Anna Mendelssohn Archive

Scope and Content

The archive provides a very extensive record of Mendelssohn's work as a poet and artist from 1977 to her death in 2009 and significant earlier material also survives. In its variety of paper formats and often haphazardly mixed poetry, prose and artwork content, it reflects the continuity of her creative output and her life-long need to commit thoughts and ideas immediately to paper. Over 770 notebooks and drawing books of various sizes span this 32 year period. Most of the volumes contain both draft poems and a variety of artwork ranging from pencil or pen sketches and doodles to pastel and crayon works. Autobiographical writing, notes on academic topics, letters and other writing are also found in many of the notebooks. A number date from her years as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge; some of the earlier ones were used during her art studies between 1977 and 1983.

The other major group of material documenting her creative life consists of thousands of loose sheets of draft poems (mostly unpublished) and drawings, with accompanying notes in places. This vast body of papers also covers the period 1977-2009, though most of the material can only be roughly dated as Mendelssohn rarely put dates on her work. Included here are drafts, proofs, mock-ups etc of several of her published poetry volumes, dating from 1981 to 2009, including 'Crystal Love: D.N.A.' (1982), 'Viola tricolor' (1993) and 'Implacable Art' (2000). In addition, there is material relating to contributions to journals and anthologies edited by others: for example, 'Parataxis' (journal) and 'Out of Everywhere' (1996). A separate small group of letters and papers appertains to her poetry readings.

A partial record of Mendelssohn's period spent in Holloway Prison, 1972-1976, is provided by a series of 20 notebooks and drawing books dating from February 1973 to July 1976, with other loose sketches. The archive does not contain any contemporary documentation of Mendelssohn's association with the 'Angry Brigade' but there are numerous scattered references to this group's outlook and ideas in her personal writings and letters. These continue well into her later years. A ring-binder recently added to the archive contains hundreds of copies of press reports covering the Angry Brigade's activities, the trial of the 'Stoke Newington Eight', and Mendelssohn's early release from prison.

A substantial body of personal and family material includes much loose (i.e. not in notebooks) autobiographical writing. The largest component of this is a collection of typescript memoir pieces consisting of juxtaposed prose and poetry or prose-poetry, some with strong fictional elements. There is a substantial quantity of Mendelssohn's family correspondence, chiefly with her eldest daughter, Poppy, and her parents, and a number of photographs of Mendelssohn and family members. Some items from her childhood also survive: secondary school exercise books and adjudicators' forms from her participation in elocution and drama competitions at music festivals.

The general correspondence is small in proportion to the size of the archive, but significant nevertheless. The larger part of it dates to her years lived in Cambridge. Correspondents include poets Tom Raworth, Rod Mengham and Peter Riley; academics David Kelley, Romana Huk and John Kerrigan; and several other poets, artists, writers and editors. Many of these individuals were her friends and the letters often contain details of her feelings and personal circumstances. Most of the letters are Mendelssohn's drafts and copies: incoming correspondence is not extensive.

In addition to those notebooks which include study notes, there is further academic material in the form of essays from Mendelssohn's Cambridge undergraduate years and from her earlier art course at Sheffield Polytechnic. A large quantity of general and mostly undated academic notes reflects her wide-range of reading and interests.

A small number of Mendelssohn's draft prose works dating from the mid-1980s (mostly short stories) and some manuscript music material complete the collection held by the Keep. Further artworks, which are either on canvases or in frames, are held by the University's Art Store, located in the library. Although these have been included in the catalogue, they are not available to researchers except by special permission. Most of these are paintings, some of them large; the remainder are drawings in pastel, pen, crayon or pencil.

The papers are in Mendelssohn's hand unless otherwise stated.

The archive is organised in nine sections;-Family, Personal and Biographical-Holloway Prison-Correspondence-Notebooks and Drawing-books-Poetry, Artwork and Notes-College, University and Other Academic Writing-Prose-Music-Artwork

Administrative / Biographical History

Anna Mendelssohn was born Anne Mendleson but was known as 'Anna' by her early adulthood. In 1983 she changed her name by deed poll to 'Grace Lake' (Sylvia Grace Louise Lake) and published much of her poetry under that name. In 1997 she officially reverted to her original name of Anne Mendleson but called herself 'Anna Mendelssohn', the name under which she published her principal work, 'Implacable Art', for most of the remaining years of her life. Throughout this catalogue she is referred to as 'Mendelssohn' or 'Anna Mendelssohn'. For an account of her life from her arrival at Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1983 until her death in 2009, see Lynne Harries: 'A Northern Debutante: A memoir of Anna Mendelssohn' (University of East Anglia, 2013). A copy of this work is in the archive at SxMs109/1/A/1.

Anna Mendelssohn was born in Stockport in 1948. Her Jewish grandparents had arrived in Liverpool at the beginning of the twentieth century. At Stockport High School for Girls she demonstrated considerable abilities in music and drama, before winning a place at the University of Essex, in 1967, to study literature and American history. While there she was influenced by the radical political activity on the campus and also, probably, by a visit to Paris in May 1968 at the time of major student unrest. In 1969 she spent some time in Turkey teaching English. When she chose not to enter her final year at Essex, she and some friends became involved in supporting a group of squatters in Stepney, London. Mendelssohn's left-wing associations widened through attending political meetings and events and she became heavily involved in the founding of a libertarian newspaper, 'Strike'. Brushes with the law followed until, in August 1971, Mendelssohn was one of a group of people arrested for alleged participation in the 'Angry Brigade' bombing campaign.

As one of the 'Stoke Newington Eight', Mendelssohn was tried and convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions and given a ten year prison sentence. In November 1976, after four years in Holloway Prison (and a further one on remand), she was released on parole amid a chorus of disapproval from much of the press. Despite financial difficulties she returned to academic study, beginning with a one-year foundation art course at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. After giving birth to her first child in 1980, she took a course in fine arts at Sheffield Polytechnic during 1982 and 1983. She took and passed the entrance exam to Cambridge University and transferred there in the autumn of 1983 to study the English Tripos, enrolling at St Edmund's College. Her academic interests were broad, with a particular focus on 20th century French surrealist poetry and the works of philosophers such as Derrida and Cixous.

Mendelssohn had two more children, born in 1984 and 1985. An illness in 1986, which required a period in hospital, eventually led to the loss of her children through a complicated adoption process which went to the High Court. This second, devastating, ordeal by court served to increase her sense of persecution and victimisation by instruments of the state. As a female poet with Jewish antecedents, she held a strong belief that she was a target for anti-semitic and anti-artistic elements within British society. This sense of being a persecuted outsider found a consistent and powerful voice in her poetry.

The complications and difficulties of these years led to her degree being deferred; ultimately it was not awarded after her Finals in 1989 and given the status of 'unclassified'. However, her reader's ticket for the University Library was continually renewed and she spent much of her time there reading, note-taking and drawing. In the 1990s she had three books of poetry published under the name 'Grace Lake' by Cambridge-based 'Equipage': 'Viola tricolor' (1993), 'Bernache Nonnette' (1995) and 'Tondo Aquatique' (1997). Mendelssohn's friendship with Rod Mengham, owner of 'Equipage', was a significant development in her progress as a poet. On the whole, she showed little interest in publishing, though her work was gaining wider recognition. Various selections of her poems appeared in 'Out of Everywhere' (ed. Maggie O'Sullivan, 1996) and 'Conductors of Chaos' (ed. Iain Sinclair, 1996). Her work received positive reviews in the avant-garde magazine, 'Angel Exhaust' and in 2000 her only perfect-bound volume, 'Implacable Art', was published (Folio/Equipage). Her last work, 'Py', was a collection of acrostic poems published by Oystercatcher Press in 2009.

Mendelssohn gave a number of poetry readings during her years in Cambridge. These began in the 1980s and appear to have been more regular in the 1990s, while she is known to have turned down several invitations. At least once she is known to have read poetry at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (c 2000). She made a number of short visits to Paris between the late 1990s and 2005 to study French surrealist literature. Of particular interest was the fiction and poetry of Gisèle Prassinos, some of which Mendelssohn translated into English. She was encouraged in this project by her old Cambridge tutor and friend, David Kelley, who died in 1999.

Art was the other principal creative field into which Mendelssohn ventured. She drew almost compulsively, using any type of paper or notebook that was at hand. Lynne Harries, in her memoir of Mendelssohn, writes of her drawing work thus: 'Many of the drawings are very fine, particularly those in which she seems to be inventing alternative alphabets, as numinous characters are distinguished and stand against a clearer ground than is usual in her work. In others, figurative passages - a body or a bird - and dream landscapes emerge from a web of hesitation and pentimenti.' She also produced paintings, particularly oils, some on very large canvases.

The scope of her poetry encompassed feminist ideology, themes of loss, love and violence, experience of nature and radical left-wing political thought. Peter Riley, in his obituary of Mendelssohn ('The Guardian', 15 December 2009) sums up her poetry as follows: 'Her poetry ranged widely in manner but was fundamentally ecstatic and expostulatory, often in an angry tone concerning the harms that had been done to her, but also outrageously ludic in the surrealist line.'

She lived at various rented properties in Cambridge, including a flat in the home of the County Councillor, and later Labour MP for Cambridge, Anne Campbell, from 1989 to about 1992. In February 2009 she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and died in November that year.

Access Information

The collection is available to all researchers upon proof of identity and acceptance of the terms and conditions of use. A small proportion of the material is embargoed in accordance with the provisions of the Data Protection Act.

Acquisition Information

Donated to the University of Sussex by Poppy, Emerald and George O'Shaughnessy, Anna Mendelsshon's children, in June 2011.

Other Finding Aids

Archivist's Note

Description created by Simon Coleman, 2014-2015. Harries, Lynne: 'A Northern Debutante: A memoir of Anna Mendelssohn', University of East Anglia, 2013. Peter Riley: obituary of Anna Mendelssohn, 'The Guardian', 15 December 2009.

Conditions Governing Use

COPIES FOR PRIVATE STUDY: Subject to copyright, conditions imposed by owners and protecting the documents, digital copies can be made.PUBLICATION: A reader wishing to publish material in the collection should contact the Head of Special Collections, in writing. The reader is responsible for obtaining permission to publish from the copyright owner.


Accruals are possible.