Obituary: John S. Goodall

Christopher Wood
Friday 07 June 1996 00:02

Through his children's books, and his Victorian and Edwardian albums, John Strickland Goodall became one of England's best-loved artists. The remarkable feature of his books is that they were all completely designed and illustrated by him, and none of them contained a single word, beyond the title-page.

He was born in Norfolk in 1908, and came from a long line of doctors. He showed great talent for art at Harrow School, and his father reluctantly agreed that he could study drawing with two artist friends of his, Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope, and John Watson Nicol, both formidable relics of the Victorian age. "I was trained to be a mid-Victorian art student," Goodall recalled. From 1925 to 1929 he attended the Royal Academy Schools, where he met his future wife, Margaret Nicol.

In the 1930s, Goodall worked mainly as an illustrator, for such magazines as the Radio Times and the Bystander. He also painted landscapes, interiors and conversation pieces, mostly in watercolour, which he preferred to painting in oil.

During the Second World War he was posted to India, where he worked in camouflage, and held his first exhibition in Calcutta in 1943. After the war he and his wife settled near Tisbury, in Wiltshire. Their delightful cottage, with its large garden, and small studio shed, was to feature in many of Goodall's pictures.

Margaret fell ill in 1970, and was thereafter mostly confined to bed. Goodall nursed her devotedly, leaving the house only once a week. This enforced seclusion led him to concentrate on children's books and it was this, paradoxically, that was to lead to his greatest success. He would usually work on these books as he sat by her bedside. In format they were small and rectangular, with alternating whole and half pages. They featured the adventures of various animals - Paddy Pork, Naughty Nancy, and Shrewbettina. Other titles included Lavinia's Cottage (1982) and Creepy Castle (1975). Although they were wordless, the skill, charm and wit of these books appealed to children, and their parents, all over the world, and made Goodall one of Macmillan's best-selling authors. "Johnny" Goodall loved children, and they loved him, and were constantly in and out of his studio. He also produced some historical books such as Above and Below Stairs (1983), The Story of an English Village (1978) and Great Days of a Country House (1991), which showed a Betjemanesque sense of English history and social habits.

In addition to his children's books, Goodall produced books of Victorian and Edwardian scenes, such as An Edwardian Season (1979) and Victorians Abroad (1980), using the same format and techniques. These too were an enormous success, and are to be found in the spare bedrooms of almost every country house in England. They reflect not only his meticulous research, but also Goodall's genuine feeling for the spirit of the Victorian and Edwardian age. He was, after all, an Edwardian himself.

Out of these books Goodall developed his many delightful watercolours of Edwardian life, mainly landscapes or beach scenes, or scenes involving the Season, such as Cowes or Ascot. They are painted in a delightfully fluid style, using watercolour and bodycolour, and are reminiscent of Eugene Boudin.

When I first saw one of these watercolours in the saleroom, I hurried to my dictionary to dig up the facts on the forgotten Victorian artist, only to find that John Strickland Goodall, despite a resoundingly Victorian name, was alive and well and living in Wiltshire. Not only that, but he lived in Tisbury, where I had a house at that time. Nearby friends arranged a speedy introduction, and in 1984 my gallery held our first exhibition of Goodall's work. It was one of the most successful exhibitions we ever had, and we had many more thereafter, even when Goodall was well into his eighties. His touch never failed him, even up to the end. In a sense, he was the last of the Victorians.

In 1989 his wife died and, for the first time in 20 years, Goodall was able to travel, and paint where he liked. This produced a wonderful final burst of creative work, mainly landscapes in Wiltshire, or views in France and Portugal, where he stayed with his old friend Ken Slater. His landscapes, particularly those of his beloved River Nadder, often with his daughter Sarah fishing, were masterly essays in the impressionist style, and show him in his true artistic colours.

As a man, his three outstanding characteristics were his gentleness, his humour, and his modesty. As an artist, he was a joy to deal with. He rarely came to London, usually only for the opening party of his exhibitions, where his fans and admirers flocked to meet him.

John Strickland Goodall, artist: born Heacham, Norfolk 7 June 1908; married 1933 Margaret Nicol (died 1989; one daughter); died Shaftesbury, Dorset 2 June 1996.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments