By Fiona Green
I am appalled to see that Derwent London now claim to be following in the artistic tradition of Fitzrovia. The current exhibition at their gallery in Whitfield Street has a display about the artists that made their home in Fitzrovia. Having known these artists personally I can confidently say that they would have been horrified at what Derwent London and the Fitzrovia Partnership are doing to our neighbourhood.
It is perhaps a good time to re-visit and pay tribute to some of the extraordinary people who have helped to make Fitzrovia the special place it is today. Two of these special people were Adrian and Corinne Heath.
Generous, caring and passionate about painting, Fitzrovian activist, Corinne Heath died on 6 October 2009 year after a long illness at Charlotte Street where she lived with the artist Adrian Heath (who died in 1992), and her two children Clio and Damon. Corinne made a stylish hostess with a strong commitment to both her family and to Fitzrovia. She was one of the founder members of the Charlotte Street Association, fighting developers and promoting conservation in this area. She has been sorely missed by all who knew her.
I first met Corinne Heath in 1968 when the art historian, Tim Hilton, was staying with my family. He said at the time: “I think you’ll get on, you run a similar house to the Heaths”. Whereas ours was filled with writers and politicos, theirs was inhabited with artists. I knew Adrian, her husband, because he had taught me painting at Corsham (the Bath Academy of Art) in 1961, and he was the centre of a group of important English Abstract artists of the 1950s and 1960s.
Over the years, I loved to walk down Charlotte Street and meet this tall, handsome woman with the fruity voice and winsome smile. She was so generous: always having time for everyone – even after her hip replacement, when walking proved so difficult. And she was a passionate advocate for the locality.
She was one of the main members of the Charlotte Street Association. Through this, she effected changes and tried to prevent moves to destroy local buildings of importance. Corinne used to badger me to stand for local election, but I was far too busy with family and career. Yet I felt honoured that she felt I was up to such sponsorship.
Gillian Ayres recalls meeting her at the Slade in the 1950s where both Adrian and Corinne studied. The friendship continued on through Gillian’s teaching career at Corsham, St Martin’s and the AIA Gallery. “They were very good, dear people, who kept all their friends – you can’t say that about most people, can you? She was left wing, while Adrian was definitely more on the right.
“People lived in their kitchen; the place was always filled with artists: Anthony Hill, Terry Frost, the Martins, to name a few. Tim Threlfall and other students often stayed there. The house was filled with wonderful art; it was above a political bookshop run by Vanessa Redgrave.
“They had the rare quality of being English county by birth and yet, untypically, modernists in their work and outlook, which was at that time, the new Abstract Expressionism.”
She continues: “I often went round for tea when I was passing in Charlotte Street, and even stayed with Sammy, my son, at their cottage on Barra (in the Hebrides). She was a keen sailor and I was filled with admiration for that.
“In the 1970s she worked in Experimental Films, and even in a Dolls’ Hospital in Charlotte Street, I think. Howard Hodgkin did a rather fine painting of them both”.
Max Neufueld said he and his wife Yolanta knew Corinne quite well because she was one of the Founder Members of the Charlotte Street Association. Adrian and Corinne started off in Fitzroy Street, where Adrian’s studio became the focal point for a large group of influential artists including Victor Pasmore the Martins, Anthony Hill, Adams and Heath himself. They even showed work by these artists in advance of the galleries, ahead of their time. They moved to Charlotte Street in 1957.
“The house was a hub for artists,” said Max, “with Corinne at the heart.” Corinne’s early life – between periods at the Slade – was as a torpedo Wren posted to Belfast. She loved this period which involved organising women to do complex electrical work. She felt liberated in the mixed environment which was a socially levelling experience for her.
At the end of the War, she returned to the Slade, and studied Theatre Design, under Vladimir Polunin. Following this, she worked long hours in the theatres of the West End, designing and dressing the Vaudeville actresses and dancers then walking home to Fitzrovia late into the night.
Max remembers her tireless committee work, reminiscent of her work in northern Ireland. Corinne remained on the Charlotte Street Association till quite recently. Also, for a while, she was their Treasurer.
“She had this important quality – she wasn’t a realist. Therefore she never accepted obstacles – so pushed through on issues tenaciously until there was a resolution. A really determined fighter: she knew and understood this area and its locals well,” recalls Max.
Many of us treasure the values that Adrian and Corinne held and the contribution they generously gave to our neighbourhood. I want those values to be seen for what they are. Not to be colonised, re-written and distorted. I don’t want my children and future generations to come, to express the horror we now feel because we allowed the wanton changes that are planned. No, Derwent London. We have nothing in common with you. We don’t want you here. You add nothing.