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.

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

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz