Ben Hartley: The Notebooks
The quantity of work in the Ben Hartley bequest was enormous, but not extraordinary in the case of an artist who did so little to have his work exhibited in his lifetime. What was extraordinary was the fact that the bequest included virtually all the notebooks he had kept throughout forty years of his life, from his days as a student in Manchester in the early 1950s through to his final years in Presteigne where he died in 1996. The bequest contained numerous outstanding paintings that had never been exhibited. Their posthumous discovery has contributed greatly to the enhancement of his reputation. The discovery of the notebooks may well be of even greater importance.
At the level of sheer technical ability, the notebooks reveal an artist with an exceptional gift for drawing, always easeful, unforced and characterful. However, the notebooks are much more than a display of exceptional drawing. The nature of the notebooks evolves with the years. They are little short of the complete picture of a man’s life, in this case an artist possessed of great intelligence and profound spirituality.
The notebooks in the bequest archive begin in 1953. The earliest is a record on foolscap paper of a visit to Paris in the summer of 1953. In the December of that year he began filling a large artist’s sketchbook, again foolscap in size, devoted to drawings and paintings of the rugged landscape around the family home in the Peak District; Hartley was just twenty and the drawing is powerful and highly accomplished. However, these large notebooks are the exception. Most of the 322 notebooks now in the archive are small, homemade notebooks, easy to carry about in a coat pocket.
When he was a student in Manchester much of his drawing was done in the streets in working class neighbourhoods in the city centre, not far from the Regional School of Art. They work well as a record of people in post-war industrial Britain. Fellow students from the Manchester years still recall how his notebooks were held up as an outstanding example of good practice.
In the late 1950s, after he left the Royal College, the fundamental importance of country life come to the fore, especially in 1958, when his older sister and her family moved to the Border Marches, in Herefordshire, where Ben Hartley became a regular visitor, until finally moving to live there in 1983. Town life briefly reappears in 1960 when he began work in Plymouth and lived for the first year in digs in the town. But before long he was exploring Devon and Cornwall. In November 1961 he settled in the village of Ermington, 11 miles east of Plymouth. At this point the notebooks take on the character of diaries and become the record of his artistic and religious development.
Given their fragility and vulnerability, it is extremely difficult to make notebooks widely accessible. With the advent of the computer the task has become significantly easier than in the past. This site carries a miscellany of drawings found in the earliest notebooks from 1953 to 1955, followed by three complete notebooks, chosen more or less at random, an introductory offer, as it were.
Early notebooks is a selection of pages from notebooks covering 1953 and 1954, Ben Hartley's final year at art school in Manchester and his first year at the Royal College of Art in London.
1954 notebook (size 160mm x 100m) shows one of the early notebooks in its entirety.
May 1961 notebook (size 170mm x 115mm) covers his arrival in Plymouth to start teaching at the College of Art, some months before moving into his house in Ermington.
French notebook (size 160mm x 115mm) is undated. Fifty of the 322 notebooks are about France. Few of them have dates, so it is impossible to state how many times he visited. However, one can see that he relished going to France.