Bill Anstice Brown, art master at the school from 1953 – 1967, died at the end of June at his home in Crewkerne.
There can be few men who could be said to be as truly Shirburnian as Bill Anstice Brown. Not only did his father, Claude, attend the school, but so did his eight uncles, since the Brown family was already firmly settled in the town by the late 19th century.
Bill himself was born in Golders Green, London, in April 1928. By that time his grandfather Brown had died, so there was no call to visit Sherborne in his early childhood. Therefore Bill’s introduction to the town of which he was to become so fond was when he was aged about twelve and was sent to the ‘wee prep’. His mother had just taken him back to school there in October 1940, driving away from the town to the sound of sirens, when four bombs dropped in the Prep school garden, fortunately without injuring anyone but making for quite a noisy and un-nerving welcome! Bill would occasionally recall the task given to the boys of picking up the shrapnel in the garden, which had been marked out in squares, one per boy!
It was a natural progression to follow in his father’s and uncles’ footsteps to attend Sherborne Boys’ School, and Bill entered as a boarder at Lyon House in the second academic term in 1942. It was rather touching to find that amongst the letters and papers in Bill’s desk after his death was a letter from the housemaster H.Trelawny-Ross, welcoming him to the House and School.
Under the tutelage of Ruth Gervis, Bill’s nascent talent for painting was nurtured and allowed to blossom and he was twice awarded the Longmuir Art Prize, which his father had won before him (and which, incidentally, Bill’s son, Sam, also achieved).
At the end of his school career Bill gained a place to study at the Slade School of Art, University of London, but his enthusiasm to begin studying the subject to which he was clearly born was cruelly frustrated by the inevitable call up to National Service in 1946. Dreary though he found the experience (a lot of which apparently involved counting ballbearings), it did introduce him to the skills needed to be a schoolmaster, since the army appointed him responsible for teaching its illiterate soldiers to read.
So it wasn’t until 1948 that Bill finally went up to the Slade and began his dedicated art studies. Having attained a Diploma in Fine Art after three years, he was then granted a fourth year for post diploma study, on the grounds of special merit.
During his time as a student Bill returned to Venice, a city he had already visited, and fallen in love with, on travels with his mother. Through family friends he gained an introduction to the family who owned the Palladian Villa Rotonda, where he stayed and was increasingly inspired by its architecture and romantic setting. One memory from those days to which he sometimes amusingly referred was his encounter with the great Salvador Dali at a party at the Villa Malcontenta. Apparently it was the unusual braces the eccentric artist sported to keep his socks up which left an impression!
Having graduated in 1952, Bill spent a couple of terms teaching art at Park Gate school on the Wirral, but when it was time for Ruth Gervis to hang up her brushes as “Art Master” at Sherborne, it was inevitable that Bill would return south to follow in her footsteps.
Many artistically inclined boys found the Art School under Bill’s custodianship to be a welcome haven from the somewhat heavily promoted sporting ethic of the school at the time. Sir Timothy Clifford, former Director of the National Galleries of Scotland and one of Bill’s pupils, remembers “his great enthusiasm for Renaissance Art, for Palladian architecture in particular and his excellence as a draughtsman greatly impressed me as a schoolboy. He had a delightful sense of humour, was kind and considerate and in every way a remarkable man who I shall never forget.”
In similar fashion Sir Hugh Hildesley, Director of Sotheby’s New York, shares fond memories: “Bill taught me the rudiments of painting and drawing from which I still gain pleasure, but, more importantly, he was my introduction to the history of art, which remains a lifelong passion. He definitely sowed the seeds for this journey, by creating a welcoming, friendly space in which it was permitted to talk about art and aesthetics, in a school that at the time regarded such subjects as being peripheral to the task of manufacturing stiff upper lips. I recall him with huge fondness and endless gratitude. He was a “gentle giant” who won over a generation of Shirburnians.”
During his time running the Art School Bill arranged for many well-known and respected figures in the art world to come and talk to the boys, including Helmut Rhurman, the leading Rubens expert and restorer. Bill kept some amusing letters in which Herr Rhurman expressed concern in case the images he would be showing (inevitably of naked ladies) would elicit too many stifled giggles from the schoolboys!
Although his approachable way of teaching came so naturally to Bill, the chief passion in his life, his desire to paint, had yet to be fulfilled. In 1966 a Goldsmiths Travel Award enabled him to return to Italy and be reminded of just what he wanted to achieve and the following year he left the school and, with his wife Rozanne, established Sherborne Gallery, the first of its kind in the town. The Gallery held exhibitions of early English watercolours, which had always been an interest of Bill’s. There’s a famous family tale of how his mother had sent her teenaged son out with precious coupons to buy some Golden Syrup and he’d returned instead with two watercolours by John Varley which had caught his eye, his artistic enthusiasm completely wiping the shopping errand from his mind.
The Gallery developed into offering framing and restoration, as well as holding many exhibitions of assorted artists including Bill himself. At last he had the opportunity to concentrate more fully on his own work, producing his characteristically gentle, light-filled landscapes of Dorset, Cornwall, Italy and France.
Undoubtedly the works he leaves behind which are the most fascinating and treasured are his capriccios. These fantasy oil paintings, in style a cross between Lorrain, Turner and Canalletto, combined his love for two places, Sherborne and Venice. He often described how, as a young master, he would wander round the school courts imagining what the buildings would look like in a Venetian lagoon setting. Thanks to his immense skill as an artist, combined with a rich imagination, he was able to bring this vision to life for others to witness and, if fortunate, to buy and hang on their own walls. These capriccios were so in demand that often the paint was scarcely dry on the canvas before they were purchased, while he also undertook commissions from people who wanted their own properties to be thus romanticised.
After Sherborne Gallery closed in 1981 Bill continued to paint in his studio at their home in Newland, combining this with painting trips abroad both on his own and with Rozanne.
In his latter years he painted less and less, though he never lost the intention to return to his easel. He also never forgot that at heart he was also a schoolmaster. Lying in bed in Crewkerne cottage hospital in his last few weeks, he found himself facing a crookedly-hung landscape painting on the wall opposite.
“Of course,” he said dryly as he scrutinised the picture, “I can’t help being the schoolmaster and criticising everything the artist has done wrong and think of how they could do it better.”
Bill’s humourous outlook on life lasted until its very end, and is recalled by everyone who knew him, along with his innate modesty and gentle character. He leaves behind him a large body of work that many lovers of fine art continue to enjoy every day on their walls, as well as the many fond personal memories that all who encountered and spent time with him will certainly value and appreciate.