University of Stirling Archives

Home » Posts tagged 'Norman McLaren'

Tag Archives: Norman McLaren

2014: End-of-year review

Phew! Well that was 2014. It was a year in which a combination of cultural centenaries, major sporting events and academic projects resulted in a huge increase in demand for our collections (and the political events of the past twelve months also kept our colleagues in the Scottish Political Archive pretty busy!) As in previous years we’ve put together an end-of-year chart of our most popular collections in 2014 by combining the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our archives reading room.

Interest in our most used collection in 2014 has been growing recent years (it was our third most popular collection in 2013) and it’s quite fitting that in a year when the centenary of his birth was celebrated with a Scotland-wide series of events our No. 1 is the Norman McLaren Archive. Born in Stirling in 1914 McLaren was an award-winning filmmaker whose work has inspired generations of animators and artists. The film screenings, talks, animation workshops and events presented during the year by McLaren 2014 provided a fitting tribute to his extraordinary career. We were delighted to be able to contribute to the celebrations with our exhibition A Dream of Stirling: Norman McLaren’s Scottish Dawn at the Stirling Smith.

Exhibition poster for A Dream of Stirling: Norman McLaren's Scottish Dawn

Exhibition poster for A Dream of Stirling: Norman McLaren’s Scottish Dawn

Last year’s most popular collection continued to be one of our most-used with the NHS Forth Valley Archive taking second place in our end-of-year chart. Genealogical interest in the historical records of Stirling District Asylum has remained constant with an increase in academic interest in the material also being noted. Access to this collection will be increased in 2015 with our Wellcome Trust funded project to conserve and catalogue the archives of the Royal Scottish National Hospital opening up the records of a hospital of international importance.

A new addition to our end-of-year lists sees the archives of Commonwealth Games Scotland take third spot (or should that be the bronze). In the year of Glasgow 2014 it was inevitable that this collection that documents over eighty years of participation and achievement by Scotland in the Commonwealth Games would generate a certain degree of interest! During the Games our Hosts and Champions exhibition was on display in Glasgow, providing an historical perspective on a modern international sporting event. In 2015 we look forward to putting together a touring version of the exhibition which will be updated with a selection of material from the Glasgow 2014 Games (which we are currently collecting).

Memorabilia from Glasgow 2014 recently added to our Commonwealth Games Scotland Archive

Memorabilia from Glasgow 2014 recently added to our Commonwealth Games Scotland Archive

Those results in full:

2014:

1. Norman McLaren

2. NHS Forth Valley

3. Commonwealth Games Scotland

2013:

1. NHS Forth Valley

2. Musicians’ Union

3. Norman McLaren

2012:

1. Musicians’ Union

2. John Grierson

3. Lindsay Anderson

2011:

1. John Grierson

2. Lindsay Anderson

3. University of Stirling

Norman McLaren: Umbrian angels and stereoscopic drawings

A highlight of this year’s McLaren 2014 celebrations was the screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival of Norman McLaren’s stunning 3-D films from the early 1950s, painstakingly digitally-restored by the National Film Board of Canada. The fascinating history of these ‘lost’ films was recently told on the Canadian Animation Blog, and the films will receive another screening at MoMa in New York in November.

McLaren’s interest in the creative possibilities of stereographic art is recorded in a set of papers which were recently donated to the University of Stirling Archives by Prof. Harold Layer of San Francisco State University. Prof. Layer corresponded with McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s about his 3-D film work, these letters forming part of the collection. It also includes copies of stereoscopic drawings and paintings created by McLaren in the 1940s which Prof. Layer has documented on a very useful online resource.

Stereoscopic portrait (left and right) by Norma McLaren, 1944.

Stereoscopic portrait (left and right) by Norma McLaren, 1944.

The material also includes a set of reports and articles written by McLaren in the 1940s and 1950s, noting the new approaches offered by stereographic drawing and providing technical notes for the 3-D films he produced for the National Film Board of Canada. In 1946 McLaren wrote a proposal for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, seeking support for his research into the new field of sterographics which he defined as “the art of doing a separate drawing, painting, sculpture or mobile for each eye, which when viewed together, will synthesize a new additional dimension.”

Honeycomb, Stereoscopic painting (left and right) by Norman McLaren, c 1946.

Honeycomb, Stereoscopic painting (left and right) by Norman McLaren, c 1946.

McLaren argued that this method of drawing offered “Freedom from the physical laws of a three-dimensional world.” He went on to argue that:

“The laws of physics such as balance and gravity need not operate in this type of three-dimensional space created by stereoscopic synthesis. Apparently solid objects, heavy substances, complex structures and liquid matter may float in space, needing no support and existing by a sort of auto-suspension. The renaissance painter, with his growing awareness, gradually realized that he, on his flat surfaces, was released from such laws, and the first Umbrian angels who rose a few timid inches from the ground were soon to lead the imagination to a magnificent world of soaring form. Today’s stereographic drawings are like those Umbrian angels, for they point to a world where angels may ascend with a new magnificence into the very three-dimensional substance of space itself.” (Ref. GAA 31/F/7/2/2)

A later annotation to this document shows that many of McLaren’s plans remained unrealized. In the introduction of the paper he wrote that:

“It is my intention to go much further, and open up stereography as a creative medium. I am writing this paper on the basis of my past researches, my present conclusions, and my future plans.”

Beside the words “future plans” McLaren added an annotation in red pencil in 1980 which read “unfulfilled as yet.”

Affectionately Yours

Trisha Anderson is a dancer and choreographer, and relative of the filmmaker Norman McLaren. 2014 is the centenary of McLaren’s birth and Trisha has curated a personal tribute to Norman which is currently on display in the University Archives. Here she writes about her research into McLaren’s work.

The exhibition ‘Affectionately Yours’ is based on the research for my film of the same name. In 2003 I saw an interview with the film maker Norman McLaren in which he said that movement was his art form, but had he been a dancer he would have created movement in a very different way. I was struck by this statement for a number of reasons. I am a dancer and choreographer and I was curious to know what kind of dance McLaren might have choreographed himself. This led me to research him through his personal letters.

My aim was to respond to the life and work of Norman McLaren, and to examine the link between dance and animation. This has allowed me to experience first-hand some of those common threads between my art form and McLaren’s and to begin to draw conclusions for my own practice, which eventually combined dance film and animation. I have looked at the context within which McLaren’s work took place. I am fascinated by the opinions of other artists and film makers who knew McLaren or worked with him.

Norman McLaren dancing in the garden of the family home, 21 Albert Place, Stirling, c 1936.

Norman McLaren dancing in the garden of the family home, 21 Albert Place, Stirling, c 1936.

Norman McLaren’s place in the history of animation and experimental film making is that of a pioneer who brought an amazing range of skills to his art form. He was an artist, director, scientist, inventor, keen observer of humanity and accomplished musician. Transcripts of interviews with him bring the reader in touch with a shy, sensitive, multi-sensory man who saw the world in a very unique way. His sensitivity and acute awareness of stillness and movement, music, line, form, space and rhythmic structure are all qualities which he brought to his films. As a choreographer I feel that I am intensely aware of these elements and I find myself looking at his work again and again from the choreographer’s viewpoint. I found myself asking how Norman McLaren might have used these qualities himself if he HAD been a choreographer. There are many common threads between dance, animation and film. There are also many common ‘threads’ between this film maker and me.

I am related to McLaren.  My grandfather and Norman McLaren’s mother were siblings. In my search for McLaren the film maker I realised I could not separate him from McLaren, my father’s cousin. I realised that the qualities I mentioned before may be shared between film maker and dancer, but may also reflect a shared genetic inheritance. I felt I needed to explore how strong the link was and this brought me to the archive stored at The University of Stirling.

Norman McLaren's father in the showroom of his decorating business, Maxwell Place, Stirling, c 1910.

Norman McLaren’s father in the showroom of his decorating business, Maxwell Place, Stirling, c 1910.

McLaren had an enquiring mind, and was endlessly questing to “work things out”, a quality which in part was inherited, I believe, from a very practical, down to earth lineage. His mother grew up on a farm and there are a number of relatives who were involved in some way with engineering. His artistic ability was in part inherited from his father, a painter and decorator. Musical ability was present on both sides of the family.

McLaren felt Art was one thing he was really good at which led him to Art College…. where he discovered film. By the time I found the material stored in the archive I had realised that many people still did not know who McLaren was. I began to feel that I wanted to do something to draw attention to his work. I made a decision that one day I would make a dance and film based on him. I eventually made this film, Affectionately Yours, in 2012.

Still from the film Affectionately Yours, Tricia Anderson, 2012.

Still from the film Affectionately Yours, Tricia Anderson, 2012.

2013: End-of-year review

As we approach the end of the year it’s time to look back and discover what have been our most popular collections in 2013. As in previous years we’ve combined the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room to create our end of year chart. It’s all change at the top with a new No. 1 pushing last year’s chart topper, the Musicians’ Union Archive, into second place.

In 2013 our most used collection was the NHS Forth Valley Archive. This collection, which was transferred to the University Archives in 2012, contains the historical records of two local hospitals, the Stirling District Asylum (Bellsdyke Hospital) and the Royal Scottish National Institution, Larbert. Over the past year a team of student volunteers has helped to make the archives of Stirling District Asylum accessible to researchers through a programme of cleaning and cataloguing. The material has been particularly heavily used by family historians, keen to explore this previously inaccessible material.

The records of Stirling District Asylum have proven very popular with family historians in 2013.

The records of Stirling District Asylum have been well-used by family historians in 2013.

The Royal Scottish National Institution Archives were recognised by UNESCO this year, being designated a collection of national importance and added to the UK Memory of the World Register. We have also recently received funding from the Wellcome Trust for the conservation and cataloguing of the RSNI Archive. We hope to start this work in the spring of 2014 and will post further information about the project on the blog in the new year.

The Musicians’ Union Archive continues to be heavily used by researchers, particularly Glasgow University’s History of the MU project. 2013 was the 120th anniversary of the union and the MU also made great use of their archive during the year. An exhibition featuring images from the collection was put together for the union’s conference in June in Manchester (where the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union was founded in 1893) and was also displayed at the TUC conference, while articles on the history of the union featured in The Musician magazine.

A new entry in our end-of-year review at No. 3 is the Norman McLaren Archive. McLaren’s presence in the Top 3 reflects the increased interest in the life and work of the Stirling-born filmmaker in the run-up to the centenary of his birth in 2014. Our McLaren Archive has continued to grow in recent years with letters to friends and family, artwork and family photographs being added to the collection. In April 2014 a major celebration of McLaren’s career will begin in Stirling with the unveiling of a heritage plaque on his childhood home and an exhibition of material from our collection at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. McLaren 2014 will present an exciting programme of events across Scotland including educational workshops, film screenings and public events culminating in a celebration of his ground-breaking, award-winning films at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The filmmaker Norman McLaren at work. 2014 will see a major celebration of his life and films in Scotland.

The filmmaker Norman McLaren at work. 2014 will see a major celebration of his life and films in Scotland.

Those results in full:

2013:

  1. NHS Forth Valley Archives
  2. Musicians’ Union
  3. Norman McLaren

2012:

  1. Musicians’ Union
  2. John Grierson
  3. Lindsay Anderson

2011:

  1. John Grierson
  2. Lindsay Anderson
  3. University of Stirling

 

New accession: letters of a young filmmaker

This week we were delighted to receive a fantastic new addition to our Norman McLaren Archive. The material consists of a set of 64 letters, letter-cards and postcards sent by McLaren to his friend (and fellow filmmaker) Helen Biggar in 1936 and 1937. McLaren met Biggar when studying at the Glasgow School of Art and in 1936 they made the anti-war film Hell Unltd (which had a recent screening at the GFT). McLaren’s letters to Biggar detail the film’s planning, editing, promotion and distribution. A letter written on 21 April 1936 captures McLaren’s excitement at a moment of creative inspiration:

“Oh Helen – it happened at 7 o’clock tonight – it burst forth like a torrent – a perfect welter and wealth of hot ideas and arrangement and everything – in fact the complete film just gushed from my subconscious mind in great detail – gee its marvelous – our new film…”

Examples of the letters and postcards sent by Norman McLaren to Helen Biggar.

Examples of the letters and postcards sent by Norman McLaren to Helen Biggar.

The film McLaren and Helen Biggar made was a stinging attack on the re-armament of Europe and consequent rush towards conflict. The film was as experimental as it was political mixing various styles and techniques – animation, archive footage, graphs and titles, and acted scenes – culminating in a rallying call for the audience to take direct action and demonstrate against the war. The film made a great impact in the febrile political climate of the time and was widely screened (McLaren’s letters detailing their arrangements with Kino Films, a left-wing film distributor).

A still from Hell Unltd made by Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar in 1936.

A still from Hell Unltd made by Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar in 1936.

 The letters cover a key point in the development of McLaren’s filmmaking career. In the autumn of 1936 McLaren took up his first post as a professional filmmaker joining the team of young talent that John Grierson assembled at the GPO Film Unit. McLaren writes about his work at the GPO, comparing the methods and techniques to those he had previously employed in his amateur work. He still however had ambitions to make his own films outside the GPO Film Unit and discusses various planned project with Helen Biggar. McLaren also writes about his visit to Spain in November 1936 to shoot footage for the film The Defense of Madrid, which documented the resistance of the Republican forces fighting Franco’s Nationalist army.

Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar playing croquet at McLaren's home in Stirling c 1936.

Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar playing croquet at McLaren’s home in Stirling c 1936.

Following their collaboration on Hell Unltd McLaren and Biggar’s career paths diverged. In 1939 McLaren moved to New York and in 1941 he took up an invitation from John Grierson to join the newly established National Film Board of Canada. Helen Biggar became a stage designer for the Glasgow Worker’s Theatre Group and the Glasgow Unity Theatre, while continuing her work as a sculptor. In 1945 she moved to London, later becoming wardrobe mistress and costume designer for Ballet Rambert.

From Russia With Love: Norman McLaren’s Soviet Holiday

The award-winning experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren travelled to many parts of the world and seemed to have a knack for visiting interesting places in interesting times. He was in Spain during the Civil War shooting footage for the film The Defence of Madrid. In 1949 he had an unexpectedly extended stay in China when the communist revolution overtook the UNESCO project he was working on. And he spent several months in India in 1952-53 educating local filmmakers.

In September 1935 McLaren travelled to Moscow as a tourist. At the time McLaren was attending the Glasgow School of Art where he was one of many students who embraced the idealism of the Soviet project which was so effectively promoted by the Russian art and film of the period. McLaren’s father had no time for Norman’s youthful idealism and, so the family story goes, he paid for Norman to visit Moscow in the hope that the reality of life in Russia would puncture his idealised views of the Soviet Union.

The Norman McLaren Archive includes a postcard that McLaren sent back to his father from Moscow. Written on the 6th September 1935 Norman’s account of his visit reveals that his father’s efforts didn’t have the desired effect:

“Having a great time in every way here. Have seen dozens of things of great interest; met many Russians, been several times to the theatre, have taken quite a lot of film; have visited hospitals and exhibitions, have been inside (on my own) homes and dwelling houses, shops, and a church which is still used by some of the old people, a sports stadium, parks, etc. One is quite free to wander anywhere here, and one can film almost anything. Weather’s been good – food been too abundant – I have only three days more in Moscow. NORMAN.”

Front of postcard sent by Norman McLaren to his father in Stirling in September 1935.

Back of postcard (message transcribed above).

This postcard is part of a collection of over 400 letters and postcards Norman McLaren wrote to his parents in Stirling over a 30 year period beginning in 1935. The letters were written on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis and include information on the development of his career, accounts of his travels and discussions of his work, alongside family business and personal information.

Norman McLaren’s Chinese Odyssey

The University Archives holds a collection of material relating to the Stirling-born filmmaker Norman McLaren including over 400 letters he wrote to his parents in Stirling over a 30 year period beginning in 1936. The letters were written on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis and include information on the development of his career, accounts of his travels and discussions of his work, alongside family business and personal information.

In 1949 McLaren was invited by UNESCO to travel to China to teach young Chinese artists how to make animated films as part of a project to improve the health of China’s rural population. McLaren’s adventure started pleasantly enough, travelling from his home in Ottawa, Canada, (where he worked at the National Film Board) west across the Pacific. He stopped off at Honolulu which he described in a letter to his parents as “utterly bewitching, no place for a Scot with a buried Presbyterian conscience to remain!” From the tropical paradise of Hawaii McLaren continued on to Tokyo, a city still struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the Second World War. He kept a detailed journal of his trip and noted the poverty and destruction still clearly visible in Japan’s capital.

Norman McLaren

Photograph of Norman McLaren taken during his trip to China.

From the dust and rubble of Tokyo McLaren continued onwards to the heat and humidity of Hong Kong and into China to the small town of Pehpei in Szechuan province. Unfortunately for McLaren he arrived in China as the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists swept through the country. For several months life continued as normal in the sleepy rural town of Pehpei where McLaren got on with his job of educating his Chinese pupils. In December 1949 the Communist revolution arrived on Pehpei’s doorstep. In an article he wrote for a Canadian magazine on his return McLaren recounted the efforts made by the town’s mayor to prevent the retreating Nationalist forces from ransacking the town by welcoming them, feeding them and providing them with transport to help them on their way. With the Nationalists gone the town prepared a big welcoming show for the advancing communist troops – which had to be quickly cancelled when a further group of Nationalist soldiers appeared on the horizon! After entertaining thousands of retreating nationalist troops the town put up it’s bunting and held its breath for the victorious communist army. However the expected red army didn’t appear and the town was entered by a single truck of slightly bemused soldiers.

The arrival of the communists made McLaren’s departure difficult as the country closed its doors to the outside world. With no way home McLaren was forced to remain in Pehpei and extend the educational project. After the initial upheaval of the Communist take-over life in Pehpei appears to have returned to quiet normality. In a letter written on 22 Jan 1950 McLaren noted “life here is very quiet and simple, with little to do, little to read, and no radio.” A new regime brought new bureaucracy and it took McLaren five months to get a travel permit to leave. In March 1950 he received an official invitation from the Ministry of Culture to visit them in Peking. It was his ticket out of China. He left Pehpei and travelled across the country by train where he witnessed “many evidences of the battlefields of the past twenty years of war”. Following a brief stop-off in the capital he finally reached Hong Kong in May 1950.

Letter

Letter from Norman McLaren to his mother, 26 September 1949.

Despite the conflict he witnessed and the virtual imprisonment he suffered McLaren appears to have enjoyed his time in China and gained a great respect for its people. Reflecting on his experiences he wrote, in a letter to his parents, “Chinese civilisation in many ways is superior to our recent western civilisation. I am sorry in many ways to be leaving it. It is not in its plumbing or mechanical gadgets that China is superior, but in its simple human attitudes.”

The Documentary Film Mob

It’s always nice to see material from your collections featured on TV and radio and in the press. On Tuesday 19th July BBC 4 is screening Britain Through the Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, a programme about the pioneering British documentary filmmakers of the 1930s. One of the key figures in this group was John Grierson and a number of images from our Grierson Archive feature in the programme.

Often described as ‘the father of documentary film’ Grierson began his filmmaking career in 1927 when he persuaded the Empire Marketing Board that it needed to set up a film unit. Grierson’s unit set about making a string of promotional films extolling the virtues of various products made in the British Empire. It was while he was at the Board that Grierson made the film Drifters, a documentary about herring fishing. The film had a huge impact and created a template for documentary films which many others followed.

Drifters

Scene from Drifters, 1929.

On the back of the success of Drifters Grierson moved to the General Post Office in 1933 where he ran their film unit and produced a string of documentary and public information films. Probably the best known of these films is Night Mail which followed the post train from London to Scotland. It featured music from Benjamin Britten and poetry from W H Auden (the final lines of which, when the train reaches Scotland, are read by Grierson). He was responsible for launching the careers of a generation of young British filmmakers who flourished under his watchful eye. The Stirling-born, Oscar-winning animator Norman McLaren was one of those who benefited from Grierson’s support and encouragement. He is fondly remembered in Canada where in 1939 he took on the huge challenge of setting up the country’s National Film Board. For many Scots however Grierson is perhaps best known as the presenter of This Wonderful World, a television programme which brought the best of the world’s documentary films into Scottish sitting rooms in the 1950s and 1960s.

This Wonderful World

John Grierson on the set of This Wonderful World, 1958.