David Sullivan

17 July 2015

Burgh House and Hampstead Museum would like to pay tribute to David Sullivan, distinguished QC and local historian (pictured in the middle in front of Burgh House), who passed away aged 89 last week.

David chaired the campaign to save Burgh House from council sell-off in 1979, creating the museum and community arts venue that is still going strong today. Our thoughts and best wishes are with David's family and friends at this time.

A beautiful tribute to David by journalist and broadcaster Piers Plowright was featured in the Camden New Journal (reproduced below).



David Sullivan had at least three careers: distinguished QC, authority on the painting of John Constable, and medieval historian. Not to mention his heroic part in the 1979 saving of Burgh House from a Council sell-off – one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ whom we have to thank for today’s splendid museum and thriving Arts Centre. He was a true ‘Hampstead Worthy’. Gerald Isaaman, legendary former editor of the Hampstead and Highgate Express, describes him as ‘a cool customer whose acute legal brain played a truly positive role in the community and in recording local history’.

Born in 1926 in Nakura, Kenya, where his father was a farm manager, David was educated at Hailebury School and Christ Church Oxford where he read classics, and was inspired by hearing G.M.  Trevelyan lecture to become an enthusiastic amateur historian. But it was Law that he chose as a career, making a name for himself as a contract lawyer, representing, among others, the Beatles and Frank Zappa, before becoming an expert in insurance and medical law, playing a prominent part in the 1968 Thalidomide compensation case, and later becoming Chair of the Mental Health Commission.

His passions lay elsewhere: painting, particularly the work of John Constable, about whom he wrote, lectured and made two programmes for BBC Radio, and medieval history, which led him to explore, and publish two scholarly books on, the history and Hampstead holdings of Westminster Abbey.

In a way, all his interests came together in the fight to save Burgh House, which Matthew Lewin, another former editor of the Ham N’ High, who coined the phrase ‘The Magnificent Seven, considers his greatest achievement. A strikingly handsome man, and a powerful speaker, David became the public voice of this barnstorming victory, bringing all his forensic skill and knowledge of the area – he once mapped every tree on the West Heath – to argue for the rescue of this beautiful house and garden.

David was married twice, to Sheila Bathurst, by whom he had three daughters, Oriel, Theresa, and Jocelyn and to Ann Preston, artist and teacher, who brought a stepson and daughter into his life. Both women inspired the love of the country and gardening in him, and Ann, in particular, encouraged him to develop his own landscape painting. David loved Hampstead and lived in several of its houses, including Wylde’s Farm in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Gayton Road, Well Road, and Greenhill. But he was never happier than at Hudson’s, the thatched cottage in his beloved Constable’s Suffolk, which he and his first wife had bought in 1962, and where he entertained family and friends generously by gaslight and attended by a succession of large and friendly dogs . The cottage and the people around it were the subject of a 1989 Radio 4 documentary, ‘Straw and Steel’. It was a place he could be comfortable in.

David Sullivan had very mixed feelings about ‘Modern Times’. A private man he also loved an older, more idealistic, and gregarious, world. To quote from Gerald Isaaman again: ‘David Sullivan was a champion of community values, a victor probably forgotten by today’s generation, but for whom we need to create a worthwhile memorial’.

Suggestions welcome.

Piers Plowright

13th July 2015

David Sullivan, lawyer and historian. Born April 1926 Kenya; died Hampstead 9th July 2015, aged 89.