Elizabeth Twistington Higgins: This Is Your Life
TV Times
4 April 1970
TV Times: Elizabeth Twistington Higgins This Is Your Life article TV Times: Elizabeth Twistington Higgins This Is Your Life article TV Times: Elizabeth Twistington Higgins This Is Your Life article TV Times: Elizabeth Twistington Higgins This Is Your Life article

'A ballet teacher called her Twizzy because she could pirouette so well. And Twizzy she has remained ever since'

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by Eamonn Andrews

ELIZABETH TWISTINGTON HIGGINS: This Is Your Life … ballet dancer, polio victim and successful 'mouth' artist.

'A ballet teacher called her Twizzy because she could pirouette so well. And Twizzy she has remained ever since.'

I don't know where you put objects that give you pleasure but, obvious though it may seem, I put them where I can see them. Whether it's a plant or a painting or a photograph. I can never understand dizzy women who put their jewels in the bank or distracted men who lock up the library door.

Although I know nothing about ballet, I have a superb little print of two dancers – Syphides – floating in a kind of gossamer dream and it gives me pleasure every time I see it. It's in the kitchen – which means I see it pretty often!

I've had it now for almost 10 years and it never fails to remind me of the girl who painted it, a girl with a name as extraordinary as her courage, as unexpected as her beauty – Elizabeth Twistington Higgins.

Elizabeth was a ballet dancer who was paralysed by polio, who learned to paint by holding a brush in her mouth and went on learning even though at times the effort made her lips bleed. What a world of struggle lies behind that simple statement.

A ballet teacher once called her "Twizzy" because she could pirouette so well: "I was good at spinning". And Twizzy she has remained ever since – good, it seems, at anything she puts her mind to.

We told her story on This Is Your Life way back in November 1961 and (apart from looking at her painting) she sprang to my mind a little while ago when I saw that she had just published a book – Still Life (AR Mowbray & Co Ltd) - I was tickled pink to discover that this extraordinary girl had lost nothing of her impetus.

I telephoned her home at Chelmsford and a bright and breezy voice answered.

"May I speak to Elizabeth, please?"


How on earth was she answering the phone herself?

"Simple," she said. "I have a fascinating electronic device that works by sucking on a mouthpiece and, of course, the phone itself works on a loudspeaker."

"Twizzy" not only has to struggle to stay alive. She has to struggle to make a living. She admits neither is easy.

"In fact, the most difficult thing I have to do is remember to breathe. Most people breathe automatically but, since I do it with the muscles of my neck, it has to be a conscious action."

And it's all matter of fact, cool, as she talks. Twizzy never feels sorry for herself. Has she changed since we met in 1961?

"Heavens, Eamonn, what a question. I hope I've changed for the better! I'm more independent, I think. And I run my own home now. You see," she said with a giggle, "I've got an organising brain."

And what gives her most pleasure? Back came the answer like a shot.

"Teaching ballet. Enormous pleasure. I'm lucky to be able to do what I always wanted to do."

Ladies and gentlemen, a girl who feels lucky like that is worth remembering any time you feel unlucky.

'She was one of the great women of our age'

When they hear your story, Elizabeth, I think few people will disagree with those words. They belong to Miss Pauline Grant, who was choreographer for two shows you danced in – Song of Norway and King's Rhapsody. She is now Director of the Sadler's Wells Opera Movement Group at the London Coliseum.

"I first met Elizabeth when working on Song of Norway at the Palace Theatre, London. She was such a delightful girl and a delightful dancer. Of the many girls who passed through my hands, she was undoubtedly one of the keenest. If that awful thing had not happened to her I am convinced she would be working with me still."

That awful thing was an attack of polio which robbed your limbs of all movement except in your neck, head and a flicker of life in your fingers.

It struck you down 17 years ago, just as you were starting to make real professional progress as a ballet dancer.

'Now Twizzy, make up your mind what you're going to paint today!'

Here, Elizabeth, is one of the people who helped you re-channel your talent from dancing to painting – Mrs Kit Stonehill. How did you two meet, Mrs Stonehill?

"A friend of mine had been teaching art to patients in a Surrey polio home. She asked me to give classes. I wasn't a teacher, but I had art school training. I was worried because I had no real idea how to teach handicapped people."

"It soon became obvious that Elizabeth was the only one with any real talent. Between us we worked out how to teach not only her but the others as well. She taught me more about it, I think! Her sheer will to succeed was touching. I'm not in the least surprised that she became such a very fine painter."

Thank you, Mrs Stonehill. Now, Elizabeth, you were born in Primrose Hill, London, in 1923. Your father, Thomas, was to make a name for himself as a pioneer in children's surgery. Your mother, Jessie, who is still alive, is of Scottish descent.

You had a happy childhood, but when very young would constantly burst into tears at the slightest provocation. One of your earliest recollections is the way you wept when your long golden ringlets were lopped off by your brother, Ian, during a game of hairdressers. But feeling sorry for yourself was not to be one of the dominant factors in your life.

You were fairly average at school, but you were so bad at art that you were frequently allowed to do embroidery instead. At 14, you became devoted to ballet and you talked your parents into letting you train for classical ballet at Sadlers Wells.

You grew too tall and were advised to take up more general dance training. At the famous Cone School you did so well that you were made a student teacher.

'Everybody called her Twizzy and she was marvellous.'

One of your former pupils, actress Claire Bloom.

"Most of all I remember how sympathetic Twizzy was. One teacher there was a dinosaur, but not Twizzy, she was divine. I seem to have cut out of my mind most of the people from childhood, but she will always have a special place in my heart. I didn't fully appreciate how marvellous she was until I heard how she reacted to everything after she was paralysed."

You were still teaching – and learning – when you landed your first professional stage job. For £6 10s. a week you joined the corps de ballet in Song of Norway.

You gave yourself the stage name of Elizabeth Scott. One of your joys was to stand in the wings and listen to the singing of two of the show's stars, Janet Hamilton-Smith and John Hargreaves.

'You don't remember many – but no one forgets Twizzy.'

John Hargreaves, now opera manager at Sadlers Wells:

"She was a charming, vivacious child. I'd say she was one of the best liked people in the organisation. There were about 60 dancers and one is bound not to remember all of them, but Twizzy is one who sticks in your mind."

'I saw her doing one of her very first mouth-drawings.'

They are the words of one of your former dance partners, Ronald Hynd.

"We first met in a tiny company doing a gala week at West Ham Municipal offices. It was my first professional engagement, and I remember Elizabeth as a very nice, tall girl – a very sensitive, musical dancer."

"We went our various ways, but met up again in King's Rhapsody. Afterwards, I joined the Ballet Rambert."

"Years later, I was visiting my brother in the Stanmore hospital. He had polio, too, and he told me there was an old friend of mine in the next ward. It was Twizzy. I went to see her and she was doing a stencil using a brush in her mouth."

"It was a fish on a tile. She was having a bit of trouble with it, but you could see it wasn't going to beat her. I think she's absolutely stunning."

In 1953, Elizabeth, you were teaching and dancing and being very busy indeed. The head of the Royal School of Needlework asked if you would like to help with an exhibition of Royal Robes planned for the week following the Queen's coronation.

On the opening night, which was televised with Richard Dimbleby doing the commentary, you were present as the Queen Mother opened the exhibition. It was a great thrill for you to meet the Queen Mother, who was accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Meanwhile, you were helping to nurse your sister's sick child. Finally, overtired and by now in the grip of polio, you were taken by ambulance to the National Hospital in London's Queen Square – a stone's throw from Great Ormond Street, the children's hospital where your father did so much of his work.

'I couldn't disagree with you more, Elizabeth.'

That's Jenny Poynting – now Mrs Ripley – who was to nurse and care for you most of the next two years.

"We used to talk and argue about music and ballet and books, sometimes right through the night. I was her night nurse. I don't think any single person has been such an example of courage and inspiration to me as Elizabeth was during those months."

"She was very ill indeed, especially at first. But for all that she was splendid to be with, I had wanted to be a ballet dancer myself and we had so much in common."

"She suffered most when she had to be taken out of her iron lung and washed. Her will power and strength of character were marvellous."

These qualities helped you through the first dreadful stage of your illness. Eventually, you determined to do something creative.

'First of all, Elizabeth, you've got to learn how to mix colours.'

Your art teacher, Mrs Rosemary Howard:

"Her doctor asked me if I could do something to help her. Frankly, I've never had a better pupil. In the early days her lips would bleed from the strain of holding the brush, but it didn't deter her. She forced herself to master the techniques of painting. I've never experienced anything like this transference of talent from one form of art to another."

Your talent developed, and by one of those strange quirks of fate you had a very special visitor one day. He was brought to you by your former nurse, Jenny. And he was the man that she married – John Ripley.

Mr Ripley gave you your first "break" in the art world. He ran a printing firm and looked at your work as a commercial proposition. A London gallery started hanging your pictures. Mr Ripley used your paintings of flowers and ballet dancers on Christmas cards. A new career opened up for you.

Now, via the international Foot and Mouth Association – an organisation of disabled artists – your work sells all over the world. Thousands of greetings cards bear your initials; hundreds of your paintings hang in dozens of countries. They even travel the seas – Cunard bought one of your designs for their ship menu cards.

'She's made a real contribution to ballet.'

International dancing star Beryl Grey explains.

"Not many artists know how to capture properly the real movement of ballet dancers. There are all types of errors that a trained dancer notices in a painting of ballet. But Elizabeth has that much sharper eye; that greater degree of accuracy that seems to catch the exact position a dancer would be in."

"She's brought the professionalism of pure ballet to the painted picture."

"She's done something that is both useful and beautiful. For that reason I believe she's done more for ballet than she realises."

You live now, Elizabeth, a fuller life than many people, although you go back to hospital and your iron lung each night.

You spend all day at home in Chelmsford, typing letters to your friends, painting commissions like this picture of me for instance. This, incidentally, is the first portrait of anyone you have attempted.

Using your mouth-controlled tape recorder to help, you write the choreography for ballets.

Only a few weeks ago, you did some choreography for a local ballet company.

Your victorious struggle against adversity is an inspiration and example to us all. Elizabeth Twistington Higgins... This Is Your Life.