I first read about Nancy Cunard about four years ago in a British Vogue article about bracelets. Having been a bit of loony kid with a thing for bracelets (I’m talking those hedonistic years of about age ten to twelve), I was fascinated by Cunard et al and their deliciously bohemian wrist wear. I am a fiend for jewellery. It has been my longest and most enduring obsession, and while bracelets are not so much my thing anymore (due to my frustratingly scrawny wrists), I still find the idea of wrists jangling and glittering with bangles and bracelets enchanting in a sort of romanticised mystical gypsy - woman way.
The Man Ray portrait that reminded me of Nancy Cunard. Cunard was also a model for sculptor Constantin Brancusi and photographed by Cecil Beaton
Alas, over time Cunard got shelved somewhere in the recesses of my brain, until she was rediscovered by chance while I was in Boston. A portrait of Cunard, by none other than Man Ray at the Museum of Fine Arts caught my attention. Described as ‘a restless creative soul’, and clocking her heavy adornments, I made a mental note: Must Post.
Cunard is just the sort of early twentieth century upper class intellectual - artsy lady that I’m shamelessly partial to. These heiress women with their glitzy wardrobes, dazzling jewels and armies of talented lovers (cough Ms Peggy Guggenheim) appeal to me endlessly despite the not-so-charming ill effects of such lifestyles.
Chances are, even if you don't know the name, you've seen her picture
Truth be told, other that her desire for bedecked wrists, I didn’t know anything about Cunard. And what a shame this was. Nancy Cunard, as it turns out, was no lady of leisure, lounging about gilded rooms in oriental dressing gowns, but rather a terrifically interesting woman. Indeed, Cunard was an author, publisher and political activist campaigning largely against racism and fascism. Cunard rejected her upper class upbringing (Cunard was a shipping heiress born to a ‘British aristocrat and an American beauty’), and instead embraced an avant garde literary and artistic lifestyle. She hung out with and romanced everyone from Ezra Pound to TS Eliot and Hemingway, and found herself at home amongst the radical thinkers and anti-bourgeois opinions of Dadaist and Surrealist circles.
As a publisher Cunard was the first to separately publish work by Beckett (a poem titled ‘Whoroscope’, 1930) at her publishing house, Hours Press. After falling in love with the African – American jazz musician Henry Crowder, she became heavily involved in racial politics and civil rights in the USA and published a series of pamphlets on racial issues as well as a 900 page African - American anthology (Negro: An Anthology). By the mid 1930s Cunard’s political conscience had moved towards an strongly anti-fascist stance and was gravely concerned with the actions of Mussolini, accurately writing that ‘the events in Spain were a prelude to another war’. Throughout WWII Cunard worked tirelessly as a translator for the French Resistance and continued her humanitarian work. Her relentless campaigning on controversial issues of the day had left her poverty-stricken, and battling mental illness and alcoholism, she died in Paris in 1965.
Without ending on a tragic note, let’s go back to the bangles for a minute. Collected on various trips abroad, Cunard’s bracelets are largely African pieces in striking stacks for extra impact. It’s bold, brave and rebellious just like Cunard herself.