Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Brettrospective: "An Engraver's Progress"

Earlier this month, I mentioned that an old school friend, now resident in the US, had contacted me and come to lunch at home. Today, I was given lunch in London by another such: Michael (on the left in my photograph) was in Europe on a visit from Los Angeles.

It's curious indeed that two out of the 30-odd people with whom I started in St Hugh's House at Ampleforth should have got in touch at much the same time after so long a period of silence and separation. A third contemporary at St Hugh's was Simon Brett, the distinguished wood engraver. I don't recall who told me (some weeks ago) about his forthcoming 70th birthday exhibition: I noted the dates with interest, but feared I should probably miss seeing it in London, because I had no plans to be there this month.

This was until Michael invited me to meet him at his club. After an elegant lunch there - more elegant (it would not have been difficult) than in the St Hugh's House refectory - we made our way jointly to The Bankside Gallery, where we found Simon presiding magisterially amongst a quite extraordinary array of examples of his work over the years.

On the train homewards, I have been reading the exhibition catalogue. Seldom have I seen such a beautiful one. Not only are more than a quarter of the thousand plus images listed reproduced, some full size, but there are a dozen moving tributes to Simon and assessments of the different aspects of his life’s work. A true festschrift, and indeed itself a collector’s item!

In her essay, Miriam Macgregor writes of Simon, “His quiet and controlled demeanour hides a minefield of drama.” And it seems to me that it is theatre, even more than literature that may be Simon’s secret love. You can see this clearly, for instance, in the details of the shipwreck in The Third Voyage from the Pericles suite. And Two in the Forest vibrantly and sensually sums up Act One of Die Walküre. (A minor quibble here though: surely Siegmund has removed the sword from the tree before going to it with Sieglinde to beget Siegfried?)

"The wonder of the human imagination," Simon reflects in his catalogue introduction, "is that it allows us... to weep for Pericles and Marina as truly as for our own children." Echoes of Hamlet asking rhetorically of the First Player, "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her?"

All those years ago at school, I recall Simon’s delight at his grandmother Zena Dare playing the part of Mrs. Higgins in the Drury Lane My Fair Lady; and Simon himself returning from taking part in a school play, his walk-on role requiring him to deliver bad news in the form of a letter to the King or some such. While waiting in the wings, he’d been drawing a cartoon figure, before entering to say his line on bended knee. Unfortunately going on stage he handed over the piece of paper the wrong way up: the performance ground to a halt.

The cartoon may have ended up as one of Simon's contributions to the Ampleforth News, which already showed a precocious talent. Sharing a room with him as I did, you could not escape being aware of his high seriousness. Teenage frivolity? Yes, but it knew its place.

Seeing so many works with Christian themes in his exhibition this afternoon, I asked Simon whether he was still a practising Catholic. No, was his reply, and I think he went on: “But I retain a Catholic spirit.” Seeing him I regretted not having my digital recorder, as Simon imparted much wisdom in the relatively brief time we had together.

And as if there wasn't enough to feast on in the Bankside Gallery, Michael and I walked on later to the Menier Gallery, round in Southwark Street, to see a fine exhibition of paintings by Simon’s wife: Juliet Wood, "Alone and Together - Brunel's People."

P.S. Simon's exhibition in modified form can be seen at Art Jericho, Oxford between 24th October and 10th November; and at The Holburne Museum, Bath between 16th November and 9th February 2014.

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