Obituary: Vera Delf

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
VERA DELF, painter and peripatetic protester, was one of those singular Edwardian women who make one wonder why the women's movement took so long to catch up.

Independent to the point of arrogance, she somehow managed to enchant everyone with whom she came in conflict. Saving the social reformer Barbara Wootton from serious injury by scalding in China in the 1970s, facing down the French police in Paris in 1968, or creating a near mutiny in the British army in India, she had a knack of being where the action was and the charm to carry off the complications that usually resulted from her single- minded application of principle to action.

Whether playing badminton in the rain with her grandchildren or terrorising the security men of the American Air Force she always acted with dedicated conviction. "She showed," wrote Marjorie Parker, "a relish in swimming against the conventional tide. Yet she had so much warmth and charm that even those who profoundly disagreed with her cherished her friendship".

Born Vera Hart to a fourth-generation colonial family in Cawnpore, India, in 1904, she grew up in surroundings which did not make for radicalism. Her earliest letters show this clearly. "I don't know why the Indians want us out of the country," she once wrote, "I've never seen anybody being beastly to the Indians." This changed quickly and the children of old India hands still speak fearfully of the remonstrations she visited on colonial wives caught being unpleasant to her beloved Indian friends.

In 1924 she attended Glasgow Art School for a year but typically had little patience with the academic methods of the time. She became a non- academic painter of fresh, direct portraits. Her ability to capture likeness had been evident at an early age and her confidence and economy of line put her work, especially of children, much in demand.

Her approach to painting was at one with her approach to life and politics. Patient research or mastery of detail never interested her. It was the broad brush and the immediate impact that characterised both her life and her painting. Her friend Jill Tweedie was once heard to remark that Delf "could not be bothered with anything more complicated than what she already knew". In most things she had both the penetration and the limitations of the autodidact.

Despite a stern parental injunction against shipboard romances and "joining the bridge-playing clique", she typically ignored their warnings enough on a journey from England to India to fall in love with an army officer. Charles Delf then neglected to ask his superior for permission to marry. Taken to task, he told his commanding officer that it was none of his business. Vera had found a soulmate. She did however take heed of the bridge warning and this saved her from many of the pitfalls of being an army officer's wife - "to my children's benefit", she frequently announced.

Her unshakeable conviction of her own rightness caused some problems. At one point during a dysentery epidemic in India she embarked on a campaign to clean up the British military kitchens. Her daughter Deborah Ardizzone remembers that the ominous sound of her approaching pony and trap signalled a bout of feverish fly-swatting audible a quarter of a mile away.

"Properly fed soldiers are less vulnerable to infection," she announced as she replaced much of the normal stodge with chilled consomme, salads and fresh fruit. Nothing more substantial was offered and soldiers who had survived with relative equanimity the worst theatres of the Second World War revolted. It took all Brigadier Delf's diplomacy to avert a serious mutiny and both army and India Office breathed a sigh of relief when Vera Delf departed for England in 1946.

But army conventions were never safe in her vicinity. Finding that troopship conditions had resulted in more than 50 women to a bathroom she grandly commandeered one near her that was, she declared, "always empty". She handed it over to the heterogeneous collection of army wives of all ranks. It turned out to belong to the Officer Commanding Troops. He stationed a sentry to keep the women out but Delf simply swept past with her friends. Faced with increasing numbers of unbathed angry women and children the O/C succumbed and gave up for the duration of the voyage. It was her first taste of direct action success and she relished it hugely.

Like her husband she began political life as a Liberal voter. This in itself was enough to alienate the more Neanderthal elements of Suffolk's deep blue county set - where the Delfs went to live after returning from India. They had expected to find natural allies in Brigadier and Mrs Delf. She spent a brief spell as a prospective Liberal candidate but resigned with a typically coruscating letter attacking the local party organisation and the "swamp Tory tendencies of its members", as she put it.

However her letters of the time show an acute awareness that the day of the amateur MP had already ended and that her own impatience with detail made her unfit for the work of the post-war House. Her attention turned to single-issue groups where her role of general gadfly could be more effective. Inevitably these included CND and Vietnam, but as with many far younger her mind was focused by Suez, Hungary and Sharpeville. Her home in Yoxford became a hubbub of committees meeting round her gigantic kitchen table, arguing conflicting ideas and planning stunts to upset what she regarded as the American occupation force in East Anglia.

Dr Joan McMichael (of Medical Aid for Vietnam), Hilda Bernstein (anti- apartheid) and Tony Parker (pacifist and writer) were frequent visitors. Surprised American tourists invited back for the special coffee Delf had sent up from London found themselves unwilling recipients of lectures on their country's foreign policy. She convinced everyone that she mattered.

Her opposition to nuclear power stations brought the manager of nearby Sizewell A to her home in a fruitless attempt to convince her that nuclear power was safe. The American ambassador wrote her an apology for the hate mail she received following publication of one of her letters in The New York Times.

Her letter writing was legendary - she was the Keith Flett of her day, pouring out a constant stream of letters to the world's English-language press. In much of this she had her husband's support. As the horror of Vietnam gradually became more apparent he took a grim pleasure in attacking the Vietnam War in The Times and signing his letters "Brigadier Retd". While opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, he drew the line at the Aldermaston March his wife and daughter insisted on attending. "But," she explained to him happily on her return from the second one, "you meet such a nice class of person on the Aldermaston March."

As well as writing Delf travelled for pleasure and peace, invariably mixing both activities to the bewilderment of Iron Curtain apparatchiks and indeed officialdom everywhere. As a grandmother, she felt fervently that her grandchildren should have a world to inherit. The women she met tended to be apolitically conservative and she set out to change this in Britain and world-wide. Through Russia, Poland, East Germany, Sweden, China, America, Italy, Portugal, France and Greece she travelled, lectured and made lifelong friends, solving the language problem with drawings and occasional lapses into Urdu.

Oddly for an army officer's wife she never really understood rank and hated any authority apart from her own. "Authoritarian anarchist" was a phrase used by both friend and foe about her attitudes. In particular she virulently opposed racism and applauded its opponents. She was delighted by the release of Nelson Mandela and in her last months, crippled and chairbound, she insisted on being wheeled past a hall portrait of Nelson Mandela so she could formally bid goodnight to the man she had written to so often on Robben Island.

A veteran of Greenham Common and protests in Grosvenor Square, she gradually withdrew from demonstrations and lecture tours as age took its toll. She concentrated instead on letter-writing and on the art gallery she had set up, with the help of Julian Trevelyan and Mary Fedden, in the grounds of her Suffolk home in the early Sixties. A number of successful artists exhibited there and many more, among them John Piper, Henry Holzer, Keith Grant, Ian Simpson, donated pictures for the causes like Medical Aid for Vietnam that she supported.

There will be a retrospective of her pictures and some memorabilia at the Yoxford Gallery, starting on 9 May with a celebration of her life and the scattering of her ashes in the garden she loved.

Vera Eleanor Hart, painter and peace campaigner: born Cawnpore, India 17 August 1904; married 1929 Charles Delf (died 1981; one son; two daughters); died Yoxford, Suffolk 26 February 1999.

Comments