Peggy Ryan: Noted artist and picture restorer

Julian Machin

As Peggy Rose, she was reputed to be the best pupil to have come out of the Slade School of Art since Augustus John and Stanley Spencer. She was happy to have had the accolade, but happier still that her career trajectory plateaued early, sometimes alleged to have been the fault of her first husband, the painter Adrian Ryan. He turned her work to the wall when dealers or collectors called at their flat in Tite Street, Chelsea. Actually he was doing what subconsciously she wanted, for she was always frightened of the limelight and reluctant to be anywhere but safely in another's shadow.

He was four years younger than she was, and they met when she was showing him around the Slade on his first visit there in 1938. Vaguely she registered that he was "rather nice" in appearance – although by most accounts he was something of a sensation – before leaving on her award (£20 no less) from Goya Paints to go to Paris and Brittany.

Their affair began the following summer when she revisited the school to see her old friends. They married in January 1941, nine months before he came into his sizeable inheritance. By then she was pregnant, although their boy-child was miscarried. Theirs was an unconventional marriage from start to finish – on the eve of their divorce, each involved with other parties, they none the less spent the night together – and their connection endured with agreeable tenderness. When Adrian Ryan died in 1998, Peggy said that she had lost her best friend. Although she was twice married, she retained his surname, which sometimes generated confusion with the faction of "Mrs Ryans" who succeeded her.

Her attempt to enter art school was made with drawings of Garbo, Joan Crawford and some of her brother sitting in an armchair. Professor Randolph Schwabe's gruff evaluation was that since the latter were from life they made her an acceptable candidate. In fact she drew so well that she stood out a mile. She was first to be awarded the Ida Nettleship Scholarship, for Domestic Employment (pictured right), a painting of her fellow student Dodie Masterman sewing.

Her claim was not to have done anything at the Slade during the first three of her five years there, except "coming alive, sitting in coffee houses, meeting poets from the university." She got engaged to a medical student, but couldn't go through with it. Her fluctuating painting intentions, "sometimes serious, sometimes not", were a result of her innate terror of rejection. She was safety-conscious above all, and it made her apt to disappear off in all sorts of directions and self-effacing in the extreme.

This did not work well for her relationships, nor was she aware of her own attractiveness. In the 1940s, Ian Fleming approached her on the quay at St Ives, flirted with her and chatted her up. Despite thinking how good he looked, she suffered a fit of shyness rather than follow it up. She and Adrian Ryan had come to Cornwall because of her involvement with the Perranporth Theatre, and an affair she was having with its sponsor, while her husband was engaged with a trio of his own. They lived in Mousehole, a location of lasting significance for him but not for her.

Peggy Rose was born in Golders Green in 1916, the daughter of Harry Rose, a prosperous jeweller who went into film production, and Kate Mansell, a couturier. She had three brothers, and theirs was a world of nurses and governesses, although it was informal for the times. Her mother was doyenne of her trade and her clients included the Bowes-Lyons and famous theatricals like Vester Tilly. As a fashion house it progressed via Bond Street to Berkeley Square, surviving on artistry and craftsmanship.

She dressed Peggy to mixed effect. The family lived high up in the old Hotel Somerset overlooking Selfridges, with a fox terrier whose daily deposits they tossed carelessly into Orchard Street below, before moving to Hampstead. Somehow her childhood was not relaxing. Her mother was always accusing her father of having affairs, even when he was over 90, and her brothers teased her unnecessarily. She grew up being terribly shy, and before meeting people would quake outside the door – a somewhat lasting tendency – and she retained a stutter throughout her life.

From in-depth understanding of painting, Peggy taught herself picture restoration, and in that way came to meet her second husband. He was Richard Alexander, who worked initially for Spinks in stamps and antiquities, then dealt privately in London and Brighton. She did restoration into her eighties, until cataracts caused her to mistake black for blue, and she also taught herself to repair Quimper pottery. The marriage to Richard did not withstand his obsessive need to find an ideal mother or the affairs that entailed. Their one son, Anthony, died of cystic fibrosis in 1960, and thereafter Peggy divorced again, converted to Catholicism and taught art at a school in Surrey.

After her Catholic godfather died – the Slade tutor Peter Brooker – she took her daughter Geraldine back to London and resumed picture restoration. Following this she spent two years as an orderly on a ward for terminal cancer patients at the Middlesex hospital. On a day off, she wandered into a sale room to try to buy a painting to sell on for a profit. She came to have numerous successes, including buying a work by the primitive artist Alfred Wallis that was mis-catalogued as "Child's drawing". She painstakingly researched her purchases to properly evaluate them, and found the process good for her self esteem.

During the 1980s she moved to Diss, Norfolk, to a higgledy-piggledy cottage that she filled with bibelots and pictures. She continued to do still lifes, always painting standing up, or doing portraits, as Professor Schwabe had advised her, long ago. She said she had no philosophy other than "No one is really old inside", and admitted to having been "a bit too independent", athough it made her glad. She retained a gentle pessimism – about herself, "not about the world" – as well as an easy resonance with young people, to whom she gave the idea that a modest existence was a good one.

Peggy Rose, artist, picture restorer and art dealer: born Golders Green, London 5 September 1916; married firstly Adrian Ryan (marriage dissolved; died 1998; one daughter), secondly Richard Alexander (marriage dissolved; one son deceased); died 14 January 2013.

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