Debby Banham’s Eulogy for her mother

Mary Banham

July 20th. 1922 – December 13th. 2018

Debby Banham’s Eulogy for her Mother

Mary Banham was an artist, curator, writer and editor, and a committed Modernist. Born in 1922, she was the elder daughter of Kathleen Mullett (née Garrett) and her husband, John, a farmer’s son from Dorset who was sent away to sea as a boy and ended his career as a London County Council parks inspector. Mary and her sister Anne grew up in London, mainly at Blackheath, south of the river. It’s quite hard to imagine Mary as a baby, but apparently, when she was tiny, her mother took her shopping in the pram, parked it outside a shop, as one did in those days, forgot all about it and went home on the bus. Fortunately Mary was retrieved unharmed, and, as far as we know, most of her childhood was unmarked by existential threat. Except that, when the second world war broke out, her secondary school was evacuated to the south coast, only to return hurriedly when the coast was bombarded.

Like most of our family, Mary was interested in both arts and sciences. At school she wanted to be a surgeon, but she was told her maths wasn’t up to it, and when she left, it was to go to art school, where she had hair-raising stories of fire-watching on the roof. Most of the London art schools were evacuated together to Northampton, and when Mary returned to London, it was to the Central School, where she completed her Art Teachers’ Diploma. Art school was a mind-expanding experience for Mary. She used to laugh at her mother saying ‘You’ve never been the same since you went to that art school,’ but my gran wasn’t wrong.

Mary’s first teaching job was at Notre Dame High School, in Norwich, where the mother superior liked to have a few ‘heathens’ on the staff (Mary was at that time a communicant member of the C of E). In Norwich she met my father, Peter, then stage manager at Nugent Monck’s Maddermarket Theatre, and the couple lived next door to Monck, in a cottage known as ‘the Offing’, with their friends Don and Sonja,. My grandmother refused to come to the wedding, as she thought Peter ‘not good enough’ for Mary, but relented when my grandfather said that he wouldn’t go without her, and then Mary would have no family there. Peter’s brother Paul was at the back of all the wedding photos, as they only had one suit between them.

In 1949, Mary returned to London with Peter, when he began his studies at the Courtauld. Mary worked initially at the Daily Mirror, subbing the agony aunt’s column, which was entertaining, but not very well paid for someone supporting two adults. Fortunately she soon got a teaching job, at a big secondary school in Wanstead. In 1951, the Festival of Britain was a big inspiration to her and Peter, like many of their generation, despite reservations about spending public money on such frivolity at a time of austerity. The buildings on the South Bank were a particular source of excitement, showing what could be done when innovative architects and designers received official patronage. Another major inspiration was the Independent Group that met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 1952, comprising some of the most radical artists, designers and thinkers in London at the time, including Peter, all bubbling with pent-up creativity after the war years. There the ideas were discussed that culminated in the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1955. Mary and Peter used to hold ‘open house’ where these discussions continued, originally on Sundays, later on Friday evenings.

When Peter started work at the Architectural Press, Mary took a break from teaching to have children, becoming my mother at the then advanced age of 31. Ben followed in 1955. When Ben was only a year old, Mary developed unexplained pains in her right leg, which turned out to be cancer. This resulted in amputation and a fairly long period of convalescence and rehabilitation. She had to learn to drive in fairly short order, and bought a pale blue Heinkel bubble-car, essentially a motorbike under a glass dome. Despite being quite alarming mechanically, this vehicle was popular with a lot of people, including the local kids, who all wanted a ride to school in it, even those still too young to actually attend school. Mary decided not to return to the hurly-burly of teaching, but to concentrate on her artistic practice. In the 1960s she took a technical-drawing course, and produced exquisite architectural drawings for Peter’s book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), but her main focus for many years was on print-making. She joined a screen-printing class in Kentish Town, and kept in touch with many of the participants for years.

In the early 70s Mary worked at the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Drawings Collection, and curated an exhibition at their Heinz Gallery on the Festival of Britain South Bank buildings. This led to a commission to organise a much larger show about the Festival at the V&A, with Bevis Hillier, and write the catalogue, A Tonic to the Nation, together. Both exhibition and publication were a great success. By the time the show opened in 1976, Peter was working in Buffalo NY, where Mary joined him the next year. There she continued her print-making work, and worked on a guide to the then little-known architecture of Buffalo, but the upper New York State winters were too much of a challenge to her mobility. Sometimes she would park outside a building, but be unable to cross the snow-packed sidewalk to the door. After three years, she and Peter moved to Santa Cruz, in California, where they enjoyed the much balmier climate. They had a house by the ocean, and Mary ran a gallery on the idyllic campus, exhibiting many of the most interesting artists in California and further afield. In her studio at home she made prints inspired by the spectacular coastal landscape of Monterey Bay.

Mary made many good friends in both Buffalo and Santa Cruz, but when Peter died in 1988, she came home to London, living with Ben off Tottenham Court Road. Despite her fierce commitment to Modernism, Mary was quite traditional in some ways. She saw it as her role to support Peter and his career, perhaps not in preference to her own, but certainly as an equal priority. She was involved from their inception with the Banham lectures, given in Peter’s memory and organised jointly by the Design History Society, the V&A and the Royal College. The annual trip to the V&A, and later the RCA, for the lectures, and then to the Polish Hearth Club for drinks, became a major gathering for friends and family. But Mary also got involved with plenty of activities that had nothing to do with Peter. In 1993, at the age of 71, she took an MA with Winchester School of Art, needing a special dispensation, as her wartime art-school training did not have degree status. The course group spent most of the year in Barcelona, where Mary had a fantastic time, and returned to painting for the first time in many years.

Back home, she initially took a studio in London Fields, but in 1997 she commissioned Jonathan Ellis Miller to build her a striking single-story building at Prickwillow, near Ely, in Cambridgeshire, where she could watch the sun set behind the cathedral. She spent the next fifteen summers in the Fens, producing a new burst of work, exhibiting in the annual Cambridge Open Studios event, and making many good friends among the local artistic community. She also joined the Connect group of artists in London, which included some of her old friends from Kentish Town. In Ely, Mary chaired a schools’ art competition for the new public library. We used to have our family Christmases at Prickwillow until three years ago, and quite a few birthdays, too, so Mary’s studio was a focus for the whole family. For my most recent birthday, in June, we all went to Kew Gardens, our last family outing together.

Mary was a great swimmer. In the water, she wasn’t disabled. She swam in Buffalo and Santa Cruz, and until fairly recently she was still swimming at the YMCA off Tottenham Court Road, and in Ely in the summer. Then she started getting pains in her upper body when she swam, which in retrospect must have been angina. A heart attack followed at Easter 2010, and, although Mary made a good recovery, her health slowly began to decline from then on. Her activities gradually became more limited, but even very recently she was still enjoying visits from friends and family, including her special ‘girls’ lunch’ group (no participant under 60). She also enjoyed tea and cakes once a month at Honey and co, and following people’s news on social media. At 96, she had lived a long life, full of variety and interest, as well as challenges.

Mary was a big personality. Her namesake and neice, Mary Harborne, has talked about losing ‘the matriarch of our family’, and other people have spoken since her death of her charisma, her zest for life, and of her being an inspiration, and a force of nature. Her strength of character helped her live with physical limitations that would have defeated a lesser mortal. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and you might think yourself a fool if you disagreed with her. But you always knew where Mary was, what she was doing, and what she thought. Things were rarely dull when Mary was around. She’ll leave a huge hole in our lives.

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