Annabel Freyberg: Gifted writer and editor whose wit, taste, and brio enhanced the obituaries pages of 'The Independent'

 

Annabel Freyberg was, for 30 years, one of the most vivid and memorable figures in London journalism. An easy prose stylist and a sympathetic, sharp-eyed editor, she held senior editorial positions at The Independent (where she was deputy editor of the obituaries pages from 1995-99), the London Evening Standard, The World of Interiors, and the Daily Telegraph Magazine. She wrote with brio – and with a fresh, scholarly, and unexpected take – on fine and decorative arts, artists, interiors, houses and food. She published Ceramics for the Home (1999) and in recent years produced a handsome, quirky Teapot & Tea Calendar. That she should have delighted in teapots – the most practical, elegant but complicated product of the potter's art – was all of a piece with Freyberg, a trained artist and unfettered collector of objets d'art who understood the discipline and touch of a craftsman.

The dactyl-spondee of her five-syllable name held the promise of poetry. And the first glimpse of the Freyberg style did not disappoint. She tied her long, wavy tresses in an exotic array of bandanas, ribbons and scarves, a bird-of-paradise coiffure (crowned on her wedding day with foot-long fuchsia feathers) that topped off an haute bohème couture of flowing, voluminous fabrics in stained-glass colours. Her high, rounded brow was set above large, inquiring eyes, elegantly turned cheekbones, flawless alabaster skin, a swooping Greek-vase jawline and wide, expressive lips. She stood tall in flat shoes and carried her head with easy beauty, reacting in conversation with a gentle swaying of the torso, weightless nods and the gentle puckering or widening of her mobile features: features that always carried the promise of wit and humour.

There was nothing precious about Annabel Freyberg. She was sociable and inquisitive, and knew how to make a party go with a swing – and how to introduce people properly (and with a generous "sell" of even the most everyday talents). If she was an aesthete, she was a most grounded, down-to-earth one, a daughter of rural Surrey with a great love for gardens, orchards and the Suffolk country farmed by her maternal grandmother Perronelle Guild, artist, doyenne of organic farming and matriarch of the Aspall Cyder company.

When suffering struck – the long illness and death from cancer of her daughter Blossom (who died aged nine in 2012), followed by her own encounter with an inoperable cancer – she wrote about both with courage and clear-sightedness, however harrowed and exhausted she and her husband, the writer Andrew Barrow, must have felt. "I am a more fragile version of myself," she wrote in her last article for the Telegraph, two days before she died, "physically gaunt, but largely unchanged in other aspects and managing somehow, thanks to… supportive friends and family and a motley crew of alternative practitioners, to stay reasonably cheerful. And I mean cheerful, rather than just bearing up." She never pretended, or made light of reality, and in doing so remained the soft-voiced life-enhancer she was to the end.

She was born in 1961, the daughter of Paul Freyberg, second Lord Freyberg, a colonel in the Grenadier Guards, and his wife Ivry Guild. Much of her childhood was spent at Munstead House, near Godalming in Surrey, a house whose inheritance is freighted with the Arts and Craft good taste of the Glaswegian businessman and collector William Graham MP, his artist daughter Agnes and her soldier and wood-carver husband Sir Herbert Jekyll, their daughter Barbara Freyberg, and Sir Herbert's celebrated sister Gertrude Jekyll, garden designer. Annabel's paternal grandfather, Bernard Freyberg VC, first Lord Freyberg, husband of Barbara Jekyll, was a much-honoured hero of both world wars and leader of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Second.

Annabel Freyberg was educated at Heathfield School, near Ascot, and Marlborough College, in Wiltshire, and did "the season" as a debutante before becoming one of the first generation of women at Christ Church, Oxford, where she won a scholarship in English in 1980. She enjoyed student theatre – she was Gertrude to Hugh Grant's Hamlet – and went on to study for a year at Kingston College of Art, paying her way by waitressing and working on the door at the Chelsea Arts Club in London.

Annabel subsumed this training and her charming family cultural baggage ("charming" was a favourite Freyberg word, used with discernment) into a grandly strategic, card-index mind – she had been a champion chess-player as a child – and became a deft and memorable feature writer. She cut her writing and sub-editing teeth at Vogue and The Catholic Herald, where she formed a sparkling troika with Cristina Odone and their editor, Peter Stanford, and where she unaffectedly befriended the most eccentric and retiring of her colleagues. When she was headhunted from The Independent to the Evening Standard by its then editor, Max Hastings, she found an ideal and prominent niche in the Fleet Street landscape. And she flowered: the paper's celebrated art critic, Brian Sewell, thought her the best editor he had ever worked with.

***

Annabel Freyberg cut an exotic figure in The Independent offices, writes James Fergusson. Her extravagant headgear, her bangles and her earrings, brought colour and jollity to the glassy monochrome modernity of Canada House. Annabel had the knack of permanent good cheer. Her enormous acquaintance and fascination for gossip were boons to The Independent's obituaries page, which was determinedly varied and inclusive, unafraid of appearing eccentric. She came with vim and laughter – even if she could be endearingly scatty.

I remember one Sunday morning, when I was on holiday, turning on the radio to listen to The Archers omnibus. Radio 4 was in stately abeyance – Diana, Princess of Wales had died. I rang the office. How was my deputy faring? Annabel was high-pitched and hilarious. She had overslept all news programmes and only just arrived in the office – we had no obituary and what on earth was she to do? Of course, she looked after the page with aplomb and Rupert Cornwell rose ably to her challenge.

Annabel Pauline Jekyll Freyberg, writer and journalist: born Windsor, Berkshire 16 August 1961; married 2000 Andrew Barrow (one daughter deceased, and one son); died London 8 December 2013.

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