Michael Bird is the guest curator for our new exhibition 'In Their Own Words: Artists' Voices from The Ingram Collection', which brings together striking works of Modern British art and audio recordings of interviews with the artists who made them. For this unique exhibition experience, Michael sifted through the Artists' Lives oral history archives of the National Life Stories project at the British Library. In this week's blog, we have a chat with Michael to find out more about how this exhibition was put together. 

Michael Bird with Riace III (1986), Elisabeth Frink © Peter Hall

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you started working on artists’ oral histories?

I’m a writer and independent art historian, and have been using Artists’ Lives recordings in my research for books since about 2004. For these projects I listened in detail to a total of seven or eight interviews, but I was aware of a vast archive of other recordings – almost 400 at the last count – waiting to be explored.

Most of my published work involves visual art, but I originally studied literature and I love the theatre. I easily fall under the spell of the voice – I’m also a compulsive eavesdropper on public transport, I’m afraid! I get drawn into the detail of life stories.

Radio is another medium that I very much enjoy. I’ve made a few programmes about artists and have just recorded a Sunday Feature for BBC Radio 3 about Terry Frost and Patrick Heron (who are both included in the exhibition).

When National Life Stories offered a Goodison Fellowship for research into the Artists’ Lives archive, I thought this would be a marvellous opportunity not just to research art history using oral evidence but also to approach art through the voice – through the pictures the speakers create in our minds.

In Their Own Words: Artists' Voices from The Ingram Collection © The Lightbox

How was the concept of this exhibition put together?

The proposal to stage an exhibition using material from Artists’ Lives was part of my Goodison Fellowship application. I thought of The Lightbox as a possible venue, because I knew that The Lightbox had already used oral history very creatively in its permanent displays – I’d visited a few times and enjoyed the connections between objects and voices in Woking’s Story.

When I contacted The Lightbox’s curator Peter Hall, he explained that a 10th Anniversary show from The Ingram Collection was already planned for summer 2017. Since Chris Ingram’s collection contains work by many of the artists who also recorded interviews for Artists’ Lives, this seemed like an ideal match.

In June 2016 I had a meeting with Peter and the team from The Ingram Collection, when we broadly agreed the content and format for the exhibition. I’m delighted that, through a collaboration also involving the British Library and National Life Stories, we’ve ended up with a show that reflects the original concept pretty closely.

In Their Own Words: Artists' Voices from The Ingram Collection © The Lightbox

The recordings are from the Artists’ Lives oral history collection from National Life Stories at the British Library. Can you explain a bit more about this collection?

Artists’ Lives was established in 1990, as a separate programme within National Life Stories. This is the UK’s national archive of oral history, which is based at the British Library in London.

Interviews with artists in magazines or on television usually focus on career markers like exhibitions and prizes, and discussions of studio practice. Artists’ Lives interviews start from birth and childhood and cover all stages and areas of life – art, family life, relationships, the lot.

Artists’ Lives interviews can be very long, going off at tangents, with the highpoints spaced far apart. At the same time, you can really hear artists thinking things through, diving down into memory, painting word pictures of places or people they’ve known. You get the whole texture of the artist’s life and times, not just the professional CV.

A fascinating coincidence that came to light during my research was that the social historian Paul Thompson, who co-founded National Life Stories, had grown up in Woking. A teacher at school was a friend of Henry Moore and would bring original drawings by Moore into lessons. Paul’s father, a successful Woking shopkeeper, also became interested in art, and Paul persuaded him to buy a sculpture by Moore. Years later, after Paul inherited this sculpture, he sold it to help fund the setting up of National Life Stories, which of course led to Artists’ Lives. We recorded this story in an interview with Paul, included in the exhibition.

Eduardo Paolozzi, left, in Artists' Voices © The Lightbox

How did you decide which audio recordings to match with the selection of artworks from The Ingram Collection?

We worked out that there were 22 artists who were represented in both The Ingram Collection and Artists’ Lives, and whose recordings were accessible (some, such as John Craxton’s, remain ‘closed’). I selected work and identified extracts from interviews by all these artists, grouping them into themes that reflect aspects of an artist’s life and practice, such as childhood (‘Home Is Where We Start From’), ‘Watching People’ or ‘Places and Spaces’.

For some of the artworks, such as Elisabeth Frink’s Goggle Head or Eduardo Paolozzi’s designs for his mosaic mural at Tottenham Court Road tube station, I found extracts in which the artists discuss those specific works. I also deliberately chose other extracts where artists talk about things that, on the face of it, have nothing to do with art, like Carel Weight remembering bathtime as a very young child. Who can say exactly which experiences form our personalities or shape an artist’s work? It’s all part of the mix.

The extracts are short, mostly between one and three minutes, because I’d like visitors to be able to listen to a number of voices in a single visit.

Selecting sculptures for the exhibition © Michael Bird

Do you have a favourite artwork or recording in the exhibition?

My favourite artwork has to be the little sculpture of women with children and prams by Rosemary Young (above, front). In the way it’s constructed, it echoes the wiry metal sculptures for which her partner, and later husband, Reg Butler became famous in the 1950s, but it’s very different in feeling.

Butler’s kind of welded metal sculpture was seen as such a macho, serious business – an expression of the Cold War age of anxiety. But Young’s sculpture is delicate, tender and humorous. It’s about some of the other great themes of the post-war era, such as child-rearing, community, making-do in times of Austerity – about women’s experience rather than men’s. And I have a weakness for the kind of sculpture that’s like three-dimensional drawing and casts interesting shadows.

I guess my favourite recordings are the ones that make me smile, for various reasons. There’s Eileen Agar’s forceful, old-school upper-class voice, which in her nineties had lost none of its energy. Or Ralph Brown remembering when he tried to carve a snowman in the shape of a naked lady. Or William Gear on his first art class at school – a competition to draw the teacher’s handbag. I could go on – there are different details that catch my attention each time I listen.

The 'sound dome' hanging in the exhibition © The Lightbox

What kind of insights into the artists’ lives can visitors expect to discover from spending a bit of time sitting and listening in this exhibition?

Just listening to someone’s voice is an intimate experience, in a way that watching people on television isn’t. You tend to sit back and objectify people when you’re watching them on screen, but when you listen they’re inside your head.

I think that encounters with art should have this feeling of intimacy, as if the painting or sculpture, or whatever it is, is speaking to you alone. When this happens, you feel very close to the moment the artist was making the work, no matter how long ago this was.

These encounters can take place even in crowded, noisy places. You suddenly feel quiet and focused, a bit like having headphones on, cutting out all the interference. If visitors get this experience from the show, just once or twice, I’ll feel that it has worked.

On a more educational level, if you listen to a good selection of the interview extracts, you’ll learn all kinds of things about modern British artists that have never been published in books!

Michael’s most recent books are Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories (Laurence King Publishing) and George Fullard: Sculpture and Survival (Gallery Pangolin / Lund Humphries). To find out more visit www.michaelbird.info.

Michael will give a talk on his book The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Time and Place on Thurs 22 June at 7pm.

Book tickets

In Their Own Words: Artists' Voices from The Ingram Collection is open till 30 July 2017. Entry with a £4.50 Day Pass or £7.50 Annual Pass.

More information