My mentor, my inspiration, my first driving force and muse, an absolutely marvellous, truly redoubtable woman who I have been very honoured to know since I was 11 years old, VERY honoured, died about three weeks ago. Her funeral was last Friday. I only found out today. I feel like I have lost a grandmother, it's that bad.
She was 96. She was amazing. She had an incredible life. I first met her on Jim'll Fix It, when I asked JIm to fix it for me to help set up a costume display in a museum. When they phoned up the V&A, the V&A said "absolutely not" so they then phoned up Killerton House. Atherton, who was curator of the collection there from 1976-1993, walked into the room just as the call was being taken by her assistant, asked what it was about. "It's the BBC, they want some kid to set up a display for Jim'll Fix It, shall I say no?" "Oh, don't be silly, Charlotte - say yes."
We IMMEDIATELY hit it off. She would've been 75, 76 at the time - and I was 11. We had a fantastic time together that day, met again at the BBC studio, and kept in touch ever since then - she recently gave me a folder with ALL the letters I had sent her since then, all the drawings and letters and stuff - and I'd saved the letters she gave me too. We talked about everything to do with fashion and costume and dress history and all kinds of stuff. She was a huge inspiration to me and always so encouraging and just fantastic. She had a reputation for being a real battleaxe, a take-no-nonsense Redoubtable, the nightmare of male National Trust bigwigs who called her and the Killerton collection "Atherton and her old clothes". Every late winter, I went up to Killerton to see Atherton and help set up the displays, and see what was new in the collection, and again in the summer when she came to set up the temporary displays. She eventually retired - to the great relief of quite a few people - at the age of 81, but we stayed in touch all through my Uni education and my MA. I worked closely with her on my MA dissertation, which was about the history of the Paulise de Bush collection at Killerton House, and how it had developed as a collection over the years.
But before that, she was active in the world of theatre and dramatics. During the 1930s she worked as a set designer and painter, and was one of the first women to regularly wear trousers around town on an everyday basis, because it was safer for all the climbing of ladders she had to do. She remembered having struck Ivor Novello dumb by the sight of her in trousers. She worked with a young actress called Vivien Leigh who was playing Ann Boleyn in an open-air production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII in 1936 - there was an argument over costumes, which Miss Leigh won, and I don't think Atherton ever quite forgave her. She then married a man who made documentary films, who was really quite renowned for it - he went to film the first atomic bomb tests for one of his films. It was the premature death of him - he died of radiation sickness in the 1960s. But he and his wife made quite a number of films together, and their son is a renowned award-winning cinematographer with an impressive CV.
I'm going to really, really, really miss her. She really and truly was a grandmother figure to me, so encouraging and supportive and just an absolutely all-round fantastic person to know. I lost touch a little bit towards the end, but she was so thrilled and delighted to learn that I had gone on to work at the V&A, and I'm so glad she knew what I went on to achieve.
I really and truly wish I could have had the opportunity to attend her funeral. I would have dropped everything just to attend, to say goodbye and to thank her for everything. She was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. An absolute star. I'm going to miss her so much.