This week’s Object has been requested by several colleagues: it’s J.B. Priestley’s shirt! The shirt, which is clean, is folded and wrapped in cellophane (or something similar) marked with the details of the laundry: The Mayfair Laundry, Strafford Road, London W3.
“Realia” (objects, things, belongings of the creators of archives) can help shed light on aspects of their life or works and give an added dimension to those archives. Witness Priestley’s pipes, Jacquetta’s arrowhead or her OBE.
Such objects are also often instantly appealing in a way that documentary evidence may not be. Certainly we have found that the shirt is one of the most popular Objects in Special Collections, the one that many people remember from their visits, perhaps because it is so unexpected (unlike say letters, photographs or other standard archive materials).
The shirt is also a reminder of Priestley’s long connection with London, in particular with the fascinating Albany. This block of apartments (“Sets”), built in the 1770s, is an oasis in the centre of Piccadilly, and has been home to many writers, artists, politicians and other well-known people: Byron, Gladstone, Bruce Chatwin, Georgette Heyer and many more. It is also rich in literary connections, to Dickens, to The Importance of Being Earnest, and as the home of gentleman thief Raffles.
By the Second World War, Priestley and his wife Jane had made their home on the Isle of Wight. But Priestley needed a London base for his broadcasting and theatre work. This had been no. 3 The Grove, Highgate (in another literary link, once Coleridge’s house), but a land mine had made this uninhabitable. Tired of the disruption of moving around hotels and flats in London, Priestley rented flat B4 in Albany in 1943. Later he also took the flat across the landing, B3.
After the war the Priestleys returned to the countryside, to the Isle of Wight, first to Billingham Manor, then to Brook Hill, where JBP made his home with Jacquetta after their respective divorces. He and Jacquetta finally moved to Shakespeare country, Kissing Tree House in Warwickshire. However, the Albany flats continued to be important to the Priestleys for many years, for instance as a venue for committees and campaigns such as the Albany Trust and CND. Pressure of taxes and expenses meant B4 was given up in 1972 and eventually B3 in 1981.
I imagine the shirt’s laundry wrapping must be connected with JBP’s residence at Albany: the address is about seven miles away which doesn’t seem very convenient, but I expect that the firm collected laundry to do for the residents (this is borne out by a letter of 1975 from the management to residents which alludes to a laundry service). With archives, there are always more questions …
Sources: this chapter from the Survey of London offers a detailed guide to Albany, its architecture, history and extraordinary list of residents. Many writers and journalists have written about Albany, see the Wikipedia article for some links. The biographies by Vincent Brome and Judith Cook are vital in understanding dating and other details of JBP’s homes. Legal material, letters, lists of furniture and other material concerning the Priestleys and Albany are in the Priestley Archive, in section 16/3 in particular.