Dr Helen Cargill Thompson, librarian and art collector

Born: December 1933;

Died: September 28, 2020.

THE outpouring of appreciation for Dr Helen Cargill Thompson would have amazed her. A true eccentric whose upbringing in pre-war Burma combined with schooling at St Leonard’s and Cheltenham Ladies’ College gave her a special demeanour, she pursued a lifelong passion for art. Feisty, funny, outspoken, generous, with a sharp eye and mind, she was a unique and memorable figure, supporting many artists along the way.

Her love of art began as a child in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Galleries. She liked to say she began collecting in earnest in 1985 ‘’when Maggie Thatcher brought income tax down and I had some spare money.’’ In fact she came from a well-off West of Scotland family: her great-grand uncle had founded Burmah Oil.

However, she always maintained it was her thrifty nature which enabled her to collect, gifting nearly 1,000 artworks to Strathclyde University where she worked for 30 years. The art has enlivened lecture halls, staff rooms and corridors throughout the university campus and she would be shocked that some is now in storage. In 2000 her collection was valued at £250,000, but she never stopped buying.

She worked hard at her art collecting, visiting every degree show, and keenly attended exhibition openings, be they of the very young or famous. Her collection includes many artists still grateful for her early support.

In 2000 she explained: “I made a policy decision to buy youngsters, mostly from the West of Scotland. You can buy one picture for £5,000 or you can buy 10 at £500, which is why there are so many. I prefer to know where my money goes, rather than the bottomless pit of the Treasury. I buy what I like and my taste is varied. if you like it, if it pleases your eye, if you have the money, buy it!’’

She used public transport, never taxis. To the alarm of myself and others, she used buses in her late 80s when suffering from an ulcerous leg, even taking the overnight bus to London to see major exhibitions.

Alongside her focus on art was her commitment to many charities and University committees. At 73, and Treasurer of Charity Education International, she went to Bangladesh where she audited the library of UttarBangla University College, which the charity had built to enable the poor, especially girls, to receive tertiary education. Seeing the derelict historic Raj Building in the college ground, she funded its renovation.

Her family had come to Glasgow from Burma just before the outbreak of the war, where she and two brothers had been born. Her birth certification included her tiny footprint, as it was weeks before anyone could travel to the British High Commission in Rangoon to register her officially. Maybe that is why no-one actually knows what her birthday is, other than December 1933.

Her father worked as a merchant trader. She spent 10 years as a research scientist, having gained a physiology and pharmacology degree at St Andrews in the 1950s, plus a PhD at Edinburgh University with research into the contraceptive pill. But she decided a career in the sciences was not for her: ‘’I was unhappy. I was being asked to work in nano-science. I wanted out.’’

She began training as a librarian at Strathclyde University in a new post funded by the Office for Scientific Information, later becoming head of the Reference and information Division. She stayed for 30 happy years until she retired in 1999.

Helen, or HCT as she was known, regarded Strathclyde University as her family. Laura Hamilton, director of Strathclyde’s Collins Gallery for 24 years, told me, “Helen was a Gallery fixture. She supported every preview and attended every conference. She found the University’s 2012 decision to close the gallery incomprehensible. It was Helen’s mission to enliven the sterile environment of Strathclyde’s offices with paintings, drawings, prints and small sculptures. Her taste was eclectic. Delivered in bulk without any forewarning it was great fun to unwrap the latest ‘booty’! “

One of a kind, with strong views and not suffering fools gladly, she was especially kind to struggling young artists. Dressed in sensible shoes, lisle stockings, beige mac and cardigans, with her hair braided around her head, she showed no interest in fashion but, I’m told, took great delight in dressing up for the Collins’ Adam’s Ball in 1992, or modelling at the University’s annual charity fashion show.

She had her quirks. Never one to let anything go to waste, and loving her food, she would famously gather up leftover crisps or sausage rolls to take home in a carrier bag. Elaine Blaxter, the library head, says: “We remember a lady with a collection of eccentricities but also an exceptionally kind heart. She sometimes invited junior colleagues to accompany her to the opera. Each year she would host a Sunday lunch of cottage pie, then give a tour of her wonderful house. She championed librarianship as a profession - that those with information skills were not servants but equal partners working in collaboration with researchers. A product of the last years of empire, she was comfortable in her belief that she had been educated to command.”

Dr Thompson left her house and contents to the National Trust. Complete with original fittings and silk wallpaper, she saw it as the upper middle-class sibling of the Tenement House, a kind of museum. Her silver has gone to GSA silversmithing department, which she loved. She also loved visitors to see her home. Nothing was touched in years – something which will delight social historians.

She was Treasurer of the Scottish Pakistani Association, former President of the Graduates’ Association of Strathclyde University, and a loyal member of the National Trust for Scotland.

She was awarded a medal for services to Librarianship by the Princess Royal in London, but sadly Strathclyde left it too late to give her an honorary doctorate. Dr Helen’s generosity and hard work on many charitable committees, coupled with her outspoken, often quixotic views made her a memorable character who will be much missed.

She is survived by seven nieces and great nephews. There will be a memorial service once Covid allows.