A celebration of Nick Wadley’s life – address by John Besford
Some years ago, I was invited by Nick to say a few words at the launching of his new autobiographical book of drawings Man + Doctor at the Wellcome Institute in London. Being on holiday in Malta at the time, I declined the invitation on grounds of distance and inconvenience. I have much regretted this decision. So, having missed that particular boat, I feel fortunate to have been given a second chance by Jasia to conduct another unique launching, that of Nick himself, into the unknown, leaving a trail of laughter, love, art and humanity in his wake – and at his wake, as Nick would surely have pointed out.
My journey towards Nick and Jasia began exactly 50 years ago in 1967, when I was taken by the Deputy Director of the Edinburgh Festival, Alexander Schouvaloff, to a performance by the Stockholm Marionette Theatre (director, Michael Meschke) of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi (Kung Ubu in Swedish, which it was). The puppets and costumes were designed by Franciszka Themerson, based on her illustrated book of the play. It was and has remained one of the great theatrical experiences of my life (so much so that when I was afterwards taken backstage to meet Mr Meschke, I was completely speechless, a very rare event). The costume and puppet designs were the essence of this remarkable production. So, I just had to meet the designer Mrs Themerson, which I did in London, and not long afterwards found my way to her niece, Jasia and thus to Nick. We ‘hit it off’, you might say and have remained Themersonian friends.
And all of you, present here to celebrate Nick’s life – traveling from The Netherlands, Poland, France, Spain, Portugal and the USA as well as Britain – all of you must have hit it off with Nick. Your letters and e-mails to Jasia make that clear. Together they amount to a eulogy for Nick. The following are some of the phrases with which you have described Nick in letters and e-mails of condolence sent to Jasia:
- such a lovely, lovely man, appears most often in the messages
- gentle, warm, clever appear in many
- generous is often mentioned
- inspiring (this comment by the way is the Holy Grail for any teacher)
- one condoler described Nick as ‘an exceptionally good egg’, (revealing I think a Woosterian element among his chums)
- a remarkable contribution to the London art world over so many years
- his extraordinary range of knowledge, his lucid writing, his kindness and not least his wonderful inclusive smile
- full of humour and ideas, he could say one sentence or just one word, exactly to the point and also very funny
- one correspondent summed it all up: ‘he is/was the most beautiful person’
I shall now read a synopsis of Nick’s life in short 3 chapters provided Jasia Reichardt,
- a few facts
Nicholas Wadley was born in 1935 in Eltree, Herts, the youngest of four children. Went to Reed’s School, Cobham. (Thus the good eggness?) After National Service (during which he worked as a Morse code operator) he studied painting at the Croydon and Kingston Schools of Art and then art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art under, among others, Anthony Blunt.
He has two children: Caroline and Chris, and six grandchildren, a quorum of whom are here today.
He lived in London for most of his life.
Nick’s principal teaching work for 25 years, was at Chelsea School of Art, where he became head of department of Art History in 1970. He took early retirement in 1985 to do research and concentrate on his own work, writing and drawing.
Nick wrote some ten books dealing with art history, including a book about Gaugin’s manuscript Noa Noa (1985) and the standard volume on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Drawing (1991); He wrote countless articles; reviews; catalogue introductions, gave countless lectures. He curated many exhibitions (Kurt Schwitters, London, 1981 ), Franciszka Themerson Drawings (Ålborg 1989), Gaberbocchus Press (Paris, 1996), ‘The Secret Life of Clothes’ (Fukuoka, Japan, 1998), UBU in UK (London, 2000),’Franciszka Themerson, European Artist’ (London 2013). He was the chosen illustrator of several authors including U.A. Fanthorpe, Lisa Jardine, John Ashbery and others. He also spent many years working on the Themerson Archive with Jasia, writing about Stefan Themerson and Franciszka Themerson’s art and preparing her catalogue raisonné.
When asked to describe himself, he wrote: Nick Wadley writes and draws. After 1990, he became increasingly involved with drawing, or perhaps thinking through drawing. Many of these drawings appear in his books: Man + Dog; Man + Doctor; Man + Table; and Man + Book for which we have to wait until December. The next one he planned, a Franglais edition, was to be called Man + Homme. In collaboration with Sylvia Libedinsky, Nick contributed weekly cartoons from 1997-2002 to The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times and through her made his connection with Argentina where they both exhibited. The Otros Aires neo-tango music for which Nick provided the cartoons in Big Man Dancing comes from there and will accompany us as we leave this building. And then, there are the cards, like short stories or aphorisms, each on a subject to be deciphered or thought about. He had exhibitions of his drawings in London, Tokyo, Warsaw, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. During these 17 years he still wrote about art, mainly for the TLS.
I would occasionally ask to buy one of his small original drawings for post cards and one that caught my eye was of a man and a woman mowing the lawn and raking the leaves under a tree, both stark naked except that they wore green Wellington boots. It was entitled ‘The garden of Eden’. It was classic Nick. I loved it, bought it, and asked if he could think of some more on that theme. In due course, I received a small collection of originals through the post in an envelope entitled ‘The Eden Project’. Classic Nick. Brilliant.
Nick did a marvellous pencil sketch of WH Auden (which I have used in my lectures, along with some telling pictures from his Man + Doctor). One notion expressed by Auden resonated with both of us: ‘Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.’
I should like to give another example Nick’s kindness. In 2003 he had produced a book of visual puns or rebuses about British Artists, published by Pomegranate Communications in Petaluma, California. What disappointed me was that, perhaps with an American audience in mind, the publisher had dumbed it down by having Nick insert the name of the artist in the bottom of each picture frame. I felt this spoiled the fun of trying to identify the artists and told him so – more than once. One morning some ten years later I received a thickish envelope with a pencilled address in Nick’s beautiful italic writing. In it was a copy of a revised version of this book produced in a short print run without the artists’ names, specially for me, as Nick clearly stated in his introduction. In it he acknowledged my complaint and finished with the words ‘I hope you like them, John’. I was stunned by this act of generosity, still am. With friends like that, who needs anemones, as one of his e-mails puts it.
Auden also wrote (regarding the Golden Rule): We are all here on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for I don’t know. But Nick did.
My loving and beautiful wife Sonja tells me that there is a Jewish concept called tikkun olam which is expressed as acts of kindness performed ‘to repair the world’. Nick and Jasia together have been practicing tikkun olam and inspiring ‘the others’ to do the same for decades.
TO FINISH WITH WORDS AND MUSIC
Words were central to Nick’s art, as were the poems he wrote and published in his book Blue Owl, some of them suggested in his dreams. Under his pillow he kept a notebook, a pencil and a rubber, so Jasia reports. She has chosen three of Nick’s short poems to be read by friends. They will introduce themselves.
After that there will be a performance of three songs by The Cole Porter Choral Society (some of you may know it as ‘The Cole Porterers’) of which Nick was a co-founder. The songs will be introduced by David Nice.
Otros Aires music will finally accompany Nick’s and our exit from the building when Robert Devčić has pressed the button.