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Francis John Clarence Westenra Plantagenet ‘Jack’ Hastings, the 16th Earl of Huntingdon, was born on 30 January 1901 to his father, the 15th Earl, and mother, Maud Margaret Wilson. The family traced its aristocratic roots to a Norman noble who took the name Hastings from the battle in which he fought in 1066. An odd tradition in the history of the Earldom was an undocumented claim to the tradition of Robin Hood, after whom various members of the family were commonly named.
He was educated at a prep school and Eton but grew up on the family estate in Ireland and witnessed the Easter Rising, before attending Oxford University, and the Slade School of Art
In 1923, Hastings met Cristina (Cristy) Casati, daughter of Camillo, Marquis Casati Stampa di Soncino, they eloped to Australia, where he worked on a sheep station, and married in 1925. From Australia, they ran away to an artist’s life in the South Seas, settling for two years on Moorea, the island after which they would later name their baby girl, before moving to California.
There, Jack was taken on as an assistant by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist who had just been hired to paint for the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Recent research has uncovered hitherto unknown murals and other works executed by Hastings in both the United States and the UK during the 1930s, several of which have been found to have survived. A fresco for the home of the pulp fiction novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Gouverneur Morris, painted in 1931, is now in the custodianship of the Monterey Museum of Art.
Along with being Hastings's first solo mural commission, this fresco was instrumental in securing Hastings a position as Rivera's paid assistant on Rivera’s Detroit Industry cycle project at the local Institute of the Arts. Hastings had sent photos of the Morris mural to Rivera, whose response is detailed in a letter from fellow assistant Clifford Wight to Hastings's wife Cristina: "Rivera is far more enthusiastic about Jack's fresco than you can possibly imagine ... He simply raved about it to me."
Jack also made himself indispensable to Rivera as an interpreter. As a native Spanish speaker, Rivera preferred French, which Jack was fluent in, to English, whilst Cristina also became friends with Rivera’s extraordinary wife, Frida Kahlo.
Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco is a trompe l’œil depicting the artists and his assistants on a scaffold painting their fresco mural. While Rivera included a portrait of himself in the foreground of the work, the real focus is a gigantic iconic figure representing the entire international working class. Rivera actually painted Hastings (on the left, sculptor Clifford Wight is on the right) as they were painting.
Hastings became absolutely influenced by both Rivera’s artistic style as well as his Communist political views. Soon he started getting commissions of his own and held exhibitions in London, Paris, Chicago and San Francisco.
Sadly, a number of Hastings's works from this period remain lost, including a series of three aluminum panels, The Dental Profession Carries Its Health Lesson to the Far Corners, executed for the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933; a fresco, The History of Bootlegging for a private house in Glencoe, Illinois (it is also said he painted a mural of Al Capone for a bar in Chicago); and a portrait of the adventurer and Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, William Montgomery McGovern.
Like Rivera, Hastings also supplemented his mural work by painting portraits, his most notable subject being his mother-in-law by Cristina, the notorious socialite, the Marchesa Luisa Casati. Painted in London in 1934, Hastings's portrait, once believed lost, is probably the last of a woman who had posed for some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, and Man Ray. Bought first by the Marchesa's friend, Lord Tredegar, the portrait is now in the Fischer Kunsthandel Gallery in Berlin.
Back in England by 1934, Hastings could have joined the Communist Party. So close was he for some years that he seems a serious candidate for inclusion in the Compendium. Though there is some debate about the level of Hastings’ commitment to the Communist Party, general agreement exists that he admitted to being a fellow traveller. That he had deniability over holding a card means there is no clarity on whether Hastings was ever a secret member of the Communist Party or not. In any case, as in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, many socialists were beginning to think there to be no distinction between socialist and communist in the United Front.
The staunchly socialist mural he painted the following year for the relatively new institution of the Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School in Clerkenwell Green, London, well into his Thirties, is not only steadfastly in that tradition it is rather suggestive of more than a misspent youth. This recalled the bold and simplified designs of Rivera, and was unambiguously entitled The Worker of the Future Clearing Away the Chaos of Capitalism. It is said that Arthur Horner arranged for a South Wales miner to travel to London to pose for the main central image. Lost for many decades, it is situated in the first-floor Reading Room, and is now available to view on booked tours.
Another mural in the UK, dating from 1936, has been located in a private house in Berkshire. Welcome to Pearl Binder (the composition bears a striking resemblance to Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait on the Borderline), was painted to commemorate the return of writer and printmaker Pearl Binder (see separate entry) from the USSR. In the same year, he created the image Spanish Militia (below), which was followed by a lucrative commission for frescos for the exterior of Buscot Park’s little theatre for an old school friend. Hastings and his first wife are depicted in one image. The frescoes, now somewhat faded, would have originally recalled a Mexican chapel, with a blazing sun, crescent moon, musical instruments and writing tools on the vault above. Scenes painted on the walls below were framed in a folk-art style decorative pattern.
Jack Hasting’s accomplished art was of the mural form and strongly influenced by Communist advocates of the mural. If he was a cover member, he was by no means alone, for a considerable number of such CP members did exist and they were usually those who felt unable for reasons of business, family, employment, and so on, to allow knowledge of membership to be publicly known. It was standard that they paid their membership dues and made donations to a senior Party member, who discreetly held their card for them. In some cases, even such physical evidence of membership was withheld from the individual in favour of an understanding.
It is certainly the case that a number of aristocrats with the personal possibility of attaining membership of the House of Lords by inheritance were consciously courted by Harry Pollitt, with a view to their eventually taking the Communist whip along with Willie Gallacher (see separate entry). Many Labour Party members who were attracted to the CP were advised to take out dual membership, including many who looked as if they might end up as Labour MPs, including not a few who did.
It is probably always going to be impossible to say what form and for how long Hastings' support for Communism actually took, though he certainly never publicly admitted more than "fellow travelling". He visited Spain twice during the civil war and his biographer, his daughter Selena Hastings, submits the evidence that Jack intellectually broke with Communism after the latter visit whilst staying in a Paris hotel on the way back from Spain, on overhearing through the thin walls a "couple of Comintern agents discussing with callous cynicism how successfully they had manipulated the British delegates". Seemingly, it came as a shock that "Stalin's support for the Republican side, while masquerading as anti-fascism, was driven solely by the desire to promote Soviet interests". (Page 178) It may be relevant that the delegation was meant to be focused on funding for medical aid whilst Jack had piggy-backed on to this an art-related mission. Whatever the full picture might be, clearly, many other factors were at play in Jack’s Damascene re-conversion to social democracy.
His wife, Christina, was certainly Treasurer of the then Party-dominated Marx Memorial Library and Workers' School from its foundation in October 1933, which would not have been the case if the Party had considered her and her husband unsafe. Indeed, she became an open CP member on becoming involved in the Spanish Medical Aid Committee three years later. Jack's mother, in separate highly offensive letters to both her son and to her daughter-in-law, Cristina, excused her son's "insane step" of being involved in Spain as a result of being manipulated by his wife.
A "war" existed between the couple and Jack's parents over the upbringing of their daughter, Moorea, during the course of which he was warned that he could be financially disinherited over politics. Meanwhile, Cristina found herself thrown into close connection with Wogan Phillips (see separate entry), also an aristocrat likely to end up in the House of Lords, on her own visit to Spain. The difference between the two men was certainly that Wogan was open about his Party membership and he did go on to take the Communist whip as a member of the House and remain a life-long Party member.
Finally, Jack had met his future second wife, Margaret Lane, in the summer of 1937 and begun an active love affair. Cristina strongly sought to save her marriage to Jack but, during 1939 Margaret was divorced by her former husband and Jack's father died. Press speculation was made that Hastings, now Earl of Huntingdon would take the Communist whip in the House. In the vent, he did not but his divorce with Cristina did eventually occur, enabling him to marry Margaret and her to marry Wogan Phillips. The one couple were now unambiguously Labour, the other Communist, but it did not seem a sure thing to the press in the locality where Jack lived, evidenced by this from 14 April 1939:
Does the new Earl of Huntingdon (Francis John Clarence Westenra Plantagenet Hastings) become the first Communist member of the House of Lords on the death of his father, which took place last week? That depends on whether he does, in fact, describe himself as a Communist, as I am told is the case. At any rate he studied as an artist under the Mexican Communist painter Rivera, and is responsible for the mural paintings at Marx House, Clerkenwell. It depends also on whether the claim is disputed by Viscount Churchill, who succeeded to his title in 1934. Lord Churchill stands well to the Left politically, but I am not sure whether he can be rightly termed Communist.
But when Hastings succeeded to the earldom as Lord Huntingdon, he took his seat on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Later, the significant financial loss he had occasioned as a result of disinheritance by his father was made good after his mother was herself the beneficiary of an inheritance. No doubt eased by the respectability Jack now conveyed.
The 16th Earl of Huntingdon did not address the House of Lords until October 1941, when he recommended improvements in the wages of agricultural labourers. It looks as if his definite association with the Parliamentary Labour Party dates from that moment. It was a time before the alliance with the USSR, when the Daily Worker was banned, and the CP was opposed to what it viewed as imperialist war. Unquestionably, Jack's break with Communism had now publicly occurred.
The dispute that had resulted in Jack being cut out of his father’s will had been largely over the upbringing of the daughter he had with Christy But they were divorced in 1943 after Cristina left Jack for, and then married, Wogan Phillips, also a Communist of aristocratic background (see separate entry);
Cristina died just ten years after their divorce. Jack was rapidly remarried to Margaret Lane, a writer and critic, with whom he had two daughters, including Selena, his biographer and author of The Red Earl: the Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon (photo credit: mature Hastings).
After the following the 1945 triumph, he served five years as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, a junior minister’s position, but left politics for good. He was appointed a Professor at the Camberwell College of Arts and the Central School of Arts & Crafts, and was Chair of the Society of Mural Painters between 1951 and 1958.
Though, in 1957, Jack was part of a cultural delegation to the Peoples' Republic of China, about which he spoke approvingly in the House, though he drifted decidedly to the centre of politics after his last speech to the Lords in 1972 before he died in 1990.
Lord Huntingdon died in August 1990, aged 89, and was succeeded in the earldom by his first cousin once removed William Edward Robin Hood Hastings-Bass. His wife, Dowager Countess of Huntingdon, died in 1994. Shortly after John Hastings death in 1991, the Marx Memorial Library celebrated the restoration of his most famous mural, believed to be one of only two surviving murals