Felicity’s father, Charles Robert Ashbee, was an influential figure in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. In his ‘Mile End Experiment’, he attempted to remake society – at least in microcosm – via architecture.
Ashbee was the son of a wealthy London family. After Cambridge university, he moved back to London and into Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, where he lectured in arts and crafts. Ashbee was a furniture designer, silversmith and architect, being inspired, amongst others by the ideas of leading socialist, William Morris.
Charles and wife Janet settled in the neighbouring village of Broad Campden, a hamlet about a mile from Chipping Campden, and four daughters followed. Jane Felicity Ashbee was born on February 22nd 1913.
The family business focused on hand craft products slowly declined. although some descendants of the original business continue; Ashbee then worked as a town planner and worked from 1918 in Palestine. Returning to England in 1923, the daughters were sent to various genteel schools in Kent but this did not meet Felicity’s needs, being the most intellectual of the girls.
From 1932 to 1936, she trained as a painter at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, and then began a career as a teacher and designer. She joined the Communist Party, designing many supportive posters famine relief during the Spanish civil war.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, she joined the WAAF and was sent to the codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park. Felicity found that her Communist Party membership hampered her promotion within the Intelligence Corps. She recalled one episode when she was summoned to senior officers to talk about her political beliefs. “I managed to ‘escape’ from Bletchley,” she recalled. “It wasn’t a place you wanted to be. . . They said that I could leave RAF Intelligence, but I told them I didn’t want to, as I’d joined up because I believed in anything I could do against Hitler!” Yet, it was Felicity who logged the course of Rudolf Hess’s plane as it crossed the North Sea in May 1941, en route to Scotland on the supposed peace mission being undertaken by Hitler’s deputy. She also directed amateur theatricals at various military camps. The illustration is from the cover of her light-hearted military memoirs.
After 1945 she worked briefly with her sister Helen in Manchester, designing textiles, and then settled in London, where she taught art at various schools, though mainly at Queen’s Gate school, Kensington, being considered a charismatic teacher. She spent some years in psychotherapy in the 1950s, when she probably dropped out of the Party. For the last 45 years of her life, she lived in the same house in Notting Hill, becoming active in the local community association.
Felicity developed a huge personal collection of photographs of Russia in these years, some of the earliest being taken in the mid 19th century. She wrote scholarly articles on art history and, in 1988, she published a book produced by the National Galleries of Scotland about a photographer who set up a studio in St Petersburg. As Ashbee points out it was the “people, the downtrodden, humble, humorous, happy-go-lucky Russian people” who interested him the most.
One of her great satisfactions in her late years was to see the historical reputation of her father and other members of her family growing through a series of books. Felicity herself wrote about the photographer William Carrick and, in 2002, herself wrote “Janet Ashbee: Love, Marriage and the Arts and Crafts Movement”, which brought her mother out of the shadows.
Felicity Ashbee died aged 95 on July 26th 2008.
Sources: Guardian 20th August 2008;