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Diana Poulton

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Diana Poulton, c 1929 (click images to enlarge)

The Lute Part XVIII

The English lutenist, teacher, and musicologist Diana Poulton, whose long and fruitful life spanned every decade of the twentieth century, is one of the most important figures in the history of the lute.

She was one of the first pioneers in the twentieth century reawakening of interest in the lute. Her contributions include hundreds of radio broadcasts of solo lute music over the BBC beginning in 1926, annual performances at Alfred Dolmetch’s Haslemere Festival between the World Wars, and the founding of The Lute Society with Ian Harwood in 1956.

Her most profound legacies are the pantheon of lutenists who studied with her privately and at the Royal College of Music, and her works of dedication and scholarship devoted to the life and music of the composer with whom she will always be associated, John Dowland.


Early years

Edith Eleanor Diana Chloe Kibblewhite was born on April 18, 1903 in Storrington, a village near the southeast coast of England. She was was the second of two children born to Ethel and Gilbert Kibblewhite; Diana’s older brother Peter was born in 1901. Gilbert was a volatile man with a fierce and destructive temper, and Ethel and Gilbert separated shortly after Diana was born. He was sent away to Australia and had little to no part in Diana’s life.


Walnut Tree House, Rustington, Sussex, United Kingdom


She grew up with her grandmother at Walnut Tree House in Rustington on the Sussex coast (the same village where Hubert Parry was born and died) and in London with her mother, where Diana’s grandfather Thomas Figgis Curtis owned a house at 67 Frith Street from which he ran a renowned stained glass business that took orders from all over the country. During the years before World War I the Frith Street house was the center of a literary salon that revolved around Ethel’s friend, poet T.E. Hulme (1883-1917). This circle included intellectual luminaries of the time including Ezra Pound and A.R. Orage.

If Diana’s lifelong attachment to the Sussex countryside, and her deep sympathy with seventeenth century life and music were formed by the life she led as a child with her grandmother at Walnut Tree House, then her intellectual curiosity and deeply held sense of politics and the world must have been at least in part developed as a result of the time she spent in the very different milieu of her grandfather’s house in Soho, where her mother and her friends met and debated philosophical, political, and cultural issues.

~ Thea Abbott
Diana Poulton: The Lady with the Lute, 2013, p. 27

Diana did not set out immediately on a career in music. She attended Winterton School in Littlehampton (near Rustington) before enrolling at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1918. Both her mother and aunt had attended the Slade in the 1890s. Diana studied drawing and painting there until 1923, and was also popular as a model.

Laurel Cottage, Heyschott ~ Diana Poulton’s country home for more than sixty years

While she was at the Slade she met Tom Poulton, and the couple married in 1923. Tom was six years older than Diana. He began his studies at the Slade in 1912 but they were interrupted by his service in the Royal Artillery during the war, after which he returned, finishing there in 1922 and embarking on a career as a medical illustrator. Diana and Tom had two daughters: Alathea, who was born in 1924, and Celia, who was born in 1927. They purchased Laurel Cottage, a small seventeenth century house in Heyschott, West Sussex in 1927, and from there Diana continued for the remainder of her life the practice of dividing her time between London and the countryside that had been established for her in childhood. Here she gardened, kept goats, made cheese… and away from the bustle of her life in the city, Laurel Cottage would provide an idyllic setting for her to concentrate on her music. 


Diana and the lute

During the War my mother had become acquainted with Arnold Doimetsch and his wife Mabel and, when Dolmetsch was in London he would occasionally visit us bringing his lute with him. With a little persuasion he would play to us. My mother and I always went to his concerts at the Hall of the Artworkers’ Guild and, of all the music that we heard, for me it was always the lute which captured my imagination.

~ Diana Poulton
quoted in Abbott, p. 75

Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940)

Tom Poulton was a gifted amateur guitarist and both he and Diana played guitar while at the Slade, but Diana was increasingly drawn to early music and the lute. She acquired an instrument sometime in the early 1920s and began to take lessons with Dolmetsch, traveling to Haslemere where he had settled on a regular basis. These lessons did not turn out well – Dolmetsch proved to be a poor and insensitive teacher, and sometimes her lessons ended with her in tears. She eventually abandoned her studies with him and stopped playing the lute entirely for a time.

However, encouraged by Arnold’s son Rudolph Dolmetsch, Diana picked up the lute again after about six months and began to teach herself from original sources that she found in the British Museum (now the British Library). Diana’s approach to playing the lute was largely acquired through her own research and effort:

One of the greatest difficulties of constructing a ‘method’ for the Renaissance lute is the fact that, during the period of its greatest flowering, no really complete book of instruction was ever produced. Some writers will provide excellent advice on certain points but on others of equal importance nothing is said and a search has to be made to see whether the information can be found elsewhere.

~ Diana Poulton
Introduction to  A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute, 1991

Through diligent research and practice Diana was able to reconstruct a practical technique from sixteenth and seventeenth century sources, and soon was performing regularly throughout the U.K. with Rudolph Dolmetsch and his wife.

She gave her first broadcast performance for the BBC in 1926 – a performance of John Dowland’s The King of Denmark’s Galliard. This was announced in that broadcast as the very first broadcast of solo lute music (ever), a statement which is likely to be true. Diana went on to make an estimated four hundred broadcasts for the BBC in the years and decades to come. She also made (the first?) lute song recordings, accompanying baritone John Goss for HMV.

Peter Warlock (1894-1930)

In 1927 John Goss introduced Diana to the composer and critic Peter Warlock, who was also keenly interested in Elizabethan music. Diana had never heard Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavan before, and Warlock played it for her on the piano (he did not play the lute). She credited this experience, and Warlock’s generosity – he gave her a large box of transcriptions and copies of lute songs including tablature that he had made at the British Museum – for igniting what was to become her lifelong passion for John Dowland and his music.



Diana and Tom’s elder daughter Alathea died in 1932 after complications following an emergency appendectomy – she was just eight years old. This and perhaps the growing difficulties with her husband created distance between Diana and their surviving daughter Celia that lingered into adulthood.

Tom was not a faithful husband and he and Diana began to live separately sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, although they did not legally divorce until 1947.

It seems likely that one way in which she coped with the grief in her domestic life was through immersion in musical activity. Eventually Diana reconciled with Arnold Dolmetsch, and after some hesitant participation “on the sidelines” she officially began to perform in the Haselmere Festivals in 1931. (Haslemere is only a few miles from Heyschott.) These summer festivals of early music, dance, and culture which Dolmetsch inaugurated in 1925 drew visitors from throughout the U.K., Continental Europe, and beyond. The Haslemere Festivals are the ancestor and original model of the many early music festivals that now – nearly a century later – take place annually throughout the world.


Suzanne Bloch (1903-2002) ~ photo by Mark B. Anstendig


It was at the 1934 Haslemere Festival that Diana met and befriended Suzanne Bloch. Born in Geneva and raised in the United States, Suzanne’s father was the composer Ernest Bloch, and Suzanne had recently left her studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris to become a lutenist. She initially studied lute with Dolmetsch also, who gave her an instrument built in 1600 that he had refurbished. Suzanne went on to become one of the founding members of the Lute Society of America in 1966, and served as the organization’s President from 1974-1977. The story of the friendship between these two women – pioneers of the twentieth century early music revival – is almost legendary in lutenist circles. Diana and Suzanne performed duets from the Jane Pickering Lute Book at the 1934 Haslemere Festival to general acclaim.


Diana the Red

The Poultons were also members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was founded in 1920. It is not known when Diana and Tom joined the party. It is possible that they were members from the beginning, and joined while still students at the Slade: certainly they moved in the London intellectual and political circles that would have brought them into contact with Red idealists and sympathizers in the early 1920s. Diana’s communism was apparently considered and sincere. The extent of her actual activities is not known (she is reputed to have sold The Daily Worker on the street in London, for example), but she remained a committed party member for decades.  Growing disappointment with the actions of soviet governments in eastern Europe led to her leaving the party formally in 1956, finally disillusioned by the Hungarian Uprising in October and November of that year. There were times when Diana’s political affiliation created difficulties for her musical career.


May Day Communist demonstration in Hyde Park, London. 1936. Presumably, Diana Poulton attended and participated in events like these when she was a young woman.


When the Lute Society of America arranged a reunion for Diana and Suzanne Bloch in 1974 at a LSA summer seminar – for the first time in 35 years – her visa was denied by the U.S. consulate in London, presumably due to her communist past. According to Donna Curry, it took the efforts of U.S. Senators from California, Congressmen, and other worthies to convince authorities to relent and allow her passage to what is now remembered as a legendary lute summit: Diana’s only visit to the United States.



Diana never married again, but there were other men in her life. Beginning in the early 1940s, Diana took in a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, whom she presumably met through the Communist Party. Claudio Inocente Tresaco Ayerra, known as Ino, lived with Diana for nearly twenty years at Laurel Cottage, although he did not often travel with her to London when she began to keep a residence there as well. He returned to Spain in 1959.

playbill for a 1959 production of Twelfth Night at Regents Park, directed by Robert Atkins

At the end of the nineteenth century English theatre saw a revival of interest in the presentation of their art – especially Shakespeare – along similar lines as those of the growing early music movement, in contrast to the lavish and romantic productions that had dominated nineteenth century theatre. Plays were presented uncut, in what was believed to be authentic staging, with actors (and other performers) in period costume. Music that was incorporated into these productions was, as much as possible, drawn from the original sources of Shakespeare’s own time and performed on period instruments. Arnold Dolmetsch’s family consorts were a mainstay of William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society performances from 1895-1905, and as audience expectations for “authentic” Shakespeare productions continued unabated in the twentieth century, it was natural that English directors and producers would turn to Dolmetsch when seeking musicians for their productions.

Robert Atkins (1886-1972)

Through Dolmetsch, Diana was introduced to these performance opportunities, and as one of the most in-demand lutenists in the mid-twentieth century United Kingdom, she performed in many of these productions. Through this activity she met and worked with Robert Atkins in the 1940s and 50s. Atkins was an actor and director with a long pedigree of activity in Shakespearean theatre circles, and intrinsically involved in Regents Park Open Air Theatre (which he founded with Sydney Carroll in 1932) until his retirement in 1960. Diana performed in many Shakespeare performances with Open Air Theatre.

After his retirement, and after Diana’s divorce from Tom was final and Ino had returned to Spain, Atkins lived with Diana at her London home in Wilton Square until his death in 1972. Although it appeared their relationship had deepened beyond the professional friendship of earlier decades, they never married.


Ian Harwood (1931-2011)

The Lute Society

Diana met the young Ian Harwood in 1953 in Heyschott – he was visiting friends who had borrowed a lute from her for a local production of Twelfth Night, and Ian was enchanted by the instrument when he saw it at their home. He was introduced to Diana, she sold him the instrument (little more than a stage prop) for £5, and their friendship was born.

Harwood learned how to play the lute from Diana and began building lutes himself – he went on to become a noted luthier. Despite the difference in their ages (nearly thirty years), Diana and Ian became fast friends, and together founded The Lute Society in 1956. It was one of the first organizations of its kind (the Viola da Gamba Society had been founded in 1948) and it was the first such organization dedicated to the lute. The Lute Society has more than a thousand members today, and has inspired the formation of similar societies in other countries including the United States, France, Italy, Germany…even Japan.

Diana was an active member and leader of The Lute Society for the remainder of her life – she served as the society’s secretary from 1960 until 1972, when she was elected President, and remained President until she died in 1995.


Diana and John Dowland

During the 1930’s Diana seriously began collecting Dowland’s lute works, and her interest in him and the period in which he lived increased almost to the point of obsession. Engaging in research was not an easy proposition before microfilm, photocopies, and reference books citing locations of MSS and first editions. Existence and location of music had to be found in library catalogs when obtainable. Copying had to be by hand in pencil. if music abroad were needed, it meant traveling there, ordering expensive photographs, or finding a local friend who would copy it. Diana’s hand copied music, books, documents, etc., filled stacks of notebooks.

~ Donna Curry
Diana Poulton: An Appreciation of Her Life
LSA Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, February, 1996

Poulton, Diana. 1982. John Dowland. Second Edition. Berkeley and Los Angelos: University of California Press.

It is perhaps Diana’s scholarship in service to the life and lute music of John Dowland for which she is best known. She spent more than thirty years indefatigably gathering material, analyzing, writing and editing until at long last the books were published.

John Dowland was published first in 1972, and a revised second edition issued ten years later. Much more than a biography, John Dowland is an exhaustive compilation of virtually everything that is known about its subject. Diana was tireless in her research, and she poured every detail into her fascinating account. Not only Dowland’s life but every single composition is examined: every song, every piece for solo lute, all of the consort works, his translations… every known reference to or remark about Dowland made by his contemporaries is related and considered, and more. In nearly half a century since it was first published, no other comprehensive look at Dowland’s life and œuvre has been attempted. This book belongs on the shelf of every lutenist, but unfortunately, it is out of print.

Poulton, Diana and Basil Lam. 1974/1978. The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland. London: Faber Music Limited.

The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland was initially published in 1974 (it is now in a third edition). Diana chose representative versions of all of Dowland’s known lute pieces, and they were published in a dual format that included both the original tablature and transcription into staff notation (which was prepared by Basil Lam). In the early 1900s lute music was published in staff notation, and only in the second half of the century as lutenists returned to playing from tablature, did publishing In tablature begin to supplant the earlier convention. This “innovation” which Diana endorsed and followed herself is one of many illustrating how Diana’s example and attitudes shaped current practices related to lute scholarship and performance. The staff notation was included as a publishing decision, and renders the volume a reference and scholarly exhibit, rather than a performing edition per se. Over the years I have found myself preparing  editions of Dowland’s pieces for my personal repertoire myself rather than playing directly out of this bulky and heavy book, which does not sit well on the music stand and has many difficult page turns. But I am deeply grateful for Diana’s labor in collecting  and selecting these pieces, whether I decide to study a version she chose or one from another manuscript. My copy of The Collected Solo Music is dogeared.


Diana Poulton in her 70s

Diana the Teacher

There must be scarcely anyone in the world who plays the lute that has not been influenced by Diana Poulton – either directly, as a student or through her books, or indirectly through the performers and teachers who were. As her reputation as a performer grew, people began to seek her out for instruction, and she maintained a steady teaching schedule as part of her work at least by the 1950s. As she got older and more deeply engaged in research and writing, she performed less and taught more. In 1968 she was appointed the very first Professor of Lute at the Royal College of Music, and she taught there until retiring in 1979. For decades, she reached many students through her Lute Society activities. I will refrain from attempting to list Diana’s students here out of fear that I may leave someone out – it’s a long list! and includes many international performers, recording artists, and teachers. There are many stories about Diana’s generosity to her students: generosity with her time, with music, instruments, advice, food.


Poulton, Diana. 1991. A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute: for the complete beginner to the advanced student. London: Schott & Co.

Her first book of instruction An Introduction to Lute Playing was published in 1961. In the decades that followed Diana worked to expand what was initially a short introductory pamphlet into a developed method book. A Tutor for the Renaissance Lutefor the complete beginner to the advanced student was published in 1991. Replete with solo lute pieces for six- to ten-course instruments drawn from across the entire Renaissance repertoire; examples in French, Italian, and even German tablatures; instructions on fingering; advice on interpreting original sources, and more, the Tutor is an invaluable volume for understanding the scope of Diana’s work and her approach to imparting it to others. Nearly thirty years later, it remains the only book of its kind.

Diana’s Tutor was her last published work, and not long after it made its way into print Diana retired to the Sussex countryside completely. She died quietly among family in 1995.


It is remarkable that this woman, a primarily self-taught musician with neither degree in music nor formal training, accomplished so much. Diana Poulton served as advocate and ambassador of the lute, as performer, collaborator, and mentor, as teacher, scholar, and friend to so many. No one accomplished more than she over the course of the twentieth century to bring the lute and its repertoire out of obscurity and back into the lives of musicians and audiences around the world.


There has been no other one person in the 20th century lute world who has reached so many people worldwide through performing, scholarship and teaching. I did not study with Diana in the formal sense of the word, but I learned so much from Diana that I have to consider myself her pupil.

~ Donna Curry
LSA Quarterly, February, 1996



I never met Diana Poulton, but when I first began to play the lute in the early 1990s, I came across her Tutor and both of her Dowland volumes in the stacks at Patelson’s. At that time I knew absolutely nothing about how to go about learning to play, nor did I know who Diana Poulton was – I had never heard of her before. I purchased the books, took them home, and for that first year they were constant companions as I took my first steps in learning to read tablature and trying to draw a beautiful sound out of my instrument. Diana’s words and the pieces she chose for the Tutor provided the introduction I needed that set me on the path towards becoming a player. I was so fortunate.


*       *       *

The Lute:

I ~ Meet the Lute

II ~ Francesco da Milano

III ~ The Medieval Lute

IV ~ Petrarch’s Lyre

V ~ Renaissance Lute

VI ~ Baroque Lute (coming soon)

VII ~ Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books

VIII ~ The Frottolists and the First Lute Songbooks

IX ~ The Capirola Lute Book

X ~ Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant

XI ~ Attaingnant’s Lute Books

XII ~ The Lute at the Court of Henry VIII

XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music

XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II

XVI ~ “An Earnest Desire To Satisfie All”: John Dowland, Part III (coming soon)

XVII ~ Simone Molinaro


XVIII ~ Diana Poulton



i ~ The Lute: A Bibliography

ii ~ The Lute: A Discography

iii ~ Lute Recordings:

       a ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part I

       b ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part II

       c ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I

      d ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part II (coming soon)

iv ~ John Dowland In His Own Words

v ~ The Lute Society of America Summer Seminar West, 1996




  1. jsguitar says:

    Have all of the books mentioned and like you Patelsons in NYC was my go to store for the purchases. Thanks for the article .

  2. […] Newton at a presentation before the Royal Musical Association (U.K.) on February 23, 1939 at which Diana Poulton performed, and this notion was developed by David Lumsden in his 1957 dissertation The Sources of […]

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