Wednesday 24 March 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to Philip Wolmuth, Champion of the People's Photography and Chronicler of the changing face of Speakers' Corner

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For half a century Philip, who has died at the age of 70, has been busy creating a photographic record, inspired by his social activism and covering subjects ranging from community groups in Paddington; hostels for the homeless; ex-mining villages in South Yorkshire; schools and workplaces in Britain and banana and sugar plantation workers in the in Caribbean. At the same time he was equally at home taking portraits of senior politicians and capturing either party political conferences or academic seminars and snapping backstage at the English National Opera and Speech Day at Harrow School.

Philip was born in the Autumn of 1950 in London Borough of Islington, the son of Judyta and Henry. The year before he was born his father, a GP, had opened the first new surgery to be set up in the London Borough of Harrow under the auspices of the new National Health Service which, because he hated turning anyone away, soon developed into the biggest singlehanded practice in the area. 

As he grew up Philip would have learnt from his parents that they came from Jewish families once living in the city of Lviv in Poland and with the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the threat of Nazi anti-Semitic persecution, they had travelled to Paris and after the outbreak of the Second World War had made it Britain, seeking asylum in 1940. Given the fact that out of the Jewish population in Lviv numbering more than 200,000 only 800 survived the Pogroms in the city in 1941 and the Holocaust, it is likely that Philip grew up with no family except his mother and father and younger brother William and sister Victoria. 

A self-taught photographer, Philip carried a camera with him in his spare time from an early age and at school, no doubt with his father's encouragement, had applied to the sciences, excelled in his sixth form 'A' levels and gained a place at Oxford University to follow in his father's footsteps and study medicine. That being said, he found the course "too regimented" and switched to a 'PPP' course of study with Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology and a new world of social interaction, learning, child development and mental illness.  It explains why, when he graduated from Oxford at the age of 21 in 1971, he opted to work in adventure playgrounds which drew him into involvement in grassroots, community politics. 

Philip recorded that : 'I spent most of 1975 working as a play leader on Hornimans Adventure Playground, just over the canal that separates North Paddington and North Kensington' and the photographs he shot in the summer of that year were 'with my first serious camera, an old screw-thread Leica I was given as a birthday present'.

Philip himself recalled : "My first useful work as a photographer came about through involvement with housing campaigners at the tail end of the slum clearance programmes of the 1960s and 70s".

In London, streets of poorly maintained, privately rented Victorian terraces were being torn down like those in Walterton Road, North Paddington and replaced by a brave new world of modern homes in publicly owned estates of concrete apartment blocks. These were the years when Philip moved from South Kilburn to Camden Town, where he lived in a squat and later moved into a communal house and rubbed shoulders with those who shared and reinforced his strong sense of social justice and grassroots activism. In 1975 he was living in Westminster on the first floor of a run down Victorian Terrace which was due for demolition. He recalled : 'calling it a flat is being kind. It wasn't self-contained, the toilet was shared with the tenant upstairs, it had no bathroom, and only running water was a cold tap above a Butler sink on the landing'. 

This was the year the 25 year old Philip captured a group of children standing on the pavement on Kensal Road in North Kensington, where the boarded up houses behind them were soon to be demolished and replaced with a mixture of social housing and industrial units. 

He now came into contact with and was inspired by photographer Paul Carter, who had started the pioneering 'Blackfriars Photography Project' with the community in  Blackfriars Settlement in 1973. Paul later reflected that 'I was already sensing that there was something that was not quite right about the business of photojournalism, about parachuting into people's lives, all for the right reasons and then coming out and leaving them to all that and you getting paid for it. So already there was some kind of tension there'. Paul recently related and illustrated the work of the Project in a zoom meeting.

Philip now set about using photography as a means to, not only document how poorer people lived with their housing problems and low paid work, but also to 'democratize' the medium decades before the advent of digital photography. He applied for a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and at the age of 26, set up the 'North Paddington Community Darkroom' on the Harrow Road in West London in 1976. 

Phillip's mission in the 'Darkroom', committee meetings, like the one here in 1978, was to make art accessible to people outside the mainstream art world and empower local residents with a working knowledge of photography. It was located in ideal urban territory, on the border of Portobello and Notting Hill, North Paddington and North Kensington, which were poor areas in rich London boroughs. They were afflicted by economic deprivation, housing shortage, substandard housing, overcrowding, and boarded up properties, along with high unemployment amid the working class immigrant community. Philip's recently published 'Notting Hill 1970s', drew on his archive for these years which included his bicycle and a cleaners trolley next to a wall sprayed with pro-squatting graffiti in Westbourne Grove.

In 1977, Philip also started a lifelong project documenting the face-to-face public debate of speakers, hecklers and audiences at Speakers’ Corner, in Hyde Park and entitled his chronicle, published in 2015 : 'Speakers’ Corner: Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace'. The speaker who tried to convince the audience about their sin was one of the first photographs he shot. Right from the start he said : "I deliberately did not get involved in debates and arguments as I wanted to remain as unobtrusive as possible, the proverbial ‘fly-on-the-wall’. My aim was to capture what was going on in front of me without changing it by my presence, something that was not too difficult at Speakers’ Corner, where so many people are carrying cameras".

Thus he captured the Hyde Park Corner regular, Donald Soper, prominent Methodist minister, socialist, pacifist, opponent of blood sports and active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Philip conceded that the Corner was "not part of mainstream political discourse" but it was the "last one surviving of the public debating places in London" and was a reminder of the time before, when "Politics, which doesn't happen anywhere now except in the corridors of power, used to happen on the street". Nevertheless, he still felt, at that time "it still has the buzz generated by the energy and eccentricity of face-to-face argument. I love it".

Philip also said : "The things I like the most are when there's an intelligent discussion going on. I also really like some of the humor, the heckling. There's some very funny heckles you get that are sometimes said quite quietly. There's an elderly Irish guy who's been around for some time and he seems to stand at the edge of crowds and just mutter while people are talking. There's some born again Christian preacher really ranting and raving and he just says things like, "I don't want to be born again, look what happened to me the first time." Really funny lines and he just comes out with them; really quick-thinking people".

If Philip was occupied at Speakers' Corner on Sunday mornings, on weekdays at the Community Centre he worked with industry to teach Photography and Darkroom classes, organize displays, build a photographic archive of local events and support the work of community organizations. In 2010 he told the British Journal of Photography that "Community photography was not only part of the wave of grassroots activism of the time, it was also part of a concurrent politicization of photography. At NPCD we were concerned particularly with countering the stereotypical portrayal of women, ethnic minorities, and ‘working class struggle’, a phrase that was soon to go out of fashion in the mass media, The early community arts groups sought to democratise the arts to engage those who did not otherwise relate to the ‘mainstream’ arts world by making the arts relevant to their daily lives and experiences".

In 1982, after six years he left the 'Darkroom' to work as a freelancer and much of his work was commissioned by the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). He recalled that this was one of his 'most regular and enjoyable sources of work. Its members were the unsung heroes of our public services - ambulance drivers, cleaners, carers, caretakers, cooks, dustmen, home helps, hospital porters and other NHS ancillary staff, street cleaners and more and of my commissions for the NUPE Journal gave me the opportunity to visit a huge variety of work places and the people who worked in them'. Thus, in 1983, he shot 1983 the Laundry Workers at St Charles Hospital in Notting Hill, West London and in 1985 the Southwark Council, Lugard Road Kitchens. In 1986, a domestic worker on a ward in St Charles Hospital, Notting Hill, London, was captured watching a speech by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was a good example of what Paul Carter would later say of Philip's work : 'He adds a touch of irony to make a point from time to time, but there are no barbs to his humour'.

In addition, his work with the Dominican Community in North Paddington led to his work in the 1980s in the Caribbean with banana farmers and migrant cane-cutters. In a later visit in 2002 he caught a migrant Haitian cane cutter working on a sugar plantation. He also recorded : 'Maudrie Davroux selects bananas at the packing station on her smallholding in Castle Bruce, in preparation for the fortnightly shipment to the UK under a fair trade scheme. With her son and grand-daughter she packs an average of 55, 43lb boxes per fortnight which end up on the shelves of supermarkets Tesco and Sainsburys'.

In the early 1990s he went to South Yorkshire during the big wave of coal pit closures and after revisiting in later years reflected that : 'The miners fought the closures and lost. "Coal not Dole" was their rallying cry, but the collieries were bulldozed back into green fields. Now, in their place, stand tin shed-style warehouses and call centres offering small numbers of jobs at minimum wage. In the intervening years some new, high tech manufacturing has established itself, but nothing providing the large-scale employment required to make up for the huge job losses of the last 30 years'. In 1991 he recorded one of the last miners to go down 'Deep Navigation Colliery' in Treharris, South Wales, on the day it closed.

Philip also worked on assignments in the Middle East and in the 1980s worked with health workers in the Middle East in Gaza. He captured a woman waiting for the result of a pregnancy test in a mobile family planning clinic in the village of Kfur Abil in Jordan.

In recent years Philip used his camera to capture the currents of activism expressed in 'Occupy London', the 'Grenfell Tower Disaster', 'Brexit: The People’s Vote March', 'Extinction Rebellion' and 'COVID-19' using the same spirit of social activism that had inspired his work 50 years before. He also continued to enjoy the thrill of taking his shot and said : "With many of them I can remember the buzz I got framing something I thought would work, and I do remember struggling to grab a shot of an arrest back in 1979. It was late in the afternoon and getting dark, I was using a Leica with no built-in light meter, shooting on Tri-X at 400ASA, and was down to a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second, nowhere near ideal for capturing a struggling captive being dragged away by two policemen. Luckily one of the frames was useable".

When Philip reflected on Speakers' Corner in the 21st century he said : "The crowds were much bigger, that's one of the biggest changes I think. There were more political platforms, they weren't mainstream by any means, but they were things like the London Anarchist Forum and there were things that were not religious. The proportion has shifted and there are now more preachers of both Christian and Muslim faiths than I think there were back then. There were some preachers who used to go there and rant and rave and other people used to go there and heckle them. In one instance that I saw in one of the newspapers, they even chased them away". 

Philip was interviewed about Speaker's Corner for the BBC World Update series in 2015 :

In recent years his visits to Speakers' Corner were less frequent and he asked : 'Is it just winter, or is Speakers' Corner in terminal decline ? On a recent visit - my first in over a year - religion, always a dominant presence, was the only thing on offer, mostly in the form of squabbles between Christian and Muslim preachers and hecklers. And there weren't more than three or four of those. I don't remember ever seeing such an unimpressive bunch. It was the last, rather miserable, Sunday of 2017. Dull and damp, with occasional spots of rain, and darkness threatening by mid-afternoon. So maybe not a fair basis for judgment. I will be back to check. I hope I am wrong'.

Philip remained up beat about the future of photojournalism. In an article for BBC News in 2011 entiltled : 'Adapt to survive : A photographer's view of the market today' he said : 'I've found the last couple of years the most difficult since I started out - but not fatal. Can the new opportunities replace the fading print market and collapsing library sales? Probably not for everyone. However, many of the old rules still apply. Quality and originality still have value. Niche specialisms are always in demand. Surviving as a freelance in the digital age requires new skills and an openness to new markets, but it is possible - and at least the scrabbling around should feel familiar. One other thing jazz and photojournalism have in common : if you want to get rich quick, try banking'.

Paul Carter, the photographer said : “The word that always comes to my mind when  looking at Philip’s work is ‘warmth'. His pictures are so warm and human. There isn’t an ounce of judgment in them. Yes, he adds a touch of irony to make a point from time to time, but there are no barbs to his humour. I get such a delight from his pictures, the same delight I get from his quiet smile. He just seems able to float quietly into situations and come out with intimate moments, effortlessly composed, timed and full of the quality of light he finds”.

Philip, the photojournalist himself said :

'It is a commonplace that "a picture is worth a thousand words", but I have never been happy with that valuation of the relationship between image and text. I would rather turn it on its head and suggest that, if a photograph is worth a thousand words, it deserves a thousand words - or at least a couple of hundred. An image is not a replacement for text - they complement each other'.

"I have been to places I would never have visited and met people I would never had the privilege to engage with, had I not had a camera in my bag and a story to tell".

He shared his legacy with us in his : 

Philip Wolmuth Picture Library 


Philip's 'Speakers' Corner 1977-2014' 

Saturday 13 March 2021

Britain says "Goodbye" to an old and much loved actor called Trevor Peacock, who once told Mrs Brown "You've got a lovely daughter"

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Trevor, who has died at the age of 89, had a long career as a stage and small screen actor, screenwriter and songwriter and was best known and best loved for playing Jim Trott in the BBC TV comedy series, 'The Vicar of Dibley' alongside Dawn French, who has read this post and tweeted : ‘This is fab’ and it is ironical that much of Trevor's early life was dominated by church.

He was born in Edmonton, North London, eight years before the outbreak of the Second World War in the Spring of 1931, the son of 'Queenie' and Victor, a commercial traveller for a drugs company and lay minister of the Baptist Church. In addition, to preaching in the church, Trevor recalled : "My old man was the organist and" and to manually maintain the air pressure, "I was always pumping, pumping. Didn't have electricity in those days". "I used to peep out and watch the old girls and the faces they pulled when they sang hymns and so suddenly my Dad would shout : "Trevor. Blow, blow, blow". So quickly I would pump".

Trevor's was a musical background : "In singing hymns 3 or 4 times a week and without knowing it, I suppose one got to know about tunes; middle eights; when to sing loud; when to sing low; the whole idea of creating a tune. I'd never thought I'd use it". His father was a good pianist, as well as being an organist, as was Trevor's brother, while he himself played a mouth organ. He concluded that "music had been going into my head at an early age".

Victor was 9 and living in Tottenham when, in 1940, after the outbreak of War, the aerial bombardment of London started and during the Blitz, he and his family sought shelter in the White Hart Lane underground station. 

He recalled : "I did put on shows during the Blitz time and it was great fun and they, (his parents), thought : 'He's enjoying himself'. But I took it very seriously. I don't know why. I think, though, a church is rather like a theatre. There's music and there's a platform and a big audience". His street entertainment with his friends was well received and he said : “The local papers would print stories like :


He drew inspiration from the comedy his parents had taken him to see at the theatre and recalled : "I loved the Crazy Gang and I wrote to them asking for signed photographs. They sent me these huge black and white photographs. I wrote notes on all their scenes and how they could improve their comedy. I think I was only eight".

When it came to the big screen, Trevor recalled that his parents "didn't like to go into the cinema. In fact, I was banned from it because the cinema was wicked".

However, when he was about 12 years old he was shown how to get into his local cinema through a side door. He recalled : "I saw the screen for the first time. An enormous screen. Clark Gable was the great hero those days. There was his head, as big as the wall and I thought : 'This is for me. This is exciting'". 

Trevor set about replicating the cinema at home : "So I used to hang a sheet up and I'd say to the kids : "You come in from that side and you come in from that side" so it looked just like it did in the films "And you just talk" and they said : "What do we talk about ?" "Anything. It doesn't matter what you talk about". And that's the magic. I didn't think that I'd actually do it and be paid for doing it".

His passion for theatre continued when he took his place, in 1942, at Enfield Grammar School for Boys and he wrote and performed in school plays. The school had been founded at the time of Queen Elizabeth I and its motto was 'Tant Que Je Puis' / 'As Much As I Can'. The time he spent on dramatics clearly prejudiced his academic work and he recalled that when he was in the sixth form, with his final school certificate exams approaching, one master had said to him : "Peacock. You must do some work. Time to do some work. Never attending the classes. You must get to work". To which he'd replied : "Get to work ? I'm writing the plays. I paint the scenery. I'm playing the lead".

Having left school in 1949 he was called up for his two year's National Service in the Army where he served as Corporal Peacock, was a crack shot and, much to his pleasing, was put in charge of entertainment for the troops with whom he was stationed. After returning to civilian life, and without any discernable training, he spent several years teaching classes of at Cuckoo Hall Primary School in Edmonton, Middlesex. 

By the mid 1950s he'd put teaching aside and described these financially lean years as his "poverty in the East End". This was broken when he got his first break on the professional stage in 1956, when he and the future rock 'n' roll impresario, Jack Gold, teamed up to put on a comedy double act at the Windmill Theatre squeezed in between the scenes with female strippers. Trevor had met Jack through their mutual friend, the composer, Vernon Handly, who was at school with Trevor and became involved with Jack in the Dramatic Society at Oxford University after which he'd gone on to study at the London Academy of Music,.

Despite their different routes into show business, Trevor and Jack formed a fruitful partnership and worked together to produce scripts for BBC Radio and Jack's career prospered when he became a Light Entertainment Producer at BBC Television and in 1957 introduced rock 'n' roll to Britain with his innovative series aimed at the young audience called the '6.5 Special'. Jack employed Trevor to write the scripts for the weekly show. This was the time when, as Trevor recalled : "Me and my mate Jack Gold co-discovered these fellows called Cliff Richard and Adan Faith and we laboriously taught them how to sing and gyrate" 

In 1959 Trevor himself compered the BBC television series 'Drumbeat' which aired for 22 episodes and was the BBC's answer and rival to Jack's new ITV' series 'Oh Boy!' When the composer John Barry, who had worked with Trevor on 'Drumbeat', scored the film 'Beat Girl' in 1960, as a vehicle for Adam Faith, Trevor was employed to write two of the songs, including the hit, 'Made You'. The film, incidentally, featured a young actor called Oliver Reed. 

The following year Jess Conrad had success with Trevor's  'Mystery Girl'. Trevor also wrote 'Stick Around' for Billy Fury and 'That's What Love Will Do' for Joe Brown.   

With the coming of the 1960s Trevor concentrated more on his stage work. In 1961 he met the theatre director, Michael Elliott at a party and when he told him that he wanted to be an actor, Michael responded with : "You start next week at the Old Vic", which was where he was working on a series of plays as Artistic Director. These were the years when he played small stage roles and, for example, in 1962 was the old servant Grumio in 'The Taming of the Shrew', in the relaunched Open Air Theatre, in Regent’s Park. 

In addition, he started to make appearances in television drama and in 1963 had an opportunity to both act in and provide songs for an episode in The ITV Television Play called 'The Lads' and is seen here with Tom Courtenay. He recalled : "I started to act on TV and they made a television play about the troubles in Cyprus". It was 1963 and this focussed on the British Army role in the conflict on the Mediterranean Island between the Turks and the Greeks. He continued : "The play was about these soldiers : that you're there to keep the peace. No flirting with local girls. That's forbidden". It was important that the soldiers were entertained by music on their portable transistor radios. "There were three soldiers, Tom Courtenay, Johnny Thaw and myself". Trevor was asked to write six songs for the soldiers, Dobely, Barritt and Adams and was given a week to do it.

His method in song creation was to look for a good line in a play as a starting point, since he considered that all his songs were basically stories. He recalled : "I read this thing and it wasn't 'Mrs Brown' it was "'Mrs So and So' you have a lovely daughter" and that was in a line and as I drove to work I kept saying "Brown""Brown" "I like that and as I drove I sang : "Mrs Brown you've got a lovely daughter". No, no, no, no good. I suddenly found myself singing : "Mrs Brown you've got a lovely daughter. Lovely daughter" and so that's good, that's good".

Four of the songs were released on a 45 Decca vinyl record with Tom Courtenay singing his version of the song and if you listen carefully you can hear Trevor's distinctive voice audible in the refrain and which he described as "I helped him with some bits". It is  accompanied here with stills from Tom's film, 'Billy Liar', which was released in the same year and starring him and the beautiful Julie Christie, who doubles up as Mrs Brown's daughter. 

Trevor recalled about 4 months after the release of the record : "Someone rang me up and said "You've got a song in the American hit parade". They said : "Listen out and you'll hear it" and I said : "Which song ?" and they said : "Mrs Brown". So I said : "That's me and old Tom Courtenay. That can't be true."

This is the best-known version of the song by Herman's Hermits, who took it to Number One on the US Billboard Hot 100 in May 1965 and number one in Canada the month before. The Hermits had never released the track as a single in Britain. It was recorded as an afterthought, in two takes and featured Peter Noone with his Lancashire accented lead vocals, with backing vocals from Karl Green and Keith Hopwood. The band never dreamed it would be a single let alone hit number one in the USA. 

In 1963, when John Barry was given the task of creating the score for the next James Bond film he contacted Trevor and asked him to supply the lyrics which led Trevor to what he called his "greatest failure as a writer". He recalled the conversation with John : "I said : "What's it going to be called ?" He said : "Goldfinger". I said : "The song, it's called 'Goldfinger' ?" He said "Yes". For Trevor the problem was to find lyrics which rhymed with 'finger'. He said to himself : "Finger, inger, linger, twinger. There's no rhymes and at any rate he's a villain". He tried hard to write it but in the end, picked up the phone and said : "John, I can't find the lines for it" and he went to a much better writer than me, Leslie Bricusse, and he wrote 'Goldfinger' and Shirley Bassey sang it. So I missed out on that one". 

In 1964, the year 'Goldfinger' was shown at the cinema Jack Good contacted Trevor to ask him if he would take part in a programme for ITV featuring the Beatles. The Shakespearean sketch featuring, Trevor opened with an an image of the Globe Theatre, with Ringo Starr unfurling a flag with the legend 'Around the Beatles'. What followed was a humorous rendition of the 'play within a play', from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', with Paul as Pyramus, John as his lover Thisbe, George as Moonshine, Ringo as Lion with Trevor in the role of Peter Quince.

The following year John Barry contacted Trevor to ask him to contribute the lyrics for his first stage musical, 'Passion Flower Hotel', which was to be performed first at the Palace theatre in Manchester and then the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. The musical was based on Rosalind Erskine’s 1962 novel about the girls at a boarding  school who hit upon the idea of losing their virginity by setting up a brothel to attract the boys of a nearby school. It starred Francesca Annis, Pauline Collins and Jane Burkin, who would later marry John and it was not a great success, running for only 148 performances. Trevor (left) was caught on camera at the theatre, in discussion with fellow lyricist Bob Russell, singer Johnny De little and John Barry (right).

Despite disappointment, Trevor, however, had the pleasure of hearing Barbra Streisand record his song ‘How much of the dream comes true’ on her 'Barbra Two' album in the same year.

When it came to his inspiration for 'Mrs Brown', Trevor recalled that the poet Shelley had written : '

'Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought' 

His "was a sad song about this bloke who loves the girl and she doesn't want him and it's sad and if you get the right minor key to sing it in, that's what works. It's amazing".

* * * * * * * * 

In acknowledgement to Mike D McGinty whose 2011 interview with Trevor provided substance and insight into his work and thinking.                                                 

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to Victor Ambrus, gentle 'Prince of Illustrators' who brought its past to life

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Victor, who has died at the age of 85, in his 60 year career as book illustrator, gave pleasure to and fired the imagination of hundreds of thousands of readers of almost 300 books, ranging from fairy tale compilations to children’s book illustration and adult non-fiction. 

He was born László Győző Ambrus, the son of in Irén and  'Győző' in Budapest, Hungary, in the summer of 1935. His was prosperous family,  supported by his father who was an industrial chemist. In fact, his early years must have been blighted by the violence of the times in Central Europe. He  was 6 years old when Hungary, which had joined Germany, Italy and Japan in the Axis Alliance, joined the Second World War and attacked the Soviet Union and young Victor may well have seen Hungarian troops on the streets of Budapest and known relatives who were enlisted to fight. 

Four years later when Hungary engaged in peace negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom, Hitler ordered the invasion and  occupation of his country and Victor, almost certainly, would have seen German troops and tanks on the streets of Budapest. 

He was in Budapest during 'The Siege', the 50-day-long encirclement by Soviet Russian and Romanian forces in which about 38,000 civilians died through starvation or military action, before it unconditionally surrendered in. He later recalled "the smoke and the rubble" he had seen and would have then witnessed Russian soldiers and tanks on the streets of Budapest. 

Victor’s passion for historical illustration took hold during these turbulent years. He recalled : “I just drew and drew and drew and enjoyed it. I illustrated anything that I read, books on history, poems". Perhaps, unsurprisingly, given the violence of the times, he also recalled :  "In fact I did a vast number of drawings of the fights we Hungarians had with the Turks in the 17th century".

His reading, however, was patently non-violent and at home there were  many English books translated into Hungarian which led him to later claim : "I was bought up on things like Winnie the Pooh'” with their illustrations by  E. H. Shepard and he enjoyed Tenniel's illustrations in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books Many of the books were given to him as presents and Ursula Moray Williams’ 'Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ was one of his favourites with its story of Uncle Peder the toymaker who fell on hard times and his little wooden horse which had to go out into the world and seek its fortune. Then, whether it was either working in a coal-mine, sailing the seven seas with a band of pirates, or walking the tightrope in a circus, the loyal little horse only had one wish : to return to his beloved master.

It was, however, the books of Arthur Rackham with their distinctive and extensive illustrations for a wide range of stories like 'Peter Pan' which most inspired his drawing and led him to claim, at the age of 80, that : “He was a huge influence on me and he meant that I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil”. Already he had an attraction to the narrative power of pictures and that "something about drawings appearing in books together with the stories that appeals to me".

No one in Victor's family had displayed artistic talent except one uncle who had died 17 years before he was born, during the 1918 Influenza Epidemic which swept Hungary after the First World War. Despite this, the family, supported his passion for drawing and he said his father, in particular : "was convinced I was going to be an artist when I grew up”.

That passion was satisfied in the Hungarian summers when spent many childhood holidays in the countryside outside Budapest, on the Hungarian Plains, where he started his lifelong passion for horses and drew the wild ones he saw grazing there. 

When he was 10 in 1945 and at the end of the Second World War, Victor started his secondary education at the St Imre Cistercian College, Budapest. It was in these teenage years that he became an admirer of the 19th century Hungarian illustrator, Mihály Zichy and would have been familiar with his illustrations for the Georgian epic poem, 'The Knight in the Panther's skin'. He also took an interest in the large historical paintings which he saw when he visited the  public art galleries in the city. 

He applied for a place at the Academy of Fine Art in Budapest and at the age of 18 in 1953, started his 4 year degree course at, what he later called : "A very fine, traditional school offering a classical training in drawing, including anatomy and all sorts of things you don’t often get these days. But illustration 'per se' didn’t come into my training actually. It was all terribly straight-laced. Illustration was just something I did for myself ”. 

After three years, in 1956, his studies came to an abrupt and premature end. As a student Victor was caught up in Hungarian Uprising, a nationwide revolution against the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet Russia-imposed policies. The revolt began as a peaceful student protest, which attracted thousands as they marched through central Budapest to the Hungarian Parliament building, calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers. 

When the State Security Police fired on the students, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital and on 4 November, a large Soviet Russian Army force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. As a member of the National Guard, who had trained before the invasion, as seen in the photo, he was asked to guard the Principal's Office in the Academy. He recalled : "It had lovely padded seats and I fell deeply asleep. There was a hammering at the door and when I pulled the curtains aside, literally, I looked down at the cannon barrel of a tank which seemed to be cranked straight at my head". As the situation developed : "They had a list of people who were attempting to hold the Academy building against the Russian tanks. I was one of these people. It was terribly frightening. Eventually they cornered us in the basement of the building and they executed eight of us on the spot, four students and four regular army soldiers. I was lucky to survive it”.

After these executions and in fear of his life, Victor had no choice but the flee the country and seek refuge abroad. Apart from the trauma of having to leave behind everything he had ever known, he also had the survive the dangerous trek to the border with Austria. He recalled : "It was winter and It was very demanding  physical conditions. There was heavy snow you had to walk through all night to get across the border. It was a kind of life or death decision. I had to leave family behind. I actually had no choice". He was 21 years old and became one of the 200,000 Hungarian refugees who fled and now sought a new life abroad. At the Austrian border Victor chose to make Britain his new home and where he hoped to continue his studies geared to the tradition of the British illustrators he so much admired. When asked : "Where do you want to go ?" Without hesitation he'd replied : "To England" because, as he later explained, he thought  : "I had all these illustrations in my mind. That is what I want to do and carry on working".

Speaking no English, he landed at Blackbushe Airport in Surrey where he was met by social workers and then taken on a twenty minute drive  to Crookham Army Camp near the Surrey town of Farnham, which he recalled : "Was a very good place in which to recuperate from my depression about Hungary. In a way the whole thing was terribly unreal. I arrived in December, just before Christmas, at this little town, and there were twinkly lights and Christmas trees and I just couldn't put the two together. I came out of the smoke and rubble and a whole town smashed up systematically. I just couldn't get over the contrast". 

Victor managed to discover that there was an art college just over the hill from his refugee camp and after presenting himself at Farnham School of Art and with three year's study in Budapest under his belt, was taken on as a student, not to follow any particular course, since he spoke no English, but to work at his drawing. At the age of 21, he was already an accomplished artist and had specialised in graphics, concentrating largely on engraving and lithography which, as he said, was an excellent training for line illustration. 

His haunting memories of his experience in Hungary obviously provided the stimulus for the cathartic series of drawings he undertook and he recalled : "It was nice to get back to some drawing, because after '56 I just didn't think that I would ever do any again. When I started drawing in Farnham I did some desperately depressing things. I could still find some of my lithographs of the horrors I'd left behind". One of these illustrations is his powerful 'On the Barricade of the Revolution', dated 1958, it shows a woman kneeling with face in hands before the bandaged, bloodied head of a man and other works at this time were titled : 'Execution' and 'Death Sentence'.

After two terms of study, both his tutor and the Principal of the School, recognised that Victor was ready for a higher level of study and commended him to the Royal College of Art in London, where the door opened in 1957, when he won a three-year Gulbenkian Scholarship to study 'Printmaking and Illustration'. By this time his spoken English had picked up, as he recalled : "I managed with a great deal of help from local girls who were very happy to teach you" and he had adopted his middle name 'Győző' as 'Victor'. After his staid and traditional course of study at Budapest’s Academy of Fine Art, Victor found that the College was more liberal in its approach and he later admitted : "I have never shed my early training in Budapest. By the time you are about 21, your tastes and style are largely formed, but the Royal College certainly loosened me up".

In 1958, Victor's talent and promise were recognised when he was fêted at the College as a 'Royal Scholar'. In the same year he married fellow student, Glenys Chapman, who would also go on to make a career as an illustrator of children's books. Two years later he took some samples of his work to the publishers. 'Blackie', who gave him his first commission. In those days, the Royal College took a dim view of students drawing for money. It was not, as Victor said, "The done thing" and he may well have been reprimanded. The book 'White Horses and Black Bulls' by  Alan C Jenkins, published in 1960 and set among wild horses in the Camargue, it was tailor-made for Victor. Its review in the Times Literary Supplement, included two of his illustration and led to a number of horse-related commissions coming his way. In these early years, Victor's work was still focused on creating lithographs and etchings.      

After graduation in 1963, he worked for an advertising agency and freelanced for Oxford University Press where he had met its Children's Editor, Mabel George who gave him Hester Burton's historical novel, 'Time of Trail' to illustrate. With its themes of social reform and freedom of speech at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Hester received the 1963 Carnegie Medal for that year. 

After two years at the agency he returned to the Farnham 
School of Art to teach, while continuing illustration part-time and in the same year he won the 'Kate Greenaway Medal' from the British Library Association, recognising the year's 'Best Children's Book Illustration' by a British subject for his 'The Three Poor Tailors'

This was the time that Victor was forced to change his modus operandi. When he looked back he said : “Etchings have played a big influence in my life because they produce fine quality lines and nice deep tones which appeal to me". The problem was they "need quite sophisticated machinery, making it hard to do at home" and so because he "was almost addicted to using very fine lines", he switched his technique and said that his : "early illustrations are very like etchings except that they were not actually printed etched into glass plates, rather, I just used a very fine nib”

At the same, historical scenes involving action forced him to change his technique and he reflected : "I was getting a lot of free flowing, fast action historical illustrations, where people might be riding a horse or fighting, and to start using very fine etching lines was not practical. It took a long time and gave the wrong effect. It became very laboured”. In addition, colour illustration was making its presence felt in publications and this forced him to make further changes : "I’d draw things up very quickly in pencil making sure everything moved the way I wanted it to and then I’d apply colour and more sweeping lines". These changes in his technique are reflected in his work for Rosemary Manning's 1963 novel 'Arripay', based on the exploits of Harry Paye, a privateer, who terrorised French and Spanish ships on the Dorset Coast in the early 1400s.

In 1967, 'Miss George', as he called Mabel, gave him K M Peyton's first 'Flambards' novel to illustrate, followed by 'Flambards in Summer' two years later. Both authors, Hester Burton and Kathleen Peyton, used his talent for drawing horses and with both, he built up a strong working  relationship. 

In his public life, Victor now moved on to work an art lecturer at the Farnham and Guildford Colleges of Art and would finally teach at the Epsom School of Art and Design. With his freelance work, as he started to get more commissions for historical scenes, he concentrated on historical accuracy and said : “I really enjoy the research. It’s important as otherwise the illustrations don’t feel convincing. It’s got to be right” and "All illustration is an extension of yourself. You have to feel what your characters are feeling and understand about their lives which is why research is also so vital". Working on a book about slaves in Egypt building the Pyramids he said : "I had to understand the heat, the terribly hard work, and the importance of the thing they were building'. 

In terms of authenticity, Victor said in an interview in 2016 that : "Most of all I would like to convey, not just what it looked like, but almost the smell of the place". Archaeologist Carenza Lewis confirmed his success when she said : "What Victor did so brilliantly was to bring the past to life". 

With more commissions involving riders on horseback, Victor felt it was important for him to accurately capture how people sit when they are riding and subsequently he took lessons and mastered the art himself. It was then he realised he didn’t know how horse soldiers had used a sword while in combat and that being the case, he said : "Now I happened to have a sword and so I took it out and practiced with it. I rode in the local forest where there were a lot of pine trees and I would take aim at a branch, swipe at it and see what was the best way of cutting it. Oh, I enjoyed it. But then I had to stop because one day a swipe revealed a white-faced mushroom picker who was scared out of his skin. I hadn't realised he was there and at that point I thought I’d better not do this any more and so I put the sword away”. 

His efforts were rewarded in 1975 when he won the Kate Greenaway Medal for the year's 'Best Children's Book Illustration' for 'Horses in Battle'. He later admitted : “ I love drawing horses. Why? Because they are so complicated. So impressive." and 

Victor was also fastidious when it came to accuracy in historical costume and clothing, something he had studied looking at the exhibits in the Victoria and Albert Museum where he had spent many hours just down the road from the Royal College of Art, when he was a student in the late 1950s. His verdict was that contemporary clothes were boring : "There’s no colour. Whereas the 17th, 18th century, they are fabulous”. 

In addition to historical illustrations, Victor enjoyed drawing animals and spent a lot of time observing them in zoos. He recalled : "One of my favourite drawings I did in London Zoo, of a fantastic male gorilla. He sat there and stared at me for a long time and when I finished the drawing and walked away he came up to the fence, right up to the edge. And other people nearby said, ‘Show him, show him your picture of him,’ and so I turned around and showed the picture to him and it was quite amazing. He took it all in, with his eyes wide open. I don’t know what he thought of it but he was definitely puzzled”. 

It was when he was 59 in 1994, thanks to 'The Reader’s Digest', that Victor became part of Channel 4s Television 'Time Team' crew when, in a Bristol library, the Director of the new programme came across Victor’s illustrations in a copy of 'History of Britain' published by The Digest. When Victor then met the Director, Tim Taylor, he was asked : "Can you draw quickly?" To which he replied "Yes, I can try". To which the Director responded : "Well, draw a portrait of me then". Victor recalled : "So I drew a quick-as-lightning pencil drawing of him and he was suitably impressed and the following week I was invited to go to Oxfordshire". This was the pilot episode of the programme in 1994 and from that point, Victor stayed with the programme for its 20 year duration until September 2014. 

In each episode, where the archaeologists on the Team had three days to excavate, Victor would draw interpretations of the site and the archaeological finds, whilst being watched both by members of the public visiting the excavations and then by millions of viewers when it was broadcast on TV.  Victor later reflected : "It was sometimes a bit of an ordeal because your hands get so cold drawing outside, but the hand-drawn illustrations brought something special. By being hand-drawn, the image is more alive, it is saying this how it could have been, whereas a computer printout will say this is how it was and there is no argument”. Victor drew without gloves since they hindered his feel of the paper. 

The 'Time Team' audience soon came to appreciate both Victor’s skill and hardihood in creating work for the programme. Many of the pictures shown were worked under difficult and uncomfortable circumstances, whether he was precariously perched on castle walls, or making his drawings drawing 27 metres in the air in a cherry-picker, or being strapped to the chimney of a small boat, or sheltering in a great many cold and draughty cow-sheds, Victor steadfastly pursued his task with discomfort on set occasionally eased with a little whisky.

Tony Robinson, a presenter of Time Team said : "I worked with Victor for twenty years watching him breathe life in to the past. He effortlessly provided the colour, human scale and imagination which enabled our viewers to visualise how people lived, worked and died". and

A pencil drawing of a fed up looking Alfred the Great tending burning cakes accompanied Victor’s story of the Team Team’s reconstruction of the infamous incident using authentic recipes and cooking implements. Victor recalled that the oatcakes tasted "quite awful!" and were liable to burn easily. In those days stone-ground flour meant that pieces of stone and grit left in the flour caused the bad teeth seen in many of the skulls of the period. He explained that the King's grumpy countenance might be explained by the fact that he suffered from the discomfort of piles.

In fact, Victor worked closely with his pathologist colleagues and used information such as gender, age, ailments and broken limbs to form an accurate depiction of the individuals to be painted. By working in such details, allowed his humanity and empathy to infuse his subjects whether he was drawing the village drunk, a member of the nobility, or victims of horrific execution practices which had the TV audience wincing in sympathy. He was also able to accurately depict the violence that has punctuated people's lives in the past :

The sheer range of the historical illustration Victor undertook is indicated by : 
1992 : his first Dracula illustrations appeared in the publication of 'Count Dracula' and he said that they were "especially dear to his heart"
1997 : he said he enjoyed the challenge he faced illustrating Geraldine McCaughrean's version of  'The Canterbury Tales' and five years later, 'El Cid'. 
1998 : Victor was one of seven leading British illustrators whose work was shown in the exhibition, 'The World of English Picture Books', which toured Japan. 
2008 : he designed a set of six historical stamps for the Jersey Post Office and one for the Royal Mail. 

In 2012 the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester led to the University commissioning Victor to capture his combat in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth.


Throughout his life, the experiences in Victor's formative years in Budapest, both as an artist and as a person, always influenced his work and his thinking, but over his 60 years in Britain he had become Anglicised and he once said : "I am Hungarian, but, the Americans enjoy my books because, they say, they are full of English humour".

It seems entirely appropriate to recall Victor's illustration of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial at time when the Netflix production of 'The Dig' has been shown on cinema and TV screens around the world. In fact when the 'Time Team' held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 2009, they chose Sutton Hoo as the venue. In addition, the two archaeologist protagonists in the story, Basil Brown and Peggy Piggott, like Victor, had no idea, when they were young, where their passion for digging, like his for drawing, would lead them. 

With Victor's passing, Michael Morpurgo, whose novel 'War Horse' was illustrated by Victor  has said :

"A great tree in the park has fallen, a tree many took for granted. He was just always there, drawing and painting our history for us. For so many young people, the first Viking they ever saw, the first castle or king, was drawn by Victor. He also happened to be always most kind and generous".

Victor's advice to would-be artists was : 

“Draw and draw and draw. And it’s important not just to do the drawing you have to do, but to draw for yourself, just to please yourself”.


In acknowledgement to Zoe Toft, whose 2015 interview with Victor provided substance and insight into his work and thinking.