Significant others… what might have been

Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones at Art Schoo

February 15, 2020

In the summer of 1974 my family moved from Kenya and we landed in a small village called Glentworth in Lincolnshire. I’d just made a mess of A levels but had an inkling I wanted to do a photography course somewhere but didn’t know how to go about it. My parents, wrestling with making a new life in England after decades in East Africa also had to ‘sort me out’. My father found a careers and further education adviser in Gainsborough and we dutifully went to see him. He dressed like Basil Fawlty in a tight, narrow suit and with a complete lack of enthusiasm told me he had no idea about photography and that I should look for a course that would give me prospects. As we left, he suggested we try the Lincoln College of Art. A few days later we had an appointment to meet Peter Moss, the head of the art Foundation course. Term had already started and the main hall was packed with new students listening to a briefing by the staff and once it had broken up Peter came straight over, sat us down and listened. My father was mesmerised by Pete’s easy conversation, his enthusiasm and his desire to give me a start in the art school world. He was also very taken with his droopy moustache and earring.  I was terrified. Foundation is a year in which you try out all disciplines of art before applying to do a degree course and I couldn’t and still can’t draw. I had a couple of photographs I’d printed myself but no portfolio, but I was very clear that photography was the thing for me. Peter stood up, asked us to wait as he had something to do and after 20 minutes came back with registration forms, details of the course, materials I’d need and just said ‘come and find me on Monday and we’ll get you started’. As I went from life drawing to illustration, painting to sculpture I became quickly aware I was amongst young natural talent and my fellow students didn’t hesitate to remind me. I was the only one who learnt to weld and I built a giant plate-metal robot 3 metres tall and I took over the modest photography studio and darkroom. At the end of the year my portfolio of photographs earnt me a place at The London College of Printing. I’ll always be grateful to Pete Moss for his trust, directness and giving me a break. He continues to work as a ceramic artist after a lifetime of combining teaching with his practice.

The London College of Printing was a step up in every way. Bright lights, big city, degree course, new students with big Nikons and Canons tumbling out of Billingham bags and by the end of the first week it was clear who wanted to be in fashion, editorial, photojournalism, press. I leaned towards documentary but wanted to experiment. I can’t remember how but I bumped into one of the visiting lecturers one day at coffee and he introduced himself as Tony Sinden, an artist using film, video and performance in his installations. He was in the early stages of learning to play the saxophone backwards so that when recorded and replayed backwards it would sound pitch and tonally perfect. We only met once a week during term time but Tony quietly lifted the lid on process and possibilities, encouraged me to see beyond the darkroom, take risks and think more about ideas and purpose.

The result was a three-projector installation in a backroom at the ICA. The three projectors were suspended from the ceiling on chains, allowed to sway, each one showing a similar piece of landscape footage on a loop. Every now and then I’d step forward and swing the projectors, so their images overlapped. The loops frequently broke and the exhibition ended when all the film was shredded beyond repair. The soundtrack was the clatter of the projectors. I was never destined to be a conceptual artist but Tony got me to dig into experience, method and to drop the guilt about not always producing finished work. Sadly Tony had a heart attack whilst swimming off the Greek island of Sifnos in 2009. I’ll always be grateful for the way he persuaded me to think about the what and why.

In my last year at the LCP I applied to go to the Film School at The Royal College of Art. The school had a reputation as a hotbed of political and theoretical filmmaking and in my three years there we had three different heads of department. Friend Michael Proudfoot was starting his second year when I started and after a difficult beginning we learnt how to work hard and play as hard we could afford. Our lives changed for the better when Dick Ross was made head of the school in 1980. Dick took us for what we were not what we thought we wanted to be and had a pragmatic charm about how he got things done. He’d been working as an editor at BBC Television news before he took the RCA job and with the Iranian Embassy siege playing out just round the corner from the college we had privileged insight and access into how the news was handled. Dick opened up the possibilities at the film school, increased the number and quality of visiting tutors, made sure all technical facilities were as good as they could be and insisted our final film screenings were on the big screen at BAFTA in front of a full auditorium. If you went to him with an articulate proposal and a way to make it happen he’d back you. If you didn’t he’d help you get it right, then back you. Sadly Dick died last year and I missed my chance to see him again over a glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir. I’ll always be grateful to him for having faith.

Three significant others, without whom who knows what might have happened.

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