Obituary: Gabrielle Keiller
Friday 12 January 1996
On her death, she bequeathed a collection of 136 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, as well as manuscripts and books, to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. These join 26 works from the Roland Penrose collection acquired by the gallery last year with lottery funds; together they will form one of the greatest international collections of Dada and Surrealist work.
Gabrielle Ritchie was born in 1908, and her first real career was that of amateur golfer in the late 1930s, as Gabrielle Style; the surname being that of her second husband, a brewer. During the Second World War she drove ambulances for the LCC auxiliary ambulance service, but she afterwards resumed golfing and in 1948 won the Ladies' Open Championships in Luxembourg, Switzerland and Monaco, retaining the Monaco title in 1949. She was also a member of the England and Surrey teams.
In 1951 she married as her third husband Alexander Keiller, from one of the Dundee families of marmalade manufacturers. He was the archaeologist who excavated Avebury in Wiltshire. They bought Telegraph Cottage on Kingston Hill, Kingston-upon-Thames, close to two golf courses, and there she lived for most of the rest of her life. She spent much time on her hands and knees creating a fine garden in more than four acres of land.
After her husband died in 1955 Gabrielle Keiller gave up golf and worked as a part-time volunteer in the British Museum, helping Rupert Bruce- Mitford with his massive study of the Sutton Hoo ship burial from 1956 until about 1970. She was also a voluntary guide at the Tate Gallery from 1976 to 1987 and on the advisory committee of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 1978 to 1985.
In the 1930s she inherited from her paternal grandmother, who had remarried into the American Adair family, a part-share in a Texas ranch. The sale of this asset after the war provided her with funds for collecting art. At first her interests were in Old Master paintings (at one time she owned a Cezanne), fine antique furniture, silver and porcelain. But a visit to Venice in 1960 brought about a change of focus. There she was introduced to Peggy Guggenheim and saw her collection of Dada and Surrealist art; she also came across sculpture and other work by Eduardo Paolozzi at the Biennale.
Keiller started to form a distinguished collection of Dada and Surrealist art of her own, including examples of most of the principal exponents of the movements: paintings and collages by Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, Magritte, Man Ray, Mir, Schwitters and Tanguy among others, and sculpture by Duchamp and Giacometti. She also acquired a fine early Francis Bacon and a portrait in ice-cream colours of her much- loved dachshund Maurice by Andy Warhol.
Her collection was small but choice as nothing was bought unless there was space to hang it, and Telegraph Cottage was not large. The now-dispersed collections of Roland Penrose and Edward James were far larger, but the fact that Keiller's collection can be mentioned in the same breath is praise indeed.
The first Paolozzi was bought in 1963 and soon Gabrielle Keiller became his most important patron. By displaying sculpture in the garden she was able to achieve a wonderful marriage between her own art form (her impressive garden) and that of the sculptors, for example a Paolozzi frog by a pond with water lilies. Particularly memorable was a concentric circle of slate set in a clearing in a copse, which she commissioned from Richard Long. A serious fire in 1986 must have been heart-breaking as it meant that Keiller had to give up the house and garden; several works of art were damaged and the upheaval affected her health. Never again did she have a house with a garden in which she could work. The public, however, benefited from the disaster in the form of "The Magic Mirror", an exhibition of some 180 Dada and Surrealist works (including books and other items) at the Royal Scottish Academy at the 1988 Edinburgh Festival and a touring exhibition of 18 Paolozzi sculptures.
Gabrielle Keiller was prone to uncertainty and self-denigration. This was absurd; it is difficult to imagine anyone with less cause for projecting such an image.
Gabrielle Muriel Ritchie, golfer and art collector: born North Berwick 10 August 1908; married three times (one son); died Bath 23 December 1995.
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