Obituaries: Lady Veronica Gibson, arts patron and president of Scottish Opera

Lady Veronica Gibson, patron of the arts. Born: 21 January 1937 in Purley, Surrey. Died: 27 January 2022, aged 85

Lady Gibson was a fixture of Scotland’s cultural landscape for six decades (Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)
Lady Gibson was a fixture of Scotland’s cultural landscape for six decades (Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

Lady Veronica Gibson’s influence on Scottish musical life might easily have gone unsung were it not for the significant lasting cultural legacies she quietly supported and encouraged over six decades.

She was not an attention seeker by any means, despite starting life as a dancer on the London stage. In Glasgow, it was as the wife of the legendary conductor and founder of Scottish Opera Sir Alexander Gibson that she will best be remembered, together with the elegant and benevolent charm that dignified her ubiquitous presence at opera performances and concerts in Glasgow.

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Yes, she was dedicated to her domestic role, creating a stable home environment in Glasgow’s west end for her globetrotting husband, giving him the space and time he needed to plan and realise his groundbreaking vision of a national opera company, which he launched in 1962 and celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

“She was the strength behind the man,” recalls Helen Brebner, who for 20 years served as Sir Alex’s personal secretary, working within their Cleveden Gardens house where she witnessed the dynamic that enabled the conductor to function at his best, and in which V – as her closest friends knew her – played an essential and motivating role.

“Nothing fazed her; she took up the reins and gave fabulous support to Alex,” Brebner adds. “She sometimes had to push him a bit, chivvy him along, but always in the kindest possible way.”

That same gentle persuasiveness and benevolence informed Lady Gibson’s public persona, which was never ego-driven, but one guided by a determination to ensure things simply got done, even if it meant rolling up her sleeves and mucking in. Her greatest strength, her many friends and acquaintances unanimously say, was “the complete absence of airs and graces”.

That was notable enough through her ubiquitous presence at RSNO and Scottish Opera performances, regardless of whether her husband was on the podium. Lady Gibson’s support for such activities continued unabated after Sir Alex’s death in 1995, only tailing off when failing health forced her to leave her west end townhouse and enter a care home in Bearsden, where she died last month.

She shared her husband’s passion for opera. In a statement issued by Scottish Opera, its general director Alex Reedijk paid tribute to Lady Gibson’s unerring support.

She was, he recalled, “a beloved fixture of Scotland’s cultural landscape for six decades, and played a key role in Scottish Opera’s behind the scenes development when her husband founded the Company in 1962.” She became President of Scottish Opera in 2013 and remained so up to her death.

It’s strange to imagine how down-to earth the whole operation was in 1962 when the fledgling company was having to make every penny count. In an interview with journalist Cate Devine ten years ago, Lady Gibson described how she and other “opera wives” did their bit to ensure that the show went on. “There was so little money that everyone stayed at everyone’s houses and we all fed the artists and directors. I was one of the volunteer helpers who sewed the costumes and sourced the stage props,” she told Devine.

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Lady Gibson was born Ann Veronica Waggett in Surrey in 1937. She inherited Scottish blood from her mother, also Veronica (née Phillipp), who was from Kirriemuir. Her father, Stanley, was a Mancunian, whose work with an engineering company took the family to Calcutta, where the young Veronica first took ballet lessons.

At 12, she was sent back to England to be enrolled at Lady Eden’s residential Dance School in Kensington. Eden eventually saw enough potential in Veronica to send her to Paris to complete her ballet training. An ensuing position with London’s Royal Ballet was short-lived, on account of her being too tall, but she soon found work dancing and acting at the London Palladium, even in a stage show with the popular entertainer and comedian Tommy Trinder.

But it was her subsequent move to Sadler’s Wells Opera that was to shape her future direction. The music director there was a young Alex Gibson. While conducting The Merry Widow he noticed the 21-year-old Veronica who was dancing in the production. Romance blossomed, but as the late Scotsman music critic Conrad Wilson recounts in “Alex”, his biography of the conductor, Gibson took his time popping the question.

Veronica told Wilson: “When he suddenly asked me out to dinner, ordered champagne, and asked me to dance, I knew that something must be coming because I was a ballet dancer and normally he never danced with me.” They married in 1958 in Chelsea Old Church, before moving a year later to Glasgow where Gibson was to begin his celebrated leadership and long association with the SNO.

Even after her husband’s death, Lady Gibson continued to champion the causes she had supported her husband in. As President of Scottish Opera she was actively involved in the recent renovation of its Theatre Royal home, providing recorded memories for the company’s archive.

She also served as patron of the successful fundraising campaign to build the Alexander Gibson Opera School at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 1998. “I think Alex would like to have done more with the students here,” she told me at the time. “He thought the opera school was a wonderful idea.”

Raymond Williamson, who chaired the RSNO for many years and was a close friend of the Gibsons, remembers Veronica as “a charming and solicitous hostess” whose commitment to her husband’s work, and to the passions she herself held, remained resolute for as long as she was able. “She never sought the limelight,” he says. “But up till the pandemic she was brought regularly to lunchtime concerts in the RSNO’s New Auditorium by her daughter Claire. Members of the family also regularly attended the Alexander Gibson Memorial Concerts, and she kept a keen interest in Scottish Opera.”

She is survived by her four children, James, Philip, Jonny and Claire, and by her ten grandchildren.

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