Aiming at the highest peaks: Wilfred Thesiger rewrites his first book

The explorer Wilfred Thesiger never intended to write a book about his travels, but in 1956 he was persuaded, and he began work on Arabian Sands.  Thesiger’s old Eton friend Valentine ffrench Blake commented on the first draft, calling certain paragraphs ‘clumsy’ or simply ‘no good’.  Thesiger was grateful for his friend’s advice and during the next three years the work was subjected to constant revision and proofing.

However, the meticulous revisions of the work took their toll and Thesiger became disillusioned with the whole thing.  Thesiger’s literary agent Graham Watson of Curtis Brown had to persuade him not to throw in the towel, writing in a telegram that ‘those who aim at the highest peaks must be judged by the highest standards’.  Watson was sympathetic but stern, insisting Thesiger labour through a steady working day even if redrafting was ‘darned discouraging work’ — good advice for any writer.

The words had the desired effect and Thesiger went on to complete Arabian Sands and a further eleven books.  Thesiger maintained that Arabian Sands was his finest work.

By Ceri Brough, Project Archivist

Hodgkin at Eton

Venice Evening

Venice Evening, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

On 9 March 2017, the artist Howard Hodgkin died in a London hospital. One of the most significant and influential painters of his generation, Hodgkin is also the most celebrated of the many distinguished Old Etonian artists. His first retrospective, curated by Nicholas Serota, was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1976. In 1984, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in the following year won the Turner Prize. He was knighted in 1992 and made a Companion of Honour in 2003.

Hodgkin’s connection to Eton is recognised by the display of two prints, Venice Evening and Venice Night, from the Venetian Views series (1995), each almost two metres wide, which hang in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre. However, he was only a pupil at Eton for one academic year, before his repeated running away led the school to insist he attend sessions with a therapist. He had lived in America as a young child and later claimed that he successfully persuaded the therapist to recommend that he return to the States instead of beginning a second year at Eton. But despite being deeply unhappy as a schoolboy, later in life Hodgkin fondly recalled the time he spent in the Drawing Schools with the then Drawing Master, Wilfred Blunt. He admired Blunt’s willingness to offer a clear verdict on the merits of a work, a quality he feared was being lost, and claimed to have learnt something of how to live as an outsider from Blunt. He held particularly vivid memories of Blunt’s eclectic collection of objects displayed within a glass cabinet in the Drawing Schools. These assorted items were intended for boys to draw or paint from and Hodgkin specifically recalled among them an African sculpture of a dog with an erect penis.

Venice Night~hi

Venice Night, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Over half a century after his single year as a pupil of Eton, Hodgkin returned for a fleeting visit. In 2002 he was asked to open a new extension to the Drawing Schools and to view his two prints, newly installed in the Farrer Theatre. Current Drawing Master, Ian Burke, remembers meeting Hodgkin during this visit:

He was obviously a very intelligent and slightly detached man, who did not comment on any of the work on display. He seemed relatively pleased that the two prints in the Farrer Theatre had been purchased by his old school.

In his speech, when declaring the new section of the Drawing Schools open, he thanked Eton and the past Drawing Master Wilfred Blunt for encouraging his enthusiasm for painting and art in general. He described Blunt as inspiring and very encouraging to a boy who much preferred painting to games.

The prints can still be viewed in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre at Eton.

By Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine & Decorative Arts