The fictional Walker children are much-loved key characters in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons – a quintessentially English family in an archetypal English children’s classic.
But it was an Anglo-Armenian family that provided the inspiration for the Walkers, and now a fellow Anglo-Armenian artist has been working on a project at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick to firmly re-establish the connection. Taqui, Susan, Mavis (known to her family as Titty), Roger and Brigit Altounyan lived in Aleppo in Syria. They met Ransome during a summer holiday of sailing, fishing and camping in the Lake District in 1928. Their experiences of learning to sail on Coniston Water inspired the author to write a book for children.
Eldest daughter Taqui recalled how “Uncle Arthur” helped their Northern Irish-Armenian father Ernest buy two dinghies, naming them Swallow and Mavis. Ernest helped to run his family’s renowned hospital in Aleppo, but the children knew the Lake District well, spending summer holidays at the home of their maternal grandfather William G. Collingwood. Leeds-born Ransome was himself a close family friend of the Collingwoods and had visited them in the Lakes from childhood. He learned to sail in their boat – also called Swallow.
Two years after that idyllic summer, the first edition of Swallows and Amazons was published. It bore the dedication: “To the six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers”, referring to a pair of Turkish slippers the Altounyans had given Ransome as a parting gift.
But Ransome went on to distance his characters and the Altounyan children, excising that dedication and emphasising the inspiration of his own childhood visits to Nibthwaite in the Lake District.
Now Cumbrian-based artist Karen Babayan, who herself left Iran as a teenager just before the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, wants to redress the balance.
“Swallows and Amazons is the first of the author’s series on the theme which became masterpieces of childrens’ literature. But what is not widely enough known is the part that Altounyan family played as the catalyst for this series of books which are such an integral part of Lake District mythology.
I want the contribution of the Altounyan family to be more widely acknowledged and celebrated, bringing positive awareness of different cultures in the area,” she said
“In knowing the identity and ethnicity of the children, I believe young British readers of all cultural backgrounds would feel more connected to and excited by the works of Arthur Ransome and the timeless landscape of the Lake District.”
Ms Babayan’s book of short stories which will be launched at Words by the Water, Keswick’s literature festival (Saturday 9 March, 3pm) provided the inspiration for a devised performance by Young Company, Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake youth theatre, to be performed this Sunday 17 February at 4pm.
Directed by Ms Babayan’s daughter, Persia Babayan-Taylor, an actor-musician based in London, the project has also been co-directed by Heidi Stafford with support from Sandra Gattward. Ms Babayan said: “The children were familiar with the classic children’s book by Arthur Ransome but were fascinated to discover the story of the real family of Anglo Armenian children that inspired it. In the course of only six sessions, they have familiarised themselves with Armenian and Syrian foods, learnt Turkish nursery rhymes and explored their own imaginary adventures and islands. We have discussed the war in Syria and what it might feel like to be displaced and have to leave your home to escape war. They have embraced everything we have thrown at them, working imaginatively to produce a performance that I am very proud to have been involved in.”
Babayan continued: “The staff at Theatre by the Lake have been incredibly supportive and helpful I would like to acknowledge the hard work that the team have put into bringing the performance to fruition, which they have done so professionally and passionately.”
The performance will also be filmed and will be part of an exhibition on two floors at Theatre by the Lake (6 March-10 April). The exhibition using film, artists’ books, photography, painting, prints and objects, will explore the Altounyans in the context of Ms Babayan’s own family history. A selection of family portraits by Dora Altounyan will also go on public show for the first time – including an iconic portrait of Titty as a child, which was in Ransome’s possession for many years.