Obituary: Joan Osiakowski
My first meeting with her in the flesh, as opposed to over the airwaves, was unpropitious. In 1975 my family and I moved to Hampstead in north London and when, on our first morning, I looked out of the window, I saw a respectable elderly lady picking our roses. With all the possessiveness of a proud new house owner I sallied forth to be instantly disarmed by Joan, who had tended the garden for the previous owner and was oblivious of the fact that we had moved in. She was tall and distinguished with beautiful bone structure and had the air of a grande dame, but her somewhat imperious manner was softened by a beguiling smile and an easy ability for self- deprecation and mockery.
Born Joan Druce in 1899, she had an unconventional and unsatisfactory childhood, which had probably helped set a lifelong pattern of self-reliance and fierce independence, regardless of accepted mores. She was brought up by a domineering grandmother who, disapproving of her feckless son's marriage to an Irish beauty, helped ensure its failure, and then took upon herself an unwelcome degree of responsibility for her granddaughter's upbringing. Grandmother Druce's brother, John Cross, was married to George Eliot, and after "Great-aunt George" died he too moved in, although he always claimed to be "just visiting".
Joan was one of the earliest pupils at the newly established Downe House, along with Elizabeth Bowen and a smattering of Frys and Darwins - Downe House having been Charles Darwin's home. There were no rules, good behaviour being based on reason, and Rose Macaulay was one of the teachers. This idyllic interlude in an otherwise unhappy childhood was abruptly brought to an end when it was discovered that one of the founders was a friend of Joan's mother, so Joan was quickly transferred to Roedean. The shock of the new regime was drastic and she twice ran away before the Principal persuaded her that as she couldn't beat the system she might as well make the best of it and help run it.
Roedean was followed by the liberating atmosphere of the Slade, presided over by the authoritarian and sardonic Professor Tonks, who was horrified at the enormous influx of young women coming to fill the vacancies created by the war. Ironically, it was a good period for the Slade, still basking in the glory of the achievements of its immediate pre-war students - Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Nevinson and many others - and her fellow students included Winifred Knights, Mary Attenborough, Eve Kirk and a selection of gifted young ladies.
However, after a year she moved on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, followed by a couple of seasons at the Old Vic with Lilian Baylis, during which she time she had the privilege of turning the pages for the aged Ellen Terry at a public reading; an experience she never forgot. A cousin of her father's, Gwendoline Otter, enjoyed giving fashionable artistic parties in Chelsea at which young actresses were especially welcome, and it was at one of these she met her future husband, Stanislas Osiakowski.
In 1927, with a small legacy from an aunt, she and Osiakowski, with whom she was by now living, opened the Literary Book Company, in two rooms in Coptic Street, London. Following the pattern of avant-garde bookshops in Paris, and with the encouragement of Jim Ede, they began showing the work of unknown young artists and when, two years later, they moved into a building owned by the British Museum at 34 Bloomsbury Street they changed the name to the Bloomsbury Gallery.
Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping are just a few of the names associated with the gallery at this time, as are those of a number of the Slade girls including Mary Attenborough (Potter), who had her first one-man exhibition there in 1932. Following a successful Diaghilev exhibition in 1928, the Bloomsbury Gallery became also a favourite venue for the work of Russian and Eastern European artists. In 1937 the gallery made one further move, this time to South Molton Street, as the British Museum wished to redevelop the Bloomsbury Street site.
During the summer of 1939 Joan and her by now husband, plus their daughter Felicia, went to Poland to visit his family and were lucky to escape on the last train before the outbreak of the Second World War. On their return they closed the gallery and moved to Kent, where they spent the war years; Joan taught French at Benenden and Stanislas proselytised on behalf of the Soviet Union. After the war, with gallery records and stock destroyed by a bomb and insufficient funds to start up again, they settled in Hampstead, where Joan made a new career, adapting literary classics for the BBC, writing scripts and co-authoring a cookery book, Food for Thought (1957), with Cecily Finn (Zimmerman).
She continued adapting novels until just short of her 90th birthday when her memory began to fade, but she would still reminisce happily over Sunday lunch about times past in Kent or Rutland, theatricals at Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire or trips to France. She maintained a lively independence, supported CND and at election time proudly covered the windows of her pink cottage with Labour Party posters.
Her final years were spent in a home in Lincolnshire, close to her daughter but sadly far from the interests and friends that had been the focus of her life.
I first met Joan Osiakowski in 1937 and an instant liking developed based on our mutual inability to understand the rules of bridge, writes Cecily Zimmerman. The war separated our lives until in 1950 we met again by chance on Hampstead Heath, discovered we were neighbours, and had both been writing, so we decided to try our hand at television, which was just becoming popular.
To our amazement we sold our first attempt at a series to the BBC, but it was later dropped due to our total ignorance of television techniques. However, we enjoyed writing so much that for 10 happy and hilarious years we wrote afternoon plays, humorous series, a cookery book and ideas for two films. Osiakowski and Zimmerman seemed unsuitable names for a comedy duo so Joan became O'Connor and I reverted to my maiden name of Finn.
After 10 years Joan felt the need to develop on a more serious level and turned her talent to adapting classic novels for BBC radio. She would read a book five times, make notes, and then write her own version with no further reference to the original. Balzac, Mauriac and Rebecca West were among the authors she brought to radio with inimitable flair and honesty.
Joan Druce, gallery owner and writer: born 22 March 1899; married Stanislas Osiakowski (deceased; one daughter); died Cherry Willingham, Lincolnshire 30 December 1996.
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