John Gawsworth : King of Redonda

Roger Dobson

Of all the bohemians who have dwelt in Notting Hill over the years none was more quixotically colourful than John Gawsworth, the bacchanalian King Juan I of Redonda. Gawsworth inherited the fantasy kingdom from the writer Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-19479, who emigrated to Britain in 1885 from the Leeward Islands where he had been crowned King Felipe of Redonda, a mile-long volcanic rock, on his fifteenth birthday. Shiel had an erratically successful writing career, becoming friendly with Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, Ernest Dowson and other literati of the day, and lived for a time in St Charles Square, off Ladbroke Grove.

King Juan, who possessed Irish, Scottish and French blood, was born Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong at 97 Gunterstone Road, Kensington, on 29 June 1912. Educated at Merchant Taylor’s School, and living with his mother at Colville Gardens W11, and then at 40 Royal Crescent, Holland Park, Fytton Armstrong became a fanatical collector of literary memorabilia: autographs, letters, manuscripts, jottings and signed editions. After leaving school the "Book Boy", as he was called, rented a basement room at 17 Sunderland Terrace W2 and embarked on a bohemian lifestyle as a scholar-poet. He worked at a Soho bookshop, then for the publisher Ernest Benn, and by his early twenties had published several pamphlets of poetry, compiled bibliographies of writers he admired, written a biography of Machen and edited a series of anthologies of horror and mystery fiction. He adopted John Gawsworth as a romantic pen name in honour of his descent from the Fitton family of Gawsworth Old Hall in Cheshire. (Mary Fitton is reputedly the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets).

In 1931 the 19-year-old Gawsworth, working as a clerk for a Fleet Street publisher, had written to Shiel, then in his mid-sixties, and became his foremost champion; he helped him gain a civil list pension and lobbied publishers about his books. Although Shiel reigned as King Felipe for 67 years, he regarded Redonda as a largely private concern: but the shrewd, promotionally-minded Gawsworth, appointed the realm’s Poet Laureate, soon assumed the role of eminence grise. In 1936, at Shiel’s cottage near Horsham, Sussex, Felipe and Gawsworth cut their right wrists with a penknife and mingled blood. Through this rite, witnessed by the writer Edgar Jepson, Gawsworth became Shiel’s heir apparent. When Shiel died on 17 February 1947, Gawsworth acceded to the throne as Juan I, arranged his own coronation and began a mercurial reign, holding his "Court-in-Exile" in the taverns and bars of Soho and Fitzrovia. Later the Alma pub, at 175 Westbourne Grove W 11, became Redonda HQ.

During Shiel’s reign several writers, including Jepson, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, had been ennobled, with Gawsworth acting as Regent. As King Juan he extended the practice, creating an Intellectual Aristocracy to perpetuate his predecessor’s memory, issuing royal documents on antique Venetian paper. Arthur Machen, Rebecca West, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Arthur Ransome, Victor Gollancz and many other authors were awarded dukedoms or knighthoods in recognition of their services to Shiel or the realm.

In 1938 this slim, fox-faced, red-haired prodigy with his bent boxer’s nose became the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lived comfortably in a flat at 33 Great James Street, Bloomsbury, with his first wife, Daily Mail journalist Barbara Kentish, and mixed with writers such as TE Lawrence, Edith Sitwell and Dorothy L Sayers. Lawrence Durrell, four months his senior, was immediately attracted by Gawsworth’s professional manner when they met in 1932. The obliging Gawsworth helped Durrell get his early poems into print. Paying tribute years later, Durrell wrote: "I was a complete literary novice and a provincial and the meeting was an important one for me, for in John I found someone who burned with a hard gem-like flame — the very thing I wished to do myself… "

Founding two literary magazines and helping neglected writers who fell on hard times, Gawsworth, afflicted by "dipsobibliomania", became one of the capital’s great characters. Known as "the last of the Jacobites", he was an ardent Irish Republican and, after serving in India during the war, an Indian Nationalist who convert to Hinduism. The poet John Heath-Stubbs, appointed a Redondan duke in 1949, wrote: "It was said that there was a superstition in Fleet Street that if you met Gawsworth twice in one morning you would die within the year and he would be your literary executor."

Gawsworth’s solid neo-Georgian verse, continuing the romantic lyric tradition of Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, was the antithesis of the stark, socialistic modernism of the 1930s. Although anachronistic, his prolific output was admired in its day, but after his wartime service in the Royal Air Force he failed to fulfil the promise of his precious youth. Although his Collected poems appeared in 1949, and he was a catholic and able editor of the Poetry Review from 1948 to 1952, his subsequent career was marred by a prolonged descent into alcoholism. By the 1960s, when he was living at 35 Sutherland Place, Notting Hill, he was headed downhill: his publications had diminished to a trickle of ephemera commemorating his dead mentors. The "Inveterate old diabetic bookman, slipper-padding around my shelves and files", as he described himself, lived off the sales of manuscripts and books, and a good deal of the proceeds went on drink.

When feeling low, Gawsworth would visit the church of St Mary of the Angels opposite his home, and kiss the foot of the statue of St Joan: both he and Joan, he said, had been victims of English persecution. In 1968, after accepting a sum of money to leave Sutherland Place, Gawsworth effectively made himself homeless and was thrown on the charity of friends and his consort, Eleanor Brill of Peel Street W 8, referred to as "Queen SJ" — sub judice since the King never got around to marrying her.

Early in 1970, after an appeal was launched for the indigent poet, the BBC made a documentary about him for Late Night Line-Up. The portly, cane-wielding Gawsworth is shown visiting old literary friends and promenading the streets of Soho and Bloomsbury with great dignity. Near the end of the film, when he greets Durrell in a London pub, he is cheerfully drunk.

The same year, having managed to lay his hands on the collected funds of fourteen hundred pounds, Gawsworth enjoyed a binge at the Alma which lasted several days, followed by a sojourn near Florence, where he fell in love and ended up in hospital with haemorrhaging stomach ulcers. The years of riotous living took their inevitable toll and Gawsworth died three months after returning to Britain, at the Brompton hospital on 23 September 1970. He was 58.

The Realm of Redonda was thrown into confusion at his death. In 1958 he had put the realm on the market, advertising it in The Times at a price of one thousand guineas. An avalanche of letters and telegrams poured in from around the world, and a member of the Swedish royal family sent fifty pounds as a deposit; but, feeling he was "vulgarising a noble kingdom", Gawsworth withdrew the offer. In 1960 Gawsworth is believed to have passed on the kingship to Dominic Behan, brother of Brendan, but the Irish playwright was just one of a number of candidates selected as his heir.

Most Redondan scholars acknowledged the Sussex-based publisher and writer Jon Wynne-Tyson (King Juan II), the literary executor of Shiel and Gawsworth, as the most fitting successor. With some of his courtiers, including Shiel’s bibliographer A Reynolds Morse, Juan II landed on Redonda on Good Friday in 1979 and they made the perilous ascent of its 971-foot peak.. In 1997, at the age of 73, Mr Wynne-Tyson abdicated in favour of the eminent Spanish novelist Javier Marías. Among the distinguished writers and artists honoured by Señor Marías, known as King Xavier, are Francis Ford Coppola, appointed the Duke of Megalopolis, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, the Duke of Trémula, AS Byatt, the Duchess of Morpho Eugenia, William Boyd, the Duke of Brazzaville, Cuban writer G Cabrera Infante, the Duke of Tigres and German novelist WG Sebald, the Duke of Vertigo. In addition, Señor Marías has founded an imprint to celebrate writers associated with the kingdom. Shiel and Gawsworth have gone, but the Realm of Redonda seems imperishable.


Roger Dobson is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Oxford. He helps run the Redondan Cultural Foundation, which publishes material on MP Shiel, John Gawsworth and the peers of the realm. He also writes the film-news column for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society. Here Dobson tells of the eccentric life of John Gawsworth, one-time Notting Hill resident, and ruler of the world’s most literary kingdom.


Published in May 2001 by Portobello Publishing,

In association with Pallas Athene

13 Blenheim Crescent, London W 11 2 EE

© 2001 Portobello Publishing Ltd