Martin Morley writing about his time at Wimbledon as a student under Richard Negri


I was at Wimbledon between 1964-66 on the first year of the Dip AD course. I had done my Pre-dip at the Somerset College of Art. Though almost 40 years ago, those three years are still sharp in my memory and I still draw on the attitude of mind and way of seeing that Negri cultivated.

A little bit of my background prior to art college. I was educated at a Steiner school which was very international and enlightened in many ways but had a suprisingly rigid and wayward philosophy of art and it took a long time for me to take on board mainstream art education. I had no particular background in theatre before college apart from Peter Pan and a love of Gilbert & Sullivan and a few visits to the Bristol Old Vic which I enjoyed. Thinking about it now, it was always the visual atmosphere that lingered. It was not till later that I learnt that having no preconceptions was a positive advantage. After pre dip I had intended to go into commercial art until 1 discovered a very weak sense of graphic design. One my tutors commented that my paintings seemed some how incomplete and suggested I consider stage design. Anyway the idea took root and I remember humping my folio around Hornsey, Wimbledon and Croydon. I knew little of the courses on offer and I couldn't then tell my Koltai from my Bury. After a hairy interview with Peter Bucknell (Head of Department) and Gerald Cooper (Principal) I was admitted to the theatre course on the spot. I asked if I should get some experience in the vacation. "No" they said most emphatically "We'll teach you how to design" At that point Negri was still only a name in the brochure.

To begin with I had little confidence but slowly gained it as I progressed. There was no sign of Negui except in conversation, and no model making either in the first year. As far as I can remember my first contact with him was him commenting on a design I had done for "Ghosts": I think favourably. Looking back the 1st year was an excellent grounding. What I most valued was the camaraderie amongst the group which was very homogeneous and the discussions we had. And the weekly visits to the gods at the Old Vic and the Aldwych; I lapped it all up. I think we all entered the second year with some trepidation as Negri was held in awe as well as affection.

Negri was the course for years two and three, with Robert Stanbury introducing the magic of lighting with his miraculous model theatre and Ron Brown providing a steadying influence.

But how did Negri teach? I really cannot recall him ever giving a lecture in any formal sense or imparting technical knowledge in a conventional way: nor did he discuss his own work and all the time at Wimbledon I only saw one set of his - "Miss Julie" at the National which seemed just right: nothing flashy, nothing "theatrical" but absolutely true. I can only suggest that he taught by osmosis.

The choice of plays was important: I imagine they were his, not handed down by an advisory panel. After the initial group play reading there would be a group discussion and then we would be more or less left to design the play: part of the play, I can't recollect designing a complete play and solving all the practical problems in all the time I was at college. What we were doing was creating a personal world for the play gently prodded along by Negri. He didn't teach model making: we did model making. You quickly got the impression that white card models were infra dig. His eyes would glaze over if you said you were working out how to change the scenes in advance, but his eyes would light up at some lightly drawn doodle that had been discarded as impractical. Technical problems definitely followed the idea and not vice versa. The all purpose set was anathema to him and that idea has stayed with me, in principle anyway. He taught that a good design will only work for a particular production of a particular play and where the distinction between directorial idea and design idea is indivisible. It seems a truism but there are plenty of forces against it and his purpose was help us believe in our own ideas; if that was possible then technical knowledge could be quickly learnt by experience. He taught us to design from the inside out and also to think of the detail simultaneously with the whole. We definitely didn't have to start at the beginning and go through to the end "start with what you see and let it grow from there". The sets when they worked were organic.

He could spot a false influence at a hundred paces. The work of Nicholas Gieorgiadis was particularly fashionable at the time and as the project was "Blue Beard's Castle", I thought something bold and operatic was called for, so I laboured over some tissue paper and gouache collages: quite pleased with myself I was until he pointed out that there was more of the real me in a costume design I had done of a man in a suit than in all the ill digested abstracted expressionism of my "Blue Beard" designs.

He always wanted to draw out the personal truth from us and it could be painful and it was certainly slow: whether we were all individuals I do not know as many times people have told me that they can tell a Wimbledon product from a Central one at a glance.

I never really knew him: never had a casual conversation with him. I was shy and indecisive, sensitive was the word often used about my work, but he was patient and little by little prized designs out of me. But what he said and the why he said it has always stuck, remained in the mind to ponder. I remember his impish humour and his delight in quirkish ideas. Serious not solemn.

It was an exciting time to be at college, with much expansion in the arts and though the facilities were rudimentary by today's standards, there was everything we needed. The theatre had just been built and little did we know that Negri was using it to try out his staging ideas that he developed further at the 69 Theatre Company and finally at the marvellous Royal Exchange, which even after all this time does not appear dated, unlike so much that was built contemporaneously.

He was an inspiring teacher.