THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

101 posts categorized "Interviews"

25 May 2020

Recording of the week: Account from a Norfolk lifeboatman

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.

Photograph of lifeboat station
Lifeboat station where Brian Pegg worked © J Gaiger / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.

Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.

Account from Norfolk lifeboatman (BL REF C900/11583)

Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.

This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Discover more sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

20 May 2020

Exploring the sounds and stories of Britain's shores

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Last week the British Library launched Coast, a new web space dedicated to sounds and stories from Britain's incredible coastline.

Covering everything from superstitions and working conditions to wildlife and entertainment, this collection brings together field recordings, interview excerpts and music from across the sound archive. Many of these recordings have been digitised as part of Unlocking our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project that will preserve and provide access to thousands of rare and unique sound recordings.

Without wanting to spoil the adventure, here are a few choice recordings to whet your appetite.

In May 2012 field recordist Peter Toll made this underwater recording of a rock pool. It includes the sounds of limpets, periwinkles and anenomes and lets us listen in to an otherwise silent world.

Rock pool ambience recorded on Bantham Beach, Devon, England (BL ref 212536)

Colour photograph of a rock pool(c) Avalon/ Contributor via Getty Images

All Aboard For Margate perfectly captures the excitement and popularity of visiting the British seaside in the first years of the 20th century. This version was performed by music hall star Florrie Forde,

All Aboard For Margate sung by Florrie Forde (BL ref 1CYL0001004)

Colour photograph of holidaymakers at the seaside(c) PhotoQuest / Contributor via Getty Images

The bright sounds of the amusement arcade is often one of the first things you'll hear when approaching the seafront. For me it's like a siren and very rarely am I able to resist its enticing call.

Better luck next time (uncatalogued)

Colour photograph of the inside of a seaside amusement arcade© Prisma by Dukas / Contributor via Getty Images

Fishermen are a superstitious bunch and are always on the look out for potential harbingers of misfortune. In this interview extract from The Listening Project, Wilfred Keys asks his friend Thomas Kyle about some of these superstitions.

Fishermens superstitions (BL ref C1500/416)

Black and white photograph of fisherman in a fishing boat(c) Image: Hulton Archive / Stringer via Getty Images

Seabird colonies are a seasonal highlight of the coastal calendar. This recording was made in 1986 by Chris Watson and is dominated by the raucous calls of nesting kittiwakes. 

Seabird colony at Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, England (BL ref 24697)

Guillemots at nesting colony© Education Images / Contributor via Getty Images

Sound is such an evocative medium. It has the power to transport us to a completely different time and place. And, at a time when so many of us are confined to our houses and local areas, being able to escape, even for just a few minutes, has never been more important. 

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

All Aboard For Margate: Public Domain; Sounds from a seaside amusement arcade: CC-By-NC; Fishermen’s superstitions: © BBC; Rock Pool: © Peter Toll; Seabird Colony: © Chris Watson.

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03 February 2020

Recording of the week: 'If Not, Not'

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This week’s selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World & Traditional Music.

Tapestry in entrance hall of British Library- If Not, Not

You may be familiar with the tapestry featured in this photograph if you visit the British Library every now and then. If its bright colours and mysterious symbolism haven't lured you in before, it’s a tapestry based on the painting If Not, Not (1975—1976), by the artist Ronald Brooks Kitaj RA (1932 – 2007), which hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. For me it has been a source of wonder and stimulus on countless wanders through the Library’s public areas, leaving me with many questions on what the man with the hearing aid in the lower left hand corner, the large, brick gatehouse in the upper left corner or the general atmosphere, which is both attractive and ghastly, might mean. It has felt like an endless source of ideas and stories when procrastinating away from my desk and it's led me to dig deeper and uncover more about R.B. Kitaj's life and remarkable work.

The tapestry rendition of If Not, Not was commissioned for the British Library by its architects MJ Long and Colin St. John Wilson, who were good friends of Kitaj’s. Kitaj painted their portrait The Architects, in August 1979, to celebrate the remodelling of his home by MJ Long. A book called Kitaj: The Architects, gathers diary entries and fragments of conversation from their sitting sessions.

The tapestry was woven on a bespoke loom at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio by the Edinburgh Weavers Company, it required 112 kilos of wool and 7000 hours to complete. Seven master weavers worked on different areas of the tapestry to create this impressive rendition measuring approximately 7 square metres. It was the largest tapestry to be woven in Britain in the 20th century. It was funded by the Arts Council of England Lottery Fund and others.

For Colin St. John Wilson, works of art were an integral part of the building’s design and not mere decoration: 'Tapestries and sculpture are absolutely part of the building, not afterthoughts or adornments to prettify it' (Independent). When the tapestry went on display in July 1997 (its original spot was on the opposite wall where the large exhibition poster currently hangs), its textural qualities not only contributed to the character of the space, serving as a contrast to the hard surfaces throughout the area, but also benefitted the space acoustically by absorbing the sound echoing and reflecting throughout the entrance hall.

In the following excerpt from a much longer interview, which is part of the National Life Story Collection: Architects' Lives, we can hear Colin St. John Wilson speak about some of the references woven into the tapestry's complex network of symbols. He also talks more broadly about the importance of visual imagery in public buildings and how the Library's readers might relate to the works on display.

Colin St. John Wilson on tapestry

This tapestry will be one of the many artworks featured in a series of site-specific tours which explore the Library’s public art collections through sound. Following David Toop's idea, as fleshed out in his book Sinister Resonance (2010), that it is possible to imagine a sound world within ‘mute things’, the tour guides have used sound recordings from the British Library Sound Archive to draw out or expand the stories within works by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, R.B. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi or Antony Gormley. You can find more information on how to book yourself on to a tour on the British Library’s event page.

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

27 January 2020

Recording of the week: Trude Levi and Holocaust liberation

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. The National Life Stories oral history project ‘Living Memory of the Jewish Community’ includes many Holocaust survivors describing their experience of Auschwitz and of liberation. In this recording of the week Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan looks at the testimony of Trude Levi.

Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.
Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.

Gertrude Levi (1924-2012) was born in Szombathely, Hungary, the daughter of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. Her parents were Jewish, irreligious, and socialist; her father, a gynaecologist, would perform abortions without payment at a time when this could land you in prison. Trude describes Szombathely as “the most antisemitic town in Hungary”, and when Hungary joined the Axis Powers in 1940 life became increasingly difficult for the Levi family. Then in March 1944, fearful that Hungary would abandon the war effort, the German army invaded Hungary.

Prior to 1944 Hungary had passed antisemitic laws, deported thousands of Jews, and been an active ally of the Third Reich, but it was after the German invasion that a concerted attempt was made to implement a ‘Final Solution’. In July, when Trude was twenty, she and her parents were forced into a ghetto, then to a local concentration camp and finally were placed onto a cattle truck and transported out of the country. On 7 July 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz; Trude was immediately separated from her parents and never saw them again.

When it became clear the Allies would win the war, the Nazi regime committed itself to ensuring as little evidence of the Holocaust remained as possible. Trude, like tens of thousands of others, was placed on a death march to Riesa, a town in Saxony, and around her the war effort collapsed:

“Anyway, I didn't, I think I didn't want to die by that time, I mean, the, not that I wanted to die before, but I didn't care. But by that time I, I decided that I really would like to survive, because, I mean, the Russians were here, the Americans were here, you heard them, you knew that it was the end, and you saw the Germans fretting, and so you knew it was the end, so now that was the point where you felt, "Well, there is no point in dying any more. And we won. So, one should remain alive. But I couldn't go on, I couldn't walk on in spite of it, and I knew that I would be shot, but they didn't shoot me, they said, "Dies keine Kugel mehr wert" - "She's not worth a bullet any more", and so they left me on the road, next to the bridge.”

After dragging herself away from the road, Trude managed to hide in a barn before she was liberated by Allied troops. In this recording of the week Trude explains some of complexities of liberation; she was adamant that she would not return to Hungary, but “somehow we were still in Germany”. Furthermore, even though she had escaped from German troops “I wasn’t yet sure whether it was really the end,” and although smoking a cigar “was freedom… I think the real freedom came when I arrived in France, when I felt that I was out of Germany”.

"Everything was still unsure, everything was chaotic”

Trude Levi’s story of liberation is different to other survivors of Auschwitz, but her sentiments are common. While liberation is often presented as a singular, joyful moment it was in reality a lot more complicated and harder to pin to one specific point in time. Trude’s oral history is just one way in which Holocaust survivors have been able to express these experiences in their own words, and even after her death her testimony remains.

Trude Levi was interviewed by Gaby Glassman for Living Memory of the Jewish Community in 1989, and she is featured on the online web resource ‘Voices of the Holocaust’. Her full life story interview can be found on sami.bl.uk, and can be listened to in Reading Rooms at the British Library in St. Pancras or Boston Spa.

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

23 December 2019

Recording of the week: Painting Winston Churchill

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This week's selection comes from Cathy Courtney, Project Director for Artists’ Lives, and Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Elsbeth Juda (1911-2014), was born in Germany. She and her husband Hans Juda (referred to as ‘Hansie’ in this audio extract) settled in England as the threat of Nazism grew in Europe. Elsbeth became a respected photographer, under the name ‘Jay’, mainly known for her fashion images, many of them taken for Ambassador magazine. She and Hans were at the centre of a closely knit group of international friends and her Artists’ Lives recording is full of lively glimpses of many of these figures. Among them are the painters Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Graham Sutherland (1903-1880).

At Lord Beverbrook’s suggestion Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint the portrait of Sir Winston Churchill in 1954, to celebrate the former prime minister’s 80th birthday. Churchill was by this time in poor health and Sutherland’s sittings with him at his home, Chartwell in Kent, were difficult. In desperation the artist asked Elsbeth Juda to accompany him on one occasion, to help cheer Churchill and also to photograph him so that Sutherland had reference material to use back in his studio. When the portrait was ready Sutherland took the precaution of inviting the art historian Kenneth Clark and Churchill’s wife, Clementine, to view it at his home, Trottiscliffe in Kent. Both visitors were happy with what they saw.

Winston Churchill
         British Government [Public domain]

The portrait was unveiled at Westminster Hall in front of a large audience. Churchill hated it and it was later destroyed by Clementine. Along with Juda’s photographs, her account in her Artists’ Lives recording is also of special value as evidence of a vanished work of art. Tantalisingly, her account tells how she and Hans tried to save the portrait by buying it themselves and for a short time it seemed they had rescued it. There are varying accounts of how the painting was destroyed and whether Clementine did it herself or asked an employee to carry out the act.

Juda refers to Churchill wearing a ‘zoot’ suit for his sittings. The National Portrait Gallery information clarifies this was a siren suit, a deluxe peacetime version of his war outfit. Also mentioned in the extract is the Churchill's London home at 28 Hyde Park Gate, where they were neighbours of the Judas.

Elsbeth Juda on Churchill

Elsbeth Juda was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2001-2003. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney. For more information about this recording see the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. This clip features on the British Library website Voices of art, as part of an article by Helena Cuss that explores the links between Artists’ Lives oral history recordings and the collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

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

21 October 2019

Recording of the week: turning down Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

In his life story recording the artist Michael Rothenstein related a remarkable story about an encounter between his teacher A. S. Hartrick and the artist Vincent van Gogh.

Michael Rothenstein (1908-1993) was a painter, printmaker, and teacher. He taught at Camberwell School of Art for many years and is known for using experimental printing techniques in the 1950s and 1960s. He was recorded for the National Life Stories project Artists' Lives in 1990. While Rothenstein was studying at Chelsea Polytechnic (now Chelsea School of Art) he was taught by several artists, including A. S. Hartrick (1864-1950).

Rothenstein had fond memories of his teacher, ‘Well, he was a delightful man. He seemed very much a human being to me, and he liked talking about his past, and he loved talking about van Gogh…’

In the late 1880s, A. S. Hartrick, a painter and talented draughtsman, was studying in Paris. He became friends with the artist Toulouse-Lautrec – who drew a portrait of Hartrick from memory in 1933 – and the painter Vincent van Gogh. One summer Hartrick had no need for his rented room and decided to offer it to van Gogh. In Rothenstein’s recording he describes how this place was ‘just the job for van Gogh’, as the room had a window overlooking the street and ‘he loved making notes of anything that excited him, you know, a woman carrying a bundle of faggots, or an old horse trotting down the street with sacks of coal, or whatever it was.’ Apparently when van Gogh felt inspired by something he had seen, he would begin to hiss… while reaching for something to draw with.

At that time, when reaching for something to draw with, van Gogh would have been likely to fish out a homemade wax crayon from his pocket ‘…he'd get hold of candle ends, and he'd melt them down in a metal spoon, and he liked to use either red, scarlet, or blue powder, and that gave him a big chunk of wax crayon that he carried in his pocket…’ Rothenstein puts this inventiveness down to van Gogh’s poverty: ‘He really did have no money, and he wanted to use big, big things to draw with…’

When presented with the newly whitewashed walls surrounding the window in Hartrick’s room, van Gogh apparently couldn’t resist filling this blank canvas with scenes from the street below. By the time Hartrick returned to Paris the walls of his room were completely covered in van Gogh’s drawings, created, of course, using candle wax.

Van Gogh, as a thank you to his friend (and one can assume, perhaps as an apology for the state of the walls) turned up with a selection of his canvases and offered one to Hartrick. This selection happened to include one of van Gogh’s paintings from his ‘Sunflowers’ series. However Hartrick ‘couldn’t stand his work’ and politely declined, later explaining to his student Rothenstein that ‘It would have been agony to me, to have to walk away, or hang up one of them, or to live with it.’ Hartrick encouraged van Gogh to ask his brother to sell the paintings, perhaps anticipating their value. Little did he know that in 1987 one of van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ paintings would sell for $39.85 million.

Michael Rothenstein on Hartrick and van Gogh (C466/02)

Vincent van Gogh's 'Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers', painted in 1888Vincent van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, 1888. Image courtesy National Gallery (NG3863)

Visit British Library Sounds to listen to Michael Rothenstein's  10-part life story recording which was conducted as part of Artists' Lives, an ongoing oral history project which documents the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics.

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

18 September 2019

Ernö Goldfinger at Open House 2019

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‘He was rational about absolutely everything, down to how you sharpened your pencil.’

British architects and architecture in Britain have long been affected by influences from overseas. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a traditional training was based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome and students spent hours painstakingly copying capitals and columns. Classical orders from the Encyclopedie, engravings of capitals and columns

Capitals and columns. Classical orders, engraving from the Encyclopédie vol. 18. 18th-century French engraving, 1761

By the early twentieth century, some architects responded to the technological changes occurring in infrastructure, communications and engineering. They argued that architecture should reflect these changes by using new forms and materials, and by mirroring how people lived in the present, rather than looking to the past. In this period, Britain experienced the arrival of a small but significant wave of European architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Serge Chermayeff from Russia, and Ernö Goldfinger from Hungary. These architects created some of the most important buildings of the modern movement in Britain: Highpoint in Highgate, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Willow Road in Hampstead. A small and inter-connected group, they knew each other and even lived in each other’s houses. Ernö Goldfinger lived in Highpoint in North London before creating his family home nearby at 2 Willow Road. This home, built in 1939, received much public criticism when built, but has now become a local landmark and was opened to the public in 1996. Iris Strachan remembers her first visit to the house, ‘it was a revelation!’

Iris Strachan describes 2 Willow Road (C467/60)

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

Later, after the Second World War, Goldfinger designed larger residential blocks in London, notably the Trellick and Balfron Towers, both of which are open as part of Open House 2019. Often fiercely criticised when built, Goldfinger’s works are now increasingly in demand both as homes and visitor attractions. Here, long-time collaborator Jacob Blacker recalls working with Goldfinger, ‘he was a geometrician’.

Jacob Blacker describes Goldfinger as a geometrician (C467/52)

Trellick Tower. Photographed by Mark Ramsay.

Trellick Tower. Photographed courtesy Mark Ramsay. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Open House London takes place this weekend, 21-22 September 2019. Hundreds of buildings will be open to the public for free – including five designed by Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987). For information about visiting 2 Willow Road see the National Trust website. For information about visiting Trellick Tower see the Open House London website.

Blog by Dr Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer

09 September 2019

Recording of the week: representing Britain at the Venice Biennale

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Every two years since 1895 the Venice Biennale has been bringing together artists from across the globe to take part in an almighty exhibition. This year is the 58th exhibition, and 89 countries are taking part. For our Recording of the Week we’re returning to 1956, when Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) won the International Prize for Sculpture.

Chadwick was described as the ‘breakthrough artist’ when he first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and in 1956, Alan Bowness described him as ‘a figure of international artistic importance’.[1]

Lynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at his home in GloucestershireLynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at home in Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire, where his Artists' Lives recording took place. Courtesy Cathy Courtney.

Despite being awarded such a prestigious prize, when asked about the Biennale Chadwick’s response is humble. Clearly delighted for his work to be exhibited internationally, he remembers how it felt to be the centre of attention.

Lynn Chadwick on the Venice Biennale and the life of an artist (C466/28)

The second half of this audio extract comes from a different part of Chadwick’s interview – and reveals a different side to the life of an artist. Chadwick recalls a conversation shared with German surrealist Max Ernst, and reflects on how artists fall in and out of fashion.

Lynn Chadwick CBE RA was interviewed for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in 1995. Despite his wish to go to art school, which was refused by his parents, Chadwick began his working life in an architect’s office through a placement organised by his school headmaster. He trained to be an architectural draughtsman before realising that he would not succeed as an architect, and after the war moved to a small cottage in Gloucestershire where he began experimenting with mobiles (partly inspired by the work of fellow artist Alexander Calder). Gradually Chadwick’s work became more fixed as he developed his own techniques for working with metal, and is he known today for his distinctive sculptures in bronze and steel.

These clips and image are taken from Michael Bird’s essay, ‘Opening up to international influences: British art in the 20th century’ on the website Voices of art.

[1] UK Artists at the Venice Biennale in the 1950s. British Council.

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