Overall, these papers offer a fascinating insight into the unconventional family and social life of the Empsons and their circle. Most of the letters in the collection were either written by or sent to Hetta Empson. The first two sections are chiefly from William Empson (letters from Hetta to William are largely in section 6). They include letters sent to his mother, Laura, whilst he was at Praetoria House School and Winchester College between 1915 and 1923; there are also two school reports on the young Empson. Many of the letters from William to Hetta were sent during his periods away from home, for example when he taught in the United States during the summers of 1948 and 1950, with Hetta remaining in China. There is a great deal of descriptive material relating to their individual and shared experiences in China, including William's account of the day the Communist Government took over in Peking, written on 2 October 1949 [U DEN/1/23-24].
Even on their return to the United Kingdom, they lived apart for much of the time once William became a Professor at Sheffield University, and also during his continued sabbaticals in the United States, so the flow of letters continued. Hetta's departure to the Far East in order to be with Peter Duval Smith led to further exchanges from and to China, Japan, Hong King and Macao during 1957 and 1958. Many of the letters cover personal matters, including the growth and education of their children, the legal complications following the birth of Simon Duval Smith, the death of Peter Duval Smith and his mother in early 1967, and the Empson's rapid purchase and sale of the Stradmore Estate in Wales. The Empsons' family disagreement regarding the Yokefleet Estate during the 1970s is well documented. Section 2 contains further similar letters, but undated and sometimes fragmentary.
The matching letters in section 6, mainly from Hetta to William Empson, also reflect his and her absences, particularly her year or so in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Macao with Peter Duval Smith in 1957-1958. Many of the letters sent from London deal with problems associated with Studio House and its upkeep, and with their numerous and various lodgers.
Section 3 contains letters sent and received by Hetta between the late 1930s and early 1940s, before she met William Empson. The correspondence, some of which is in Afrikaans and High Dutch, begins in South Africa in 1938 and mainly concerns her Voortrekker ties adventure. There is a fascinating series of letters from and to contacts in South Africa following Hetta's departure for Europe, beginning in Paris in April 1939, and then from London. There are sometimes graphic descriptions of her life and work (initially with the ARP) during the Blitz in 1940, plus evidence of her attempts to secure the release of her fiancé Rene Graetz from internment in the Isle of Man and Canada. These letters contain much information about the arts scene in London at the time. Her many contacts included the art historian Francis Klingender, and she describes a visit with him to Hull University College in November 1940 [U DEN/3/73].
Sections 4 and 5 contain letters written by (and to) Hetta mainly whilst in China and Japan in the 1940s and early 1950s, and particularly with Walter Allison Brown, but also David Kidd, Richard Carline, Francis Klingender and, later, David Jones. Though the letters cover a great variety of subjects, Hetta's generally focus on family life, the education of her children, life and travel, her artistic and teaching work, social life and political beliefs. One document, in the form of a diary, describes life and travel in China in about 1949 [U DEN/4/3]. Other letters describe visits to India, Mongolia, the Great Wall of China, contact with the authorities, the theatre, and Hetta's artistic and commercial ventures. There are descriptions of, and comments on, Mao Tse Tung, Chou en Lai, Chiang Kai Shek and others. Her vivid description of the Communist takeover of Peking is given in a letter of 28 August 1949 (in Afrikaans, with an English translation) [U DEN/5/50]. Walter Brown's letters, mainly from Shan-si University, are equally interesting, and include a description of the execution of three railway line saboteurs in May 1950 [U DEN/4/28].
Life after the Communist takeover is well documented, including daily hardships (such as being paid in millet), and travel and visa problems - particularly during William Empson's frequent trips to and from the United States. The Empsons were always largely sympathetic towards the new regime. Hetta was one of 31 British residents in Peking to sign a petition to the British Foreign Office in October 1949 asking for recognition of the new government [U DEN/5/54]. The letters following the Empsons' return to England are of great interest. Individuals featured in the letters include Rene Graetz, Francis Klingender, Richard Carline and members of what would become known as the Camden Town school of art. Her children Mogador and Jacob Empson and Simon Duval Smith are represented, as are her lovers Walter Allison Brown and Peter Duval Smith, along with close friends Irene Nel, Nancy Carline and, in South Africa, Mrs Kibel.
Section 8 is effectively a separate deposit from David Jones and contains correspondence with William Empson regarding their collaboration on Marlowe's Faustus between 1976 and 1982, when he was a sometime resident of Studio House. Correspondence between Hetta and David Jones for the same period is to be found at U DEN/4/74-86.
The extensive correspondence between Hetta and her friend and lover Walter Allison Brown is completed by the contents of the second deposit, U DEN(2), which also includes a small number of letters to and from the Empson children, and mutual friends, such as David Kidd and Max Bickerton. One particular episode shows Hetta's highly impulsive character when, in August 1954 she, in effect, announced to Walter Brown, who was then in Japan, that she was departing to Tangier and would he care to meet her there in the next few days [U DEN(2)/22-24].
A final batch of material gathered from various sources was received in October 2003, and highlights include a series of letters from William Empson to Alice Stewart over the period 1955 to 1970 [U DEN(3)/3-36]; a few letters from and to William and Hetta Empson in China in the late 1940s and early 1950s [U DEN(3)/41-44, 78-89], and love letters sent to Hetta from Michael Avery [U DEN(3)/96-100]. Amongst the miscellanea there are two photographs of William Empson, including one by Jane Bown, [U DEN(3)/134-135].
Overall, this is a unique and most unusual collection. The two main individuals, William and Hetta Empson, were outstanding in their respective fields, and their lives took them to places and events at crucial historical moments.