Growing up on the edge of the New Forest, Diana Armfield never gave much thought to her innate artistic talent. “I just got on and did things,” she recalls, “whether illustrating the childish animal stories that I wrote, designing for stitching or simply making things. Any school threatened to interrupt these absorbing interests and I was nervous about leaving home. Dunhurst was chosen for me as a place certain to encourage any talent for arts, crafts and music, but most importantly, as a school that would take proper care of any signs of home-sickness. With Miss Rowley in charge of the dormitories, I knew where to go for sympathy!”
Coming from a Quaker background, Diana sensed the moral tone at Bedales and duly absorbed it, but her hero was in the art studio – Innes Meo. Innes, universally known as Gigi, opened up new vistas for the young and newly aspiring artist. “Music and crafts at the Bedales schools were a marvellous part of life,” Diana enthuses. “I still associate the smell of cane and wool with ‘The Barn’, presided over by the reassuring figure of Biddy Cormack. Gigi represented something different from the traditional and familiar world; he teetered on the brink of the revolutionary. I suppose that he recognised some sort of talent in me and I know that I always wanted his approval. There were times when he would tell us thrilling tales of his escapes during the Great War and would then get us to illustrate a part of them. I found that quite impossible and would ask to go outside and draw what I saw in the landscape or down by the stables. Mostly, although not always, he would agree.”
Dunhurst was chosen for me as a place certain to encourage any talent for arts, crafts and music, but most importantly, as a school that would take proper care of any signs of home-sickness.
Although an inveterate tease, Innes Meo had the gift of instilling confidence in Diana. “When he got me to help him with the scenery for school plays, my immediate response was the usual one that I wouldn’t know how to,” Diana laughs. “He then said something that has stayed to me until now – and I’ll be 93 in June – ‘paint what you see, not what you think you know, because you don’t’!There was a café scene in one of the plays, for which he arranged one real table with glasses and wanted two others painted on the flats. All I saw of the glasses were the high lights, so that’s what I painted. When we went to the back of the hall, they were there to the life – I was thrilled.”
Gigi’s larger than life personality and colourfully verbal style of teaching were precisely what the young Diana needed. “I learned something about life rhythms from watching him draw, next to my own effort, the outlines of a cleat,” she says. “It had the sweep and sensitivity of something by Augustus John. Later on, when I was at the Slade School of Art, I learned little, because the teaching was largely by silent demonstration and I needed explanation and argument.” The Slade was particularly notable to Diana as the place where she met the man who, after the war, would become her husband, the noted painter Bernard Dunstan RA. “Bernard has obviously been a central thread in my story,” she insists. “Being married to a fellow painter has been a wonderful experience, an education for us both!”
Her innate lack of confidence meant that Diana shied away from taking art for her school leaving certificate, an omission immediately shown to be an irrelevance. “It was always assumed that I would go to Art school,” Diana explains, “while my elder sister, Kay, was seen to be the intellectual and duly went to Cambridge.”
Diana began at Bournemouth Art School, where she dabbled in a little sculpture, but otherwise, and by her own admission, “floundered” somewhat during her year in the school. “I spent a lot of time on political activity after an enthralling visit to the Soviet Union with a group of teachers,” she remembers. “From there, I brought back a book of Ukrainian folk design which inspired my own work for quite a while. Somehow, I built up a portfolio by myself to show to the Principal of The Slade, Randolph Schwabe, whose voice I scarcely ever heard again after the interview, where he told me: ‘You can come’. Before my diploma, I left to do war work, however, and it was after the war that I took up a place at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where everything came together. The teaching there was a mixture of the theoretical and the practical, which simply suited me.”
Diana’s desire to make things that were both useful and beautiful meant that crafts, especially textiles and wallpaper design, were now to come to the forefront of her professional life. With the approval of the Principal of the Central, who dismissed diplomas as “bits of paper that aren’t important”, Diana joined two fellow students, who had already taken their finals, to establish a design/printing concern. When one student dropped out, Diana and Roy Passano formed a business that was a success almost from the start, despite the occasional inevitable mishap.
“I’d married Bernard in 1949, and our studio near Belsize Park was our living quarters, as well as the Armfield-Passano workshop,” Diana relates. “When our first child, Andrew, was on the way, we moved into the upstairs flat, making for more comfort all round. Manufacturers at the time had drawers full of unused pre-war designs and were reluctant to invest in more, so we decided to do everything ourselves, from designing to selling the finished product, which was perhaps unique at the time. We were offered a week in a gallery off Bond Street to show lengths of printed materials and took orders, which grew through word of mouth. When the block printing was becoming too arduous for me, a huge Latvian presented himself at the studio and offered to print the lino blocks for £4 a week, which is what we were paying ourselves. He reckoned to be able to make up the wage on Saturday afternoon dog races!”
Music and crafts at the Bedales schools were a marvellous part of life... I still associate the smell of cane and wool with ‘The Barn’, presided over by the reassuring figure of Biddy Cormack
Armfield-Passano lengths were on display at the 1951 Festival of Britain and some samples have found their way into The Permanent Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Roy Passano left for Canada in 1953, and by then, Diana had started her family of three sons, to whom she devoted herself for eight years. By the time she picked up the reins of working life again in 1958 as a sole practitioner, the design environment had changed radically. “Manufacturers now wanted the new, but, it seemed to me, were less interested in the quality of drawing in the design,” she says. “I stopped enjoying it quite as much.” Teaching was to be the catalyst for the next stage in Diana’s varied career. “I was teaching drawing at Byam Shaw School of Art and on the last day of term, the principal announced that I would be teaching painting as well as drawing the following term. I went home in a panic, but Bernard quickly made me an easel box and we went to Arezzo in Tuscany together for two weeks, painting every day. I’ve never looked back!”
Today, Diana is acknowledged as one of Britain’s leading figurative painters, particularly for her ‘still lifes’ of flowers. “There is nothing like teaching to learn for oneself,” she muses. “A year later, I got a work into the Royal Academy summer show, the following year, it was two and I stayed lucky every year until I was elected a member of the RA (in 1989). Each April until my election, I was sure that the post would bring a rejection, so I know how upsetting that feeling is to a painter.” Since her election, Diana has remained prolific, with numerous exhibitions to her credit. Well supported by the Cork Street gallery Browse & Darby, she has undertaken a number of commissions over the years, most notably to paint several small oils of the garden and drawing room at Highgrove for the Prince of Wales.
Diana keeps an alert eye on the contemporary art scene, which does not always meet with her critical favour. “There is a huge amount of nonsense about,” she maintains. “It is almost like a virus hitting the art world. It has nothing to do with abstraction versus realism, nor subject matter – just think of Goya’s magnificent black paintings. It’s about trying to create something life-enhancing, set against these whose motivation is merely to insult. I admire Brian Sewell, arguably Britain’s leading independently-minded art critic, for his Thursday reviews in the Evening Standard – he says it all!”
An important part of the lives of Diana and Bernard has been their Welsh home. “For Bernard, it was painting the interior of Llwynhir; for me, it was the marvellous landscape, full of sheep and wild flowers,” Diana remarks. “For us both, it has been such a pleasure, made possible by kind Welsh neighbours.” This is a key part of Diana’s meditation on a long life and a long career. The combination of arts and crafts, inculcated in childhood and at Bedales, has remained entirely natural to her. “I’m passionate about painting, but design was also the most marvellous discipline and I wouldn’t have been without it,” she insists. She is, entirely typically, modest about her own achievements. “If you had told me at the age of 16 that I would have a career like this, I would have fallen down with amazement, which is what I did when Bernard phoned me with news of my election to the RA!”
In many ways, Diana’s proudest achievements are her three sons. “Endlessly grieve as we do for our youngest, who was taken from us by cancer six years ago, all three of our sons grew up to be caring people and to show powers of constructive invention that went well beyond us,” she reflects. “I’m also quite proud of the work I did during the war, where I found myself bringing art, craft and music to factory workers and soldiers in YMCA hostels and restarting neighbourhood choirs and an amateur orchestra to support my ventures. They were all stiffened by a string quartet of refugees from Nazi Germany, who had been evacuated to the Lake District and were to become famous after the war.”
“None of that could have happened without Bedales having encouraged my participation in music through my school years,” Diana continues. “My talent was limited, but I played in the school orchestra with enormous enjoyment, I acted in plays and I took part in discussion groups. Art is a wonderful thing – to have had the opportunity to practise it throughout my life and to have been married for so long to someone with whom I could talk endlessly about it has been an immense privilege.”
Diana Armfield was interviewed by James Fairweather in March 2013.
Photo credit: Browse & Darby, 19 Cork Street, London W1X 2LP.