Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – blogs on wine-loving solicitor Thomas Greg, whose 1897 hymn to wine, “Through A Glass Lightly”, is one of the latest titles in our Found on The Shelves series, published by Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary.
At first glance Thomas Tylston Greg (1858-1920) could seem a most unremarkable man. He was born to a wealthy mill-owning Manchester family but rather than follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a tycoon of renown he chose a career in the legal profession. He was called to the Bar in 1881 but, ever shunning the limelight, he practiced as a solicitor instead. Unlike his brilliant brother Robert, who embarked on a distinguished career as secretary to Lord Kitchener, ambassador in Romania and eventually Director of the Cairo Museum, Thomas lived a fairly quiet life as a young bachelor in Kensington. He was pious and philanthropic, keenly interested in the work of the Essex Church, and when we learn that he had been collecting porcelain from a very young age we feel that the picture of the shy, unworldly man of regular habits is complete. But we would be wrong. Underneath this quiet and sober exterior beat the surprisingly playful yet passionate heart of a man who loved nothing more than a good wine vintage and for whom life did not make sense unless it could be seen “Through a Glass Lightly.” This, in fact, is the title of his book, dedicated ‘to my father, from whose generous cellars has floated up much of the inspiration of the following essays’. In his little volume Greg dazzles with his expertise on the subject of wines and while the tone is light and bubbly many a truth is spoken, or in this case written, among all his jesting:
“Wine does more than generate talk: it is talk itself…”
“Not to have a cellar is derogatory to the dignity of man.”
By the time we reach the chapter devoted to champagne, all the gravitas of the pious solicitor is washed away by golden bubbles:
“Truly it is a beverage of romance and laughter, this Champagne.”
“To look at life through this clear and golden medium is to cast seriousness to the winds.”
And any serious advice comes with a whiff of wine-induced flippancy:
“Where two things [burgundy and champagne] are almost equally meritorious it were well to leave each alone, or swallow them in equal quantities.”
It is safe to guess that Greg opted for the latter approach! After all, wines were Greg’s good friends:
“Now Madeira in his youth is harsh and austere, he has a pungent tongue, and speaks with bitterness; but age cometh over him, and, like a tender schoolmaster or parent, leads him gently along and his tart sayings are metamorphosed into genial wit and a happy softness of utterance.”
During these heady bachelor days Greg does not come across as an admirer of women:
“A waitress, being a woman, cares nothing about wine and knows less.”
“In no house where woman predominates do we ever find plate kept as plate should, darkly lustrous and beautifully bright. The trim cap and dainty apron of suburban Phyllis may please and delight some, but, for solid grandeur and substantial splendour, and, it may be added, potential enjoyment, we look solely to those houses whose threshold is guarded and whose portals are opened, by that great emblem of British respectability, the British Butler. Fair Phyllis may crown our brows with myrtle or with laurel, and there is always a plenty of laurel bushes where Phyllis lives, but it takes a man to crown our wine.” (p. 119-120)
However, life was about to deal Greg a cruel blow and put an end to this love affair with wine. In the last two chapters of his book he tells how gout and the need to obtain life insurance (possibly because of his impending marriage) have forced him to renounce the demon drink, with consequent heartbreak:
“We – let the kindly plural shelter my singular aberration – we have become a degraded thing that has taken to drinking soda-water, or H2O tempered with flavour of toast; our cup is filled, but only with misery and aqua pura…”
“ …for a drinker’s crown of sorrow is remembering wetter days…”
In 1895, only two years before the book was published, a 37 year old Greg married Mary Hope, eight years his senior. By all accounts the abstemious newly-wed had by this time changed his opinion of women, or at least of one woman. He is said to have been devoted to his wife, a true soulmate who shared his love for beautiful objects. Given their ages, the marriage was unsurprisingly childless and when, in 1906, Greg inherited his uncle’s estate of Coles in Hertfordshire the couple left London. It is at this point in his life that Greg surprises us again. Instead of jealously hoarding his private pottery collection, he donated it to the Manchester City Art Gallery before moving to Coles so that others could enjoy it during his lifetime.
In Hertfordshire, Greg surprises us for the third time. Rather than relax and enjoy his early retirement, his desire to be useful to others drove him to serve as a Magistrate, District Councillor, Parish Councillor, School Governor and Trustee of Dr. Williams’s Library. He even dabbled in local politics, albeit unsuccessfully. In this arena he could never rise to the heights his brilliant brother reached.
Nevertheless he was known for being a happy man, fun-loving and convivial, even in his sobriety. Or at least he was until a beloved nephew became another casualty of the Great War. Greg never recovered from the loss and in 1920 he died after undergoing major surgery. The passage through this world of this quietly remarkable man is evidenced by his expertly collected pottery and by his ode to Bacchus.