Barbara Wykeham

Architect daughter of J. B. Priestley
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The Independent Online

Barbara Elizabeth Priestley, architect and painter: born London 4 March 1923; married 1949 Peter Wykeham-Barnes (relinquished the surname Barnes 1955, KCB 1965, died 1995; two sons, one daughter); died Stockbridge, Hampshire 6 June 2006.

The architect and painter Barbara Wykeham was the eldest child of J.B. Priestley and the wife of the Second World War air ace Air Marshal Sir Peter Wykeham. She had her first professional solo exhibition as a painter at the age of 80 and sold virtually every picture. The medium was gouache, also favoured by her father in his old age. As an architect she lived to see a factory she had designed at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, designated a "seminal building" by the RIBA, to her pleasure and amusement.

Barbara Wykeham was a firm believer that if parents were nice their children would be nice; and that the secret to a happy old age is to "have loved the people you lived with". Her merry eyes, ready smile and forthright hospitality could not have spoken more highly of her own parents. As J.B. Priestley had three wives, including the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, and a confusion of children and step-children, this might have seemed surprising, but she was a grateful witness to his having been as successful a father as he was a writer.

"The fact is he was the most marvellous father - and how many people with famous fathers can say that!" she insisted, recalling his pranks, games and jovial tunes on the piano; the way he always set afternoons aside for the benefit of her and her siblings. She had a particularly fond memory of one lunch made burdensome by some earnest visitors, when he secretly filled his mouth with huge teeth cut from orange peel and suddenly flashed a hideous grin.

Barbara Priestley was born in Fulham, London in 1923, J.B. Priestley's first child with his first wife Jane Tempest, who died when Barbara and her younger sister Sylvia were children. The second Mrs Priestley was Jane Wyndham Lewis, former wife of the journalist D.B. Wyndham Lewis. She had a child, Angela, from this first marriage and Mary, Rachel and Tom with Priestley. The love of her father compensated Barbara for an unavoidably difficult childhood, compounded by a year's solitary confinement with tuberculosis. The only excitement during this illness was when Sir James Barrie, "a lovely man", sent her a musical box consisting of a furry rabbit which popped out of a cauliflower. Long thought lost, it popped up again many years later illustrating the title credits on The Antiques Road Show.

The success of her father's 1929 novel The Good Companions enriched all their lives. As well as Coleridge's house in Highgate they now had Billingham, a Jacobean mansion on the Isle of Wight. There was a butler called Butler and a chauffeur called Rolls. The war brought the idyll to an abrupt end, with Billingham commandeered by the Black Watch at an hour's notice.

Barbara Priestley had been destined for Oxford but instead opted for the Architectural Association, reduced in wartime to a skeletal minimum. She was its star pupil until the return of the conscripts. During this period, she appeared as one of Britain's bright young hopes for the future in Humphrey Jennings's documentary classic A Diary for Timothy (1945). On graduating in 1948 she was drafted into the Ministry for Planning for the rebuilding of post-war Britain.

In 1949, in the ruins of St James's Piccadilly, she married the then Wing Cdr Peter Wykeham-Barnes - one of the legendary "Malta Pirates", leader of the successful Mosquito-bomber attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Aarhus and the pilot entrusted with Richard Dimbleby so that there could be a radio commentary of the Normandy landings; a task made no easier when, once airborne, the commentator was extravagantly sick.

Her husband's foreign postings inevitably proved disadvantageous to Barbara Wykeham's architectural career and on his retirement as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, they settled in Hampshire. She was a modernist but their rambling house was 1906 Arts and Crafts, a style she called "blown up cottages". The orchard and meadow were agreeably haunted some summer evenings by the babble of an Edwardian picnic party, which she assured her guests was factually beyond dispute but "compellingly inviting" rather than frightening.

On her return to England she had studied at Richmond Art College and subsequently became a member of a group called the Circuit Painters. In her own paintings she was indebted to the Scottish colourists and other modern painters who extended, but never breached, the bounds of the observable. She was equally adept at figures, landscapes and still lives; and typically content that her first solo exhibition, in 2003, should be a retrospective and therefore also her last.

John McEwen

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