February

Sunderland Gig

Part of the Special Collection at Newton Park Library, Sunderland Gig is a love letter to the North East, and a collaboration between two close friends and colleagues. Professor John Strachan tells the story behind it.

Late 2021 saw the publication of Sunderland Gig, an artistic collaboration between myself and the late Professor Michael Pennie, a former colleague at Bath Spa University's Corsham Court Campus and a much-loved and much-missed friend.

It was in the summer of 2015, when I first became Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Director of Bath Spa University’s Corsham Court Campus, that I first met Professor Michael Pennie, Professor of Sculpture at the University and Artist-in-Residence at Corsham Court. Michael was the University’s longest serving member of staff, having joined the Bath Academy of Art in 1962, following his graduation with a Masters from the Royal College of Art. For nearly 60 years, Michael worked at the University; he was a gifted artist, a sculptor of genius, and a brilliant teacher who was an inspiration to generations of students.

Michael became Artist-in-Residence at Corsham Court in 2001, following his retirement from teaching at the University, and he remained active at the Court until his death at the age of 82 in 2019. A creative writer with several novels to his name, Michael was fascinated by the space where art and poetry meet, and for nearly fifty years he collaborated with poets and other creative writers, for instance the late John Furnival (1930-2020), artist, ‘concrete’ poet, and his one-time colleague at the Bath Academy of Art, and the renowned novelist B. S. Johnson (1933-1973).

Towards the end of Michael's life, he and I collaborated on this artist's book, or livre d'artiste, Sunderland Gig, featuring my poems about the North East of England and Michael's artwork. I was fortunate indeed to be Michael’s last creative collaborator.

When I did a poetry gig in the city several years ago, Michael suggested that we might work these poems up into a livre d’artiste. Michael laboured on the drawings for the book in the closing months of his life, finishing them, indeed, in his very last week.

Michael's work, like mine, was shaped and fashioned by the North East of England. In the 1950s, Michael was an undergraduate at the Sunderland College of Art; in the 1990s after I completed my DPhil at Wolfson College, Oxford, I taught at the Sunderland School of Art, Design, and Media, by then part of the city's university. Michael was a man of Tyneside who loved Sunderland, a place of Anglo-Saxon scholarship at Saint Bede’s Monkwearmouth, a place of obsession with football and its rivalries, and, latterly, a place where the challenges facing the post-industrial North East are most apparent. When I did a poetry gig in the city several years ago, Michael suggested that we might work these poems up into a livre d’artiste. Michael laboured on the drawings for the book in the closing months of his life, finishing them, indeed, in his very last week.

But, though it is over,
It is not empty,
There is much that has left us,
And much that will remain.

Sunderland Gig is published by the Queen of the Dart Press, based in Ashburton, Devon. This fine book press is owned and run by Bridget Heal and her husband, Ivor. Bridget and Ivor met each other in 1962 at Michael Pennie’s first class at Corsham Court and they published the book as a tribute to their beloved teacher.

After Michael's diagnosis with the lung disease that finally killed him, I wrote the following poem, which is included in the book, and which I read at Michael's memorial service at Corsham Court in 2019:


‘Where are we now?’

Figures standing. Then and now.
One in steel, one in stone.
Here lime-stone + plasticine
There ships + coal.

Here, the flowing of the stones
Has dried.
There, the slow trap of steel
Has closed.

But, though it is over,
It is not empty,
There is much that has left us,
And much that will remain.

 

The appearance of Sunderland Gig, a book which is hand-printed and hand-coloured, was long delayed by the pandemic, but the book is now published. The images, by Michael Pennie, were screen-printed by Amy-Jane Blackhall and Penny Grist of the Bath School of Design. The book was designed by Bridget Heal and hand printed, on Somerset Satin 300gsm, on an Albion Press.

This edition is limited to twenty-six copies, of which twenty-one are signed by the poet. The Bath Spa University Library has copies of the book.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.

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Sunderland Gig

Professor John Strachan tells the story behind this limited edition book, part of Newton Park Library's Special Collection.

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