Gallery owner Richard Challis dies at 94; he promoted watercolorists

Laguna Beach gallery owner Richard Challis, a World War II veteran whose roster of artists included the renowned watercolorist Rex Brandt, died Dec. 10 of natural causes. He was 94.

Diane "Dee" Challis said her father valued watercolor paintings at a time when oil paintings were in vogue.

"Oil painters were revered, but he was among the first to recognize the beauty of watercolors and to actively promote it to his clientele," she said.

Watercolorists Phil Dike and George Post, along with oil painters such a Bennett Bradbury, Leon Franks and Paul Blaine Henri, were among the dozens of artists Challis represented over the decades, his daughter said.

The art world was a departure for Challis, a London native who dreamed of becoming an engineer.

"He often enjoyed telling tales of his almost Dickensian childhood and of course the war and the bombings and rationing in London," his daughter recalled. "Sometimes he was homesick for England, craving familiar foods like marmalade, sausages,roast beef, Heinz Salad Cream, and plum pudding."

Family poverty foiled Challis' engineering ambitions. At age 15, he joined the officers training corps. Four years later, he reached the rank of second lieutenant. World War II found him pulling survivors from bombed-out buildings during the London Blitz.

"A V1 fell on the shops opposite Harrods," Challis wrote in a letter dated May 21, 1944. "I spent all night dragging survivors out of the wreckage."

Challis came to Laguna Beach in 1946 to care for his aunt. He settled into a modest house on Canyon Acres Drive and bought a picture framing business. At local artists' coaxing, Challis gradually transformed the storefront into an art gallery. Three years later, he bought a building on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Mountain Road that eventually became Challis Galleries.

In 1994, Challis donated his records to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where they're housed in the Archives of American Art.

Active in several community organizations, Challis was president of the Laguna Beach Dog Owners Society in 1970 when he organized a march on Main Beach to protest a City Council proposal to ban dogs from city beaches.

The following year, as president of the Laguna Beach Flood Victims Fund, he spearheaded an art auction fundraiser. He was a member of Laguna Greenbelt, Friends of Newport Coast and a lifetime member of Laguna Art Museum.

Challis is survived by daughter Diane Challis; son David Challis; grandson Thomas Davy; sister Beryl Serjeant; and a niece and nephew.

No services are planned for Challis. In lieu of donations or flowers, his family asks well-wishers to donate blood to the American Red Cross, one of Challis' favorite charities.

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