Obituary: Winifred Wilson

Winifred Wilson was an old-fashioned picture dealer to whom the chase, the find and the enjoyment of the image were more important than accepted names and expanding profit margins. I first entered her shop in Uckfield high street in 1969, curious about a painting by Leila Faithfull. After watching me carefully as I turned it over and scrutinised the Leicester Galleries label on the reverse, she remarked tartly: "You're more interested in the back than the front."

The customer prepared to take such jibes in good part found that the rather gloomy, double-fronted interior of W.F. Wilson repaid regular visits. Winifred had an exceptional eye for furniture, glass, porcelain, silver and other covetable objects, backed by years of dealing and reading. She had a large library of books and magazines on shelves, floor and stairs for reference, provided she could remember where anything was. Pictures remained her first love. Years before Newlyn School canvases fetched five- figure sums in the boom of the 1980s, Wilson was selling Cornish painters such as Dod Procter, Fred Hall, Lamorna Birch and J.A. Park in the low hundreds of pounds.

The privileged were admitted to Wilson's tiny sitting-room above the shop. There, in front of the constant fire and in the company of her two miniature dachshunds, her Clausen drawing of the young farmworker, the McEvoys of girls, the Gemmell Hutchison of the paddling girl, the Therese Lessore of the circus and Euston Road Schoolish portrait of a young woman (attribution never solved), they would be offered "a quick snort" of Madeira or whisky, always urged to have "the other half" before leaving. Wilson assembled a sort of salon of young dealers and picture enthusiasts keen to hear her anecdotes and opinions.

She was known to one as Winnie the Hat. She always wore one in the shop, and a grandchild asked: "Does grandma wear her hat in bed, too?"

She loved her garden, behind the shop, and Sussex, where she spent the later part of her life, but her apprenticeship had been in London. She was born in Tatsfield, Surrey, in 1907, one of four sons and four daughters of Howard Neville Walford, a watercolourist whose country gardens and cottages found favour with the calendar publisher Raphael Tuck. One of her sisters became Norah Smallwood of Chatto & Windus. Equally formidable, Norah rose from secretary to chairman, having persuaded the firm that she could type when she could not. Winifred was sent to boarding school and hated it, being then timid and easily bullied.

Her youthful years are a mystery. She claimed to have owed much to the teaching of Marguerite Steen, later a notable novelist and companion of the painter William Nicholson. She was also friendly with the family of the scholar G. Lowes Dickinson, the son of an artist.

Winifred became an excellent restorer and liner, learning much from her husband, R.E.A. (Ted) Wilson, now largely forgotten, but between the wars a knowledgeable dealer in Old Masters. He was a tall, cadaverous man of great presence, and a fierce parent. It was dinner by eight, no children in the sitting-room and classical music only. It was his stricture she remembered when looking at pictures: "All you need to know is on the front."

After working on a newspaper in his native Yorkshire Ted Wilson moved to London before the First World War and by the early 1920s he had set up the Eldar Gallery. Winifred seems to have met him about then. His next venture, from 1927, was the Savile Gallery, where his partner and backer was Mark Oliver. Wilson acted astutely for Walter Sickert, many of his best pictures passing through the Savile's hands.

Winifred remembered how Sickert ran up one of his large taxi bills and sent a picture to Ted Wilson with the request to settle what was on the clock. She cherished a telegram from Sickert: "Come to lunch, and bring the missus."

The Depression killed off the Savile, so Wilson dealt on his own. He produced fine, scholarly catalogues stuffed with Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, Tiepolo, Fuseli and others. The 1940s and after proved tougher. When a bomb fell in a neighbour's basement in Bedford Gardens Wilson defied a warden's suggestion that they stay put. Ten minutes after they left the bomb went off, destroying a house lined with Old Masters and other treasures. They were uninsured. Sorting through the rubble Winifred found only a green pottery cat - which always remained with her - and one wellington boot.

During the war Winifred Wilson drove an ambulance and acted as a chauffeuse to VIPs. A bookshop and antique shop of sorts followed in Kensington Church Street, and the post-war period eventually found the Wilsons living in Sussex, finally at Hove. They sold books by post. Ted was a lot older than Winifred, and she had to nurse him while trying to make ends meet.

After Ted died, in the early 1960s, she was walking through Uckfield with her grandsons when they spotted a motorcycle shop which became her premises. Her friend the painter Sylvia Gosse gave her pounds 200, a bank manager lent money and Winifred moved in many of her possessions as stock.

By now her timidity was evaporating, and the rather formidable Winifred blossomed. I recall her reaction when a hesitant customer, parked on a yellow line, left the shop to reason with a traffic warden. Striding to the door, Winifred shouted: "Don't let them bully you!"

It was an unusual shop for a workaday Sussex town, for Bohemian types were to be encountered in it. A notable picture expert was so casually dressed as he sipped his Madeira that a customer afterwards remarked: "Winifred was entertaining a tramp yesterday." It was the same expert who, commenting to Winifred Wilson that she was in good shape for 70, drew the retort: "I've still got the best legs in the business."

Winifred Florence Walford, picture dealer: born Tatsfield, Surrey 10 June 1907; married Richard Edward Arnesby Wilson (deceased; one son, two daughters); died Whitesmith, Sussex 29 May 1996.

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