Recently, I gave a talk about one of my most favourite archive collections: Thomas Baron Pitfield.
Pitfield’s archival legacy is stunning. Not just in the material itself, although that is beautiful (and I mean that in the Kantian sense), but also as an example of an archive. I’d like to share some of thoughts about the collection here.
But first, and this is really important, you need to understand Pitfield. Or at least know a little about him and we can learn a lot about him from his autobiographies.
He was born in 1903 in Bolton, an unplanned and unwanted son in a strict Conservative household. Clothed and fed he was then left to his own devices. This, he believed, nurtured resourcefulness and his innate creativity. At a very early age he was showing clear signs of being a gifted artist with a natural aptitude for music.
For example, he was figuring out musical scores by glancing at them in shop windows and making toy stages out of the leftover wood blocks in his father’s carpentry shop, all before he was 10. He felt completely out of place within his family who never encouraged art or music, or indeed betterment of self through enjoying art, literature and music were never considered in the household. He described himself as the thing that quacked when it should have clucked.
So then you have this kid who can think of nothing but art, literature and music; who learns how to play the piano simply by watching others do it; who was so enthralled by a German marching band that he followed them for miles on foot; who is a little rebel from the start.
I like him already.
Despite this un-nurtured upbringing, he became the opposite of an anti-social recluse. He loved talking to people, he loved dialects and listening to people’s stories. He grew up, I have been assured, to be one of the nicest and most generous men ever to grace the North West.
He says he was removed illegally from school at 14 and sent to work in an engineering factory – an apprentice to a draftsman and helping to build machines for the industrial capitalism that was still powerful in the North.
He despised the work. Not only was it un-creative but he hated the idea that something he helped create may one day kill someone. He recalls a few near misses in the factory in his autobiographies. He deeply identified with pacifism and abhorred the cold, unthinking mechanics of Conservative capitalism. He worked 8 hours a day in the factory, attended technical school at night and art school in his own time.
He was a young man with a plan, though. Instead of going to get an engineering degree at the end of his apprenticeship, he planned to get admitted to the Royal Manchester College of Music and at 21 he was admitted for composition. His parents were shocked. He’s saved up secretly, practiced music secretly, planned all this secretly and then went for it.
After 1 year, he was bankrupt. Tuition, travel and student expenses drained him dry and he didn’t come back for the next term.
He became a tutor in music and pursued his passion for art and composition. He found this easy to indulge in within Liverpool’s hotbed of musicians, composers and thinkers. He was involved in lots of societies at this time, most importantly he was part of The Circle. This was a jigsaw of musicians, artists, poets and other creative types. They would get together, talk about music and literature and sometimes create and perform music for and with each other. It was here he met a pianist called Alice who became his best friend, future wife and stronghold in his life.
After uprooting to the Midlands for a paid job working for the Unemployment Club as a teacher in carpentry, he uprooted again to become a music and woodwork teacher in a school after WW2 took all the unemployed into factories for the war effort.
It was at this time that his pacifism had an organised outlet. He became involved in pacifist movements by designing slogans and art works to illustrate their cause during WW2 and also his own ethics.
Fortunately, when called up to serve, he was made exempt due to his profession as a teacher being protected. Unfortunately, he wanted it on record that he was a conscientious objector but they wouldn’t let him.
After the war. he was eventually asked by the RMCM to join the staff at the College.
In between his time as a student and lecturer at the College he’s made quite a name for himself as composer and was regularly completing commissions for the BBC and others in both composition and art.
He worked at the College from the late 1940s until 1973, when, in his 70th year, he retired just as the RMCM joined with the Northern School of Music to become the RNCM as it is now. He lived well into his 90s and died in Bowdon, Cheshire, on 11 Nov 1999.
So, what he was: composer, ‘cellist, pianist, artist, poet, bookbinder, calligrapher, teacher, carpenter, campaigner.
But the really important thing to know when looking at his archive, is to understand who he was. He was: an autodidact, a pacifist, conscientious objector, a non-denominational Christian, a vegetarian, a lover of the outdoors and nature, politically left-wing or “non-Conservative” as he called it and a polymath.
So, onto his collections.
What I’ve learned whilst working at the College is that when it comes to creative types, what they do sharply reflects who they are. There aren’t many professions, I don’t think, where what you create is a direct reaction to and expression of who you are. This sentiment is illustrated fully in Pitfield’s archive.
We have examples of every single endeavour and part of his life and it is all strikingly beautiful.
His lithographs, prints and calligraphy are so identifiable as Pitfield’s, I try to explain them as having more Thomas than technique in their creation. They easily reflect his influences and interests, most notably nature (trees specifically) and Christianity. Have a look:
And we have loads of them. We also have the original lino cuts that some were made from which is pretty amazing.
Then there’s the music. Pitfield was fascinated by locality and folk customs and dialect. Lots of his work is very aware of locality and has a deep sense of place. He often recalls loving a book of Scottish folk songs and that having a huge influence on his style and work. Even more narrowly focused are his pieces such as “Cheshire Verses”, “Mancunian Way” and “A Shropshire Lass”.
We have carvings, books of homework and drawings from his time at the technical school, letters, Christmas cards he designed, manuscripts of music and hand bound and illustrated music.
Through all of this amazing collection, my favourite part fills just two boxes:
When he was a teenager Pitfield started to take extended trips to find solace in the moors around Bolton. Unable to remain un-creative for very long, he started to bring little notebooks with him and would draw and paint the moors, write poems and jot down ideas that came to him, practice translating birdsong into musical notation and basically keep himself sane. This became a compulsion that he carried with him his entire life. The archive has every single one of these notebooks – roughly 65 years of ideas, inspirations, experimentation and seeds of all his finished works be it compositions, artworks, commissions, cards, poems etc. They are a spectacular record of the man and I adore going through them. See for yourself:
What I’m trying to get across in this essay-length blog post (sorry about that), is the completeness of this archive. I don’t mean complete in the sense that we have everything he ever created because I know we don’t. An archive is supposed to give as full a representation as possible of some person, organisation, place or event. Due to Pitfield’s compulsion to create and the nature of his creations reflecting his personal character so strongly, we do indeed get a full representation of the man himself.
I feel confident enough to say, that this is a perfect archive.
If you want to see more of it, just get in touch! I’d love to show you around the collection.