THE DEATH of the artist and writer Christopher Cornford has stunned the many friends and students who loved him and enjoyed his exceptional teaching and lectures, both at the Royal College of Art and the University of the Third Age in Cambridge. He was a man of unquenchable vitality and precious gifts, of much learning and almost too much modesty.
It seems only a few weeks ago that Cornford took his University of the Third Age class to the Mexican Exhibition in the Hayward Gallery, London. It was a joy and privilege to go round it with him - his enthusiasm was as infectious for the Bridget Riley paintings upstairs as for the ancient pre-Columbians. He was the most cultured (in the best sense), most broad-minded of people, and the most perceptive.
Cornford was born in Cambridge in 1917, a great-grandson of Charles Darwin; his father, Francis, was Professor of Ancient Philosophy and his mother, Frances, a well-known poet. There were five children. He and his elder brother John were sent to Stowe School, and he, later, after some ill health, to the Leys School, Cambridge; then to Chelsea Art College in London.
In the very political climate of the Thirties, Cornford become an activist; like his brother John he joined the British Communist Party, marched through London, demonstrated against Mosley and was beaten up by Blackshirts.
John Cornford made his way to Spain at the start of the Civil war in 1936, joined the Republicans, and was killed by the Fascists on his 21st birthday; this tragedy made an indelible mark on the younger brother, who although he left the Communist Party was thereafter totally committed to activity for a better state of society. He was no starry-eyed romantic, but a rebel to the end.
Cornford's took up his first important teaching post in 1947 at Newcastle University School of Art. He was there for several years before leaving to teach Drawing at the Cambridge School of Architecture and at the Technical College. In 1962 he left for the Royal College of Art in London.
During his tenure of office as Head of the Department of Humanities at the Royal College of Art between 1962 and 1979, he was - for a professor - unusually sympathetic to the student revolts of the period. His particular concern was to encourage his students to take up 'art therapy' when they left college, teaching art to people in institutions, particularly hospitals. From 1984 Cornford taught a popular study group at the University of the Third Age at Cambridge under the title 'Image and Meaning'.
When he retired to Cambridge with his wife Lucy, intending to paint and write, Cornford became involved again in teaching and in politics. In 1980 American cruise missiles were being based near Cambridge - at Molesworth, Alconbury, Lakenheath and Mildenhall - and Cambridge CND needed a chairman. Cornford was the ideal choice. He managed to combine his great diplomatic gifts with his wisdom and charm in guiding the organisation, which grew to a membership of well over a thousand and flourished. He was always ready to support protests, to design posters for the Peace movement or the Green Party, and he contributed regularly to the CND monthly newsletter. His drawings were looked forward to impatiently, for they were as professional and hard-hitting as any cartoonist, and we realised how lucky we were in having such a satirist. (A recent publication by Cambridge CND of a selection of his cartoons, Drawn to Protest, will be a collector's item.)
In spite of many distractions, Cornford had just finished work on his own book about measurement and proportion in art and design - it will be a significant contribution to the study of art and architecture and should be a lasting tribute to him, as will be his witty drawings and many beautiful and interesting paintings, abstract and landscape.
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