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By Michael Lester

"… the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico, one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the old world gave way to the new."
(Lawrence on arriving in Taos in 1922)

The memorial…..shrine or chapel?

THE last resting place of D H Lawrence, arguably the greatest English author of the twentieth century, is to be found, not in his home country, but in Taos, New Mexico. In 1934, some years after his death in France, on a pine-covered slope in the vast and mountainous Wild West, about twenty miles north of the town of Taos, Frieda Lawrence built what looks like a chapel (indeed it is often referred to as a shrine), and what she called a small "memorial" to DHL, his talent and his work. These days it is referred to as the Lawrence Memorial at the D H Lawrence Ranch.

The building is about 12 feet wide at the front by about 15 feet in depth and its walls stand eight feet high topped with a steeply gabled, shingled roof. Built of local stone and adobe, it stands solid on the hill, completely white-washed and entered through a double wooden door, latched to keep out the wind, dust and leaves.

Frieda had his ashes brought here from Vence, where Lawrence had been buried in the south of France, near Cannes, following his death there from tuberculosis on 2 March 1930. In March 1935 Frieda had his body exhumed and cremated and brought back to the ranch in September of that year, where she had settled with her Italian lover Angelo Ravagli, whom she married in Taos in 1950.

The interior décor of the building is spare but bright, with yellow and white paint on the walls and lit by a small, round window painted with yellow flowers, behind what looks most disconcertingly like a central altar.

Above the altar block, in a niche, is a carved and painted phoenix, DHL's personal symbol, about two feet high. The initials DHL are painted on the front of the altar and embellished with yellow flowers intertwined with green leaves.

There is a stone-and-timber rail and small gate in front of and across the altar which looks as if you might be expected to kneel there….in prayer and communion, but no doubt it is there to keep visitors from touching the 'altarpiece'.

The altar

The widely accepted story these days is that, following arguments with the overbearing host and patron, Mabel Luhan, about whether to scatter his ashes on the plains or retain them in the memorial in an urn, as Frieda wished, Frieda dumped the ashes in a wheelbarrow of wet cement used to make the concrete altarpiece, saying: "Now let's see them steal this!"

Along the inside left wall a small but tall desk or table carries a visitors book in which I duly inscribed my mark and indicated my Australian identity, alongside the other entries and comments. Particularly eye-catching was the entry by a gentleman from Beijing who recorded his mother's great love for Lady Chatterley's Lover. Another visitor prosaically cited his favorite DHL quote: "I do not think you are right (sic!").

The location…in the enchanted land

In the Fall of 1922 Lawrence wrote from Taos (Letters, Aldous Huxley Collection, p542):

"But I do think, still more now I am out here, that we made a mistake forsaking England and moving out to the periphery of life. After all… far as we go, they are only the negation of what we stand for and are; and we're rather like Jonah's running away from the place we belong……"

I tried to imagine what might have brought Lorenzo and his aristocratic Germanic wife, Frieda, to such a remote if beautiful location, such a long way from their European roots, and from his English Midlands birthplace in Eastwood - indeed, how they both ended up interred there; he in the memorial and she in a grave on the left hand side of its entrance on her death in 1956. Frieda bequeathed the property to the University of New Mexico.

Lawrence was invited to Taos by the very persistent, manipulative and by all accounts powerful personality, heiress to a banking fortune and philanthropist, Mabel Dodge Stern Luhan (the names of her three successive husbands). Interested in promoting the location as a centre for arts and literature, she thought Lawrence the ideal writer to capture the wonders and colours of this high-desert landscape and its Indian cultural heritage. Her idiosyncratic memoir "Lorenzo in Taos" (1932) gives her side of the relationship and tensions that developed between them.

He and Frieda arrived in Taos on 11 September 1922, his 37th birthday, having come from Australia and via San Francisco. "It was in Taos that he was to write the final chapter of Kangaroo, crammed with nostalgia for a land he had forced himself to leave. But he was prepared to accept Taos..." (Anthony Burgess, Flame into Being, page 148). He also worked there on his other Australian novel The Boy in the Bush.

But the perpipatetic writer continued his ceaseless travels. Subsequently, on his return to Taos in April 1924 (via Mexico and London), Mabel Luhan gifted Frieda the 160 acres that came to be known as Kiowa Ranch. In return, Frieda gave her the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers. It was to be the only property Lawrence ever owned.

It is a 6-mile drive up the dirt track ascending from the Taos main road to the isolated Kiowa Ranch property where, on and off, the Lawrences spent a total of nine months over three years, between September 1922 and September 1925. The ranch is well sign-posted off the highway by the University of New Mexico, which continues as the custodian of the property.

Not without reason is New Mexico known as the 'enchanted land' and the drive through the mountains known as the 'enchanted circle' passes the Kiowa Ranch. The Rocky Mountains are a towering presence over the sage-covered desert plains. On the late April day in 2010 that we visited it was sunny with blue sky, but bitterly cold for early spring, at only 30 degrees F. Snow still lay in patchy drifts a couple of feet deep, but the steep path from the parking area to the shrine had been cleared. The distant views from this elevation of 8,600 feet are breathtaking.

There was no sign of a caretaker, and the little office was locked so, helping d ourselves to a small photocopied leaflet, we headed up the track to the memorial. It was refreshing to find the site open and free of charge, and the absence of any other vistors brought home the isolated, wild and natural beauty of the area. In the way that Lawrence must have experienced it.

The cabin

The original homesteader's cabin where DHL and Frieda lived sits down the slope from the memorial about 100 metres distant. Extremely small and basic, it is reminiscent of such early settlers' cottages found in the Australian bush. Sadly, it was locked…..and no information about when it might be made open for visits.

It is a crudely-built four rooms cut into a small bench in the small hill. Framed and clad with adobe plaster and timber, it has a single gabled roof of unpainted corrugated iron. There are two doors and two small windows at the front, the main door leading to the kitchen and living room covered by a small entry porch.

The cabin has been variously 'improved' since Lawrence's time, when it had dirt floors, no ceilings, and a very crude kitchen arrangement. On the front wall hangs a roughly fashioned, battered and weathered tin plate depiction of a phoenix, whether from his time there or not it is not clear. Similarly, in the small porch at the front door rests a picturesque, if dilapidated and old-looking wood and wicker chair, in which it is easy to imagine Lorenzo having a snooze.

Whilst the place appears weather-proof and reasonably well-maintained, the land around it looks unkempt and littered with farm debris of fallen trees and their limbs, tumbling fences, and assorted bits of equipment and machinery.

Peering into the front windows of the hut I could make out essentially bare rooms with a fireplace and mantle in the living room and a small desk at the window with a typewriter on it, perhaps used by DHL. I could see only a single bed in the small bedroom, and a simple wooden table in the kitchen area.

Just next to the house stands a very tall and mature pine tree which according to an information marker there is known as The Lawrence Tree, and under which sat in the mornings, writing at a table, of which he said: "The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unmoved and alive… goes out of the door and the tree-trunk is there, like a guardian angel…the tree-trunk, the long work table and the fence".

During his time there he also wrote "The Lady Who Rode Away" (1925), with Mabel featuring as the American heroine, and the novella St Mawr, in which he wrote about the country around the ranch:

"The desert swept its great fawn-coloured circle around, away beyond and below like a beach, with a long mountainside of pure blue shadow closing in the near corner, and strange bluish hummocks of mountains rising like wet rock from a vast strand, away in the middle distance, and beyond, in the farthest distance, pale blue crests of mountains looking over the horizon from the west, as if peering in from another world altogether".

The celebrated Taos painter Georgia O'Keeffe, although a contemporary of Lawrence, never met him and only visited the hut in May 1929, five years after he last left. She painted the tree from a perspective looking directly up its trunk to its crown and titled the painting 'The Lawrence Tree'. Her wonderfully evocative, sinuous and pastel-coloured paintings of the New Mexico landscape are well worth seeing at the museum dedicated to her work in Santa Fe.

Adjacent buildings….and Rananim

Close by and to the rear of the Lawrence house, at a distance of only ten metres or so, stand a one-room cabin and a small shed or barn. The shack was lived in by the Lady Dorothy Brett, a painter, at the tail-end of the time that Lawrence and Frieda were there. She reportedly assisted him by typing his manuscripts .



Lawrence shrine



The interior



The walls are yellow and lit by a small round window painted with yellow flowers



He referred to her as the Hon. Dorothy Brett. She was the only one of his circle of friends who took up his invitation to join him on the ranch in New Mexico to realize his utopian dream of his "Rananim" artistic community.

Unfortunately, intruding upon the setting and privacy of the hut, there also stands within about twenty metres of the Lawrence house, and on the downhill side, a much more substantial house. It was built by Frieda and her Italian lover in 1935 when she returned to live there. It appears inaccessible to the visitor although inhabited, perhaps by the university caretaker of the property.

The "Forbidden" Paintings

Heading back for Santa Fe after visiting the DHL ranch we stopped in the early evening light in the lovely small square in Taos, formed by a colorful collection of adobe built and timber verandah fronted arts, crafts and gift shops.


Taos town square

Passing by the largest building, a two storey hotel called the Hotel la Fonda de Taos, we were surprised by a sign inviting the visitor to view a collection of paintings within by….D.H. Lawrence! We could not resist.


For the modest fee of $3 each we were ushered by our host Anne into a large back dining room hung with a few portraits. With great ceremony she drew aside a very large curtain to reveal a small collection of Lawrence paintings. In a highly informed, enthusiastic and engaging manner she proceeded to tell the story of how these nine paintings had found their home in this Taos hotel .

They were nine of thirteen oil paintings which were deemed obscene and banned by court decision in London in August 1929 following the court ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover the previous year. Lawrence, living in Italy at the time, agreed to remove them from England, never to be returned . The ruling holds to this day, despite apparent interest in recent years by British museums in having them returned to England.

Considered in their day to be sexually explicit, the naked portrayals can only be considered unexceptionable, to say the least, by today's standards. Their often self-explanatory titles are:

" "Fight with an Amazon" (1926) illustrates a man being ensnared by a woman;
" "The holy family" (1926) depicts a man about to kiss a semi nude woman, watched by a small child;
" "Flight back into paradise" (1927);
" "Red willow trees" (1927)
" "Fawns and nymphs" (1927);
" "The rape of the Sabine women" (1928);
" "Close up" (1928), known also as "The kiss", parodies Hollywood sex sirens;
" "Dance sketch" (1928);
" "Summer dawn" (1929);

The paintings are discussed in the book D H Lawrence Paintings, Chaucer Press, 2003. They range in size from small (two feet by one foot) to medium (four feet by three feet) in size. Colourful, almost impressionistic in style and somewhat amateurish, they seem to owe little, if anything to his time in New Mexico. Although, Ann speculates that "Red willow trees" (1927), loosely reminiscent of Degas' Bathers by the stream motif, may reflect the red willow foliage native to the area. Anthony Burgess described Lawrence's paintings as "neo-pagan fleshly pictures" (Flame into Being, p164)

Notwithstanding his lifelong interest in art, Lawrence came late to his painting, his first serious piece being painted in Italy in 1926, well after his time in Taos. Of painting he is quoted as saying, "….it gave me a form of pleasure that words can never give…."

The memorabilia and valuing the writer

The day after visiting Kiowa Ranch, we unexpectedly came across a small collection of the original official French and American documentation authorizing the removal of DHL's remains from France and their entry for interment in New Mexico at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.

Official documents

Also displayed are his satchel and a number of other papers . These papers, which include letters, receipts, business cards, and several cheque books, were retrieved mainly from the satchel or small leather grip, and wallet owned by Lawrence at the time of his death.

Lawrence's satchel

In his book about England, Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson observes (page160) how rich is the English countryside in places of historic and cultural significance and yet how lightly the English wear and seem to value this heritage.

Unexpectedly coming across the untended grave of Eric Arthur Blair in a small village graveyard, he was astonished to find it not even mentioned the name Orwell, no mention of his literary stature, and no epitaph. It was alongside a similarly anodyne and neglected tombstone inscribed to H H Asquith, Prime Minster of England (sic).

What a contrast to visit the remote resting place of DHL in New Mexico and to find it appreciated and cared for by the University of New Mexico, with signage to mark its location, useful and interesting information plaques and pamphlets to inform you of its significance, and listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Lawrence is clearly valued and celebrated in New Mexico. The Ranch and his paintings are also listed on the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties and his memorabilia in the Santa Fe museum are prominently displayed in a museum otherwise brimming with artifacts from that State's long and interesting history.

In the words of Anthony Burgess,
"Neither Eastwood nor Westminster Abbey has questioned the propriety of the most English of our writers being interred in American soil. Exile was a kind of affront to England in his life; its perpetuation in death remains a reproach."

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