Obituary: Joan Foa

Lilian Joan Walsh, designer: born Ham, Surrey 19 May 1919; changed surname by deed poll 1955 to Ayrton; married 1939 Henry Locke (marriage dissolved 1945), 1950 George Foa (died 1981; one son, one daughter); died London 16 July 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker