy to miss.
Venetia flew from London to America on the Concorde, spoke many languages, and had friends and associates all over the world. She had a profoundly kind heart, fought for social justice.
You will always be in my heart dearest friend.
Photos: 1, Dr Venetia Newall, Mr John Newall, and Ms Tutty Newall
2, Dr Venetia Newall, and Father Scott
3, Dr Venetia Newall
Wrote by Stella Maris Haefele
Fashion Journalist, Haefele / FashionSansar.
I am sending 16 photos of Venetia to give you a good choice. Of course you will only use a
few and I would appreciate the return of those you don’t’ select – in fact, also of the ones you
do choose after you have made use of them. Thanks
- 1958 Studio photograph (aged 23).
- March 1959 Wedding, with her father taking her to the Church.
- 1963 In London, dressed ready for the opera.
- October 1972 Listening to the speakers at Hyde Park Corner.
- July 1978. At St. Andrew’s University, in formal academic dress for the award of her doctorate
- c.1984. A visit to the countryside.
- June 1995. At her 60th birthday party.
- June 1 1995. Same occasion.
- December 1998. Ready for her Christmas-Chanukah party.
- c.2004. The summer Opera Festival at Garsington, wearing her favourite Yemeni ear-rings.
- June 2005. The Leonardo da Vinci Prize-award international meeting of Rotarians in London, which as President of Rotary International’s London branch she organized.
- June 2005. Same occasion, at the actual Prize-award ceremony, which was in the City of London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall. Part of the Guild of Goldsmiths’ wonderful collection is on display behind Venetia.
- July 2008. With John Newall (me) at Miller’s Academy in London (the occasion on which you first really got to know Venetia, although you had met briefly at the Garsington Opera Festival).
- c.2010. At Glyndebourne Opera Festival with Father William Scott, her closest friend. Father Scott was Chaplain to the Queen, officiating at the Chapel Royal in St. James’ Palace. (As in several other photos, Venetia is wearing one of the Indian dresses which she particularly liked).
- August 2015. At Horsted Place, Suffolk, with my daughter Tutte Newall. (Horsted Place is a house where the Queen used to stay, and where Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, had his “stag party” prior to his wedding with the Queen (Princess Elizabeth as she then was).
[A “stag party” is an all-male party given by the bridegroom on the evening before he gets married. The bride often does the same for her female friends and that is known as a “hen party”. It is relevant to photo 2 that Venetia, as a determined feminist gesture, turned up at her bridegroom’s stag party!]
- December 2016. Venetia, four months before she died, at her 30th Christmas-Chanukah
party, the one at which you were present. (58 years between the first and last of these photos, and time does take its toll.)