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John Sheeran, father of singer Ed Sheeran, on a life in art and his new fund-raiser





John Sheeran, father of composer Matthew Sheeran and singer Ed Sheeran, worked for over 40 years as an art curator and educator. He has lived in Suffolk for almost 30 years. He is well known in East Anglia for his inspirational art talks. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Ipswich Art Society, John is giving an illustrated talk Masterpiece Paintings at The Hold Lecture Theatre, Ipswich, on March 28, in aid of the society’s Young Artists Fund. Gina Long talks to him about his fascinating life and work.

What sparked your passion for art, and how did you embark on your journey as an art curator?

After studying history at university, I worked as a custodian in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey. It is where I met my mentor, John Vinter, who had just retired from a senior post at English Heritage. At lunchtime we would hop on a bus to the National Gallery and he would teach me how to ‘read’ paintings. It was such a revelation. He also encouraged me to follow my passions and dreams, for which I am forever grateful.

John in front of Botticelli's Primavera at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Picture: Imogen Sheeran
John in front of Botticelli's Primavera at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Picture: Imogen Sheeran

Can you share with us your experience as the former Curator of Dulwich Picture Gallery in London?

I was appointed Curator in 1980 and worked there for seven years. The Gallery was such a sleepy place back then. It was poorly funded and had a skeletal staff. But it was the oldest public art gallery in England and housed one of the world’s finest collections of Old Master paintings, displayed in a beautiful skylit building by Sir John Soane. So we had a treasure trove to work with. We introduced professional curatorship, promoted the Gallery in the UK and around the world, and organised the first ever exhibitions. It was also where I met Imogen Lock. We got married in the chapel next door and had our wedding reception in the Gallery. So it holds very special memories for us.

What would you say was your legacy at the Gallery?

I’m most proud of starting art education there, in 1983. I was convinced that the paintings could have relevance to young people’s lives and their experiences. It was tough persuading schools and teachers. One deputy headteacher said to me, ‘What can our kids possibly get from looking at tatty bits of canvas?’ But we pushed ahead and worked with primary and secondary schools in Streatham, Brixton, Camberwell, Peckham and elsewhere. The children and teenagers loved visiting, and word just spread. After I left, the Gallery won national and international awards for its pioneering education work. I have been passionate about the benefits of art education for young people ever since.

You moved from London to the North. Why was that?

In London, we lived in a tiny flat near the South Circular. We wanted to start a family and just couldn’t afford to live in London. So Imogen left her job at the National Portrait Gallery to work at Manchester City Art Galleries. I got a job as art curator at Cartwright Hall, Bradford, where I was responsible for a large collection of Victorian, Edwardian and Modern British art, including many works by David Hockney. We lived for nine years in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. It was wonderful. We loved the countryside and the earthiness of it all. Our boys Matthew and Edward were born in Halifax. The moors and crags became their playground.

In 1990, you started your own art company called Sheeran Lock. Why was that?

We both thought that art could serve an important purpose outside of museums, out in the real world. We wanted to organise exhibitions on subjects, causes and issues that interested us.

Which of your exhibitions made the greatest impact?

In 1995, Imogen put together A Picture of Health, the first ever art exhibition on breast cancer and its treatments, seen through the eyes of an artist, and the words of a histopathologist, surgeon and patients. We toured it to cities around Britain, working with local breast cancer charities. It was seen by more than 100,000 people and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The paintings touched people’s hearts. I remember a comment in the visitors book that read ‘A haunting beauty from a world of fear and anxiety’.

What was the most challenging project you took on?

We organised the United Nations Millennium Art Exhibition at the UN headquarters in New York. It was incredibly complex. It involved 250 artists from 50 countries and we had to work in many different languages. We co-ordinated the whole thing from our home in Framlingham. We had scores of people working on it in the UK and elsewhere - writers, translators, photographers, designers, printers, framers, transporters, insurers, exhibition installers. We worked closely with the UN Secretary General’s office, and the UK Mission at the UN, headed by Sir Jeremy Greenstock. It took over our lives for two years.

What did you like most about your years with Sheeran Lock?

The variety. We worked everywhere imaginable - in schools, hospitals, factories, corporate headquarters, universities, housing estates, royal palaces and parliament buildings. I was able to travel the world and had some amazing experiences. I stayed with Secoyan Indians in the Amazon rainforest, sat down with tribesmen in the Asir mountains of Saudi Arabia, and got to handle priceless 16th century Benin bronzes from the national collection in Abuja, Nigeria.

What aspect of you career are you most proud of?

Our work in education. We organised dozens of initiatives all over the UK, and abroad. I remember when I was a teenager at school I felt as though I was just a unit on a conveyor belt. Ever since, I’ve believed in nurturing individuality. Imogen and I wanted to inspire and motivate young people to experiment with their own creativity and imagination.

Was it difficult work?

Yes. But rewarding, too. We worked with some of the toughest inner-city teenagers out there, in some of the roughest places, none more so than the notorious Ballymun estate in Dublin in 2005. We got them at the National Gallery of Ireland looking at Caravaggio and Vermeer and talking about betrayal and love. They also painted pictures about their hopes and fears for the future. You could see how creativity and self-expression developed curiosity, confidence and self-esteem.

Why do you think visiting art museums is important?

Last month I went to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The place was jam-packed with people from all over the world, even in winter. There is a such a huge appetite for art. I think for many it helps give meaning and understanding to their lives. It helps them appreciate what life is all about. Leonardo da Vinci summed it up perfectly: ‘The artist sees what others only catch a glimpse of.’

What artists have you selected for your art talk for the Ipswich Art Society and why?

Art appreciation has always been something deeply personal for me. There are certain artists that I return to again and again. Piero della Francesca for harmony, Botticelli for beauty, Leonardo for mystery, Caravaggio for drama, Rembrandt for feeling, Constable for nature, Turner for light, Monet for colour, Van Gogh for truth, Picasso for ceaseless invention.

Can you let us know what your favourite painting is?

Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery, painted in the mid-15th century. Only recently I gave a talk about it at a private dinner. Two of my favourite classical music artists came - the singer Dame Janet Baker and pianist Dame Imogen Cooper. They knew the painting well and it obviously meant so much to them too. We talked about the painting being the visual equivalent of a beautiful piece of music or favourite poem. I find the picture therapeutic. It’s so calming and comforting. It’s timeless and offers solace.

It must have been so stimulating for your sons to grow up in an artistic home. Do you get much time to enjoy art and music with them?

Not much, as they are so busy. I went with Edward to the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican. Imogen and I went to Paris to see Edward perform at the Global Citizen gig in front of the Eiffel Tower, which was extraordinary enough. He then surprised us on Sunday evening by taking us with his wife Cherry to the Louvre. He’d arranged to have the whole place to ourselves for three hours. I think it was his way of saying thank you to us. It is the only time I’ve been able to study the Mona Lisa without the crowds. It was an unforgettable experience.

And what about Matthew?

We had a similar moment with Matthew. We sat next to him in a packed Westminster Abbey listening to the full choir singing an anthem composed by him. It was so moving. It was commissioned for a service of celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the Arts Society. Matthew was inspired to write the choral piece by an Early Italian Renaissance painting which he’d seen at the Courtauld Galleries in London. It was a true full-circle moment. After 40 years, I was back at Westminster Abbey, where it all started for me.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Ipswich Art Society, John is giving an illustrated talk Masterpiece Paintings at The Hold Lecture Theatre, Ipswich, on March 28, in aid of the society’s Young Artists Fund. To buy tickets go to https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/131-fore-street/the-hold-ipswich-home-of-suffolk-archives/talk-masterpiece-paintings-an-illustrated-talk-by-john-sheeran/e-ldmdxd