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Apr 24 / Simon

Moira Gemmill

Designer who played a key role in the transformation of the V&A and was working on a new project at Buckingham Palace
Moira Gemmill, the design director who was hand-picked by the Queen to mastermind a transformation of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, has been killed in a road traffic accident. She was 55.

A visionary with a genius for bringing new life to old public buildings and a penchant for commissioning up-and-coming young architects and encouraging women in the world of design, she had only started her new role as director of programmes for the Royal Collection Trust in January. For 13 years before that she had guided the Victoria & Albert Museum through its £100m recasting as director of design. Sir Mark Jones, who as director of the V&A appointed Gemmill in 2002, described her death as a terrible loss. “She was one of the brightest and best people in the world of art and design, much liked and respected by all the many architects and designers she worked with and loved by her colleagues and friends in the V&A and elsewhere.”

Born in Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland, Moira Gemmill studied graphic design at Glasgow School of Art, graduating in 1981. She then went to Aberdeen to work as an illustrator on an oil industry magazine, but found the work unfulfilling and instead founded her own magazine aimed at working women. It was not a success, and in 1988 she switched careers to become, first, head of programme support and then head of exhibitions at Aberdeen Gallery and Museum.

Ten years later she moved south to the Museum of London as head of design and exhibitions at a time when the museum was expanding its exhibitions programme under the then director, Simon Thurley. His intention was to increase the public attraction by paring down to the essentials of what the visitors would be interested in and what the museum was able to provide, and together they worked on the 1998 exhibition London Bodies which used the museum’s all but forgotten large store of archaeologically retrieved skeletons to examine the changing appearance of Londoners. Together they also established the publicly accessible archaeological store at Eagle Wharf Road, Shoreditch, devised to not only care for the found objects but give pragmatic information for interested visitors.

Gemmill’s instinctive touch with public perceptions combined with a deep love of buildings caught the eye of the V&A’s director when he was looking for a leader for his £150m “FuturePlan” programme.

The scheme involved not only the compete rethinking of the Renaissance and Medieval displays in the V&A but the refurbishing of the unique Cast Courts, and the new displays that opened in 2009 are credited with bringing an increase in visitor numbers from 900,000 to almost three million. She also developed a new graphic style for the museum and created a new in-house design team. The major exhibitions she brought to fruition included Art Deco 2003 and Vivienne Westwood in 2004.

But the very thorny problem of what to do at the Exhibition Road entrance to the V&A where a previous plan included Daniel Libeskind’s highly controversial “Spiral” building (which led to the resignation of Jones’s predecessor, Alan Borg, as director) also fell to her to solve. She did it with the daring sunken hall scheme of the architect Amanda Levete whom Gemmill had commissioned. “Her commitment to architecture and design excellence, her knowledge, her empathy and ambition to push the boundaries was matched by her rightly tenacious hold over the public purse,” Levete said.

Gemmill was also responsible for plans to build the V&A’s £80m design museum in Dundee with a futuristic scheme by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and her remarks on that project (on which construction work began last month) are indicative of her entire approach. “It’s always our intention to engage with the widest possible audiences and to make sure our collections and our interpretation of those collections reaches the widest possible audience,” she said in 2012. “Another very important issue, I believe, is the power of design to change people’s lives and to change their perceptions of a place. Establishing this project in Dundee will be a focal point for the wider regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront, proving that design can make an enormous difference.”

Moira Gemmill was an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She died when she was struck by a lorry on the north side of Lambeth Bridge as she was cycling to work at St James’s Palace from her home in Kennington, south London, where she lived alone. She was unmarried.

Moira Gemmill, design director, was born September 18, 1959. She died on April 9, 2015, aged 55.

Apr 7 / Simon

Albert Irvin

The Times. 6/4/2015
Influential abstract expressionist painter whose London bus commute inspired his large, colourful canvases
The British abstract colourist painter Albert Irvin, one of our most influential abstract expressionist painters whose progressiveness did not falter throughout his long life, has died carom heart failure aged 92.

Although he painted all his life, recognition came relatively late, not getting his first solo show until he was nearing 40. He took his cues from the American Expressionists, Turner, Matisse and the St Ives artists but created his own ways of capturing light and movement on the canvas and never ceased to find new expressions for his conceptions of light and colour, often with enormous canvases. He was prolific and still painting at his Stepney studio of 40 years until a few months before his death.

“Seeing a new painting by Irvin can be an extraordinary experience akin to discovering a young, energetic artist in the first flush of ambition,” wrote his biographer, Paul Moorhouse, in Albert Irvin: Life to Painting. “Given the force of its restless energy, its freshness and the sense it communicates of an artist in love with his chosen activity, it is even more surprising to realise that this is the work of an artist in his late seventies.”

His youthful exuberance stayed with him. A tall and genial man Bert, as he was always known, was an imposing figure whose delight was talking to and encouraging the young artists he met. The son of a shopkeeper, Albert, and his wife Nina, Irvin was born in Bermondsey, south London, and brought up with his brother in north London where his lifelong devotion to Arsenal football club began.

Evacuated to Northampton on the outbreak of the war, he studied at Northampton School of Art on a scholarship before war service in the RAF as a navigator in bombers over Germany, a nerve-wrenching experience that never left him. On being demobbed in 1946 he continued his studies but at Goldsmiths College, New Cross, where he later taught for 20 years. In 1947 he married Betty Nicolson whom he had met at Northampton where she was also an art student (she became a graphic designer). They were inseparable for the rest of their lives, and although married for almost 70s years he still introduced her as “my girlfriend”.

His wartime experiences as a navigator instilled in Irvin a love of camaraderie and also an urgency which can be seen in his early figurative work, and is still there in the intricate but exuberant abstracts he matured to in the mid-1950s, influenced at first by Willem de Kooning.

He remembered the Tate’s 1956 exhibition of the huge works of the American expressionists, in particular Pollock, Kline, Rothko and Still, “like a bomb going off”, he told the art critic Sam Cornish. He was also influenced by young British artists such as Edward Middleditch, Peter Lanyon and Terry Frost, all of which helped him feel liberated to be inventive with colour, structure, size and composition. But he also acknowledged debts to Van Gogh, Matisse, Sickert and Turner.

“Years ago,” he said on his 90th birthday, “in order for you to make an important painting, one felt that the colours had to be subdued or the painting wouldn’t have the right gravitas. After studying the work of Matisse and Van Gogh I realised it was possible to create meaningful work with dense bright colours, and that’s what I’ve continued to do”.

Irvin combined his love of conviviality with his devotion to Turner when he began his annual Turner lunches. He had a studio in a St Katharine Docks warehouse beside Tower Bridge, along with Bridget Riley, Basil Beattie and other artists. Irritated that although the date April 23rd was also Turner’s birthday each year St George’s Day was associated with Shakespeare and not Turner, they organised the first Turner lunch in 1969. They have happened every year since, in studios, galleries, above pubs, but latterly at the Chelsea Arts Club of which Irvin was an enthusiastic member. An enlarged image of Ruskin’s portrait of Turner presides, and the toast is given in rum because when Turner was invited to give a speech at the Royal Academy’s annual dinner he stood, gazed glumly around at his fellow Academicians and their guests, said, “Art is a rum business”, and sat down again. Bert Irvin will be included in the toast at this year’s April 23rd gathering.

Recognition for Irvin was slow in coming, however, and he was largely by-passed in the 1960s enthusiasm for the avant garde, perhaps because he was not then associated with a fashionable gallery. In the 1970s, however, he began experimenting with media and changed from oils to acrylic and gouache, tried lithography unsuccessfully but had more joy with screenprinting, which he began to work with when he was already almost 60 and continued with until last year, liking the collaborative nature of the process.

Irvin came into his own in the 1980s after being included in the Hayward Annual Exhibition in 1980 by its curator that year, John Hoyland. The Mayfair gallery Gimpel Fils saw his work and signed him on, representing him for the rest of his life with an exhibition of new work nearly every May, so prolific was he.

Much as he enjoyed the company of other artists, Irvin was essentially a family man, devoted to Betty and their two daughters. He commuted everyday from their Battersea home to his studio at Stepney Green by bus – he did not drive – a journey that often helped give him images for his painting. He loved teaching, which he did at Goldsmiths until he was 60, and when he was belatedly elected to the Royal Academy in 1998 his special delight was the contact it gave him with the students of the Royal Academy Schools. “He never forgot how tough it was for young artists,” says one painter, Stewart Geddes, whom Irvin took under his wing, “and he made introductions where he could and never failed to come to our private views. Knowing he’d been where we were and made a success of his career gave us confidence when we most needed it”.

But he also loved the RA, never failing to attend the RA annual dinner for which he reluctantly had to put aside his preferred denims and brightly coloured trainers. He had to put them aside again in 2013 when he received the OBE from the Prince of Wales.

He is survived by Betty, his two daughters, Priscilla and Celia, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Albert Irvin, OBE painter, was born on August 21, 1922, and died on March 26, 2015, aged 92

Apr 5 / Simon

Welcome to the Art Deco pleasure dome

The Times, 4/4/2015
The restored Eltham Palace gives visitors a new narrative of its glamorous heyday, writes Simon Tait
“Stephen & Virginia Courtauld request the pleasure of your company at Eltham Palace for the weekend of April 9th 1938” says your card. A tail-coated butler escorts you to your room, gives you a brief history of the house, and introduces you to some of the other house guests. Even the Courtaulds themselves welcome you to their Jazz Age mansion growing out of a medieval great hall.

Flappers, politicians, society hostesses, film stars, even royalty were guests at the open house the Courtaulds kept at Eltham, in the country but in easy reach of the West End. “My goodness,” the Duchess of York, later our wartime Queen, wrote after a stay in 1936, “what good food we had! And good champagne!”

Everything is precisely authentic, even to the gardenia perfume in Ginie’s bathroom and the Military Cross that won by Stephen with the Artists’ Rifles in 1918 flung carelessly on the dressing table. Well, not quite – you won’t get Stephen’s speciality passion flower and angostura cocktail, because the peopling of this beautifully idiosyncratic house is all in the handset you receive with your card.

Eltham Palace which now belongs to the English Heritage Trust – as it became on April 1 – reopened yesterday (April 3) after a £1.7m refurbishment which has changed the telling of the house’s story, and revealed new parts and corners of the Courtaulds’ lives.

Stephen Courtauld was the youngest brother of Samuel Courtauld, creator of the Courtauld Institute, part of the rayon manufacturing dynasty and fabulously rich. The palace had been built by Edward IV and was a favourite of Henry VIII’s, but it fell into disrepair until by the time the Courtaulds bought it there was little left other than the great hall, which had become a barn.

Devotees of everything modern the Courtaulds hired the brightest and the most fashionable architects, Seely and Paget, and designers such as the Swedish Rolf Engströmer and the Italian socialite marquis Peter Malacrida, to create their showpiece.

This is a modern house even by today’s standards. There is underfloor heating throughout, synchronised clocks in every room, a central vacuum system of tubes that sucked dirt into basement canisters, a multi-room sound system and an internal telephone exchange. There were three external phone lines, one for Ginie, one for the housekeeper, and one for the payphone off the hall for visitors’ use.

The Courtaulds had no children and the nearest were Ginie’s nephews Paul and Peter Peirano, whose rooms have now been returned to the way they were – twin boys’ bedrooms with an en suite between them – the only bathroom in the house with a shower (cold water only, of course). Ginie’s own walk-in wardrobe has also been restored, with the kind of frocks she would have worn hanging at the ready.

The Art Deco house was completed in 1933 and the Courtaulds lived here until 1944 when they moved to Scotland and then Zimbabwe, where Stephen died in 1968. The house became the home of army educational units until 1992, and in 1995 English Heritage took it over.

The removal of the café and visitor facilities to a refurbished greenhouse, where Courtauld once bred his beloved orchids, has given the opportunity to open out elements of the house that once had to be used for admin and storage, and it has been serendipitous.

Ginie’s secretary’s office was connected to the lady’s boudoir, where the army had subsequently set up a bar, painting over the walls. When conservators examined it a few weeks ago they found first a map plastered to the wall, and then a whole series throughout the small room, interspersed with romantic wall paintings. This had been where Stephen and Ginie planned their annual winter trips abroad. It is being carefully restored and is the subject of a £25,000 public appeal to finish the job.

Although Eltham Palace was used as a briefing centre for Special Operations Executive agents in the Second World War, and the Courtauld firm helped fund the SOE, there is no suggestion that the map room was anything other than a travel centre. But wartime at Eltham Palace comes to life now in the basement, where Stephen converted a rumpus room into an air-aid shelter. Guests were put up on camp beds, and there were cards and Ginie’s favourite mah-jong to play, all conveniently next to the wine cellar, and Rab Butler wrote part of the 1944 Education Act here. Next door (where the servants bunked down during the Blitz) is Stephen’s full size billiards table on which visitors can now try their skill.

“We’ve moved the experience on to a different level, getting much more personal in introducing the extraordinary people who lived and stayed here,” says English Heritage’s senior property historian Andrew Hann. “But nothing has been done without direct reference to history. The truth here is fabulous enough without moving into fantasy.”


The cost of £1.7m seems modest compared with what has been done. The decorations have all been brought back to the way they looked in 1938; the underfloor heating was revolutionary when it was first installed, but now over 80 years old has had to be completely replaced, one of the costliest elements of the restoration; in the ancient hall, the Courtauld’s music room, the old minstrels’ gallery becomes a cocktail balcony, where a jazz band plays and the Charleston set take their cocktails; each room has information on the guest who might have stayed there; the removal of the visitor services to a restored glasshouse in the grounds has meant other elements of the Palace could be restored. In the dining room, the table is set for dinner, with Ginie’s silver-backed notebook by her place to record comments for passing on to the cook; Stephen was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and in the basement his darkroom has been recreated, complete with prints drying on a line.

Admission to Eltham Palace, which reopened fully yesterday, April 3, is £13 for adults, £7.80 for children, free to English Heritage members, and is open daily 10am to 6pm, including Easter Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday.

Mar 20 / Simon

Master portrait painter

The London Magazine, Feb/March 2015
Simon Tait

Giovanni Battista Moroni
Royal Academy, 22 October 2014-25 January 2015

The gift of the true master portrait painter, said Sir Joshua Reynolds in the first of his Discourses, is the ability “to snatch a grace beyond the reach of art”. The great champion of making portraits as against landscapes and history painting believed that true genius is in the ability of the artist to reach into his subject and bring out something more than just a likeness. “It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with,” he warned students at his new Royal Academy in 1769, with the hint that in their case it would probably never happen.

It hit the arts establishment of 18th century London, such that it was, like a slap in the face – the very idea that this “art form” that actually was no more than vanity-commissioning for the very rich so they could themselves as gods and goddesses – could actually be compared with the majesty of Claude, the illuminating composition of Rubens, the profound mystery of Rembrandt. Unthinkable.

Yet it was nothing new, and Reynolds’s eventually successful case was no more than a rebirth of the cult of portraiture of the soul of a couple of centuries before. That had happened in a small town in northern Italy, with the brushes of a painter of whom little is known, whose name is seldom uttered, and who seldom strayed far from his own birthplace, Albino in Llombardy, before Caravaggio, before Van Dyck, long before Reynolds. This Royal Academy exhibition tells us, as much as is possible, how he did it. The question remains, though – how did he get away with it?

Giovanni Batista Moroni was born some time in the early 1520s the son of an architect. Much of his story is a mystery because he eludes that universally quoted guide to the pantheon of quinquecento artists, Lives of the Most Excellent, Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in which the word “Renaissance” was first used to describe the new spirit in painting of the period. Its author, the Venetian Giorgio Vasari, never ventured as far as Albino and as far as we know Moroni never went to Venice.

Where his early training was in the studio of Il Moretto, the nickname of Alessandro Bonvicino, at nearby Breschia, and with him Moroni had travelled to Trento at the time of the Council of Trent, the explosive embodiment of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, when the future of the where he got kudos through religious painting, key examples of which are here.

They are beautifully made, with all the right symbolism and light spaciousness that distinguishes him at first sight from Moretto whose work is his reference. But they are lifeless, and although he is punctilious in using the same models for characters – St Catherine for instance, a favourite subject – there is no soul in these holy figures.

But Moroni also started to get portrait commissions, which show his rapid advance, from the frozen depictions of the Madruzzo family standing with their pets in formal fashion made around 1550, to the Carthusian Friar of four or five years later whose gentle features are relaxed in the act of speech; or Giovanni Luigi Seradobati of around 1559 in which the notary is relaxed, sitting in a chair with a book in his left-handed for which we have just distracted him to make look sideways at us.

He has found his second secret. The first was to paint straight onto the canvas without under-drawing, an unusual practice for the time that he probably got from Moretto; the second was to paint from the life or “al naturale”, also not common practice. You can see the difference graphically in the post-mortem portrait of Giovanni Bressani which is ill-defined with none of the vitality and integrity of his Seradobati.

Back in Bergamo Moroni’s star was reaching its zenith with the leading families all seeking him out and he was part of an elite group of intellectuals – poets, painters, doctors, lawyers.

But Moroni clearly has his likes and dislikes among his subjects. In 1560 he paints the Spanish Governor of Milan, the Duke of Albuquerque Gabriel de la Cueva, as a scowling thug gazing malevolently directly at the viewer. One of the leading literary figures of Bergamo society was Isotta Brembatti, but she is portrayed here as an uncomfortable frump dressed in an all-enveloping brocade curtain-like garment with a thoroughly kitsch pink and white fur reticule (or possibly and undersized fan) hanging form her wrist, and not reference anywhere to her poetic accomplishments.

Portrait of Doctor is clearly a mate though unnamed, who is given the sideways chair treatment to relax him, and looks genially at the viewer while in his left hand is a letter from the artist.

In the 1560s and 70s Moroni returns to religious commissions, but now with all the assurance of a master that allows him top be inventive with his composition. The Last Supper of 1566-69 in which he brashly seizes on the issue of transubstantiation, the very part of the doctrine that had divided the church. Christ if offering the bread while the apostles are in animated discussion (except for one, who appears to have fallen asleep on the Saviour’s shoulder). There are no haloes, and the chief figure is the win waiter, standing behind Christ with the flask that bears his blood, looking straight at the viewer and dressed in sober 16th century attire, clearly the patron of this painting who is given a place in the composition superior to that of Christ himself.

In the 1570s Moroni excels everything he has done before, instilling narrative in even the most uncomplicated image. The very poignant Portrait of Gentleman and His Two Daughters is subtitled The Widower, but the poignancy is in the characters: the elder girl gazing boldly at us in the Moroni way, bravely being the chatelaine in the absence of her dead mother; the younger girl confused and looking out to the left ; the seated man – probably a poet if the clue of the books on a shelf behind is anything to go by – with his arms protectively resting on his daughters’ shoulders looking bereft but determined.

And the mysterious tailor, unnamed but opulently dressed. The portrayal of tradesman at their trade, rather than in the garb of their guilds, is almost unheard of in the period, yet here he is, pinking shears in one hand, the edge of a bolt of cloth in the other.

But for me the piece de resistance is the Portrait of a Young Lady painted in about 1575, four years befgore Moroni’s death. IT is a glorious manifestation of all the skills of a master portyrait painter has accrued over a lifetime. The silk of her embroidered bodice glistens, the complexities of her heavy necklace with its gold tracery in which is nestling clusters of pearls; her crisply starched ruff with its intricate tracery casting light up into what should be a beautiful face. It is, but it’s a displeased face with arrogant dark eyes looking sideways at the viewer with annoyance, her full lips slightly pursed to let us know that this is an instant of momentary irritation the snapshot painter has caught. This is a young woman we know, whose flashing dark eyes we feel we’ve seen in jollier mood, whose haughtiness will dissolve into girlishness. This is a girl whose grace is beyond the reach of art, except for this artist’s.

Jan 28 / Simon

Pauline Yates

Actor who played the wife of Reggie Perrin in the hit TV comedy
The Guardian, 27/1/2015
The gentle good nature of the BBC’s anarchic 70s comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that made it such a hit owed much to the innocent yet tacitly conspiratorial support of Leonard Rossiter’s wife Elizabeth played by Pauline Yates, who has died aged 85. She was a spirit of domestic calm in the mayhem created by David Nobbs’s other characters, led by Rossiter as the erratic Reggie Perrin, whose bizarre behavior she treated as normal and beyond explanation.

The show ran for three series between 1976 and 1979, in the course of which Elizabeth became almost as serenely batty as Reggie. Practically a non-drinker, Yates needed a large gin-and-tonic at the end of each recording.

But with her husband Donald Churchill she was almost a route map through British television comedy in the 1970s and 80s, she acting in many of them, he acting too but more often writing.

She was a consummate comic foil, appearing in The Ronnie Barker Playhouse on ITV in 1968, but also took on central roles as the MP of My Honourable Mrs (BBC, 1975) and the divorcee finding a new life after marriage in Harriet’s Back in Town (Thames, 1972).

Away from the suburban conservatism of the Perrin household, Yates was a lifelong Labour supporter who swore liberally and sent her daughters to comprehensive school when she and her husband could well have afforded private education. Nonetheless, she thought nothing of splashing out on designer dresses when she was in funds, insisting on three rules: not buying anything in the sale, never taking anything back and never looking at the price.

Pauline Yates was born into a working class household in St Helens, Lancashire, the eldest of three daughters of Thomas, a commercial traveller, and Marjorie who ran a corner shop. She was determined to be an actor, much against her parents’ wishes. Leaving school at 17, her mother gave her an ultimatum: get a job within a year or go for teacher-training.

In two weeks she had found work as an assistant stage manager at Chorley Rep before moving on to weekly reps throughout the north and, eventually, London. She met Churchill in Liverpool in 1960 and they were married that year in Hampstead Register Office.

Yates was a skilled television performer before and after the role she is best known for. Her looks and ability to learn lines very quickly, a trick perfected during her years in rep, made her a popular choice for casting directors, and she was in ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 in 1957, the first hospital soap, and the BBC police series Z Cars and Softly Softly as well as making a number of appearances in ITV’s Armchair Theatre, for which Churchill wrote several plays. Later, she was in four series of the Thames TV sit com Keep it in the Family (1980-83) as the put-upon wife of a cartoonist (Robert Gillespie), and in 1985 appeared with Julie Walters in the film She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas as one of a group of middle-aged women at a survival school. Her last TV appearance was in the 2002 pilot for the ITV crime series Rose and Maloney.

On stage she was in the Liverpool Playhouse production of Pride and Prejudice as Mrs Bennett, and toured as Lettice in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage [afraid I don’t have dates for these].

Domestic life in the Churchills’ Primrose Hill home could have been sit-com script. They loved to entertain and the house was often full of actors, writers and directors sitting around a drink-laden table gossiping and laughing. Yates could sometimes be found in the kitchen pouring wine down the sink to encourage the guests to go – “Time for them to FUCK OFF!” she would explain gaily.

True to his own working class roots – his father was an engine driver – Churchill was avid for bargains, and on Saturdays would wait until the end of the morning to go to Camden Market to buy cheap veg, or even get it free. He would return at lunchtime with his prizes in a whicker basket on wheels, “laughing to himself and imagining that he had beaten all the other writer residents of Camden Town such as Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge and Jonathan Miller, and proudly announce he had bought food for the week for under two quid!” recalls their daughter Jemma, also an actor. Her mother would then surreptitiously slip most of it in the bin, replacing it with Marks and Spencer produce, while her father would surreptitiously retrieve it and make a stew that would last a week.

Acting was part of the household, and bedtime reading was an essential element of the day for Yates in which she would play all the characters. Her husband used to complain “I think you LIKE reading to her”, but for Polly, now a playwright and screenwriter, it was a nightly professional theatre performance which she regards as the most important of her education. She has written scripts for children’s television for 15 years.

Donald Churchill died in 1991 from a heart attack on the set of the ITV sit com El C.I.D. (Granada TV), a week before his 61st birthday.

Pauline Yates died in her sleep at Denville Hall, the actors’ care home. She leaves her two daughters and three grandchildren.

Simon Tait
Pauline Lettice Letts, actor, born 16 June 1929, died 21 January 2015