Drawn From Life: The Ruskin Diaries, 1949-53, is the genesis story of a life in art based on diaries written by a would-be artist, Steve Hurst, growing from a child into a man.
The time is the period of austerity and restriction that followed the Second World War. The scene: Oxford, specifically the Ashmolean Museum, the Thames Valley just south of the City and the Morris Motor factories.
Born in Cairo in 1932, Steve grew up in Sandford-on-Thames, just south of Oxford, following his family’s evacuation from Egypt in 1939. Ten years later, in the autumn of 1949, he stepped from Town (or village) into Gown and became a student at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Fine Art & Drawing, then housed in the Ashmolean Museum.
Drawn From Life is based on his diaries of the time and takes the reader through the four years he spent at the Ruskin.
The first volume of Steve’s memoirs (he is currently working on a second) is a fascinating read and captures what is possibly an under-examined period in Oxford’s history; the immediate post-war years when the UK was struggling to recover from six brutal years of conflict.
Drawn From Life, in some ways, has two narrators; the young Hurst reporting the world around him and the older artist, who has the benefit of hindsight. The author sees his younger self almost as a doppelganger, a stranger who was once him. He admits, too, that once he dug into his diaries that what was on the page often contradicted his memory.
The young Hurst was just 17 when he first found himself sketching the casts of Greek and Roman statues in the freezing cold pre-public facing Ashmolean (the casts are still in place, although the museum itself has undergone great changes in recent years, not least in terms of heating).
Helping him get to grips with the basics of drawing were a small staff of tutors under the newly arrived Master, Percy Horton.
The students were also blessed by a revolving cast of guest lecturers coming from London, who included some of the most prominent British artists of the day – Laura Knight (one of the war artists who sketched the Nuremberg Trails) and John Piper, who collaborated with John Betjeman on the Shell Guide to Oxfordshire in the 1930s and whose beautiful stained glass window still adorns the church in Iffley Village.
The book contains some sharply observed pen portraits of his fellow students: the sexually charged Russian émigré, June; the amiable but shell shocked Paddy, who flirted with fascism, not to mention Peter, who drove himself and his wife to the point of starvation in his quest to be an artist.
Nowadays, Sandford has more or less been consumed by Oxford’s sprawl, but Steve’s account of his own village upbringing has shades of Laurie Lee’s descriptions of his rural childhood. To Oxfordshire readers of a certain vintage, the book also paints an evocative picture of a not long-past age, where shoppers browsed at Elliston & Cavells, students drank tea at Coopers & Boffins or coffee at the Kardomah.
The book is not really a nostalgic look at a golden time, though. For one thing, learning to draw (or learning to see, as John Ruskin himself put it) is a hard craft to master. While Hurst struggled to acquire his artist’s skills, he had a troubled home life, with his mother suffering a breakdown.
Add to the mix a young man learning to co-exist with female students in an art school which was seeking to shed a somewhat disreputable reputation and his own approaching national service at a time when many British soldiers were still on active service overseas, and we have an engaging portrait of an artist just setting out into a life in art.
Today, the spire of a 12th-century church overlooks Hurst’s garden in a village near Witney in West Oxfordshire. His house is a converted barn, and until relatively recently, it also contained a sculpture foundry. Steve and his wife Sylvie set it up in 1982, shortly after they returned to the UK from Belfast, where he had been Head of Sculpture at the University of Ulster.