NIGEL TEMPLE – INTRODUCTION: Obituary
Friday 14 November 2003
Nigel Temple was an artist, lecturer and writer whose passion for architecture, gardening, bookbinding, typography and collecting nourished his diverse and imaginative output. He was a communicator who even after his retirement from teaching continued conveying his enthusiasms to others verbally and visually.
Temple showed widely as an artist. As a writer, he made a valuable contribution to the study of British architecture, especially the work of John Nash. His collections of Victorian children’s books and architectural postcards were of national importance.
For many artists, vocation is obvious from childhood. Nigel Temple was unusual in making such a late start. He was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1926, the son of Sydney and Honor Temple. At the age of 16 Sydney had been blinded during a rugby match at Dulwich College, and he decided to devote much of his life to charity work for the Royal National Institute for the Blind. He and his wife, whom he had met while he was at blind college, had two sons, Nigel being the younger, and one daughter.
Nigel Temple Meteorologist in an RAF bunkhouse, Iceland. 1945 during World War II. This image was taken and kindly provided by Nigel’s friend Lewis Billard of The Royal Canadian Airforce.
At school Nigel was undistinguished. As a boy he developed an interest in aeroplanes and flying. From 1944 to 1948, he did meteorological service in the Royal Air Force and he remained in the Volunteer Reserve until 1959, though he was never able to fly solo. A later series of artworks, Portrait of the Artist as an Aeronaut, mocked this ambition.
Demobilised and back in Farnham, Surrey, where he had grown up, Temple made several attempts to start a career, attending technical college, but nothing gelled. In desperation the family consulted a neighbour who lectured at Farnham School of Art, and he suggested that Nigel enrol there. He was a full-time student for five years, and from then on his mind was made up.
For his National Design Diploma he specialised in illustration and graphic design, which spurred a lifelong investigation of 19th-century book production. He developed a deep understanding of the materials and processes involved, and books provided an endless source of material for the collages he began to create in the 1970s. For him:
“fragments from wrecked books are the most stimulating material . . . They have led lives and been discarded as spent, yet they can still speak back and invite rebirth”.
His studies led him towards William Blake, Samuel Palmer and the 20th-century artists they influenced, such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. Temple’s early paintings are strongly influenced by these older Neo-Romantic contemporaries.
After gaining his Design Diploma, Temple studied for his Art Teacher’s Diploma at Sheffield College of Art, in 1952-53. His dissertation investigated the buildings of his home town, on which he was to write with authority. Two books were Farnham Inheritance (1956, reissued 1965), and Farnham Buildings & People (1963, with a foreword by Nikolaus Pevsner; second edition 1973). Temple later recalled that walking around Farnham:
“made me aware of the qualities to be found in vernacular buildings and the organic nature of the traditional townscape. I was also alerted to the dangers to which these delicate assemblages were exposed in the post-war years”.
Many of Temple’s early collages were inspired by architecture as well as a shift from the overall building to facets such as crumbling woodwork, decaying stonework and lichens. From his enthusiasm for buildings developed his interest in gardening.
After studies at Sheffield, Temple taught until 1978 at colleges of art and education. It was a job he enjoyed. He became the first male lecturer at Gloucestershire College of Education, set up to train teachers, based in Cheltenham. At first visual studies was a solo effort, a department that would greatly expand with him at its head.
Looking at Things, a filmstrip published in 1968, proved popular in schools and colleges. While preparing images to accompany his text, Temple discovered photography as a tool for recording artefacts and for encapsulating poignant visual situations. It, too, fed into his collages. The overlapping of such materials as Japanese rice papers, tissue papers and related materials was inspired by palimpsests, forms of messages half obscured by time and decay.
Temple had married Judith Tattersill in 1955. He developed an interest in Victorian children’s books and in 1970 an anthology gleaned from them appeared, on which she collaborated. Seen and Not Heard proved a popular title. Christie’s in South Kensington London is to sell the Dr Nigel Temple Collection of Children’s Books on 4 December.
His formal studies did not end with Sheffield. In 1978, he gained his MLitt degree in architecture from Bristol University, followed by a PhD from Keele University in 1985. He had been artist-in-residence on secondment at Bristol University in 1978-79. That was the venue for his second solo show, in 1979, having had a first at Cheltenham Art Gallery six years before.
There was to be another one-man exhibition, Transitions at Cheltenham in 1998 that concentrated on collage and assemblage. It followed others at the Royal West of England Academy, 1981, of which he became a full academician in 1983; New Ashgate Gallery, Farnham, 1990; and Reading University, 1991. Temple was also an active exhibitor in mixed shows at Cheltenham’s Festivals of Literature and Music, widely elsewhere in the provinces and on the Continent.
Temple’s book John Nash and the Village Picturesque appeared in 1979. With Sir John Summerson, he became a leading authority on the great Picturesque Movement architecture. Temple had already written Blaise Hamlet (1975), a guide for the National Trust based on his Bristol thesis, on the model village housing John Nash cottages near Bristol, and in 1993 he was to produce George Repton’s Pavilion Notebook, a catalogue raisonné, based on his Keele thesis, on the son of Humphry Repton, Nash’s landscape-gardener partner. Temple also contributed to numerous learned journals on architecture, archaeology and garden history.
To enlarge his knowledge, Temple amassed a large collection of postcards of buildings and gardens. This unique archive has been left to the National Monuments Record.
Temple was registrar of research for the Garden History Society from 1983. “He was a perfectionist in the garden”, says his son:
“He had many letters requesting help in architectural or garden-history matters, often from complete strangers, and would answer them as fully and carefully as possible, regardless of the cost of time and effort to himself”.
A good overview of Nigel Temple’s achievement as an artist was provided by his last one-man show, a 50-year retrospective at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton, in 2000. Among the paintings and collages was a selection of his boxes, reminiscent of the Surrealist assemblages of the 1920s and 1930s, an art form that has gained popularity in recent years.
For Temple, they were attempts to capture memories or to translate particular moments. Steve Reich: Different Trains – Track 2 (1996) was inspired by the musical composition of the same title by the American minimalist composer. Around and within a miniature cupboard were assembled old dolls, burned-out candles, withered flowers and other telling objects.
The Sofa that Died in Her Sleep (1997) exemplified Temple’s characteristically persistent pursuit of perfection. It took months to acquire the tattered fabric used, first seen covering a chaise-longue in a Cheltenham antiques shop. He eventually secured agreement that he could have the material once the sofa was bought, yet on one of his frequent visits he found that it had disappeared. Undeterred, he traced the buyer who, after persuasion, agreed to give him what he needed.
Nigel Hal Longdale Temple, artist, lecturer and writer: born Lowestoft, Suffolk 21 January 1926; married 1955 Judith Tattersill (one son, one daughter); died Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 4 November 2003.