Despite having been in possession of a British Library reader’s ticket for more than six years, until recently I had never heard of the Artists’ Lives archive of recordings with living artists, a catch-all that appears to include poets, painters, sculptors, critics, gallery owners, dealers, curators, publishers and so forth. A discrete part of the overarching project National Life Stories, along with Industrial Lives, Craft Lives and Book Trade Lives amongst others, C466 Artists’ Lives active list of human subjects interviewed since the project’s inception in 1990 (the first five interviews were funded by seed money from the Henry Moore Foundation) is one that will probably appeal more to art world insiders than the wider public, for it seems to have largely steered clear of celebrity artists (even Tracey Emin’s NLSC interview focuses on drawing rather than her bad girl past). Perhaps some practitioners are not yet in their dotage or unwilling to look back on the past, too busy with careers and money making? This though is mere speculation, as the exact criteria that shape the direction and content of Artists’ Lives and how biographical noteworthiness is determined are unclear.
Having navigated from the BL’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to the Artists’ Lives web page and scrolled down it emerges that some electronic resources are formatted as ‘Play this’ and can be listened to immediately at any of four computers with headphones dotted throughout Rare Books & Music, whilst everything else (actually the vast bulk of material) must be ordered in advance either by an old-fashioned Playlist Request form or emailing the issues desk. Clicking randomly on a Details tab certainly brings up some intriguing statistics: eg Derek Boshier’s entire interview lasts some 25 hrs 13 minutes, Richard Demarco’s words are stored on 19 x 60 minute cassettes, Paula Rego’s tape 10 side B is blank, while Gustav Metzger’s testimony (recorded on a Marantz PMD660) is closed until April 2017, an option according to Project Director Cathy Courtney that can be “of greater value to posterity than an anodyne version for immediate release”. It is also handy from the research perspective to see the precise bibliographic information and extra material contained in summary form that comprises some entries.
Using the resource in an ad hoc manner though is not to be recommended. Grazing in the modern way, ie sampling from here, sampling from there must be carried out under close restraint, as so few interviews have been digitised, and therefore just turning up on the day and expecting to have instant access to a particular life story is not recommended. Frankly this is a resource for highly organised researchers, specialists who can plan in advance and order tapes or cassettes from the store to coincide with their visit. As such it might be claimed that Artists Lives is still somewhat antiquated as a delivery system (there is a noticeable transition in the late 1990s from Product, ie material stored on open reel, to Recording). Nevertheless the charm exuded by some conversations soon gets to work. Alasdair Gray’s moving reminiscences of his family, and growing up in industrial Glasgow between the wars are related in a full range of rich Scottish cadences, featuring many voices or personae in one recording, with the odd burst of sardonic laughter or apology for getting carried way by the performative side of his interview. Bruce Lacey also tells a good yarn, and reveals how he once smuggled government issue cigarettes from his Royal Navy ship after cutting a compartment out of a history book, whilst the painter Patrick Heron, tentative at first, memory faltering, until gently nudged along by Mel Gooding recounts a pre-war trip to Nazi Germany in which the Gestapo boarded the train and sneered at his capitalist top hat (Heron was on his way to a wedding in Berlin). Looking back into the long lost past these figures often find it hard to keep the thread, and sometimes actually lose it along the way, but aided and abetted by the odd deft intervention can be heard to actually be in the process of rediscovering a buried archive of experience as if scraping away grime; although quite how much preparation or scripting has been done in expectation of the interview is impossible to tell. These are old stories, so the best or most vivid ones in other words, not to say embroidered over and over again through their recall.