Astrid Zydower

Sculptor honoured for Expo '67
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Astrid Zydower, sculptor: born 4 August 1930; MBE 1968; died London 27 May 2005.

Astrid Zydower could never quite appreciate her worth as a sculptor. She was appointed MBE for her contribution to the British Pavilion at Expo '67, in Montreal - larger-than-life figures of a typical 1960s family. But, when she was at Buckingham Palace for her investiture and was asked by the Queen why she was there, she peered up at the royal presence (she stood only 4ft 10in) from beneath her broad-brimmed hat and replied: "Do you know, I'm not really sure."

Far from exulting in the honour, Zydower had been mainly concerned about that hat - and the rest of the smart gear that went with it. That problem overwhelmed all other emotions. It was to be a recurring theme throughout her life.

Through her work she was brought into contact with the high and mighty and the rich and famous, who invariably became enchanted with her unassuming nature, droll humour, and waif-like charm. Her 1970 bronze bust of Dame Marie Rambert for the National Portrait Gallery led to a lifelong friendship with the founder and director of Ballet Rambert and to many invitations to formal first nights. Her 1984 9ft bronze statue of Orpheus, commissioned by the Earl of Harewood for the central terrace at Harewood House in Yorkshire, put her on the guest list for posh weekend house parties. Her long, unlikely friendship with the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts through his wife Shirley, besides bringing further commissions from Mick Jagger as well as from the Watts, involved her in overnights at grand hotels like the George V in Paris.

While impressed friends gasped with envy, Zydower would wail with worry about what she should wear. Thankfully she found answers, because mixing in such company resulted in fabulous tales told round less distinguished dinner tables of getting inextricably enveloped in giant bath towels and seriously lost in labyrinthine corridors; and of embarrassing encounters with strange fruits like artichokes and avocados which she initially swallowed whole.

Astrid Zydower was born in 1930 in a small village in a part of Germany that has since reverted to Poland. With the rise of Nazism her integrated Jewish family began to feel the consequences of Hitler's contagious anti-Semitism. One of her earliest childhood memories was the sight of once-friendly Christian neighbours emerging from Sunday service to spit on her and her fellow Jews. In 1939, in an act of supreme sacrifice, she and her two older siblings were shipped off to England by their parents in the last of the Kindertransport. The children never saw their parents, who died in Auschwitz, again. Of the Jewish children in their village, immortalised in a haunting photograph, only the young Zydowers survived the Second World War.

In England the latter were destined for Sheffield. As they arrived at the station, clinging to each other for comfort, Astrid remembered a figure striding towards them with arms outstretched who managed to enfold them all in her embrace. This was Mrs Freeman, a God-fearing Quaker who was to become a most important influence in Astrid's life. The siblings had refused to be separated and Mrs Freeman, as Astrid always called her, and her family had agreed to foster them all.

Astrid, aged nine, spoke only German. Necessarily disadvantaged, she lagged severely behind her contemporaries at her English school. Never much interested in the three Rs, preferring to draw, she began to model figures out of Plasticine, showing a talent that her guardian was quick to notice and encourage.

Mrs Freeman was rewarded handsomely when her young protégée won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and went on to teach art at the Hornsey College of Art (where the future Mrs Charlie Watts was a pupil).

The Polish name Zydower, Astrid used to tell, means "Born-of-a-Jew" , which made it difficult to escape her origins, try as she might. She had quickly turned her back on religion and ultimately eschewed Judaism altogether. This dismayed many, but it wasn't what it seemed. She seldom talked of her tragic childhood experiences and never sought sympathy, but she grew to feel that any kind of racial or religious labelling could only nurture the kind of prejudice from which she and her family had suffered.

It was an attitude that enabled her to approach two contrasting works, both commissioned in the 1970s, with a fresh uncluttered eye. One, for the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, depicted a group of 10 down-at-heel Jewish men (a minyan) gathered together in a prayer room in London. The other, a stark, decidedly uncutesy portrayal of the Nativity, was for St Paul's Cathedral in London. (It was later moved to Lincoln Cathedral.)

There were other commissions, but latterly Zydower grew weary of the physical demands of sculpture and turned to etching, at which she excelled: themes from Greek mythology, a favourite source; bold, clean-cut male and female nudes.

For most of her adult life Astrid Zydower lived alone in London in a rambling house in Kentish Town, its two front rooms converted into a spacious studio. Guests arriving for one of her celebrated roast-lamb dinners were greeted by her smiling diminutive figure at the door, before passing the bottom half of the plaster cast of Orpheus at Harewood House, his outsized genitalia at eye level, to the cosy room at the back with its collection of delightful kitsch ornaments gathered through the years.

It was in this house that she died in May, as unobtrusively as she had lived, of a heart attack in her sleep. Her death has only now been formally announced.

Madeleine Harmsworth

I was pleased to see your obituary of Astrid Zydower, writes the Earl of Harewood. I knew her work from a number of casual viewings but it was the ballet and art critic Richard Buckle who suggested she should make the statue of Orpheus which now sits on the terrace at Harewood. We had seen the 12in-high model she made and asked her to transform into a 12ft-high bronze. This she eventually managed to do but she told me it was the hardest thing she had ever done because of its immense size.

Your obituary should perhaps have mentioned the series of portrait busts she made for the Shakespeare Exhibition, which celebrated the playwright's 400th birthday and was a feature of the 1964 Stratford Festival; that also was the result of Richard Buckle's admiration for her work.