Obituary: Helen Guiterman - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Obituary: Helen Guiterman

WORK by the Scottish painter David Roberts RA (1796-1864) is now expensively collectable. His often dramatic architectural subjects range from Scotland to Syria, Spain to the temples of Philae and Abu Simbel. His enormous output, both original and published, won him comfortable fame and perfect sets of his The Holy Land: Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia (1842-49), the finest of Victorian lithographed travel volumes, are now in the pounds 50,000 bracket, as well as forming the basis of a significant Middle Eastern reproduction industry. In scholarly terms, however, Roberts was one of many neglected "minor" Victorians until about 1961, when Helen Guiterman - a middle-aged local government officer - bought two drawings attributed to him from a Swiss Cottage dealer: they cost her pounds 3.

Only one was genuine but they set her off in a pursuit of "everything about Roberts" that was to last for over 30 years, re-establish him as probably the most intrepid of Victorian artist-travellers, and open a significant new window into both the London art and theatre worlds of the 1820s on.

Helen Guiterman was born in Bournemouth, in 1916. She was educated at St George's School, Harpenden, gained a Diploma in Fine Art from the Slade School, London, in 1936 and then studied design for a further six months in New York, specialising in textiles. Though of conventional middle-class background, she was a lifelong socialist and an active pre-war anti-Fascist.

As a student she worked for the British Youth Peace Assembly and, after Russian entry into the Second World War for the Anglo-Soviet Youth Friendship Alliance. Of this she became secretary and after the war organised and joined a Youth Delegation to the Soviet Union, an experience she regarded as one of the most interesting of her life.

After reorganising the photographic records in the publications department of the Tate Gallery, in 1945-47, she joined the architect's department of Middlesex County Council as an interior designer, moving to the London Borough of Haringey after the 1965 local government reorganisation. For both, until her retirement in 1978, her main work was designing colour schemes for school and accommodation projects, after which she did over five years part-time work with the Huguenot Society.

Roberts had then long been her main interest and she had built up, at very modest cost in present terms, a significant personal collection of (mainly) watercolours by him, his friends and contemporaries. She had very quickly also discovered that Roberts was a vivid and informative writer of both letters and autobiographical journals, which she located among his descendants by about 1963: she transcribed these and every other Roberts letter - eventually over 1,300 - that she could unearth in public and private sources here and abroad.

In 1967, her work supported a small exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery on Roberts and his friend and early fellow theatre painter Clarkson Stanfield: she herself lent works by both. Her own first intention was to publish Roberts's writings. However, by 1978, with no publisher interested, she issued at her own cost a 34-page illustrated "life", only to find in 1981 that Katharine Sim, an established author, was commissioned to write a full biography. To this she gave generous support and significantly reduced the errors in what is a good general account, but which even Sim admitted was done in some haste.

That year she also selected and catalogued the successful Scottish Arts Council touring exhibition "David Roberts - Artist Adventurer", which opened at the Birmingham Art Gallery before going on to the Fine Art Society, London, then to Paisley, Dundee and Edinburgh. By this time Guiterman was well-known to others with an interest in Roberts's various careers; as a young house decorator, a noted printer of stage scenery and panoramas, an artist traveller, or a well-known Scot in London in the circles of Turner and Dickens, among others.

She visited as many of the places Roberts painted as possible and in 1984 was awarded a British Academy grant to help support what had then become a project with Briony Llewellyn to publish a catalogue raisonee, backed by Phaidon and Christie's. With Llewellyn and Krystyna Matjaskiewicz as editor for Phaidon, she catalogued the impressively full Roberts retrospective exhibition held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1986-87 but publishing difficulties have so far stalled the larger project, now being continued by her two collaborators.

Guiterman was then 70 and though she wrote several related further articles in Turner Studies (1987-90) and reprinted her own short biography three times up to 1986, it was too late for anything bigger, though she continued work until forced to stop by failing health and eyesight in 1995.

Many of her Roberts and other drawings were on long loan to the Guildhall Art Gallery until 1985. She then withdrew the Robertses and some others but presented the gallery with the rest, comprising 106 pictures, many being by his contemporaries. In 1991 she gave 25 drawings including works by Stanfield, Cox, G.B. Campion, John Martin and Edward Lear to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and is believed to have made provision for other public bequests.

Helen Guiterman was an amateur and enthusiast of the best sort: thoroughly determined in pursuit of her chosen interest but also unassuming about her knowledge and as generous in sharing it as she was with the pictures she collected. Her "Robertsiana" - both for the catalogue and the "collected writings" - will survive her and (one hopes) eventually see full publication. Such an outcome would be her monument as much as the one she wanted for David Roberts.

Helen Mary Guiterman: designer, art collector, historian and benefactor: born Bournemouth, Dorset 9 January 1916; died Bournemouth 8 May 1998.

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