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Mattei Radev: Mainstay of Bloomsbury artistic society who had a tortured relationship with E.M. Forster

In 1950, Mattei Radev, who has died aged 81, was a young Bulgarian stowaway hidden in a lifeboat on board a cargo ship bound for Britain. He subsequently flourished socially, within a cultural mélange of Bloomsbury literary and artistic society, and professionally, as a highly distinguished picture framer to the London galleries. This rise from ordinary beginnings near Plovdiv was made possible through his curious capacity for friendship which, while he engaged with people easily, secured him a place beyond which most did not get and allowed him to remain an enigma.

Conspicuous among those whose ardour sought to ruffle his cool Slavic surface was the novelist E.M. Forster, who spent almost the last decade of his life attempting to do so, as a recently discovered archive of Forster correspondence makes clear. From its 95 or so unpublished letters, dated between 1960 and 1969, it is clear that Radev fulfilled a certain role for Forster, exemplifying the proof he was seeking that class prejudice could be successfully reconciled through homosexuality.

Forster was delighted by him, although not his spasmodic unreliability. According to J.R. Ackerley, Forster never let people down – and he never let them off – and was as prone to sending notes of appreciation as he was reproaches or rebukes when vexed, choosing his words with exquisite precision and devised to sting. Radev regularly received both sorts: "Dear Mattei, That is a very nice letter, except for a sentence in it which you missed out. The sentence in question is 'I am coming on April the 10th' Do you think you could take up your pen and write it now?"

Forster's huge attraction to Radev was commensurate with his torment over Radev's retreats into tactical silence. Where Forster found refuge in ideas, Radev disappeared into the feeling realm, and was as easily hurt as he was also capable of hurting. Nearly 50 years apart in age, they were total opposites, each drawn to the other by what he lacked in himself. Neither was willing to cede power in the relationship or see the degree of his own intensity; a case of reputation, honour and prestige pitted against youth. It was compelling for Forster so he kept going, and the evidence suggests that they would have been passionate lovers were it fulfilled in earthly reality. Radev was never forthcoming on this point.

Mattei Radev was born on 13 November 1927 into a fraternity of shopkeepers, formerly from Macedonia, who also owned vineyards around the village of Brestovitza. Following the confiscation of their property by the Communists, he escaped by luck and with some difficulty arrived overland at Istanbul, where he looked out for a boat that he knew was travelling to England. Concealed as a stowaway for four days in which he survived on lemons, he remained on board until Malta, working his passage before being told he could continue to Glasgow. He was held in prison detention there before travelling on to London, where he found a job as an orderly at the Whittington Hospital.

His exotic Balkan face, with lashings of thick dark hair, brought him to the attention of the eye surgeon Patrick Trevor-Roper – later an influential gay rights activist and one of only three openly gay people prepared to act as witnesses to the Wolfenden Committee – who introduced him to Robert Wellington, founder of the Zwemmer Gallery. Radev graduated thereafter from a Camden Town doss house into Wellington's home in one of the Nash Terraces in Regent's Park. Their neighbour was Margaret Rutherford, who noted that their initials were the same and suggested he Anglicise his name to "Matthew Radford". Al-though he never did, she called him that each time she saw him.

Various nondescript jobs followed, including for Hardy Amies and for the fabric magnate Sir Nicholas Sekers, before the artist Robert Medley suggested framing some of his paintings. This led to an apprenticeship with Robert Savage, who had a framers and gallery in the Brompton Road and who was as uncompromising as his name suggests. Eventually Radev was sacked for no good reason and forced to borrow £9,000 in 1960 to start up his own business in the then bohemian quarter around Fitzroy Square.

It was Eardley Knollys, the former gallery owner turned Bloomsbury painter, who obliged him not only with the loan but with his enduring friendship, integrating him fully into his considerable artistic circle. Knollys had tenure of Long Crichel House, Dorset, courtesy of the National Trust, and lived there with Eddy Sackville-West, Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Raymond Mortimer. There in the early spring of 1960, Radev was first introduced to Forster, who began writing enticingly to him afterwards on the pretext of Radev having left a fountain pen behind which had mistakenly been sent on to him.

His picture framing business gathered momentum, offering quality with good value, and could be relied upon to finish orders on time. If it wasn't of the first rank, it was better for not vaunting itself to the world, and Radev declined the Royal warrant because he didn't want to alienate his normal customers. He found the right balance between off-setting a picture with its frame and not dominating it with excessive use of gold leaf.

He also took to painting himself, but his naïve subject matter never penetrated to the depths of his emotions. Nevertheless, when Knollys opted out of Long Crichel in 1967, he and Radev bought a former hunting lodge perched on a hill in Hampshire and turned it into a real painters' house, with a purpose-built studio in the garden. It was also an escape for writers including James Lees-Milne and Frances Partridge. Lives intertwined there without constraints of convention: guests sitting down to dinner were as likely to include the Sitwells, the cleaning lady, or both. It was a state of friendship into which others entered and sometimes departed, but didn't come between, which lasted until Knollys' death in 1991.

After Frances Partridge died in 2004, Radev found himself a vestige of Bloomsbury – a curious position for a Bulgarian émigré – attained by sublime means of friendship. There is a lost remark in Forster's Passage to India made to Adela by Mrs Moore which disappeared before the final version. The wistfulness of it is reminiscent of what was written much later by Forster to Radev: "You have succeeded in making everyone very kind to you, my dear. I wonder how long they will go on? People used to be kind to me." To those around him, Mattei Radev generally radiated good feeling and was enduringly the recipient of it.

In 2006 he entered into civil partnership with the theatrical designer Norman Coates, who survives him.

Julian Machin

Mattei Radev, picture framer: born 13 November 1927; 2006 civil partnership, Norman Coates; died London 12 August 2009.