Life in the Arts Lane, Week 126 - The Passing of a Discrete Feminist

12/07/2016 15:40 | Updated 12 July 2016

This week I want to mourn and celebrate my friend and close work colleague at Mallett for nearly 20 years who has died far too young in her 60s.

In 1995 - and I have too admit I am a bit wobbly on dates - Felicity Jarrett applied for a job at Mallett at Bourdon House. She was not the usual 20 something young girl who applies for such jobs, she had worked in the city and had travelled the world as the wife of an engineer. She was the mother of three grown up children. Her sister Marilyn, whom we knew well through business, had recommended her. At interview she was obviously competent if not highly overqualified but she clearly wanted the job that was part time and ostensibly un-pressured. Her approach was to be utterly professional and whilst she seemed quiet, almost timid and deferential, one could see that she was a powerhouse just below the surface.

From this part-time job she grew into being one of the most widely loved and successful salespeople at the company. It began with her helping me write the description tickets for the stock. Every other day we had to walk round the showrooms checking, replacing and writing tickets. She began by correcting my grammar - which has always been atrocious - and developed into asking questions about the date, style and authenticity of the pieces. She was soon correcting me and our labels greatly improved. As her expertise grew so did her confidence and my erstwhile colleague Henry Neville inadvertently gave her a big break. He took six months off from work to live in NY with his fiancée Rena and Felicity volunteered to move from behind her desk to the front line of sales. The first couple of tours with clients I went round with her, but soon she was off on her own. Within a month she was making significant sales. She was not tall and was slight of frame but her power lay in her ability to laugh and put people at ease. She exuded total confidence and whilst not being strident or pushy she had a way of persuading people that the object in question was exactly what they needed.

Felicity quietly now began to change the all male dogmas within the company. It may seem trivial now but she pioneered the wearing of trousers for women. In a business far behind the curve of modern thinking this was quite revolutionary. Quietly at first, but increasingly forcefully, every time a patronising or misogynistic comment was made she would jump on it and ferociously berate the guilty party. The men in the company became wary and would consider what they said in advance - a novelty for most. She hated any suggestion that a 'woman' was in any way incapable of doing anything. She shifted heavy furniture. She insisted on locking up and being on call for the alarm - which in turn alarmed the Mallett men. But she got her way.

Felicity loved NY and she came up with a plan to make regular visits to see clients and decorators. After another victory over sexism with the board she was sent off. In those days we had no portable computers or mobile phones and she used to head off with a rolling suitcase full of heavy files of photographs. Up and down Manhattan she would lug this thing and thus she cemented her increasingly central role in the company. Weeks of telephone calls followed and couriers laden with images and descriptions sped from her desk and good business was done. She was no longer simply useful she was integral and vital to the company sales programme.

Mallett Bond St had exhibited from nearly its inauguration at the Autumn International show in NY - run by the Haughton family and only recently sold on to the TEFAF organisation. At Bourdon house we decided to take on a stand at the Winter Show, which takes place in the same location in NY, but in January. It is a very well established show historically dedicated to Americana but then with a few exhibitors from other areas of collecting. We took continental furniture. Felicity made the show a success by sheer force of will, she sent out invitations, tempting photographs and wined and dined until sales came. The clients and decorators of NY flocked to the stand to see her and get her advice.

She was appointed an associate director and then a full director. As the years passed and her seniority and stature grew she never acquired airs and graces - instead she took new young staff under her wing and nurtured and encouraged them. She suffered no fools and if she spotted anything that she thought was unfair or simply stupid she was fearless in pointing it out.

Sadly for Felicity the good years at Mallett began to fade after they sold Bourdon House. The balance between costs and earnings tipped the wrong side and losses began and though she continued to work tirelessly she was increasingly frustrated by decisions made by senior management. Add to this period of business decline - her beloved husband Colin had a terrible stroke and though she nursed him as well as anybody could, he died. Further horrors followed with her diagnosis with breast cancer, which initially she beat - but then it came back and took her life.

For me Felicity was a huge support and a life enhancing person to know. My personal memories will be of sitting, and planning opportunities to benefit the company - often enhanced by eating and drinking well. I will cherish the client parties we had at Bourdon house, the dinners in NY, lunches in Paris shopping for treasures and endless laughter in the office, often naughty, often bawdy she knew no taboos when it came to jokes.

Her legacy is one where she showed all who knew her just how a strong woman with firm convictions can flourish in an intensely sexist environment. She may have been small but she was feisty and very forceful and her feminism was never political, she believed in old-fashioned behaviour and values; but only if they accorded with her sense of fairness. Her family has suffered terribly through the loss of both their parents in a short time but they have benefitted from being the children of one of the most extraordinary women of her generation in the antiques trade.