‘Being useless academically led me to my dream profession’

Jul 21, 2019
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Brian Lee struggled as a student, but he was naturally gifted when it came to art, a field he pursued and found success. (Photograph posed by model.) Source: Getty Images

Strange to think that I actually became a professional artist because I was fairly useless at all types of math, except geometry; I was pretty useless at English, French and Latin too; I was disinterested in history and I wasn’t very good at all the team sports you’re expected to join in with at school either. I tended to be a bit of a loner where sport was concerned and not only that, but my eye-to-ball coordination wasn’t much to write home about, which didn’t help!

The one subject I really excelled in was art. Right from the age of about six I spent most of my spare time drawing and I was naturally in the art stream at grammar school, though I don’t remember much connected to art previously, when I was in Filton Avenue Primary School, Bristol in the United Kingdom. My art teacher at Fairfield Grammar School always liked the work I did there and it was initially he who suggested I might do myself a favour by applying for a position at the Royal West of England College of Art, a branch of Bristol University, in Clifton.

I think he was visualising my becoming either a teacher of art at some school, or perhaps a ‘pure’ artist, earning my living producing landscapes, portraits and possibly abstracts, making me famous in later years. But I’m afraid I wasn’t such a purist in those days (nor am I now I suppose), and I was more interested in getting out into the ‘real’ world, the world of commerce and industry so, I signed up for the college’s Design, Lettering and Illustration National Diploma in Design course for two years, rather than a degree. It was a course that really opened my eyes as to what art is all about, teaching me how to draw and paint properly, the basics of good design and the three main processes used for printing. There are a lot more now of course, because of the wonders of electronics, etc., but 65 years ago there was letterpress, lithography and gravure and little else.

For the interested, letterpress entails using the raised surfaces of a block, to which printing ink is applied for printing, while gravure uses exactly the opposite method, in that the item to be printed is etched onto a copper plate, which is then covered in ink. The ink is then squeegeed off the surface, leaving a small amount trapped in the applied scratches — pressure then transfers the remaining ink onto a sheet of paper. Lithography has no raised or etched surfaces; instead the image is applied to a special flat plate or stone using waxy inks, then the whole surface is dampened with water, which the waxy areas reject, an ink roller is quickly run over the plate and adheres to the wax, but is rejected by the damp areas. The image is then printed. I was taught to produce all these techniques by hand at college, but of course, in industry the whole process is accomplished by mechanical means.

I enjoyed a very happy couple of years at college, learning the basics of the printing and advertising businesses, then I obtained a five-year apprenticeship with a large firm of printers in Bristol, broken in the middle because I had to serve two years in the Royal Air Force, for my National Service, which meant I was 22 by the time I could consider myself fully trained, and a year later Jacqui and I were married, because my bosses sent me to New Zealand to help start a new studio there.

I often wonder where my life would have led me, had I been good at math or most of the other skills Fairfield School tried to teach me, instead of my addiction to art. For a start I doubt that any other company employing me would have wished me to go to New Zealand for them and so Jacqui might not have got married for a couple more years — and where do we then go from there. But for that, I doubt very much that I would be writing right now and you would be unable to absorb this golden story! That is fate at work, isn’t it, we none of us really know where we are going next, whatever our plans might be!

Have you ever given much thought to the path you’ve taken in life and where it’s led you? What were your strong subjects at school?

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