On the day of a memorial event at the Royal College of Art to commemorate – and celebrate – the life of the late Gillian Naylor, a former Senior Tutor in the Department of Cultural History, I am posting an edited version of what I said about her at her funeral in Brighton, because, rather shamefully, none of the national newspapers have published a full obituary of her (for those of you who like short posts, this does not qualify):-
I got to know Gillian Naylor (or Gill as I think I never quite dared to call her) when I was appointed as an Assistant Keeper in the Education Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in October 1982 to act as her shadow in the organisation and running of the joint V&A/Royal College of Art Course in the History of Design. The first cohort of students had already been accepted and, indeed, had already arrived in the set of rooms which had been allocated to them off the so-called British primary galleries. Gillian had been recruited a couple of years or so previously as Senior Tutor in the Department of Cultural History at the Royal College of Art, moving there from Kingston Polytechnic. I always felt she thought that I had drawn the long straw, because my job only entailed overseeing the joint course, whereas hers and Penny Sparke’s also involved a great deal of teaching of students in the applied arts departments of the Royal College. Gillian always had a slightly careworn air: hardworking, deeply conscientious, infinitely patient, always available to talk to students, counsel them either on their work or on other aspects of their lives. We all knew that there was a tragedy in the background of her life, without quite knowing what it was, and it was only much later that I learned – not from her – of the death of her only son, Tom, from drowning when he was seventeen.
What became clear to me over time – because she was quite reticent about her life, it took me time fully to acknowledge it – was what a remarkable person she was. I recommend the recordings of her life story which are available online for the intellectual precision of her voice, still with a very slight hint of Yorkshire in it, her droll laughter about her failing memory, and the occasional sarcasm. One knew that there were things, and people, of which she did not approve, but she was often too polite to say so.
Gillian was born in the West Riding. Her father had died in a tragic accident before she was born and so she was brought her up by her mother, who worked in the office of the managing director of a steel factory in Sheffield. She was educated at Sheffield High School, which she disliked for its snobbishness, and read modern languages at Oxford. Her first job after Oxford was wonderfully inappropriate, working on Who’s Who. In 1957, she joined the staff of Design magazine as an editor and features writer. She knew everyone in the design world, not only in Great Britain, but in other countries as well, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia, which was the focus of her intellectual interests, as evident in her first book on the Bauhaus, published by Studio Vista in 1968, which had involved considerable research in east Germany. She must have spent quite a bit of time at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in the days when it was based in Dover Street, and I remember that she was an active member of the William Morris Society, which attracted a great number of ardent modernists looking for theoretical antecedents for their socialism, and was kept under surveillance by MI5 who thought that it might be a cell of the communist party. Outrageously, she was compelled to resign from Design in 1963 when she was pregnant and thereafter had to find work as a single parent, writing freelance and living in Billingshurst in Sussex. This was what led her to seek jobs in teaching, originally at Croydon College of Art, then at Brighton, and later at Kingston. At Croydon, she realised that a good way to engage the interest of students was to talk about ordinary design, posters and packaging, and this led her to evolve her own way of teaching, different from the conventions of art history.
A key aspect of Gillian’s life was that she was one of the founding mothers of the discipline of Design history, helped by her deep knowledge of, and interest in, industrial design from her days at the Council of Industrial Design, and influenced by her suspicion of, if not hostility towards, the intellectual snobbery of Courtauld-educated art historians (in the recordings of her life she tells a story of how she struggled up from Kingston to attend a meeting of art historians in the office of Roy Strong and when she arrived, characteristically rather late, one of them was heard to say ‘there’s a stranger in our midst’). She liked an understanding of everyday objects and how and why they had been designed in the way they were, as far as possible in a non-judgmental way. She was particularly opposed to the intellectual confidence which had led her mentors at the Design Council to designate objects as good design. This is what had led her to explore the intellectual antecedents of this confidence in the ideas of the Bauhaus. Chris Frayling, when he was appointed Professor of Cultural History at the Royal College, realised the importance of the emerging discipline of design history, which saw the beginning of courses in design history at Manchester and Brighton, to the teaching of art and, more especially, design students and he encouraged Gillian to apply for the post of Senior Tutor, at the time that Tom died.
What I realise now, which I only half realised in the 1980s, was that Gillian was a generation older than the young Turks, including Tim and Charlotte Benton, Penny Sparke and Stephen Bayley, who were the other founders of design history, both as a subject through their writing and teaching and through the establishment of the design history society. She had lived through the 1950s. She knew Gordon Russell. She had visited the Festival of Britain. She knew the subject from the inside, as well as analytically. I remember that when I arrived, she was inclined to think of me as a representative of the enemy: a Cambridge-educated art historian, in alliance with all those intellectual snobs who were the Keepers of the V&A departments. But we became friends and used to have lunch together in the Royal College’s Senior Common Room, particularly on Fridays, when they served fish. I especially remember going on annual study trips, to Berlin, Prague and Stockholm, where Gillian was in her element, speaking the language, revisiting the monuments of modernism which she remembered as a young design journalist, and enjoying the company of the students who were like an extended family to her.
Gillian published a book on the Arts and Crafts Movement in 1971, which involved research in the collections of the National Art Library and the Art Workers Guild and was a pioneering work, still highly regarded by scholars in the field. In 1985, she published a longer and more scholarly reassessment of the Bauhaus. And she went on to produce William Morris by Himself in 1988, a book about Bloomsbury in the same format, and a great number of scholarly essays, including an irreverent critique of Reyner Banham, which was the Reyner Banham Memorial Lecture in 1997. Sadly, she never completed the scholarly histories of Post-War Design and Modernism, which she planned to write in her retirement.
I remember Gill (maybe I can finally call her Gill) most of all as a person, as a teacher, as a wholly admirable and highly moral person, staunchly anti-materialist, strongly socialist, humane: a product, as she herself would say, of the Butler education act; and a major figure in the development of design history as a discipline. Her work will live on in the publications of those students who were influenced and inspired by her. She was a person of the highest intellectual standards, deeply influential as a teacher, and a good and loyal friend.
5 thoughts on “Gillian Naylor (2)”
Very moving. Great educators are often unsung heroes
Yes, and heroines as well. Charles
Charles, thank you so very much for posting this text.
As Gill’s students in the mid 90s on the V&A/RCA course, we were all at first mildly terrified of her; but a slightly shambolic study trip to Poland [Gill and a Cracow taxi driver in hot dispute, clutching either end of a large denomination bank note, is one image which recurs] gave opportunities for chat and laughter.
Not long afterwards she was ‘extern examiner’ at NCAD in Dublin and several riotous social evenings ensued. Gill, with steely gaze, judging a My Little Pony hairstyling competition after dinner at Nikki Gordon Bowe’s house springs to mind here. From this point on, Gill started to holiday in Dublin and was the easiest and most charming of house guests. Her love of design, gardens, chat, food and wine infused those times together. Castletown, Henrietta street, the obscure arts & crafts furniture workshops at Monksgrange in Wexford, Mount Usher, the Lutyens memorial garden in Islandbridge were all explored and enjoyed, often with Paul Caffrey.
After trips abroad were too much for Gill, we stayed in touch and I visited her in Hove and so became more aware of the huge loss she had endured when Tom died aged only 17. Her courage in overcoming this and gritty determination ‘not to be the spectre at the feast’, as she herself put it, were inspirational.
One last memory: myself and Kevin Rogers brought Gill to Great Dixter a few years ago and although already very frail, she was still very much herself, so it was a perfect July day of sunshine, and laughter, and close looking. In Irish we say “ni bheidh a leithéid ann arís”: there shall not be her like again.
I was struck yesterday what a deep impression she had made on so many people of different generations and interests – practitioners as well as design historians
I was also one of those mid-90s students lucky enough to be tutored by Gillian. The first time I ever met her was at my interview for the History of Design course. She must have sensed how nervous I was and I remember her smiling benignly behind the wackiest pair of spectacles I had ever encountered. I liked her immensely from that moment. She was an empathetic tutor and her encouragement continued beyond graduation. We met occasionally in the years that followed with our mutual friend, Maureen, and enjoyed some memorable times. I feel privileged to have known her and will be eternally thankful for her support, especially during those early years.