Elizabeth Lutyens 1906-1983

© National Portrait Gallery

The composer Elisabeth Lutyens, CBE, was the daughter of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. She wanted to be a composer from an early age and trained in Paris and in London at the Royal College of Music. She was a prolific composer writing music for radio, television and film and was well regarded throughout out her life in contemporary musical circles. Married twice, she had four children and was the family breadwinner.

There was a history of mental illness and alcoholism in Elisabeth’s mother’s family. Following a nervous breakdown in 1948 and a period of separation from her second husband Elisabeth was recommended Dr Dent’s treatment for alcoholism by her brother’s GP.

Elisabeth underwent the apomorphine treatment in 1951 aged 45. According to her Autobiography: The Goldfish Bowl, (1972) it was a success. Following the cure Lutyens was able to sort her life out and started composing again. Commissions and recognition came to her in the 1950’s. Lutyens remained abstinent from alcohol until the mid 1970’s. She died in 1983 aged 76

‘A Goldfish Bowl’ by Elisabeth Lutyens.
Extracts from Chapter 10, 1948 – 1952
I was living through a period of great uncertainty and difficulty which made concentration on my own work almost impossible, for my time was spent – backwards and forwards – between Seaford and the children and London, Edward and any job I could get.
I was also drinking too much – my panacea for anxiety – and each evening after a day of solitary work I would take myself for a tour of the ‘locals’.
Under the disastrous influence of alcohol I let myself be persuaded by well-meaning but misguided friends to leave Edward…. no major decision in life or work should be taken under the influence of emotion and drink.
I was now pretty wretched…. I was making many attempts at being on the wagon by will-power, often for weeks at a time, for I hated being an alcoholic, but without drink. I felt mentally sub-normal and became more myself when slightly loaded.
I was also longing for my old good health, yet, after my last experience, avoiding doctors. Apart from the alcoholism that now had me in its hold, I had a hunch that I had T.B. as well. I was losing weight rapidly, being down to six stone.
Brother Robert and his American born wife now stepped back into my life and, concerned for my poor health and over drinking, forcibly took me off to their doctor. He was just off to Paris and referred me to a Dr Yerbury Dent. Dent was a small, solid, blue eyed Yorkshire man direct in manner and of transparent honesty. Without much ado he tapped my unresponsive knees for reaction, pronounced me a confirmed alcoholic – tout court – and announced he could change my chemistry within a week.
He explained the results of his years of experience and treatment briefly and succinctly: over stimulus of the front part of the brain, producing over-anxiety, is relieved by the depressant effects of drugs and drinks. He had discovered that apomorphine absorbed orally or by injections, stimulated the back-brain, producing balance without causing addiction.
His quiet confidence and his simple, completely open way of explaining the whys and wherefores of his treatment reassured my scepticism and there was no smell of psychiatry. He warned me that once my ‘chemistry’ had been changed, I should never touch alcohol again; for, with my metabolism, one taste could make me revert to alcoholism.
He was entirely true to his word, and, for my part, with my faith in him, I have never taken a drop of alcohol since my week’s treatment.
Though it is possible to treat oneself at home – working as usual – in my low condition, he advised me to go into a nursing home to receive the treatment in injection form. Robert and his wife generously offered to meet the cost and it was arranged for me to enter the home the following Monday.
The night before I had a final glorious, guiltless binge, wiping clean my slate at the Colony Rooms and getting blissfully high, for the last time in my life.
My natural temptation, the next day, was greatly relieved by being allowed to enter the nursing home armed with comforting bottles of ‘mother’s ruin’.
The treatment was exceedingly unpleasant. Every two hours I was given apomorphine injection which induced acute nausea and thirst, to be quenched by gin and water only. I repeatedly begged for a long drink of water only. (I now realised how necessary the reliable day and night nurses were, for one nurse had succumbed to her patient’s plea and annulled the efficacy of the treatment.) The apomorphine was stepped up over three days, interlaced with sips of gin and water, and then gradually reduced and the gin cut out. By the fourth morning I was sitting up having breakfast and, though with slight nausea, hot flushed and a poor appetite, the following day I got up for a bath and a three-quarters of an hour sit in a chair. The next night, according to the nurses’ records (I still have them), I woke in the early hours sobbing and repeating over and over again ‘I am going mad’ and work that morning ‘dreading going home’. After nights of drunken, nauseous dozing I was coming to, but this was the end of depression, and the following day I was up all day, sitting on the balcony and even going for a walk in the evening.
On the seventh and last day, though a little weak, I felt reborn, with a new, vivid sense of sight, sound and touch.
I had feared that the nausea-producing gin had only temporarily put me off drink, as a mammoth hangover dies, and would not last. But Dent was true to his word and the desire for alcohol had blissfully left me, never to return – and in the one week he had promised. I shall be grateful to him, as many others are, for ever.
As he wished, I went straight back to work and continued meeting my friends in the ‘locals’, but now found I felt somewhat like a skeleton at the feast, embarrassing some of my drinking pals with a sense of guilt. Also pub sessions on soft drinks proved pretty boring.
I still miss the glow, friendliness, freedom from restricting shyness, produced by the convivial bottle but for some, like me, drink is, alas, a self-destructive poison. I had told Dent that I doubted if I would obtain much work if I forwent my BBC pub crawls, to which he answered, ‘Oh yes you will, for I am treating many of the producers too!’
For me, one problem, alcoholism, was solved and behind me.
… The barren, tragic year was nearly over and I had achieved two major wishes: to be rid of alcoholism and make a new life for myself… I turned my back resolutely on the unhappy past, determined to re-find my own identity as a composer in the coming year.
The above extracts are reproduced from  ‘A Goldfish Bowl’ by Elisabeth Lutyens (1972).
Published by The Orion Publishing Group.
All attempts tracing the copyright holders of ‘A Goldfish Bowl’ have been unsuccessful.