David Sullivan: Lawyer and Constable scholar who played a pivotal role in saving Burgh House, Hampstead, from a council sell-off

Probably Sullivan's proudest achievement was his part in saving Burgh House, a fine Queen Anne mansion in the heart of Hampstead village

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When David Sullivan was a young man, reading Classics at Oxford, he heard the great Whig historian, GM Trevelyan, lecture. Trevelyan described the joy a historian feels in trying to “breathe a spark of new life into the men and women who had formed a past society or culture”. Sullivan remembers him as likening it to “peering into illuminated houses, in an effort to see the occupants revealed against the background of the dark outside” – which in a way is what Sullivan, lawyer, historian, community champion, landscape painter and passionate defender of tradition, did in his own life.

He was born in Nakuru, Kenya, where his father was a farm manager. The freedom of a Kenyan early childhood was abruptly ended when, aged seven, he was sent as a boarder to Haileybury School, which at that time had strong military and imperial connections.

It was a rough experience for a young boy and one which marked his life for good and bad. A positive result was an interest in Imperial history and, in particular, a fascination with the life of the statesman Warren Hastings, about whom he later wrote a play. But the wrenching-away from his parents, particularly his mother, left him, at least for a while, emotionally damaged. He survived this by becoming an excellent cricketer, representing the school and playing at Lord’s, and by academic success, winning a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford in 1943 to read Classics.

The Second World War interrupted and from 1944-46 Sullivan served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, patrolling Scottish waters, once being asked to guard a number of captured German U-Boat sailors on his own. No one, it seems, got away.

Back at Oxford he graduated in Classics in 1948 with a First and began to read law, being called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1951. This was the beginning of a distinguished career in which he first specialised in contract law, representing, among others, the Beatles and Frank Zappa, and then became an insurance law expert, working for the Malaysian and Saudi Arabian governments.

He also played a prominent part in the 1968 Thalidomide drug compensation case, where he appeared for the drug company and helped hammer out the details of a settlement. He took silk in 1975, became a Bencher in 1984, and for three years was chairman of the Central Policy Committee for the Mental Health Act of 1983. He finally retired from legal work in 1988.

But the historian in him had never gone away. In 1962, he and his first wife, Sheila – he had married her in 1953 – bought a Suffolk cottage in the heart of John Constable country, and he began a deep involvement with Constable’s landscape painting. The fact that the couple mainly lived in Hampstead, close to the painter’s London home, encouraged this fascination. Sullivan made a close study of Constable’s cloud paintings, about which he lectured, and in 1986 wrote a BBC radio feature, titled, quoting Constable, Shadows Are Realities To Me.

Sullivan had also begun work on two detailed pieces of historical research on the medieval abbey and town of Westminster, which took him more than a decade to complete and which were published in two volumes, The Westminster Corridor (Historical Publications, 1994), and The Westminster Circle (Historical Publications, 2006). These two closely researched and beautifully documented books brought together Sullivan’s interest in and knowledge of topography and geology, as well as his eye for sometimes hilarious detail. This last was delightfully illustrated by his 1991 radio play, A Right Royal Burglary, a vivid account of a 1303 smash-and-grab raid at the Abbey.

Probably Sullivan’s proudest achievement, one which allowed him to use his eloquence, mastery of detail and knowledge of legal intricacies, was his part in saving Burgh House, a fine Queen Anne mansion in the heart of Hampstead village, from a council sell-off in 1978. Sullivan was one of “The Magnificent Seven” – which included the formidable Peggy Jay, Hampstead’s historian, Christopher Wade, and the then editor of the Hampstead and Highgate Express, Gerry Isaaman. They fought a two-year battle to save the house and garden and turn it into the Hampstead Museum and Arts Centre, which it still is today.

David Sullivan was a man of great personal charm and, once a certain shyness had been breached, a warm and affectionate friend and father. He had three daughters by his first marriage, while his second marriage, in 1981, to Ann, brought him a stepson and stepdaughter. He loved Hampstead and Suffolk equally, but was perhaps most contented in the thatched Suffolk cottage he and his wives had cared for so lovingly. A 1989 radio documentary, Straw and Steel, celebrated the place and its history. It was, in the end, his “illuminated house”.


David Douglas Hooper Sullivan, lawyer, historian and community activist: born Kenya 10 April 1926; married 1951 Sheila Bathurst (divorced 1980; three daughters); 1981 Ann Preston; died London 9 July 2015.