Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Eulogy to my mother, Erika Langmuir, 1931-2015

December 8, 2015: My mother, Dr Erika Hedwig Blumenfeld Langmuir McKeown OBE, and yes, that's a bit of a mouthful, passed away this morning, aged 84.

Erika Hedwig Blumenfeld was born in Warsaw May 15, 1931, her mother a bourgeois Polish Jew with a university degree and a flair for languages, and her (also Jewish) father among many other things a soldier in the Czech army. Erika and her parents escaped Poland scant weeks ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1939, taking what they could, but leaving behind much, most sadly her beloved dog "Stobi", and made their way by train to Bucharest. (Some of her relatives also escaped, ending up in such diverse places as Rhodesia/now Zimbabwe, Israel, and Canada, but some did not and perished in the Holocaust.) From Romania, Erika's family boarded ship on the Black Sea for Alexandria, where they stayed for a while and Erika remembered watching the "dog-fights" overhead, then on to the south of France, where they lived for around two years and Erika went by her middle name, in French pronounced, if not spelled, "Edwige". Then, with the all-important affidavit in hand, the three set sail from the choppy Gulf of Lyon to Casablanca, where they boarded the Portuguese-flag ship Serpa Pinto, which had been running the blockade and risking torpedoes ferrying mainly Jewish refugees to the USA and other places. (This ship is perhaps best known, at least among Jews, for bringing Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), seventh leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, and his wife, Chaya Mushka, to America in 1941.) Erika and her family reached New York in June 1942, where at Ellis Island Erika saw saw the "No Smoking" sign, and with her limited but refined English wondered why tuxes / dinner jackets ("smoking jackets") were prohibited.

Erika grew up in New York City, where she went to high school and worked. She was awarded  a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence, where she earned her Bachelor's degree. She met my father, Gavin Ince Langmuir, a Canadian veteran of WWII and doctoral student at Harvard, at a "mixer" party. When Gavin was offered a professorship at Stanford University, he and Erika married before they moved to California, where they adopted me at birth in 1961. While caring for me and being a faculty wife, Erika earned her Master's degree in Art History at Stanford. In 1968, Erika was offered a Kress fellowship to study for her doctorate under the eminent Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich at the Warburg Institute in London. She accepted this prestigious offer and went with me to London, believing Gavin would join us after a year. Things did not go as originally planned - Gavin and Erika had grown apart. Divorce proceedings were started and Erika and I remained alone in London, where I went to primary (elementary) school and was taught by the eccentric, gifted and (sadly for little me) anti-American poet Ivor Cutler, as well as many more congenial teachers.

While living as a single mom, in 1969 Erika met Charles McKeown, a young actor, they became involved, and we all moved in together. Erika completed her doctorate, and was hired in 1971 as a professor of art history by the University of Sussex. We moved to Brighton a year later - we stayed an extra year in London, and Erika endured a long commute, so that I (then 10 years old) would not have to change schools again for just one year. About ten years later, after Erika was hired by the Open University to chair their Art History department, Erika and Charles moved back to London. Then in 1988, Erika was appointed head of education at the National Gallery in London under then Gallery director Neil MacGregor, where, among other accomplishments, she wrote the Companion Guide to the Gallery and was instrumental in the creation of the Micro-Gallery, an early implementation of information technology for studying the gallery's works.

In 1995 Erika retired from the Gallery, and the same year was awarded the Order of the British Empire for "services to art". Queen Elizabeth II put the medal on Erika with her own hands, and I got to see it happen. I think I was way more impressed by this than was Erika. Erika continued to work as a consultant for the Gallery, and also reviewed exhibitions and wrote articles and an art history book called "Imagining Childhood" (Yale University Press, 2006). Meanwhile Charles continued his interesting career as an actor and screenwriter. You may have seen some of his work, including Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", in which Charles has credits as both actor and screenwriter.

In 2007, Erika and Charles moved full-time to Umbria, a region of Italy that they loved and had visited with increasing frequency and ever lengthening duration for more than 20 years, since buying a vacation apartment in a medieval hill town. Then in spring 2009, Erika was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which necessitated having 2/3 of her stomach removed. She survived that cancer, then breast cancer, and later Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Then, in September of 2015, after complaining of back pain, Erika was diagnosed with a (probably metastatic) spinal cancer. After an illness that was both mercifully short and way too long for her liking, Erika passed away in the hospice in Terni on the morning of December 8, 2015.

This essay may imply, but hasn't said outright, that Erika was a great teacher - she was, by many accounts, including my own. I didn't yet mention that Erika was a wonderful chef, a patron of artists and craftspeople, and a cat-lover, but all those things she was too. And so much more.

This is a too-short summary of the days on this earth of a person who changed the lives of many, including mine. May her memory be for a blessing.

Erika in 1995, after receiving the OBE, with me, Charles and a family friend, Barbara

Erika and Charles in Italy in 2010

Erika and me in about 1963. I look about 2, right?

Erika and me in a photo-booth in the mid-1960s. When exactly is anyone's guess


  1. Hi Valerie,

    We worked with your mum on the Micro Gallery project. She was indeed a wonder and a blessing.

    Smart, patient, kind and stylish.

    So sorry you've lost her. So grateful for what she gave us.

    Alex (alexm at cogapp dot com)

  2. I well remember Erika from her time at the OU. We often shared a car for the London/MKeynes/London run, and talked about many things, especially as I recall, children's toys ...

  3. I was a student of Art HIstory at Sussex University from 1978-82, and Erika was my teacher and personal tutor. I remember her vividly, especially her keen observation of small details in paintings. She really touched my life and has stayed in my memory. It is lovely to read about how much she went on to do after her Sussex days - an amazing woman.

  4. I was a student of Art HIstory at Sussex University from 1978-82, and Erika was my teacher and personal tutor. I remember her vividly, especially her keen observation of small details in paintings. She really touched my life and has stayed in my memory. It is lovely to read about how much she went on to do after her Sussex days - an amazing woman.

  5. I met your mum in the 1990's while I was writing material on art for teachers. She was wonderfully patient and never made me feel stupid, though I had little art training. Form that time my love of art developed. I am now 67 and doing my PhD in art and theology. It was a privilege to have met her.

  6. Hi Valerie
    I worked in Erika's Education Department at the NG.
    So sad to read this news - I remember her so fondly.
    I especially remember her rushing in to our office to tell me whenever Libertys had an exhibition of interesting textiles (textiles was one of my interests) - she was always so enthusiastic to share opportunities to see beautiful things and experiences.
    A truly beautiful, kind and generous lady.