Obituary: Deirdre Bland

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The Independent Culture
Deirdre kept her youthful spirit to the end, writes Graham Hughes. Even when she could barely speak after a stroke, and with the terrible debilitation of Parkinson's disease, her lively eye would suddenly flash with spirit and humour. She loved to hear about other people's lives from the prison of her bed.

Her house was always a haven to go into - full of warmth and colour and delightful objects. She had an artist's eye and delighted in anything beautiful, whether paintings, plants or pottery. She loved clothes too, a love which harked back to her dashing champagne days. She was a professional model in the 1930s when her first husband was a penniless champagne salesman. They could not afford the luxury meals which usually accompany that drink, so she used to say with a laugh that during those years her normal sustenance consisted of grand champagne with humble bread and butter.

She felt unloved by her mother, and had a lonely childhood, even spending a term in a nunnery. All this caused her to decide that animals were more reliable than grown-ups. But the family social life was quite a whirl, as her brother Rupert records with unpretentious charm in his biography of their mother, The Arms of Time (1979), which is dedicated to Deirdre.

Its pages are ornamented with some of the most glamorous names of the political, literary and artistic world, many of whom became lasting friends of Deirdre in later life, if only because they were more or less close relations - Asquiths, Cecil Day Lewis, Wyndham Lewis, Augustus John, Duncan Grant, the Keynes and Darwin families, Quentin and Vanessa Bell, Angelica Garnett, Ursula Mommens, Julian Trevelyan, Mary Fedden, Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Robeson, Diana and Duff Cooper.

A lovely link between Deirdre's literary and her artistic life, was her neighbour and great friend, the artist Trekkie Parsons. She had helped her husband at Chatto and Windus, which he founded, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf with the Hogarth Press, and used to have a "pillow conversation" by telephone with Deirdre every night, when they would discuss their experiences, recalling the frailties and quirks of their exceptional friends.

Rupert once told me that he had been a publisher for 35 years and had lost money in every year except one. I asked Deirdre how such an intelligent, much-loved brother could be so financially undemanding. With a laughing glint in her eye, she explained that Rupert had many wonderful friends and he said "yes" to all of them when they asked him to publish their books, even when he knew they couldn't write. He could not bear to hurt anyone's feelings, a trait which he shared with Deirdre.

Probably her first real job was as a model, then a less normal career for the well born than it has subsequently become. In that capacity, she worked for the best couturiers like Molyneux, and was photographed by rising stars such as Man Ray in Paris in 1929 and 1930. So she was able to add to her family's rich cultural life another strand more personal to her, that of fashion.

She was a voracious reader, and her living room was lined with thousands of books. When you pulled one out of its shelf and started to discuss it with her, she would often say as if it was a normal event "Oh, yes, he - the author - gave it to me when we were staying with him."

All her extraordinary personal qualities came into play when at the age of 65 and with typical courage, she started a new life after an unhappy end to her third marriage. She founded the Southover Gallery in Lewes. The fact that this was in her home made it intimate and memorable. And she proved to be unexpectedly good at business: she had started to develop her commercial abilities at the age of 11, when she sold her guinea pigs very successfully by advertising them in Exchange and Mart.

She loved parties and people as well as paintings, and the gallery became a big success. Helped by William Inman, who became her husband, she would sit at a desk in the middle of the gallery, delicately observing her visitors and deciding who might make a purchase, and who was there simply for the fun.

Sales were always good: there were sometimes as many as 130 red blobs on the picture frames during the run of a single exhibition. Always she helped struggling creative people. When she had to close the gallery in 1987, she showed work by 36 artists, all of them her friends, some indication of her amazing personal magnetism.

She exhibited Duncan Grant several times, always with a special sort of trepidation: she knew that he had difficulty in preventing his trousers falling down. Once, he was sensibly sitting in her armchair when an important visitor started talking to him, and a friend said: "Why don't you stand up, Duncan?" . . . "Better not" was Deirdre's decisive comment, with a meaningful look at his expansive waistline.

Deirdre Phyllis Hart-Davis, gallery owner: born London 5 July 1909; married 1930 Ronald Balfour (died 1941; two daughters), 1945 David Wolfers (marriage dissolved 1949), 1950 Anthony Bland (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971), 1984 William Inman (died 1994); died Lewes, East Sussex 23 November 1998.