Gillchrest 1918 - 2008
22 Jan 08
Guardian obituary, 18
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Painter whose naive style immortalised Mousehole, Cornwall, and was
greatly appreciated by the public, if not by critics.
For years, high above the granite and grey rooftops of Mousehole, Cornwall, and surveying its little harbour painted by so many
illustrious forebears, Joan Gillchrest enjoyed the best sea views in the
town and gamely recycled them in myriad pictures well received by the
public — who found them evocative — but disregarded by critics, who felt
them wanting in integrity.
apparently naïve style of painting was without perspective, instantly
recognisable and contained little of the actuality of the region.
Instead she tended to portray it more as a summer holidaymaker would
wish to see it: under reasonably clement skies, surveying a calm sea
innocuously decorated with randomly bobbing boats. Her best work — which
is desolate in its icy uniformity of palette and which is hard to
reconcile with the majority — bespeaks more of the Neptunian dreamer
that was nearer to her true personality: hugely sensitive, not at all
conventional, non-domestic, and torn between idyllic escapism and an
understanding of human frailty at a very visceral level.
born Joan Gilbert Scott in 1918 into a conventional and well-heeled
family with some illustrious members. Her great-grandfather, George, was
the architect of St Pancras Station; her uncle was Sir Giles Gilbert
Scott, architect of Liverpool Cathedral, of Battersea Power Station and
the one at Bankside that is now Tate Modern, and of the iconic, red
cast-iron telephone box based on the design taken from the interior of
the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Her father was a distinguished diagnostic
radiologist who had worked with Marie Curie and who developed the
treatment of disease with radiation.
One of four
children, three of them girls, she was brought up at Bourne End, near
Cookham, Berkshire. She attended boarding school and at 16, through her
wilfulness and the indulgence of her father and artistic mother, was
allowed to spend a year in Paris to study French. She also cultivated
her interest in painting there, and later attended the Grosvenor School
of Art under the painter and engraver Iain Macnab of Barachastlain.
unconstrained life, she accepted a proposal of marriage during the war
from a prosperous American, Samuel Gillchrest, son of one of the
proprietors of British-American Tobacco. As a means of escape it was
unsatisfactory. He proved to be the first of a trio of partners who
would threaten her emotional security and compromise her sublimely
romantic dream of long-term fusion.
A daughter was
born in 1943, followed by a son four years later, but the couple soon
separated. They divorced in 1953 and he died a few years later. Intent
on securing for herself an artistic life and indifferent to any
disapproval, Gillchrest moved to Chelsea, the relaxed playground of the
She rented an
impressive artist’s studio — it even had a television — on the first
floor of 48 Tite Street, living above the charismatic painter Adrian
Ryan. He was of similar background to her, moneyed but unconventional,
and his being already married to Barbara Pitt proved no lasting obstacle
to him eventually moving upstairs with Gillchrest in November 1957.
By this time
Gillchrest was finding regular work as an artists’ model. She was tall,
pretty and somewhat Slav-featured, with her long hair forever in a
ponytail and a fringe over the forehead. Her friendly face was always
heavily made up while shrouded in smoke from cigarettes she would
habitually smoke using a black-and-gold holder. Baggy “Sloppy-Joe”
jumpers and rolled-up trousers with espadrilles completed her bohemian
attire which, added to her worldly and glamorous past, suited her well.
painted Gillchrest plentifully “in the honeymoon period of those early
months . . . posing provocatively, semi-nude, and in the bath Bonnard-like”.
A striking example is Kneeling Woman, 1958, a large canvas with its
sexily clad subject resting on her elbows and knees, viewed voluptuously
from above, almost like a still life, and owing some influence to Sir
Matthew Smith, who was known to them both.
relationship lasted for nearly eight years, and although he proposed
marriage — when her ex-husband had died and he himself was divorced —
she demurred, perhaps anticipating the deterioration in relations that
was to come.
In 1959 they set
up home in Mousehole, where Ryan had lived with his first wife, the
painter Peggy Rose. Old Hill Cottage, which Gillchrest bought, was
perched level with the dizzy heights of Raginnis Hill and along the
appropriately named Love Lane. They moved in officially in July. By
cutting down the weeds and terracing the impossibly sloping garden they
opened up the spectacular view from the back.
It was less of a
cottage than a modest bungalow, with a full-length conservatory whose
sofas and seats were covered in textured materials, tasteful
Matisse-like throws that went well together and many potted plants. It
was a place in which to spend time contemplating the harbour in all
shades of grey and gradations of weather.
attractiveness was attested to by Sir Alan Bowness, visiting with
William Scott in 1962 to buy works by Ryan for the Gulbenkian
Foundation. A studio was built in the garden which Ryan used to embark
on a series of Mousehole Rooftops pictures. Gillchrest’s desire to paint
was firmly discouraged by Ryan. He saw no virtue in her “gimmicky
pastiches done for tourists” — although he conceded that she had done
good work in the past, he turned her pictures to the wall when anyone
noteworthy called. Relations between them, good and bad, were
passionate, and as a Mousehole couple they were looked up to in more
ways than one, certainly as judges for the annual carnival and as the
originators of the now famous Christmas tradition of illuminating the
town with coloured lights.
recollection of the reason they stayed together was “that he was
terribly funny” as well as being “very good in company — at a party with
his painting friends, or amongst any crowd — he was marvellous”.
What she dreamt
of doing was precisely what he was preventing her from — painting. The
strain upon the two of them increased, even with Ryan continuing to
spend time in London teaching part-time at Goldsmiths. Perhaps more so,
as Ryan was more noted for his charm than his fidelity.
unexpectedly, the idyll ended with a letter she wrote, received in his
newly rebuilt Camden Town studio in September 1965. Gillchrest, “a
strong woman, stronger than he”, had sent all his pictures and
belongings to Harrods Depository telling him never to come back. It
deprived him not only of a home but also of some of his best subject
admitted it was a devastating thing to have done. Especially as she had
secretly acquired a toy-boy replacement in his late twenties — the
assistant and then boyfriend of a local Arts Council representative —
who did encourage her to paint. This she did lastingly, even though her
new paramour soon moved to Australia and committed suicide some few
following she amassed through a variety of exhibitions locally and
elsewhere was a source of mystery for which she seemed more puzzled than
grateful, and which she held at a distance as she became ever more
It was small
comfort to her in recent years, when she was no longer able to stand in
order to paint, to reflect on the greatly inflating prices that her work
was fetching in the secondary market. This had not been the motivation
for her creating it at all.
painter, was born on November 2, 1918. She died on January 3, 2008, aged