Gwendolyn Leick obituary

·2-min read

My friend and former colleague Gwendolyn Leick, who has died aged 71, was an author, academic and champion weightlifter. She helped to make Mesopotamian and near eastern history accessible to a general audience.

Gwendolyn was born in Oberaichwald, Austria, to Herta (nee Schescherul), a nurse and social worker, and Reginald Leick, a doctor. She grew up in Graz and attended Karl Frankens University (now the University of Graz) to study Assyriology to doctorate level. She also subscribed to the radical changes brought about by the 1960s. She travelled to London drawn, she said, by the British Museum and cosmopolitanism. And she married John Clifford, who she met there.

She began postdoctoral research at the School for Oriental and African Studies (now Soas University of London), studying cuneiform tablets in the British Museum. Influenced by her training in Graz, she decided to write on ancient near eastern history for a general audience, making a fairly arcane subject accessible. This allowed her to develop more extensive interests in the arts, music and architecture, which led to her writing 14 books and to an independent and idiosyncratic academic career. After her divorce from John, she met Anthony Howell, of the performance art company Theatre of Mistakes – and they later settled in Hampshire where their son, George, was born.

Continuing her research, Gwendolyn taught at the University of Reading (archaeology and literature), Cardiff University (religious studies, archaeology and history) and the University of Glamorgan (now part of the University of South Wales), where she helped to build an anthropology programme. She married Ibrahim Gurcan and they had a son, Joseph. From this period come A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology (1991) and Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature (1994).

In London she bought an extensive, dilapidated property off Brick Lane, making the basement into an art exhibition space. She became a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Art and Design (now Chelsea College of Arts), where I met her, teaching architectural design history with an anthropological slant. Books of this period include Mesopotamia: the Invention of the City (2002).

Gwendolyn took up weightlifting in her 50s at a local gym, at first for a laugh. But laughter turned to passion, two world titles and the award-winning 2017 documentary Gwendolyn. Retiring from Chelsea College, she wrote books exploring family and background, one of which, Frankstrasse 31 (2021) is a “memoir” of the apartment building in which she grew up.

After her second marriage ended, she met Charlie Kanon in London and they married in 2001. She is survived by Charlie, George and Joseph, her sister, Andrea, brother, Oliver, and five grandchildren.