For fifty years every April llth, my birthday, I have taken from my bookshelf a small, blue, relief stamped volume, entitled “Life of Frank Buckland,” printed by Nelson. Not a great book, but fascinating, a grand opening to a new world for a young man obsessed with learning.
When I open this book it is with rememberance more than nostalgia, in fact reverence, that I view the inscription “From F. Thomas to Michael on his 12th birthday, April 11th 1952.”
I have always been blessed in my life when all seems to be a struggle, when creative drive goes, when the daily news of world events begins to overwhelm, my guardian angel gives to me the gift of a situation, or person, to transform and regenerate my life. Frederick was such a gift. A mentor and someone who has always inspired me.
I was absolutely hopeless with mathematics – numbers, figures, adding up, multiplying, subtracting, dividing. I might as well be dealing with Aramaic, Hebrew or Chinese.
To baffle my teachers I used to work on the principle, if I put hundreds of numbers on a sheet, by natural selection somehow a right answer might occur at the bottom of the page when I put in the equals sign or the minus sign or the division sign. This dyslectic approach to all things tied up with numerals was compensated by a passion, a thirst for all information on zoology, biology, histology, morphology, geology, palaeontology, microscopy, anatomy, botany and drawing.
My adopted parents despaired. They could not understand. They got me a mathematics tutor, and so I met Frederick. I still remember Frederick on that Saturday morning for the first session of instruction. Frederick, about seventy years of age, quietly spoken, white haired, very thin, moustache, and oh! those vivid clear mischievous blue eyes.
We both sat in a room completely lined with bookshelves at a round Blackwood table, papers everywhere, pictures, folders stacked on the floor, and fruit trees blossomed outside the study.
Frederick told me quietly “we will do long tots today”. This was his term for adding up columns of numbers.
With “Waterman’s” fountain pen he made each sheet of lined paper become a calligraphic masterpiece. Black ink numerals, some cursive writing, a conversation, than a cup of tea and the first two hour session was over.
Several sessions went by … and Frederick informed my adopted parents that he felt that not much could be done to increase my skills at this stage, but he would still try.
Every Saturday I dutifully went to his home for “tuition” and lunch. My life had changed. Frederick was an ex zoologist, a watercolour artist (not a prissy dabbler but a full bore master of the large mop brush. He was a literary critic for an international newspaper, a gardening columnist, and also had a beautiful ancient brass microscope.
My mathematics time (unknown to some people!) was spent for many, many months learning about literature, the techniques of laying down a wash on rag paper, on preparing a graft on a fruit tree, and how to draw an image viewed under the microscope.
Frederick talked and told me about an old fashioned thing called “beauty,” about the tyranny of fashion, but mostly about being authentic and always to push and extend whatever you became involved with.
I am absolutely sure that most people can look back and remember one or two humans with special affection, or some one they had a crush on, but Frederick, that man with a multiplicity of talents, and such scholarship, had a lasting influence on my life. He inspired me with his moderation, a model of a person who could be trusted and relied on, and I relied on his aesthetic judgement as though it came from Moses.
My first mentor, my greatest friend, my sage, my first idol, “Your writing in that book is still a talisman for what goes on in my visual art. Frederick, I used to think it futile you would live forever – but you do.”