Sound and vision blog

110 posts categorized "Oral history"

20 July 2017

In among the bruisers: a year of Artists’ Lives

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National Life Stories co-ordinates the annual Goodison Fellowship which encourages the dissemination of the our oral history collections in the public sphere, such as in print, broadcast and new media.

In this article from the National Life Stories Annual Review 2016-2017, Michael Bird, one of the recipients of the 2016 Goodison Fellowship, reflects on his research for his book and the experience of guest curating the exhibition In Their Own Words: Artists’ Voices from the Ingram Collection (at the Lightbox in Woking until 30 July 2017).


Photograph courtesy of the Lightbox

‘I suppose,’ Sandra Blow sighed, when I showed her the first layouts of the book I’d written about her – a book, I fondly imagined, that we had in a sense created together – ‘there do have to be words between the pictures.’ Blow’s late friend Roger Hilton was more uncompromising, insisting that ‘Words and paintings don’t go together.’ Bad news for a writer on art.

But think again about Hilton’s testy aphorism. Art, like poetry, is often a business of putting together things that don’t obviously or usually fit – or, in Wordsworth’s phrase, the ‘observation of affinities /In objects where no brotherhood exists / To passive minds’. This is probably why I like the way that artists – as distinct from, say, politicians or academics – talk. About art, yes, but just as often about ordinary things, noticing ‘affinities’ in mundane situations that even very perceptive non-artists tend not to pick up.

The 2016 Goodison Fellowship was a licence to indulge this tendency. I had previously used a few Artists’ Lives recordings in research for four books. Now I ranged at will, sampling and pursuing, following threads and taking detours through (at the last count) more than fifty interviews – still just a fraction of the total. The aim was to gather audio material for an exhibition at The Lightbox, Woking, drawn from the Ingram Collection (which will take place this summer), and a book, a ‘history from below’ of post-war art in Britain.

What did I find? Relatively little factual art historical information that could not be found in more cogent and accurate form in books and paper archives. A lot about childhood, families, relationships – all kinds of life experiences that you can have full-blast, full-depth, without having been to art school or put on an exhibition. These are the common currency of oral history. The difference with Artists’ Lives is that the texture of the times – the experience of working with and living among particular objects and materials, existing within certain spaces and social relationships – is simultaneously animated by ideas. To hear an eel fisherman recall setting traps on the Somerset Levels is not unlike listening to Bernard Meadows explain lost-wax lead casting – a physical process at once practical and arcane – except that, for the artist, the object and the idea it began from or is somehow working towards are both present in the telling.

I was listening last week to Cathy Courtney interviewing Derrick Greaves (C466/83) , after recently having interviewed Ernst Gombrich for Artists’ Lives. What did Greaves think, she asked, about Gombrich’s curious lack of interest in seeing what went on in artists’ studios? He struck her, in fact, as ‘quite terrified of the idea of watching the artist doing anything’.

The rough world of the artist's studio

‘Well,’ said Greaves, ‘I would in no way wish to put Gombrich down’; but ‘it’s different for painters.’

You see, I think painters are rougher than that. They’re more … they’re bruisers, compared to most critics. And their, their impulse, their starting point, is in life, I think, most painters. And the work of the studio is also a rougher world – it’s a rough and tough world where it’s – you’re engaged with the most difficult thing, to translate that thing that attracts you, moves you in a life situation, with all its rough edges and all its subjectivity – to translate that and refine it in the studio, in your own terms so that it … it … holds that vital ingredient of the liveliness that you’ve been excited by in real life.

Visitors to The Lightbox this summer can listen to Greaves saying this while they look at his Portrait of Margaret; to Ralph Brown recalling his attempt, aged eight, to carve a snowman in the shape of a naked lady; to Rosemary Young reliving her terror of the nanny that she and Reg Butler employed for their children – and to forty other extracts from Artists’ Lives accompanying work by those artists. The artist probably won’t be explaining the work you’re actually looking at (as a curator or audio-guide voiceover would do), but their voice and the life-moment it conveys will put them in the room beside you. That’s the idea, anyway.

IMG_2348Photograph courtesy of the Lightbox

And the book? The oral history of art goes back at least as far as Vasari, whose tales of artists often begin ‘I have heard say …’. Modern art history, however, even popular history such as Gombrich’s Story of Art, is almost never ‘history from below’, informed primarily by the subject’s own sense of what constitutes their life and work. Is such a history even possible for modern art? I’m finding out. There are times when, listening to Artists’ Lives recordings, you have the sense of standing on a very specific historical stage: Terry Frost, for example, on his first paintings in POW camp in Germany, or Mary Kelly on the Women’s Movement in early 1970s’ London. But what comes across more consistently and variously is the changing texture of the times through which artists’ lives move and which, in their recollections, is not merely background or context but the air art breathes.


17 July 2017

Recording of the Week: a princess cannot eat stew

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This week's selection comes from Niamh Dillon, National Life Stories Project Interviewer.

Prue Leith is well known to television viewers of the Great British Menu. She started her career as a chef and restaurateur in London. In this extract from a longer recording with Niamh Dillon for Food: From Source to Salespoint, recorded in 2008, she recalls a surprise visit from Princess Margaret. Her request for pheasant stew caused considerable consternation in the kitchen resulting in a fire, a singed jacket and a spilt pot of coffee. If only VIP's knew what happens behind the scenes!

Prue Leith and Princess Margaret C821/202

Prue press pics Paul Tozer 001Prue Leith (courtesy Paul Tozier)

The full interview with Prue Leith can be found in Food, an online collection of oral history recordings that chart the extraordinary changes which transformed the production, manufacture and consumption of food in 20th-century Britain.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.


10 July 2017

Recording of the week: choosing dreadlocks

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This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Mother and daughter, Jan and Ama, talk about why they both have dreadlocks. This is the first time they have told each other their reasons for choosing to wear their hair in this way and their motivations are quite different, though Jan’s hair definitely inspired Ama’s choice and they both really like the way that dreadlocks look and feel. They discuss how other people react to their hair and how this makes them feel as well as how their hair connects with their self-identity, their appearance and their blackness. Later in the conversation they talk about how fighting for racial and gender equality has evolved over time and is different for their respective generations, how their hair is part of being active in those fights and how choosing dreadlocks is a way of defining their own idea of beauty.

The Listening Project_Choosing dreadlocks

Jan and Ama

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Jan and Ama can be found here.

Follow @CollectingSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

06 July 2017

Remembering Piper Alpha

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On 6 July 1988 a massive explosion on the Piper Alpha North Sea oil rig killed 167 people. The oral history project Lives in the Oil Industry records the experiences of those who survived the disaster, and how it affected their lives.

Lives in the Oil Industry was a collaborative project between National Life Stories and the University of Aberdeen, where Hugo Manson recorded 177 interviews between 2000 and 2005. The project documents accounts from men and women representing all sectors of the industry – management, offshore workers, technical professionals and specialists and personnel from government and regulatory bodies – and also from the local communities whose stories are so entwined with the rigs that sit nearest to their shores. Together these voices record the major changes which have occurred in the UK oil and gas industry in the twentieth century, focusing particularly on North Sea exploration. Along with intrepid bravery displayed by the deep sea divers and engineers, the collection captures testimony from the voices of those workers, such as caterers and cleaners, who perform routine yet essential tasks that ensure the smooth running of oil rigs. Many of the interviews are available in the British Library Reading Rooms.

 Oil-rig-workersOil rig workers, no date

As the worst offshore oil accident in the history of the industry, it is unsurprising that the Piper Alpha disaster features prominently in the collection. The collection features – amongst others – the powerful testimony of Bob Ballantyne (1942–2004, C963/53) who survived and vividly recalls how it felt to be alone in the water amongst the inferno:

Bob Ballantyne

“I was afraid. I was terrified. And I thought ‘oh no, I cannae’. And I thought this was a bad dream that somehow, this was a nightmare. That somehow someone was going to turn this off. And I was gonnae wake up and back in the cabin and I was somewhere else. And it never happened. And also I had never been in the North Sea so far away from land. And I looked up at the size of this platform and it was absolutely huge; it was the biggest structure that I had ever seen in my life from that angle. And the noise was terrible and there were bangs, explosions, there were things clattering down and there were things falling off the platform. One of the seamen had told me that he could actually hear me above them. I was shouting, ‘You bastards come in and get me.’ And I never realised that anybody could hear me. But he said, ‘We heard somebody shouting’. And I told him it was me who was shouting for them to come in, because I wasn’t going to leave the platform, although I had the lifejacket on and was in the water. And I must say that because of the intense heat I was throwing the water over myself to cool down and the water wisnae cold. And I was burning up as well with it. And Iain Letham was the Coxswain on the Zodiac [rigid inflatable rescue craft] that had come in to pick [people] up and then it [the Zodiac rescue craft] blew up and Iain was the only survivor. And Iain floated by me with his lifejacket and hat on. And I pulled him in beside me – and it wisnae a rescue or anything like that, it wisnae any hero thing. It was just, I just wanted someone to talk to, or somebody to be with me, that I wouldn’t be by myself. That there’s another human being here.”

The testimony of Alan Swinton (1926–2004, C963/134), Chaplain at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary at the time of the disaster, is equally compelling as it gives a different viewpoint on this harrowing day:

“What was your first notion that something was wrong?

“I lived across from the helicopter pad. …I was in bed. The helicopter came in and then another came in one and then another one came in. And I said to my wife, ‘I’ll be needed’, so I got up and got dressed. And interestingly, which was a bit unusual, I put on my clerical collar which identified me as the chaplain. The telephone rang, ‘Mr Swinton there has been a major civil accident and you’re needed.’ I said, ‘I’m on my way, I’ll be five minutes.’

“What time was that?

“Three something. 3.40 [in the morning]… I went up to the chapel. There were two women standing there… Now you must remember I knew nothing at all about what was happening. They expected me, of course, to have some information… I had none whatsoever… Two relatives became four, became six became ten, became twenty and suddenly the place was filled with people... So the relatives who were within let’s say 100 miles of Aberdeen, decided the best thing to do was to go to Aberdeen, so Aberdeen soon became a focus for people from all over the place… And the numbers of people who were now under the ‘so-called’ care of the chaplain were now at forty, fifty, sixty, but they were coming in asking questions… I became a kind of shuttle, because I knew my way around quickly around the hospital and how get to various bits quickly. Most of the admissions who were injured had burns, so the burns unit was cleared to receive causalities... Their injuries were horrendous…

“The first list of survivors was not given to me until 11am on the 7th [July] and I pinned it up outside the chapel. That caused some hurt because of course it was a first list, it was a limited list. I remember one man from Kilmarnock coming up to the list and looking down the list and taking out his handkerchief and wiping his eyes and reading down the list again and I remember going up to him and putting my arm around him and saying, ‘He’s not there is he?’ and he said, ‘No’... Much of the rest of the time was waiting, waiting for another helicopter, trying to get the names from the helicopters. Every time a helicopter came in, everybody rushed to the window… Then word came, no more helicopters… I called everybody into the chapel and I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have to say to you that there are no more helicopters.’ There was a kind of stunned silence. And then groups starting forming. Crying, crying, numb. ‘What do we do now?’”

This post by Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator, is the first of a series marking the thirtieth anniversary of National Life Stories (NLS) in 2017.

05 July 2017

Artists’ Lives & Chelsea College of Arts: An Audio Exhibition

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In a special collaboration between National Life Stories and Chelsea College of Arts, a group of MA Curating and Collections students have curated an exhibition featuring edited sound clips from the Artists’ Lives collection of recordings. The exhibition is divided into three zones, and this blogpost presents an outline of each section. This exhibition has been generously supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

The fourth floor studio in Chelsea School of Art at Manresa Road, “Untitled” photograph, undated, Chelsea College of Arts Library, University of the Arts London

The first section contains interviews with former students and teachers at Chelsea, who provide an introduction to the history of the school. Jock McFadyen describes the architecture of the Manresa Road campus and the different art movements represented in the studios, such as Pop Art and Systems Art. David Nash and Flavia Irwin address the curriculum and learning experience, including lecture series with artists such as Claes Oldenburg, classes in the Life Room and the Fine Art programme schedule. Anthony Fry talks about teaching painting in art schools, and Bernard Meadows highlights Henry Moore’s tenure at Chelsea and his working process of creating sculptures. Finally, Barbara Steveni introduces a paper she wrote during her teaching stint at Chelsea, which led to the development of the Artist Placement Group with John Latham - addressing where artists would go once they graduated from art school. Photos showing images of the exteriors and interiors of the building, such as the studio departments and galleries, are presented in this section as well.

Image 2_Chelsea School of ArtChelsea School of Art Elevated Front and Side View, photographer unknown, undated © Donald Smith

In the second section, the friendship between John Hoyland and Patrick Caulfield is explored in the form of two interviews. Hoyland’s recording begins with a reading of the address that he gave at Caulfield’s funeral, and goes on to honour in greater detail his friend’s life and work. This is a composite clip edited together from the recording of John Hoyland (1934-2011) interviewed by Mel Gooding, 2005-2007, National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives, C466/205 © British Library Board. You can listen to the full tracks at British Library Sounds: Tape 4 side B/track 8, Tape 6 side B/track 12, Tape 11 side A/track 20, Tape 11 side B/track 21.

John Hoyland

Caulfield in his interview discusses his first encounter with Hoyland, as well as his own teaching experiences. This is a composite clip edited together from the recording of Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) interviewed by Andrew Lambirth, 1996-1998, National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives, C466/64 © British Library Board. You can listen to the full tracks at British Library Sounds: Part 6, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14. Both recordings also provide reflections on Chelsea at the time they were both teaching. 

Patrick Caulfield

Finally, the last section features five excerpts from an interview with Clive Phillpot, exploring his eight-year tenure as librarian at Chelsea and his acquisitions of Artists’ Books. These recordings also reference his colleagues such as Frederick Brill, Anthony Hill, Norbert Lynton and Edward Wright who inspired and supported Clive Phillpot to produce critical reviews in magazines and exhibition catalogues. Phillpot’s influence on the development of artists’ books is reflected in two recordings by Jock McFadyen, a former student of Chelsea, and artist Telfer Stokes. Accompanying the recordings is a vitrine containing Telfer Stokes’ first book, ‘Passage’, published in 1972. Clive Phillpot wrote a review of the book in a monthly column of Studio International magazine in 1973. A series of black and white photographs documenting individuals in Chelsea, taken by Dick Hart in the early ‘70s, is also presented.

Image 3_'Passage'‘Passage’ and the review on Studio International, photographer: Yuen Yu Ho, 29 June 2017

Material from the exhibition comes from: the Artists’ Lives section of National Life Stories courtesy of the British Library, the Special Collections section of the Chelsea College of Arts Library courtesy of Gustavo Grandal Montero, and archival images courtesy of Donald Smith.

Special thanks to Cathy Courtney, Mary Stewart, Gustavo Grandal Montero, Donald Smith, Cherie Silver for their assistance in making this exhibition possible. This exhibition is generously supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

The curators would like to thank the late Patrick Caulfield, the late Anthony Fry, the late John Hoyland, the late Flavia Irwin, Jock McFadyen, the late Bernard Meadows, David Nash, Clive Phillpot, Barbara Steveni and Telfer Stokes for sharing their experiences through the Artists’ Lives project. Listen online to these recordings at British Library Sounds.

The exhibition runs from 29 June to 28 July 2017, and is installed at Chelsea Landing, E-Block (first floor), Chelsea College of Arts, 16 John Islip Street, Westminster, London SW1P 4JU. It is curated by Yuen Yu Ho, Georgia Keeling, Deborah Lim and Xiaodeng Zhou.

29 June 2017

Dr Sally Horrocks wins Research Impact Award

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We are delighted to announce that Dr Sally Horrocks has been jointly awarded the University of Leicester’s Research Impact Award for Best Public Engagement for her role as senior academic advisor on the National Life Stories projects An Oral History of British Science (OHBS) and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK (OHESI).


Dr Sally Horrocks receives the award from Samira Ahmed (image copyright University of Leicester, created by Osborne Hollis Photography)

Dr Horrocks, a Lecturer in Modern British History, has helped to shape these projects, enabling OHBS to collect 114 audio interviews along with 33 interviews on science and religion and 19 video interviews shot on location. Comprising over 1,200 hours of material, this is the largest collection of life story interviews with scientists in Europe. Over 90 of the interviews can be listened to in full online at British Library Sounds.

OHESI comprises 56 audio interviews, video interviews at 3 locations and over 530 hours of material. It is the only major collection dedicated to the industry worldwide. Over 40 of the interviews can be listened to in full online at British Library Sounds.

Together these recordings are a unique addition to the national collection and represent a significant cultural asset, now and in the future.


Dr Sally Horrocks and Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer (image copyright University of Leicester, created by Osborne Hollis Photography)

You can find out more about the British Library’s oral histories of science and industry at our online collection guides, and you can play audio and video clips from an Oral History of British Science at the Voices of Science website.

Dr Emma Parker, Associate Professor of Post War and Contemporary Literature, shared the award for her work on the Joe Orton 50 Years On project.

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

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23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

19 June 2017

Recording of the week: language and identity

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

This short exchange during a conversation between two young females talking about life and relationships offers a fascinating glimpse into how our linguistic choices reflect our identity. One of the speakers, a British Muslim, uses the phrase bringing home the bacon which instantly sparks off giggles as, culturally and linguistically, it somehow encapsulates her reflections on her joint British and Muslim identity. The phrase she chooses could not be more quintessentially English - the first citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1924 PG Wodehouse novel, Ukridge.

Bringing home the bacon

021I-C1500X0088XX-0001A0Photograph of participants

This extract is taken from the Listening Project - a collection of over 1000 conversations contributed by members of the public on a variety of topics of their own choosing. Listen to the full conversation between Afshan and Olivia here

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