John Iddon by Nataliya Zozulya

This should be entitled ‘Featured Non-Artist’ as is easily apparent from the two illustrations I’ve provided with this article. But I’m interested in art.

I suppose that interest started when I was lecturing at St Mary’s Strawberry Hill, where towards the end I ran an MA in Heritage Interpretation, and every summer term the students would go out on work placement. So each year I had to visit some of the students we placed at the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery in Venice – that spurred my interest in modern art.

I also I ran an Arts and Heritage Summer School and a Literary Society to which I invited literary and arts figures to come and speak. They were great fun. I remember the poet Seamus Heaney, who’d just begun a year’s sabbatical from Queen’s University, Belfast and was now enjoying the freedom of living down in County Wicklow. He said ‘unfettered by work, I felt like a goalkeeper, staring out, ready to catch at any experience’. Tom Stoppard also came and, describing his early wildly amusing and imaginative plays, he said ‘I felt like the daring young man on the flying trapeze’. Huw Wheldon told a funny story about his friend Hugh Casson (who had come to the Summer School the previous week), he said of Hugh: he arrived at this Chelsea address and said to the hostess ‘Hello, I’ve come to the party!’ She stared at him coldly and said ‘the party was last week, and you came to it’.

But other artists also came to St Mary’s, lured by the promise of being able to paint what Walpole called his ‘gothick mousetrap’. Many RA’s including Ruskin Spear, Donald Hamilton Fraser, Leonard Rosoman, David Gentleman, Julian Trevelyan, Mary Fedden and Quentin Blake all came and painted versions of Strawberry Hill. So when I retired from St Mary’s and decided to try to become an art dealer I was able to contact some of them and Casson, Fedden and Quentin Blake all agreed to let me sell paintings for them. Without their kindness I don’t think I could have started.

It was particularly kind of Mary Fedden because I’d started with an awful faux pas. I’d originally written to her husband Julian Trevelyan, and he came and did some sketches of the house. After a few weeks I got a message from him saying he’d finished it and would phone him in a couple of weeks to arrange to go to Durham Wharf to see it. So after two or three weeks I phoned him. Mary answered the phone and I asked to speak to Julian. After a pause she said, ‘I’m sorry, he died a week ago’; another pause and then she said ‘I don’t know what I feel’. Feeling I had to say something , I said, ‘I know exactly what you mean, my dog’s just died and I feel the same’. More silence, except that I thought I could hear sobbing in the background. Realising what a stupid thing I’d said, I blurted out ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to compare your husband with my dog!’  More of what I thought was sobbing. Then she suddenly said. ‘That’s alright, that’s the first time I’ve laughed since he died’. What relief I felt! And that became the beginning of a long friendship. She also did a painting of her own of Strawberry Hill (illustrated).

Since then I seem to have become very involved in art: as a volunteer guide at the two Tates, as an Arts Society lecturer, and as a dealer. My connection with Richmond, where I happily live, started with spotting and selling the paintings of local artists, for example Anne Swankie, Jim Woodman and Nataliya Zozulya.

Then I got involved with local societies including being the auctioneer for the art auctions of the Environment Trust for Richmond on Thames. I used to inflict on poor David Attenborough, who was President at the time, my awful cartoons for him to somehow respond to, so that we could raise money because he’d written on them.

But my most enjoyable local involvement has been with the Richmond Art Society with its wonderful programme of lectures and super twice yearly exhibitions of members’ work. The standard is fantastic and I sometimes wonder if it’s something to do with the Richmond air, as well as its charmed location. You just have to stand on the famous Terrace on the Hill and look down at Thomson’s ‘matchless vale’ and think of those who have been inspired to capture the area: Reynolds, Tissot, George Vicat Cole and, of course, Turner.

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