IM Birtwistle Obituary: The Guardian

IM Birtwistle was my aunt. We knew her as Lilla, but she had been christened Iris and apparently hated the name. She preferred to be known instead as IM Birtwistle or simply IMB. I’ve included the following biography by Peter Stanford from The Guardian on Friday 23rd June, 2006. She also had obituaries in The Times and The Independent, although not The Telegraph which would probably have been her preference.

IM Birtwistle

Perceptive and demanding poet and gallery owner whose aesthetic gave her a cult status in the British art world

The gallery owner and lyric poet IM Birtwistle, who has died aged 88, was never that keen on you delving into her past. Names would occasionally crop up in conversation – dancing with Clark Gable (who apparently had bad breath), holidaying with Robert Graves on Majorca, debating religion with Muriel Spark – but just when you wanted more detail, she would sidestep your questions. “The box is so much more interesting than the contents,” she would say with a laugh, and return to the present and the future.

Gossip did not interest her. It was ideas that excited her. Her determination always to look forwards, to listen and learn from others, was part of the secret behind a long and colourful life lived always at full tilt. The rest was her extraordinary passion – for poetry, for music, for people, for her children and grandchildren, and for the painters she represented, some of them for almost 50 years.

In her galleries, first at Walberswick in Suffolk, then in Ipswich, and later, in the mid-1970s, at Deepdale Exhibitions, on the bleak but beautiful north Norfolk coast, she championed the likes of Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Jeffrey Camp and Philip Sutton, all painters who went on to take their place in the canon of 20th-century British art. She sold drawings for a fiver by the young David Hockney – before anyone knew who he was.

In metropolitan terms, her galleries may have been in the back of beyond – in Norfolk, part of it was in a caravan – but her demanding aesthetic gave her a cult-like status in the British art world. Its bible, the Art Review, was a devotee, but attached a health warning to its otherwise rhapsodic endorsement. “Don’t go to this gallery unless you appreciate the qualities of good art. Mrs Birtwistle is an enthusiast and takes no prisoners.”

Her achievement was all the more remarkable because at the age of 49, Lilla, as she was known to those closest to her, began to lose her sight as a result of hereditary glaucoma. At 75 she was totally blind, after a botched cataract operation, but she did not let it affect her work. The gallery remained open and some customers probably would not even have realised that behind her dark glasses she could not see. For those who did, and asked, she would explain that she believed a good painting could still speak to her. She needed to know only the size and subject, then she would hold it. “It either has a visual weight about it or it doesn’t,” she would say. “If it’s not flimsy or slight, I am aware that it has a measure of profundity.”

She worried constantly – and out loud – that this almost mystical communication made her a fake, but the quality of the paintings she continued to display dispelled any such doubts in the minds of her artists and customers. Something magical was clearly going on. As her great friend, the rock musician Nick Cave, once remarked after seeing her talking to a young hopeful about his paintings, “What she said about them, even though she couldn’t see them, was absolutely right.”

Her tastes were essentially modern – latterly she sold poetic abstract landscapes by Judith Foster and mixed-media works by Petrina Ferrey and Jenny Smith, who won Scotland’s top award for a young artist – but her approach to the technique of painting was medieval. “When you approach all art in a medieval way,” she remarked, “you don’t end up producing advertising or parading your psychopathology. You’ve got to come to terms with your medium. You’ve got to understand what you’re working with. You’ve got to be on your knees in front of your material. You’ve got to love it, be tender with it, know how to extend it, how to make it do things it doesn’t know how to do.” A good artist, she insisted, could not help but have a spiritual dimension.

It was not always a line that the art establishment agreed with, but Birt- wistle was never afraid to speak her mind. Tracey Emin – “the girl with the bed” – was simply “a self-publicist” whom Birtwistle found “dead boring”. Such candour made her a maverick, but for those on her wavelength she was a profound inspiration and a peerless source of encouragement. If she believed in an artist, she had that rare capacity to make them feel supremely confident in their own ability and so brought out the best in them.

Birtwistle was born near Blackburn, Lancashire. She never liked her Christian name, Iris, and preferred to use her initials. Her father was a wealthy cotton-mill owner and her childhood was privileged and happy. From her mother, she inherited her Catholicism and her interest in the arts. In the 1930s, she studied at the Bauhaus-influenced Reimann Art School in London, but realised that she did not have what it took to be a good painter. She turned her attention to writing lyric poetry. When the second world war broke out, she became an officer in the Wrens. She always put her “astringent voice” down to shouting commands against an east wind on an Orkneys base.

With the return of peace, her poems made her something of a literary It-girl. They appeared in all the major journals, and she was befriended by the leading writers of her day. Spark credited her with hastening her conversion to Catholicism. In the early 1950s, though, Birtwistle turned her back on London and settled in Suffolk to raise the three sons she, although unmarred, had adopted. She tried her hand at portrait photography, but soon set up her first gallery, scouring the art schools for new talent.

Her assistant was an unhappy 17-year-old, who had come to live with her in an effort to get her life in order. Jennifer Lash – or Jinni, as Birtwistle renamed her – met her husband, Mark, through Birtwistle and went on to dedicate her first novel to her. The couple’s six talented children, who include the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, and the film-makers Martha and Sophie Fiennes, remained close ever after to Birtwistle.

In her early 80s, she was amused and flattered that her closeness with Cave – he described their relationship as “love at first sight”, after they were introduced by a mutual friend – brought fresh media interest in her, but she sought always to deflect it on to her artists. The two shared a love of poetry and an unusual interest in spirituality. Cave’s lyrics are strongly influenced by his perception of the divine, while Birtwistle remained a devout Catholic. Her faith sustained her as she coped in the most robust way with her blindness. She refused to talk about health. It was an old person’s affliction, she said, and she was never an old person, though she once admitted that losing her sight had been a very hard thing to accept. “If I hadn’t been a Catholic, I think I would have blown my brains out.”

Her faith was much more than a crutch. In her religion as in her art, she mixed the medieval with the modern. She hankered after the metaphysical magic of Latin masses, spoke of the devil as a real presence, but also admired the radical priests who espoused liberation theology in South America – and wished she could join them working with street children.

Retirement was never in her vocabulary. Life inevitably changed – there were now six grandchildren to delight her – but her gallery remained, as ever, a unique mixture of a place for discussion of serious questions, a home-from-home, and somewhere that resounded with laughter and fizzed with vitality. Her passions were infectious, her knowledge vast, her courage immeasurable and her friendship a precious gift that will stay with me always. She is survived by her sons, her sister, the poet Angela Kirby, and her brother, Anthony.

Nick Cave writes: When I was first ushered into her cramped and booklined living room, Lilla, stared up at me and asked, in that powerful and deliberate voice, “Are you a papist?” These were her first words. I answered that I was not. “Then where do you get your spirituality from?” she challenged – and what continued from there was a conversation that lasted the next 10 years.

When I say conversation, I added little, I think. Her world view was so vast and well formed, and her arguments so razor-sharp, original, exasperating and always brilliant, that I felt that much of the time I was simply chasing and grasping at the effulgence of her extraordinary mind. “You’ve charged an old girl’s batteries,” she would say, but of course it were mine that had been charged. As I think of her now, it is that overriding image that I remember: Lilla, in her room, in dark glasses and fedora, altering the course of my life and enriching my world beyond measure.

Iris Mary Birtwistle, lyric poet and gallery owner, born May 29 1918; died June 20 2006

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