Obituary: Vera Collingwood

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The Independent Culture
VERA COLLINGWOOD was an outstanding photographer who made a distinctive contribution to British life. She was also a remarkable case of someone embarking late on a successful new career.

She was born Vera Fratoni in 1920, to a modest family from Lugnano, near Orvieto in Umbria, although she was brought up in Abruzzo, where her father served as an officer in the Carabinieri. Her brother became one of the most senior generals in the Italian army and was also a talented musician.

Vera went to university in Rome to study philosophy, where she was a brilliant student. During the German occupation of Italy, she carried letters for the Resistance. She also dived for the university. As a protegee of the philosophers Benedetto Croce and Guido de Ruggiero, she was introduced to Bill Collingwood, the son of the philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood, who had translated Croce into English. Bill was also the grandson of W.G. Collingwood, Ruskin's literary executor and first biographer. They married in Rome in 1947.

Bill had a highly successful career in British Airways and for almost 30 years Vera devoted herself to supporting her husband and to bringing up her son, while also pursuing her many interests, which included teaching evening classes at the City Lit. The tragedy of his early death in 1975 determined her to turn one of her interests into a career, to break out of the depression his death caused her. Although she had taken photographs to go with her lectures on Italian life, literature and history, she only took up photography seriously in her fifties.

Using simple, sometimes second-hand, equipment, she became an outstanding photographer, with a good technical knowledge of her subject. She offered her services, free of charge other than expenses, to the National Trust, which had the sense to recognise her talent. For more than 20 years she produced a flow of high-quality work, setting herself rigorous standards.

Her meticulous and painstaking record, in black and white as well as in colour, of many National Trust and other houses, including Chastleton, Chiswick House, Cliveden, Fenton House, Hughenden, Osterley and Stowe, is a distinctive contribution to the historical building record. She had an ability to capture the essence of houses and gardens, using her natural eye for composition. Her sympathy for what she was photographing often enabled her to see a house or garden in a fresh perspective. Wherever she worked, her gift for friendship and generosity of spirit made her friends.

Her work proved highly popular and has been used not only in guidebooks, postcards, calendars but also to illustrate numerous books. An early one was London Cemeteries by Hugh Meller (1981). Later examples were Mrs Coade's Stone by Alison Kelly (1990), and Country House Brewing in England by Pamela Sambrook (1996), for which she photographed what remains of the private brewhouses that used to be a feature of the majority of country houses. Her passionate interest in gardens was reflected in the photographs she took for an exhibition on Fenton House garden in Hampstead, north London, where her pictures were paired with a set taken in the late 19th century.

Vera came to England, speaking little English, in 1947. She first lived in St Peter's Square, Hammersmith, which at that time housed a cosmopolitan array of artists and writers, including Julian Trevelyan and his wife Mary Fedden, A.P. Herbert, and Vera's near neighbour Alec Guinness, with whom she was soon very much at home. The son of other neighbours was William Bennett, the celebrated flautist, who became a close friend. In 1967 she moved to Strand on the Green, overlooking the Thames near Kew Bridge, to a small 17th-century house that was the perfect setting for entertainment.

Hospitality to people of all ages was natural to Bill and Vera Collingwood. Vera was a wonderful cook who above all relished good ingredients cooked in the simplest way. She collaborated with Anna del Conte on her cookery books, which did much to popularise Italian cooking in Britain. After Bill's death Vera combined her new career with unfailing, even increased, hospitality to young and old alike. The power and warmth of her character allowed her to form friendships with a great variety of people, taking an interest in them and finding common ground. Her friendships were by no means restricted to people of her own age and class. She had an exceptional ability to encourage the young and diffident, treating them exactly as she would have treated the eminent.

Vera Collingwood had high standards in all she did. Her taste was impeccable. She was highly civilised herself and admired civilised people, having a particularly high regard for those she saw (perhaps through rose-coloured glasses) as exemplifying a characteristic English mixture of intelligence and intellectual honesty. She loved literature, both English and Italian, and history, particularly Gibbon, whom she read late into the night and whose anticlerical outlook she shared to the full. She was a good artist, whose paintings (mostly landscapes) were as idiosyncratic as her English. She had no television but was a passionate playgoer, with an unerring taste for the unusual and the dramatic.

She also loved a debate. Vera was a true liberal by background and by temperament, something reinforced by her experiences under Fascism in Italy. She loved to think for herself and to express herself and for others to do the same. She liked to see two or more sides to a question. If people agreed with her she was quite capable of disagreeing with herself and her own previous opinion, both for the fun of it and to see where the argument would lead. This did not mean that her values and belief in high standards changed but that she was an original: she preferred to be with the minority. In politics, she was a Labour supporter (to the surprise of some of her neighbours). She was also, from the earliest beginnings of moves towards a united Europe after the war, a committed pro-European.

Despite living in England for over 50 years, Vera always spoke her own inimitable and ever-surprising dialect of "improved" English, with its own unique vigour. Her friends treasured her latest coinages, which combined a mangling of grammar or idiom ("What are the news?" or "I go upstair and comb my head") and a gift for mispronunciation ("sphincters" for "spinsters" and "dragoons" for "dragons"). While she became in some ways very English, she never stopped being Italian and above all never stopped being herself.

She was a true Italian mother in her devotion to her only son, Robert. She was also immensely proud of her grandchildren, Elizabeth and Patrick, to whom she was an original and practical and hard-working grandmother, whether encouraging their drawing and writing or flying out to Prague (where Robert Collingwood has been working as a leading architect in the restoration of the city) with supplies of the baked beans and Jaffa cakes they had requested. Her reaction to her final illness was typically magnificent: totally unsentimental and unselfpitying.

Vera Ester Maria Fratoni, photographer: born Lugnano, Italy 7 November 1920; married 1947 Bill Collingwood (died 1975; one son); died London 1 September 1998.