Thursday, July 26, 2007

Antidote to all the depressing books around

If you're interested in art, check your public library's catalogue to see if they have a copy of High Relief, the autobiography, illustrated with more than 60 photographs, of sculptor Sir Charles Wheeler.

I came across a forgotten copy on our sitting room bookshelves and have been re-reading it as an antidote to the gloom and doom, in both fiction and non-fiction, coming my way recently. High Relief was published at 45 shillings for Country Life Books by The Hamlyn Publishing Group in 1968. I think I must have spotted it in Bibliophile's catalogue about 20 years later.

Although there is nothing about him on the Academy's website, Sir Charles Wheeler was the eighteenth President of the Royal Academy and the first sculptor to hold that office. But, more importantly in my view, he fell in love with his wife while still in his teens, was engaged to her for five years because they were too hard up to marry, and loved her all his life.

He writes – "I met Muriel Bourne first when I was 16 and when we were art students together at Wolverhampton… She had artists as forbears, I had none that I knew of."


And, on the next page – "Muriel and I studied in the Antique and Life rooms and in the same modelling studio, often working back to back. Sometimes we would collide in stepping back to look at our models. This was the beginning of a life long devotion which has been undimmed and undivided from then until now... The £100 [prize money] was about all I possessed and she married me on that in St Peter's Church, under the torture of whose practising bells we had sat many examinations together in the adjacent Wolverhampton Art School, and in whose lovely interior we had together made many drawings, labouring to improve our art. With what care and calculation we had to order our affairs few couples in these more affluent days can conceive. However, with pinching and her courage and care we got through some very lean times."

A little further on, we read – "I was often tempted then to vacate my studio, save the rent and take a safe teaching job. I was well qualified for that, but when I spoke of it she would never listen. 'The last thing you do,' she would say, 'is to give up your studio.' And so I held on till after about two years of Spartan living there was a knock one morning at the door of my Justice Walk studio. When I opened it I saw a short man standing in morning dress and wearing a tall silk hat. My first thought was – here is someone selling encyclopaedias, and then he handed me his card. On looking I was so astounded that I handed it back to him. It read 'Rudyard Kipling'. I've ever since regretted my stupidity for his card would have been a thing to treasure as it brought relief, not before it was needed, and from that day to this I have never lacked commissions."

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