Michelle Sykes

Lady Michelle Sykes was an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College. Below are memories from her husband, Professor Sir Keith Sykes, and from colleagues who spoke at the College’s celebration of her life held on 20 April 2017.

Michelle was born in London in 1932. During the war she was evacuated to various parts of the country and had to attend eight different schools. Nevertheless she succeeded in passing the school certificate examination in 1949.

Michelle and I first met in 1954 at University College Hospital, London. I was a trainee anaesthetist and she was a (very attractive) staff nurse. We married in 1956 and were lucky enough to have four wonderful children over the next 12 years. During this period she took an active interest in the wellbeing of many of my research fellows, designed and made many of the costumes for the local dramatic society and undertook a four-year part-time course for the University of London Diploma in the History of Art, which she passed with merit. She then undertook a further two years of part-time study to ensure that she had a comprehensive knowledge of the history of art and architecture.

In 1966 Michelle started her teaching career by running a WEA course on the history of art in our lounge. She also acted as a tutor for the Junior Museums Club that had just been founded by Ann White. From these early beginnings she went on to deliver a number of part-time courses on the history of art and architecture for the Inner London Education authority, the Universities of London and Cambridge and various art clubs in and around London. She soon developed a reputation as an inspiring, much sought-after lecturer and her classes were invariably over-subscribed.

She was one of the founder members of NADFAS (The National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, now The Arts Society) that had been founded by Patricia Faye and she became an influential member of the speakers selection committee. She became a very popular speaker on the NADFAS circuit and gave many Inaugural addresses when new clubs were established in this country and abroad.

In 1968 she joined the Education Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum where she was greatly influenced by the Director of Education, Madeleine Mainstone. After an intensive period of part-time training she acted as a guide, gave public lectures and helped to organise Open University courses at the Museum until 1983. We moved from London to Oxford in 1980 (when I was appointed to the Nuffield Chair of Anaesthetics) and, as described by Geoffrey Thomas, Michelle joined the Department of Continuing Education at Rewley house. In 1981, Michelle approached Sir David Piper, The Director of The Ashmolean Museum and established a voluntary Education Service at the Museum. For the next 13 years, she managed and developed the Service, handing over to Kathie Booth-Stevens in 1994 as she wished to devote more time to establishing a two-year Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art with her colleague Mary Acton at Rewley House. This course commenced in January 1995. Michelle was appointed Associate Tutor (subject director), History of Art, Department for Continuing Education, in 1990, and in 1998, she was elected to an Honorary Visiting Fellowship at Kellogg College, an honour she greatly prized.

In January 2016 Michelle was found to be suffering from a mesothelioma (an asbestos-related tumour in the pleural space) but she managed to remain at home until a few weeks before her death on the 9th of February 2017.

On the 20th of April 2017, a celebration of Michelle’s life was held in Kellogg College attended by close family, friends and colleagues. Geoffrey Thomas and Vincent Strudwick were two of the speakers at the event and have kindly given their permission for the transcripts of their talks to be reprinted below.

You might also like to read an article about Michelle written by Dinah Reynolds, a guide at the Ashmolean Education Service from the outset, published in the Easter 2017 edition of The Ashmolean Magazine.

Michelle was inspirational, bold, dynamic and effective. She was an outstanding educator and communicator, and she had an exceptional ability to inspire and enable others to achieve beyond their wildest dreams. She touched and influenced the lives of many. She will be greatly missed, but her influence and the contribution that she has left the world will endure and continue to grow and develop for years to come. I was extremely fortunate to have been her proud husband for just over 61 years.

Professor Sir Keith Sykes