The photographer who knew Britten

THERE are differing views on what composer Benjamin Britten would have felt about the row in Aldeburgh over a sculpture made in his honour, but photographer Clive Strutt thinks he has the answer.

THERE are differing views on what composer Benjamin Britten would have felt about the row in Aldeburgh over a sculpture made in his honour, but photographer Clive Strutt thinks he has the answer.

Mr Strutt's images of Britten during the late 1960s have become a unique visual archive of one of Britain's most famous composers.

As a young freelance photographer based around Leiston, Mr Strutt was chosen by Britten to take a series of shots of himself and Peter Pears as they relaxed at home.

Afterwards, he continued to do work both for Britten and at the Aldeburgh Festival, creating what he describes as “a very valuable collection” of photographic work.

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The former EADT photographer loaned the works for many years to the Britten-Pears library, which returned them to him two or three years ago.

Britten's music was celebrated in his own life-time and has continued to enjoy success, and the Aldeburgh Festival and Snape Maltings concert hall events still thrive many years after his death.

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Now controversy surrounding Rendham-based artist Maggi Hambling's sculpture in the shape of giant steel scallop shells has brought his name once more to the fore.

“I have a sneaking suspicion he would rather have enjoyed it and rather enjoyed the controversy surrounding it,” said Mr Strutt, of Carlton, near Saxmundham.

“He would not have publicly made any statement, but I think privately he would have had quite a giggle about it because he had a lovely sense of humour.

“I don't think he would have been outraged, let's put it that way. Whether he would have actually approved of the statue we'll never know, but I think probably would, particularly as it was a local artist that did it - I think he would have very much enjoyed that.”

Mr Strutt's own view of the work, which was installed on a stretch of Aldeburgh beach in November last year, is positive.

“It's a work of art, and I think it's a very clever piece of art. It's causing controversy and I think art is about causing controversy.”

Mr Strutt's working relationship with Britten began in the 1960s when he was a young freelance photographer in his 20s.

“I was sort of hovering in the background as a local guy and Ben asked me if I would take some photographs of him. I was delighted obviously to do that and it went from there and we struck up quite a nice working relationship - it was lovely.”

He was asked to take some informal shots of Britten and Peter Pears to send out as autographed photographs to his many musical admirers.

“He was obviously pleased with them and basically it built up from there. I built up a reasonably close friendship with him,” he explained.

They were exciting times. The Aldeburgh Festival was becoming increasingly successful, and had the benefit of Britten's presence. Despite having no great love at the time for the kind of music Britten created, Mr Strutt found himself caught up in the culture around it through his association with Britten. It was only later that he became a fan of his music.

“I thought he was a wonderful man, a gentle, very generous man and he was a Suffolk man. He quite enjoyed using the resources of Suffolk people. I think that was one of the reasons he used me because I was local,” he said.

“He was a very shy man. He did not actually like his photograph being taken which from my point of view was rather good because we built up a trust over the years.”

Mr Strutt would be invited to Britten's home and recalls one memorable “jam” session, when some of the world's top classical musicians got round a piano and reeled off jazz numbers.

“He used to invite me over. I would take photographs and he would say come over and bring them over and he would give me a rye whiskey and we would sit and chat. I think he quite enjoyed the idea of talking to somebody who was not, do I say it, a sycophant. He was surrounded by people who adored him. He was a celebrity,” he recalled.

“He phoned up one Sunday. He knew I loved jazz and said we've got a little gathering would you like to come over.”

He went to his home, and “there were all these wonderful musicians”.

But far from indulging in the formal, classical music you might expect, it was a lively event with Britten and others playing Scott Joplin syncopated jazz.

“I was magic,” he said. “I was so impressed. I don't know why because music is music. They just had a jam session.”

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