Sylvia Chatfield-Johnson - Pianist & Singer


What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

Hmm that's difficult...oh dear! I suppose it's playing at Wigmore Hall when I was about 10 years old. I came top of London in a piano exam and as a sort of reward I was allowed to perform there. My teacher came with me, and my mother, and I was sat in the audience with them, and when it was my turn they called my name I walked up onto the stage terrified. I had to play it without music of course! It was a Largo...I played it and I said to my mother 'I don't remember anything about it', and my teacher said 'that was very good, Sylvia' and gave me sixpence.

I started playing the piano when I was four. My mother didn't play but she loved music and was very keen for me to. I remember saying, 'I'll only play if you come and sit with me' (because I like an audience!) so she did.

 What's been your motivation?

I was a singer as well, and the joy that I got in singing to give other people pleasure that's all I wanted to do. (And I did, apparently).

 Now I am nearly 94 and my beloved Peter has gone, I live for my wacky, intelligent, adorable little shih-tzu Buzzy. He keeps me going. I am very young at heart, and slightly eccentric I think.

What do you owe your mother?

Everything. She was on her own, because she'd left my father when I was a baby. His family had wanted to take me over. She went to live with her mother, my grandma, and she had to fend for me and her. She started me on piano lessons when I was four years old which I thought was pretty marvellous. And she was a joy - we used to go shopping together, she was more like a sister. Lovely lady, we were very close. She died a week before my wedding.

Which women inspire you and why?

Well that’s difficult…in the music world it was the Joan Sutherland, the Australian soprano. I adored ballet, although I wasn’t able to do a huge amount of it because I was so busy with music, and I loved the dancer Beryl Grey – she used to alternate roles with Margot Fonteyn. I still know her, and she writes to me every Christmas.

What are you reading?

I used to love reading biographies about all sorts of famous people. Now I just read fiction. I do have a book on the go, but I can’t remember what it’s called! I’ve actually just read Freddy Mercury’s book, called Bohemian Rhapsody of course. I haven’t seen the film and I so wanted to.

 What gender barriers have you had to hurdle?

No hurdles at all. Not having a father, I suppose as I grew up I was a little bit frightened of men. I never wanted to have a boyfriend and I never wanted to get married until I met Peter. I loved my art, and I thought it was so stupid to just get married and have babies – I wanted more from the world.

How can the world be made a better place for women?

I don’t really know…I’ve never thought of it like that. Especially as I’m 93 years old, I’ve lived a long time, and that sort of idea just wasn’t talked about. We didn’t think about it on those terms. I can’t say I have a modern perspective on it.

Describe your perfect day?

That’s difficult. Well, I don’t think this is going to interest you, but my perfect day would be with my husband Peter. We were so close, we were one. He died four years ago and I miss him every day – and I’m sad all the time really, because he’s gone. My perfect day would be with him, just talking. He was so clever, he was a brilliant man – he had a lampshade shop in Chapel Street. After we married, we came down to Cornwall in a van with a cat and a dog, all our furniture, the grand piano and £400 to start a shop in St Ives. Mad thing to do, it was such an adventure.

Which women would you see remembered as statues around Cornwall?

I admire Barbara Hepworth, but then she’s got statues everywhere…

Give us a tip?

I would say to everybody, don’t take all the time, give. Give what you can – love, attention, interest, to other people, and treat them kindly. I like to see that.

About Sylvia Sylvia was born in London and pursued music, winning a scholarship to Trinity College to study piano and singing. In her twenties she met Alice and Eileen and together they formed musical trio, performing all over London. After marrying Peter, they relocated to St Ives and opened a business making lampshades, while Silvia continued to perform locally. After a brief spell living in Kent, they moved back permanently to Penzance in 1981 and opened their Chapel Street lampshade shop, which also sold antiques, taking on commissions for the National Trust and for customers in France and America. Silvia continued to be creative, working with sculpture and writing poetry, alongside her performing. After losing Peter four years ago, Silvia continues to live in Penzance with her dog Buzzy.