Obituary: Cecil Michaelis

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Cecil Michaelis will be remembered as an artist who was especially inventive when working with glass and ceramics, and as a philanthropist who was especially generous in encouraging crafts and design.

He was born in Cabourg in 1913, the son of Sir Max Michaelis, a British citizen of German Jewish extraction who donated (in that same year) a major collection of Dutch art to Cape Town, where he had made his fortune. Sir Max died early in 1932. Cecil Michaelis's interests were to be divided between England, where he bought Rycote Park in Oxfordshire in 1935, South Africa, which he regularly visited, and France, where he lived for most of his life. Some air of the English squire clung about him even in the most bohemian Parisian ateliers, and his very disdain for convention had a distinctly mandarin character.

He invented his own ceremonies, especially in Provence, where he compensated for his cosmopolitan background by an austere reluctance to eat - or serve - anything other than local produce. His genius was most in evidence there, in the garden he created below Mont Saint-Victoire, where the sun set through the cypresses he had planted, illuminating walls and fountains of coloured glass bricks he had invented; in the home he adapted and decorated, where apricots and walnuts lay in African baskets beneath rows of his richly glazed and vigorously gesticulative pots. On the terrace, guests picked, with a device he had created, at miniature snails which had been permitted to spend their last morning grazing on fennel, whilst he described with elegant humour the antics of the surrealists or the life cycle of the cicada.

After studying at the Ruskin School, Michaelis left Oxford in 1932 for Paris, where his teachers were Henri Dimier and Othon Friesz, and where he was advised and encouraged by Georges Rouault and Andre Derain. He counted many artists among his closest friends, including Matthew Smith and Andre Masson, the jeweller and metal-worker Jean Francois Victor Hugo (who introduced him to novel possibilities in sculpture), and the architect Fernand Pouillon, who made him aware of the monumental opportunities for glass and ceramic.

He drew ceaselessly - a sketchbook was always in his pocket - exercising a special talent for witty, vital but unliteral silhouettes of figures and animals in action, a talent that was well adapted to small sculpture and to the decoration of tiles. The ceramic and mosaic panels he designed for the swimming pools on ocean liners, and the prismatic glass walls he made for cinemas in the 1950s, evoke the honk and stamp of jazz. By contrast the cityscapes, executed with heavy impasto over long periods in the 1960s and 1970s, not only eschewed the deftly linear but depicted spaces inhabited only by light and often almost eerily silent.

Although Michaelis had many exhibitions in commercial galleries in London, Paris and the United States (the earliest being at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1941), he came to dislike this type of promotion. It offended his preference for a collaborative and collegiate spirit in the production of art - and the complex blend of pride and humility in his character.

By sharing a studio in 1955 with a leading ceramicist in Aix-en-Provence, Jean Buffile, he not only provided Buffile with new opportunities but encouraged artist friends in Paris to work there and extend their interests. Then they all exhibited together. The edition of bronze and porcelain sculpture he made for the Worcester Royal Porcelain factory in the Sixties is one of too few creditable episodes in the history of the British ceramic industry in recent decades. He also did much to encourage the development of such an industry in South Africa.

Rycote School (now Rycotewood College), founded in 1937 to provide training in carpentry and agriculture, was one of the earliest institutions he supported; the Institute at Montebello, founded in 1990 in the Cape Province to rectify the neglect of native materials and local traditions in South African industrial design, was the most recent. But his support of numerous individuals was even more notable. He had no great expectations of gratitude and his optimism triumphed over many betrayals, which were described in his anecdotes merely as quaint deviations from decent behaviour.

The Second World War was spent in farcical conflict with philistine senior officers and in a series of picaresque episodes - ski training in Chamonix with the Scots Guards (rehearsing for a Norwegian expedition that never took place); drawing stags and designing bomb-proof architecture with the SOEin the Scottish Highlands; learning Arabic on a dangerous, solitary, secret (and pointless) mission to Tangiers; teaching southern Italian village potters to make teapots for the invading British troops. Or so one might suppose from his recollections.

In fact he also played an important role in propaganda (and became a close friend of Leslie Beck, head of Psychological Warfare in France), was a vital contact with France Libre, with which his first wife, Marie- Alix Dard, was closely involved and to which he gave extensive financial assistance, and made many charitable and cultural initiatives. He sent a cheque of pounds 1,000 to General de Gaulle and one of the same amount to Admiral Muselier shortly after their arrival in Britain in the summer of 1940 and in advance of their official recognition by the British Government. Far larger sums were devoted in the following years to the convalescent home for French naval forces at Beaconsfield and the French military camp at Camberley. In October 1945, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec etoile d'argent.

Entering Paris on the day of liberation with Leclerc's division in 1944, he met the artist Lil Lobuf, whom he married in 1947. After her death in 1987, he married Amata Mettenheimer.

Nicholas Penny

Maximilian Gustav Alfred Cecil Michaelis, artist and philanthropist: born Cabourg, France 19 August 1913; married 1935 Marie-Alix Dard (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1947 Lil Lobuf (died 1987), 1988 Amata Mettenheimer; died Aix-en-Provence 3 May 1997.