A Battling Baronet on a Bicycle


Every town should have its second baronet cycling round in a shabby overcoat on a a rusty bicycle.

But only one place, to my knowledge, ever achieved it.

The second baronet of which I am thinking was a lovely man. Really lovely. Seven children, two boys, five girls, a career in the illustrations of children’s magazines and books and latterly writing, he loved to be around his family, and gloried in the quintessentially English community in which he lived.

verney pic

The son of a first baronet and an heiress from Sydney, John Verney had always loved scribbling and cartoons. Whilst still at Eton in the thirties, he submitted work to Punch, but they turned him down. He headed off to Oxford to take a history degree, then dabbled in film directing alongside Charles Laughton and found the love of his life, Jan Musgrave, before being called up to the great cataclysm of the 20th century, World War II.

The war did many things to many artists. Verney was right in the thick of it. He was awarded the Military Cross and the Legion D’Honneur; he parachuted into Sardinia for the SAS, and fought in the desert campaigns, and France and Germany. Most dashing.

But while other artists attempted to portray the stark realities of the war’s aftermath, Verney retreated back into parochial Englishness. He revelled in his return to the Shires, illustrating books in a converted stables at Runwick House, just outside Farnham in Surrey. He drew almost 100 cover illustrations, and lots more besides, for the Collins’ Magazine for Boys and Girls, latterly the New Elizabethan.

His memoirs of the war are considered to be some of the finest written in the era: Going To The Wars was published in 1955. His most successful works were his children’s books, Friday’s Tunnel (1959), February’s Road (1961), The Mad King of Chichiboo (1963), and ismo (1964).

He stood for election to the local council, and fought fiercely to preserve local historic buildings, notably the lovely red brick Maltings  buildings which had fallen into disuse. That’s it, there on the hill.


He painted with a twinkle in his eye; some of his works are permeated by classic English sauce, or absurdity, others with sheer unfettered joy. He painted his frames, not just the paintings. Sometimes his painting escaped the frames entirely and appeared on washstands or desks or other furniture.


His subjects often wore nothing but their English poise. Women and men alike; they have the quality of Eden before the fall. The serpent often makes an appearance, standing up for wickedness in a world of innocence.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And his sketches, watercolours and cartoons: to see them is to love them. Often set in Farnham itself, they are economical, funny, frank, full of the detail which still seems familIar today; and there is often a dog in his them somewhere.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Farnham knew him well, a slight man in a shabby overcoat and battered hat who rode a rusty bicycle about the place.

Today I met his pictures in an exhibiton in the little town he drew so often. It is 20 years since he died, and yet they brought an involuntary smile to my face. I can only think that, though he was eccentric, and incredibly posh, and could seem distant, he had really a rather lovely heart underneath.


31 thoughts on “A Battling Baronet on a Bicycle

  1. I could not help but smile to see Farnham Maltings, which I know well, included on the table top painting. John Verney has actually copied a piece of work by the Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello which depicts part of the battle of San Romnano fought between Florence and Siena.
    You can see it here
    He sounds to have been a great character.

    1. Oh, Rosemary, that’s fantastic, thank you! Verney’s sense of humour is wonderful. So infectious. Did you spot Farnham Castle behind our three croquet-playing ladies? I think that’s it…

    1. There’s a caption to your favourite picture. It reads: “Singlehandedly, Mrs Dorothea St Hill Browne tackles a tree-lopping beast in Castle Street, Farnham, while members of the Urban District Council take cover…”

  2. Seems like a fine gentleman! They type of many who I would love to have chat with. But why, not that I object, of the ladies in the buff?

    I just wish I had the social standing or the money to be considered eccentric, and not just “nuts”.

    1. I’m not sure there’s a difference, Michael; from now on, when anyone ever calls you nuts, you should inform them that your behaviour is merely eccentricity. Works for me.

  3. Oh, I loved this post! Verney certainly deserves to be better known. His watercolours reminded me a bit of Edward Ardizzone’s book illustrations (some examples here: http://www.edwardardizzone.org.uk/a-few-pictures/; Ardizzone was Verney’s contemporary and was a war artist during the Second World War) while his Adam and Eve paintings have the cheekiness of the Ahlberg picture books.

    Anyway, thank you Kate for introducing us to his life and works.

  4. Dear Kate, such whimsy. And Verney himself sounds delightfully eccentric and whimsical. I’m going to look for his book “Going to the Wars.” I so enjoy your curiosity about the lives of all sorts of interesting and intriguing people and their experiences and inventions–the touch they left on their surroundings. Thank you once again. Peace.

  5. They are delightful – from the proper dress for croquet to the furious work in progress. A marvellous character. I’m sure he and my father would have got on famously.

  6. What better way to leave a legacy than the ability to make folks smile and feel better decades after the person’s demise? Reading your sensitively written post about Verney, that is the impression I get.


  7. I love that family photo, Kate. It is really very dear. I have never heard of this remarkable man, and I would have enjoyed seeing this exhibition. Thank you for the lovely introduction. It’s quite touching actually.

  8. I like the table and am always looking for such things in a trash pile. I usually carve out a square or rectangle a fraction of an inch on the surface just to fit a jigsaw puzzle flat even with surface and seal with varnish and then decorate side and legs with relevant items same theme. My first read of the title of your post today was “A Battling Bayonet on a Bicycle” . Now that would be quite troublesome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s