Leslie Marr, landscape artist, F1 racing driver and reluctant baronet – obituary

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Leslie Marr painting in the snow near Pulverbatch, Shropshire, 1953 - Ian Collins
Leslie Marr painting in the snow near Pulverbatch, Shropshire, 1953 - Ian Collins

Leslie Marr, who has died aged 98, was a landscape artist who followed the Zen Buddhist teaching that if we do nothing, it all happens. Although mainly a painter, he was also a composer, poet, potter, bookseller, photographer, film-maker and Formula One racing driver.

Leslie Lynn Marr was born in Durham on August 14 1922, the only child of Colonel John Marr and Amelia, née Thompson. His grandfather, Sir James Marr, was a Sunderland shipbuilder who had been created a baronet in 1919, and when he was 10 young Leslie inherited the baronetcy, his father having died of pneumonia a year earlier.

But he never used the title and one of his first acts on reaching his maturity was to give away most of the fortune he had inherited – initially supporting the Henry Doubleday Research Trust (now Garden Organic) a charity dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening, farming and food, and latterly Glasgow Children’s Hospital.

From Shrewsbury School he studied engineering at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and served as a radar officer in the Royal Air Force towards the end of the war.

His passion for painting developed during a posting to Palestine, where he made his own canvases from airmen’s kitbags glued to strips of plywood.

After demob, he attended life classes at Heatherley’s Art School in Pimlico before studying under David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic and in 1948 marrying Bomberg’s step-daughter, Dinora Mendelson.

Dartmoor III by Leslie Marr -  Colin St John Wilson
Dartmoor III by Leslie Marr - Colin St John Wilson

He became part of the progressive Borough Group of Bomberg disciples – including Dennis Creffield and Miles Peter Richmond – which broke up acrimoniously in 1950, leaving Marr with a life-long mistrust of group activities. His marriage ended more amicably in 1956, a year before Bomberg’s death, though he supported his tutor – who was “exasperatingly impractical, so that one kept having to get him out of awful messes” – to the last.

A painting trip to Cyprus with the Bomberg family in 1948 set him on a path of exotic travels as a landscape artist – Cezanne’s Provence, Spain, Italy and Greece. He also turned his roving spirit to motor racing – driving his own Connaught in two British Formula One Grands Prix.

Competing against the likes of Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, he finished 13th in 1954 but was forced to retire from the race the following year. He also won the 1955 Cornwall MRC Formula One Race and came fourth in the 1956 New Zealand Grand Prix. Later on, he proudly displayed a photograph on the wall of his studio showing his Connaught leading the twin Mercedes of Moss and Fangio into a bend. If any visitor showed an interest he would smile and admit: “It wasn’t the same lap.”

Marr appeared in the 1954 movie Mask of Dust – playing himself and acting as stunt-driver for the star Richard Conte, though he was not allowed to drive any faster than 50mph so that the camera car could keep up. He also made a documentary about reindeer migration in Norway.

Living in rural Norfolk from 1969, save for six years on the Isle of Arran, Marr created towering drawings of local churches and flower pieces exploding in colourful oils like firework displays; but his heart really lay in wilder landscapes and he continued to travel widely in Britain, the Mediterranean, and New Zealand.

His pictures were shown at the Piano Nobile gallery in London and collected by connoisseurs including the architect Colin St John Wilson and Terry Jones of Monty Python.

At 80, after the end of a second marriage to Lynn Moynihan, he married the actress Maureen Dormer and enjoyed two decades of great happiness, still travelling widely in his mind when finally confined to bed.

She survives him with a daughter from his second marriage. Another daughter predeceased him.

Leslie Marr, born August 14 1922, died May 4 2021

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