The Daily Telegraph
Artist born with Down’s syndrome whose work was collected by David Hockney and Maggi Hambling
RACHEL HELLER, who has died a day before her 50th birthday, was an artist whose drawings, etchings and paintings were compared with Braque and Picasso and whose admirers included David Hockney, Maggi Hambling, Sir Peter Blake and Sir Anthony Caro; what made her breakthrough into the London art world all the more remarkable was that she had Down’s syndrome.
Her talent first revealed itself in primaryschool notebooks crowded with drawings of matchstick figures playing football or dancing. When Rachel was 13, her mother, Angela Flowers, brought two of these sketches into the gallery she had founded in 1970, and the TV executive (Sir) Jeremy Isaacs bought one. Angela Flowers realised that it was time to start taking her daughter’s art seriously.
Rachel Heller’s subjects went on to include landscapes as well as figures. Reclining women were a favourite, and one of these, Lady Sleeping in Bed, an uninhibited depiction in charcoal and pastel, won the Hugh Casson Drawing Prize at the 2006 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Her direct and sensual approach to the human body was one of the qualities that attracted other artists to Rachel Heller’s work. Although she worked hard to develop her talent, her artistic vision had a naturalness to it that was uncluttered by academic theory. As the critic Edward Lucie-smith put it, her drawings were “entirely about what she sees… with a purity of intention which very few artists manage to maintain.”
It undoubtedly helped Rachel Heller’s career that she had supportive parents and was able to showcase her work at the Angela Flowers galleries – Flowers Central in Cork Street and Flowers East. But that advantage did not explain her success at the RA Summer Exhibition, where her anonymously submitted drawings were selected by the judging panel in six years.
She was born in London on September 15 1973 to Angela Flowers and her partner (and later second husband), the management consultant Robert Heller. Her mother already had four children with her first husband, the photographer Adrian Flowers.
Down’s syndrome, caused by the presence of an extra chromosome, was diagnosed – at a time when children with the condition were often confined to institutions. Angela Flowers recalled a nurse saying with brutal insensitivity: “You’ll have to make your decision now” – meaning whether or not to keep her – and a social worker, on a home visit, telling her: “They don’t live long, you know.”
Her parents made sure that Rachel was in good schools, among them the Gatehouse Learning Centre in Bethnal Green, which integrated children with disabilities into mainstream classes, and Holly Court special-needs primary school in Highgate. She went on to take a special-needs art course at Hammersmith and West London College and an art A-level, a foundation course at the Byam Shaw School of Art, summer schools at the Slade in 2001 and 2003, and two years at the Prince’s (now Royal) Drawing School from 2005.
Her first solo exhibition, when she was 20, was a sell-out at the John Jones Art Centre. She quickly attracted collectors in the arts world, among them the poet Sue Hubbard, the actor Russell Tovey and the biographer Victoria Glendinning.
Her father Bob saw Rachel Heller as “amiable and slightly eccentric” rather than “handicapped”, while for Angela Flowers her daughter’s career was an opportunity for society to recognise what a Down’ssyndrome person was capable of doing.
She had a very special relationship with the Scottish artist Peter Howson, who has Asperger’s. They would send each other pictures on cards as their main way of communicating.
Apart from art, Rachel Heller had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and wrote out a new playlist every day to work through. Her favourite era was the 1980s, and her favourite saying was “keep dancing”. She collected autographs – Madonna, Tony Bennett and others. She kept a packet of Silk Cut in her denim-jacket pocket (shocking her anti-smoking mother), and styled her hair with a shock of pink or electric blue.
Bob Heller died in 2012; Angela Flowers died in August this year. Rachel Heller’s four half-siblings survive her.