Success on a plate
Artist, teacher, cook... Judith Downie had no shortage of talents, as a new exhibition will show
09 May, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
JUDITH Downie had the eye of a magpie for an object with an intrinsic, aesthetic value: her home in Bartholomew Villas, Kentish Town, was a treasure trove of delights.
Full of her own artworks, a huge collection of cooking gadgets symbolising her love of culinary practices, she had an etching press in the centre of her kitchen and a cockatiel called Beaky that lived for 28 years and flew freely about the place.
And now the life and times of Judith, a polymath who was an accomplished artist, a respected teacher who shaped the worlds of hundreds of students and a semi-professional cook, can be revealed beyond her circle of friends at an exhibition at the Highgate Scientific and Literary Society in South Grove, Highgate.
The show has been curated by Sue Harrison and Kate Ward-Perkins, two friends who are the executors of her estate.
In a book accompanying the exhibition, her work is shown to be both a reflection of the art trends of the 20th century that had influenced her and also groundbreaking – Judith’s aluminium etching process was unique.
After Judith’s death in 2016, Sue and Kate began to sift through her tremendous body of work.
“We felt strongly we should share this work – she was very accomplished,” says Sue.
Judith is described in the book as an “artist and teacher, gourmet cook and animal lover,” but as friends testify, there were many characteristics that come alive through her art.
Judith Downie with Beaky the cockatiel
Sue’s mother, Elspeth, met Judith when they both studied at art school in Newcastle in the early 1950s. She recalls how Judith had an eye for beauty.
“She spotted many objects missed by others and by the end of her life had a huge collection of cooking paraphernalia, lovely glass pieces (many coloured), Le Creuset pots and old and new kitchen gadgets, plates and bowls from France, as well as furniture, lamps, prints and art both light-hearted and serious,” she writes.
Born in Ashington, Northumberland, in 1934, Judith’s father William ran a hardware shop, her mother Annie was a teacher. An only child, she was encouraged by her parents from an early age to develop an obvious artistic talent.
Ashington was known for its coal mines – and around the time of Judith’s birth, University of Durham’s Master of Painting Robert Lyon set up classes in the area with the Workers’ Educational Association. It would develop into the school that became known as the Pitmen Painters, a group that gained national recognition.
“In Ashington, art was in the air,” her life-long friend Jenny Pery states.
“As a child, Judith knew and admired the men of the Ashington group. No doubt their work influenced her.”
Judith married talent with hard work – and knew from an early age what she was capable of.
“When her proud mother [after an excellent school report] exclaimed ‘when you grow up you could be a secretary to a fashion designer’ Judith responded ‘no, I shall have a secretary and be a fashion designer’.”
Judith won a scholarship to study etching in Paris at the studio Atelier 17 – a place frequented by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Joan Miró. The year she spent there influenced her, not only artistically, but she became a confirmed Francophile.
After moving to London in the 1960s, she worked for the Inner London Education Authority and at the Chelsea School of Art. She continued to produce her own work and take on commissions: the rock band Hawkwind asked her to create an etching to mark their millionth disc, while a Manchester synagogue asked her to create two 5ft x10ft doors in etched aluminium.
And her teaching notes, found among her possession at Bartholomew Villas reveal a little more about her philosophy. “Design is intelligence made visible. Fine art is intelligence made visible and revelatory,” she wrote.
Judith’s partner, Earl Kenney, was an American she met in the West End when they both tried to hail the same taxi. The pair owned a pet shop in Stoke Newington through the 1970s – and when Earl died in 1986, she moved to Kentish Town and art once again took centre stage.
Earl’s death left her with an empty house, apart from Beaky the cockatiel – so she decided to open a bed and breakfast. Many guests would become friends and return time and again, greatly looking forward to sharing her company over a groaning table laden with the delicious meals Judith created.
These strands of what interested her glow through her paintings and etchings.
“Through her work, her life comes together,” adds Sue. “You can see her love of animals, of art, of food and friendship.” Above all, the show creates an image of a much-loved, greatly missed woman who harboured a variety of talents.
“Judith’s outlook on life was perhaps summed up by the reading at her funeral from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s What Is Success?,” adds Jenny.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
• Judith Downie: A Life In Retrospect is at the Highgate Gallery, HLSI, 11 South Grove, N6, until May 16.