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Oliver Caldecott 1925-1989

Adapted from a Memoir by Moyra Caldecott

Moyra Caldecott and family warmly invite you to an exhibition to celebrate the life and art of Oliver Caldecott in the 20th year since his death.  It runs from 6-18 April 2009, and there will be a TEA PARTY to mark the last day of the exhibition on Saturday 18 April.  For details please write to the ART JERICHO Gallery at info@artjericho.com or visit www.artjericho.com.

My husband Oliver was one of the foremost publishing editors of his generation – for example as a chief editor of Penguin Books in the 1960s and as co-founder and director with Dieter Pevsner of Wildwood House in the 70s. He was also a prolific artist, producing hundreds of cartoons, sketches and paintings in a variety of media over several decades. In April 2009 the family is collaborating with a gallery in Oxford – Art Jericho – to mount a retrospective exhibition of his work, twenty years after his death. Many of the pictures will be exhibited for the first time.

His parents were both well-known artists in South Africa – Strat Caldecott and Florence Zerffi. At Cape Town University Oliver plunged into student politics as an opponent of apartheid. He was associated with the National Union of Students (NUSAS) from 1943, and became its President in 1948. Several of Oliver’s friends were arrested, and he knew he would either have to keep quiet or be arrested too. In 1950 there was a massive protest attended by 10,000 people in Johannesburg’s Market Square during the “Defend Free Speech” Convention. Protest marchers were fired upon. Many died; many more were wounded. Many intellectuals, both white and black, left South Africa at this time, or were put away for years, like Nelson Mandela. The headquarters of the ANC were set up abroad and only returned openly to South Africa in 1994 when Mandela, an ANC member, became the first black president of the Republic of South Africa.

Oliver and I settled in London in 1951, where Oliver continued to give passionate talks about the injustices of apartheid – helping to rouse the indignation that would eventually overturn the system in South Africa. At the time we never thought it would take so long!  We also went on protest marches against the Atom Bomb from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square. Shortly after the birth of our first child in 1953, Oliver became editor of the Readers’ Union Book Club, and subsequently several associated book clubs – Jazz, and Science Fiction.

At one point, Oliver was very ill with glandular fever. After a few weeks, he began to recover, but the doctor advised him not to go back to work yet. He was very frustrated and irritated not to be active, but he wasn’t feeling well enough to get up and do anything. I was at my wit’s end keeping him occupied. Noticing he was sketching on scraps of paper, I asked a friend of his to give him a pile of offcuts from the office. Reams of very large paper arrived, and Oliver started to draw all day and every day with pen and ink. He produced brilliant, witty, satirical studies of human nature – sometimes savage, always shrewd. Like his father, Oliver turned out to have a very quick hand and an accurate visual memory. Gradually he began to use colour in his drawings. Within a few years I believe he was as good as either of his parents. In June and July 1958, he and his mother Florence both had pictures in the South London Art Group Exhibition in the South London Art Gallery. By the 1960s Oliver was having regular exhibitions of his work.

In 1965 Oliver was invited by Tony Godwin to join Penguin Books as Fiction Editor. He was always interested in “books of ideas”, and gradually he introduced books that might be called “new age” – including the Carlos Castaneda series, which was first published in California. It was our “swinging sixties” with endless parties, a kaleidoscope of relationships, and stimulating friendships among the most interesting writers of the age. We also kept our old friends from South Africa, who were all doing well in Britain. I remember meeting Mervyn Peake at a party given by the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock. Oliver was responsible for getting three of his out-of-print books published as Penguin Modern Classics (the Gormengast series). In June 1971 we went to a party given by J.P. Donleavy in Ireland. We arrived late in the middle of a storm, having got lost on the way, and were greeted by two sinister wolfhounds illuminated by lightning at the top of the stairs.

During 1972, Oliver and his friend Dieter left Penguin to start Wildwood House. Oliver was to say later that the years at Wildwood were the happiest of his life. Some very good and influential books were published that might never have seen the light of day if he had stayed at Penguins – including Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Another popular book from Wildwood was the Tao Te Ching translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English.

In 1976 Oliver was with me when I was healed of very severe angina by a spirit healer in Bristol. He subsequently found he also had healing abilities, and was called on frequently to cure his friends’ headaches or backaches. He was letting go of his old scepticism. Increasingly he published books at Wildwood on alternative or complementary healing, on animal ESP, and on many spiritual subjects. Of course, he never lost his reason and he was never gullible. But ideas fascinated and intrigued him, and he liked to play with them. If an author would make a good case for some idea, he was interested. But he once said to me, “I don’t see why a person should jump from an experience they don’t understand to an explanation that defies reason.”

Because the 1970s saw the full-on rampage of the New Age, he was inundated with “channelled” manuscripts. His comment was: “One can’t really comment. If it’s so, it’s so. But how can we know? We go on with our lives as best we can, following that elusive cosmic light – and trust that the meaning and purpose of it will be as we hope.” He took to wearing a badge a friend gave him which said, “Just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I’m smart.”

In these years, Oliver also had many exhibitions. Every time the publisher launched a book by Shirley Toulson that he had illustrated, for example, we organized an exhibition to stir up local interest. They cost a lot in framing and in time, but were invariably fun.

We went to a lot of jazz concerts in smoky pubs and halls, Oliver sketching all the time. Some names I recall: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dollar Brand (a South African jazz pianist who later changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim), Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonius Monk, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Miriam Makeba, Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. Later I organised many exhibitions of his jazz pictures, but I was always embarrassed when people asked me the name of the musician depicted. I just couldn’t remember – only that I had enjoyed the music. Oliver would have known, but by that time he was dead. He never labelled his drawings: he was more concerned with catching the spirit of the music than specifically with who was playing. Maybe he thought it obvious who it was, or that he would always be around to answer the query.

In 1980 Wildwood House was bought by East-West Publications, but Oliver stayed on for a few more years. Eventually, in 1984, he left to become the editor of the Rider imprint at Hutchinsons, until 1989 when he moved out of London. He had been diagnosed with cancer of the colon in 1987, and was operated on during the great hurricane of that year. In November 1988 we found he had developed secondary lung and liver cancer: the prognosis was that he had one year to live. He could either have chemo therapy to prolong his life for a few more weeks, or walk out and enjoy the time he had left. Oliver decided against the therapy. We put our London house on the market and, after a few false starts, moved to Bath in February 1989. In March we went for a month to Cape Town. Oliver felt well, and it was a beautiful, intense time. He swam and sketched and saw old friends. We could not believe he would soon be dying. When we returned to England he began to work part-time as an editor for Gothic Image Publishing in Glastonbury, and as an adviser to ICOREC (the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture). We tried every kind of alternative or complementary medicine to cure his cancer, but to no avail.

Oliver died on 14 November 1989. He had substantial obituaries in the Telegraph (13 Dec.), The Times (22 Nov.), the Independent (18 Nov.), the Guardian (18 Nov.), The Bookseller (1 Dec. and 5 Jan), Publisher’s Weekly (8 Dec.), and even Prediction (March 1990). Giles Gordon wrote in the Independent: “Also a passionate painter with a violent and sensuous black line, Caldecott was always intrigued by the counter-culture. Counter-culturalists, like himself usually bearded and from Abroad, were regularly to be encountered at his and his novelist wife Moyra’s happy Dulwich family house. Ideas and art were discussed; the future of the planet rather than the politics of publishing.”

The printed version of this Memoir, heavily illustrated with examples of Oliver’s black and white drawings, as well as biographies of Oliver on CD and cards – as well as the paintings themselves – will be on sale at he exhibition in April.

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