Greta Valentine, who died aged 91, was one of the last survivors of the circle around Aleister Crowley, the black magician and self-styled "wickedest man alive".
Crowley was not the only older man over whom she was to exercise an irresistible fascination. It was as Greta Sequeira that she entered into London life in the 1930s. She soon plunged into the noisy Café Royal set of bohemians, loving the company of artists and the excitement of party-going. At the Cafe Royal, Crowley was known as The Magus. He soon became her close friend and confidant, openly declaring his love for her.
When they met in 1936 she was studying anthroposophy, the mystical teachings of Rudolf Steiner, whose school she attended. Her own interests stopped short of traditional occultism. Nor did she share Crowley's interest in drugs. But she did tease and flirt with him. He was excited by her approaches but found her difficult to handle.
Greta Sequeira was iron-willed, but witty and cultured, and her classic beauty ensured that she commanded attention. She adored fast cars - driving a white Packard convertible - and she courted danger. Aleister Crowley inscribed a book of his poems: "To Greta, whom I love, but I'd love much more if she were not so elusive."
His letters, bearing such sentiments as, "What is life without you, but dust and ashes?" would arrive at her London home in Hyde Park Crescent bearing the purple wax seal of Ankh-af-na-khonsu. (It was at her house that Crowley and Greta Sequeira's friend Frieda Harris developed The Book of Thoth, an essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians published in 1944.)
Crowley found that some of Greta Sequeira's friends were more susceptible than she to the philosophy he preached and the excitement it offered. One of her friends was to bear his child. Such relationships left Greta Sequeira bemused and worried.
In August 1938 Crowley followed her to Cornwall where she had already formed a warm attachment to Lamorna Birch, the landscape painter and senior Academician. His appearance made some impression at the Lobster Pot restaurant in Mousehole. They sat sharing a bottle of chablis at a table by the window. She was then aged 31, dressed in a loose-fitting cotton frock, with her golden hair hanging at shoulder length. Crowley was 63, tweedy, flabby and very bald.
After lunch they walked in the sunshine along the cliff path. "Wooed Greta on the cliffs," Crowley wrote in his diary for that day. "She is a comedian. Will come one day and snatch."
Greta Mary Sequeira was born on June 27 1907, the daughter of an English doctor of Portuguese descent. She was educated in England and on the Continent.
Her family took holidays in Cornwall where her friendship with Lamorna Birch and his wife blossomed. At the time of their first meeting Birch was in his mid sixties, and at the peak of his reputation. But she was in her twenties, and Birch had daughters of her age.
Over the years Lamorna Birch inscribed pictures for her with various sentiments of affection, and wrote her letters in extravagant language. She was Birch's companion in London during the season, accompanying him at studio parties and at the private views of the Royal Academy summer
Birch would send her coded messages in his pictures. Swans in a painting, for example, were a symbol of his love for her. Greta Sequeira described their friendship as "a form of Pre-Raphaelite love, not at all physical but a love energised through our shared joy of art and poetry".
Greta Sequeira's generous instincts were demonstrated just before the Second World War. She drove to Germany and faced considerable danger attempting to help Jewish doctors escape. She continued this self-appointed task right up to eve of war, helping several to a safe refuge in England.
At about this time Birch introduced her to Ranald Valentine. When news spread some time later that they were to marry, Crowley was wounded. "Dear child," he wrote, "I knew you would be up to some mischief the minute my eye was off you. . . . You might have told me. I shouldn't
have taken any actual measures to stop you. And you would certainly have got a No 1 epithalamium. All the same, give me a week or so notice and you shall have an ode for your divorce."
The Valentines had houses in London and Coupar Angus, Tayside. She enjoyed holding parties in London a comfortable distance from "all that ghastly formality in Scotland".
During the private views at Burlington House the Valentines rented suites for entertaining at the Park Lane Hotel. Ranald Valentine ran a company in Dundee making greetings cards and calendars, and he was always on the look-out for painters whose work he could reproduce.
Their parties were a lively mix, and guests included Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, Willard Garfield Weston, the biscuit magnate, Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar, and Enid Blyton.
Lamorna Birch introduced Greta Valentine to George Cross, the property developer known as "Mr Edgware". Cross also owned the Compton Chamberlayne estate near Salisbury, where he entertained Birch and such painters as Harold and Laura Knight.
In her quiet moments Greta Valentine wrote poetry and painted. Encouraged by Birch, a leading fly fisherman of his day, she took up fishing. By 1945 Ranald Valentine had become Birch's patron and his regular fishing companion in Scotland. Birch was given a small studio at the house in Coupar Angus where he gave Greta and Ranald painting lessons.
Greta Valentine aspired to be a portrait painter and her first sitter was Birch himself. "He kept jumping up from his chair to look at the picture, and grumbling a lot," she recalled. "But really his only concern was that I was using the oil paint too thinly." The truth was that Birch disliked having his portrait painted, by anyone.
Greta Valentine believed friendship implied complete commitment on both sides, and this sometimes pushed her relationships to breaking point. At the end of her life she struggled to cope with blindness and physical incapacity but found solace in the friendship of a small circle of
friends who shared her spiritual ideals.
She co-operated enthusiastically in the writing of a biography of Lamorna Birch, A Painter Laureate, by Austin Wormleighton (1995). At that time she was living in a studio on a Sussex farm where she slept in the same room as the cheap plywood coffin she had commissioned for her
Ranald Valentine died in 1956.
Another intersting slant to Gretas Life - her father
(The editor writes)
I met Greta Valentine on several occasions - once in her small studio in Sussex(1996), and later in an old peoples home(rest home 1997). She was almost blind, but lucid and proud. I heard that long ago she had given all her money and property away (3 houses), so now lived in this tiny "studio". I would describe it more as a chalet, like you would find on a 60's holiday camp.
She was happy and friendly, and talked enthusiastically about her life, current affairs, and art. Her coffin doubled as a coffee table, and was filled with books, as was the small attic. She insisted that I take some books, and paintings, I felt quite embarrassed at this generosity. Many painting where scattered about, none signed, but all with there own history, the one I chose (to the left). Painted in 1940, possibly in Latin America.Gretta told me enigmatically that it was of a Polish count. She was particularly proud of the eyes. She insisted I take more, but I refused.
I had the impression she was getting rid of everything, so as not to cause to much inconvenience to the owners of the chalet when she died. I asked her to sign the painting, this she did willingly, with a faint marker pen down the left lapel, only visible in angled light. On the back, in Gretas hand writing it states CIRCA 1940.
I have only recenty discovered the Greta link to the "wickedest man alive" Aleister Crowley, also her many famouse close friends, including Fleming(penicillin), Watt(Radar), and Inid Blyton, to name but a few. Then there is her exploits saving Jewish doctors from the Nazis in pre war Germany.
She also had a close freindship with landscape artist
S. J. Lamorna Birch who encouaged her to paint, and gave her lesson in painting, and fly fishing.
Oil on board -
S. J. Lamorna Birch