OBITUARY : Louis Osman

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The Independent Online
Louis Osman sparked on many cylinders. He was architect, goldsmith, draftsman, art historian and art patron. Most of all, he was a creator of genius.

He trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and studied drawing at the Slade School of Art. In 1935 he became FRIBA, winning a Donaldson Medal and a scholarship which in 1936 took him to Syria on a British Museum archaeology expedition. In the Second World War he was a major in Intelligence, involved in Combined Operations and the Special Air Service, and - perhaps the decisive event of his life - in 1940 he married Dilys Roberts; she became his enamellist as well as his unswerving supporter, the lifelong steadying influence on his mercurial spirit.

As architect, Osman began in Sir Albert Richardson's office, learning there the grammar of ornament, and the basis of architectural good manners, a debt to Richardson which he always generously acknowledged. His own ideas were more original than Richardson's, but he used to point with satisfaction at the new Jockey Club building in Newmarket, which he helped to design with Richardson, and which looks today as if it were a Georgian antique.

By 1950, Osman was emerging in his true creative colours. He rebuilt the two bomb- damaged Georgian buildings on the north side of Cavendish Square in London which became the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, joined them with a new bridge, and commissioned Epstein's magnificent Madonna and Child for the central feature on the bridge. It was then that I came to know him well, partly because, with characteristic imagination, he asked the silversmith Philip Popham to make a small commemorative tablet to bury inside the masonry of the bridge, and I, already working at Goldsmiths' Hall in the City, was interested in any commissions for modern metalwork.

I soon learnt from Osman the warmth of his feelings for other artists, and the sensitivity of his appreciation of old buildings. He had asked his friend the sculptor John Skeaping which sculpture ex-students from the Royal College of Art might be interested in a major public commission. Osman wrote to four promising youngsters, but they all replied they were too busy for a few months. Exasperated, he then wrote to Epstein, who was by then world-famous. Next morning, Epstein turned up on Osman's doorstep, and London's finest public sculpture was the result.

Osman enjoyed telling this story, to illustrate how spoilt and unrealistic some art students could become. He believed that all artists should snatch at any opportunity to undertake commissions, to satisfy a practical need. He also liked to put this commission in its difficult context, describing the origins of the long vista from Cavendish Square down to St George's, a vista which the convent buildings and sculpture helped to enhance. I realised the breadth of his learning.

Other big architectural commissions included Ranston House in Dorset, involving an almost total rebuild of a Georgian mansion, which John Martin Robinson in his book Latest Country Houses (1984) calls "among the most distinguished and stylish houses created since the last war". Another big statement, now alas altered with the central court roofed in, was the Principal's Lodging at Newnham College, Cambridge, like a tiny Italian Renaissance palazzo, but with splendid modern stained glass, and big sculptures by Geoffrey Clarke.

Another success for Osman was his restoration of Staunton Harold church, in Leicestershire, for the National Trust. Perhaps more important was Shere church in Surrey, where his splendid altar frontals and ornaments are still in use. He explained to me there how nearly all architects fail to discern correctly which parts of interior medieval walls were rendered with cement, which were intended to reveal the beauty of the bare stone.

Osman did not enjoy the new architecture of accurate cost-accounting and quantity-surveying. He once worked for Sir Richard Seifert, doyen of this new style of prefabricated office building. Osman told me how he had to hide beneath Seifert's office desk to escape the wrath of angry visiting creditors; Osman was not the only British architect to incur money problems in the Sixties. Seifert later confirmed this anecdote to me, adding a charming postscript: "Mr Osman," he said, "is the most creative man I have ever met."

Osman was the first to admit that he was a "lousy businessman", which is partly why his architectural practice did not flourish. He could be alarmingly honest with his clients. Graham Sutherland, the painter, wrote to him, "You are the only architect I know who can draw." The result, alas, was that Osman spent more energy on his beautiful architectural drawings than he did on the equally vital costings. A friend once called Osman "the original hippie", meaning that his loving nature was not overloaded with material self-interest.

Osman made a huge, visionary scheme for Lord Roborough's model village striding across Dartmoor. For St John's Smith Square, Osman, supported by the Earl of Harewood and others, planned an interior with a ceiling by Picasso. Osman knew that the original Georgian architecture by Thomas Archer had not survived sufficiently to warrant what was eventually chosen, a reconstruction in a faked Archer style. For an extension to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, Osman dreamed of a tall cantilevered tower, an exciting addition to a famous skyline.

He loved details, and the artists and craftsmen who made them, and it was this love which eventually turned him into an amazing goldsmith. For Lady Hollenden in Gloucestershire, he designed a green oak cantilevered spiral staircase 5ft wide. The engineering was difficult to make, the cost was difficult to estimate, because nothing like it had ever been made anywhere before. It was a great success.

For the Marchioness of Lothian at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire, he restored the Georgian garden arbour by the blacksmith Robert Bakewell. He told me that a ton of paint was removed, and a thousand new pieces of wrought iron inserted to replace crude repairs which had been improvised with bits of gas piping. The original colours were discovered and restored, and a masterpiece of ironwork was reborn.

He wrote, "In the past, people didn't mind if they made jewels or cathedrals; now, most architects would feel very let down if they had to make their wife a button." Osman moved out of masonry and into precious metals with grace and apparent ease. A symbolic link between these parallel careers of his was the first of the diocesan treasuries organised by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in cathedrals, to house and display plate from the diocese; we commissioned Osman to design the treasury in Lincoln Cathedral. Again, in 1969, we commissioned him to make the crown which we presented to the Prince of Wales for his investiture in Caernarvon Castle. Soon before the delivery date the Queen asked a mutual friend whether the crown would be on time: "Certainly, ma'am," came the reply. "It will arrive at the very last moment, and it will be a work of high genius, but the artist may be covered in straw, and the floor of his van may be covered in cowpats."

The crown, now in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, is deservedly the best-known piece of new British gold of this century. It was made by a process still new for gold - electroforming - and it launched Osman's new home, the huge Northamptonshire mansion Canons Ashby, where he now made his workshop with half a dozen helpers.

In 1971 came the triumphant Louis Osman Gold Exhibition at Goldsmiths' Hall, financed by various gold mining concerns, with the impressive total of 105 exhibits, nearly all made in Osman's favourite metal, gold. In the catalogue the Duke of Edinburgh calls Osman a great craftsman, which seems no less than fair comment. In 1973, Osman finished the first of his majestic series of medals, for the exhibition at Goldsmiths' Hall "Medals Today", including some inspired floor plans and profiles of cathedrals housing the Goldsmiths' treasuries. In 1974, Osman startled his neighbours with an extraordinary one-man show of 131 pieces at Canons Ashby, including several fine jewels which he had started to add to his vocabulary, sometimes for his neighbours like the Isham family.

In 1958 he made a very heavy cast silver wine mug for Sir Henry Tizard to use at Goldsmiths' Hall. Tizard, slightly nonplussed by the weight of the mug, eventually found a word of praise for it: "It will be useful to throw at people in committee meetings," he declared. Osman, himself impatient in committees, liked that.

One of Osman's first big commissions had been in 1964, for a new high altar cross in Ely Cathedral. Graham Sutherland made the central crucifix. Sadly, the cathedral rejected this major work, which ended in Dallas Museum, after a spell with Emery Reves, the Sutherland collector, at Villa la Pausa outside Marseilles. Osman made the high altar cross for Exeter cathedral (now in St Gabriel's Chapel there); a lectern for the Victoria and Albert Museum; in 1976, the gold, enamelled casket for Magna Carta, given by the British government to celebrate the Bicentennial, and now in the Capitol at Washington; and a long succession of magnificent, provocative treasures for the collection at Goldsmiths' Hall.

"Your work must show passion," he used to say to his craftsmen. He disliked mathematical perfection and symmetry; he always demanded personality and individuality. Once when I was with him, he was as usual explaining his ideas by drawing them. The pencil became blunt. What he was saying was so urgent that, instead of sharpening the point, he simply broke the whole pencil in half to reveal an undamaged lead inside.

A blunt lead would not stop Osman's creative flow. Nor did his near-bankruptcy in 1979, when he left Canons Ashby and moved to Byford Court in Herefordshire, then to Harpton Court, in Powys.

Louis Osman, artist, architect, goldsmith, medallist: born Exeter 30 January 1914; married 1940 Dilys Roberts (one daughter); died New Radnor, Powys 11 April 1996.