Julian Usborne obituary

Other lives: Engineer, shopkeeper, painter and conservationist

My younger brother, Julian Usborne, who has died aged 76, was an extraordinary mixture; engineer, shopkeeper, builder, prankster, painter, farmer, conservationist and furniture-maker all in one.

The son of Thomas, a civil servant at the Ministry of Transport, and his German wife, Gerda (nee Just), Julian spent his childhood, and the second world war, in a house in Weybridge, Surrey, that our parents bought as a bargain because it was often under the flight path of enemy bombers returning after a run over London. After prep school in Oxford, Julian went to Charterhouse, Godalming, where he discovered a talent for painting. National service was unexpectedly abolished just when Julian was expecting to have to do it. He was accepted to spend those two years (rather than the usual four) at the Slade School of Art: two years, as he put it, that changed his life forever.

After the Slade, he studied engineering at Balliol College, Oxford, where he quickly became editor of a funny magazine I had recently started called Mesopotamia. His first issue had cress seeds implanted on the cover with instructions to “just add water”.

He then worked briefly selling fashionable kitchenware in Covent Garden, which gave him the skill to go back to Oxford and start his own shop, Usborne, in Little Clarendon Street. It quickly became a mecca for young homemakers, as well as an intolerable stress for Julian. So he sold out and bought the astonishingly beautiful Westley Farm near Chalford in the Cotswolds. Julian used it as a base from which to wholesale smart kitchenware in the 1960s.

He designed and built five holiday cottages on his farm, all out of Cotswold stone, which he let for income. He also developed an interest in “bodging” – making intricate chairs out of unseasoned local wood without using mechanical power. In addition, he experimented with farming, trying pigs, cattle, sheep and a crop or two without economic return. Towards the end of his life he took up painting again.

For several years, Julian led successful campaigns in the press and courts against various ugly redevelopment plans in nearby Stroud, which led to his becoming the first director of the Stroud Preservation Trust, responsible for saving several landmarks around the town. He also built, largely by his own hand, a perfect holiday home in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain.

In late 2014, he was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the colon, and submitted to operations and chemotherapy. During his last months, he demonstrated extraordinarily calm attitudes to his impending death. “Sorry – can’t do Wednesday,” he once said, laughing. “That’s the day I go to meet the other dyers in the hospice.”

His first two marriages, to Popsy Lamb and Liz Parsons, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Hege (nee Wiese), and his children, Sam and Anna, from his first marriage, and Cherry and Maisie, from his second.

Peter Usborne

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dorothy Cuninghame obituary
Other Lives: Secretary and housewife who gave medical help to displaced people in Germany after the second world war

Christopher Cuninghame

14, Jun, 2021 @9:33 AM

Article image
Peter Iredale obituary
Other lives: Last director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Harwell laboratory in Oxfordshire

John Iredale

22, Jul, 2019 @2:02 PM

Article image
Anne Piper obituary
Other lives: Novelist who was one of the leading participants in the first Aldermaston marches of the 1950s

Tom Piper

04, Jun, 2017 @3:40 PM

Article image
Roger Ainsworth obituary
Other lives: Distinguished engineer who became master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford

Jane Wadkin

13, Mar, 2019 @3:20 PM

Article image
Godfrey Fowler obituary
Other lives: Family doctor and professor of general practice at Oxford University

Jake Piper

21, Apr, 2022 @4:22 PM

Article image
Pat McCubbin obituary
Other lives: Dedicated resident of Oxford who escaped Nazi Germany in the eary 1930s

Stephen McCubbin

15, Aug, 2016 @5:09 PM

Article image
Miriam Kochan obituary
Other lives: Inspiring teacher in the Oxford Jewish community

Nick Kochan

10, Jan, 2018 @4:21 PM

Article image
Roy Foster obituary
Other lives: Organ builder who volunteered to help the homeless

Josephine King

17, Apr, 2017 @5:32 PM

Article image
Robert Sephton obituary
Other lives: Librarian and Oxfordshire local historian

Chris Hall

10, Apr, 2017 @5:24 PM

Article image
Martin Aitken obituary
Other lives: Scientist who pioneered the application of physics to archaeology

Jessica Aitken

24, Aug, 2017 @5:23 PM