Interview with Nan Youngman’s nephew, John Youngman

A couple of weeks ago I did my first oral history interview in a while, this time with Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s nephew, John Youngman, a former architect who moved to Totnes in Devon a few years ago after thirty years of living in Cambridge.

John is the son of Nan Youngman’s brother, Harold, to whom she was very close (just as I had read about in Nan Youngman’s autobiography, John discussed her love of dancing with his father when they were young), and her friend from the Slade, a South African called Lynda Burnett. He is around the same age as (although a couple of years younger than) Julian Rea, the son of Betty Rea, who was brought up by Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, who I interviewed earlier in the year. In a lot of ways, John’s life path is similar to that of the Rea children – they were sent to boarding school as young children, sent to live in America during the war and attended Cambridge. However, despite John growing up in Cambridge he did not see his aunt particularly regularly, although he did design a studio for her at her long-term home the Hawks in Waterbeach near Cambridge.

John’s wife Philippa, a copy editor for Cambridge University Press, was very fond of Nan Youngman, who she got to know after becoming engaged to John in the 1960s. Philippa told me that she wanted to be like Nan Youngman when she grew up, telling me that she admired her personal integrity and relish for life and what she was doing – although she was disappointed that notorious trouser-wearer Nan Youngman wore a skirt to her wedding! The picture I got from both John and Philippa was of a woman who was principled and impulsive, hard-working and sociable but could be fiercely critical and intolerant of perceived weaknesses in people.

Like the Reas, John and Philippa Youngman had some artworks by Nan Youngman on their walls, along with some abstract paintings by John’s mother, Linda, who, like Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, was a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors. It was really interesting to hear about John’s discussions with Nan about abstract art – John saw her as being a very academic painter – and to talk to someone who had clearly thought a lot about her paintings and had identified a narrative and humorous element in her work.

I found it amazing how vivid some of John’s memories were regarding people and places, and how much he had experienced in his life – like Betty Rea’s children, he was sent to America during the war on a steamer. Another early childhood memory was being sent to stay with his aunt and Betty Rea in London, and sleeping in Betty spacious studio surrounded by the ghostly outline of sculptures covered in sheets. Something thing which came across strongly was the childhood preoccupations of his generation, from fishing to iceskating. John’s description of his childhood in Cambridge gave me a real idea of the social background people like Nan Youngman came from. John, whose father was a doctor but whose grandfather (Nan Youngman’s father) was a corn merchant in Maidstone, was sent away to boarding school in Essex at the age of five before briefly being evacuated to experimental boarding school Dartington Hall in Essex. John also showed me a photograph of him and his older sister, Gilly, as children, with their nanny and under-nanny – his parents initially had several staff – although he said that things started to change after the war.

Although we didn’t talk about Pictures for Schools much – Philippa recalls attending a preview in the late-1960s, but more for the party than the art – the interview really made me realise how complex people and family relations can be and how differently people can feel about the same people and events. One small anecdote is that I had heard that Nan Youngman wasn’t a great cook, which surprised Philippa, as she remembers eating at Nan Youngman’s and inheriting a frying pan when she died.