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Tambimuttu, 1915-1983



  • Existence: 1915 - 1983


Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu (1915-1983), known to his readers as Tambimuttu, to his friends and associates as Tambi, was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on August 15, 1915 into a family of distinguished, aristocratic scholars at Atchuveli in the Jaffna peninsula of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), second child of the five sons and one daughter of Henry Tambithurai Tambimuttu (1887–1971), of the Government Printing Press, Colombo, and his first wife, Mary Ponnammah Santiapillai. The scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy was his uncle and he claimed descent from the kings of Jaffna. He was raised Roman Catholic, educated chiefly in English and by the age of 21 had already begun his life’s work in poetry and publishing by printing three volumes of his own poems off a small press typeset by himself.

Tambimuttu moved to England in 1938; within a year he founded with his friend Anthony Dickins the journal Poetry, a title quickly modified to Poetry London. It was as editor of Poetry London and of its monographic imprint Editions Poetry London during the decade of the 1940s that Tambimuttu made his greatest mark on the literary scene. His eye for talent is evidenced by just a sampling of the names of the writers and artists he published: Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell, Kathleen Raine, Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, David Gascoyne, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Lucian Freud; many of whom, like Tambimuttu, lived the Bohemian life of wartime and post-war Soho. The quality and importance of Poetry London was vouchsafed by none other than T.S. Eliot, and admirer of Tambimuttu’s who wrote “It is only in Poetry London that I can consistently expect to find new poets who matter.”

Tambimuttu's devotion to poetry was matched by his passion for the area in London he named Fitzrovia. His extraordinary personality beguiled those whom he led from pub to pub through London's nocturnal streets. This life ended up taking its toll on his happiness, security, and companionship, and his marriage in 1940 to Jacqueline Stanley lasted little more than a year before the couple separated. In 1949, following a disagreement with the backing partners of Poetry London, Tambimuttu was terminated as its editor, a move much protested by his many friends and contributors. Tambi sailed for Ceylon, arriving back in December 1949. After a year of writing and broadcasting (a skill learned with the BBC in London) he traveled to Bombay, where he met Safia Tyabjee, whom he married in 1951. They embarked for New York in 1952, arriving in November with $600 and no return ticket. Tambi was to reside mostly in New York, until his return to London sometime around 1970.

His American years were ones of varying fortune. He lectured, published autobiographical short stories, and in 1956 started a new poetry journal backed by a wealthy patron, this one titled Poetry London/New York. His small income was supplemented by lectures given at institutions such as the Poetry Center and New York University. Money troubles dogged Tambimuttu all his career, and Poetry London/New York fell victim to them after a run of four issues. With times difficult once more, Safia returned to India in May 1958; a move that ultimately led to divorce. Another marriage in 1961 to Esta Smith resulted in the birth in 1962 of his only daughter, Shakuntala. When this marriage failed too, Tambimuttu joined Timothy Leary at his Millbrook compound until 1968. His failure that same year to obtain a lecturing position at Harvard served to disenchant him to some extent with America it seems. In all, the 1960s brought Tambimuttu into contact with much of what was new on the American scene, but London was a magnet for him and it seems he was glad to return.

The second era in England, which would be his home for the remainder of his life, saw Tambimuttu involved in a host of new projects. In 1972 he and his partner Katherine Falley Bennett launched the Lyrebird Press. In 1979 Tambimuttu revived once more his poetry journal, this time called Poetry London/Apple Magazine, the “Apple” a leftover from a plan for a magazine Tambimuttu had made with the Beatles some time previously. Other ventures included a limited edition of Indian love poems illustrated by John Piper (1977), and a handmade anthology delivered to Buckingham Palace as a wedding gift for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Only two issues of PL/AM were produced; a third issue left undone at Tambimuttu’s death was to have been devoted to the work of Indian poets, many of whom Tambimuttu discovered on an extensive trip to India he took in 1982 with his daughter Shakuntala. This India trip also led to Tambimuttu’s work to establish the Indian Arts Council, the purpose of which was to foster greater understanding and cross-influencing between the art traditions of India and those of the West. Very shortly after the first inaugural meetings of the London chapter of the Indian Arts Council, Tambimuttu suffered a fall in his office in Bloomsbury's October Gallery and was hospitalized; a few days later, on June 22, 1983, he died of a heart attack.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Robin Waterfield Papers

 Collection — Box Boxes 1-2
Identifier: MS157
Abstract Robin (Robert Everard) Waterfield (1914-2002), worked for a series of publishers and booksellers early in his career, and in 1974 opened Robin Waterfield Ltd., an antiquarian bookshop. Waterfield ran this bookshop until being forced to retire in 1980. The Robin Waterfield Papers consist of correspondence, financial materials, drafts of poetry and other writings, illustrations, publicity materials, and photographs, and contains materials relating to Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, Jane...
Dates: 1941-1999; Other: Date acquired: 11/30/2007

Tambimuttu Archive

Identifier: MS120
Abstract The Tambimuttu Archive at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections is particularly strong in covering Tambimuttu's later years. There is much regarding the Lyrebird Press, Poetry London/Apple Magazine, and the Indian Arts Council. There is also extensive documentation of the preparation for the festschrift for Tambimuttu (Tambimuttu: Bridge Between Two Worlds, London: Peter Owen, 1989) edited by his colleague Jane Williams after his death. Types of materials held...
Dates: 1936-1989; Other: Date acquired: 01/01/1993