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Marsh, Sir Edward Howardlocked

  • C. V. Hassall
  • , revised by Mark Pottle

Marsh, Sir Edward Howard (1872–1953), civil servant and patron of the arts, was born in London on 18 November 1872, the second child and only son of Frederick Howard Marsh (1839–1915), and his first wife, Jane, daughter of Spencer Perceval, Irvingite angel to Italy and eldest son of Spencer Perceval, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1812 in the lobby of the House of Commons. Jane Perceval had become a nurse and had founded in Queen Street the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease where she had met her husband, a surgeon who later became professor of surgery at Cambridge and (1907–15) master of Downing College. Their elder daughter died in infancy; the younger married Sir Frederick Maurice. Marsh was educated at Westminster School and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained first classes in both parts of the classical tripos (1893–5), and in the latter year was awarded the senior chancellor's medal. At Cambridge his view of life was influenced by his close friendship with his fellow Apostles G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, while through Maurice Baring he was brought to the notice of Edmund Gosse, who admitted him to his literary circle in London. His association with Oswald Sickert, editor of the short-lived Cambridge Observer, gave him the opportunity for his first essays in criticism, and through his ardent championship of Ibsen, whose work was then making its first appearance on the English stage, Marsh attracted considerable attention before ever he was launched upon a professional career.

In 1896 Marsh was appointed a junior clerk in the Australian department of the Colonial Office, where he served as assistant private secretary to Joseph Chamberlain and subsequently Alfred Lyttelton. By December 1905 he had become a first-class clerk and was at work in the west African department when Winston Churchill became parliamentary under-secretary for the colonies and invited Marsh to become his private secretary. For the next twenty-three years Marsh was at Churchill's right hand whenever he was in office. He toured British East Africa, Uganda, and Egypt with him in 1907–8, and served with him successively at the Board of Trade (1908–10), the Home Office (1910–11), the Admiralty (1911–15), and, from May to November 1915, the duchy of Lancaster. After Churchill resigned this office and left on active service in the army Marsh became an assistant private secretary to the prime minister, his especial responsibility being the civil-list pensions, in which capacity he was able to be of assistance to James Joyce and others. After Asquith's fall in December 1916 Marsh was virtually unemployed until Churchill was appointed minister of munitions (July 1917) and subsequently (1919–21) secretary of state for war. Marsh went with him in 1921 to the Colonial Office, where he remained until 1924, serving as private secretary to the duke of Devonshire and later J. H. Thomas. He then served for the last time under Churchill, at the Treasury (1924–9). When Labour came into power in 1929 he returned to J. H. Thomas, moving with him to the Dominions Office in 1930. There he remained until his retirement in February 1937, serving from November 1935 as secretary to Malcolm MacDonald.

Although Marsh enjoyed a distinguished career as a civil servant, he never attained the highest eminence and he is to be remembered, in Churchill's words, as 'a deeply instructed champion of the arts' (The Times). It was in 1896, after meeting Neville Lytton, then an art student in Paris, that Marsh began to cultivate the eye of an art connoisseur and started collecting pictures. With Lytton's guidance he specialized at first in the English watercolourists, in particular Thomas Girtin, Paul Sandby, John Sell Cotman, and Alexander and John Robert Cozens. In 1904, through the good offices of Robert Ross, he acquired the Horne collection of drawings, so that almost overnight he became one of the most important private collectors in the country. The turning point came in December 1911, when his purchase of a painting by Duncan Grant, contrary to Lytton's advice, led him to launch out on his own as a patron of contemporary British painting, and he gathered around him several of the young men from the Slade School of Fine Art, chief among them John Currie and Mark Gertler. Turning his back on the past, he also took under his wing the brothers John and Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, and by 1914 had brought together the nucleus of what became one of the most valuable collections of modern work in private hands. It covered every inch of the wall space in his apartments at 5 Raymond Buildings, Gray's Inn, London.

Meanwhile Marsh had been no less active in the field of literature, and his apartments had become the rendezvous of poets as well as painters and, from 1913, a virtual second home for Rupert Brooke. Early in 1912 his critical appreciation of Brooke's poems in the Poetry Review brought him the acquaintance of Harold Monro; a casual remark of Brooke's led to the scheme of an anthology of modern verse which Marsh undertook to edit, under the title Georgian Poetry, with Monro's Poetry Bookshop as the publishing house. The anthology appeared in December 1912 and eventually developed into a series of five volumes published over a period of ten years. During those years Marsh introduced to the general reader almost three generations of poets. Among the original ‘Georgians’ were Brooke, J. E. Flecker, Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, W. H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, and D. H. Lawrence. In 1917 a new group appeared, characterized by the powerful ‘realistic’ war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Nichols, and Robert Graves. The fourth volume (1919) revealed a certain limitation of theme and a pervading mannerism of style, and although the fifth volume of the series (1922) introduced Edmund Blunden, yet another new poet of high promise, it was clear that the movement had played itself out, yielding place to a less traditional conception of poetry derived from the pre-war work of T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound.

By instituting a royalty system instead of outright payment Marsh, with characteristic generosity, was able to make the anthologies of considerable benefit to his contributors over the years. And through undertaking to do the accounting himself he not only kept himself in regular touch with his poetical ‘family’ but was often able to supplement their portion with a small gift wherever there was hardship. For this Marsh used what he called his ‘murder money’, a source of income which he had inherited on the death of an uncle in 1903, being one-sixth of what remained of the compensation granted to the Perceval family in 1812. This fund, now reserved for the patronage of the arts, was augmented by the royalties from Marsh's memoir of Rupert Brooke, a biographical essay attached as introduction to the Collected Poems which he edited and brought out in 1918. Marsh was deeply affected by Brooke's death and from 1915 until 1934 he was indefatigable as literary executor, editing Brooke's posthumous prose and verse, thereby laying the basis of Brooke's reputation. His difficulties in completing this work were greatly increased by the objections raised against it by Brooke's grief-stricken mother.

By the end of the Georgian enterprise a new interest had entered Marsh's life when he began translating the Fables of La Fontaine. These came out in two small volumes, followed by a complete edition in two volumes in 1931. Thereafter he published translations from French and Latin, notably the Odes of Horace (1941), and in 1939 'an urbane, almost too urbane' book of reminiscences entitled A Number of People (The Times). In 1952 his translation of the Fables was reissued in Everyman's Library. He also corrected proofs for other authors, notably Winston Churchill, a form of scholarly hobby that he undertook with painstaking attention to detail.

On his retirement from the civil service in 1937 Marsh was appointed KCVO. He was also made a trustee of the Tate Gallery and a governor of the Old Vic, having for several years served on the committee of the Contemporary Art Society (of which he was chairman, 1936–52) and the council of the Royal Society of Literature. His taste in contemporary painting advanced with the times with easier adaptability than his appreciation of verse, yet he remained loyal to the principles of representational art as against the various abstract manifestations which won favour in his time. His finely balanced aesthetic sensibility was everywhere evident, except at the theatre where, by his own admission, he enjoyed the play like a child, and showed it. Through his friendship with Ivor Novello he developed an ardent enthusiasm for first nights. But, as Violet Bonham Carter later recalled: 'The one theatre which failed to focus his attention was “World Theatre”. The sweep and crash of world events left him unmoved, uninterested and almost unaware' (Hassall and Mathews, 49).

Marsh died on 13 January 1953 in the Knightsbridge flat, 86 Walton Street, London, that had been his post-war home. He was unmarried. He was mourned in a leading article in The Times as possibly 'the last individual patron of the arts' and later that year the Contemporary Art Society published a literary tribute, Sketches for a Composite Literary Portrait, with contributions from many distinguished figures. Max Beerbohm, who recalled never hearing his friend called Edward Marsh, only ever Eddie, described 'his tufted eyebrows and his monocle, and his sharply chiselled features, and his laconic mode of speech' (Hassall and Mathews, 51). Marsh's somewhat stiff demeanour could indeed be forbidding to a stranger, and if he was always anxious to please in conversation, his favourite pastime, he could nevertheless be ruthlessly uncompromising whenever one of his cherished principles of scholarship was at stake. But his 'great kindness of heart … somehow shone through the rather frigid surface of his social form', while the genuineness of his love of art, and the quality of his judgement, meant that he was respected by generations of poets and painters who otherwise 'might have dismissed him as a back number' (The Times).


  • The Times (14 Jan 1953)
  • C. Hassall, Edward Marsh: a biography (1959)
  • C. Hassall and D. Mathews, eds., Sketches for a composite literary portrait (1953)
  • E. Marsh, A number of people: a book of reminiscences (1939)
  • TLS (25 March 1939)
  • personal knowledge (1971)
  • C. Hassall, ed., Ambrosia and small beer: the record of a correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall (1964)


  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55045
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to R. W. Chapman
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir George Rostrevor Hamilton
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Winston Churchill and related papers [copies]
  • CUL, letters to G. E. Moore
  • Durham RO, letters to Lord Londonderry
  • Harvard University, near Florence, Italy, Center for Italian and Renaissance Studies, letters to B. Berenson
  • King's AC Cam., corresp. and papers relating to trusteeship of Rupert Brooke's estate
  • King's AC Cam., letters to John Hayward
  • LUL, corresp. with T. S. Moore
  • Royal Society of Literature, London, letters to Royal Society of Literature
  • Tate collection, letters to David Bomberg [copies]
  • Tate collection, corresp. of Marsh and his executors with Contemporary Arts Society
  • U. Glas. L., letters to D. S. MacColl
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir E. W. Gosse


  • BL NSA, performance recording


  • N. Lewis, oils, 1937, Royal Society of Literature, London
  • F. Dobson, bronze head, 1938–1939, Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery
  • O. Birley, oils, 1949, NPG
  • N. Egon, drawing, 1951, Trinity Cam.
  • L. Appelbee, portrait
  • M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing
  • W. Churchill, portrait
  • H. Coster, photographs, NPG
  • A. Devas, group portrait, priv. coll.
  • J. Hassall, pencil drawing
  • N. Lytton, portrait
  • K. Pollak, photograph, NPG
  • Violet, duchess of Rutland, pencil drawing, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£11,986 17s. 6d.: probate, 2 May 1953, CGPLA Eng. & Wales