Helen Scott Lidgett: PR supremo for major cultural institutions
Friday 17 August 2012
In 1991, a sculpture by Patricia Finch called Golders Hill Girl was unveiled in a north London park. Dressed in bronze flip-flops and hot pants, the work is arresting for its unusual mix of glamour and informality. The same might have been said of Helen Scott Lidgett, née Finch, who sat for the piece for her mother and has died of ovarian cancer at 63.
Scott Lidgett was, in all senses, a Golders Hill girl. Brought up in the house on the Finchley Road where her mother had been born and raised, her background was solidly north London Jewish. Both parents were doctors and the young Helen Finch was educated locally: first, like her mother, at the progressive King Alfred School, then at Henrietta Barnett in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
To her parents' alarm, the oldest of their two daughters decided to go to art school. Arriving at St Martins at the height of the Swinging Sixties, Helen Finch met and married a fellow student, Duncan Scott Lidgett, known as Scott. Contemporaries remember the pair as the effortless stars of their year. Drawn back towards Hampstead, they led the life of north London Bohemians.
In 1974, they were among the original traders at the market in Camden Lock, selling then-trendy Victorian clothes from a stall. This was followed by a shop, Scotts, on the Chalk Farm Road, which Helen Scott Lidgett ran single-handed after her marriage failed in 1982. Scotts' wedding dresses gained a cult following, selling to Liberty and Selfridges as well as to local brides, among them the future Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell.
This was not Scott Lidgett's only cultural link. Before going into business, she had run the art department at Camden School for Girls. She also worked as a critic and arts writer for the magazine Time Out. In among all of this, she found time to run a gallery, the Boat House, showing student work on a steam launch in Camden Lock. In 1990, she took over as head of publicity at the art publishers Thames & Hudson.
By this time, Scott Lidgett's style was established. Exotically good-looking, her tastes ran to dark glasses, bare feet and – her own word – bling. She made no bones about enjoying the good life: one assistant at T&H recalls spending her first day with her new boss on a Lear jet to Paris. Another, having reorganised Scott Lidgett's filing cabinet, came back from lunch to find her employer on her hands and knees in front of it, bowing. "Helen never seemed serious about anything," she says. "In fact, she was serious about everything."
Above all, Scott Lidgett was serious about teaching. Pupils at Camden – the comedian Arabella Weir, the film-maker Sophie Muller – became friends for life. Ex-Scott Lidgett trainees now run much of British cultural PR, and are to be found in positions of influence throughout the arts and media.
Organising T&H's 50th anniversary party at the National Gallery in 1999, Scott Lidgett met an ex-Camden pupil, Sarah Macaulay. (Macaulay had not, as is often reported, been taught by her at the school.) Gordon Brown's soon-to-be wife had recently set up an arts PR business with another Camden friend, Julia Hobsbawm. The pair were impressed by, among other things, Scott Lidgett's ability to attend three private views in an evening, and to position herself unerringly in the path of the best canapés at each. After a decade at Thames & Hudson and in need of a challenge, she left to join Hobsbawm Macaulay. When Sarah Brown, married to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and pregnant with her first child, retired from the business in 2001, Scott Lidgett moved on to run the arts subsidiary of the communications giant Brunswick.
Apart from a brief interlude in 2010, she stayed with the company for the rest of her life, managing publicity campaigns for projects as diverse as the British Council's pavilions at the Venice Biennale and, in 2006, the French government's cultural charm offensive in Britain, Paris Calling. For her work on the second of these, Scott Lidgett was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
In the run-up to the last general election, she was given a year's leave from Brunswick to advise Gordon Brown on his culture strategy, the invitation coming from the Prime Minister himself rather than from his wife. If she found Downing Street stuffy, Scott Lidgett was nonetheless adamant about the importance of what she had been asked to do. An instinctive Labour supporter, she was a fierce defender of arts education in schools, as well as of free entry to museums and galleries.
Already diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2008, she handled her illness with characteristic humour and professionalism. Serious about her own art as well as other people's, she continued to go to drawing lessons at the Royal Academy Schools, and attended her last gallery opening three weeks before her death. An art world colleague, meeting her there, asked how she was: Scott Lidgett flashed a ravishing smile, said "Dying," and spent the rest of the evening chatting to Grayson Perry. Speaking to her daughter as her consciousness faded, she mused, "I think there's a private view tonight." Then she was quiet for a moment and added, "But there'll be others."
Helen Scott Lidgett (née Finch), artist and public relations supremo: born London 26 November 1948; married first 1972 Duncan Scott Lidgett (divorced 1982, one daughter, one son); second 2002 Johnny White (one son); Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, 2008; died London 31 July 2012.
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