The South West Academy owes a great debt of gratitude to Zbigniew Drecki,
the painter and philanthropist, and his wife Jo Drecki. The Drecki Memorial
Lecture was established to honour his memory. The following text is a personal
recollection of Zbigniew Drecki by David Bazell.
If Auschwitz prisoner No. 214, in pursuing an interest and flair for painting
after the war, had daubed away in blacks and greys, perhaps with an occasional
dash of red, it might have been perfectly understandable.
But Zbigniew Drecki did no such thing. His canvasses emerged with colours
that were largely to become the way one saw him - an eternal spring season
despite the wartime hell he had had to endure. His experiences in the camps
had been such that almost as a medical necessity he had to live away from
Britain in the wintertime, and eventually it drove him to build a home in
Florida. But he never laid aside his art and with his wife Jo continued to
share his time with his home in Exmouth where he lived for many years and
at one time ran a painting school. He had met Jo at the Ockenden Venture,
set up after the war for the care and education of refugee children from
Displaced Persons Camps in German, when Jo was an English Teacher.
Zbigniew Drecki almost always had a ready smile, and a deep seated sense of
humour often came to the fore during our many conversations. He was always
willing to speak about the Death Camp - even including small acts of kindness
that showed up against the backdrop of generally overwhelming inhumanity -
and more than once referred, with a hint of that impish smile that often
crossed his face, to the times he cheated the ovens, assisted on one occasion
- he had been the very next in line to be shot against the wall next to the
infamous Block 10 - by an unexpected visited to the camp by Hitler which
interrupted that particular programme and consequently saved his life.
Painting by Zbigniew Drecki
Invariably, however, he would return to the passion in life which consumed
him as much as his oils: the creation of a world order for peace and
stability. Almost his final words to me, as he lay dying in his Exmouth
home, Zbigniew was to say: 'Life is wonderful; it is only people who spoil
it.' He referred to conflicts around the globe and the consequent inhumanities
that sometimes matched the worst excesses of the Third Reich about which he
knew only too well as a survivor of the first transport to Auschwitz in
June, 1941, and who after being transferred for a spell at Buchenwald,
escaped on a night train taking him to Dachau.
He asked me to write of his ideas for future conduct worldwide to the
Secretary General of the United Nations. Listening to him trying to recount
what he had failed to do in his life made me feel I had at least to do
this much for him; he felt strongly that his survival placed on him a duty
to achieve something for all those who perished. Well, Kofi Annan has Zbigniew's
views. And the vision of this remarkable man from Warsaw is set down and
available in the latter part of his moving book, Freedom and Justice. He
wrote letters to anyone influential, from world leaders to ordinary newspaper
reporters - to anyone he thought might listen - to try to make a lasting
contribution on the victims' behalf. He tried.
Formidable in stature and presence, Zbigniew Drecki, from Warsaw, was a gentle
and quiet-spoken man. He very often painted away furiously; at one time, a room
of his home in Albion Hill was stacked to the ceiling with his work. Scores
upon scores of paintings, mostly colourful and pacific, emerged. He seemed to
get a real buzz from them, showing them, holding them up. 'What do you think?'.
Who knows, perhaps he received a kind of energy from them, even providing
a light for his darkness.
2012 LECTURE PRESENTATION
This years' Drecki Lecture was held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) Exeter on the
evening of Tuesday 20th November.
It was a collaborative effort with the Friends of the Museum and the South West Academy of Fine and
Applied Arts (SWAc) each providing their own helpers and expertise. The speaker was our esteemed
President Emeritus Alan Cotton with his much awaited illustrated talk entitled 'A Painter's Journey to
It was suggested that we could have filled The Lecture Gallery twice over, such was the demand for the
140 available seats and we are most grateful to the friends of RAMM who had organised the ticket sales
in the weeks leading up to the lecture and who on the night, manned the doors. Inevitably, those who
had failed to book early (and many were SWAc members), were to be disappointed.
Guests were welcomed with wine and canapés supplied by SWAc. Our grateful thanks go to all those
involved in the organisation of this hospitality with particular mention of friends such as Sally Sedgman
and our own Penny Keen who organised the drinks.
Camilla Hampshire, a senior executive of RAMM, welcomed guests to the lecture and thanked them
for their support. She then introduced Alan Fynn, Chairman of the Trustees, who spoke briefly of Alan
Cotton's long involvement with SWAc and his selfless work with many charities and with the Universities
of Exeter and Bath.
The audience, seated in comfortable rows, faced a large screen displaying an excellent drawing made by
Alan Cotton when a teenager, of his mother. Below the screen was a table displaying a range of books
and catalogues from his many exhibitions held over the years in Messum's Art Gallery in London.
Alan started his lecture with a tribute to the late Zbigniew Drecki, a great supporter of art and SWAc,
and who made such a vital and generous financial contribution to SWAc.
With each changing photograph, projected with immense clarity and under the control of Alan's ever
present wife Pat, Alan took us on a fascinating journey through much of his own life as an artist with
each painting helping the audience to see 'through his eyes' the dramatic coastline of Hartland Point,
the moody tones and dramatic skies of Ireland, and the rugged olive trees and linear patterns of vineyards in
southern Europe. Alan's great awareness of shapes, colours and sunlight were obvious for all to see.
Then, finally, la piece de resistance, Alan's paintings of Everest, using his trademark palette knife with
marvellous slabs of colour and fluttering prayer flags. All the sketches for the paintings were made in
moments of extreme cold. The dramatic illustrations were sprinkled with Alan's own fascinating account
and insights involved in the highly dramatic events associated with his two never to be forgotten
journeys to Mount Everest.
The paintings were completed in Alan's Devon studio and needless to say were a complete sell out in
the Messum London Gallery this year.
Mary Nation, Chair of the Friends of RAMM, gave the vote of thanks to draw the evening to a close.
Thanks again to our co-hosts the Friends of RAMM and to members and staff of RAMM who came and
helped with this highly successful event, and Thank you, Alan for such an excellent and stimulating
Alan Cotton presents his Everest experiences. Photograph: Alan Jones
Photograph: Alan Jones
Photograph: Alan Jones
Yvan (Phil Bowen) examines the £200,000 white canvas. Photograph: Alan Jones
Phil Bowen, Anthony Frost, Bob Devereux. Photograph: Alan Jones
2011 LECTURE PRESENTATION
In 2011, the South West Academy's annual Drecki Lecture took the form of
a performance reading of Yasmina Reza's hilariously funny, award-winning comedy
play, 'ART'. And what more apposite a stage setting for this performance than the
premises of auctioneers Bearnes, Hampton and Littlewood of Exeter, complete with
their own paintings and artefacts, who generously hosted the evening.
'ART', a play fundamentally about the merits of modern painting and the vagaries
of friendship, was performed by the three renowned Cornish artists, Anthony Frost,
Bob Devereux and Phil Bowen, themselves long-standing friends. The obvious rapport
behind their stage characters gave an extraordinary energy and dynamism to the
production completely captivating the audience for the full ninety minutes.
The play commences with Serge (Anthony Frost) showing Marc, his close friend and a
rather self-opinionated art buff (Bob Devereux) his newly purchased painting - a
largish canvas painted white with 'three fine, white diagonal scars'. Both friends
are obviously agitated by each other's response to the painting, instigating the
eternal question of 'What Is Art'?
Marc, for his part, cannot believe that his friend, whom he has mentored for fifteen
years, has been foolish enough to pay £200,000 for a 'piece of worthless white
s....!'. He is also filled with some 'indefinable unease', doubtless because
his old chum seems to have developed a newfound independence. Both men are quick
to enlist the advice of mutual friend Yvan (Phil Bowen) in the hope that he will
support their respective viewpoints, but Yvan, a rather insecure character, is
concerned less with the virtues of the painting and more with keeping the
peace between his two best pals.
His endeavours at peace-making fail miserably, and instead he becomes their scapegoat,
at one point receiving a clout from Marc, likely intended for Serge, for his efforts.
Yvan's initial ambivalent nature turns into self-induced hysteria as he rages,
almost without drawing breath, about his rivalling relatives and the problems
facing his forthcoming wedding preparations. Again it seems he is powerless to
do anything constructive.
As the furious row continues, the question is whether their friendship will 'de-construct'
beyond repair, while the eternal question of 'What is Art' remains ever-present as
we, the audience, are fully aware of the white canvas which has been left
on stage throughout.
The intelligent wit and humour is never lost for a second by these three gifted
performers, whether in the fast, lively delivered dialogue or the moments of
reflection and although ART has been translated into thirty-five languages and
staged from London to New York, this recent performance, presented so vigorously
and dynamically by these three professional Cornish artists, surely compares with the
best. The SWAc audience certainly thought so, as the hoots of laughter and lengthy,
exuberant applause testified.
Our thanks to Alison Summerfield for permission to reproduce this article.
2010 LECTURE PRESENTATION
The 2010 Drecki Memorial Lecture featured a documentary film
and presentation by the film-maker and photographer Noel Chanan.
In 1983 the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and American printmaker and
sculptor Leonard Baskin, his collaborator for many years, took part
in an audio recording in which they discussed their long-standing friendship
and the nature of their collaborative work on illustrated books
of Hughes' poems.
The outcome of the recording was a lively, entertaining, and
revelatory dialogue. Previously unpublished, this unique insight was
the basis of a forty-minute video by film maker Noel Chanan, friend of both
Hughes and Baskin, and in it they explore in intimate detail the genesis
of such key works as Crow and Cave Birds.
The video incorporates extracts
from readings by Hughes of his own poems, and a mass of previously
unseen photographs of the interlocutors, together with extensive
ilustrations of Baskin's dramatic prints and sculptures.
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