Last Updated: 10:28pm BST 23/08/2001
Collector of songs who could chant in Gaelic and accompany herself on an instrument made from the carapace of the hairy armadillo
VICTORIA KINGSLEY, who has died aged 100, acted with travelling players and collected folk songs from around the world. She believed that the only way to learn such music was at source: "I always preferred to learn from people rather than books. I felt I learnt about the inside of the song along with getting to know the person who taught me."
She had become interested in music while at Rada in the 1920s, but it did not become her life's work until the 1930s. She went to Spain to study with Emilio Pujol, the classical guitarist and editor of early music, and returned home with many Catalan tunes. She also became interested in Hebridean songs and spent time on Barra to learn enough Gaelic to sing them authentically, without accompaniment.
In 1949, she travelled through South America, giving concerts and collecting songs in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. She rode with gauchos, listened to shoeshine boys sing while tapping out accompaniments with their brushes, and was taught cuca rhythms by a Chilean dressmaker.
She added coffee-pounding songs and a ritual chant to the Afro-Brazilian god of thunder to her repertoire. Among the musical instruments she acquired and played was a charango (a ten-stringed instrument which uses the carapace of the hairy armadillo as a sounding box).
The next year, she managed to attach herself to a party of ophthalmic surgeons visiting India and embarked on a five-month concert tour of the subcontinent, broadcasting on radio and being hailed as "the cultural ambassadress from Britain".
By now she had acquired a considerable reputation at home and gave recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall and Cecil Sharp House that drew large audience and won praise from the critics. But the audiences were not always large. "Masterly recital by Victoria Kingsley - but very few heard her," ran one dispiriting headline in a Cambridge newspaper.
In 1952, she set off on a world tour, taking in the United States, Mexico, Honolulu, Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon. She cheerfully told reporters: "I shall earn my living as I go. If I run short of dollars, I'll try and earn a bit as a home help."
From every trip she brought back new material, and although some critics complained that her voice lacked power, all agreed that she was able to put across a song in any language. She presented her one-woman show, Mosaic, at the Edinburgh Festival for three years running in the 1960s.
The Daily Telegraph's Peter Clayton called it "the strangest event" of the 1966 Fringe. "Miss Kingsley sings, recites, dresses up as a statue, whistles and plays lute, guitar, charango and drum in a bewildering collection of items ranging from songs by Thomas Campion to Argentinian folk songs."
She was born Hilda Victoria Parker on 23 May 1900, the daughter of the owner of the Penketh Tannery Company, Warrington. Her father believed that the best education was to be had in Scotland, and Victoria followed her sisters to St Leonard's School in Fife.
She soon tired of life as a young unmarried woman, but turned down a proposal of marriage from the manager of a local cinema. At a summer school in Greek dancing at Oxford, she met a woman don who suggested that she should come to the University.
On the strength of this recommendation (and her prowess at hockey), Victoria Parker matriculated in 1920. A bout of mumps led to a disappointing Third in Finals, but she was in the first batch of women to be awarded a degree by Oxford. She also won her hockey Blue.
While at Oxford she saw a production of Romeo and Juliet and was so disgusted by the performance of the leading actress that she determined to go on the stage. She got into Rada and turned out to be the only pupil in a production of a Shakespeare play who was prepared to perform a song.
The play was directed by Claude Rains, who suggested an unauthentic piano accompaniment for the song. But she decided instead to buy a guitar and a book explaining simple chords. Within 10 days she was singing and playing on stage.
On leaving Rada, she took the stage name of Victoria Kingsley and went into repertory, enjoying some success in a London production of Dracula. During the early 1930s she set up a travelling theatre company with her former professor of Mime and Gesture, Suzanne Stone.
The Noah's Ark Theatre toured the country, with the players sleeping in tents and putting on shows in theatres, schools and village halls. Audiences were promised "A Programme of Unusual Variety comprising Acting, Singing, Dancing and Mime".
An evening's entertainment might include extracts from the medieval miracle play Noah's Flood, Fielding's burlesque Tom Thumb, the Victorian ballad Villikins and His Dinah, Chekhov's The Bear, Wilde's The Florentine Tragedy and "costume renderings of Shakespearean sonnets", interspersed with Flemish folk songs and Japanese dances.
Victoria Kingsley designed and made many of the sets, costumes and masks, all of which were transported in the dicky seats of the company's motor cars. Her passion, however, was international folk music, and when the Ark hit the rocks she began travelling to gather songs.
She lost no chances to widen her repertoire. When a West Indian company put on a ballet in Westbourne Grove, west London, she persuaded them to teach her drumming. When she followed the Brazilian singer Olga Coelho to Paris, she took the opportunity to study there with the flamenco player Aliro Diaz.
After retiring from the concert platform, she concentrated on writing. She had long been a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, serving on its committee. But the stories she wrote and illustrated for her great nephews and nieces failed to find a publisher, and she was unable to interest the BBC in her television adaptation of George Meredith's The Egoist.
In later years, Victoria Kingsley became a keen member of the Highgate Poets, and issued several pamphlets of whimsical and satirical Relevant Rhymes. She never married.