Austin Wormleighton obituary

Other lives: Journalist, biographer and art historian

Austin Wormleighton, who has died aged 81, was a rare example of a tenacious journalist successfully pursuing a radically alternative career as an art historian.

While working at the Financial Times, Austin was researching his landmark biography of the Cornish painter Samuel John Lamorna Birch, A Painter Laureate (1995), which was followed by an equally authoritative biography, Morning Tide (1998), of John Anthony Park, who was a leading figure in the St Ives art colony during the interwar years. Both sold well, and Austin had completed the text for a second edition of the Birch biography when he died.

Austin was born in London, the son of Henry, a picture restorer, and Norah. He lived in a traditional Gypsy caravan on a farm near Rugby as a boy before starting his newspaper career in 1959 at the Hampshire Chronicle. From Winchester he moved to the Yorkshire Post, the Glasgow Herald, the Times and finally in 1982 the Financial Times, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. I worked with him on the international edition of the FT.

One of Austin’s final labours of love was a history of the Stamford Bridge Studios in Chelsea. Built by his great-grandfather, Marwood Gooding, on a railway embankment facing Chelsea football ground, the studios provided affordable space in Victorian London for struggling artists. A young, penniless Jacob Epstein fetched up there in 1906.

Austin met and married Mary Simons in 1964 but they divorced soon after the birth of their son, Patrick, in 1966. A decade later he met Cornish-born Jo Sunter and they settled first in Hampshire and later in Cornwall.

Austin lamented the dearth of landscape painting in modern British art and curated a successful series of travelling exhibitions of Cornish paintings.

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in London all benefited from his in-depth knowledge of art, as did auction houses in the West Country, where Richard Kay of Lawrences Auctioneers observed: “Austin wore his learning lightly. Of course, he showed feisty enthusiasm and eager interest in good pictures, but it was tempered by his simple admiration for an artist’s obvious skill.”

He loved nature in all its manifestations, and when once asked what was the one thing he could he not live without, he replied: “The seasons ... and cheese.”

Austin had an enviable writing style and enjoyed surprising readers with unusual juxtapositions. On his 80th birthday he reminded everyone that his birth year of 1937 was also the year that the canned meat Spam was first marketed.

He is survived by Jo and Patrick, and by an elder brother, Eric.

Paul Hannon

The GuardianTramp

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