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189 posts categorized "Oral history"

10 June 2019

Recording of the week: Loss of a world and a need to capture it

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

Someone asked Goha what was his favourite music and he replied, ‘The clanging of pots and pans and the tinkling of glasses’ (Middle Eastern Food, p.520)

In 2018 Gaby’s Deli closed after 50 years on Charing Cross Road. A popular haunt of both theatre goers and Central London protestors, it’s also where the proprietor Gaby Elyahou claims (although who can really prove such a thing) to have introduced falafel to London. Gaby’s opened in 1965 and three years later, cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden published her first masterpiece A Book of Middle Eastern Food, updated two years later with A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. While Gaby’s was pretty successful in selling falafel, Roden is the first to admit that Middle Eastern cuisine in general did not go down too well in the UK. In the clip selected for this blog she remarks on how “in those days I wasn’t thinking of the English, because at that time the English were not interested at all” and how the general consensus was it might all be “eyeballs and testicles”. Obviously things are different today, but this does raise the question of who Roden was writing for instead.

IMG_20190122_082706126My mum's copy of Mediterranean Cookery, my housemate's copy of A New Book of Middle Eastern Food and a teapot.

Claudia Roden was born in 1936 to a Jewish Egyptian family. In 1951 she left Cairo for France and then the UK to study art, but after the Suez Crisis of 1956 her family, like many other Egyptian Jews who were expelled or fled, joined her to settle in London. It’s there that Roden began, as a form of historical preservation, to collect recipes, and in this recording she gives her poignant reasons for doing so; “loss of a world, loss of a heritage and a need to capture it”.

Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern cuisine (C821/47)

Roden began with “ourselves, my family” and moved on to “others who had come from Syria, or had come from Turkey”, eventually culminating in A New Book which is described in the introduction as a “joint creation of numerous Middle Easterners who, like me, are in exile”. But wherever the recipes came from and whatever stories they told, Roden was adamant that they “have to be written down, have to be made a record of”. With that in mind it’s apt that we come full circle to this Recording of the Week, itself, taken from an eleven hour oral history interview recorded by Polly Russell for the National Life Stories project ‘Food: From Source to Salespoint’. Because if books are one way of preserving history then recordings are another, and both are underpinned by the same principles of heritage. Interviews too are a “joint creation” and, in the domain of oral history, “loss of a world, loss of a heritage and a need to capture it” remains central.

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

05 June 2019

Stuart Franklin remembers photographing Tank Man in Tiananmen Square

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30 years ago this week the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China ended when the People’s Liberation Army fired on the student-led demonstrators. While the protests of 1989 took place across the whole of mainland China, it is the events in Beijing that dominated international coverage. The iconic photo of ‘Tank Man’ has come to stand as the defining image of the movement.

Tankman_new_longshot_StuartFranklin

Wide shot of Tank Man by Stuart Franklin (Source: Wikipedia)

In this classic photograph an unknown man holds two shopping bags and stands alone against a line of tanks. Captured by five different photographers, the most widely republished version was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos. Stuart was interviewed by Shirley Read for an Oral History of British Photography in 2000 and he described how he took the photograph and how he got it out of China:

"So I hid the film in a box of tea" (C459/129/12)

In the interview Stuart considers what makes his photo of Tank Man different from the other four that were taken. Unlike the others, his shot includes smoke coming out of the fourth tank indicating it was about to move and adds “tension” to the image. Surprisingly, and despite the impact and longevity of the photograph, Stuart describes it as “feeble” and “pathetic” compared to Josef Koudelka’s photographs of Prague in 1968:

"It wasn't a very satisfying image to be taking" (C459/129/12)

Although Stuart is critical of his own photo he recognises its impact and discusses why it became so iconic:

"... a symbolic edge that it wouldn't otherwise have had" (C459/129/12)

Stuart speaks eloquently about how an image is defined as much by its dissemination as by its quality. So while he thinks he took better photographs of the protests, including those outside of Beijing, he is aware that they will never have the importance of Tank Man.

The identity of the protester himself has never been discovered, nor is it known what happened to him after the photo was taken. Yet through photographs such as Stuart’s he is as emblematic of the protests now as he was 30 years ago.

The complete interview with Stuart Franklin can be listened to online by those in Higher and Further Education institutions. For more information on an Oral History of British Photography see the collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.

23 May 2019

One of the very first MEPs: Joyce Quin, Baroness Quin, remembers the early days of the European Parliament

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Photo # 1MEPs their vote in the ballot box on 17 September 1979 in Strasbourg. This election would reveal Simone VEIL as the new directly elected President of the European Parliament. Credit: European Parliament

Today, despite the Government’s best intentions, Britons vote again in the European elections, nearly 40 years since the first cohort of MEPs was elected in June 1979.

Joyce Quin, now a member of the House of Lords and former MP for Gateshead (1987-97), was one of the 410 MEPs elected in 1979. She served as an MEP for ten years, and in her 2014 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project, she describes how she came to be selected as a Labour MEP candidate.

“Well, that was a very chancy thing in a way. About the time of the European elections, because I was lecturing on European policy and I was a member of the Labour Party, and also through my mother I still had links with where I grew up near Tynemouth in Witley Bay, I got asked to speak to a newly formed Fabian Society, the North Tyneside Fabian Society, about the European elections which I did and we had a nice meeting.

Then a couple of weeks later the secretary rang me up and said they had realised that they could nominate someone on the selection process for their local [European] constituency, because it was a constituency system in those days, which was called Tyne South and Wear.

And she said that the members would like to nominate me and I thought about it, and even though I was thinking that I would probably stay in the academic world, obviously it was a very interesting offer and I thought I’d really be interested in doing that, so I said yes while realising it was the first rung on an extremely long ladder.” [C1503/61 Track 1, 00:11:32 - 00:12:52]

Quin goes on to explain the backdrop to her selection process, aspects of which are as true today as they were 40 years ago.

“The trade unions were less organised for that European election than for any other selection I’ve ever come across because it came across people at the last minute, the Labour Party wasn’t certain whether they wanted to fight the European elections, there was a lot of pro- and anti -Europeanism, I mean it was quite a troublesome issue in the Labour Party at that time. … There were no women MPs in the north-east at all at the time and it was just the beginning of the rumblings of discontent about this in the Labour Party in particular and therefore a lot of the women’s organisations in the Labour Party looked at me with some interest.” [C1503/61 Track 1, 00:14:28 – 00:15:22]

Once elected, Quin was part of a new project in which fellow MEPs “were thrilled to be creating something so different and democratic and hopeful.” In this clip, she describes the idealism that permeated the atmosphere during the early days of the new institution.

Joyce Quin on the European Parliament (C1503/61) [00:16:14 - 00:18:37]

For the candidates of 2019, the atmosphere that awaits those that are elected as MEPs could not be more different.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.

You can listen to the complete interview with Joyce Quin at British Library Sounds.

10 May 2019

Hearing the Dead – Florence Nightingale’s voice

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Sunday 12th May sees the 199th birthday of Florence Nightingale. To celebrate, Mike Esbester and Natalie Pithers share their experiences of exploring history with children, with particular reference to Florence's story.

How do children find out about the past? A challenging but crucial question for school teachers, the British Library, historians, genealogists and indeed anyone with a feel for history. Particularly for younger children, the nuances of historians’ interpretations and different theoretical approaches are difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. Instead, we make history more tangible by looking at the people and events of the past: from the everyday woman or man in the street, to ‘great lives’ and exceptional moments.

In some schools at the moment, children in Year One are looking at Mary Seacole, Edith Cavell and Florence Nightingale. A chance comment from the British Library’s Oral History Curator, Mary Stewart, alerted professional genealogist Natalie Pithers and academic historian Mike Esbester to the British Library’s sound recording of Florence Nightingale – and offered a great opportunity to make use of this and other sources with some Year One children in different settings.

Florence-Nightingale
Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering, copied by Elliott & Fry, half-plate glass copy negative, 1950s (late 1856-1857) NPG x82368, © National Portrait Gallery, London. License CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 

C1693/1 Recording of Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910 

History at home – Natalie’s experience

Last term, the ‘Florence Nightingale and Bravery’ topic captivated my bubbly 5-year old. She’d been enthusiastic about Florence since the first day of term, when she walked home from school eagerly recounting how the class had been given an ancient battered suitcase. The case was full of medicine and bandages, but best of all it contained ‘a dead rat’ and ‘Miss had no idea how it got there!’ It’s not hard to imagine the joy I felt at hearing my own passion for history echoed back at me by my daughter.

As a genealogist I wanted to share some of my professional life with my daughter, and this topic was ideal. We snuggled on the sofa surrounded by paper printouts, starting with Florence’s Christening record. My daughter saw the writing: ‘it was really bad in the olden days, wasn’t it Mum?’ She was captivated by the idea that this person ‘in history’ had parents, and a Nanny and Grandad – just like her.

We checked other records – the censuses. With a magnifying glass to ‘look for clues’, we cross-referenced across sources to find out when Florence was born and the names of her parents. What about Florence’s place of birth? She shouted excitedly, ‘It’s Italy!’

Next, newspaper reports on Florence’s death. My daughter bounced on the sofa as we ‘discovered’ poems and romanticised illustrations of the ‘lady of the lamp.’ For comparison we looked for articles on Mary Seacole’s death. There were no pictures and reports were scant. My daughter nodded knowingly: ‘it’s because she was poor.’ I let her draw her own conclusions.

Lastly, we found Florence’s voice at the British Library Oral History. Ears angled at the laptop speakers, we listened to the crackly tones of someone who died over 100 years ago, bringing alive in a different way someone so far only experienced on paper. I might just have good old Florence to thank, not only for so much of modern nursing, but for my child’s budding love for history.

Florenceletter1-tl small
Example of a letter from the British Library collections: Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick (Shelfmark: MS 45814)

History at school – Mike’s experience

Once I’d found out about the Florence Nightingale recording, I wanted to use it in a session I’d volunteered to give at Botley Primary School in Oxford. I hoped it would surprise the Year One children to hear the voice of one of the long-dead women they were finding out about that term, as well as produce a greater connection with the past.

We started by discussing what sources we might use to find out about the past, including looking at paintings and photographs of the Crimean War and thinking about what they might tell us. We had a look at one of Florence Nightingale’s letters, available from the British Library: it gave a personal insight into the conditions, as well as reassuring the children that grown-up ‘scribbly’ handwriting was nothing new! Importantly, we used it to question the idea that Nightingale was unproblematically virtuous – the children loved the rudeness of her comments about ‘drunken old dames’.

They were really keen to hear Nightingale’s voice – and whilst it was difficult to make out (unsurprising, giving the recording technology of the 1890s), they were excited. We talked about why the recording was made and the need to support war veterans before the modern welfare state.

I also took in a family possession – an 1855 jug sold to raise money for the Royal Patriotic Fund, a charity established in 1854 to support soldiers’ dependents. That the children could see something in front of them from the same time as Nightingale helped make that connection and they responded very strongly to the jug and the images it showed.

I was impressed with the projects the children had already been putting together, and the keenness with which they greeted the items we explored – their teachers have been doing great work with this generation of future historians!

1855 jug  1  low res
An item owned by Mike's family: 1855 jug sold to raise money for the Royal Patriotic Fund

History in mind?

This curriculum topic was a great opportunity to introduce children not only to particular episodes in the past but also the method and process of historical research. At home and school we were able to think about the figures that are popularly remembered from the past, the ‘great lives’, and those who haven’t been remembered – those ‘old dames’ Nightingale bemoaned as well as individual soldiers and others from all sides of the conflict. This level of abstraction wouldn’t work well with the children, so the primary sources allowed us to get to grips with the bigger questions – and for that, the British Library’s collections, oral history and manuscript, were a great help. It was also important that this wasn’t simply a discussion about the past, but opened up conversations about gender stereotypes and what women and men were and weren’t allowed to do – and how that has changed today.

Blogpost by Mike Esbester and Natalie Pithers

Biographies

Natalie Pithers is a professional genealogist, driven by a long-standing interest in her own family history and a desire to help others find out about their pasts. She offers her professional services as Genealogy Stories, helping people link family history with wider social contexts of the time; at the same time, her website is a means of sharing her own research and general tips to help people. She tweets as @geneastories.

Mike Esbester is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth. Taking history out of the University and into other settings, like schools, is an important and fun part of the History team’s work. The team tweet as @UoP_History and run an active blog. Mike researches and teaches on a variety of topics relating to 19th and 20th century Britain, including the history of accidents, safety and risk. He co-leads the collaborative ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project, looking at accidents to British and Irish railway workers from the later 19th century to 1939, and tweets as @RWLDproject.

Natalie, Mike and Mary Stewart are currently working together, with a number of others, on an initiative to bring together historical researchers – archivists, academics, local historians, family historians, genealogists and more – to share expertise and to promote better cooperation. The Oral History Society is supporting this initiative. This collaborative effort is going under the banner ‘Historians Collaborate’ – for those on Twitter, look for (and please use!) #HistoriansCollaborate.

01 May 2019

The Duke of Wellington

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Sir_Arthur_Wellesley _1st_Duke_of_WellingtonSir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Thomas Lawrence

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Two hundred and fifty years ago today, Arthur Wellesley, Field Marshall His Grace the Duke of Wellington, was born in Dublin.  Most famous for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo where he defeated Napoleon in 1815, he was also Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Lords three times and Prime Minister twice while upon his death he was still Commander-in-chief of the British Army.

Wellington_at_Waterloo_HillingfordWellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Born in 1769, when he died at the age of eighty-three in 1852, Wellington was given a state funeral, a rare honour also accorded Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson, Palmerston, Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill.  It is amazing to think that we can hear the voice of someone who attended the funeral of this great man born two and a half centuries ago. 

TicketTicket to the funeral (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

Frederick Mead was ninety-two years old when he recorded his memories of the occasion in 1940.  He can only have been four or five years of age at the time and is obviously reading from a prepared script, but we are hearing the voice of an eye-witness which creates a living connection to the event.  Mead describes queuing with his brother to see the lying in state at Chelsea Hospital and his uncle withdrawing them as he saw no hope of attaining their purpose with such a large crowd.  In this extract, he goes on to describe the funeral including a reference to the Thames Embankment which at that time did not exist.

This recording comes from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Frederick Mead 1940

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

29 April 2019

Recording of the week: George Ewart Evans and The Barley Mow

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

The Barley Mow is a classic end of the night folk song; funny enough to leave you in a good mood, adaptable enough to please the crowd, and it’s about drinking so normally has the pub on your side. It’s also tricky enough to show off the singer’s chops and frankly I’m always impressed that someone can remember every measure to congratulate, from the gallon right down to the gill.

We hold many recordings of the song in the World and Traditional Music collection and I’m particularly fond of a rather chaotic version at the Butchers Arms in Carhampton (side note: Carhampton is notable as the home of wassailing (second side note: I once went to a very good pub quiz at the Butchers Arms)). However, the recording I want to highlight today comes from our oral history collections and the interviews of George Ewart Evans.

SG18_Matthew Mary George Ewart Evans Susan and Jane in graden at Blaxhall School adjustedGeorge Ewart Evans with his children in the school garden, Blaxhall, Suffolk

George Ewart Evans is one of the godfathers of oral history and, after moving from Wales to Suffolk in 1947, Evans spent the 1950s through the 1970s recording the voices of local workers and neighbours. He’s probably best known for his books including Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, but the great thing is that we hold his original interviews at the British Library and you can listen to them online. One of these interviews is with a Mr W. Boulton and, amongst his descriptions of seasonal work in Burton-on-Trent and Suffolk step dancing, Boulton regales us with his own rendition of the Barley Mow. Keep listening and, after some prodding from Boulton, you’ll hear Evans join in too.

George Ewart Evans and the Barley Mow (T1416)

According to Robert Bell, “the effect of The Barley Mow cannot be given in words; it should be heard, to be appreciated properly” and I’d have to agree with him. If you want a look at how this might have been in the 1950s then do check out this amazing footage from the Ship Inn, Blaxall at the East Anglia Film Archive (side note: Blaxhall is where Evans lived in Suffolk (second side note: thanks to my family for humouring my detour to the Ship earlier this year)). As for 2019 you’ve just got to hope that you come across a performance yourself, and in that I say good luck to you all – and of course as well to the company, the brewer, the landlord…

More information on the George Ewart Evans collection can be found in our collection guide to Major national oral history projects and surveys

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

27 March 2019

Airey Neave: working for science in parliament

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Forty years ago, on 30 March 1979, the Conservative MP Airey Neave was killed in a car bomb attack as he drove out of the House of Commons car park. He is remembered for the way he died, but also as a war hero who had escaped from Colditz and  as the man who organised Margaret Thatcher’s successful campaign to become Leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975, subsequently becoming Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

PIC_P_687.Political Parties.1Meeting of the Shadow Cabinet c. 1977. Airey Neave second from the left. Photograph by Tom Blau, copyright The Parliamentary Archives

However what is rarely remembered about Neave is his long-standing parliamentary interest in science and technology.

Neave was familiar with the world of scientists from childhood. His father Sheffield Neave was an eminent entomologist whose work as editor of the Nomenclator Zoologicus is remembered in this clip from an interview with Neave’s cousin Julius.

S.A. Neave PresidentSheffield Neave, Secretary of the Royal Entomological Society 1918-1933, President 1934-35. Copyright The Royal Entomological Society

Julius Neave describes Sheffield Neave (C409/34/03)

When elected as MP for Abingdon in a 1953 by-election, Neave became responsible for the interests of the many research scientists who lived in his constituency. They worked at a range of public and privately-owned scientific research establishments in the area. These included the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE), the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, the Culham Laboratory for fusion research, the Esso Research Centre, the Hydraulics Research Station, and two Agricultural Research Council stations. Throughout his time at Westminster, right up until the week before his death, Neave was corresponding on their behalf with Ministers and trade unions on issues such as pay and manpower cuts.1

John Lyons, a union negotiator for AERE staff, remembers meeting Neave at Harwell and again when giving evidence to a 1972 select committee inquiry on science policy.2

John Lyons describes Airey Neave (C1495/08/05)

The inquiry was run by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which Neave had been a member since it was set up in early 1967.3 Neave was regarded as a member of the parliamentary ‘science elite’,4 his specialist status strengthened through his role as a legal adviser to an industrial firm that manufactured equipment for nuclear reactors.

He actively supported calls for parliamentary reform during the early 1960s, in part because he sought an improvement in MPs’ ability to scrutinise scientific and technical issues. He helped write a 1963 Conservative Political Centre (CPC) pamphlet that advocated moving detailed business from the floor of the House to standing committees,5 and belonged to a Parliamentary and Scientific Committee group that recommended a select committee would improve parliamentary control over scientific and technological policy. As a member of the Commons Library Committee, he supported changes that brought two science graduates onto the library staff in 1966.6

By 1967 he was considered enough of an authority to be invited by political scientist Professor Bernard Crick to discuss parliamentary procedure on air and to write another CPC pamphlet 'Control by committee'.

Control by CommitteeConservative Political Centre pamphlet, 1968

Towards the end of the 1960s his opinion was being sought within the Conservative Research Department on developing policy regarding “certain criteria on which a new Government on taking office could review Government Research Establishments.”7 Neave pointed out that one question should be whether the establishment functions were “proper functions for government … and would they be better done in industry under contract?”

A review of government research establishments was soon underway after the 1970 Conservative victory. The resulting Rothschild Report,8 with its recommendation that government-funded research be conducted on a “customer-contractor principle”, caused such consternation among the scientific community that it immediately became the subject of the inquiry to which John Lyons and the report’s author Lord Rothschild gave evidence.

As a member and then chair of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Neave was dealing with topics such as defence research, the UK’s nuclear reactor programme and coastal pollution, engaging with many scientists who both supplied evidence or acted as special advisers to the committee. Arthur Palmer, the committee’s first chair, wrote that “one outstanding gain from the existence and activity of the committee has been the steady building up of a network of connections, both personal and corporate, with industry, with leading scientific and engineering personalities and with the specialist journals.”9

Frank Land, an expert in information systems, was one of those personalities, and explains how he contributed to an inquiry on the prospects of the UK computer industry.10

Frank Land on being a select committee adviser (C1379/17/13)

Neave was a pro-active member, arranging for fellow members of sub-committee D to take part in a two-day computer course at Imperial College in January 1970.11

On 3 May 1971, Neave was in the chair when Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education and Science, gave evidence to the committee on the research council system.12 Opinions on how government should fund scientific research were fluid at that stage, so it is unclear to what extent Thatcher and Neave agreed on developments in policy.13 She had begun to contemplate “fundamental change”, while Neave expressed conviction in a New Scientist interview that research councils should retain control of their budgets, and he made known to Cabinet his criticism of the Rothschild report the following year.14

However there is no doubt that Thatcher and Neave shared a delight in the aspirational, ultramodern surroundings of scientific research, evident from the photos of Neave escorting her on a successful visit to Harwell in September 1973.

IMG_20190221_122236359

He remained a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology until 25 February 1975, resigning within weeks of Thatcher’s election as Leader of the Conservative Party to lead her private office and take up his Shadow Cabinet appointment. However he continued to see value in using science to promote Thatcher at home and abroad, suggesting to the FCO that Thatcher could include a visit to “some big scientific or industrial project” on her visit to the USA in September 1975.

If Airey Neave had lived to serve in Thatcher’s government he would have brought an informed view to discussions about Conservative science policy. Even more likely would have been his disappointment with the 1979 reorganisation of the select committee system that saw science, education and the arts covered by just one select committee, diminishing MPs’ ability to scrutinise science for more than a decade until a separate Science and Technology Committee was reinstated in 1992.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.


1 AN/110 Civil Service: Unions, Pay etc., Papers of Airey Neave, Parliamentary Archives.
2 Science and Technology Committee, Research and Development: Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, 12 July 1972, HC 375 1971-72.
3 Science and Technology Committee, First Special Report, 1 Feb 1967, HC 330 1966-67.
4 N. J. Vig and S. A. Walkland, ‘Science Policy, Science Administration and Parliamentary Reform’, Parliamentary Affairs, 19 (3), (1966), p. 284.
5 Conservative Political Centre, Change or decay: Parliament and government in our industrial society, (1963).
6 AN/337, Library Committee (House of Commons), Papers of Airey Neave, Parliamentary Archives.
7 Letter to Ernest Marples, 16 May 1969. AN/303, Conservative Party Public Sector Research Unit, Papers of Airey Neave, Parliamentary Archives.
8 The Organisation and Management of Government R. and D., A Report by Lord Rothschild, the Head of the Central Policy Review Staff, in A Framework for Government Research and Development Cmnd 4814, (1971).
9 Arthur Palmer, ‘The Select Committee on Science and Technology’ in Alfred Morris, ed., The Growth of Parliamentary Scrutiny by Committee, (1970), pp. 15-30.
10 Science and Technology Committee, The Prospects for the UK Computer Industry in the 1970s, 20 Oct 1971, HC 621-I 1970-71.
11 Circular from the Select Committee Clerk, 12 Dec 1969. HC/CP/2800, Parliamentary Archives.
12 Science and Technology Committee, Research Councils, 21 July 1971, HC 522 1970-71.
13 Jon Agar, ‘Thatcher, Scientist’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 65, no. 3 (2011), p. 224.
14 Philip J. Aylett, Thirty Years of Reform: House of Commons Select Committees, 1960-1990, (unpublished PhD thesis, Queen Mary University of London, 2015), p. 146.

25 March 2019

Recording of the week: Peter Blake remembers the Royal College of Art

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

This week we’re travelling back to 1950s London, where a young Peter Blake was learning to draw. Peter Blake is an English Pop artist who famously co-created the cover art for the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the 1950s he was a student at the Royal College of Art with Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.

339_richard_smith_peter_blake_as_students_photo_robert_buhlerPeter Blake and Richard Smith (right), as Royal College of Art students c. 1956. Robert Buhler, Courtesy Royal College of Art Archive. Image not licensed for reuse

In this clip from his life story interview, Peter Blake conjures up his memories of the busy life drawing room. In the life drawing room you might find artists sitting on 'donkeys' and there would be at least 15 life models – each surrounded by a group of students jostling for space. Some artists took up more space than others, and Blake picks out the artists that one would avoid... As well as capturing the characters of his fellow students, Blake gives a vivid account of his tutors, and of the professional models:

Peter Blake on life drawing classes (C466/168)

In the recording Blake describes his tutors both as ‘vultures’ and ‘sharks’ – who would hover around the many easels and lurch in to rub out the students’ drawings and make corrections. He’s right in saying that this wouldn’t be tolerated by art students now! Despite this, in his next breath he describes how wonderful it all was.

This clip features on the Voices of art website. Voices of art is a new British Library resource that explores the art world from behind the scenes. Extracts from oral history recordings accompany a series of essays by writers immersed in the art world of the 20th and 21st centuries. To hear Peter Blake’s clip in context, see Tom Powell’s article 'Why can't you draw the model like that?' Remembering the life room through Artists' Lives and Lisa Tickner’s article Playing it by ear: Kasmin in the 1960s.

Peter Blake was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2003-2005. The interviewer was Linda Sandino. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

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