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Iris Mary Birtwistle

Iris Mary Birtwistle

Female 1918 - 2006  (88 years)

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  • Name Iris Mary Birtwistle 
    Born 29 May 1918  Springfield, in Pleasington, Nr. Blackburn, Lancashire, UK Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Female 
    Info 1 see notes for obituaries & Eastern Daily Press article Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Regiment/Rank WRNS, Officer Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Died 20 Jun 2006 
    Person ID I000277  Ancestorium
    Last Modified 5 Dec 2022 

    Father James Astley Birtwistle,   b. 19 Feb 1889, Great Harwood, Lancashire, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 1974, Great Harwood, Lancashire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 84 years) 
    Mother Mary Muriel "Mue" Marwood,   b. 15 Nov 1893, Pleasington Lodge, Nr. Blackburn, Lancashire, UK Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 28 May 1988, 18 Cloncurry Street, Fulham, London SW6 Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 94 years) 
    Married 29 Jul 1915  Pleasington Lodge, Lancashire, UK Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Family ID F00003  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

    +1. Private
    +2. Private
     3. Private
    Family ID F00231  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

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  • Notes 
    • Iris Birtwistle
      From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

      Born: 29 May 1918. Near Blackburn, Lancashire, England
      Died: 22 June 2006 (aged 88)
      Occupation: Poet and Gallery Owner
      Alma mater: Reimann School

      Iris Mary Birtwistle (29 May 1918 – 22 June 2006; also known as Lilla and IM Birtwistle) was an English lyric poet and gallery owner[1][2] who nurtured young artists despite eventually losing her sight.[3]

      1 Life & career
      2 References
      3 Footnotes
      4 External links

      Life & career
      Born near Blackburn, Lancashire on 29 May 1918, second of the eight children of a cotton-mill owner.[4] Her brother Col. Michael Albert Astley Birtwistle was a High Sheriff of Lancashire, and she was a cousin of race horse trainer Monica Dickenson (née Birtwistle, the mother of Michael W. Dickinson). She was educated at the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Mayfield, Sussex, and the Reimann School of Art[5] in London. During the Second World War, she enlisted as an officer in the Wrens.[6]

      Throughout her life her she wrote poetry, which in the 40s, 50s and 60s appeared in many of the major journals and other well known publications, including: Poetry Review, The New English Weekly, The Fortnightly, The Spectator, The Tablet and The Time Literary Supplement. She was admired by leading writers of her day such as T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, and Muriel Spark (who credited Birtwistle with her conversion to Catholicism).[7]

      In the 50s she adopted three sons and settled in Walberswick, Suffolk, where she opened the first of her unique art galleries. The novelist, Jennifer Lash (aka Jinni Fiennes) lived with her there for a while, and was introduced to her husband Mark Fiennes by Birtwistle.[8] There Birwistle championed the Royal Academicians Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Jeffrey Camp and Philip Sutton.[9] She also nurtured young talent, and sold early work of a young David Hockney.[10] In the late 60's and early 70's she had a small gallery in Aldeburgh.[11]

      Although she continued to write poetry all her life, from the 60s onwards being increasingly absorbed by her family and her galleries she wrote less and less. Her last poem was written in 1999 to celebrate the marriage of her friend the singer Nick Cave.[12]

      In the 1970's she moved to Burnham Deepdale Norfolk where she opened the last of her successful, if eccentric, galleries, Deepdale Exhibitions. This she ran until her death despite increasing loss of sight from hereditary glaucoma, which rendered her blind for the last 15 years of her life.

      Although a collection of her work had been completed before her death, When Leaf and Note are Gone was finally published posthumously by Buff Press in 2008, edited by the poets Anne Stewart and Angela Kirby (Birtwistle’s youngest sister). The introduction was by the writer and poet Derek Stanford.

      Birtwistle remained a devout Roman Catholic all her life[13][14] and died on 20 June 2006, aged 86.

      Muriel Spark, The Biography, Martin Stannard, W.W. Norton & Co, (2009) ISBN 978-0-2978-5778-5
      Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography, Muriel Spark. Constable (1992) p. 192 ISBN 978-0094696501
      Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee, Random House (2014) ISBN 978-0-0995-4659-7
      Catholicism - An Introduction: Teach Yourself, Peter Stanford, Hachette UK (2010) ISBN 978-1-4441-3103-1
      Time and Concord: Aldeburgh Festival Recollections, Wake-Walker, Jenni, Autograph (1997) p. 122-123 ISBN 978-0-9523-2651-9
      The Reimann School: A Design Diaspora, Yasuku Suga, Artmonsky Arts (2014) p. 50 ISBN 978-0-9573-8753-9
      Why I Am Still a Catholic: Essays in Faith and Perseverance, Peter Stanford, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd (2005) ISBN 978-0-8264-8577-9

      1.Obituary, Magdalen Evans, The Independent, 29th June 2006
      2. Obituary, Peter Stanford, The Guardian, 23rd June 2006
      3. Obituary, The Times, 23rd June 2006
      4. Obituary, Peter Stanford, The Guardian, 23rd June 2006
      5. The Reimann School: A Design Diaspora" Yasuku Suga, Artmonsky Arts (2014) ISBN 978-0-9573-8753-9
      6. Obituary, Peter Stanford, The Guardian, 23rd June 2006
      7. Muriel Spark, The Biography, Martin Stannard, W.W. Norton & Co, (2009) p. 150 ISBN 978-0-2978-5778-5
      8. Obituary, Peter Stanford, The Guardian, 23rd June 2006
      9. Obituary, Magdalen Evans, The Independent, 29th June 2006
      10. Obituary, The Times, 23rd June 2006
      11. Time and Concord: Aldeburgh Festival Recollections, Wake-Walker, Jenni, Autograph (1997) ISBN 978-0-9523-2651-9
      12. When Leaf and Note are Gone, I. M. Birtwistle, A M Kirby (2008) ISBN 978-0-9560-6580-3
      13. Why I Am Still a Catholic: Essays in Faith and Perseverance, Peter Stanford, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd (2005) ISBN 978-0-8264-8577-9
      14. Teach Yourself Catholicism, Peter Stanford, Teach Yourself (2008) ISBN 978-0-3409-6880-2

      External links
      Obituary by Peter Stanford in The Guardian
      Obituary by Magdalen Evans in The Independent
      Obituary in The Times
      Lundy, Darryl. Iris Mary Birtwistle in The Peerage
      Copsey, Tony. Iris Mary Birtwistle in Suffolk Painters

      I. M. Birtwistle
      May 29, 1918 - June 20, 2006
      Inspiring poet and gallery owner who nurtured young artists despite losing her sight

      I.M. BIRTWISTLE, lyric poet and gallery owner, had been anticipating meeting her maker for some years. “Probably our last season, so be sure to visit” the sign outside her north Norfolk art gallery read. It coaxed many intrigued passers-by in, as she intended, but had been up for so long that it started to deteriorate round the edges. She never did. Her passion for art, music and poetry remained fierce until the end and infected all who came into contact with her.

      Her success in championing through her various galleries — first in Walberswick in Suffolk, then in Ipswich and finally at Burnham Deepdale in Norfolk — artists such as Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Jeffrey Camp, Philip Sutton and the sculptor, Rosalind Stracey, all of them now established in the canon of 20th-century British art, was remarkable. The young David Hockney was another who caught her attention. She would sell his drawings for a fiver before anyone had heard of him.

      Her achievement was all the more noteworthy for two reasons. First, she had no time for fancy premises. In Walberswick she traded out of an old battery hen hut, bought for £25, which she put in the middle of her garden. And then in Norfolk, she housed part of her gallery in a caravan that she had once used to store her sons’ sailing gear. “It’s what you put in it that counts,” she used to say. She would defend her choice of premises but she also knew such disregard for convention made her stand out.

      Secondly, she carried on promoting young up-and-coming artists such as Petrina Ferry, Phil Tyler and Jenny Smith, winner of Scotland’s top award for young painters, even after her eyesight began to fail through hereditary glaucoma at the age of 49. For the last 15 years of her working life she was blind. Good paintings, she had always believed, had a spiritual dimension and in her hour of need she found they could speak to her. After being told the subject and the size of a painting, she would hold it and make a judgment. “Either they had a visual weight or they didn’t,” was all she would say of the process.

      There were moments of self-doubt about this almost mystical communication when she wondered if she was fooling herself, but her customers believed her ability to spot painters with genuine and unusual talent remained undimmed despite her loss of sight. “Don’t go to this gallery unless you appreciate the qualities of good art,” wrote the Art Review of her eccentric set-up. “Mrs Birtwistle is an enthusiast and takes no prisoners.”

      That enthusiasm for art had come second, when she was a young woman, to her enthusiasm for poetry. After wartime service as first an ambulance driver and then as an officer in the WRNS, she quickly established quite a reputation as a lyric poet in the late 1940s and early 1950s. T. S. Eliot was an admirer. Robert Graves invited her to stay in Majorca. Muriel Spark published her in Forum and turned to Birtwistle, a cradle Catholic, when she was contemplating going over to Rome.

      Birtwistle herself always claimed that her admirers had overestimated her talent as a poet. “I love my poems as a mother loves her children,” she said, “so I can also see their flaws.” Soon poetry, however, was forced to give way to motherhood when she decided, although unmarried, to adopt three boys. Writing and raising children were, she decided, both full-time occupations and she couldn’t do both. She moved to Walberswick, briefly tried her hand at portrait photography and then set up her gallery, seeking out the best of the new generation emerging from art school and giving them their first platform. Some remained with her for life.

      As her assistant in the gallery, she had the young Jennifer Lash, who came, aged 17, to stay with her for a weekend and ended up remaining for five years. Birtwistle introduced Lash to a handsome young local farmer, Mark Fiennes. They fell in love, married and had six children, including the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes and the directors Martha and Sophie Fiennes. Lash dedicated her first novel, The Burial, to her surrogate mother and her children retained a special affection for Birtwistle ever after.

      Iris Birtwistle was born into a family of mill owners at Houghton House near Blackburn, in 1918. The house boasted priest holes from the times of the post-Reformation persecution of Catholics. As a child she and her siblings would play catechumens and heretics in the rhododendron bushes and stage mock Communion services with peppermints instead of wafers.

      She never cared for her Christian name. Close friends called her Lilla. Professionally she was I. M. Birtwistle. She overcame parental objections to study in the late 1930s at the Bauhaus-influenced Reimann Art School in London. One day she heard the Australian theologian and publisher, Frank Sheed, speaking at Hyde Park Corner about his Catholic faith, and his commitment inspired her to redouble her own.

      She remained a devout Catholic throughout her long life, though in old age she wrote in an essay published in the 2004 collection, Why I am still a Catholic, that she still had doubts. “You reach a point where you realise that you can no longer have black without white. You can’t really have belief unless there is, somewhere in the dark regions, an undertow of disbelief and questioning.”

      She spoke passionately about the spiritual life as she did about everything she cared for. One visitor to her gallery who engaged her in conversation on the subject was the rock musician Nick Cave. They became close friends and the link between them — which Cave referred to when writing a Lenten reflection for The Times — brought a fresh wave of interest in Birtwistle and her work just when she was beginning to feel forgotten in Norfolk.

      She welcomed all comers, as long as they didn’t commit the cardinal sin of boring her by inquiring after her health. Sitting in her gallery in her fedora, dark glasses and elaborate rings, she gave the unobservant few clues that she couldn’t see. But being blind, she once remarked, was akin to being buried alive. Birtwistle, however, refused to accept such a fate and in her unceasing battle inspired and enlightened those who came into contact with her.

      I. M. Birtwistle, lyric poet and gallery owner, was born on May 29, 1918. She died on June 20, 2006, aged 88.


      Tired of the stable talk, the swill,
      I dream a prodigal return
      And hang my linen in the sun.
      These acrid hands ingrained with dung
      Shall seek the cast shoe in the plough,
      A poppy sweat resolves the corn
      Where, like a wanton sheaf,
      I lean towards my ends -
      O glean me swiftly, Lord.


      IM Birtwistle
      The Guardian Friday June 23, 2006
      Peter Stanford
      Perceptive and demanding poet and gallery owner whose aesthetic gave her a cult status in the British art world

      The gallery owner and lyric poet IM Birtwistle, who has died aged 88, was never that keen on you delving into her past. Names would occasionally crop up in conversation - dancing with Clark Gable (who apparently had bad breath), holidaying with Robert Graves on Majorca, debating religion with Muriel Spark - but just when you wanted more detail, she would sidestep your questions. "The box is so much more interesting than the contents," she would say with a laugh, and return to the present and the future.
      Gossip did not interest her. It was ideas that excited her. Her determination always to look forwards, to listen and learn from others, was part of the secret behind a long and colourful life lived always at full tilt. The rest was her extraordinary passion - for poetry, for music, for people, for her children and grandchildren, and for the painters she represented, some of them for almost 50 years.
      In her galleries, first at Walberswick in Suffolk, then in Ipswich, and later, in the mid-1970s, at Deepdale Exhibitions, on the bleak but beautiful north Norfolk coast, she championed the likes of Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Jeffrey Camp and Philip Sutton, all painters who went on to take their place in the canon of 20th-century British art. She sold drawings for a fiver by the young David Hockney - before anyone knew who he was.
      In metropolitan terms, her galleries may have been in the back of beyond - in Norfolk, part of it was in a caravan - but her demanding aesthetic gave her a cult-like status in the British art world. Its bible, the Art Review, was a devotee, but attached a health warning to its otherwise rhapsodic endorsement. "Don't go to this gallery unless you appreciate the qualities of good art. Mrs Birtwistle is an enthusiast and takes no prisoners."
      Her achievement was all the more remarkable because at the age of 49, Lilla, as she was known to those closest to her, began to lose her sight as a result of hereditary glaucoma. At 75 she was totally blind, after a botched cataract operation, but she did not let it affect her work. The gallery remained open and some customers probably would not even have realised that behind her dark glasses she could not see. For those who did, and asked, she would explain that she believed a good painting could still speak to her. She needed to know only the size and subject, then she would hold it. "It either has a visual weight about it or it doesn't," she would say. "If it's not flimsy or slight, I am aware that it has a measure of profundity."
      She worried constantly - and out loud - that this almost mystical communication made her a fake, but the quality of the paintings she continued to display dispelled any such doubts in the minds of her artists and customers. Something magical was clearly going on. As her great friend, the rock musician Nick Cave, once remarked after seeing her talking to a young hopeful about his paintings, "What she said about them, even though she couldn't see them, was absolutely right."
      Her tastes were essentially modern - latterly she sold poetic abstract landscapes by Judith Foster and mixed-media works by Petrina Ferrey and Jenny Smith, who won Scotland's top award for a young artist - but her approach to the technique of painting was medieval. "When you approach all art in a medieval way," she remarked, "you don't end up producing advertising or parading your psychopathology. You've got to come to terms with your medium. You've got to understand what you're working with. You've got to be on your knees in front of your material. You've got to love it, be tender with it, know how to extend it, how to make it do things it doesn't know how to do." A good artist, she insisted, could not help but have a spiritual dimension.
      It was not always a line that the art establishment agreed with, but Birt- wistle was never afraid to speak her mind. Tracey Emin - "the girl with the bed" - was simply "a self-publicist" whom Birtwistle found "dead boring". Such candour made her a maverick, but for those on her wavelength she was a profound inspiration and a peerless source of encouragement. If she believed in an artist, she had that rare capacity to make them feel supremely confident in their own ability and so brought out the best in them.
      Birtwistle was born near Blackburn, Lancashire. She never liked her Christian name, Iris, and preferred to use her initials. Her father was a wealthy cotton-mill owner and her childhood was privileged and happy. From her mother, she inherited her Catholicism and her interest in the arts. In the 1930s, she studied at the Bauhaus-influenced Reimann Art School in London, but realised that she did not have what it took to be a good painter. She turned her attention to writing lyric poetry. When the second world war broke out, she became an officer in the Wrens. She always put her "astringent voice" down to shouting commands against an east wind on an Orkneys base.
      With the return of peace, her poems made her something of a literary It-girl. They appeared in all the major journals, and she was befriended by the leading writers of her day. Spark credited her with hastening her conversion to Catholicism. In the early 1950s, though, Birtwistle turned her back on London and settled in Suffolk to raise the three sons she, although unmarred, had adopted. She tried her hand at portrait photography, but soon set up her first gallery, scouring the art schools for new talent.
      Her assistant was an unhappy 17-year-old, who had come to live with her in an effort to get her life in order. Jennifer Lash - or Jinni, as Birtwistle renamed her - met her husband, Mark, through Birtwistle and went on to dedicate her first novel to her. The couple's six talented children, who include the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, and the film-makers Martha and Sophie Fiennes, remained close ever after to Birtwistle.
      In her early 80s, she was amused and flattered that her closeness with Cave - he described their relationship as "love at first sight", after they were introduced by a mutual friend - brought fresh media interest in her, but she sought always to deflect it on to her artists. The two shared a love of poetry and an unusual interest in spirituality. Cave's lyrics are strongly influenced by his perception of the divine, while Birtwistle remained a devout Catholic. Her faith sustained her as she coped in the most robust way with her blindness. She refused to talk about health. It was an old person's affliction, she said, and she was never an old person, though she once admitted that losing her sight had been a very hard thing to accept. "If I hadn't been a Catholic, I think I would have blown my brains out."
      Her faith was much more than a crutch. In her religion as in her art, she mixed the medieval with the modern. She hankered after the metaphysical magic of Latin masses, spoke of the devil as a real presence, but also admired the radical priests who espoused liberation theology in South America - and wished she could join them working with street children.
      Retirement was never in her vocabulary. Life inevitably changed - there were now six grandchildren to delight her - but her gallery remained, as ever, a unique mixture of a place for discussion of serious questions, a home-from-home, and somewhere that resounded with laughter and fizzed with vitality. Her passions were infectious, her knowledge vast, her courage immeasurable and her friendship a precious gift that will stay with me always. She is survived by her sons, her sister, the poet Angela Kirby, and her brother, Anthony.
      Nick Cave writes: When I was first ushered into her cramp and booklined living.........

      Eastern Daily Press August 1st 1998.
      The Magazine (p 6-8)
      Cover story
      Champion of real artistic talent.
      For two decades, an old caravan standing within a few hundred yards of the Norfolk shore has been a showcase for painters of exceptional promise and talent. No less remarkable is the galleries redoubtable owner, I M Birtwistle. COLIN CHINERY has taken the road to Burnham Deepdale. Photography GRAHAM CORNEY.
      That first exhilaration of marsh and dune slips away as you drop down the coast road into Burnhan Deepdale. And suddenly, it is on your right; a small weathered off-cream caravan that might have been beached into retirement after distributing teas and Cromer crabs in a Norfolk layby.
      Slumbering it is not. For this is the home of Deepdale Exhibitions, no stock tourist gallery trading water colours of Morston or the windmill at the nearby Overy Staithe, but for twenty years and outstanding exponent of original talent.
      A brisk notice discourages with regret, the patronage of anyone suffering from a heavy cold; another berates the tiresome impediments officialdom places in the path of small scale entrepreneurship. This is a conviction gallery.
      Suitably clear-headed, we enter the caravan and the remarkable paintings that make up the work of I M Birtwistle.
      Mrs Birtwistle, who like PD James and C V Wedgewood, whom she knew, eschews the use of the Christian name, is the founder and presiding spirit of Burnham Deepdale Exhibitions. For 40 years she has exercised a fine connoisseurship on behave of the public and the young and exceptional talent she nurtures and champions with tireless spirit and the staunchest loyalty.
      IMB lives on the other side of the road from the caravan in a converted public house. She is 80 now, a slight figure of still compelling vitality, humour and lightening mind, discreetly attended by two live-in helpers.
      After running galleries in Suffolk, this poet and former professional photographer came here towards the end of the seventies, caravan in tow, and launched into Deepdale Exhibitions. Her philosophy is undeviating; to show paintings that she would like to buy herself - typically, colorful and textured, with a bias towards impressionism and abstraction. "I have always wanted to show the excitement of paint when in the hands of outstandingly gifted painters."
      Of the familiar run of tourist belt galleries, IMB is characteristically forthright. "I admire enormously the people who paint, but I have to say that a number of galleries are cowpats, in as much as when you walk in you wish you hadn't."
      She is amazed by painters "happy to churn out year after year platitudes and cliches which result in a kind of 'Paintak' in the same way piped music is stultifying 'Musak," and contrasts such presumptuousness with sterner self-discipline of musicians.
      "Before you are able to sell you should have put in years of dedicated work. If you think about selling, you are finished. That is death, and this is why you have to have the standards that you have.
      "It wouldn't be tolerated if that was someone playing the piano. They would not dream of going off and giving a concert." One speculated on how conventional tourist gallery owners regarded her. "Oh I should think they loathe me!"
      Her first gallery was at Walberswick, in the village WI hall. Living near London at the time, she had seen a Wilson Steer painting in the Tate of boys fishing from the village bridge. Attracted, she bought a house there in 1956.
      Someone had written that she arrived determined to wrest the local artistry from dilettantism. "Oh absolutely, sitting by the edge of the road with their easels, hoping that everybody would look at them while they were painting their ghastly paintings. I though 'this is too bad, we must get Walberswick to what it used to be; a center of good art.
      Mary Potter and Jeffery Camp were among established artists living close by, and - "terribly supportive" - they would drive over to IMB and her exhibitions in the hut. Shortly after she set up a gallery in her garden. "I suppose at the time we were practically the only professional gallery outside London. People like Mary Potter were well known in London, but they were terribly humble and sweet. I've always found that; the greater the person, the bigger their humility. If they are not, watch it!"
      From the start, IMB typically disdained the Olympian detachment of the archetypal; dealer. Instead she would go to a studio and choose what she wanted to exhibit.
      Mary Poter was an exception. " She used to bring her stuff over and fling it down over my raspberry canes and said that if there was anything I liked, I was to show it. She never had any side at all."
      As David Lee noted in the magazine Art Review, IMB is one of those enthusiastic gallery directors who has down immeasurably more for the promotion of young talent than numerous metropolitan fat cat "names."
      "I am proud of all the people that I sell. I find it a privilege to handle this sort of talent, to share this work with people and introduce them to it. Everyday is fantastic."
      Many of her customers are second home professional people, but Arts Council and East Anglian Tourist Board are assuredly not among her visitors, a point of scorn for IMB.
      "We are the gallery that dares to handle up and coming painters, and actually sells them because very few people manage to get the sort of response we get here; people from the City of London and abroad, who 'rise to the amazing standard' - to quote them - that they find here.
      " It seems extraordinary that they can recognize us, and yet we get a total brush-off from the Arts Council. They are totally bored, and put there money on wild and weird things or on established people who don't need their help. As for the East Anglian Tourist Board, they are bored to death almost to the point of rudeness."
      Among the talents who flourish despite this stated-aided indifference, such as Petrina Ferry, Judith Foster, Margaret Matthews, Tim Mathews, and Phil Tyler, David Greenall is perhaps her chief protégé. A former Hull "decky-learner", Greenall took up painting in his spare time when he was 28. The one day, in 1982, he walked into IBM's gallery, a chance meeting from which has grown a close and successful collaboration.
      Recognising his talent immediately, IM persuaded him to go to art school- although he was now 34 - and after a foundation course at Norwich, Greenall spent three years at Winchester.
      Now living on the Isle of Lewis, Greenall's career has been a triumph of one man's talent and application, and one woman's perception and faith.
      "Actually we are not a business. We are an exuberance and an excitement. I don't believe in money. If you think about money you are never going to succeed. If you think about the excitement of what you do, then eventually the money will come. And it has, thank God, and so I have been able to keep a lot of painters off the dole and show them, and it's been a great thrill and a joy."
      On this cool, slate-hung summer morning, we are sitting in IMB's study, a log fire, a few paintings, some witty, intimate bronzes by Rod Stracey - another late-flowering notable she encouraged - the walls loaded to the ceiling with books.
      But these past 15 years they have lain unread, for, since the age of 49 IMB has had failing eyesight. Two years ago she became completely blind. "I'd rather have lost my legs than sight. I feel I could be pretty nifty in a wheelchair, which would be more dignified than being a shambling old bat./
      "Of course the agony of blindness us the total lack of privacy. There is absolutely no area of one's life that is not exposed. When you hang up your car keys you know that your life instead of being a wonderful telescope going out, the telescope has come right in and you become inches rather than vistas.
      "I don't believe in all this hearty false heroism of 'isn't it marvelous to be blind' or whatever. Accept what it is, understand it, and then get on with it. Maximise your potential with in the context of whatever disability you have, but don't pretend it's a jolly great garden party because it isn't."
      Struck by this devastating fate, how does she communicate with the geography and quality of a painting?
      I can hear, feel, sense a painting, but I can't be asked about it. I have to let it work within its own time. Suddenly I can hear a painting on the wall, and say 'My God that's a stunner, what's that painting over there?" And it's always the best one. Isn't that astonishing? It is nothing to do with me, it's one of those freak gifts.'
      In the old days going to a junk shop, she would suddenly feel her antennae rising. "I'd say 'ah, in that corner there's something magical!' and I would find some wonderful old painting, some marvelous print, something quite exceptional."
      IMB attributes this to an extra-sensory perception. Driving ambulances in Kent during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, she called one night at a country club for supper.
      "I was desperately hungry but I couldn't get out. I was immobile. There was this barrier."
      She learned later that the satanist Alistair Crowley was inside at the time holding a black magic and devil-worshipping "mass". "that sort of thing has happened to me lots of times."
      The war time ambulance was two steps removed from her life in the Lancashire countryside of the 1030s. The Birtwistles were a very old Red Rose family, and social life was basically hunting, lots of parties, swimming in private pools, marvelous picnics, glorious skating parties, tremendous dances and balls."
      But in 1937, and against a parental opinion which roundly favoured home and hounds, she enrolled in the legendary Reimann School of Art.
      "it was way ahead of other art schools. I was going to be a designer. I really never found I had anything to say in paint eventually. I had things to say as a poet, but nothing to say as a painter, but I have always been obsessed by painting."
      The Reimann had moved to London from Germany following its closure by Hitler, but, for all its prestige, it was to be a short exile, and folded in late 1938.
      "London fell apart after Munich," recalled IMB. "There was the most terrible feeling. Everybody felt doomed and London was covered in a sort of cloak of horror. Everybody knew that something terrible was going to happen."
      IMB went home the next year to celebrate her 21st birthday, a Union Jack flown from the roof. "Summer had come and gone, and as soon as war was declared we thought 'My God, we must get that flag in!' So I went up to the roof, and I remember lying on the tiles and thinking, it's never, ever, going to be the same again."
      Returning South she worked unpaid in the Catholic Soldiers Club in Aldershot, then joined the mechanised transport corp - "known rather rudely as the Mechanised Tarts Corps" (the Ritz or the Berkeley Grill having doubled up as its unofficial headquarters) - and posted to a Manchester garage.
      "We weren't allowed to get dirty. We were woman and they thought we weren't the same as they were. In desperation, I shoved my arms right into a tank of oil and said, 'Now will you let me?' Then we got down to it."
      Later, driving ambulances in Kent, she stopped one night in Tunbridge Wells to read a road map illuminated by a sky reflecting the fires burning in a blitzed London.
      Driving for the US Army in Cambridge, her passengers included Generals Patton and Bradley., her dancing partners, Clark Gable. "It wasn't a great thrill., I might tell you. He was a crashing bore, terribly pleased with himself."
      In the Mandrake Club in London she drank with Dylan Thomas, "drunk of course. I admire his poetry and think he is terribly underestimated."
      IMB's famous passion for encouraging and communicating excellence in the arts emerged later in the war after she had gained a commission in the Wrens. (In 1995, she returned her war medals to Downing Street in protest at the introduction of means testing for home care services for war veterans and pensioners)
      She opened an arts center and studio for those "who might not otherwise have had a chance. I wanted to guide my Wrens to an understanding of art, to open their eyes to all these great things and give them the sun. You know if people are given half a chance to see the sun they will rise to it".
      There were lessons in drawing and painting, on history, literature, the ballet. Exhibitions were staged, and twice a week IMB gave gramophone recitals. A number of girls went on to Oxford and Cambridge.
      Poetry is a passion and an exceptional talent, and between the ages of 28 and 35 her work, acute, often haunting, and with a lyricism untouched by the merest sentimentality, with published in a large number of leading journals, including the times literary supplement, New English Weekly (edited by T S Elliot), The Spectator, Tribune (edited by Alan Ross) and Poetry Review, edited by Muriel Spark, a close friend.
      During a three months hitch-hiking holiday in Spain in 1951, she arrived in Majorca, and heard that Robert Graves had read her poetry and wanted to meet her. She spent three weeks in and out of his house. "I was fascinated by him. It was like being caught up in an electric storm."
      One suspects that for IMB the brilliance of the Graves milieu palled before a certain paganism, especially uncongenial for one whose Catholicism forms the basis of her life. " The fact that I'm a rotten ambassador for what I believe in is neither here nor there. One tries. One falls."
      She recalls scrabbling up the mountainside at Medjugorje, the Balkan village where, as millions believe the Virgin Mary has been appearing daily to six people since 1981.
      She was accompanied by Damien, one of her three "splendid" sons who recently gave her a large and joyous family party. (there are four greatly-loved grandchildren). Suddenly "there was a kind of peace which made me realise for the first time that eternity would never be boring.
      "I used to think, 'oh gosh, imagine singing for ever' or whatever we are going to do in heaven?' But it was so wonderful to be held., to be contained in this incredible, unbelievable peace. And one knew irrevocably, without any doubt that Heaven IS, that there is no doubt about heaven. There is this other country beyond this one, and this has made it possible by the grace of God, to be blind and not go mad."
      Once during the war she had driving Alexander Fleming to a high level meeting, after stopping for coffee she had been "stupid enough" to ask the great man how he had come to discover penicillin.
      "He said it was in the details that the others had overlooked. And I like to think that detail and never taking 'No' for an answer are the reasons for the gallery's success."
      And so, in part, it might be said, for IMB's other personal triumphs. "Being blind and living in terrifying vacuum, I have taken great comfort in this quote from Shakespeare, when Desdemona tries to explain her love for Othello to her father , and says, 'I see his visage in his mind.' Isn't that stunning, beautiful? And I live on that."
      Burnham Deepdale Exhibitions. Telephone 01485 210781

      the collected poems of IM(Iris) Birtwistle, 1918-2006, Buff Press, 2008
      Buff Press, 20 Clovelly Road, Orpington, Kent. BR6 0WD
      I M Birtwistle was a woman of great courage, dignity and wit, all of which are reflected in her extraordinary poetry. It pleases me greatly that these gorgeous poems have at last become available for us to revisit. They are, indeed, her "golden mice, laid at our doorstep". Nick Cave

      In an age of surfaces and short cuts, I.M. Birtwistle’s poems ring out like bells. They are strong and serious and talk about things that last, even if we only glimpse them. And though her landscapes are fierce and there’s a fight on, she writes ultimately about hope and not despair. Something to celebrate. Piers Plowright

      IM Birtwistle was probably the most remarkable person I ever met – remarkable for her wit, her wisdom, her faith and her extraordinary courage. She did not let the onset of blindness stop her running her ground-breaking contemporary art gallery in north Norfolk and she let no convention – social, political or otherwise – constrain her in her life or her poetry. Her poems, she once told me, were like her children. She loved them but could still see their flaws and so clutched them close to her for protection. They were not heard enough in her lifetime so the publication of this posthumous collection is a heaven-sent opportunity to hear again her distinctive and unforgettable voice. Peter Stanford

      To order, contact -
      Anne Stewart, Buff Press, 20 Clovelly Road, Orpington, Kent. BR6 0WD
      ( £8 inc p&p, cheques made payable to Anne Stewart)
      Copies also available from Angela Kirby, 124 Hurlingham Road, London SW6 3 NF
      (cheques for £8 made payable to Angela Kirby)

      I. M. Birtwistle
      Gallery owner and poet
      The Independent. Thursday 29 June 2006
      I. M. Birtwistle was no ordinary art dealer. When you went to her gallery, buying a painting was the least important prospect - almost an add-on to the cultural experience. Her reputation rested on her continuing to run her business, and her ability still to "see" works of art, despite becoming totally blind by 1993.

      "One couldn't fail to be inspired by her," says David Greenall, a fisherman turned landscape painter who was encouraged by her to go to art school. The gallery, Deepdale Exhibitions, partly based in a caravan, at Burnham Deepdale on the north Norfolk coast, provided the focus for her enthusiasm and a venue for younger generations of visitors. The novelty of its position gave it some publicity, but her main aim was to get individual people to recognise the honesty of an individual work of art.

      Iris Mary Birtwistle was born in Hoghton, Lancashire, in the last year of the First World War, one of eight children from a recusant Roman Catholic family. Her father's forebears had lost their faith during the 19th century: he was a prosperous cotton-mill owner whose extended family remained resolutely anti-Catholic. Her mother, one of whose brothers was Dom Stephen Marwood, a Benedictine monk at Ampleforth, brought the Catholicism back into the family and Iris, who preferred to be known by her initials or "Lilla" to close friends, was continuously inspired by her religion.

      Her uncle and his colleague Father Bernard McElligott, an expert on Gregorian plain chant who often wrote the sleeve notes for new recordings, had a profound influence on her early perception of Catholicism and its relationship with music.

      She was sent to boarding school, where she became a good violinist, playing in the school orchestra and loved riding (then hunting latterly) and games at school. Upon returning for the holidays she formed a weekly club for girls, playing 78rpm records on a wind-up gramophone in the village hall between Hoghton and Brindle, recognising that the privileges she was experiencing were not universal. Her mother encouraged her to apply to the Reimann Art School in London; there she began to write poetry - many of her poems were to appear in the periodicals of the Forties.

      Upon the outbreak of the Second World War she joined the WRNS, where she also started up a musical appreciation society, and was stationed in the Orkneys and in Kent. She was a keen sailor and used to race a whaler at Portsmouth.

      In 1950 she moved to Suffolk, opening her first gallery in Walberswick (later it would move to Ipswich), and taking black-and-white portrait photographs: a memorable one being that of the photographer Mark Fiennes, which was used for his retrospective exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London in 2003.

      Infuriated by the assumption that becoming blind must have heightened her other remaining four senses, she none the less possessed what might be described as a sixth sense: the broadcaster Piers Plowright relates her description of being billeted to Ashford during the war and immediately feeling she couldn't sleep the night there: only later it emerged that Aleister Crowley had celebrated black masses there. She talked often about guardian angels and once sprinkled holy water round after a kind neighbour, thinking he had already left the worst bits out, read her explicit passages from his autobiography.

      Birtwistle's interest in music was a constant thread: artists, instead of receiving inventories of paintings they had consigned to her, were given recommendations for music to listen to and books to read. She eschewed the duller aspects of running a gallery yet was always professional - constantly selling, or even buying work in advance if she recognised it would really help an artist, paying up promptly; and the trust was returned. Academicians such as Jeffrey Camp, Philip Sutton and, when still unknown, David Hockney showed with her and she became great friends with some, including the sculptress Ros Stracey.

      Her taste was mostly figurative, though the abstract collagist David Hazelwood was championed extensively, and her reach sometimes international: Franz Meyer from Switzerland, whom she first met through her gallery in Walberswick, was invited over. Her artists, also including Mary Potter, Mary Newcomb, Petrina Ferrey, Judith Foster and Jenny Smith, often swapped work with each other and she was delighted to witness this without thinking of charging a commission.

      She remained unintimidated by the art establishment: in order to categorise her, some commentators, particularly those from television, tried to put her into a box; but in person she defied stereotypes.

      Catholic writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Penelope Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark provided her with inspiration and she liked to have the Divine Office read to her before sleep. She contributed a chapter to last year's anthology Why I Am Still a Catholic, edited by Peter Stanford, and the defining sentence, amidst some nostalgia and occasional downright disapproval, could be its opening one - "Catholicism is a great solace at my stage of life, but it doesn't get any more straightforward." Her constant questioning and search for people to discuss the answers with energised what might have become a peaceful rural retirement.

      During the day the radio was on constantly: one lunch guest recalls her suddenly leaving the table saying she had to listen to the Radio 3 lunchtime concert; conversation could resume only when it was over. If she liked what she had heard she would follow it through: that is how she regained touch with the Fiennes family - when Mark Fiennes's wife Jini (the novelist Jennifer Lash) had worked for her in the early 1950s, Birtwistle had been a great source of strength. Their daughter Martha Fiennes, the film-maker, had been on the radio some seven years ago and upon receiving a letter from Birtwistle hastened up to Norfolk to meet her. She admits to being bowled over by how sharp Birtwistle's observations and wit remained. Others charmed by her rare and extraordinary grasp, and ability to "say it straight", included the singer Nick Cave.

      Birtwistle brought up three adopted sons on her own, and in her later years she came to rely on her assistant Ruth Dunne, known as "Tootoo" (as in "too too good"), who helped to keep the gallery going. Her surviving younger sister, the poet Angela Kirby, plans to publish a long-awaited book of her poetry, ideally illustrated by colour plates of the work she championed from the 1950s to the present day.

      Magdalen Evans