Sound and vision blog

279 posts categorized "Oral history"

04 July 2022

Recording of the week: The NHS turns 74

This week’s post comes from Hannah Tame, Oral History Cataloguer for the Voices of Our National Health Service collection.

On 5 July 2022, the NHS celebrates its 74th anniversary. It seems appropriate then, that this week’s selection is taken from the Voices of our National Health Service oral history collection. I am currently cataloguing this at the British Library. The collection of interviews is one of the largest collections of oral histories to ever be deposited at the British Library, with interviews captured from over 1200 different interviewees.

The collection consists of interviews from the University of Manchester’s 'NHS at 70' and 'NHS Voices of Covid-19' projects combined. NHS at 70 was initially set up in 2017 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the formation of the NHS (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund). It recorded first-hand experiences, memories and reflections of the NHS from staff, patients and members of the public. Then, with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council - part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Covid-19 Urgency call - interviews continued remotely during the pandemic for ‘NHS Voices of Covid-19’.

This week’s clip is taken from one of the pre-Covid interviews in the collection. Interviewee Margaret was born in 1935 and was interviewed in March 2019. Sadly Margaret passed away last year. Her interview captures her career as a dressmaker for the NHS, as well as her childhood reminiscences of healthcare. Margaret recalls a pivotal moment for her family in 1940 (before the creation of the NHS in 1948) when she was just five years old and her mother contracted tetanus.

Listen to Margaret Southey

Download Transcript

Illustration of couch grass

Above:  Couch grass, how Mary's mother contracted tetanus. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. See Wellcome Images. Used under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

This experience captured in Margaret’s interview offers a unique insight into an infection that less than 100 years ago would have been life threatening. Treatment for tetanus was relatively new when Margaret’s mother received it. Before the Second World War (when developments advanced for the treatment of tetanus) around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. In 2019 there were only 4 cases of tetanus reported in England. The number is low thanks to the effective tetanus vaccine given since 1961 as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

Margaret’s story is just one of many interviews in the collection that demonstrates how direct and in-direct healthcare experiences can impact all aspects of people’s lives. There are numerous other interviews in the collection that include experiences of tetanus. Whether that be from a nurse who treated babies with tetanus or someone’s first healthcare memory of receiving a tetanus vaccination at school. In my eyes, the huge variety of perspectives is one of the things that makes the Voices of Our National Health Service collection so valuable and interesting to listen to. Each interview, and each person’s experience allows us to see the NHS from a different viewpoint.

The full interview with Margaret Southey is catalogued at our reference C1887/281 and is available to listen to on-site at the British Library.

Facts and figures from the Vaccine Knowledge Project.

Follow @BL_OralHistory for all the latest news.

27 June 2022

Putting 'AIDS: The Unheard Tapes' in context

Mary Stewart, Lead Curator of Oral History, gives more information on the interviews used in a new BBC documentary series.

Broadcast tonight on BBC2 is the first in a three-part documentary series entitled AIDS: The Unheard Tapes (27 June, 9.30pm BBC2). The series is a powerful showcase of selected recordings from the British Library’s extensive collection of oral history interviews with people living with HIV and those directly affected by the HIV epidemic. All three episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer.

AIDS: The Unheard Tapes uses personal testimonies to tell the story of the HIV epidemic in the UK from the early 1980s until the mid 1990s as experienced by the UK’s gay community, tracking a similar time period to the award-winning 2021 Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. Alongside new filmed interviews, each one-hour episode forefronts testimony from the British Library’s oral history collections recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. The documentary uses the audio from the archived interviews with each narrator's voice lip-synched for television by an actor. Sadly, many of the interviewees whose powerful testimony features in this series have since died.

 

Which oral history collections are featured in the documentary?

The programmes use selected interviews from two pioneering oral history projects, one recorded in the late 1980s and another from the mid-1990s onwards. Both were archived at the British Library for long-term preservation and public access.

The Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project features over 100 interviews conducted from 1985 until the early 1990s with gay and lesbian people in Britain. The testimonies contained in this rich and diverse collection were recorded as the HIV epidemic unfolded, so many of the interviews have stories from people living with HIV or from those who saw its effects on friends and their communities. Researcher Margot Farnham played a key role in organising and interviewing for the project and in the publication of two books* based on the testimonies. Margot’s voice features as one of the interviewers in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

HIV/AIDS Testimonies is a collection of life story interviews with people with HIV and AIDS recorded by researchers Wendy Rickard and Babs Gibson. 30 interviews were recorded between 1995-2000. In 2005 Wendy and Babs returned to re-interview as many of the original participants as possible, adding to the collection a second set of interviews capturing people’s experiences in the intervening decade. Where interviewees had since died, recordings with loved ones were made, where possible. The voices of Wendy and Babs also feature in AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

 

What makes these collections stand out?

The power of life stories

The recordings in these collections are long and in-depth life stories in which the interviewees were asked to reflect on the entirety of their life experience: childhood, education, family, work, their social lives, communities and their relationships. This means that each recording captures a rich audio biography of the narrator in their own words recounting their experiences in vivid detail, drawing us into their emotional world, their humour and their turn of phrase. The documentary has, of course, used excerpts that are relevant to each interviewee’s experience of HIV, but the testimony is so compelling because it is drawn from the long life stories held in the archive. These interviews are a powerful reflection of their time – when knowledge of HIV had to be built from scratch and the prospect of effective treatment was at best experimental. This means that the recordings capture the uncertainty and emotion of the era, when no-one knew what the immediate future would hold.

Archiving the material for future listeners

The researchers leading these projects worked from the outset with the oral history team at the British Library to archive these frank and in-depth interviews (led by Curator Rob Perks, who worked at the Library 1988-2021). As with all oral recordings, each interviewee decided when and how their interview was made available, but everyone was interviewed in the knowledge that their recording would one day be publicly accessible. Many interviewees placed no restrictions on public access and these interviews have been accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms for decades. There are still a number of interviews that are currently closed at the interviewees' request, and the Library will make these powerful recordings available to researchers in the future as soon as the access restrictions cease.

Without the Library's commitment over 30 years ago to archive and provide public access to these highly sensitive interviews there is little chance that they could be used in this documentary series. The production team at Wall to Wall Media listened to many hours of testimony in the Library’s Reading Rooms, selecting the material that they wished to broadcast. Where possible all of the interviewees or their loved ones were then re-contacted to ensure that they were happy for the audio to be broadcast.

 

What other oral history material is available at the British Library on HIV in the UK?

It is vitally important to recognise that this documentary series and the interviews selected to feature in it represent only some of the communities and individuals affected by HIV in the UK. This diversity of experience is reflected in the other testimonies held in the HIV and AIDS Testimonies collection and also in the wider body of material archived and made accessible by the Library’s oral history team – work which continues today. 

Here is a brief overview of the oral histories of people living with HIV, or working in HIV specialisms, within the British Library collections. You can search the detailed catalogue records for all of the interviews on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. There are search tips available on the British Library website. The Library's Listening and Viewing Service can provide assistance and information on how to listen to recordings. 

Invisible Women: Positively Women HIV Interviews is a collection of 16 oral history interviews with women living with HIV. The interviews reveal how HIV has affected them socially, at work and in their family lives. The project was carried out by Positively UK as part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2007 and 2008.

Imagining Patient Zero: interviews about the history of the North American HIV/AIDS epidemic is a collection of 50 interviews recorded by Richard McKay between 2007 and 2008 as part of his research investigating the concept of ‘patient zero’ and the early years of HIV in North America.

Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project and HIV in the Family: an oral history of parents, partners and children of those with haemophilia and HIV comprise nearly 80 interviews and document the history and lives of those living with these conditions, as well as the experiences of the families of those infected. Extracts from both projects are available on the Living Stories website. These powerful oral history interviews are being used in the ongoing Infected Blood enquiry.

Listen here to interviewee Paul reflect on recording his story about living with haemophilia and HIV:

Paul interviewed by Sian Edwards, 2004, Haemophilia and HIV Life History Project C1086/12 © British Library

Download Transcript

The AIDS Era: an oral history of UK healthcare workers is a collection of interviews with 61 healthcare workers who cared for people with HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Jane Bruton, an interviewee and one of the project leaders, is also interviewed for AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

Geraldine was a staff nurse and then the Community Liaison Nurse on the HIV ward. In this clip from her interview she talks about the vital role of volunteers in the 1980s and 1990s:

Geraldine Reilly interviewed by Fiona Clampin, 2018, The AIDS Era: an oral history of UK healthcare workers C1759/51 © British Library.

Download Transcript

The oral history team are absolutely delighted to be currently working with CHIVA: the Children’s HIV Association on their interviewing project Positively Spoken. The project team are recording 50 interviews with young people about their experiences of growing up with HIV. The project is participative and includes peer interviews. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Positively Spoken is gathering powerful testimonies from young people, many of whom are speaking on record for the first time about their experiences of living with HIV.

 

Making AIDS: The Unheard Tapes possible

The production company for this series, Wall to Wall Media, liaised extensively with the oral history team as we worked through the permissions, rights and ethics for each recording considered for broadcast. This has been supported by colleagues from the Listening & Viewing Service, Soundcopy Service, Sound Licensing team and British Library Press. Both collections featured in the documentary have been digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, so thanks are due to the UOSH team and project funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Considerable thanks are also due to Wendy Rickard, Babs Gibson and Margot Farnham for their collaboration and consultation.

Finally, and most importantly, a massive thank you to all of the interviewees, interviewers and project leaders for their time, effort and generosity in helping the Library build and provide access to such an amazing array of personal testimonies.

 

Find out more

The Library’s LGBTQ histories web resource highlights material from across the collections. From Tuesday 28 June 2022 visit the Treasures Gallery in St Pancras to see the new case ‘Proud Words’ which showcases newspapers, books, leaflets and manifestos authored by LGBTQ+ people in the 1970s and 1980s - creating and claiming words for their community.

*Walking after Midnight: Gay Men's Life Stories (The Hall Carpenter Archives, 1989).

*Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories (The Hall Carpenter Archives Lesbian Oral History Group, 1989).

Margot Farnham and David Ruffell, ‘Scenarios of Departure: the AIDS Paintings of David Ruffell’ in Ecstatic Antibodies, Resisting the AIDS mythology, edited by Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta (Rivers-Oram Press, 1990).

Wendy Rickard, ‘HIV/Aids Testimonies in the 1990s’ in Oral History, Health and Welfare edited by Joanna Bornat, Rob Perks, Paul Thompson and Jan Walmsley (Routledge 2000), pp 227-248. 

Richard A McKay, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

 

07 June 2022

Chance patrons: Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and the pioneering age of British architectural history

'An Oral History of British Architectural Historians', is a new oral history project, recently deposited at the British Library Sound Archive. The collection was recorded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (SAHGB) and documents the work of historians of British architecture from the mid twentieth century to the present day. In this blog Jake Bransgrove uses the oral history interviews with John Harris (British Library catalogue reference: C1804/03) and John Newman (British Library catalogue reference: C1804/04) to look at the life of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) and 'The Buildings of' series of architectural guide books.

Portrait photo of the nave of King's College Chapel, CambridgeThe nave of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The late Perpendicular Gothic flourishes were much admired by Nikolaus Pevsener. Copyright: Chris Boland

Between 1951 and 1974 Sir Nikolaus Pevsner published 'The Buildings of England', a forty-six volume series of architectural guide books. This was followed by successor series on Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Pevsner’s guides compiled historic buildings with unique or representative architectural value, bringing together formal analysis with wry observations. The books remain essential resources for those curious about their built heritage. For architectural historians in Britain, they are a landmark in the development of the discipline.

Pevsner was central to the project and personal reflections on his character, life and method help us to understand the guides’ significance. Evocative examples come from those with whom Pevsner worked. These include individuals like John Harris and John Newman who helped him at early stages to execute his daunting task. Their involvement with the guides also lead to later careers as researchers, writers and teachers in their own right. Both Harris and Newman have been interviewed for 'An Oral History of British Architectural Historians'.

Harris’s relationship with the 'Buildings of England' began with a period researching the first edition of the Lincolnshire volume (1964). Having previously worked as an upholstery apprentice and an antiques dealer, he was an unlikely choice for the position. Yet, energised by the thrill of the open road, Harris spent a contented period researching for Pevsner. Harris traced Lincolnshire’s sprawl of byways on his Lambretta motorcycle with his future wife Eileen on the back. He also snooped amongst grand if run-down houses – an experience he chronicled in a later memoir, 'No Voice From the Hall' (1998). In the following excerpt, Harris reflects on the reasons for his involvement in the project. At the same time he discusses the limits of his employer’s method:

John Harris on Pevsner's method (C1804/03/01 [00:39:41 - 00:41:11])

Download John Harris on Pevsner's method Transcript

In Harris' view, Pevsner had a less-than-intrepid approach to research, and did not fully consult topography, English social mores and archival material. On all these points, many others have since agreed.

Yet Pevsner had taken a chance in employing Harris, who had received no formal training in architectural history at this point. The path Harris subsequently took led him to the role of Head Librarian and Curator for the Royal Institute of British Architects. In this he was assisted by interventions from the likes of James Lees-Milne, connoisseur and writer for 'Country Life', and the collector Geoffrey Houghton-Brown. However, it was Pevsner’s patronage that had stamped Harris as approved in matters of architectural history. When considering his life story in perspective, it presents a noticeable fork in the road. As a result, he found himself working with prominent scholars like Sir Howard Colin, Sir John Summerson, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Rupert Gunnis:

John Harris on working with prominent scholars (C1804/03/01 [01:31:07 - 01:35:57])

Download John Harris on working with prominent scholars Transcript

For John Newman, Pevsner’s editor for the two 'Buildings of England' volumes on Kent (1969) and long-time professor of post-medieval British architecture at The Courtauld Institute of Art, Harris’ story proved a kind of precursor. Newman had been a Classics teacher at Tonbridge School when he wrote to his future patron on a whim. He expressed an interest in the guides and asked for advice on how he might become involved in their preparation. This led to Newman meeting with Pevsner and then enrolling for an MA at The Courtauld on his recommendation. Whilst a student, Newman found himself working for Pevsner as a driver on research trips between terms. He would shuttle Pevsner from rural church to rural retreat, at the same time honing his own powers of formal analysis and interpretation. Newman eventually gained the opportunity to compile the volumes on Kent. Pevsner himself considered these books the best of the series.

The inspiration and influence of Pevsner was crucial in kickstarting Newman’s career as an architectural historian, as he recalls in the following clip:

John Newman on Pevsner's influence (C1804/04/01 [00:43:08 - 00:47:57])

Download John Newman on Pevsner's influence Transcript

Employment on such informal terms was, as Newman himself is quick to note, a feature of the period. It is notable that neither he nor Harris ever received (or expected to receive) a doctorate. In its pioneering days, architectural history built itself up as a profession through acts of patronage much more than is the case today. For Newman, encounters of the Pevsner sort continued to shape his career. This proved the case when he was approached at the end of his MA by the then Director of The Courtauld, Sir Anthony Blunt – infamous ever since for his public unmasking as a Soviet spy in 1979 – to join the staff after graduation.

Accepting Blunt’s offer, Newman went on to teach at The Courtauld until retirement. He guided a generation of British art and architectural historians and supervised around twenty-seven PhDs. Unlike Harris, he maintained a relationship with the 'Buildings of' series through work on the early Wales volumes and in his role as advisory editor from 1983. He also worked as editor for 'Architectural History', the journal of the SAHGB, between 1975 and 1985. Newman emerged as an influential scholar-facilitator: an editor, advisor and teacher who was, in many ways, cut from the same cloth as Pevsner. Both were aware of their position in a community of scholars and built upon the work of their predecessors. They were as concerned with their own contributions as with supporting those of the future. As Newman recalled of Pevsner’s views on later editions of his guides:

John Newman on later editions of the guides (C1804/04/04 [00:31:17 - 00:32:30])

Download John Newman on later editions of the guides Transcript

For all the stories they contain, Pevsner’s guides have a story of their own too. History, even that of buildings, is ultimately the product of people, and of their personalities. For Harris and Newman, and many like them, involvement with the 'Buildings of England' and its Welsh, Scottish and Irish companion series was a pivotal experience. In the early days of architectural history the field was even smaller than it still is. Leading figures took on the stature of giants, with their shadows casting right down to the present. Their influence was disproportionate, and could have career-defining consequences. Such is the case with pioneers.

Blog by Jake Bransgrove, Project Assistant for the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s project ‘An Oral History of British Architectural Historians’. The collection can be found by searching C1804 at sami.bl.uk. For similar collections please see the collection guide on Oral histories of architecture and landscape design.

Further Reading:
Harries, Susie. 2011. Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life. London: Chatto & Windus. [British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YC.2012.a.5930]
Harris, John. 1998. No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper. Oxford: John Murray. [British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection LT.2013.x.3394]
Newman, John. 1969. The Buildings of England: West Kent and Weald. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. [British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection W.P.429/38]
Newman, John. 1969. The Buildings of England: North East and East Kent. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. [British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YC.2003.a.2775]
Pevsner, Nikolaus, and John Harris. 1964. The Buildings of England: Lincolnshire. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. [British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection W.P.429/27]

23 May 2022

Recording of the week: an intriguing description of a legendary media figure

This week’s selection comes from Mary Stewart, Lead Curator of Oral History and Director of National Life Stories.

A photograph of the outside of the Victorian neo-classical mansion, Cherkley Court.Cherkley Court, home of Lord Beaverbrook and the setting for his meeting with Bob Edwards described in this audio clip. Photo by Ian Capper via Wikimedia, Creative Commons attribution CC BY-SA 2.0.

As the Library’s Breaking the News exhibition is in full swing, it seemed apt to feature a Recording of the Week from An Oral History of the British Press. Listen to this very amusing anecdote from Bob Edwards, as he recalls meeting the famous newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook. To me this extract humanises these two prominent people, giving us an insight that I don’t think you’d find anywhere but in an oral history interview!

Bob Edwards recalls his first meeting with Lord Beaverbrook [BL REF C638/10]

Download Transcript

Bob Edwards (1925-2012) was a seasoned and respected journalist who worked at an array of regional and national newspapers, including time as editor of the Glasgow Evening Citizen, the Daily Express, the Sunday People and the Sunday Mirror.

Canadian-British William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, (1879-1964) was a powerful newspaper proprietor, owning the Daily Express. Beaverbrook served in Churchill’s cabinet in World War Two. Can you spot the mention of Churchill in the audio clip?

Oral historian Louise Brodie recorded nearly nine hours with Bob Edwards over three sessions in 2007, to add his life story to An Oral History of the British Press. This National Life Stories project began in 1994 and was revived in 2006 thanks to support from the British Library as part of the Front Page exhibition, which was also based on the Library’s amazing news collections. Listen to this interview in full and others from the collection at British Library Sounds

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

16 May 2022

Recording of the week: On climbing mountains - a woman's view

This week’s selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist.

Woman wearing a long sleeved black shirt, trousers, and a climbing harness with gear attached, climbing an outdoor rock facePhoto by Cade Prior via Unsplash

In this oral history interview, Jean Drummond looks back at the times when she used to rock climb as part of the Pinnacle Club, a UK based club of women climbers that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021.

Jean Drummond describes changes to climbing [BL REF C1876/24]

Download transcript

I was quite intrigued to listen to a recount of a climbing experience from a woman’s point of view.

Jean describes climbing as a social practice as well as an exercise; climbing requires a partner, and she (almost annoyingly) tells how her body doesn’t allow her to be the leading companion anymore.

Jean describes the technical components of climbing these days, starting from the climbing gear, which became more practical and easy to buy as shops to buy equipment from multiplied.

She admires the scientific aspects of this change, although there is a nostalgic nuance in the admission that it is not the sport she used to love. Perhaps the adventure side has been lost with the proliferation of climbing walls, very much a different experience of being out there, in nature.

She describes climbing nowadays as something more similar to gymnastics, while recalling memories of when she saw mountains as her friend. This summarises in one simple image the core essence of the discipline: the challenge of reaching the top, a sense of accomplishment that accompanies the final step.

On a personal note, climbing could be a metaphorical wall, a way to push our limits; it helps with being centred in the present moment, and gives a sense of reward when reaching the top.

With self-motivation, mountains can be our friends, a genuine escape from our inner fears.

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

09 May 2022

Recording of the week: From potato market to sound archive

This week's selection comes from Myriam Fellous-Sigrist, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer.

Fruit, vegetable and cut flower lorries are unloaded inside Covent Garden market in 1940s London. Traders seen here include W Bailey Ltd and F A Secrett Ltd of Walton-on-Thames. The empty lorry in the foreground was in use by potato merchants.

Life in Wartime, Covent Garden Market. Photo credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some interviews make you travel far away, but some shine a light on the history of the building where you are sitting. Tom Arblaster was born in 1930 in Walsall (West Midlands) and was interviewed as part of the Oral History of the Post Office project in 2002. After working as a butcher’s boy at 12, a carpenter’s apprentice and piano factory worker, he joined the Post Office in London. In this recording he describes his work as a young postman in the King’s Cross area in the mid-1950s. In the following extract, he paints a vivid picture of the activities around the potato market, which was located where the current British Library building now stands.

Tom Arblaster on the potato market [BL REF C1007/53]

Download transcript.

In this fascinating 5 hour and 36 minute long interview, preserved by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, Tom Arblaster talks about his life before and after the Second World War. In particular, he describes the hostility and racism that he and his wife Ingeborg faced because she was German, and the love between them that helped them through financial hardship and social isolation. He recalls the joy of being given a modern, prefab council home, even if it came at a cost of working more than a thousand extra hours at the Post Office to afford the rent. At the time of the interview, he was still working part-time in the Almeida Street post office, a couple of miles away from the British Library.

Pink logo banner for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

25 April 2022

Recording of the week: Everybody has something to offer

This week’s selection comes from Jonathan Benaim, Audio Cataloguing Coordinator.

Taken from the British Library’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain collection, this recording is from an interview with guitarist Ernest Ranglin. In this particular excerpt, prompted by interviewer Val Wilmer, he reflects on the notion of competitiveness between musicians.

Ernest Ranglin on competition in jazz [BL REF C122/198-199] 

Download Transcript

In place of competition, Ernest Ranglin sees a collaborative process, valuing the contribution made by different players. The synergy of collaboration can be perceived in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee too. Their rapport is tangible and it makes for an expansive exchange.

International Jazz Day is celebrated on 30 April. Established by UNESCO, it advocates for the positive influence of jazz, including its capacity to cultivate peace, unity, co-operation and dialogue. The description of solidarity that Ernest Ranglin gives, and the camaraderie of the speakers, neatly illustrates that ethos.

A black and white photograph of guitarist Ernest Ranglin taken on Tottenham Court Road, London.Ernest Ranglin, Tottenham Court Road, London, 17 May 1993. Photograph by Val Wilmer.

With thanks to Val Wilmer for kind permission to use her photograph in this article.

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

19 April 2022

Juliet Pannett

National Life Stories Goodison Fellow Suzanne Joinson writes about her research into the artist Juliet Pannett.

Black and white photo of Juliet Pannett holding a koalaJuliet Pannett, courtesy of Denis Pannett

As part of my National Life Stories (NLS) Goodison Fellowship, I have been delving into the oral histories of three Sussex-based artists: Ann Sutton and Barbara Mullins from Crafts Lives and Juliet Pannett from Artists’ Lives. If a biography is ‘a matter of joining holes together,’ as Carole Angier writes, then listening to the interviews often feels like experiencing the tension of the weave. The interplay of storytelling, hesitation and unfolding memory is immersive.

All three artists have had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of the South of England and beyond. Yet their reputations remain relatively marginal, although this is now changing for Ann Sutton.

In this blogpost I take the subject of Juliet Pannett, MBE, and look at how her self-defined life relates to her artistic legacy, particularly through the lens of her being regionally situated in Sussex. Whereas Ann Sutton is an avant-garde, experimental artist, and Mullins was in the vanguard of a resurgence of traditional materials and approaches, Pannett was in many ways the most ‘establishment’ of the three.

Pannett was 80 years old when Janet Grenier interviewed her in 1991 at Pannett’s home in Angmering. Her interview reveals an amusing, polished storyteller. The vowels signify a certain class and are evocative of a different era. Born in 1911 and died in 2005, she established an impressive career as a portrait artist and parliamentary painter. In her oral history interview she says with pride, ‘I could write to anyone I liked and almost everyone said yes.’ [Juliet Pannett interviewed by Janet Grenier C466/09/03, 00:03:11] The National Portrait Gallery houses 21 of her paintings and her subjects range from the Queen to Jean Cocteau. As a parliamentary artist she covered historic moments such as Churchill’s last appearance in the Commons and the Profumo affair. She was a member of The Society of Graphic Artists and Pastel Society and a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. Later in life she ran courses in Sussex with her son, Denis, and the rose bowl Juliet Pannett Prize of the West Sussex Art Award bears her name today.

In the interview she talks frankly about establishing herself in the art world. She speaks of the complexities of combining family life with working for The London Illustrated News and of the efforts required to increase her reputation as a portrait artist. As I listen to the hesitations and digressions, as well as the anecdotes, I catch hints of an undertow of struggle in her life. A picture emerges of a genteel English family keeping up appearances despite a gambling cad of a father and a mother forced to take in paying guests.

Because the NLS interviewing methodology moves slowly and chronologically forwards, the unravelling of a ‘life story’ is extremely full. We follow Pannett’s scholarship at the Brighton School of Art. We hear of the Master, Louis Genet, and his techniques and approaches. We can almost feel the crunch of pencil sharpenings under shoes and smell white spirit in the studios. Pannett’s training was both formal and provincial. She had to complete a year of drawing before being allowed to touch a paint brush. No trips to Rome for her, and she admits that most girls in the class were filling the time before marriage. But her seriousness and ambition are evident all the way through. ‘I wanted to be a really good draughtsman,’ she says.

Most fascinating to the contemporary ear is how she established her career. Sending work to editors, pitching, being accepted in the illustration world as a female artist and her precociousness. Before finishing art school, she sent some work to The Cricketer and she then followed up with Sussex County Magazine:

‘I loved walking on the downs and sketching the old shepherds and country people and I thought well they might be interested, so I took them to show Arthur Beckett the publisher in Eastbourne and he said oh yes, good ideas we’ll have a series of Sussex types and I did thirty or forty and it was great fun, and it gave me an excuse to talk to the old shepherds.’ [Juliet Pannett interviewed by Janet Grenier C466/09/01, 00:25:55]

She tells it in a breezy fashion but receiving a professional commission at such a young age is impressive. It is possible to see how consistently hard she worked and the challenges of combining a career with family life. Her narrative shows us the continual navigation and integration of her family – her son Denis in particular, but also her sister the artist Phoebe Somers – with her working life.

The geographical locations that Pannett talks about are very local to me and so I can see the South of England through her eyes. Hove seafront, Brighton. Clambering on the beach at ‘Black Rocks’, now Brighton Marina. Years later she moved back to Sussex and bought a house in the village of Angmering. She considered herself a Sussex person and the imprint of her work can be found in the county if you look. It is in the archives of Worthing Museum, or captured in ephemera relating to prior exhibitions in Croydon Civic Hall, or in Hove Town Hall.

Black and white portrait photograph of Juliet Pannett as a young womanJuliet Pannett, courtesy of Denis Pannett

As I continue to work through the interviews, I am interested in exploring questions around why these female artists who operated outside of metropolitan hubs have slipped attention. Is it a correlation to living in the regions? I am also looking at how lives and life stories can be ‘written’ alongside oral interviews in alternative ways. The NLS interviews provide a central spine: the story in the subjects’ own words as experienced in that particular moment. Alongside that, like satellites, are catalogues and exhibition ephemera, educational and trust foundations. There are also more nebulous legacies such as the long-term impact on teaching, textbooks, and influence on generations of students or attendees at workshops. There is archival documentation of meetings and a wide matrix of cultural materials that contribute to an ongoing legacy.

Pannett died aged 94 after a lifetime as a professional artist and it is clear that most obituaries draw on the NLS interviews. The NLS ‘life-story’ oral history methodology depicts holistic histories that are fluid. The web of materials linked to Pannett’s output show us a professional working mother and a determined character person. She had much to prove, and when she was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen achieved a formal recognition that was important to her. The NLS interviews allow her career achievements to be examined as part of a wider picture. Most crucially, the integration of the domestic and personal life with the cultivation of a career and the creation of art.

When we look at an entire life-version, rather than individual isolated events, exhibitions, or achievements, we can see the unfolding of significant creative energy. Through a collation of memory and ephemera, my research suggests that peripheral forms of life stories – lives told in the margins of British art history – can be re-evaluated in a contemporary light, particularly within the context of a re-thinking of cultural agency and the impact of non-metropolitan areas. As we rethink our creative and cultural-geographical centres, moving outwards from cities to regions, it’s worth working in archives such as the NLS project to find a rich tapestry of stories that provide alternatives to the mainstream.

Suzanne Joinson is an award-winning writer and academic. Her novels A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer's Wife are published internationally by Bloomsbury. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester and writes regularly for a range of publications including the New York Times, Guardian and others. She has a strong interest in oral history and the stories found in landscapes and places. Suzanne previously wrote for the Sound and Vision Blog in February 2020.

Sound and vision blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs