Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas: ‘Little girls didn’t dream about chairing boards’

by Clare de Lore / 17 March, 2017

Judith Mayhew Jonas. Photo/Ken Downie

Dunedin-born Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas has spent most of her impressive life in the United Kingdom, but remains close to her childhood friends. 

When she was five, Judith Mayhew’s father died. A teacher and historian, Bill Mayhew left behind his wife, Joyce, also a teacher, two sons and a daughter. It was 1954 and also the year Judith started school and made friends with a boy whose art is a poignant link with her father.

Now a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire and ­happily married to Englishman ­Christopher Jonas, Judith Mayhew Jonas has fingers in many ­British Establishment pies. Her career as a lawyer and local ­government politician in the UK spans ­several decades. Hers is a career of firsts – the first woman to chair the Royal Opera House, the first woman to lead the City of London and the first woman to be Provost of King’s College Cambridge.

An early first came when she started school in Dunedin.

Artist Grahame Sydney. Photo/Grahame Sydney

You and Grahame Sydney started school on the same day. How have you kept that friendship up over the years?

Grahame and I met at school on the first day, then used to walk to school together, holding hands, because it was quite tough. We became best friends and have always picked up whenever he is in London or I am in New Zealand. We catch up on what he is painting, his ideas for a gallery in Queenstown; with old friends, you just pick up.

What does his art mean to you?

Whenever I am feeling nostalgic or homesick, I read one of Grahame’s books – I have a lot of his art books. I feel homesick ­sometimes for people and also for the ­Central Otago landscape. Grahame’s latest was Promised Land: From Dunedin to the Dunstan Goldfields, which is quite poignant for me. My father wrote one of the Otago centennial histories in 1948, Tuapeka: The Land and its People, all about the Otago gold mines and gold mining. He died a few years later. Grahame’s book goes over the same territory – a nice ­synergy, all about Otago, the goldfields and the history of the place. It is not just about the painting and the landscape; it’s about someone I have known all my life.

You did ballet classes from the age of three until you were about 20. Why did you give it up when you aspired to be a professional dancer?

I stopped during university because I couldn’t keep up the classes. Dance was very important and I had this ridiculous idea I would live in London and dance at Covent Garden – what little girl doesn’t? But I never thought I would be the first woman to chair the Royal Opera House. Little girls didn’t dream about chairing boards.

With Boris Johnson in 2010. Photo/Getty Images

Did that compensate for not pursuing the dream of a dance career?

I have now been on the stage at the Royal Opera House – as chairman – and it gave me enormous pleasure to meet the ­dancers and be involved in the organisation both in terms of opera and ballet. We had a lot of exposure to ballet growing up in New Zealand – the Kirov, the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet would all come in the winter season. My mother was passionate about dance, so I saw all those companies. I remember seeing Beryl Grey when I was quite young. Dame Beryl is still a stalwart supporter of the Royal Ballet – she is an inspiring woman. When I mentioned that I had seen her as a child, she told me stories of what went on behind the scenes on tour. It was very amusing. To meet one’s childhood heroines is quite extraordinary.

How did you gain acceptance and progress through British society and business?

New Zealanders are accepted very easily in English society, but it’s important to be aware of nuances and differences. A lot of people assume Britain will be the same as New Zealand, but it’s not. You soon learn how to get things done. Observation and restraint are important.

You’ve worn many hats during your professional life in business and local government. What’s been the highlight?

It’s hard to single out one thing, but chairing the Royal Opera House was a highlight. Also being the first woman to lead the City of London – it is an ­institution that one might say, jokingly, dates its modern period from 1067. I was the first woman and the first foreigner in that role. It gave me a public profile in London from which many other opportunities to participate in public life occurred.

Meeting  the Queen during a visit to Westminster School in 2014.

I was Provost of King’s College ­Cambridge, the first woman to do that since 1442. Now I am Chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University, the first institution in the UK to educate women in the tertiary arena. I have three wonderful days each year sitting in Lincoln ­Cathedral presiding over degree ­ceremonies, with the sun flooding in through the most beautiful stained glass.

Despite no longer having a full-time job, you seem to be active in a wide range of charities and institutions. What things have you been involved in recently?

I am a trustee of the Imperial War Museum and I’ve been chairing the rebuilding committee, bringing it into the 21st century. It was established during World War I as a memorial to those who were losing their lives, by Lord Rothermere and others who had lost many members of their families. The new WWI galleries are outstanding. A fellow trustee is the historian and writer Hew Strachan. He is married to a New Zealander, and I did a lot of background work ­reading Hew’s books on WWI. And Chris ­Finlayson sent me New Zealand and the First World War: 1914-1919, by Damien Fenton, which was interesting.

You’re working on the British war memorial to be built at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington. How is progress?

We have just finished fundraising for the memorial. It’s being made by Weta Workshops and it will be stunning. The memorial is an oak tree meeting a pohutukawa tree, with red and green glass representing the flowers and leaves. The sunlight filtering through it will be beautiful. Inside, where the two trees meet, will be the silhouette of a WWI soldier.

Prince William and Judith Mayhew Jonas, who co-chaired the Imperial War Museum rebuilding committee, in 2014.

Who has funded it?

A large part of the funds came from a British Government grant from the Libor Funds. These are the fines that banks pay [the fines are levied on the banking industry for manipulating the Libor rate] and it is fitting that those funds should be used for a memorial for those men who gave their lives so other people could live in a democratic and just society. It is a satisfying thought for me, because one wants bankers to act within the law and to act morally.

What do you do in your spare time?

We go to the ballet and opera regularly as well as the Wigmore Hall. Being ­connected to Westminster Abbey and the Choir School means I listen to a lot of choral music, which is unbelievably beautiful.

As for reading, a school friend, Juliet Marillier, has started writing historical ­fantasy. She has become interested in Celtic history and Druids – it is mostly historical rather than fantasy, and I find her books enchanting. Her first book was Daughter of the Forest. I also recently read The Light Between Oceans, by ML Stedman, an interesting exploration of how men felt when they came back from WWI, how difficult relationships were for them.

Recently, I’ve renovated my cottage in Hampshire, so I spent a lot of time reading gardening and interior design books. Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd’s Dear Friend and Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening is wonderful. They are both brilliant gardeners and brilliant writers. Rosemary Verey’s Making of a Garden is fantastic. A school friend gave me ­something called The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden, by Katherine Swift, which was fascinating. And I always read Robin Lane Fox in the Financial Times.

What did you read on your latest flight from London to Auckland?

Because of my work in the City, ­particularly in relation to the “ring of steel”connected to the IRA terrorism, I have always enjoyed reading Stella ­Rimington. I read Breaking Cover on the plane on the way here. Excellent.

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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