Betjeman, John, 1906-1984

Alternative names
Birth 1906-08-28
Death 1984-05-19

Biographical notes:

John Betjeman was a poet, journalist, free-lance writer, architectural commentator, broadcaster, and television personality who was popular in England in the 1960s and 1970s and was active in the campaigning for the preservation of churches, buildings and landscape. He was knighted in 1969 and became poet laureate in 1972. During his time at Oxford University, Betjeman's active social life included writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Bryan Guiness, Graham Greene, and W.H. Auden. He married Penelope Chetwood in 1933; and travelled extensively in Europe, North America and the Middle East between 1948 and 1975 giving lectures, slide shows and readings. He was an officer and patron of more than 40 organizations, including Royal Commissions of Fine Art and of Historic Monuments. With all his public exposure, he became Britain's most popular poet by 1962, when his "Collected Poems" sold more than 100,000 copies. His poetry publisher throughout most of his career was John Murray.

From the description of John Betjeman fonds. [1913-1986]. (University of Victoria Libraries). WorldCat record id: 646006355

British poet and author; Poet Laureate, 1972-1984.

From the description of Letters to Morchard Bishop, 1935-1983. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 122443347

From the description of Papers of Sir John Betjeman, 1933-1959. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 228721120

Poet, writer, and broadcaster.

From the description of John Betjeman letters, 1949, undated. (Boston College). WorldCat record id: 68726473

English poet.

From the description of Autograph letters signed (4) : London and Wantage, to Siegfried Sassoon, 1952 Mar. 17, 1952 Apr. 19, 1955 May 6, and 1966 June 17. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270870322

John Betjeman was an English poet and author. Betjeman was educated at Oxford, although he did not take a degree, and was recognized chiefly as an authority on British architecture before the astonishing success of the publication of his Collected Poems. With this best-selling collection, he proved to be the rare poet who earned both critical acclaim and a genuine popular following. His verse tends to be light, humorous, and nostalgic, with a gentle disdain for the materialism of contemporary life and a yearning for England's past, written in traditional style. He also wrote prose works about architecture, a topical weekly column, literary criticism, and a verse autobiography. He was named Poet Laureate in 1972.

From the description of John Betjeman letters to Professor Bickersteth and essay, 1948-1966. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 59716581

Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), the poet laureate, writer on architecture, and broadcaster. For fuller details of his life and achievements see the Dictionary of National Biography.

From the guide to the Autograph manuscripts of poems by John Betjeman, together with a typed letter from his secretary, ca. 1966, (Leeds University Library)

John Betjeman (1906-1984), British poet, writer, and broadcaster.

Penelope Chetwode (1910-1986), author.

Duncan Andrews, collector. Duncan Andrews, of New York, began collecting Betjeman material during the 1950s, and shortly thereafter developed a relationship with both Betjeman and Chetwode.

From the description of John Betjeman collection, 1908-2002 (bulk 1936-1984). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702153050

Epithet: poet

Title: Knight

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000265.0x0001a4

John Betjeman was a British poet, writer, and broadcaster. Poet laureate between 1972 and his death in 1984, Betjeman became a household name through his accessible poetry and appearances on radio and television.

Born in north London to Ernest Edward Betjeman and Mabel Bessie Dawson, Betjeman attended Byron House Montessori School and Highgate junior school (where he was taught by T.S. Eliot) before enrolling in Dragon School and Marlborough College, Oxford, in 1917. Betjeman then attended Magdalen College, University of Oxford (1925-1928), where he was tutored by C.S. Lewis and joined a cohort of other creative-minded students consisting of Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Lancaster, W.H. Auden, Tom Driberg, Edward James, and George Alfred Kolkhorst. Betjeman left Oxford without obtaining a degree, under the pretence of having failed divinity; he rejected joining his father’s furniture manufacturing business, and instead dabbled in a series of positions ranging from insurance broker to cricket instructor and English teacher.

In the 1930s Betjeman's writing career began in earnest, as demonstrated by the publication of his first books, Mount Zion (1931), Ghastly Good Taste (1933), and Continual Dew (1937), and his employment as the assistant editor of Architectural Review (1930-33) and film critic for the Evening Standard (1933-34). Betjeman also wrote and edited a series of guides on British counties for Shell during the mid-1930s. This period was also eventful in Betjeman’s personal life, marking his marriage to Penelope Valentine Hester Chetwode (1910-1986) in 1933, their move to Garrard's Farm, Uffington, Berkshire and the birth of their first child, Paul, in 1937. That same year Betjeman became a member of the Church of England, after a period of experimenting with different faiths.

With the outbreak of the Second World War Betjeman unsuccessfully tried to join the Royal Air Force, and instead served as a press attaché for the United Kingdom in Dublin, Ireland from 1941 to 1942. He then returned to England where he worked for the British Admiralty (1944) and the British Council's Books Department (1944-1946). Betjeman continued to publish during this period, including Old Lights for New Chancels (1940) and New Bats in Old Belfries (1945).

Upon returning to England, Betjeman and his family, which now included their daughter Candida (born in 1942), moved to Farnborough and then to Wantage where Chetwode opened a teashop called King Alfred's Kitchen. Chetwode's conversion to Roman Catholicism and Betjeman's relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish caused a rupture in the couple's marriage. And while Betjeman and Chetwode stayed married and deeply connected throughout their lives, they agreed to separate.

Betjeman's publications during the 1950s, such as A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and Collected Poems (1958), reflect his exploration of themes touched on in his earlier works: an interest in Victorian and provincial architecture, a nostalgia for the past, and religiosity, among others. Collected Poems was popular with critics and the public alike, and helped establish Betjeman's reputation, which was further cemented with Summoned by Bells (1960), an autobiographical account of his early student life and teaching days. While perhaps not as widely read as these works, Betjeman's later writings, such as High and Low (1966), A Nip in the Air (1974), and Collected Poems (1979) were met with pleasure by an audience already devoted to his poetry.

During this period Betjeman received several awards, including the Foyle Poetry Prize (1955 and 1959), the Russell Loins Memorial Fund (1956), Duff Cooper Prize (1959), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1960). Betjeman was also declared Commander, Order of the British Empire (1960) and knighted (1969).

By this time Betjeman was also a beloved radio and television personality. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1972 was much celebrated. While not all of Betjeman's poems written in this capacity were well received, as demonstrated in the criticisms of his hymn for Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, by this point Betjeman had reached celebrity status and was a figure of intense interest and scrutiny.

During the mid-seventies Betjeman was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. However, he continued to write, publish, and appear on television. One of the last poetry compilations that he published in his lifetime includes Uncollected Poems (1982), which brings together a collection of poems omitted from earlier publications. In addition to his regular programs on radio and television, Betjeman also created a number of television documentaries in the mid- to late-seventies: Metro-Land (1973), A Passion for Churches (1974), Vicar of This Parish (1976), and Betjeman’s Dublin (1979).

After a series of strokes and further deterioration due to Parkinson’s, Betjeman died on May 19, 1984.

Penelope Chetwode published Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia (1963) and Kulu: The End of the Habitable World (1972), as well as a series of articles. She was born in 1910 to Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode (first Baron Chetwode) and Lady Alice Hester Camilla Chetwode (née Cotton). Having lived in India while her father served there as Commander-in-Chief, she maintained a lifelong interest in Indian culture and architecture. In fact, Chetwode initially met Betjeman when she submitted an article on the archaeological site Ellora (Maharashtra, India) to Architectural Review at the recommendation of Robert Byron. Throughout her life, Chetwode researched and wrote about Indian architecture and traveled there frequently (often leading tours). She died in the Himalayas in 1986.

From the guide to the John Betjeman collection, 1908-2002, 1936-1984, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)


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