Anne Naysmith: Concert pianist who later lived her life on the streets and became a cherished figure in Chiswick, West London

 

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The Independent Online

Anne Naysmith, who has died after being hit by a lorry in Chiswick High Road, west London, has no Alan Bennett to write about her, as he did for Miss Shepherd, who camped on Bennett's front drive and is immortalised in his play The Lady in the Van.

But her story is just as fascinating, not least because she began as a very promising concert pianist in the 1960s – after studying at the Royal Academy of Music with Harold Craxton and Liza Fuchsova – before misfortune blighted her career and she ended up living rough in Chiswick. Yet she never lost her charm and intelligence, and became something of a local institution.

She was born Anne Smith in Southend-on-Sea in 1937, and this was the name under which she appeared professionally, at the Wigmore Hall and elsewhere in the 1960s – and she came to wider notice when, on 24 February 1967, she made her solo debut at the Wigmore Hall in a piano recital.

As well as C P E Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, she played music by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and the then 34-year-old Alemdar Sabitovych Karamanov – whom Alfred Schnittke has called the outstanding Russian composer of our day (an accolade many would apply to Schnittke himself) – no doubt reflecting her own ancestry, for her mother was Russian.

Some sources have suggested that her mother hired the Wigmore for this occasion, but notices show that the recital was managed and promoted by the London agent Wilfrid Van Wyck, no doubt on the strength of successful appearances at more modest London venues, such as Leighton House and at St James's Church Piccadilly, where she was heard in 1965.

She also played Mozart's Piano Concerto No 25 at the Northern Polytechnic in the Holloway Road with the Modern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Dennington, which at the time provided a platform for many a rising star. In May 1968, for the Society of Women Musicians, she played alongside the Richards Piano Quartet in a recital at 4 St James's Square, Westminster.

The 1967 Wigmore Hall recital attracted attention for the inclusion of two unfamiliar pieces – C P E Bach's Twelve Variations on the "Folies d'Espagne" – the critic of The Times commenting on her "clear and neat finger technique" – and Karamanov's Six Variations in B minor, which "also fell easily under Miss Smith's fingers".

But Naysmith "blossomed most fully as an artist" in Rachmaninov's Three Preludes, op 23, in which she "drew some of the warmest and richest sonorities from her piano". If at the time she lacked that last ounce of power and maturity for Chopin's F minor Ballade or Beethoven's Sonata in D major, op 10, no 3, "many gleams of understanding" were noted. Clearly, in 1967, a name to watch.

A second Wigmore recital a year later, with Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Balakirev and Rachmaninov, consolidated her growing reputation. She also taught for a while at the Trinity College of Music.

Quite what went wrong for Naysmith is unclear – but pressure from her mother and a broken heart involving a 6ft 5in chorister are oft-repeated elements of the saga. She once recalled that while she enjoyed playing for pleasure, she did not enjoy the pressures of public performance.

Although she claimed to have been put off music by the demands of the profession, I often saw her in the Barbican Music Library, reading books and scores, and chatting to members of the staff; she was also often to be seen in the nearby City Business Library. She enjoyed chatting to people queuing for the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

At the time of her early professional appearances she had saved up and bought a car – the Ford Consul which would be her home for many years – and lived at 22 Prebend Gardens, Chiswick. But for some reason Naysmith had to leave the flat – which she continued to regard as her home, and from which she had, she believed, been unjustly evicted – instead taking up residence in her car outside, and refusing all offers of help and accommodation that did not include reoccupying her old home. A brave, if foolhardy, choice; but one, perhaps, to be admired.

There she stayed, from the age of 39, for 26 years, until in 2002 the local council towed away the car on the grounds, they said, of public safety. Sympathetic neighbours found her another, but this was soon vandalised, and Naysmith moved first to a car park, then to the greenery next to Stamford Brook underground station, cultivating a small plot of land, growing flowers and tomatoes and cooking over an open fire, until this too was thwarted, because of repairs to the adjacent boundary fence.

She was much loved in her local community, was fiercely independent, and was said to have investments and a City broker; but she chose her way of life as a matter of principle. The manner of her dying therefore seems particularly sad – and she will be sorely missed.

Anne Smith (Anne Naysmith), pianist; born Southend-on-Sea 1937; educated at the Royal Academy of Music; died Chiswick 10 February 2015.

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