They were inspiring and entertaining words that helped set the tone for more than just one era of social change. Katharine Whitehorn’s 60 years of provocative, useful and funny journalism and books were all typed up at a large wooden desk in a busy family living room.
Now that desk, a piece of classic Danish design as well as vintage Fleet Street history, is to go under Bonhams the auctioneer’s hammer to raise money for a charity that cares for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The celebrated Observer columnist and author of the totemic 1961 handbook Cooking in a Bedsitter is now 92 and one of the many to suffer with the debilitating condition.
Her home of many decades in Hampstead, north London, has now been sold following her move into a nearby care home, and this Wednesday her sons are to offer her original Kai Kristiansen desk, with all its journalistic provenance, for sale at Bonhams auction house.
“My parents had quite an eye for good mid-century furniture back then,” said Bernard Lyall, the elder son of Whitehorn and her late husband, the crime novelist Gavin Lyall. “It is a nice piece of design my mother bought in the 60s and on which she wrote, well, pretty much everything she ever did, pounding away on a succession of portable manual typewriters until the mid-1990s, when she finally switched to a computer.”
Whitehorn, who in later life was a familiar voice as a contributor to Radio 4’s A Point of View, was in the vanguard of women’s push into the male-dominated field of national journalism in the 1960s. She had worked briefly as a model after graduating from Cambridge, and then wrote for the Picture Post magazine before taking up a 30-year role at the Observer in 1960.
Whitehorn’s tongue-in-cheek columns regularly cheered on women who had turned their back on household drudgery. An infamous article from 1963 that defended domestic “sluts” briefly became the centre of national debate as attitudes to working women began to change.
Whitehorn returned to this newspaper’s pages in the new millennium, writing pithy columns for the magazine until three years ago, as well as a popular “agony aunt” column for Saga magazine, from 1997 until 2016.
“We have chosen to donate the money raised to the charity Dementia UK because they run, among other things, a network of nurses who provide practical advice and support across the country,” said Lyall, who is a television editor.
He recently managed to visit his mother in her care home, Covid restrictions being temporarily lifted, and he hopes that the sale of the desk will benefit the charity’s important work.
The large wooden writing desk formed a big part of the life of Lyall and his younger brother Jake, an actor, as well as of their mother’s career.
“Whenever my parents had people round, there it was, at one end of the room, with people leaving wine glasses and plates all over my mother’s work and files. She never seemed to mind. And, growing up, Jake and I both had to get used to the idea that when she was working to a deadline she was there, but not there. We had to leave her alone.”
Kristiansen, the desk’s designer, is a Danish cabinet maker and artist who founded an influential furniture studio that became a beacon of Scandinavian style.
His “No 42 chair” is regarded as a design classic and the household pieces, including sideboards, bookcases and dining tables, produced at his studio in the 1960s are now widely collected in Europe and America.