The Art of the Birthday, meeting DIANA ARMFIELD RA

Diana has lived in Kew since the 1950’s dividing her time between her beautiful London home where we meet, and her home in Wales. Despite the Magnolia in the garden coming into a fragrant bloom Diana is itching to return to her Welsh home once travel restrictions ease, having not been able to spend so much time there during the lockdowns.  

Approaching 101 years old at the time of our interview Diana says “I need to use my energy for painting- I think that it keeps me alive - painting, the family and these organisations”. She refers to community organisations such as Kew Neighbourhood Association. Diana describes KNA as “Marvellous and absolutely reliable - more so than taking a taxi, and, perhaps a relief for friends. I am soothed by the feeling it will all be well in time and not to have to rush to these places. I have found the volunteers are the type who enjoy meeting new people and talking to them, they can tell me their life story and I can tell them mine.”  It always works out as an enjoyable occasion. 

Diana also recalls with pleasure the Moments of Joy deliveries such as the Summer and Christmas Tea Boxes she received from KNA in 2020. “It was such a lovely surprise, such fun!” 

Married to the artist Bernard Dunstan RA (1920-2017) the couple spent a lot of their earlier decades with their careers focused on Central London’s galleries, and the Royal Academy which elected Diana an Academician in 1989 

But Diana also has fond memories of knowing her immediate neighbours here in Kew, taking her sons to Kew Gardens after the end of their school day at Broomfield House and the wonderful change that pedestrianising so many parts of the village has made, “it makes a gracious welcome for people.” Diana recalls the time when the railway bridge was decorated with a sunflower mural that was often subject to graffiti.  Bernard would take his brushes there on a Sunday and retouch the painting. 

She explains that painting never gets any easier.  Her current piece has stalled on the easel in her studio for a week and she has just refreshed her palette. She talks about her skills developing with experience “You look at the past and think 'I couldn’t do that', now, you know how to tackle something,” but adds  “on the other hand, you can misfire!” describing how things still don’t always come out as intended.  "But when they come out well, you know when you have done a good work." 

I ask Diana what has made her proudest in her career and she assures me that pride doesn’t come much with painting. She tells me instead of her war work - arranging entertainments for factory workers and soldiers’ camps. Diana coordinated a production of The Messiah by raising choirs working with the School for Boys in Sedbergh, talented servicemen, an enthusiastic conductor, a Jewish refugee string quartet and her sister who sang soprano. The opportunity to experience performance in this way would not have otherwise been open to the women working in the factories she beams.  

Although there is one artefact she is rather proud of, a letter of permission from Kew Gardens, allowing her to take her groups of students from the Byam Shaw School of Art into the gardensfree of charge, to paint within the glasshouses.   

As Diana has generously granted permission for KNA to print reproductions of a number of her paintings for birthday greeting cards to send to clients over the last few years, I asked her about her own birthdays.  

Diana stated that Bernard, her husband, used to say ‘birthdays go on for a week’. The day would start with breakfast in bed on a tray with flowers from the garden. There would be a family lunch, often outside. June born, Diana tells me that her birthday often coincided with The Royal Academy’s Private View of their Summer Exhibition. This day out would be completed with a family lunch at Fortnum and Mason where the childrengrandchildren and nephews and nieces would join. Turning 100 during the lockdown was different of course, but equally extended and celebrated. Diana was brought tea and buns by her neighbours, who’s son played Happy Birthday on the trumpet on her porch. This was followed by two serenades - her neighbours in Wales arranged a video of themselves outside the chapel singing Happy Birthday ‘as if it was an item in an opera.’ and at the front gate, neighbours from Kew sang too. Diana enjoyed oysters in the garden and calls from family. Weeks later in Wales she had two tea parties - each for 30 - with the view of the Aran mountain range in the background.   

Diana’s next party is planned to be for the launch of her forthcoming book “Diana Armfield: A Lyrical Eye” written by noted art writer Andrew Lambirth. Diana emphasises this party will need to be in person, and not on Zoom! The book has been released and limited signed copies are available locally at Hewson’s Kew Bookshop