On the 50th anniversary of Trinity’s Fellowship in Creative Arts, Professor Adrian Poole reflects on living and working with resident composers, poets, novelists and painters.
In 1967 Trinity College appointed its first Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts (FCCA), the composer Nicholas Maw. I regret that as an undergraduate and graduate student I was unaware of his presence, and that of his immediate successors’. My fault for not being in College enough, doing student theatre, getting married, absorbing myself in a PhD.
The first FCCA of whom I was conscious when I became a Fellow of Trinity in 1975 was the painter David Inshaw. He had recently painted the magical ‘The Badminton Game’, now at Tate Britain, which gave every indication that he was ‘likely to make important contributions to the Creative Arts’, as the College Ordinance puts it. During his two years with us, David produced numerous new works including ‘The Cricket Game’, ‘The Orchard’ and ‘The Room in Cambridge’.
Since then Trinity has hosted writers, composers and visual artists, who have indeed gone on to make ‘important contributions’ to the Arts in the UK and beyond. In this 50th year, we welcome the 25th Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts, the composer Tom Coult, whose orchestral piece, St John’s Dance, opened the first night of the Proms in July. His new works for the coming year include commissions by the Arditti Quartet and the Britten Sinfonia – an orchestration of Schumann piano pieces – for performance in summer 2018.
The Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts Fellowship is unique within the university world in the liberty it provides artists to develop their work for two years, free from financial pressures, pressures that often require them to spend a lot of time teaching. Writer Deborah Levy remembers gratefully the hospitality and intellectual stimulation accorded to ‘a young writer in need of time to read and think’. For novelist and poet Ben Okri it felt ‘like a second youth’. Unlike other posts in the Creative Arts elsewhere – and unlike most academics at Cambridge colleges – our FCCAs do not have to teach, though many choose to hold workshops and share their work informally with students and Fellows.
Trinity’s FCCAs are simply required ‘to devote themselves to the production of original work in the Creative Arts and to enter as much as possible into the life of the College’. The life of the College is a mysterious affair and it means different things to different people, both to the FCCAs themselves and to the students and Fellows with whom they have interacted. For some, such as the poet Kit Wright and the painter Thomas Newbolt, it meant vigorous participation in the Fellows’ cricket team. Less surprisingly, Ulyana Gumeniuk was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Master at the time, Sir Martin Rees. Then again, an essential aspect of daily College life is caught by Ben Okri when he speaks of ‘the casual illumination’ arising from a chance exchange.
My own professional and personal interests have led me to close contacts with novelist and poets Kit Wright, Deborah Levy, Ben Okri, Sophie Hannah, Jacob Polley and Sean Borodale, which is not to say that I haven’t relished the music of Judith Weir and Thomas Adès, the paintings of Thomas Newbolt and Ulyana Gumeniuk, and the films of Eugenio Polgovsky.
I remember listening for the first time to a gifted pianist limbering up, in the rooms beneath mine, with the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde – who was this? – a moment to pause in the middle of teaching, if ever there was one. It was the newly arrived Thomas Adès. I also have memories, all the more precious in light of his sadly premature death, of walking through the College gardens with Eugenio and looking through the enthused eyes of a filmmaker and photographer at the rich colours and shapes, so different from his native Mexico.
Some of the FCCAs, including Eugenio, worked closely with other members of College. For example the poets Jacob Polley and Sean Borodale held workshops that inspired Rebecca Watts, among others. Rebecca is now published by Carcanet and was shortlisted this year for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for First Full Collection. The Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds collaborated with Trinity’s Choir, recording, under Stephen Layton’s direction, Northern Lights & other choral works (Hyperion Records, 2015). Eugenio Polgovsky was prompted by a colleague to create a video artwork, ‘Lightbyrinth’, for the new Maxwell Centre in Cambridge, in celebration of the nineteenth-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who was also a Trinity Fellow.
Maxwell is far less well-known for his poetry than for his scientific discoveries but he serves as a reminder of the interplay between the arts and the sciences at Trinity, in all their varieties, from Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century onwards. The literary tradition at Trinity has been particularly strong, distinguished by figures such as Herbert, Byron, Tennyson, and Housman, and more recently, with the welcome advent of women in the late 1970s, poets including Angela Leighton, Sophie Hannah, Emma Jones and Rebecca Watts. We are delighted that all four of them will read their poetry, included in Trinity Poets, at a special event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Creative Arts Fellowship, on Saturday 7 October, to which all are welcome.
However, until the inauguration of the Creative Arts Fellowship, music and the visual arts played a less prominent role at Trinity, and it was the desire to increase the presence of all the Creative Arts that prompted the College’s Director of Music at the time, Raymond Leppard, to promote the case, leading to the appointment of the first post-holder, Nicholas Maw (1935–2009). During his time at Trinity, Maw completed his opera, The Rising Moon, premiered at Glyndebourne in 1970 (and conducted by Leppard). Other FCCAs who have gone on to create major operas include Judith Weir, whose A Night at the Chinese Opera premiered in 1987, and Thomas Adès, who followed Powder Her Face in 1995 with The Tempest in 2004.
Our FCCAs have spoken eloquently and often memorably about what their time at Trinity meant to them. Sophie Hannah declares, that ‘It gave me the confidence to think of myself as a proper writer (rather than as a secretary who skived off work to write poems, which was my official job title before Trinity rescued me!).’ Proper artists all, they have enriched the life of the College in ways that at times – when the rest of us are stuck in our daily routines – can seem like a lifeline, a reminder of what makes life worth living after all, of what the Creative Arts can do for us.
Readings from Trinity Poets will take place on Saturday 7 October, 4.45-6.15pm, in the Winstanley Lecture Hall, Blue Boar Court, Trinity College. To reserve a free ticket: https://trinitypoetslaunch.eventbrite.co.uk
Fellow Commoners in Creative Arts, 1967-2017
1967 Nicholas MAW
1971 William ENTWISLE
1973 Douglas YOUNG
1975 David INSHAW
1977 Kit WRIGHT
1979 Thomas NEWBOLT
1981 Jane BOYD
1983 Judith WEIR
1985 Philip GRANGE
1987 Mario ROSSI
1989 Deborah LEVY
1991 Ben OKRI
1993 Alan PARKER
1995 Thomas ADES
1997 Sophie HANNAH
1999 Kate PALMER
2001 Deirdre GRIBBIN
2003 Richard CAUSTON
2005 Jacob POLLEY
2007 Tarik O’REGAN
2009 Ulyana GUMENIUK
2011 Eriks ESENVALDS
2013 Sean BORODALE
2015 Eugenio POLGOVSKY EZCURRA
2017 Tom COULT