Roger Berthoud: 'Independent' leader-writer who also wrote acclaimed biographies of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland


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The Independent Online

Roger Berthoud was a distinguished and versatile journalist, as well as the writer of authoritative biographies of Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. His long career started on the Daily Express in Manchester and he ended as chief leader writer for The Independent in its early days. He was liberal, pro-European, scrupulous about accuracy and fairness and sceptical of extreme views of every colour.

This did not mean that he lacked strong and well-informed convictions. In his entertaining (and occasionally a shade over-candid) autobiography he wrote: "I believe we Britons live in a country that has been consistently badly governed in my lifetime, by both main parties" – though he made a qualified exception for Attlee's postwar administration and Margaret Thatcher's first term. He particularly blamed what he called "our scandalously unjust electoral system", and his views were coloured by the period he spent as The Times correspondent, first in Bonn and then in Brussels.

Early in the Second World War he was sent with his younger sister as an evacuee to Canada, returning at the age of nine to join his elder brother Martin at a boarding prep school before going to Rugby. Called up for National Service, he discovered that he did not suit the army, and that the army did not suit him. As a result he was not given a commission, instead becoming a clerk in the Royal Artillery and serving during the Cold War in South Korea. He was also stationed in West Germany, where he would later return as a senior journalist.

After leaving the forces he went to Cambridge to read modern languages, an educational journey similar to many of his upper-middle class generation. From the Daily Express in 1960 he joined the London Evening Standard, working on the Londoner's Diary.

There, he worked with youngsters such as Max Hastings and Magnus Linklater. One of the choicest diary items he came up with concerned the 1963 Profumo affair, when the cabinet minister Jack Profumo had to resign after been detected in an amorous liaison.

During a spell in Paris Berthoud discovered that General de Gaulle had been following the affair. He reported that General had remarked to an aide, "That will teach the English to try and behave like Frenchmen." In 1967 he joined The Times, first working on its diary before being posted to Bonn. During the 1980s he left The Times to become deputy editor of the Illustrated London News, where for six years his column "Encounters with Roger Berthoud" proved highly popular.

Two people particularly influenced him, notably his formidable father Sir Eric Berthoud, a diplomat of Swiss descent who was Britain's ambassador in Copenhagen and Warsaw. The family base in England was an impressive country pile in Essex, where he spent his holidays and developed a passion for birdwatching. An important mentor was Maurice Ash, a wealthy expert on modern art and Buddhism whose homes at Dartington and Cap d'Antibes were frequent holiday locations.

During his time in Cambridge Berthoud had developed a deep interest in the arts, in particular painting and sculpture, and in the 1980s he produced two well-received books. The first, Graham Sutherland: a biography was well-reviewed, while five years later he published a similarly well-received life of Henry Moore. In expressing regret at Berthoud's death, the Henry Moore Foundation noted that he spent five years researching the book, which it describes as the sculptor's definitive biography. His research papers, which were acquired by the Foundation, form part of the Henry Moore Archives.

He advocated writing with a "gossamer touch," and was noted for his own success in doing so. One reviewer of his memoir, People, Politics and Paintings, lauded it as "exceptionally entertaining, wittily distilled with an exemplary freshness and a delightfully light touch."

Berthoud's wife Joy, also a journalist and author, ensured that invitations to their house on the edge of Hampstead Heath were much sought after and opened many doors. In later years they chose to live apart, and he moved from London to live near Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, near his daughters, Lucy and Lottie, and his three grandchildren.

There, he said, the best view in Wiltshire was "from my terrace." He enthused: "It overlooks the valley. I can see the Kennet and Avon Canal and the river. There is a wood behind and when the sun sets the way the light catches the tops of the trees is very beautiful. And I can see Bradford twinkling in the distance."

John Landell Mills writes: My wife and I were friends with him for over 50 years, and we remember him with affection and respect. If he lent you a book it would always be worth reading; if he recommended an art exhibition or a place to visit it would rarely be a disappointment. And his judgements about politics and people were always perceptive, if sometimes sharp. He was the sort of journalist a civilised, efficient democracy always needs.

Roger Berthoud, journalist and author: born 15 September 1934; married 1964 Joy Tagney (two daughters); died 27 October 2013.