Oliver Heal and the Heal family legacy

Words: Cross Nelson

We are saddened to learn of the death of Oliver Heal, the last member of the Heal family to serve as Chairman of the company. The Heal name was something of great importance to Oliver, and not only did he work at Heal’s in his early life, but he devoted the last decades of his life to preserving the family’s legacy. Oliver began working at Heal’s in 1971 in the bedding department, and after working his way through the ranks, eventually succeeded his father Anthony as Chairman from 1981 – 1983, making him the fifth generation at the helm of the company. Once he departed Heal’s, Oliver left England and worked for several furnishing fabric brands in Germany and France throughout the 80s and 90s. In the year 2000, he returned to England with his family and moved into Baylins Farm, the Heal family home in Buckinghamshire. This historic home came into the family in 1919 when Oliver’s grandfather, Sir Ambrose Heal, transformed it from a crumbling medieval farmhouse into an Arts & Crafts haven. Sir Ambrose was renowned for revolutionising the Heal’s brand in the early 20th century with his fresh approach to furniture design and retail, and his distinct taste was manifested in the design of his home. Oliver greatly appreciated the legacy his grandfather left behind, and he spent the last two decades of his life researching the history of Heal’s and Baylins Farm.

In 2008, at the age of fifty-nine, Oliver completed a PhD in furniture history and developed his thesis into his 2014 book, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory 1897 – 1939. This book is the most extensive work to be published on the history of Heal’s, and it is an indispensable contribution to the fields of modern furniture design and retail history. In the book, Oliver devotes a section to the history of Baylins Farm, and this was just the beginning of his research of the house. Until the last months of his life, Oliver continued to research Baylins Farm and was able to complete a full history of the house from its medieval conception to the present day. His passion for documenting the history of his home was inspiring, and it was fitting that this is where he spent his final days. One of Oliver’s last contributions to preserving the Heal legacy was his gifting of three family portraits from Baylins Farm. He gifted two portraits of his great-great-grandparents, the Heal’s founders, John Harris and Fanny, to the Heal’s Tottenham Court Road store. These can now be seen on display on the store’s ground floor. He gifted the third portrait of Sir Ambrose painted by Edward Halliday to the National Portrait Gallery, putting him in his rightful place amongst the greatest figures in British history. Thanks to Oliver’s generosity, these important family portraits may now be appreciated by the public.

Heal’s was not the only subject on which Oliver published work, and in 2020 he released another book on automobile history. Oliver’s interest in automobiles came from two sources in his life: first through his father, who collected and raced cars; and then through his wife, Annik Coatalen. Annik, a French ballerina and Royal Ballet School trained teacher, is the granddaughter of Louis Coatalen, who was a pioneering automobile designer and engineer of the early 20th century. His fascinating history is memorialised in Oliver’s book, Louis Coatalen: Engineering Impresario of Humber, Sunbeam, Talbot, Darracq. It is evident that talent runs deep in both the Heal and Coatalen families, and in 2019 Annik also published a book on her artist mother, Anna Coatalen, titled Anna Coatalen: Art for Happiness et Bonheur. Thanks to their mutual appreciation for preserving family history, Oliver and Annik’s books have ensured that their families’ legacies will not be forgotten. Oliver will be missed by many, but his own personal legacy will remain alive through his work and through the memories of people who had the privilege of knowing him. Heal’s will always be indebted to Oliver’s research, and as a company, we will continue to honour the history which he so thoroughly preserved. Our thoughts are with Oliver’s family in their time of grief. He will be deeply missed by his wife Annik, three stepdaughters, Sandie, Anna and Claire, a son, Felix, and five grandchildren, Jules, Zoé, Augustin, Amelie and Ida, whom he loved dearly.

More articles by Cross Nelson: Ambrose Heal at Home: a glimpse into the private collection of the famed furniture designer