Malvina Cheek - a piece of Old Hampstead - now sadly gone

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Malvina Cheek - a piece of Old Hampstead - now sadly gone


Thu, 23/06/2016 - 11:59


Left: Malvina at work in her back garden; right. In later years at her Hampstead home.
23 June, 2016

Published: June 23, 2016

THE passing of Malvina Cheek at the age of 100 represents something more than the end of a life of a celebrated artist and illustrator. Her death in May marks one of the final stages of Hampstead’s golden artistic era, the period when the neighbourhood earned its reputation as a haven for liberal thinkers, artists, writers and bon viveurs. 

As lampooned by George Orwell in his 1936 book Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the term “Hampstead Liberal” was based on the fact NW3 attracted not just the well-known arty types – Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, Ben Nicholson, Arthur Rackham, Barbara Hepworth, Eric Slater and Walter Gropius, to name but a few – but scores of middle-class professionals working in the fields of architecture, academia, politics and publishing.

Malvina, a painter and teacher, moved to the area in the 1940s and was, unconsciously, one of the Hampstead set: a brilliant polymath who along with her husband John Dewes created a welcoming home in Christchurch Hill. 

As Hampstead’s demographic changed over the decades, she represented one of the final links to the days of Orwell working behind the counter at Booklovers Corner and Moore sketching people sheltering from air raids in Belsize Park tube station.

Malvina’s earlier life was solidly middle class. Her father Percy Cheek worked in a bank. She was encouraged in her artistic endeavours – four aunts were dance teachers and musicians, yet as a teenager there were expectations of a more conventional academic career ahead. 

“My mother was expected to study at Oxford, but she rebelled,” recalls her daughter Sarah.

In the early 1930s she had decided she wanted to paint, and won a place at the Wimbledon College of Art. She went on to the Royal College of Art and graduated in 1938.

“Wimbledon was full of people from all walks of life,” says Sarah. “It broadened her outlook.”

With war on the horizon, Malvina joined  a project that was influential in her development as an artist. 

Called Recording Britain, it was a government scheme to employ artists to document architectural monuments and landscapes.

The project was seen as a morale booster, a reminder of a culture unique to Britain that war could not extinguish. 

She was in esteemed company: others taking part included contemporaries such as John Piper, Eric Ravilious and her friend Barbara Jones.

In an interview a decade ago, Malvina told this paper of a sense of freedom afforded to her as she drove the length of the country in a blue Morris car.

“They did not mind what we did, so I painted mostly trees,” she recalled. 

In the post-war years, Malvina spent time teaching – among her pupils was the illustrator David Gentleman – and took on commissions.

She arrived in Hampstead in the aftermath of the war when she rented a flat in Church Row, with fellow artist Olive Cook. The atmosphere of the area suited them: Barbara Jones was in Well Walk and anarchist, conscientious objector Tony Gibson and his wife Betty were close friends and lived nearby. Henry Moore would give her a cot for Sarah to sleep in.

In 1958, John and Malvina spent £3,700 on the home in which she would spend the rest of her life. She had some capital from her family, and her husband, who was teaching full-time, could afford to cover the mortgage. While not an inconsiderable amount for  the time, it was manageable for an artist and teacher. 

“She loved Hampstead,” says Sarah. “It was leafy, it was bohemian, and so many of her friends and acquaintances lived there.”

The Christchurch Hill house became her domain – every room became a studio, and every window provided a viewpoint for her easel. 

Her friend the broadcaster Piers Plowright notes that Malvina was one of the last of Hampstead’s artistic community. 

“The house itself is an extraordinary place,” he says. And this is not an address whose charm has been corrupted by the ubiquitous Farrow and Ball-painted front doors, or an front garden paved over for a 4x4 with an immaculate box hedge bordering it. 

“It was full of paintings, of hangings and of books,” he recalls. “It is an eccentric place whose walls echo long conversations. Malvina, for me, embodied that side of Hampstead. It was not the same as Fitzrovia or Bloomsbury where people would drink and then sleep with one another. It was much more to do with music, with books and with gardening. Malvina loved all of these things. 

“Her great friend Barbara Jones loved English folk art – pub signs, graveyards. Malvina shared that. She was interested in the very fabric of Englishness – and she found that in Hampstead, a place where town met the country, a place that had a flavour of its own, a sense of landscape, rambling houses. 

“She was a one of an extraordinary generation. She was a bit of Old Hampstead, a piece now sadly gone.”

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