English and Drama blog

16 March 2022

Celebrating John Berger and the 50th anniversary of Ways of Seeing

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

John Berger was an art critic, writer, painter and poet. January 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of his seminal television series, Ways of Seeing, which he made for the BBC with TV producer Mike Dibb. The BBC recently marked the anniversary with a series of programmes on Radio 4 entitled ‘Viewfinders: Ways of Seeing at 50’ in which writers Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Tom Overton, Sinéad Gleeson and Melissa Chemam celebrated the original series and talk about looking at pictures.  

I was interested to hear about the Radio 4 series, as the Library is the home to John Berger’s archive, which was donated by Berger and his wife, Beverley, in 2009. The archive is one of the collections, which I look after as a member of the Contemporary Literary and Creative archives team and I have worked with it quite a bit over the years answering enquiries and selecting items for exhibition.

Image shows John and Beverley Berger with British Library curator, Jamie Andrews, at their home in France, when he collected the archive in 2009
With kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

The archive is large and consists of 379 files, boxes and books containing literary manuscripts, drafts, research notes and unpublished material, correspondence, press cuttings and professional papers. Although the archive contains some early examples of Berger’s graphic work, the majority of the archive is literary. The archive provides a fascinating insight into Berger’s life and work and particularly the collaborative way in which he worked and the international interest there was in what he created.

Unfortunately there is not a huge amount of material in the archive relating to Ways of Seeing aside from a file containing reviews of the series (and accompanying book) and a file relating to artwork used for different editions of the book that Berger created in collaboration with the graphic designer, Richard Hollis. Nevertheless I thought that the anniversary would be a wonderful opportunity to highlight the fact that the Library holds Berger’s archive. Anyone who is interested can find out more by searching the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue either by reference number (the reference for the Berger archive as a whole is Add MS 88964) or by keyword. This photograph is of one of several notebooks in the archive that contain research notes and drafts of A Painter of Our Time. I particularly like this one as it shows how Berger reworked his draft with blue annotations and corrections.

Image shows handwritten notebook of Painter of Our Time, written by John Berger and showing his detailed annotations
BL Add. MS 88964/1/6 Reproduced with kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

Everyone wishing to find out a bit more about the archive could also listen to Tom Overton’s programme as part of the Radio 4 series, which provides some lovely insights into his work cataloguing the Berger archive. The warmth of Berger’s personality is clear from Tom’s comments and although I never met Berger in person I also have fond memories of an encounter that I had with him.

One day in around 2012 I had a phone call from someone who introduced themselves as a friend of Tom’s who was trying to track him down. I explained that as a collaborative PhD student working at the Library Tom did not have a phone extension and that unfortunately he was not in on that day. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and then I said that I would be happy to pass on a message to Tom and ask him to return his friend’s call. When I asked the person’s name I was surprised to find that I was actually talking to John Berger himself. I have been lucky enough to meet and speak to many interesting people through my work but I have to say that I have not met that many celebrated writers who would introduce themselves as being a friend of the person cataloguing their archive! It has stuck with me ever since and reminded me that you never really know who you are speaking to on the phone until they introduce themselves.

See the Search Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (using Add MS 88964* as your search term) for further details.

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