21 February 2007


Symbol of the resurrection: Thetis Blacker’s Fire Phoenix, 1999, one of her batik works

Symbol of the resurrection: Thetis Blacker’s Fire Phoenix, 1999, one of her batik works

Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig writes:
THETIS BLACKER, who has died, aged 79, swept through life with a brilliance and panache that lit up everything she did. Her exotic art reflected her worldwide knowledge of peoples and beliefs. From her first foreign exhibition of 1960 in Lima, her empathy with Peruvian culture was warmly recognised. She was proud to trace it not to information, but to a Peruvian grandmother.

Her two travelling scholarships as a Winston Churchill Fellow took her all over the Indian subcontinent. Treasures from these wide journeys hung in her homes alongside paintings and sculptures by her contemporaries; for she was ever a generous and affirming friend and colleague. All walked the taller for knowing her.

Her environments vibrated with unerring visual taste. Her house at Oreby in Denmark, where she would practise the Tai Chi’ Chu’an on the long shore of the calmest of seas, was decorated in the full range of shades of her favourite colour, orange. Her clothes, always dramatic, partook of the same palette. Her cooking, like everything she touched, reached a fine art. When she was hostess, all danced around her candle.

Thetis started life as an opera singer, with a voice of volume and musicianship, but lacking the vocal purity needed by a prima donna. So, in 1954, she abandoned her place as a key figure in the Glyndebourne chorus. Glyndebourne, however, and the friends she made there — in the days that sometimes ended in a midnight swim at Tide Mills — remained central to her life and loyalties.

Twenty years later, she returned to Glyndebourne to sing Mother Goose in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, conducted by Bernard Haitink, with sets by David Hockney. Her rendering of the virago claiming Tom Rakewell for her own in a ringing voice 21 years out of training was unforgettable — if the critics did not know what to make of it.

One of her last achievements — an exhibition in 2005 at Glyndebourne of “Mythographs” on the theme of The Magic Flute — left us sighing that she had never combined her musical, dramatic, and visual imagination to design a production of this, inevitably her favourite opera. But Glyndebourne has one of her last and finest batik paintings, Primordium Opera.

Batik painting became Thetis Blacker’s chosen vehicle. She took the technique, long established in the east, to unheard-of heights of majesty and brilliance. In 1956, while she was turning from music to painting, she had, and recorded in her book A Pilgrimage of Dreams (1973), a prophetic vision of herself appointed to stand against the tall buttress of a cathedral, while her trumpet called a procession of people and animals from near and far to their true home.

Her long and fruitful association with our churches and cathedrals would not begin until 1971, when her series of banners of the Apocalypse, commissioned for the deaconess Community of St Andrew, was shown at St Margaret’s, King’s Lynn, during a festival, and then at 12 cathedrals, including Canterbury, New York, and Washington. In 1979 followed her 16 banners of the creation and redemption for Winchester Cathedral.

Then there was the triptych The Gate of Heaven for St Botolph’s, Aldgate; and banners, chasubles, and altar frontals for St Albans, Aberdeen, and Durham Cathedrals, Westminster Abbey, St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and numerous other churches.

Unfortunately, she did not live to fulfil the commission for a high-altar frontal for Guildford Cathedral. The particular suitability of her Pentecostal art to that great space was shown when two banners were lent from St George’s, Windsor, for her resplendent funeral.

From 1975 to 1987, she served as artist-member of the Cathedrals Advisory Commission, and variously on the advisory committees for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Portsmouth, Guildford, and Winchester Cathedrals. In 1999, a retrospective exhibition in St George’s, Windsor, spilled out into the cloisters.

In 2002, Durham University gave her an honorary D.Litt. that brought particular pleasure, spelling parity with her brilliant brother and sister. It may be said that her prophetic vision of 1956 was fulfilled in a half-century of glorious and awe-inspiring work.

There will be requiem mass of thanksgiving for her life at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on 24 April.

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