OBITUARY: Catherine Martineau

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The Independent Online
One of the three daughters of William Ritchie and Margaret Booth, Catherine Martineau had a formidable lineage: Thackeray was her great- grandfather; Charles Booth, author of Life and Labour of the People in London, and Sir Richmond Ritchie, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India, were her grandfathers; great-great- uncles included Lord Macaulay and George Otto Trevelyan, while Leslie Stephen was a great-uncle.

The resulting cat's cradle of uncles, aunts and cousins reads like a roll-call of the professional and intellectual establishment, stretching from Cripps to Webb by way of such names as Hobhouse, Llewellyn-Davies, Macnaghten, Meinertzhagen and Potter, with most of whom she kept up until the end of her life an astonishing correspondence which was as wise and spirited as it was descriptive.

After school at Albemarle House, in Wimbledon, under the formidable Miss Parrott and at Wimbledon High, she went to stay at Cambridge with family friends, the Darwins, where she was invited to sort out the Beagle papers, which were in total disorder. Her pencilled annotations and tentative datings signed "Cash" (the name by which she was known to family and friends) or "C.R." were to cause puzzlement to later biographers, who were finally put on the right track by an old friend and who then poured in to interview her. She obtained a Librarianship Diploma at University College London and studied Palaeography with Dr Eric Miller, then Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. She went to Berlin and Munich and her personal memories of the signs of the Nazi takeover in 1933-34 were vivid.

In 1940 she and her husband John Martineau (whom she had married in 1936) were bombed out of their London house and went to live at Taplow, in Buckinghamshire. Here their neighbours included Joyce Grenfell, with whom she formed a close friendship and worked at the Canadian Hospital at Cliveden. Tom Balston, the Oxford historian, was a frequent visitor and one day suggested that she bicycle to Cookham with him to see his friend Stanley Spencer.

Her first memory of Spencer is startling: he had just returned from working on his Shipbuilding on the Clyde pictures (a war artist commission) and transfixed her by shooting across the floor a roll of wartime lavatory paper on which he had made his preparatory sketches. This meeting and her subsequent friendship with Stanley and his brother Gilbert she was to recall in her only venture into print, in Stanley Spencer, the Man: correspondence and reminiscences, edited by John Rothenstein and published in 1979, and in spoken words in Edward Lucie-Smith's radio portrait of the painter.

Spencer became a regular visitor to the Martineaus' household, dropping in for "Nursery Tea" followed by a "tinkle on the pi-ar-no", when he loved to play Bach. She described how he liked to lie on the floor with her children and "chat up" the figures in photographs of his paintings. When one of them asked why the disciples' feet were crossed in the Glasgow Resurrection, he answered, "They're a bit bored you see, they've heard it all before." In order to assure the Provost and Fellows of Eton that he was a suitable artist to carry out their commission for a portrait of Harold Macmillan, his drawing of her daughter Jane aged eight was sent round for their inspection. The Fellows approved. When Spencer returned from the investiture of his knighthood, he made the children act out the scene, with one of them as the Queen Mother brandishing a poker and murmuring, "I have been wanting to do this for a long time."

How much Catherine's friendship meant to Spencer is shown by what he wrote to her just before he died: "When you came with Tom Balston you gave me Hope indeed, and later when I saw Jack [Martineau] I knew that I had what I so wanted, Friends!" A few weeks earlier she had gone to see him on her return from Florence and he had drawn from memory all the scenes on the base of Giotto's campanile.

Some years later, when she had moved to her husband's family home in Suffolk, they offered a house to Gilbert Spencer, who continued the tradition of drawing her daughters, as well as Edith Hotchin, who had been Nanny both to Catherine Ritchie and her children and who habitually referred to her employer as "Old thing".

It was characteristic that, after the death of her husband in 1982 when she had considerable means at her disposal, Catherine Martineau should immediately seek to give away a substantial part, through a charitable trust and through donations to her local community. It was in recognition of all that she had done that, on her 80th birthday, the village bell- ringers rang a peal which lasted for three hours. It was only with difficulty that she was restrained from attempting to climb the tower to thank them.

William Mostyn-Owen

Catherine Makepeace Thackeray Ritchie: born London 3 March 1911; married 1936 John Martineau (died 1982; two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Walsham le Willows, Suffolk 22 October 1995.