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Obituary: Sophie McCormick

Portrait painter who was a central part of the 1980s' Anglo-Irish bohemian set


UNCONVENTIONAL LIFE: Sophie McCormick was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish father and an aristocratic French mother

UNCONVENTIONAL LIFE: Sophie McCormick was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish father and an aristocratic French mother

UNCONVENTIONAL LIFE: Sophie McCormick was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish father and an aristocratic French mother

Sophie McCormick, who has died following a long illness aged 63, was a portrait painter and a central part of the Anglo-Irish artistic bohemian set in 1980s Dublin; towards the end of that decade she moved to Kenya on a whim to marry a man she had met a few months earlier.

His failure to turn up to meet her at Nairobi airport, where she arrived with nine leather-bound trunks and a four-year-old daughter, did not perturb her: she stayed on in Kenya for nearly 10 years. She had a house in the Nairobi suburb of Karen, which is thought to have been named after Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa.

There she lived an unconventional life, bringing up her daughter and painting, and becoming part of the remnants of the colonial-era Muthaiga Club set. She travelled extensively in Kenya, befriending and painting many tribal leaders, especially members of the Kikuyu tribe, to whose welfare she became devoted.

Sophie Lilly Sarah McCormick was born in London on October 27, 1956, the only daughter of an Anglo-Irish father, John Ormsby McCormick, and an aristocratic French mother, Francine Paris. Her father served in the Diplomatic Service, and Sophie spent her early years in Jakarta and Ankara.

Her mother, who was related to Count Grigory Potemkin, the lover of Catherine the Great, was an active member of the French Resistance during World War II and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. She remained a lifelong political activist, espousing such causes as Tibetan liberation and the freeing of Poland from Communism.

Her protests, often undertaken alone, took such forms as chaining herself to the railings of the British Embassy in Dublin, or blocking the main road in front of the Chinese Embassy by lying down in the middle of the road dressed in a full-length mink coat.

Sophie spent an unhappy time at schools in Ireland, England and Switzerland. She was expelled from all of them, including Aiglon College in Switzerland, where she was a room-mate of Cecilia Peck, daughter of the actor Gregory Peck. She was fond of quoting Mark Twain's saying that he was glad he never let his schooling interfere with his education; she was also expelled from L'Ecole des Roches and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.

She moved to Florence in the late 1970s to study painting and train as a picture restorer. In Rome she met Lord Constantine Phipps (later 5th Marquess of Normanby), with whom she had a daughter.

On returning to Dublin from Nairobi, Sophie McCormick ran, by accident rather than design, what amounted to an ultra-bohemian rooming house in a grand but chipped and faded Georgian town house. She rarely received rent from her occupants, who included Anglo-Irish nobility alongside penniless artists and musicians.

Her concern for the moral welfare of her guests/tenants sometimes manifested itself as an over-maternal inclination. Her disapproval of one young man's choice of girlfriend led her to hide the brassiere of another woman in the lovers' double bed. The impact of the discovery by the disapproved-of girlfriend was an immediate departure.

Sophie McCormick became, during one of the happiest times in her life, the chatelaine of a French chateau in the Cevennes. Guests not accustomed to her unique sense of style found an estate replete with decayed fountains and the skeleton of the original owner's mistress in the crypt. One guest described the plumbing as a baroque nightmare and the electricity supply as legendary in its idiosyncratic unreliability.

Sophie was entirely indifferent to what others might have perceived as discomfort. An au pair she employed in Dublin was taken aback when she was offered the opportunity to bathe in the bath water from which Sophie herself had just emerged. The two later became great friends, and the au pair enjoyed telling guests in a conspiratorial whisper, "madame is very eccentric".

She inherited an extensive portfolio of property in Celtic Tiger Ireland, which should have made her very wealthy. It did not. Her complete disregard for money meant that she was forever struggling to make ends meet. She managed to do this with singular elegance.

Her sense of confidence in her own taste meant that she not only ignored the usual rules of decorating convention but deliberately flouted them. Feeling the not unaccustomed financial pinch, and with her daughter's christening party fast approaching, she wallpapered her Dublin dining room in brown paper wrapping. The idea has since been copied all over the world.

In the final years of her life when she was unwell, she was cared for by an American yachtsman, Tad Wilbur.

It delighted her to inform visitors that he was descended from the royal family of Hawaii.

Sophie McCormick is survived by her daughter, Pandora, an actress. Sophie McCormick died on March 7, 2020.