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August 19 2012

Martine Franck obituary

Photographer whose work ranged from portraits of the famous to pictures of the poor

Martine Franck, who has died aged 74, was a photographer of great contrasts. She started out by taking pictures in Asia, a continent she revisited for weeks at a time, but she also devoted herself to documenting daily life close to her homes in Paris and the Luberon, Provence. Her work is characterised by a fascination with the little intimacies and interactions in the lives of anonymous poor, marginalised and elderly people, yet she also assembled a matchless portfolio of portraits of famous authors and artists, including Seamus Heaney, Marc Chagall and Diego Giacometti.

Franck never adhered to the opinion professed by her fellow Magnum agency photographer Eve Arnold that all photographers are obliged to be intrusive. Ever modest, she said: "I think I was shy as a young woman and realised that photography was an ideal way of expressing myself, of telling people what was going on without having to talk." In 1970, she married the celebrated French photographer and co-founder of the Magnum agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The couple collaborated on a series of portraits of the artist Balthus, as retiring by temperament as Franck herself.

She was born to a Belgian banker, Louis Franck, and his British wife, Evelyn, in Antwerp. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, her father, who made his career in London, joined the British army. The rest of the family was evacuated to the US and spent the war on Long Island and in Arizona. She was educated in Europe, and studied history of art at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.

Writing her thesis (on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the influence of cubism on sculpture) convinced Franck that she did not wish to be an academic or a curator, but a photographer. Her father had moved in artistic circles and one of her first portraits was of the sculptor Etienne Martin emerging from a cave smeared with clay. In 1963, she went to China, taking her cousin's Leica camera with her, and discovered the joys of documenting other cultures. Returning home via Hong Kong, Cambodia, India, Afghanistan and Turkey, she paused to visit the theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine and bought her first camera in Japan. She kept to a Leica, and predominantly used black-and-white film, throughout her career.

Returning to France, she worked as a photographic assistant at Time-Life while developing her own technique. Her early mentors were Eliot Elisofon and Gjon Mili, yet she also cited dramatically different female photographers as influences: Julia Margaret Cameron, for her portraits, and Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Lange's social conscience was reflected in Franck's project on old people's homes for the Petits Frères des Pauvres association. Bourke-White's love for play of light and geometric shapes is embedded in arguably Franck's single most perfect image, that of the bathers at the poolside at Le Brusc (Provence), taken in 1976. She described her experience of capturing it: "I remember running to get the image while changing the film, quickly closing down the lens as the sunlight was so intense. That's what makes photography so exciting." A moment later the positions of all five figures and their shadows on the white tiles would have irrevocably altered. The image has stood the test of time and was used as the cover shot for her book in the series I Grandi Fotografi in 2003.

Franck's work was used in Life, Fortune and Vogue, for which she shot portraits of women in public life, including her fellow photographer Sarah Moon and Mnouchkine, who made Franck the official photographer to her Théâtre du Soleil. Franck's fascination with masks and disguises found an outlet in Mnouchkine's ambitious deployment of kathakali, kabuki and commedia dell'arte. Their collaboration led to Franck experimenting with colour photography, which she used to capture theatrical productions such as Robert Wilson's ethereal version of Fables de la Fontaine at the Comédie Française in 2004. Franck's love of the theatrical could transform her quiet unobtrusiveness.

In 1966, Franck met Cartier-Bresson, who epitomised Magnum's tradition of humanitarian photography. Franck was adamant that she would neither bask in his reflection nor disappear in his shadow and she joined the Vu agency in 1970. Her first solo exhibition was planned for the ICA in London that year; when she saw that the invitations were embossed with the information that her husband would be present at the launch, she cancelled the show.

With Vu's demise, Franck co-founded the Viva agency in 1972. It also collapsed and it was not until 1980 that Franck joined Magnum, becoming a full member in 1983. She was one of the few women to be accepted into the agency and served as vice-president from 1998 to 2000. Eschewing the war/human tragedy reportage that characterised Magnum's reputation, Franck continued her projects on marginal or isolated lives. When I first met her, in the 1990s, she had just completed her book on Tory Island, a "small rock" off the northern Irish coast with a population of around 130 Gaelic-speakers, where she lived in order to document their way of life.

Always a feminist, Franck was not above picking a grandiose book title – such as Des Femmes et la Création. It is typical that one of her final projects involved three weeks spent visiting small villages in Gujerat, western India, documenting young girls embroidering their own dowries.

As well as their homage to Balthus, Franck and Cartier-Bresson undertook a joint project in the Soviet Union. Franck also created a small book of portraits of her husband. Among the most memorable of this similarly shy and elusive character is that taken from behind, showing the back of his head. His reflection in the square mirror before him is repeated in the self-portrait he is sketching: a reflection on a reflection. Franck never used him as mentor or protector but warmly concluded: "Henri was both critical and inspirational as well as warmly supportive of me as a photographer". They had one daughter, Melanie, another reason for Franck to operate close to home when possible.

Franck's brother, the photographic curator and collector Eric Franck, affirms: "Henri was always very generous in encouraging her work, something she respected greatly." Franck's sister-in-law, Louise Baring, adds: "What was so extraordinary about Martine was that with subtlety and grace she could both be a great photographer herself and at the same time honour her husband's tradition."

She worked hard to launch the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in 2002. In 2005, she was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. After her diagnosis with bone marrow cancer in 2010, she continued showing her work, and had exhibitions earlier this year at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and at the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris.

She is survived by Melanie, three grandchildren and her brother, Eric.

• Martine Franck, photographer, born 3 April 1928; died 16 August 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 16 2012

Michael Snow obituary

Particle physics, geology, astronomy and music were among the essential elements that fed into the art of Michael Snow, who has died aged 82. He was a highly cerebral painter and a perfectionist who would agonise over whether a painting was finished or not, in some cases for many years. This reticence meant that some excellent work was never allowed a public airing. Some of his finest paintings resembled the dance of subatomic particles, while his metal constructions explored the interplay of form and space.

Born in Manchester, Michael was educated at Lawrence Sheriff school, Rugby. He worked for a period as a librarian before moving to the Land's End peninsula in 1951. Cornwall at this time was living through a golden era of innovative British art and Michael quickly discovered his vocation as a non-figurative painter, becoming good friends with most of the important artists working there, including Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, John Wells, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, as well as the poet WS (Sydney) Graham and his wife Nessie.

Michael was a co-founder in 1957 of the Peterloo Group with his friend the poet and literary critic Robin Skelton. Soon afterwards Michael's first wife, Sylvia, married Robin; and Robin's wife, Margaret, became Michael's second wife. They all continued on good terms for the rest of their lives. Michael was also highly active as secretary to the Penwith Society of Arts, and taught at Exeter School of Art and Design for 20 years.

Michael kept in touch with Nicholson long after he moved to Switzerland and he remained a significant mentor to the younger artist. On one occasion the Snows drove across Europe to his home in their camper van with a large ovoid granite boulder from a local Cornish beach weighing them down.

The Snows were devoted to promoting the life and work of Graham, and in 1999 they brought out The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of WS Graham. Publication was met with enthusiastic critical acclaim; Harold Pinter called it "a brilliant collection". It is, arguably, this book that will stand as Michael's major legacy rather than his own artwork.

Michael and Margaret were tireless in assisting and encouraging the tide of researchers who made their way to Stonemark, their home on the edge of Dartmoor. It gave them immense satisfaction to see that, largely thanks to their efforts, Graham is now widely considered one of the great masters of 20th-century poetry. My researches into postwar St Ives artists led me to Michael and Margaret 12 years ago, and they generously shared their wealth of knowledge with me.

Margaret died in 2009. He is survived by their son, Justin. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Gerry Vaughan obituary

My husband Gerry Vaughan, who has died of prostate cancer aged 77, was an 11-plus failure who went on to work as painter, teacher, lecturer and education adviser for Derbyshire county council.

Born in Gravesend, Kent, he went to the town's Gordon school for boys, where his artistic talent was nurtured initially, and then from the age of 14 to Gravesend School of Art. After national service, he was accepted into the painting school at the Royal College of Art. He left in 1959, having been awarded the RCA life-painting prize.

His idealism and belief in education initially inspired him to teach, and he joined the staff at Gordano school in Portishead, Somerset. Two years later, in 1961, he went to Chesterfield College of Art as lecturer in fine art. He was appointed as teacher adviser for art by Derbyshire county council in 1969 and remained in the post until 1985. During those years he was responsible for much of the art education in Derbyshire. He was an early member of the Art Advisers Association and worked closely with colleagues from other counties and areas.

We moved to Wirksworth, Derbyshire, in 1963, where local concern for a very run-down, neglected small town caused Gerry to become a founder-member of Wirksworth Civic Society in 1969. When the Wirksworth Project to regenerate the town was established in the late 70s, Gerry's interest in the built environment came into its own. He was charged with liaison with the local schools and encouraged them to be fully involved with the project. He ran courses for teachers and children, organised a study of art in the built environment and staged major exhibitions of the young people's work. The project was widely reported in the national press and had a worldwide influence on regeneration.

His early retirement, as a result of illness, enabled Gerry to take up his own painting once more. His sense of colour, able draughtsmanship and love of water – especially the Thames estuary and the Greek islands – resulted in a body of work that earned considerable respect. He exhibited in various venues in the UK and Greece. He supported the Wirksworth festival from its inception, both exhibiting and participating in the selection panel from time to time.

Gerry was painting until the end, through sleepless nights and long days, his work still full of vibrancy and colour.

He is survived by me, our children Simon, Jane and David, and seven grandchildren. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2012

Chavela Vargas obituary

Hard-drinking, pistol-packing, taboo-breaking singer of Mexican rancheras, revolutionary ballads and tangos

Gut-wrenching renditions of Mexican popular classics combined with a taboo-breaking personality and an iron liver ensured that Chavela Vargas, who has died aged 93, lived her own legend to the full. Vargas's raw, rasping voice and intimate arrangements stripped down well-known rancheras, boleros, revolutionary ballads and tangos to leave them as haunting laments, punctuated by waves of tenderness and bitter irony.

In the 1990s, the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, whom Vargas described as her "soulmate", included her music in his films and championed her work, thus ensuring that she will be remembered not only as a tequila-soaked cantina singer from Latin America, but also an international artist who could sell out the most formal venues. "Chavela Vargas turned abandon and desolation into a cathedral within which we all fit," Almodóvar wrote after her death. "She emerged reconciled with the errors she had made and ready to make them again."

Vargas was born in Costa Rica. By her own account, she hardly knew her parents and was brought up by relatives in the countryside, dreaming of the day she would escape to bigger things. Vargas left for Mexico as a teenager and, after a while singing on the streets, became a fixture of the effervescent artistic scene of the post-revolution years. Even in that context, she stood out. She not only slept with women, but also sang love songs about them, wore trousers, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a loaded pistol and credited her recovery from polio to shamans.

"Chavela carries with her an aura of grace, charm and a legend," the writer and journalist Paco Ignacio Taibo said in a 2009 television documentary about his friend's life, "but she is also an emotionally possessed earthquake."

Vargas was particularly close to the painter Frida Kahlo. "I admired her deeply," the singer said, "but my love was much bigger than my admiration." She lived for a couple of years with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, whom she described as "a bit amphibian in his ways".

Vargas was also inextricably associated with José Alfredo Jiménez, the singer and composer of many of the best known ranchera songs. The title of her 2002 autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (And If You Want to Know About My Past) comes from a line from a Jiménez song that continues "... it will be necessary to tell a lie".

Vargas and Jiménez would go on drinking binges together that lasted for days at a time and included helping each other serenade the different women they desired. But while Jiménez died young, Vargas continued to drink bars dry until she was in her 60s. She then stopped, abruptly. "Life offered me the most beautiful things that a human being can have," she said, "and I preferred to sink into alcohol."

Vargas suffered deeply from the homophobic atmosphere that enveloped Mexico and helped ensure she was not fully embraced by her adopted homeland until after Spain had elevated her to stardom. "I opened my arms and I said to the world: 'Come here, let's talk.' And the world and I talked every night and sometimes it rejected me," she said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2009. "It required tears of blood for me to get ahead."

In her final years, for all the talk of pain, she was also notably satisfied with her achievements. She continued to travel and perform, making the last of her 80 albums, La Luna Grande, in 2011 – a homage to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, with whose spirit she said she chatted regularly.

"I am proud that I do not owe anybody anything, and it is wonderful to feel free," she said in 2009. "Now I have the desire to lie down in death's lap, and I am sure that will be quite beautiful."

• Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer, born 17 April 1919; died 5 August 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2012

Franz West loved, above all else, art and its creation

Although renowned for his kindness, humour and generosity, Franz West didn't care a hoot about what anyone thought of him.

He loved, above all else, art and its creation. His studio, in Vienna's third district, was to me one of the most wonderful places on Earth. There he surrounded himself with a team of extremely able assistants. Something of a dandy, and in spirit an aristocrat, he was a throwback to fin de siècle Vienna. His favourite philosopher was Wittgenstein, and his knowledge about philosophy, art, dance and music was enormous.

His life was dedicated to art. He was told by his doctor last year to take a two-month break but smiled at the thought of retirement and said: "I'm not going to stop," returning to his studio within days of leaving hospital. He was unhappy if he had failed to produce anything good in a day. He was alternately inspired, with an iron will and a fierce determination, and at other times at an utter loss, and horribly miserable as a result. He was happiest when working. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Franz West

Abstract sculptor driven by the need for public interaction with his work

The Austrian artist Franz West, who has died aged 65 after a long illness, was profoundly impressed as a teenager by a trip to Rome, where public sculptures and fountains are social settings and not just precious artefacts divorced from everyday reality. He later related this interactive quality to the public's participation in his own work, which he described as like "sitting in the art. Like a goal of sitting in the clouds, sitting in the art consuming life."

West's striking, tactile creations range from idiosyncratic furniture to turd-like or phallic sculptures and collages reminiscent of pop art. They are not exactly Berninis. Nor is the breaching of boundaries between art and everyday life a new idea. Yet through his versatility and sheer brio, he breathed vitality into the cliches of modern art, and was undoubtedly a generous and influential figure in contemporary European culture.

Lovers of the film noir The Third Man can easily picture the decadent, post-second world war Vienna that was West's birthplace. He himself spoke vividly about the bombed streets and menacing atmosphere, in which his father dealt in coal and his mother ran a dental surgery across the hall from the family apartment.

A sense of cultural extremes dominated West's artistic experiences as early as his teens, when his older contemporaries were seeking to break free from Vienna's illustrious heritage. Above all, he felt an appalled fascination for the work of the Actionists, the group of artists who from the early 60s attacked bourgeois sensibilities by smashing furniture or even, in one performance which West attended, a dead lamb.

The nihilism was infectious, and, after briefly studying civil engineering in 1966, West went through a period of profound disillusionment. He took plenty of drugs and wandered across Europe and the Middle East before returning to Vienna in his mid-20s. As a student at the city's Academy of Fine Arts, he was taught from 1977 by Bruno Gironcoli, whose overblown sculptures of domestic objects influenced West in the development of his own distinctive idiom.

West's signature works, the Adaptives, are strangely shaped pieces of plaster, small enough to be handled or even worn, like props in a play that has yet to be written. As West himself put it: "In picking up one of the Adaptives, there is a moment of not knowing what to do next, a moment of not knowing what to do with the audience. You make unplanned actions and gestures with the audience looking at you … the gestures become a little bit like art."

West once declared that "it doesn't matter what the art looks like but how it is used". This principle dominated his career, from the intimacy of his early Adaptives to the grandeur of his final outdoor sculptures. It inspired his rich textures, inviting physical contact as well as determining the contexts in which the works were shown. At first glance, the furniture that he began to produce in the 1980s can seem sharp and uncomfortable, although it is broadly in accord with his informal, "grunge" aesthetic. Yet even the most unwelcoming sofa might become a pleasant, sociable place from which to experience a gallery exhibition, creating the mood of conviviality that was essential to West's approach.

Furniture was not just a viewing point, however. It could also play a more central role. In the late 1990s, for example, a work called 2625 consisted of two steel and white resin chairs, placed on a low plinth and separated by a white cube hanging from the ceiling. Anyone who sat inside the installation would be obtuse indeed if they did not feel the transformative effect of their participation, even if from outside it might all appear a trifle austere.

West's interior design, which ranged from brightly hued upholstery to slick, angular lamps, was a vital part of his output, but he remained above all an abstract sculptor. As well as making luridly coloured, aluminium structures with expressive surfaces and open compositions, he produced more monumental, organic forms out of papier mache spattered with paint. In isolation his pieces would seem graceless and anti-aesthetic, but together they were able to animate great public spaces, creating a weird harmony out of bold visual contrasts.

Such works can also have a metaphorical significance. In West's Sisyphos IV (2002), a metre-wide agglomeration of papier mache and foam is fastened to the ground by steel piping, making it even more immobile than the rock that the mythical Sisyphus was condemned to push uphill for all eternity. Futility is acknowledged for what it is, a universal human experience.

West's international renown culminated towards the end of his life in major exhibitions, including highly successful shows with the Gagosian Gallery, a retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2008 and an appearance at the Liverpool Biennial of 2010. His greatest honour was the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, conferred at the Venice Biennale of 2011.  Most spectacularly, in the previous year he was awarded an outdoor installation, Room in Rome, in the Italian capital's Piazza di Pietra – West's most direct homage to the city where the public sculptures had so powerfully motivated him at the beginning of his career.

West is survived by his second wife, the Georgian painter Tamuna Sirbiladze; their daughter, Emily, and son, Lazaré; and his sister, Anne.

• Franz West, artist, born 16 February 1947; died 26 July 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 22 2012

Angharad Rees obituary

Actor best known for her role as Demelza in the 1970s hit BBC TV drama Poldark

The actor Angharad Rees, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 63, soared to fame in Poldark (1975-77), the BBC's dramatisation of Winston Graham's novels set in 18th-century Cornwall. Rees played the fiery servant Demelza, whose beautiful smile, wide-open eyes, flowing red locks and headstrong nature won over the brooding hero.

Robin Ellis starred as Ross Poldark, the British army officer returning home from the American war of independence to find his father dead, the family estate run down and their tin mines about to be sold. He seeks to reignite the flames with his fiancee, the aristocratic Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), but discovers she is set to marry his cousin. Poldark finds a soulmate in the miner's daughter Demelza after stopping a stallholder at Redruth fair from thrashing her for stealing. He offers her a job as his kitchen maid, and later marries her.

The costume drama, which ran for two series and attracted up to 15 million viewers in Britain and many more around the world, was particularly popular with women, who swooned over Ellis and admired the feistiness of Rees's character. The wild Cornish locations were also impressive at a time when the majority of costume dramas were almost entirely studio-bound.

Rees was born in London, the daughter of a distinguished Welsh psychiatrist, Linford Rees, and his wife, Catherine. When Angharad was a baby, her parents moved the family back to their homeland, to live in Cardiff.

In the mid-1960s she gained experience as an assistant stage manager and actor at the West Cliff theatre, in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. She made her screen debut in 1968, as the parlourmaid in a BBC television adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, and had one-off parts in TV dramas and comedies including The Avengers (1968) and Doctor in the House (1969).

Rees played Jack the Ripper's murderous daughter in the Hammer horror film Hands of the Ripper (1971) and appeared as Gossamer Beynon, alongside Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole, in Under Milk Wood (1972). Although she had few further film parts, Rees seemed ever-present on television throughout the 1970s. Some of her best roles included Sarah Churchill, the daughter of the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill (played by Burton) in The Gathering Storm (1974), and Celia in a 1978 production of As You Like It, opposite Helen Mirren. She also guest-starred in The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (1977), an accolade in itself.

As Lady Evelyn Herbert, she teamed up with Ellis again in the television film The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1980). Later, she starred as the remarried former wife of Paul Nicholas's vet in the sitcom Close to Home (1989-90) and joined the second series of Trainer (1992) as Caroline Farrell, coping with her drinking and gambling husband Freddie (Jeremy Sinden).

She appeared in the West End in It's a Two Feet Six Inches Above the Ground World (Wyndham's theatre, 1970) and The Millionairess (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1978-79). In 1973, she married the actor Christopher Cazenove, with whom she had two sons. The couple divorced in 1994. Their eldest child, Linford, died in a car accident in 1999.

Rees subsequently gave up acting in order to concentrate on developing her own jewellery design business, including a shop in Knightsbridge. She described this new career as therapeutic, and some of her creations were featured in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

Rees had a relationship with the actor Alan Bates, who had suffered the loss of his own son years earlier. However, she turned down his proposals of marriage and the couple eventually parted in 2002. "We were very close, but it was difficult because I had not yet given way to my grief over the loss of my son," she said in an interview in 2007.

Continuing to support the arts, Rees was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and was appointed CBE in 2004. The following year, she married David McAlpine. He survives her along with her younger son, Rhys.

• Angharad Mary Rees, actor and jewellery designer, born 16 July 1949; died 21 July 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 29 2012

Jonathan Speirs

Architect who lit some of the world's most striking modern buildings

When, in 2005, he was asked to propose a long-term lighting strategy for the city of Durham, the architect Jonathan Speirs, who has died of stomach cancer aged 54, insisted that what the council really needed was a light and darkness strategy.

One of the world's finest lighting designers, Speirs worked creatively and prodigiously to show how artificial light can be a truly subtle counterpart, even in the biggest architectural projects, to the texture, variety, feel and ever-changing beauty of daylight. "Architecture," said Le Corbusier, "is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light." In half-light and shadows too, Speirs believed. He loved dark skies, bright stars and natural beauty.

Speirs liked to quote Tadao Ando, the Japanese disciple of Le Corbusier, saying "light displays its brilliance only against a backdrop of darkness". This might sound simple, and only natural, yet when Speirs co-founded the Lighting Design Partnership in Edinburgh in 1984 with the Dutch architect Andre Tammes, all too many homes, places of work and public buildings were lit as if with a battery of anti-aircraft lights. Even today, it would be a kindness if sunglasses were issued to those using airports, supermarkets and the majority of offices. Encouraging his clients to understand that light was as much about emotion and delight as well as lux levels proved to be a lifelong mission for the Scotsman.

Charming, self-deprecating and highly intelligent, Speirs could also be very funny about his love of subtle lighting. "Many a man," he liked to quote from Maurice Chevalier, "has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it." He did not make that mistake himself.

With Tammes, Speirs worked on 450 projects in 19 countries. After founding Speirs + Major in 1993 with a fellow architect, Mark Major, he lit some of the world's most striking modern buildings, from Norman Foster's sleek 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Gherkin) in the City of London and Richard Rogers's colourful Terminal 5 at Barajas airport, Madrid, to the new Copenhagen opera house by Henning Larsen and SOM's sky-piercing Burj Khalifa, Dubai.

The Burj Khalifa is the world's tallest building. On feast days and festivals, it can be lit up like some giant architectural firework. With a student background in fashioning pyrotechnic light shows for rock bands in the 1970s, Speirs – a master of aesthetic subtlety – knew just when to allow lighting full theatrical blast.

He was born in Ardrishaig, a village on the shores of Loch Fyne, Argyll. His father, Robert, was a hotelier who brought his son up north and south of the border, including at Morecambe, Lancashire, where he managed the celebrated Midland hotel, a jazz-moderne delight designed by the brilliantly eclectic Oliver Hill with sculpture by Eric Gill and glorious sunsets over the Irish sea. Years later, Speirs returned to the resort to light the Eric Morecambe memorial, one of his smallest projects.

Educated at Bearsden academy, Glasgow, the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh College of Art, Speirs set up in practice with Tammes in Edinburgh soon after qualifying as an architect.

Speirs + Major became, and remains, one of the world's most successful architectural lighting firms, staffed with talent drawn from the worlds of theatre, cinema, illustration, lighting technology and graphic design as well as from architecture and interior design. Speirs received the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's lifetime achievement award in 2010.

Working with many of the world's most ambitious architects was always rewarding, yet perhaps Speirs's greatest professional challenge was to light the recently completed Sheikh Zayed mosque complex in Abu Dhabi. With its 82 domes, four 350ft (107m) minarets and the world's largest carpet, the concrete and marble mosque is certainly impressive in scale, yet it is the lighting that has done so much to breathe life into it. "Our idea," said Speirs, "was to have a building that, by full moon, is lit pristinely with white light, but with a textural quality evocative of clouds slowly drifting in front of a full white moon. As the moon wanes, the lighting grows gradually bluer to signify darkness. On the 14th night, the mosque is lit in the darkest blue." The faithful – Hollywood directors, too – have looked on with awe.

Speirs is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1988, and their daughters, Lucie and Erin. Their son, Calum, died in 1993. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 22 2012

Mary Fedden obituary

Artist whose still lifes remained rooted in the European tradition of belle peinture

The artist Mary Fedden, who has died aged 96, brought to perfection a style that married a very English sensibility to a modern European one, a sensibility that, with a little imagination, can be seen to reach back to the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard. More immediately, she drew on the aesthetic of Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. Despite the vogue for abstract expressionism in the late 1950s, she remained rooted in the European tradition of belle peinture (beautiful painting), in its literal translation: a middle-class sweetness of subject elevated beyond sentimentality by its exactness in drawing, nice judgment of texture and freshness derived from high artifice.

It was not always so. In fact Fedden did not develop her mature manner until she was well into her 50s, though she had always been a painter and had become a student at the Slade School of Art in 1932. She was born in Bristol and returned to live with her parents there after the second world war. Though she later moved to London, she maintained her links with Bristol all her life, especially through her association with the Royal West of England Academy, which gave her a retrospective exhibition in 1988.

She attended Badminton girls' school in Bristol, which she hated. She would probably have detested any school that taught anything other than art, so her four years at the Slade were paradise. While she was there, she met the painter and printmaker Julian Trevelyan. In 1949, when Trevelyan's marriage to his potter wife Ursula (later Mommens) broke down, Fedden and Trevelyan went on holiday to Sicily, where they fell in love. In Italy, as an old friend of Fedden tells it, they attended a wonderful beach picnic at which another of the guests, Bertrand Russell, whom Trevelyan had known since childhood, remarked blissfully: "I'm as drunk as a lord. [Pause]. But then, of course, I am a lord."

Fedden's painting until this time was recognisably the English post-romanticism so prevalent after the war in the work of painters such as John Piper, Graham Sutherland and, especially, the troubled John Minton, who was a friend of hers. For the rest of her career, the still-life compositions which were the bulk of her work carried the mark of the illustrations Minton did for Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking, but anglicised in Fedden's translation, transplanted to a milder climate, the latitude of Durham Wharf, on the Thames, within sight of Hammersmith bridge. Here Trevelyan had his studio and home, and here Fedden joined him on their return from Italy and remained for the rest of her long and highly productive life.

One of her teachers at the Slade was Victor Polunin, who had worked as a designer with the Ballets Russes. Late in the war – after a spell in the land army, working fields with a horse-drawn harrow, then as a driver for Naafi – she drew on Polunin's teaching to paint sets for the Arts theatre in London. The experience helped her to cope with postwar mural commissions; one was a very jolly painting for a child audience at the Festival of Britain in 1951, another was for the P&O liner Canberra (1961). In 1980 she and Trevelyan completed another, for Charing Cross hospital.

The murals did nothing for Fedden's reputation but heightened her appreciation of the value of simplification in the small paintings and beautiful drawings that became her life's work under the influence of Trevelyan. He was primarily a printmaker but had a wide knowledge of painting, and was the best critic Fedden could have had. He once found a tube of Prussian blue in the materials she was loading to take on a painting trip, and hurled it away. She never again included Prussian blue in her palette.

Fedden had married Trevelyan in 1951 and under his tuition, her work began to show the influences of Braque and Matisse in its organisation of flat picture planes and separate still-life objects; the shapes of fruit and flowers and vases, a pot of mustard and a jar of marmalade set up a Matissean rhythm against a scarlet or orange field that may or may not be a tablecloth or a wall. Later, the muted finesse of some of her paintings echoed Nicholson's use of colour, and from him she borrowed certain motifs, acknowledged in her titles: Ben's Mug, or Ben's Box. Through all this, and her studious naivety, her work remained quite singular.

Trevelyan coaxed her into using her brain as well as her eyes, and her drawings, too, developed a line and texture moving between softness and such incisiveness that they look as sharp as though they have come from his etching press.

From 1956 to 1964 she taught at the Royal College of Art, where she was the first female tutor, and where her pupils included David Hockney and Allen Jones. From 1964 to 1974 she taught at the Yehudi Menuhin school.

When Trevelyan died in 1988 he had not quite finished a commissioned painting of Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham. Fedden could not face parting with the work so she painted another, of the same view but lit by the moon and with commedia dell'arte figures waving sparklers in the foreground; a touch of fantasy perfect for the subject. The buyer did better with this than he would had he received the original Trevelyan.

She had exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery, London, and the Arnolfini, Bristol. In recent years she was represented by the Portland Gallery, and showed several times at Glyndebourne Opera House as well as designing a cover for their 1999 programme book, a still life of a Glyndebourne picnic. Her work is held in collections all over the world, including those of the Queen and Tate. She was elected a royal academician in 1992, and made OBE in 1997.

Fedden is survived by her stepson, Philip, and nine nephews and nieces.

• Adye Mary Fedden, artist, born 14 August 1915; died 22 June 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 22 2012

George Wyllie obituary

Self-taught sculptor whose work had an enduring influence on Scottish artists

The artist George Wyllie, who has died aged 90, occupied an unusual position in Scottish cultural life. A self-taught sculptor, who did not commence a full-time creative career until his late 50s, he became a widely recognised and popular figure far beyond the world of the visual arts.

Wyllie's creative achievements ranged from playing the double bass in jazz bands to making permanent public sculpture sited across Britain. He wrote poetry and prose, but he will be best remembered for two temporary art works with their origins in his native Glasgow. These, the Straw Locomotive and the Paper Boat, captured the imagination with their poignant symbolism of the decline in the city's industrial heritage.

The Straw Locomotive was a 78ft locomotive constructed from steel, straw and chicken wire that Wyllie suspended from the landmark Finnieston Crane on the banks of the River Clyde in May 1987. It was later taken to Springburn engineering works, once the heart of the Glasgow locomotive industry, where Wyllie set it ablaze in what he described as a Viking funeral.

His Paper Boat sculpture, a memorial to the city's shipbuilding industry, sailed the Clyde, the Thames and eventually the Hudson river in New York. It berthed outside the World Financial Centre in 1990 and made front-page news in the Wall Street Journal. Wyllie's sense of humour, his mischievous persona and his insistence that art was a public rather than private matter had a subtle but enduring influence on subsequent generations of artists in Scotland.

Many of his ideas now seem prescient. His early works included a sculpture of a mortgage-burdened home. His 1982 play A Day Down a Goldmine was about the origins of money and the iniquities of the banking system.

Wyllie was born in the Shettleston district of Glasgow, the elder of two sons of Andy, who worked at the local engineering works, and his wife Harriet, known as Harry. He grew up in Craigton, within sight of the city's shipyards. At school, he excelled at technical drawing but turned down a job in crane-building on the cautious advice of his father. His first job was in the engineering department of the Post Office.

During the second world war, he joined the Royal Navy and saw active service from 1942. On shore leave, at a dance in Gosport, Hampshire, he met Daphne Watts; they married in 1944. During his war service Wyllie visited Hiroshima, just months after the atomic bomb had been dropped on the city: the experience shaped his artistic life.

After the war, Wyllie became a customs and excise officer in Greenock and for a period worked on the land boundary patrol in Northern Ireland. In 1954 he and Daphne settled with their two daughters in Gourock, in a house overlooking the Firth of Clyde, where he stayed until a recent move to a local care home. "We had a very happy home, at the top of a hill with a good view and I feel like a Greek god looking out," he said in a recording for the British Library's Artists' Lives archive.

He was beginning to move in artistic circles and express himself creatively, taking a local college course in welding to help with his sculpture, but it was not until 1979, approaching his 60s, that he left the customs service and dedicated himself to art full-time. In the following decade, he created his most important works. His friendships with cultural figures including the gallerist Richard Demarco, the poet Liz Lochhead and the film-makers Murray and Barbara Grigor had widened his horizons.

Barbara Grigor introduced him to the American kinetic sculptor George Rickey, whom he visited in the US. Through Demarco he met the German artist Joseph Beuys, a mentor, whom he visited in Düsseldorf and emulated, "not in a physical sense, in a philosophical sense". Beuys's example helped Wyllie develop his ideas of art as a social practice and the artist as a public persona.

Wyllie's described his own art as "scul?ture". The question mark, he explained, should be at the centre of everything. His work often had a deliberately modest quality. Among his favoured forms were bird life and the symbolism of stones, ships and crystal. His most enduring image was that of the spire: a kind of spiritual and environmental antenna, also associated with the sailing mast. One of his most popular works is a giant nappy pin made from stainless steel originally created in 1995 for a site at Glasgow Cross; it was relocated, entitled Monument to Maternity, to the site of the former maternity hospital at Rottenrow Gardens in 2004.

He continued to work until recently and was able to attend the opening earlier this year of George Wyllie: a Life Less Ordinary at the Collins Gallery, Strathclyde University, which holds an archive of his work. Wyllie's daughters, Louise and Elaine, in 2011 set up the Friends of George Wyllie and recently launched a year-long celebration of his work, the Whysman Festival, which has obtained a major award from Creative Scotland to use Wyllie's ideas in projects with schoolchildren and former industrial workers.

Daphne died in 2004. Wyllie is survived by his daughters, two grandsons, Calvin and Lewis, and a granddaughter, Jennifer.

• George Ralston Wyllie, artist, born 31 December 1921; died 15 May 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 26 2012

Louis le Brocquy obituary

Artist known for his portraits of Irish writers

When the National Gallery of Ireland acquired Louis le Brocquy's canvas A Family, in 2002, he became the first living Irish artist to have a painting in the collection. It is a modern parable. Le Brocquy, who has died aged 95, painted A Family in 1951, and Gimpel Fils, his London gallery from 1947 for the rest of his life, exhibited it that year. In 1952 a group of patrons offered to buy the painting for £400 and present it to the municipal gallery in Dublin, but the art advisory committee rejected it as incompetent.

Four years later, it won a prize at the Venice Biennale, was bought by the Nestlé Foundation and hung at its Milan headquarters until 2001. The Irish businessman Lochlann Quinn then bought it from Agnews in London for £1.7m, and with his wife, Brenda, presented it to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Le Brocquy's charm and modesty seemed insufficient defence against the vitriolic public abuse that accompanied his hometown rejection in 1952, but his inner strength was obvious early in life. Born in Dublin, he went to St Gerard's school in Wicklow and studied chemistry at Trinity College, Dublin, intending to forge a career alongside his father, Albert, in the family oil refinery. His mother, Sybil, was a lawyer and writer whose play Winning Ways was staged by the Abbey Theatre in 1932.

Louis took up painting as a hobby and myth has it that the two pieces accepted in 1937 for the admittedly crusty Royal Hibernian Academy's annual show were the first he had ever made. Whatever the truth, it became obvious to Le Brocquy that he was meant for a different kind of career with oils. He quit Trinity and embarked on a study tour through Europe in 1937-38.

Thus self-taught, he joined his younger sister, Melanie, a sculptor, and a group of rebels in helping to set up an avant-garde organisation, Irish Exhibition of Living Art, and exhibited at its launch in 1943. His career began to flourish in 1946 with the start of his so-called tinker period, a cubist-influenced series of paintings of groups of Irish travellers.

For many years he was treated by critics as a Celtic fringe follower of Picasso, but he was a true original, many of whose tinker-period paintings suggest late-period Picasso before the event. One highly suggestive work, Man Creating Bird (1948), is a lyrical and mildy disturbing allegory of a man with an upraised hand pulling at a thread attached to a squawking bird's throat held in his other hand. Everything in the picture seems on the point of flight, but what actually did take off was Le Brocquy's career as a tapestry designer, at which he was an unqualified success.

The best of the tapestries sprang from the work he did for Thomas Kinsella's poetic version of one story, The Táin (1969), about the gathering of people for a cattle raid from a body of medieval Ulster mythology. These were black and white blot illustrations of raw magnificence, incidentally including Medb Relieving Herself – another, presumably inadvertent, shadowing of Picasso (La Pisseuse of 1965).

A Family was a crucial point in Le Brocquy's work as a painter, not because of its history once it came off the easel, but because it introduced a new phase of activity involving painting in subdued colours: 1951-54, a grey period, then a white period following a sponsored visit to Spain. Passing through La Mancha in 1955, as he described it: "I stopped spellbound before a small group of women and children standing against a whitewashed wall. Here the intensity of the sunlight had interposed its own revelation, absorbing these human figures into its brilliance, giving substance only to shadow. From that moment I never perceived the human presence in quite the same way."

The paintings appeared now as a meditation on the state of being, of how it feels to be inside a body or a head, not how it looks, though the sequence of portraits of Irish writers from Oscar Wilde to his friends Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney are good likenesses – and fetched six and seven figures in the new Irish tiger economy.

Le Brocquy married Jean Stoney in 1938 but they divorced in 1948. In 1958 he married Ann Madden Simpson – Anne Madden the painter, as he always referred to her. They lived until the turn of the century in the south of France. She and their sons, Pierre and Alexis, survive him, as does Seyre, the daughter of his first marriage.

Louis le Brocquy, artist, born 10 November 1916; died 25 April 2012

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April 18 2012

Ponckle Fletcher obituary

My mother, Ponckle Fletcher, who has died aged 77, was a popular artist in St Ives and an eccentric character on the St Ives art scene for more than 30 years. Her gallery on Island Square was the scene of a prolific artistic career which resulted in commercial success at home and abroad. Ponckle's Gallery was also the social hub of the artistic community in the Cornish seaside town with a rich cultural heritage going back to the 1950s.

She was born in Chingford, north-east London, the oldest girl of five siblings. From an early age, she was clearly the black sheep of the family and her life went in a different direction from her peers'. At 17 she met and fell in love with the jazz pianist and arranger Ken Moule, who immediately nicknamed her "Ponckle" (a name she kept for the rest of her life, eventually changing it by deed poll) and asked her to marry him. He also recorded a song in her honour, Son of Ponckle. She later moved to Paris, where she worked as a stylist for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.

Her constant restlessness led to divorce from Moule. Ponckle then married the photographer Trevor Clark in 1964 and had two sons, Gavin and me. We all moved to Mallorca in 1969, where Trevor became a travel photographer. Ponckle was his stylist and she also began making large fabric collage portraits. After seven years, she moved back to England with Gavin and me, and divorced Trevor. She continued to make fabric portraits and had a one-person show at the Courtauld Institute in London in 1974.

Ponckle moved to St Ives in 1978. She opened a gallery at her house in Norway Lane, exhibiting her quirky paintings of local scenes, which gradually made a name for her commercially. In 1985 she opened Ponckle's Gallery in Island Square and started painting cats with views of St Ives. This was the most prolific period in her career and she was selling her paintings as fast as she could produce them.

Ponckle's Gallery became an important social and artistic meeting place. The terrace was a riot of colour, flowers and jazz music, and there was never a dull moment. Ponckle became friends with the local artists Hyman Segal, Max Barrett and Patrick Hughes. Other regular visitors to the gallery were the artist and writer Molly Parkin, who lived locally, and the musician George Melly, a regular performer at the St Ives September Festival, whom Ponckle knew from her London jazz days.

In 2004 Ponckle had a stroke. She sold the gallery and continued to paint at home, her illness having a profound effect on her painting style, which became more quirky and spatially jumbled. However, the works were well received and, while she had ceased to sell her work, she left a collection seen by some as her finest.

Ponckle is survived by Gavin and me. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2012

John Golding obituary

Artist, teacher and historian of modern art, he wrote a seminal work on cubism

John Golding, who has died aged 82, packed into his life separate but intertwined careers as artist and historian of modern art. Soon after he had completed his doctoral dissertation on cubism at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, it was published as Cubism, A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 (1959), and has stood ever since as the clearest exposition of that extraordinary era in the history of the art of the 20th century.

In a field in which so many literate and knowledgable writers had known Pablo Picasso well – from the compiler of the Dictionnaire Picasso, Pierre Daix, to his first English biographer, the painter Roland Penrose, his most discriminating collector, Douglas Cooper, and the writer of what is likely to be the definitive biography, John Richardson, – this was a remarkable achievement. Golding added to it in 1988, when an exhibition in Paris and Barcelona, organised around Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), overlapped with another show, Late Picasso, in Paris and London, of Picasso's late period (1953-73), and Golding wrote what remains one of the finest accounts of Picasso's achievement in an essay of nearly 11,000 words in the New York Review of Books.

Yet more than with any of his writings, he made his public mark with another Picasso scholar, Elizabeth Cowling, by curating two groundbreaking Tate exhibitions: Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, in 1994, and Matisse/Picasso, in 2002-03, which also travelled to the Grand Palais in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The first of these shows demonstrated what many people already suspected, that as a sculptor/painter, Picasso had more sculptural ideas than most specialists in that field. After its success, the Tate's director, Nicholas Serota, challenged his dream team to come up with something as good. Cowling suggested Matisse/Picasso to Golding, who concurred enthusiastically. Everybody knew about the creation of cubism by Picasso and Georges Braque, "like two mountaineers roped together", as Braque described it. The idea that the wary and slow-burning relationship between Picasso and Matisse should have been just as productive, though lasting more than half a century rather than the six or seven hectic Picasso-Braque years, had never been so boldly proposed as in this exhibition.

Golding attacked the project with determination, talking not just great galleries but reluctant private collectors into parting with masterpieces chosen not simply for their quality but to be placed in conjunction, Picasso with Matisse, Matisse with Picasso, to show how they fed off each other. Together with a catalogue essay by Golding, argued with characteristic calmness and lucidity, the exhibition was a triumph of enlightened scholarship and sheer pleasure.

Neither Picasso nor Matisse of course was ever an abstractionist. Golding was, and the clue to his practice as a painter lies in his Paths to the Absolute (2000). This effectively stood as his credo, that abstract art was not simply decorative but, as he put it in the preface, was "heavily imbued with meaning [and] with content", a case he argued with studies of seven abstract artists, beginning with the early 20th-century Europeans Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky and ending with the post-second-world-war Americans Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The book was essentially a transcript of his AW Mellon lectures of 1997, the famous series of talks that also produced such celebrated studies of art history as EH Gombrich's Art and Illusion and Kenneth Clark's The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Golding's rigorous but approachable work comfortably takes its place among them, and in the year of its publication it won the Mitchell prize, the principal annual US award for art history.

Although he was born in Hastings, East Sussex, Golding's parents brought him up from early childhood in Mexico. During the second world war, he came to know the maverick English surrealist Leonora Carrington, who had made her home in Mexico, and in her eclectic circle Golding met the film-maker Luis Buñuel and the poet Octavio Paz, as well as emigre surrealists such as the French poet Benjamin Péret and the Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen. But it was the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Juan O'Gorman and especially José Orozco who really interested him. He was especially impressed by the boldly schematic figures of Orozco that aimed at the grand simplicity of early Italian masters in the circle of Giotto, and it was these that he remembered after the war when he himself began to paint.

First though, Golding took a degree at Toronto University. He made frequent visits during this time to the Museum of Modern Art and worked for a period as a stage designer. He returned to London to take an MA at the Courtauld. In 1953 he saw the major show of cubism in Paris at the Musée d'Art Moderne and decided to write his doctoral thesis at the Courtauld on the formative years of the movement, from 1907, when Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, until the outbreak of war in 1914. The resulting book won the approval of both Braque and Picasso and became a keystone in Golding's life. Although he had decided while he was studying that he would work as an artist as well as a historian, inevitably the acclaim for his book drew Golding deeper into academic life.

He started to teach at the Courtauld in 1959. He was a reader in art history by 1981, at which point the Royal College of Art made him the siren offer of senior tutor in the painting school. Golding took it, in the knowledge that at the RCA he could immerse himself full time in the practice of painting, his own as well as his students'. "I am not interested in art as self-discovery or therapy," he said. He wanted to be a full-time professional, committed to pushing painting forward in the exploration of colour and light.

His painting was already gaining recognition, notably when he was included in the 1974 Hayward Annual, British Painting, selected by Andrew Forge. In the 1980s he had a run of one-man shows in top galleries, including Juda Rowan in London and the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, as well as in Tokyo, Sydney and at the Yale Centre for British Art in Connecticut, where the catalogue for his show was written by Forge, who, like Golding, was a painter and deeply sensitive critic.

Golding's knowledge of Renaissance painting, especially the great Venetians and particularly their rendering of the fall of light on to bodies, the way it breaks up outlines and dissolves form and mass, informed his own work as he moved out of figuration and into abstract canvases in which light was the subject. He painted vertical streaks of colour down his canvases like pleated light (as he put it) and occasionally on, say, a misty blue, he would scatter clusters of gold pigment to reflect the actual light. After the end of the 20th century, he started to structure his paintings so that they appeared to be based on photographs from thousands of feet above the Earth, with "roads" and "bridges" and "canals". He even called one of these canvases Mappa Mundi.

In retrospect, though, it seems to have been inevitable that Golding's own painting should be overshadowed by his reputation as a historian. As a teacher, he was popular with his students. In person he looked a little like Picasso, but his voice was soft and his delivery almost contemplative, as though he was thinking his way forward, trying his ideas out on his audience as he formulated them, even on subjects he knew well.

The historian James Joll, with whom he shared his life for many years, died in 1994. He is survived by two nephews, Michael and Richard.

• Harold John Golding, artist, art historian and curator, born 10 September 1929; died 9 April 2012

• This article was amended on 12 April 2012. The editing of the original located Hastings in Kent. This has been corrected. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 02 2012

Nares Craig obituary

My father, Nares Craig, has died aged 94. An architect by training, he worked as a senior civil servant for the Building Research Station (now the Building Research Establishment) for nearly 30 years. During his time there he developed the low-cost Brecast building system, which was used widely in earthquake and hurricane-prone regions. The majority of his work was directed at improving conditions and alleviating housing shortages in poorer communities throughout the developing world. This meant a lot of travel, and Nares was proudest of his time in Chile, where he got to know Salvador Allende only weeks before the president was toppled by the Pinochet coup.

Cameron Nares Craig was born in the week of the Russian Revolution. He was educated at Charterhouse, Surrey, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became one of the "night climbers" of Cambridge during the 1930s. A strong believer in peace and disarmament, Nares became a conscientious objector when the second world war broke out, though by this time he was also a dedicated communist and, along with many of his peer group, he joined up in 1941 after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

After a spell in the ranks, he served as a captain in the Royal Engineers and, while commanding tanks in Europe, won awards for bravery and redesigning the Bailey mobile bridge, which the army used to great effect to cross the Rhine.

During the war, Nares met Thora, a nurse and firebrand trade unionist who had recently returned from the International Brigades in Spain. They married in 1946. Thora was the love of his life and his political soulmate; their relationship lasted for more than 50 years, until her death in 1999.

In his youth, Nares knew figures such as Virginia Woolf, Clough Williams-Ellis and HG Wells. Later in life, he met and befriended many remarkable socialists, communists and revolutionaries, including Paul Robeson, Melina Mercouri and Cheddi Jagan.

Politics and family were the constants of his life. Nares is survived by his son Jonathan and myself, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His elder daughter, Tina, died two years ago. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

John Griffiths obituary

Illustrator whose bold creations adorned Penguin book covers

In the 1950s there was a spectacular flowering of illustrative talent, much of which emanated from the Royal College of Art, in London. There, "commercial art" and "publicity design" were being redefined by Richard Guyatt as graphic design, with Ruari McLean running a rigorous typography course in parallel with Edward Bawden instilling a sense of deep deliberation into the subtle processes of illustration, offering a perfect example of the happy co-existence of fine art and commissioned work. This subtle blend of the refining of an individual voice, combined with the practical associations with industry, helped launch the careers of David Gentleman, Len Deighton, John Sewell and John Griffiths, who has died aged 85.

Gentleman remembers "Griff" at the RCA as shy and self-effacing. These traits are entirely absent from his work; he approached illustration with the sure touch of a linocut artist, a difficult skill at which he excelled. At this time, there was little colour work to be had; if an artist wanted to make a bold statement, it was made in line.

Like Gentleman, John stayed on at the RCA briefly as a junior tutor, an apparently idyllic though hardly lucrative role, which mainly consisted of helping new students negotiate their way around the labyrinthine complex, and developing their own practice with official encouragement. John, who was already married to Barbara Sparks, herself a talented artist in oils and watercolour, found seedy digs off Lavender Hill, in south London – becoming a near neighbour of Gentleman in the process. Both artists would win occasional commissions with largely like-minded organisations: illustrating schools publications such as Time and Tune for the BBC, and producing cover illustrations for Penguin.

Penguin in the late 1950s was engaged in endless internal struggles to come to terms with the inevitable shift from typographic covers to illustration. Soon after the second world war, Jan Tschichold had designed a revised vertical grid to allow sufficient white space for selling blurb, or a telling vignette, but it would take a dozen years for Penguin to adapt it consistently. John's bold line was ideally suited to create strong visual narratives within this austere and limited setting.

Penguin tended to pair illustrators with particular authors; Gentleman with EM Forster and CP Snow, Paul Hogarth with Graham Greene. John interpreted a number of Eric Linklater titles, and then proved just as adept with science fiction. But he could do whimsy too; Penguin relaxed totally for the occasional ephemeral and celebratory publications, and Griffiths provided memorable work for these.

He continued his association with McLean, illustrating wine lists, and then producing the cover and a wonderful visual essay in 1959 on the more eccentric period shopfronts of central London and Brighton, for McLean's innovative arts journal Motif, He would revisit this theme regularly, most notably with the 1964 London Transport poster Rhubarb and Roses, celebrating Covent Garden market, a few years before its closure.

John was born and educated in north London. An only child, he grew up in a house typically devoid of books and artwork. After brief spells in a drawing office and an advertising agency, where he met Barbara, whom he married in 1950, he pursued his overriding ambition to draw, enrolled at the Working Men's College, and progressed to the foundation course at Camberwell and on to the RCA. Then, with two young children, he took the bold and risky step of leaving London and going freelance. They moved to Teston in Kent, which remained the family home for 50 years. He found work where he could; his longest association being with a New Zealand publisher of school textbooks, which he continued to illustrate long into retirement.

This was never an easy or lucrative career and, almost inevitably, he was obliged to return to teaching, a compromise that would benefit countless students at Goldsmiths, where he taught film and television studies, and St Martin's School of Art, with further stints at Medway College of Design and Maidstone College of Art.

John was typical of his generation of versatile illustrators, who could draw straight lines and perfect circles freehand, could produce camera-ready copy, knew how to retouch, match colours, and how different colours and inks printed. Printing and printmaking were his enduring loves, and he hoped to devote himself to silk-screen work on retirement. Instead he took on a full-time caring role for his wife. Some time after her death in 2004, and after a final flourish of printmaking, the ailments of advancing age defeated his unique talents and he had to leave Teston, and join either his son, Edward, in Cambridge, or his daughter, Rachel, in Sanguinet, south-west France. The three agreed on France, where he had two full years, drawing a little, helping at the local school and playing a full part in village life.

He is survived by Edward and Rachel, and his grandchildren, Robbie, Ella, Morgane and Matthieu.

John Griffiths, illustrator and printmaker, born 2 August 1926; died 13 March 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 01 2012

Hilton Kramer obituary

Former New York Times art critic known for championing the modernism of his youth

Hilton Kramer, who has died aged 84, was the most lucid art journalist of his generation. From his early days on Arts Digest and the New York Times, he compelled attention with the forensic skill of his arguments, the accuracy of his praise and the ferocity of his disembowellings.

He was judge, jury and scourge of, among others, Kirk Varnedoe, curator of painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1988-2001), for what he regarded as Varnedoe's betrayal of the trust passed down from Moma's great founding director, Alfred Barr. In 1980, he skewered the art academic Meyer Schapiro for an analysis of Cézanne that brought "discredit upon the whole Freudian enterprise", concluding: "There thus remains an unresolved conflict – the conflict between the aesthete and the ideologue – that sooner or later will have to be faced if this author is to be taken seriously as a significant analyst of our artistic heritage."

Kramer started out as a moderate lefty but by the mid-1960s was well on his way to becoming the self-professed neocon who considered that the steely-eyed president Ronald Reagan had "won" the cold war, and who basked in a climate in which liberalism, socialism and communism co-existed in a miasmic mindset as a threat to western democracy; west of Rhode Island, that is.

In 1982, he resigned as art critic of the New York Times because he considered it too leftwing and became founding editor of the New Criterion, where he could open a broad front in defence of the achievements of modernism against the philistines, but also continue the battles of the McCarthy years, mentioning senator Joe McCarthy rarely but comrade Joe Stalin often. He raged against those on the Hollywood blacklist of artists suspected of communist sympathies, from the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to Charlie Chaplin, and particularly the Hollywood 10, toilers in the movie vineyard who refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to prison.

The intransigence of Kramer's political views sits awkwardly with the subtlety of his perception in his writings on the arts but brought him a devoted public following as well as the scorn of many, particularly painters and sculptors practising today.

Kramer was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of Russian immigrants, and received a BA in English from Syracuse University in New York state, then took postgraduate courses at Columbia, Harvard and the New School for Social Research, covering cultural and political issues, but not art. In 1953, bugged by Harold Rosenberg's description of abstract expressionist paintings as psychological events, he wrote an attack which Partisan Review accepted and which turned him into an overnight celebrity, bringing him a job he had not known he wanted.

He became an editor at Arts Digest (later simply Arts) and in 1965 he joined the New York Times as an art critic, later becoming chief art critic. He used his slot to defend the achievements of modernism up to the 1950s and to excoriate most of what happened later, though there were occasional surprising exceptions, such as his judgment in a New York Review of Books article in 1969 of Claes Oldenburg, "whose zany sculptures and offbeat designs for monuments," he wrote, "offer a robust engagement with the world we actually encounter beyond the perimeter of the art gallery, the museum, and the millionaire's fancy pad".

He brought an acerbic sanity to his occasional ventures into British territory, particularly in puncturing the Bloomsbury revival in a fine essay of 1984 which ends by quoting JM Keynes's rueful view from hindsight of the "superficiality, not only of judgment, but also of feeling" of Bloomsbury, in which Kramer included the underpowered work of Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell and the negligible Duncan Grant. In the course of a richly appreciative assessment of Kenneth Tynan, he wrote: "As a critic, Tynan worked very much as certain high style actors do, always ready, with the rhetorical flourish or the coup de théatre that disarms complacency and causes both shock and applause."

Norman Podhoretz, Kramer's fellow neocon and contributor to the rightwing magazine Commentary, summed him up best: "Hilton came to occupy an almost uninhabitable critical space of his own construction, in which … the daring and experimental art and fiction and poetry of his own youth was considered highly praiseworthy, whereas the transgressive efforts created and displayed in his middle age drew from him exactly the sort of response the abstract expressionists had drawn from leading critics in his own early days."

In 1964, Kramer married Esta Teich, who was an assistant editor at Arts. She survives him.

Hilton Kramer, art critic, born 25 March 1928; died 27 March 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 26 2012

Robert Fuest obituary

Director who blended sophistication and sickness in the horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes

With its mix of pop art, sophisticated humour, pulp science fiction and English eccentricity, the television series The Avengers was among the most influential and significant products of "swinging London" in the 1960s. Robert Fuest, who has died aged 84, cut his teeth on the series under the aegis of the writer-producer Brian Clemens, initially as a production designer when the show was produced "as live" in the studio in black and white and co-starred Honor Blackman with Patrick MacNee, then as director when the series had moved on to colour, film and Linda Thorson.

As designer and director, Fuest learned how to achieve style on a budget – making a great deal of the show's famously minimalist aesthetic – and he carried this over into his best-known works as a film director, the two Dr Phibes horror movies of the early 1970s, starring Vincent Price, and the Michael Moorcock adaptation The Final Programme (1973). In 1970, he made a commercially successful literary adaptation of Wuthering Heights, with Timothy Dalton as a pin-up Heathcliff, and the highly regarded, recently remade suspense picture And Soon the Darkness.

Fuest was born in Croydon, south London. He graduated from Wimbledon School of Art with a national diploma in design, then went on to Hornsey College of Art to study for his art teacher diploma. He did his national service in the RAF and was involved, in a tiny way, in the Berlin airlift of 1948.

After a decade teaching illustration and lithography at Southampton School of Art, he entered the TV industry as a production designer in 1961, first working at Thames Television on The Avengers. He worked for ITV and the BBC throughout the 1960s, mostly as an art director/production designer on prestige shows including Out of This World, Armchair Theatre and the BBC Sunday Night Play. He also contributed material to the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore sketch show Not Only … But Also, as a comedy writer, and seemed drawn towards the pop art/satire world epitomised in the British cinema by the films of Richard Lester.

In 1967, Fuest wrote, directed and provided songs for his first feature, the marriage-in-crisis comedy Just Like a Woman, starring Wendy Craig and Francis Matthews. The film ventures into freewheeling, surreal territory thanks to a Peter Sellers-esque performance from Clive Dunn as a modern architect who creates a stylish but hideous new home for the heroine. Seldom revived yet fresh and memorable, Just Like a Woman might well have been Fuest's most personal film, though his subsequent work found him gravitating towards mainstream success and a lasting cult reputation.

Fuest then directed eight episodes of The Avengers and continued his collaboration with Clemens on And Soon the Darkness, a sunstruck thriller about two girls (Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice) stalked by a murderer while on a cycling holiday in France. Wuthering Heights, one of several literary classics reimagined as 1960s-style youth romances in the wake of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, and John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd – was made for American International Pictures, which was at that time best known for beach-party musicals and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Price.

Wuthering Heights was AIP's biggest success to that date – rather to the surprise of studio chief Samuel Z Arkoff, who tried in vain to persuade Fuest to deliver a sequel – and Fuest was then teamed with Price, who had at that time grown weary of his horror stardom and become prickly to work with. Rewriting without credit a simple parade-of-deaths film initially called The Curse of Dr Pibe, Fuest delivered The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), in which a disfigured vaudeville organist-theologist kills off, in gruesome manners derived from the Plagues of Egypt ("Aaargh, locusts!"), the doctors who failed to save his wife's life.

Aside from the relentless black humour of the premise, Fuest and Price worked hard on an unusual blend of sophistication and sickness, playing up the art deco sets and befuddled succession of mostly doomed British character actors. The film was a big enough hit to re-enthuse Price and AIP and led to an even more stylish and acid-dipped follow-up, Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), which did well, but not well enough to ensure further instalments.

The Final Programme, with Jon Finch as Moorcock's futuristic dandy Jerry Cornelius and an absurdist take on the end of the world, is a remarkable achievement, though the author did not care for it and audiences did not initially take to its odd qualities. After directing an entertaining American horror movie, The Devil's Rain (1975) – with Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner – Fuest mostly worked in television in the US and UK, inevitably directing episodes of The New Avengers but also odd projects such as Revenge of the Stepford Wives; an hour-long version of Poe's The Gold-Bug; and children's programs in the US and the UK.

From the mid-80s, he returned to teaching, as senior professor at the London International Film School, and then became a full-time painter, specialising in seascapes and maritime subjects. He was also a well-liked guest at film festivals and cult movie events.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, and their daughter Rebecca, and his former wife, Gillian, and their sons Adam, Ben and Aaron.

Robert Fuest, director, production designer and artist, born 30 September 1927; died 21 March 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 26 2012

Adrian Cave obituary

The architectural career of my friend Adrian Cave, who has died of cancer aged 76, exemplifies the way disability issues have moved to the foreground of our culture. At an age when others consider retiring, Adrian embraced the concept of inclusive design and pioneered the transformation of disabled access to public buildings, so that it became integral to the creative vision rather than an add-on.

Adrian was the UK's first registered access consultant. In the past 10 years, he worked with architects including Norman Foster and Herzog & de Meuron and advised at the formative stages of projects such as Crossrail, the Olympic village, Tate Modern and the revamp of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in London. His mantra was "access with elegance". At Christopher Wren's Royal hospital, in Chelsea, west London, he concealed a lift behind 18th-century panelling to aid those with difficulties climbing the staircase, satisfying English Heritage in the process.

Adrian worked as a Samaritan and with Emmaus House on behalf of the homeless. He was made OBE for his dogged work in the transformation of a defunct cinema near his home into Ealing Community Resource Centre.

He was born in Great Bromley, Essex, and attended Ampleforth college, North Yorkshire. He adored adventures, such as navigating the canals with his grandchildren and walking with friends in Italy or Spain. He is survived by his wife, Felicity, whom he married in 1964; his son, Ben, and daughter, Zoe; and five grandchildren. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 25 2012

Ian Simpson obituary

Painter and educator who democratised and demystified the world of art

"Anyone can learn to draw, just as anyone can learn to speak or write. Drawing is a perfectly ordinary way of communicating information." These words, from Drawing: Seeing and Observation (1973), by the artist and writer Ian Simpson, who has died aged 78, exemplified his conviction throughout a long career in art education that drawing and painting are not divine talents given to the few, but can be taught and bring great pleasure to all manner of people.

In 1963 Ian joined the staff at Hornsey College of Art, north London, where he started the department of visual research, with very strong emphasis on drawing. During his time there a BBC producer, planning a series on drawing, sat in on lectures at various art colleges and concluded that Ian would be the ideal presenter for the 10 programmes of Eyeline, broadcast from 1968 until 1969, which resulted in Ian's first book, published in 1968.

In 1972 he was appointed principal of St Martin's School of Art and stayed there until early retirement in 1988, when St Martin's merged with Central School of Art and Design. He was admired for the way he tried to resolve contentious issues; the move towards degrees accredited by the Council for National Academic Awards, whose fine art board he chaired, raised difficult questions about the amount of academic content that an art degree should contain.

Drawing: Seeing and Observation was followed by a second television series, Picture Making (1973-76) and a third, Reading the Signs, in 1978. Ian had one-man shows in Cambridge (1975), Durham (1977), Blandford, Dorset, (1985) and Colchester (1994), and published further educational books, most notably Painter's Progress (1983), with Tom Robb and Fred Cuming.

Many art teachers see retirement as a golden opportunity to get back to full-time painting. Ian did paint for the rest of his life, but education was just as important to him. When Michael Young and Ian Tregarthen Jenkin, who in 1987 co-founded the distance-learning organisation the Open College of the Arts, asked him to help create the college's first student manual in art and design, he responded enthusiastically, and went on to take organisational roles. During his chairmanship of the college's academic committee, big strides were made towards the accreditation of courses, enabling students to start thinking of acquiring qualifications. Ian also wrote A-level material for the National Extension College's home-study courses.

Books (12 in all) and articles, particularly for the Artist magazine, continued to flow. The Challenge of Landscape Painting (1990) vividly combined the paintings of 29 artists, interviews with seven of them and practical advice to the budding painter. Nor did he restrict his interest to the famous. For Ian there was no real distinction between the amateur and the professional, and he particularly delighted in writing about unknown artists. A wonderful volume on the paintings of the businessman Tony Rampton, published in 1995, is a prime example of this work.

Ian was brought up in Sunderland, the son of Herbert, an excellent artist who taught at the Sunderland College of Art, and his wife, Elsie. After Bede grammar school, Ian studied there himself before attending the Royal College of Art in London and launching into a career in 1958 as a freelance artist and illustrator, coupled with lecturing in art colleges. In the same year, he married Joan Charlton, who became an art teacher.

After his first marriage was dissolved, he married the textile artist Birgitta Willcocks in 1982. His boyish vigour and enthusiasm persisted to the end; he often told students about the Japanese artist Hokusai's remark "all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account" and he always hoped that his own painting would get better and better with time.

Birgitta predeceased him. Ian is survived by two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

• Ian Simpson, painter, writer and teacher, born 12 November 1933; died 15 December 2011 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 05 2012

Eve Arnold's most memorable shots – in pictures

A look back at some of the defining images of the Philadelphia-born photographer's career

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