Obituary: Joan Foa
Wednesday 03 August 1994
JOAN FOA's maiden name was Walsh and her first married name was Locke, but she is best known as Joan Ayrton, the name she adopted by deed poll during the six years she lived with the artist Michael Ayrton. In 1984 the Barbican Art Gallery asked her permission to reproduce his 1945 portrait of her, Joan in the Fields. 'That's fame,' she remarked, 'I'm a postcard] Next I want to be a jigsaw puzzle.'
Born in 1919, 'in the middle of Ham Common', the illegitimate daughter of Kitty Walsh, one of Captain Molyneux's models, and a father she never knew, Joan Walsh was early initiated into the company of women accustomed to coping with their own lives. All her life she was deeply attached to cats, identifying strongly with her friend Mervyn Peake's cat-
obsessed creation, the Countess of Gormenghast, and there was something in her of Kipling's Cat Who Walked By Himself: despite a number of passionate relationships and innumerable close friendships, she always retained a determined, although not insistent, self-sufficiency.
Forbidden by her mother and stepfather to take advantage of a scholarship to read medicine on the grounds that education was not acceptable for a lady, she made a career for herself instead in the BBC Press Office. After her marriage to Henry Locke, a theatre designer, she continued work, and joined the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill after the outbreak of the Second World War.
It was behind the bar at the Players' Theatre Club, where she had an evening job, that in 1942 she first met Michael Ayrton, then enjoying considerable success as the designer of John Gielgud's production of Macbeth. Already estranged from her husband (from whom she was finally divorced in 1945), she lived with Ayrton for the next six years, and acted as his studio assistant and general PA. She also pursued her own interest in photography, and acted as occasional secretary to his mother, Barbara Ayrton Gould, the Labour MP and sometime party chairman, a position which brought her the friendship of such political luminaries as Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan and Tom Driberg.
Sharing the Ayrton house in All Souls' Place, behind Broadcasting House, was the composer Constant Lambert, frequently accompanied by the young Margot Fonteyn, and the Ayrton/Lambert establishment became a focal point for a widely diverse section of London society during the latter years of the war. Visitors included Frederick Ashton, John Arlott, Nigel Balchin, Robert Donat, Norman Douglas and William Walton; Dylan Thomas occasionally had to be collected from behind the sofa for breakfast. To this heterogeneous collection Joan dispensed hospitality, ministering to their crises with the sympathetic practicality and unshakeable calm which made her, all her life, someone to whom friends and acquaintances instinctively turned at times of trouble. Not easily shocked, she enjoyed a good scandal, and could gossip with the best, yet she also had a rare gift for seeing the best in people; her laughter at their follies and frailties was indulgent rather than malicious.
Travel was always one of her great joys, and she and Ayrton travelled widely through France and Italy in the years following the war. It was during these years that she became involved with Prince Henry of Bavaria, a romance begun in Positano and continued in fairy-tale style across Europe. The prince's death in a fatal car crash left her devastated; her relationship with Ayrton came to a less tragic, but equally final end in 1949.
She celebrated her new independence by throwing herself into the exciting and often chaotic world of live television then taking off from Alexandra Palace. Here she met the Italian writer and opera producer George Foa; she married him in 1950. In the years that followed she combined domestic and professional roles; in addition to bringing up their two children, Caroline and Simon, and running their large house in Clarendon Road, she was also indispensable to George in his television and theatre work. Her imagination and organisational abilities were fully engaged from casting to rehearsal and on to the opening nights and the home-made pasta suppers which became a tradition of Foa productions. She soothed the nerves and temperaments of established and upcoming stars, from Katina Paxinou and Maria Callas to the young Sean Connery and Susannah York. She also pursued an independent career of her own.
It was the extravagant example of her friend Edith Sitwell that guided her style and love of jewellery as she created with Tony Singleton their small but distinctive design company Tony Singleton (Designs). They featured in many of the fashion shows and magazines during the 1960s and 1970s.
George Foa died in 1981, after a long illness, and Joan, simultaneously bereaved and released from an arduous period of devoted nursing, established herself in the basement flat in Holland Park to which she brought a heterodox and intensely personal collection of art and artefacts, from carved wooden Egyptian cats to her own portrait by Ayrton, and other paintings by him and by the young artists she always encouraged. It was a collection to which she added over the years, and which, together with Tony Singleton, her numerous cats and widely assorted books, gave the flat its idiosyncratic atmosphere of richness, confusion, and ebulliently energetic culture at all levels, while the parties which she held during the summer in the glorious tangle of her garden became legendary with her friends.
In the latter years of her life she remained tirelessly active despite the debilitating effects of emphysema. She was an outstanding raconteuse, and endlessly patient with the many aspiring biographers and assorted students who came to her for her recollections and opinions of the people who to her had been simply friends, but whose reputation in the world at large made her frank yet fond reminiscences all the more fascinating and impressive.
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