from the B.S.Museum Library

Walter Strachan (1903-94): the man on a bike

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

There was little to suggest that the genial Bishop’s Stortford College languages tutor, often seen cycling round the town (when he was not gallivanting in France or Italy), was a major figure of his day in the arts world. Beneath the suit, tie, pullover and bicycle-clips, was an intriguing man. Out of College hours he was an international cultural figure, a friend, colleague and contact of artists and writers across Europe.

His appreciation was for modern creativity and his passion was for books by significant authors and poets of the day and the artist-illustrators who put pictures to their words. There is a divide in concept between artists and illustrators: the former leads a lonely inspiration-seeking existence while the latter provides a commercial service. However in Paris there was a trend to produce books in limited editions bringing together leading writers and graphic artists, to collaborate on hand printed crafted collectors items. Strachan, a Francophile, found these volumes totally inspiring and wrote a book on them. Artists are sometimes derisive about the academics who theorise about their works : none of the often intense verbage seems to click with their own idea of what they are doing, Strachan avoided this by visiting artists and printmakers and involving them in probing discussions before putting pen to paper. How did he break down the reserve of such grumpily self protective modern masters as Marcel Gromaire? Foremost he was appreciative and enthusiastic. He was not a critic. He could chat informally in their own language and enthused about their spirit of experimentation, their vision and use of materials. These qualities and his open personality made him a welcome visitor in many studios where others would have been seen as intruders. He was a wonderful communicator as over two thousand letters of his show. Another factor was Nancy Cunard.

I first came across the name Walter Strachan not in Bishop’s Stortford but on a visit to the Victoria and Albert in 1991. Browsing around I came to a strange exhibition of modern art prints, drawings and small paintings all showing owls in various guises. It turned out that in 1952 on a visit to Roger Castel’s studio Strachan showed such delight in a print of an owl that it became a talking point in Parisian circles and consequently it became the thing to give him a work at any opportunity showing that wise old bird. He was the ‘’owl man’’. He rewarded their spirit of generosity by persuading the V&A to purchase sixty examples of their varied illustrative works (not owls!) and also by giving illustrated lectures whenever he got the chance. There was nothing flippant about his owlishness : he disliked any Disneyfication of that venerable bird. His whole collection, amounting to fifty-eight images was bequeathed to the V&A in1993.

Strachan was a published poet and this put him in touch with another writer of verse, Nancy Cunard, who knew and mixed with the artistic elite across Europe. She is sometimes portrayed as a bohemian spoilt wild-child of the roaring twenties but was in fact a creative spirit whose knowledge and intellect opened as many doors as her flair for entertainment. She became a firm friend and promoter of Strachans’ and a great help to him.

He also had a keen interest in modern sculpture. It was inevitable, taking into account the short distance between Bishop’s Stortford and Perry Green, that Strachan would be seen regularly cycling across to Henry Moore’s studio home. Moore was one of the key figures in his life who, apart from all things arty, also shared his interest in poetry and encouraged his writing. Despite Strachan’s poetic nature his outlook was not sentimental. He was taken aback when Moore defended the work of Sir Russell Flint depicting scantily clad idealized women in stage-set locations. For Strachan the essentials in art were form, design, colour and line. Victorian stress on emotional story-telling was out of date. In his world there was more artistry in calligraphy than an academic nude study.

Strachan’s more notable artist friends and contacts, among many, included Barbara Hepworth, Elizabeth Frink, Edward Bawden,Giacomo Manzu, Albert Flocon, Edouard Goerg, Marcel Gromaire and Jean Lurcat (now more famous as a tapestry designer). There was also Percy Horton, one time Bishop’s Stortford resident and College art teacher who went on to the Royal College of Art and subsequently became Master of Drawing at Ruskin College.

Even if he had not indulged in any of the things mentioned so far Strachan would still have claim to fame as a literary figure. Yes, he had four books of his poems published but he also produced a staggering thirty two translations of works by French, Italian and German authors. Most of them were prose fiction but one of the last to reach the bookshelves was ‘Pop Art an Illustrated Dictionary’ (Methuen 1977) by the French author J Pierre. One of his gifts was the ability to translate poetry from one language to another without losing the essential underlying nuances in language and meaning (see ‘Apollinaire to Aragon: Thirty Modern French Poets’ – Methuen 1948) . In all he had nearly fifty books published. Of course he had many literary friends and associates including Stevie Smith, Sylvia Townsend, Tristan Tsara and Paul Edouard.

The man on the bike who in the thirties lived in Thornfield Road and subsequently in the College campus did not often descend from lofty pursuits to the pavements of Bishop’s Stortford, but he did on at least one occasion when the future of the Corn Exchange was in peril. As part of a team which included Henry Moore and Maurice Elliot he helped to start the process of conservation.

This gives compressed details of a notable Stortfordian (most towns have notables buried in the archives and it is heartning to pull them out and give them a dusting!). A more comprehensive biography can be found in ‘Walter Strachan – Only Connect’ – Jon Carpenter Publishing, 2005.

Michael Cook

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