Friday, 12 August 2022

Mike Shemilt — February 1, 1939 to October 23, 2015

MIKE SHEMILT was born six months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

MIKE SHEMILT was born six months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

He was brought up mostly at Hartley Court in Shinfield, near Reading. He was packed off to boarding school at six to Claremont in Sussex and later to Crosfields and, finally, Leighton Park.

Five years at Leighton Park, with its Quaker emphasis on individual expression and thought, equipped Mike with a love of oration and always enabled him to express his thoughts and arguments clearly.

In the late Fifties, he decided, like his father and uncles, to pursue a career in medicine and joined St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School in London.

Unwittingly, his mother had put his name down on a debutante list which meant invitations to endless parties and other distractions which proved his downfall as he started failing his medical exam.

He had a Jaguar XK120 and a flat in Mayfair and life was good. The final chapter of his medical career came when he met Ann and fell in love.

They married at age 19 and Mike decided medicine was not for him and subsequently quit St Thomas’.

The Sixties were spent starting a family with a move to Wargrave and a succession of jobs in the City, Grievson Grant, Schroders merchant bank and finally as a stockbroker for Buckmaster and Moore, where he rose to become a partner.

Meanwhile, Mike had started a hobby business in an old barn belonging to his parents in Sonning, opening primarily at weekends and engaging local artists. The gallery relocated to some old boathouses beside the river in Henley in 1969. When his job in the City started becoming very political, he jumped at the opportunity to immerse himself in the fledgling  gallery.

His forte lay in staging private views and promoting artists. This often involved large drinks parties, a glossy brochure or an opening speech and the involvement of a famous patron. He was adept at creating a wow and sense of occasion and loved giving speeches, so the gallery prospered. More galleries were opened in Hartley Wintney, Datchet and Windsor.

Mike adored the fine art business in all its myriad forms, restoration, framing, valuations and exhibitions, often forming long friendships with artists along the way.

He could give a masterclass in how to value a work of art. He had gravitas, aided by a three-piece tweed suit, a pair of half-moon spectacles and a measured, thoughtful delivery.

The success of the gallery enabled him to start exercising his other interests.

While on a Caribbean cruise in 1985, Mike and Ann visited Barbados and fell in love with an old plantation house and private zoo called Oughterson House in the parish of St Philip, which they subsequently purchased and spent 12 happy years renovating and developing, combining their love of art with a love of animals.

Artists would come to stay to paint and the old house would lend itself to private views with its elegant proportions. How do you deliver a tapir calf — these were daily challenges which everyone would help with.

Mike adored the slow pace and the Bajan relaxed outlook on life. He made many new friends and returned to the island every year right up to his death.

He researched and wrote a booklet on the tragic Barbados slave rebellion of 1816 and the involvement of Oughterson House in the uprising.

He always said that running a zoo made him accept the absurd, like when he found a python in his mother’s bathroom or when the zebras escaped and ran past all the guests sitting having drinks on the terrace one evening.

Mike and his son Mark have the bizarre privilege of being the first people ever to use a hot air balloon in Barbados.

They didn’t have a basket so fashioned a garden bench under the balloon and flew in the easterly trade winds from St Philip to St Peter, landing in a cane field where they were surrounded by a large group of amazed locals.

Other aerostatic adventures followed, like when father and son flew across the Channel dressed in wetsuits and with a dinghy dangling below the basket, or the many flights in the French Alps from Morzine.

Mike was also keenly interested in the yearly visits of swifts (apus apus) to Henley and helped instigate the installation of nesting boxes around the town as well as at the Old Foundry in Friday Street.

After suffering a heart attack, Mike became great friends with his heart surgeon Professor Avijit Lahiri at the Wellington Hospital in London.

He helped to chair the board of trustees of the British Cardiac Research Trust, which helps fund research projects.

Prof Lahiri’s pioneering scanning techniques (using ultra-fast CT) and methods are accepted as the most cutting edge by the profession, as are his current trials to investigate the link between diabetes and coronary heart disease.

In his retirement, Mike was an accomplished tennis player and he adored a good rubber of bridge, best enjoyed in the salubrious surroundings of the Royal Automobile Club, to such an extent that he even made sure he taught his nine-year-old grandson the game.

After a short illness, Mike passed away at the Sue Ryder hospice surrounded by his family. He was 76.

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