Obituary: Helen Roeder

David Wolfers
Friday 27 August 1999 23:02

WHEN THE painter Carel Weight died two years ago, most of his obituaries said that Helen Roeder was his companion for 50 years. In fact it was 68 years; they were married for the last seven.

Roeder and Weight met when they were fellow students at Goldsmiths' College School of Art aged 20. They were to remain together under the same roof except for the years of the Second World War, when Weight was in the Army. It is understandable that when he died she felt bereft; Famous Grouse was only a small compensation. One of Weight's finest paintings, Turner Goes to Heaven, might have applied to himself: one hopes, for Helen Roeder's sake, that she may have taken the same road.

Introducing one of her books, Carel Weight wrote, "Francis Bacon once said to me that an artist should pursue his chosen path and never deviate from it.

"This was certainly not Helen's philosophy. She has painted, written a great deal of poetry, many short stories and a ghost novel in the best 19th-century tradition."

Before the war, she was a secretary in the Industrial Design Partnership to Misha Black, Milner Gray & Partners; after it she worked in the Warburg Institute. Later, she took up painting again, producing poetic watercolours, slightly naive in style, landscapes and townscapes, particularly of the Weights' back garden in Wandsworth, south-west London. In 1993 she shared an exhibition at the New Grafton Gallery with Carel Weight and two of his former pupils, Mick Rooney and Cyril Reason.

Kenneth Clark - later Lord Clark - was a friend to both the Weights. It was he who took Sergeant Weight out of the Army and made him a war artist. Carel could not be described as a natural soldier, so "K's" intervention was timely. Helen, meanwhile, became his assistant. With the end of the war her principal duty was the repatriation of refugees from Europe. (At the beginning of the war, some people had spurned her. Although she was born in Richmond, Surrey, her father was German. Her grandfather was a leading chiropodist who treated the feet of Edward VII and Caruso.)

In 1989 Eileen Hogan, another former pupil of Weight's, later Dean of Camberwell College of Arts and founder of the Camberwell Press, produced a limited edition, The Curious Captain: letters to Helen Roeder [from] Carel Weight, war artist, 1939-1945 (1989). A few sentences may give the flavour:

I have discovered a very interesting young captain who is going to work on preservation of historic monuments. He has been telling me about excavations which are going on under St Peter's . . . He is extremely interesting and would have been even more so if I could understand more than one fifth of what he has to say. But he is one of those with cultivated voices that I abominate. Lots of love Carrie . . . My friend the historian, who delights in the name of Dawson, is also going to Rome but the lucky swine has got himself a space in a staff car.

"June 9th 1945" (another letter to Helen):

Yesterday morning, went to the Vatican and was knocked sideways by the Sistine - splendour and humanity overwhelmed me and dwarfed everything else. While I was looking at these wonders a little ATS girl came up and said she remembered me as a Sergeant at one of her hospitals. I have asked her to dinner with me on Saturday night.

One letter ends:

I heard Bawden and Coldstream have got back to England [Edward Bawden and Sir William Coldstream - later head of the Slade]. Do you think the Japs are contemplating invasion of the States as a last resort?

Carel Weight's progress after the war was steady: on the staff of the Royal College of Art from 1947 (Professor of Painting from 1957 to 1973), elected RA in 1965, made a Companion of Honour in 1995. One could say that Helen was his anchor. She was, as it were, his Carnot (Napoleon's organiser of victory).

In 1985 Camberwell Press issued Helen's Sketchbook, and five years later a second volume, two series of verbal sketches by Helen Roeder of friends ranging from Kenneth Clark and John Minton to Kurt Schwitters and Oscar Kokoschka.

Roeder was the author, too, of Saints and Their Attributes: with a guide to localities and patronage (1955), based on research at the Warburg Institute, and in 1958, 10 years after his death, edited a slim volume by Denton Welch, I Left My Grandfather's House, an account of his first walking tour also including letters to her from Welch on the publication of his first book, Maiden Voyage (1943). In 1960 she edited and translated The Ordeal of Captain Roeder, the diary of an officer in the First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards, Franz Roeder, kept during the Moscow campaign of 1812-13.

At a dinner at the Chelsea Arts Club once I was sitting next to Helen Roeder. I asked, "How long have you and Carel been together?" She replied, "Sixty-two years." "May I ask a personal question?" "Yes, of course." "How is it you never got married?" She replied, "I felt if I married Carel he would start looking at other girls."

Helen Roeder, writer and painter: born Richmond, Surrey, 23 April 1909; married 1990 Carel Weight (died 1997); died London 20 July 1999.

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