Ann Stokes Angus: A Memoir

In 1972 I completed a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University. My dissertation subjects were the art historian Ernst Gombrich, the philosopher Nelson Goodman and, also, Adrian Stokes, who wrote about Italian art. I learned about Stokes from my teacher, the English philosopher Richard Wollheim. Little known in the United States, Stokes was a legend in his native England. With my degree finished, I got a teaching job in Pittsburgh, and went to London for the summer. My advisor, Arthur Danto, suggested that I arrange to meet Stokes. It was too late, for Adrian had just died. But I did meet his widow Ann Stokes, and arranged to stay in her house.

Stokes, who had an inherited income, lived in a five-floor, early eighteenth-century row house, 20 Church Row, in Hampstead. There was a long, narrow garden at the back. And Constable is buried in the church at the end of the street. It certainly was a grand location. But spartan luxury, with no central heating. Once in winter, I discovered how cold the rooms could be. I stayed in the bedroom which had housed part of Adrian’s library, on the top floor. Late at night I could look South across London. And under my bed was a box of unsold copies of Wollheim’s anthology of Stokes’ writings.

Pittsburgh was (and is) a good place to live, but it wasn’t the most stimulating city for an unattached young professor who needed to write. And so initially I planned to study Adrian during my London summers. But it turned out that I wasn’t ready to do that, for I knew too little of his concerns. Instead I would take the tube from the Hampstead, go into the National Gallery, and wander. (Admission was free.) Or I would walk across Hampstead Heath, and look at the old master paintings in Kenwood House. And I read a great deal. Ann and I became great friends, and I came to know her house as well as anyplace where I have lived.

When I became a regular guest, my job, apart from helping with the shopping, cooking and cleaning up, was assisting Ann with her kiln. After Adrian’s death, Ann installed her pottery wheel in the ground floor living room, which was filled with her work and Adrian’s paintings. She was a very gifted artist. And she had students, including Wollheim’s wife. Late in her life a monograph on Ann’s art was published. And she very happily remarried to a librarian, Ian Angus, who also became my intimate friend. Their kitchen, the center for our social life, was in the basement. We dined together, occasionally with one or two guests, on Ann’s pottery. And in the kitchen were paintings by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), an outsider artist whom Adrian had befriended. But otherwise Adrian was not a collector, except of his own paintings.

Ann had a marvelous gift of inspiring intimate presence without being intrusive. In her house, I learned how to organize a dinner party. We didn’t, so far as I can remember, talk about Adrian’s writings or my academic work. We did discuss her pottery and the art I was seeing. Occasionally Ann and Ian went to art shows with me, and once we enjoyed the opera together. And sometimes her son Philip would join us. Because I was happy to be where I was, I was oddly adventuresome in London. When I was writing a book on Nicolas Poussin, I flew up to Edinburgh for the day, studied his paintings, and came back the same evening. At Church Row, I felt safe and absolutely content.And occasionally I stayed in Ann and Ian’s house near Cortona, where she potted and he took care of the olive trees.

When Marianne Novy, who became my wife, eventually joined me in London, I realized that life at 20 Church Row was complicated, at the start, for an outsider. The house had gentle rituals- everything had its place. Making tea with milk was a real learning experience. I wondered initially, should one heat the milk? In those days, bottled milk was delivered on the front porch. Once it spilt down the kitchen steps. But while anyone else would have been annoyed, Ann asked me to see how beautiful the dripping milk was. Like Adrian, she was an aesthete. On another occasion, when we took the tube and had to change stations, she said, ‘walking is a bore, let’s run’, and so I too ran to keep up with her. She kept in shape taking a belly dancing class. There’s a wonderful picture of her, taken when she was in her 50s, hanging upside down from a tree. Ann, who was Scottish, had a sense of humor. ‘I’m glad you have a post’, she said when my Pittsburgh teaching job was secure, adding: ’that phrase makes me think of a race horse’s posting’. Once when I told her with deep regret, that I feared I had let her down in an important matter of mutual concern, she emphatically said, ‘you let no one down’. And instantly I felt a sense of complete, permanent relief. At a large conference devoted to Adrian, she sat in the back, watching over us benevolently, only once commenting.

Church Row had a marvelous social life. Once we had to lunch a famous connoisseur I wanted to meet, Denis Mahon (1910-2011). He ate and drank very heartily, and told us about his ongoing research devoted to Caravaggio. And he explained his important political gesture: He had given his collection to the National Gallery on the condition that admission to the museum always be free. On another occasion, the dinner guest was Sonia Orwell (1918-1980), with whom Ian had collaborated on the publication of the George Orwell papers. Another friendly neighbor was the artist Derek Hill (1916-2000), who had an amazing social life. (He was friends with Prince Charles.) Ann did a little pottery sculpture of him in his bathtub. And William Coldstream (1908-1987), the renowned art educator, had his studio in the house. During the war, he had made a drawing of the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, the subject of Adrian’s Stones of Rimini (1934). I loved making tea and talking with him in the kitchen.

It’s been many years since I spent my summers in London. And now after the deaths of Ann and, more recently, Ian, their Hampstead house is being sold. Adrian once claimed: “A writer can better visually a place when he has left it.” He was right. And thanks to his books and my social life from Ann and Ian, which gave me lasting self-confidence, I have myself become a writer. Inspiration is mysterious. You can’t get it just by wanting it- it’s a gift, sometimes, that you may not anticipate or even feel that you deserve. Stokes wrote about the houses in which he lived in the 1930s and 40s, and I learned from living in his house with Ann and Ian, who weren’t writers, how to write. Stokes’ sensibility was formed in the 1920s and 30s. And so Church Row and the family friends gave me a real sense for that now vanished world.

When I read about very privileged people who have four or five houses, I am puzzled. 20 Church Row, filled with Adrian’s paintings and Ann’s pottery, was near to a grocery, a wine shop, some marvelous used bookstores, and the tube to the National Gallery. What more could anyone need? I was happy there because I didn’t want anything that I didn’t have. Adrian called himself ‘the poor man’s Bonnard’. Thanks to the generosity of Ann and Ian, one of his paintings is in my dining room. And so I think of the three of them often. In the Guardian obituary for Ann, I am described as an art historian who helped with her pottery. No recognition could make me prouder.

This is one is this now long series of my essays about people and institutions that deserve celebration. God willing, there are more to come.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.