Lesley Lewis (née Lawrence) joined The Chelsea Society as a life member in 1966, became Chairman in 1980, retired in 1987, then served as Vice President until her death in 2010.
She came into the world unexpectedly early. Two months premature she was hastily christened in a rose-bowl at home, it being feared she would not survive the journey to church, and it could be said she left it unexpectedly late – just two months before her 101st birthday – leaving her family and many friend with unforgettable memories of an erudite and engaging companion.
Born in 1909 she was one of four children of a well-to-do Lincoln’s Inn solicitor. She was brought up in the family home, Pilgrim’s Hall near Brentwood in Essex, which she described in a book published in 1991, “The Private Life of a Country House” written in part to record the traditions and mores of an ordinary upper middle-class family which might be unfamiliar to future generations. She mentions only in passing that in the gardens there were two ponds, where, as a 10-year-old, she played with a little boy of the same age, David Lewis, the son of the local Rector, who even at that age had what she later described as ‘a hopeless addiction to ponds’.
Taught by a succession of governesses she said she had received ‘quite a useful substitute for an education’. It was the last of these governesses who inspired her interest in art history. In 1928, aged 18, she came home from the obligatory French finishing-school and was presented at Court.
Lesley in 1928
Then in 1931 her quiet life of picnics, tennis, house parties and involvement in local good works was to change dramatically. She read in The Times that a new honours degree in the History of Art was to be established at the University of London, and she persuaded her reluctant father to let her try to matriculate by means of a correspondence course. With this qualification – for, as we would expect of Lesley, she passed – she was accepted as one of the first four students at the newly formed Courtauld Institute. She followed her undergraduate degree with a post-graduate thesis on ‘The rise of neo-classical architecture’. But she once said ruefully in later life, ‘Although I did belatedly acquire university degrees, true academics always smelt a rat instantly and I knew that I was not one of them.
Her first job in 1939 was as Registrar of the City and Guilds of London Art School. Then after war broke out she worked as a ‘stop-gap’ managing clerk in the family law firm replacing the staff who had been called up. She commuted daily to London from Essex throughout the Blitz – volunteering as a firefighter through much of it, then in June 1944 as the first flying bombs, the V1’s began terrorising London, she received an aerogramme from her old friend David Lewis. His passion for pond life undiminished – he would become one of this country’s most distinguished entomologists – he was then working for the Sudan Medical Services, carryout out research into the transmission of tropical diseases from insects to humans.
Six years since she had last seen him, he was coming home on his first leave. This is her laconic record of what happened next ‘He came to see me and after a few days we got engaged to be married.’ And, so after a few days spent dodging the doodlebugs, they were. Lesley accompanied him back to the Sudan at the end of his leave, where she was offered a job as Librarian at the Agricultural Research Institute at Wadi Medani.
They were based in Sudan for the next eleven years, David’s research involving much arduous travelling through inhospitable terrain. It was particularly arduous for Lesley as she was required to act as a ‘biting service’ – offering her arms to lure mosquitoes and sand flies to be captured in test tubes. One of these unfortunate insects is apparently still to be found in the British Museum (Natural History).
But these were happy years and the source of some of the stories she loved to tell: the night they nearly shot their canvas bath in the mistaken belief that it was a leopard slithering down the side of their tent; the night they were camped in a village where it was rumoured two missionaries had been eaten by cannibals. Contemplating a similar fate she wondered how long it would be before the Lewises ceased being a family tragedy and became a family joke. ‘Not long’, she decided. Surviving such vicissitudes with her customary aplomb, in the last years before Sudanese independence she felt she had time on her hands and ‘to stop her brain from atrophying’ she embarked on yet another correspondence course, this time in law.
Much to her surprise – because, not knowing the answer to one question, she wrote that it she were in chambers she would just look it up – she passed. She was called to the Bar in 1956 when she and David finally returned to England and settled in Whitelands House on the corner of the Kings Road and Cheltenham Terrace.
The years in the Sudan had not dimmed her interest in art history. She found a mass of unpublished material in the Public Records Office about chicanery in 18th century Rome. She wrote to Anthony Blunt, then at the Courtauld, telling him she was planning to write a book about homosexual art connoisseurs spying for the Court of St James’s in the eighteenth century and asking for his help with her research. Not a good idea as it turned out! Fifteen years later she understood why he had ignored her request. Her book, “Connoisseurs and Secret Agents in 18th Century Rome” was published in 1961, and its success led to her election to the Society of Antiquaries in 1964. In 2002 she was awarded the Society’s medal for outstanding services.
She never practised law, but for fifty years she was to give generously of her time and expertise to the societies and causes that were so important to her. The Chelsea Society was extraordinarily lucky to have such a doughty and talented figure as its chairman. Two particular achievements stand out. In 1987, the year in which David died, she organised a charity auction for the Physic Garden which raised £31,000. Then when Crosby Hall, which had previously been a hostel for Women Graduates, was sold to a private individual, the Society was concerned about the future ownership of a painting it had given to the Hall. This was a copy of Holbein’s paining of Sir Thomas More and his family. With great tact Lesley diffused what might have become a difficult situation by setting up an independent trust to care for the paining. As a result, the huge canvas was moved to the Chelsea Town Hall, where it still hangs for all to see.
These verses, taken from her Memorial Service recall, delightfully, some of the organisations she was associated with for so long, and some of the things closest to her heart.
For civilising institutions, the Courtauld, the Physic Garden, Sir John Soane’s Museum, and the Society for Antiquaries.
For Georgian architecture, for great art, for Thomas More and for Chelsea
For good stories, for a sense of the ridiculous, and for peals of laughter
Obituary by Jane Dorrell – The Chelsea Society’s Annual Report for 2010