Oliver Heal sadly died at his home in Buckinghamshire on Tuesday 23 January after a battle with cancer. He was the grandson of Sir Ambrose Heal (1872-1959) and followed his father, Anthony Heal into the family firm, becoming a director and the last family member to be chairman. His later life was devoted to researching and publishing about Heal’s and racing his beloved 1927 Sunbeam motor car. Oliver was admitted as a liveryman of The Furniture Makers’ Company in May 1979. He was an active liveryman, giving a Frederick Parker lecture on Heal’s in 2016 and joining the Frederick Parker Committee in 2017; he compiled and edited the first Frederick Parker newsletters.
Oliver’s career at Heal’s began in the 1970s, working first in the bedding department and progressing through all the departments in turn. He spent several years working with Heal’s furnishing fabrics in Germany and France. He became a director of Heal & Son and succeeded his father, Anthony, as chairman for two years up to 1983, when the company was taken over by Storehouse. Anthony Heal (1907-1995) was one of the founders of The Furniture Makers Guild, formed in 1951; he was Master in 1959, before it became the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers in 1963. His portrait hangs in the Hall.
Oliver was driven to research the early history of the firm partly by his desire to know the date of his own Heal’s dining table! The study of Heal’s became the subject of his doctoral thesis, from which he developed his seminal book, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory, 1897-1939, published by Oblong in 2014. Drawing on the extensive Heal’s archive held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as family memories and private papers, this was the first comprehensive study of the early history of Heal’s. It is scholarly, meticulously detailed and richly illustrated.
There were two other powerful influences on Oliver’s life. He inherited Baylins Farm, a 15th century house in Buckinghamshire bought by his grandfather, restored in the Arts and Crafts style, and furnished with pieces by, amongst others, Sidney Barnsley. And he shared his father’s passion for vintage motor cars, taking over from him the care of a 1927 Super Sports Sunbeam racing car, which he drove at many rallies and races. He toured in his Sunbeam 20 all over Europe and, notably, in 2019 in north and south New Zealand with about 30 other Talbots and Sunbeams for a month. He wrote a biography of the Frenchman responsible for the design of the early Sunbeam racers, Louis Coatalen, Engineering Impressario of Humber, Sunbeam Talbot, Darrecq, published in 2020. Oliver was acknowledged as the leading expert on Sunbeam racers and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Transport Trust in 2023. His wife Annik is Coatalen’s granddaughter and has published a book on her artist mother, Anna Coatalen, Art for Happiness et Bonheur in 2019.
Oliver will be fondly remembered for his unassuming, gentle and good-humoured nature. He leaves his wife Annik, three stepdaughters and a son.
A website with details of Oliver’s funeral and links to support charities he cared for has been set up, which can be accessed here.
Oliver’s family have kindly requested anyone who wishes to attend his funeral to RSVP using the contact details on the website.