Diana Constance: Artist who also wrote for 'The Independent'

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The Independent Online

Diana Constance brought her native New York combative spirit to bear on what became the defining focus of her life – saving the North London art school which gave her the lifeline she needed when she arrived here from Rome in 1965.

She took classes at the old Camden Arts Centre with the celebrated Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams and began to exhibit with the London Group as well as taking part in the prestigious annual shows at the Centre itself.

Her complete commitment to the Hampstead artistic community and the tradition of artistic excellence left by Henry Moore was tested whenCamden Council took over the mock Tudor building in Finchley Road, with its excellent exhibition space and painting studios, and forced Jeanette Jackson, the painting school proprietor and grand dame of arts in Hampstead, to find new premises.

Constance, who as a teenager had won a scholarship at the prestigious Art Students League in New York, joined the teaching staff under the late David Carr and her creative drive and empathy with her students soon produced a loyal following on which she could draw in the difficult years ahead. When the school was threatened with closure in 2003, she responded in her typically gutsy way, successfully urging hercolleagues to donate a week's salaryto the cause. (Perhaps it isn't surprising to learn that an ancestor, Commodore John Barry, could be regarded as the founder of the American Navy, rather than John Paul Jones. He was a Philadelphia ship owner who paid out of his own pocket to build a frigate which challenged the Tripolitanian corsairs, the scourge of the Mediterranean shipping routes.)

Constance exhibited widely and enjoyed a growing reputation with her large oil and tempera landscapes, two of which hang in the West End boardrooms of the Diamond Trading Company and Mobil Oil. Six years ago she also won the Laing Landscape Award in the national competition held at the Mall Galleries. Her work was also bought for several years by the Leicestershire County Art Acquisition panel for display in schools.

Constance's strong sense of social justice found expression in a series of pastels which she made at the time of the Falklands War. Her painting of the sinking of the Belgrano, used as a half-page spread in the Guardian, and its companion piece, showing the drowning young seamen in a macabre dance of death, were part of a national anti-war exhibition and were subsequently purchased for the permanent collection of the Bradford University Peace Foundation.

However, her most controversial intervention in the social (and political) arena was her Aids exhibition, drawing public attention to the threat, which toured both Britain and Germany with ecumenical sponsorship. It rapidly achieved a measure of notoriety, with the gay community attacking it for alleged opportunistic pornography, a charge which the painter robustly rebutted throughout its two-year tour of cathedrals (Coventry and Manchester in Britain and the great Dom Cathedral, where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned, in Frankfurt am Main). It was a cause taken up particularly in Germany and was liberally covered on German television.

Constance was the author of seven practical art books, one of which, Drawing the Nude, has become a standard text in many art schools. One of the last accolades she received, in the last few months of her life, was to be invited to have her work shown on a new national website of painters under the patronage of the Duchess of Cornwall.

Constance was also a regular contributor to the Travel section of The Independent, covering the new South African travel scene, and particularly Zululand and the problems raised by the ending of apartheid. She also redirected the focus of Italian tourism to the untouched peninsula of the Gargano, site of Padre Pio's ministry.

Diana Constance, artist: born New York City 5 November 1934; married 1955 Jack Katzenstein (divorced 1970; one daughter), 1970 John F Crossland (one daughter); died London 28 November 2011.

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