Emmeline 'Nina' Cust: Artist, Poet, Lover
At Belton House in Lincolnshire, the historic seat of the Brownlow and Cust family, are a number of finely carved marble sculptures. They were created by Emmeline 'Nina' Cust (1867-1955).
Nina has long been portrayed as the long-suffering wife of her womanising husband, Henry 'Harry' John Cockayne Cust (1861-1917). It is often said that Harry froze Nina out of his life and the circle of the 'Souls', a small aristocratic coterie of politicians and intellectuals.
But as author and biographer Jane Dismore shows, there was so much more to Nina – and her relationship with Harry – than is often recorded.
A great love
In the church at Belton House, the estate to which he was Earl Brownlow’s heir, lies the exquisite marble effigy of Henry 'Harry' John Cockayne Cust. His widow, Nina, lovingly sculpted it after his death, placing it on a pedestal where she had figuratively put the man with whom she had shared a marriage of sorts for 23 years. A poet too, Nina also immortalised Harry in poignant verse: ‘I who the radiance of your days have seen, Thank God.’
Nina was a writer, editor and accomplished sculptor who twice exhibited at the Royal Academy. Harry was handsome and brilliant: a poet, wit, editor and MP, tipped while still at Eton to be Prime Minister. Together, they were members of the late-19th-century circle known as the Souls. Bound by friendship, intellect and high birth, its members included statesmen, artists and writers, who challenged the conventional attitudes and pursuits of their class.
A family of extraordinary women
Nina was born Emmeline Mary Elizabeth Welby (later Welby-Gregory) in 1867. Her father was Lincolnshire landowner and MP, Sir William Earle Welby-Gregory, whose family had known Harry’s for generations.
Nina’s maternal grandmother was Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, a daughter of the 5th Duke of Rutland. Widowed young, she took her daughter Victoria with her around the world and became an acclaimed traveller. Between 1833 and her death in the desert in Lebanon in 1855, aged 49, she wrote 29 books of poetry, travel and drama.
Victoria was taken under the Duke’s wing and became a Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria. She remains lauded as a theologian, writer and philosopher of language, whose critique of thought and learning, called ‘Significs’, is considered a founding contribution to the science of semiotics.
Nina possessed the formidable talents of both her mother and grandmother but instead of their expansive self-expression, Nina favoured reserve. She was a scholar, editor and translator. Above all Nina excelled as a sculptor, which required quiet observation.
Like a Greek coin
Nina was always happy to observe Harry, to whom she was distantly related and with whom she fell deeply in love. Over six feet tall, Harry had fair hair, an elegant moustache and, as Harry's nephew, Sir Ronald Storrs observed, ‘the profile of a Greek coin’. Nina captured something of this in her marble bust of Harry, modelled when he was a young man.
Harry was constantly chased by women, yet both sexes also valued his friendship. To former Soul Margot Asquith,the political hostess and diarist, he was ‘in some ways the rarest and most brilliant of them all’. George Curzon, Viceroy of India, admired his literary scholarship and quick wit.
Nina knew her path to Harry could never be smooth. Her stillness and quietude set her apart from other members of the Souls. One of those was fellow artist Violet Manners, beautiful and unconventional even by the Souls’ standards. Violet was related to Nina by her marriage to the Marquis of Granby, heir to the 7th Duke of Rutland. In 1890 Harry was elected Conservative MP for Stamford and he and Violet began an affair.
In 1892 Violet bore Harry’s daughter, later Lady Diana Cooper, whom she raised with the Marquis as his own. That year, William Waldorf Astor made Harry the editor of his Pall Mall Gazette. Attracting the best literary talent, Harry made the paper a great success. His relationship with Nina developed, encouraged by Violet, who saw it as providing cover for her and Harry.
A tangled web
Harry had fallen in love, however, with fellow Soul and future author Pamela Wyndham. In August 1893, before taking matters further, Harry finished with Nina. In September he was stunned to be told that she was pregnant. Violet took the matter out of Nina’s hands and consulted statesman Arthur Balfour, the Souls’ leading member. Balfour told Harry that if he did not marry Nina, they would be social outcasts; if he did, Balfour would ensure their marital path was made smoother.
Harry had to give up Pamela, and on 11 October 1893 he and Nina were married quietly at a London registry office. Very soon, however, it became clear that no child would be born. The real situation remains uncertain, although there are several possibilities.
Whatever the truth, Nina insisted to Balfour that it was she who was to blame, seeking to avoid repercussions for Harry’s political career. Harry did not stand again for Stamford and instead was selected as candidate for North Manchester. But repercussions came from an unexpected quarter.
A suffragist heard gossip about Harry’s alleged treatment of Pamela and Nina and began a whispering campaign, seeking his resignation. Balfour told Harry he could sue for libel but advised that it was wiser to resign. Harry did so, thus avoiding embarrassment for the women. Although he was later elected MP for Bermondsey, the political heights he had been expected to reach would remain unscaled.
A modus vivendi
Harry is often accused of abandoning Nina after marriage, which is not the case: sexually he may have done, but socially they were often together. Their friends were drawn from the cream of public and creative life. Intellectually, they were ideally matched. From their first London house, St James’s Lodge, Nina reviewed books for the Pall Mall Gazette during Harry’s editorship. Her first was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, one of many literary giants they knew.
Despite the physical frailty to which Nina was prone, it did not stop her working. In 1897 her sketch of a child’s head was accepted by London’s New Gallery. Her status as artist was acknowledged in Alexander Fisher’s enamel painting of 1898 which is inscribed 'Nina Cust the artist'.
In 1906, Nina's bust of her niece, Joan, was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The next time she would exhibit at the Royal Academy was in 1927, a decade after Harry's death, showing a portion of an original model for the effigy she carved of him.
In addition to her sculpting, Nina worked as a translator and author. In 1909 her book Gentlemen Errant, about the journeys of four noblemen in the Middle Ages, was published to great acclaim. In 1910, she and Harry travelled to Egypt. Soon the ill-health that had long plagued him worsened. Between editing her late mother’s literary papers, which were later published, Nina accompanied him more frequently.
When the Great War began, Harry founded a movement, the Central Committee for National Patriotic Organisations. Nina helped him enlist support from their influential contacts and, as he weakened, she dealt with much of the correspondence. On 2 March 1917 he died at their latest London home, Chancellor's House, aged 55, with Nina by his side.
Nina collaborated on an anthology of Harry’s poems and in 1944 her own collection Not All the Suns was published. Nina remained at Chancellor's House until her death in 1955, drawing comfort from those who had known Harry well, his darkness and his light.
Her own bust stands at Belton, where her ashes are mingled with Harry’s. Her life with him may not have been perfect, but her love for him fuelled her creativity and made her own soul sing.