Obituary: Christopher Ironside
Wednesday 15 July 1992
TALL, dark and handsome, and endowed with a natural elegance which inspired his many talents, Christopher Ironside was one of those artists who never receive the full recognition which they deserve. A brilliant draughtsman in a period when draughtsmanship is not appreciated, he brought to his work, whether it was painting or designing or modelling, a polished certainty which reflected the charm of his own character.
We first met as young men just before the last war when we both joined the Home Office camouflage unit which was being formed to tackle the job of making industry less of a bombing target if a war were to come. This was uncharted territory, but Ironside developed a special talent for analysing the shadows cast by the 'saw- tooth' structure of factory roofs and turning them into rows of innocent-looking suburban dwellings. In this new wartime art of illusion, he was able to deploy his inventiveness to great effect, and undoubtedly became one of its best practitioners.
Directly after the war, he worked for a time in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and then, as the education officer for the then Council of Industrial Design between 1946 and 1948, he helped to plan the post-war policy for the teaching of design in art schools. However, he was soon able to return to his career as a practising artist and inevitably as an art teacher, for the two professions are nowadays inextricably bound together.
At the outbreak of war he had married Janey Acheson - later noted as a fashion designer and professor of fashion design at the Royal College of Art, where he himself taught drawing in the sculpture school for a while. Their daughter Virginia is the well- known journalist, causing her father great pride, which he hid with difficulty.
But Christopher Ironside made his main mark as a teacher - which was considerable - at Maidstone School of Art, where he used Quentin Crisp, before he became well-known, as a model. He delighted hugely in that flamboyant personality, with whom he used to travel down to Maidstone by train, greatly enjoying the sensation they caused, and reporting with relish the outrageous witticisms that poured out of his companion.
All the while he continued with his own work, developing as a painter and sculptor, though circumstances decreed that his great success, which established his reputation, was the design of the new decimal coinage in 1971; a commission which caused him much heart- break and anguish, with endless alterations, amendments and alternatives demanded by the authorities at the Royal Mint. These he survived, and he was justly proud of his achievement. It led to a series of commissions for new national coinages from Tanzania, Brunei, Qatar, Dubai and Singapore, causing him to lament, 'No sooner have I sent off a series of drawings for approval than either the head of state is assassinated or there's a coup d'etat and I've got to start all over again.'
But his commissions were in fact very varied, ranging from oil-paintings and water-colours to the memorial for the Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma in Westminster Abbey. He also collaborated with his older brother Robbie, a mysteriously gifted artist, to whom he was devoted and whose early death came as a terrible blow, in a series of exhibition and stage designs including those for Frederick Ashton's production of the ballet Sylvia for the Sadler's Wells Ballet at Covent Garden in 1952.
His marriage to Janey was eventually dissolved and in 1961 he married Jean Marsden. It was a marriage which proved a turning-point in his self-fulfilment, and enabled him to realise himself both as a husband and a parent. With their three children, Kate, Sukie and Christian, they formed a united and loving family, the ideal background for the development of his rare talents.
We met for the last time a few weeks ago, at a camouflage reunion dinner. In spite of the physical disabilities he had endured with great gallantry for some time past he appeared to be his usual debonair self, amused by the nostalgia and amusing with his gift as a raconteur.
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