Olive Marion Baker – Bohemian Lover of The Arts 1898 – 1961

Born on the 7th of September 1898, Olive Marion Baker was effervescent, reflecting the in-vogue art deco fashions and designs of the 1920s perfectly. Little is known about her life prior to her meeting Bob other than that she was local to Leeds, non-Jewish, a drama student, attractive, tall, and slender with dark Mikado hair, was good company and drank and smoked quite heavily.

But for some in Barnet’s family, Olive was a divisive character: to some, she was brazenly eccentric and unconventional, what you might call “Bohemian”—rumoured to be a life model for artists and often in the company of like-minded radical people from the world of music, art, literature, spiritualism, or politics. At first glance, she did not seem like a good influence on a young man entering the serious world of medicine. Aileen Hyman, granddaughter of Rosa Kalinsky née Stross, one of Bob’s eldest sisters and a mother figure, says of her grandmother’s influence,

“I know that for some family members, it meant his marriage to Olive was a big problem, and they unravelled with him, but my grandmother had support and Olive liked her. My mother, Marie Kalinsky, as a child, was with Bob and Olive during school holidays in the 1920s at their house in Stoke-on-Trent. He was a general practitioner there.”

It did not matter. By the time Barnet was halfway through his Sciences degree at Leeds University in January 1920, he and Olive had fallen in love and were married. By 1923, the couple were living at Clarendon Place, next to Leeds University’s campus. This was convenient, as Barnet was now studying medicine at Leeds Medical School. It was during these days of balancing young married life, socialising, studying, and entertaining that Stross discovered his love of art and culture through the profound influence of Olive, who was a drama student.

Aileen continues: “It was she who introduced Bob to this bohemian society, and through her, Bob developed his lifelong interest in art and then his professional knowledge in the field of painting. Bob’s interest in art contained an extensive personal collection from Sickert and Lowry. In later years, some of the paintings were donated, I believe, to Keele University, a new university facility near Stoke that Bob helped establish.”

Although there is no definitive proof, merely a coming together of facts and happenings to corroborate a strong likelihood, it was around the early 1920s that the couple frequented the internationally renowned Leeds Art Club. The phenomenon had been making an international reputation for itself since the 1890s, and by 1920, this had been expanded to encompass early psychoanalysis, experimental drama, post-impressionism, and abstract art. It was the perfect stimulus for a young medical student and his performing artist wife.

The club met at 8 Blenheim Place, just a few hundred metres away from Stross’s home, at a time bursting with talented British painters and writers, many of whom would become his friends, contacts, and suppliers over the decades: Jacob Kramer, a native of Chapeltown like Stross; Jacob Epstein; L. S. Lowry; Raymond Coxon; Henry Moore; Barbara Hepworth; and other artists whose works would come into Barnet Stross’s hands, usually in exchange for free medical care in a world of private health care provision; many of which would later be donated to the plinths and walls of establishments across North Staffordshire and beyond.

In 1923, as the club began to falter, Kramer tried to continue its work under the auspices of the Yorkshire Luncheon Club. It could be here that Olive and Barnett took a more active role. Indeed, there is a report of an experiment in hypnotism taking place at Stross’s home, 16 Clarendon Place, where Stross hypnotised a guest, then performed a feat of telepathy by “influencing” the guest to follow through on the concealed instructions of a member of the audience.

In 1925, Dr Barnett Stross attained his Bachelor of Surgery and Medicine degrees, specialising in respiratory illnesses.

When, in 1926, Dr Stross set up his practice in the district of Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent, he swapped the ailments and illnesses suffered by workers in the Yorkshire coalfields and textile factories for those associated with the mines and the smog-belching pot banks of North Staffordshire. Henceforward, the world of respiratory illnesses and the word silicosis would be his constant companions. It was here that he and Olive would receive a baptism of fire—surrounded by a unique, hellish industrial landscape of fire, smoke, and dust.

Their choice of home was at the epicentre, with the furnaces of Shelton Bar, the bottle ovens of the Cauldon Potteries, the local slag heaps and shraff tips, and the Hanley Gas Works dominating the surrounding land. A distraction, of course, were the queues of mostly industrial workers facing ill health with no financial support to help their families. It was in Shelton that the Strosses would make their mark on the community.

Dr Barnett Stross And Olive Stross Celebrate With Local People Following His Election On The 31St Of October 1938 As Councillor For Shelton, Known As Ward 13, In The Stoke-On-Trent Municipal Elections.
Dr Barnett Stross and Olive Stross celebrate with local people following his election on the 31st of October 1938 as councillor for Shelton, known as Ward 13, in the Stoke-on-Trent Municipal Elections.

At Richmond House, the couple were supported by housekeepers Amy Lynch (cook) and Elsie Shufflebotham (parlour maid). They had a hard time keeping up with the whirlwind of activity going on around them, as, according to accounts, the Stross household was depicted as chaotic in 1939. It was also described as eccentrically furnished, reflecting the owners’ unorthodox tastes. Most of the doctor’s patients came from the poorest areas of Hanley and Shelton, and many of them became his friends and later his loyal supporters.

“Our family doctor, Barnett Stross, was a Polish Jew who worked amongst the poor of the district… I am told that shortly after my birth he circumcised me on the kitchen table; I never found out if this was for a medical reason or if all the baby boys in Shelton were done!” Don Edwards

Olive Stross Stood On The Extreme Left Of The Speech Platform At The Inauguration Of The Village Of Lidice In June 1947.
Olive Stross (left) stood on the speech platform at the inauguration of the village of Lidice in June 1947.

Barnett Stross’s marriage to Olive was good, with evidence suggesting that they were very much in love. They would be seen at engagements, often appearing together in newspaper columns. Olive was visible within the community herself and played an active role in defending art and culture in the city, as well as appearing as an actress in local productions for the Stoke Repertory Players. A glimpse into Olive’s character can be gleaned from the letter content she sent to the local newspaper, the Sentinel, which appeared on Friday the 3rd of May 1935 concerning the prominent artist Stanley Spencer, who was protesting because the Royal Academy had rejected two of his paintings:

It is a notorious fact that criticism is handicapped by its own lack of creative ability. It seems apparent that appreciation of a contemporary work of art is difficult, or almost impossible, for the ‘man in the street’ to understand.

A work of art, whether by poet, painter, sculptor, or musician, is an offering of an abstract idea clothed in symbols. The symbols differ with every age and every civilisation, and, whereas a cultured “man in the street” may comprehend symbolism of the bygone generation, he flounders in the presence of his own. This is why youth so often despises its elders, only to be despised in its turn.

It is utterly incomprehensible to me why St. Francis should be portrayed (or is expected to be portrayed) with the face of a Botticelli angel.

Mr Beech is right. Spencer and Epstein will live. – Yours truly,

OLIVE M. STROSS. Richmond House, Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent.

Ian Macilwain is a well-known photographer and his aunt was Gwendoline (Gwen), a close friend of Barnett and Olive who later became Barnett’s second wife. Ian provided many private memories to former Czech PhD student Gabriela Literová for her 2010 thesis, and it is thanks to Ian and Gabriela that we have several rare selections, such as family photographs and transcripts of speeches, included in this blog.

Ian recalled his meeting with Bob and Olive in 1959 when he was visiting Aunt Gwen. He also described the differences between Olive and Gwen:

“My first memories of Bob and Olive Stross are from a visit to see Aunt Gwen. I think it was in 1959. I remember as both were very interested in teaching us ‘tongue twisters’ – e.g., ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper’ and a few others that were brand new to me. Gwen and Olive were very different. Gwen was serious, but she had a good sense of humour and was very kind. Olive was bohemian and artistic.”

The Bohemian Olive Marion Baker 1898 - 1961, First Wife Of Dr Barnett Stross And Supporter Of The Lidice Shall Live Movement.

Olive Marion Stross, the free-spirited, often outspoken former art student became Barnett’s companion for the majority of his life.

One suspects her influence on the philosophical architecture of Dr Stross far exceeds the quantity of material available to us concerning her background.

Correspondingly she remains a relatively mysterious character in the story of the Lidice Shall Live campaign and the life script that was about to play out.

Olive Stross died in 1961.

Leave a Reply