Artist, librarian, teacher, performer, youth theatre and radio play director.
Doodlebug-dodger, office boy, great reader, Kitcher Sinker, noise-maker, avant-gardist, Mr Punch, provocateur.
Eighty this year, a retrospective of his paintings is now on at Bridport Arts Centre; it should not be missed.
Norman Saunders-White was born in Paddington, in London, on April 9, 1930.
His parents met when his father Arthur, a lino and carpet layer in Westbourne Grove, saw his wife-to-be Mabel out cleaning windows on a second floor window ledge.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said, “it’s dangerous” – and he knew what he was talking about, because when he’d been in service himself, he’d fallen from a high window.
Norman said: “He found a bird’s nest in the guttering and he reached out to get an egg and he fell off.
“When he was lying there on the ground someone stole his wallet, or so the family story always used to go.
“He was more or less left for dead – he was lucky to survive. He fractured his skull and had to have all sorts of operations.
“When I was little I remember seeing and feeling blue lines and little dents in his skull.”
Norman left school when he was 14 with no qualifications. He had been offered a scholarship at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn but this was 1944, the city was menaced by V2s and doodlebugs falling… and Norman’s parents also thought that he should get a decent job.
“Not bother with all this arty stuff.”
So, after mooching about for a bit, he ended up as a BBC office boy, and he served the Corporation for about 18 months until he realised one day that the guy on the door had been there since World War One. “I didn’t fancy doing 40 years and ending up as a commissionaire so I got a job in a library.
“I was always a great reader – I educated himself in public libraries.”
Norman moved to Herefordshire in 1957 to be a mobile librarian in the Ross on Wye area, then in 1963 he came to Dorset to run the Central Library in Dorchester. He worked his way up to be stock editor and Dorset’s chief assistant librarian but then one day he realised again that he must change.
Running out towards the audience
“My only progression was going to be up to chief librarian with its committees and its policies and its paperwork. It was too dry for me. I wanted to do something more with people.”
His wife Pat was already training as a teacher, and so, at the end of the Sixties, he too now went to Weymouth College of Education where he got involved with various artistic happenings, such as making the Head crawl on his hands and knees through a construction of chairs to see someone riding a bicycle, projecting films with people rushing towards the camera and throwing a blanket over it while simultaneously running out towards the audience and throwing a blanket over them, and random readings. It wasn’t what Weymouth was used to or what lecturers like Dr Alan Chedzoy always approved of.
“Cheddars used to come in and shout at us for making too much noise. ‘I’m trying to teach English in here,’ he’d say.
“But we’re still good friends.”
A big thing in Norman’s life became the Colway Theatre Trust, producing pioneering community plays with Ann Jellicoe of Lyme Regis.
She called him “a cultural catalyst” – which he was, and still is. Aside from Colway, he set up the Improvisational Business Company, shaped Bridport Arts Centre, worked with the Industrial and Domestic Theatre Company and Welfare State International, revived (with his wife) Dorchester Youth Theatre, and founded and directed Weymouth Pavilion Youth Theatre. He recently retired from the board of the Ridiculusmus Theatre Company, but he’s still on the board of Artsreach and he promotes events in Burton Bradstock, where he lives.
The most amazing connections
One feature of his new exhibition in Bridport Arts Centre is going to be an interactive project called People, Places, Projects and Events. Norman has mapped out his cultural involvements and connections in Dorset, and to the layer of his life he hopes that others will add their own strata, to build – in effect – a 4-D representation of decades of endeavour.
He said: “The most amazing connections come through.
“It’s not until you’ve seen all the different connections, and the quantum leaps between them, that you see how it all fits together.
“But there are gaps. Whatever happened to the Festival Players?
“I want to see what has happened to all the people who’ve ever been involved – and what effect it has all had on the culture of Bridport and west Dorset.
“So it’s not just personal. It will be a social document as well.”
To further this cause, a memory-raking, link-seeking series of discussions will take place between 3pm and 4pm on the opening three days of the exhibition. These discussions will be filmed by Bridport’s digital art-squad PVA Media, then shown as soon as possible as part of the exhibition.
The exhibition Norman at 80: a Retrospective runs upstairs in the Allsop Gallery at Bridport Arts Centre from Wednesday 31 March until Tuesday 13 April. It’s open every day. Entrance is free.
And the paintings! What about the paintings?
Ah, yes, the paintings. Nearly 1000 words in, and the paintings haven’t had much of a write-up. But then, if you’ve got this far, you’re surely going to want to go to the exhibition?
You want more?
Ok, a bit more.
The show’s been given an Arts Council award. It includes work from private and public collections.
It covers everything from Kitchen Sink art of the 1950s to Abstraction and back again
It’s the biggest show of Norman’s work since Dreams and Realities at Dorset County Museum in 1998.
Many paintings are notable for their hares – poetically fascinating – and their Punch figures, the latter derived partly from an interest embedded in childhood by a whacking performance, partly also from Russell Hoban’s brilliant novel Riddley Walker (“this figure reminds us of things about ourselves that we have conveniently forgotten or would rather not hear”), partly also perhaps from Norman’s youth theatre experience of encouraging Gary Wilson, who went on to become one of the youngest ever Punch and Judy ‘Professors’. See? Connections…
If you fancy connecting yourself to a performance directed by Norman, click here