One thing you would never associate with author George Orwell is “Mr. Mom”. But he was indeed that for the last few years of his life, albeit with help from nanny Susan Watson and sister Avril Blair.
In May of 1944, while doodle-bugs were dropping all over London, Eric Blair (the real name of George Orwell) and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy were told of a mother who gave birth to a son she couldn’t keep due to a wartime affair. Eager to become parents (Eric thought he was sterile, simply because he hadn’t had any children up to that point), the new parents were able to adopt the boy in June. They named him Richard Horatio Blair; the first name coming from Eric’s father’s name and “Horatio” after an uncle. Eric and Eileen took to the new baby and moved from their old flat at 10a Mortimer Crescent, Kilburn to 27b Canonbury Square, Islington, North London. A bomb had caved in the ceiling at Mortimer Crescent right before adopting the boy, so the new move was a must.
Eileen and Richard, in a photo that would be on the fireplace mantle at Canonbury Square.
While George was busy writing or out collecting info for journalism, Eileen was a devoted mother. The Blairs did not care that Richard was not theirs biologically. He was theirs in every other sense of the word. George even took it upon himself to burn out the info of Richard’s biological parents on his birth certificate with a cigarette. In letters by Eileen, she constantly talked about every milestone of Richard’s development.
In the spring of 1945 tragedy struck. Eileen went in for a hysterectomy, a rather common procedure for possible ovarian cancer, but her heart stopped on the operating table due to the anesthesia. Orwell’s friends figured he would put the child back up for adoption, but Orwell refused to consider it. For the first few months after Eileen’s death, Richard lived with family friends so George could get Eileen’s affairs in order and to hire a nanny/housekeeper to help him with Richard while he worked. Orwell would end up hiring Susan Watson.
In August of 1945 Animal Farm was published and Orwell found the fame he had always wanted. Fast forward to November 1946. Journalist and photographer Vernon Richards was commissioned to take photos of Orwell and Richard in the Canonbury flat. The photos taken were of Orwell doing every day things — having tea with his visitors, playing with Richard, dressing Richard for a walk outside in his pushcart, feeding Richard, rolling cigarettes, working on carpentry as Richard helps, and writing. Canonbury Square would be the last place Orwell and Richard would live in London. During the summer they had lived in a rented house called Barnhill on the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland. They had come back for the winter of 1946/1947. From the summer of 1947 to January of 1949 they would live at Barnhill full time. Orwell’s younger sister, Avril, would end up taking Susan Watson’s place and Barnhill was never short of family and friends visiting. It was on Jura that Orwell wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
So these are the majority of the photos that Vernon Richards took, taken over a three-day period. They show Orwell rolling his own shag cigarettes. His china tea cups. The number of books around the flat. The toys Richard loves to play with. Orwell pushing Richard in the pram. The paint peeling off the buildings in London, and the general war-weary look of the area. Orwell showing off a sword from Burma in his bedroom. His old wicker Victorian chair that he always sat in, with a large portrait of a Blair relative on the wall in the background. Next to the chair was his scrap screen, something he was quite proud of. So much so that he talked about it in his essay Just Junk — But Who Could Resist It?
Enjoy the photos. Click on individual ones to enlarge.