Caught by the River

Dear Susan

7th July 2011

I came across this delightful book at my brother’s house just recently. I asked him all about it and this is what he said:

Dear Susan by Ben Hartley
Review by Stephen Barrett.

Dear Susan by Ben Hartley is somehow 2/3 of the sum of the parts!
Confused? You should be. First we have to look at the compiler Bernard Samuels to get close to how this project came to print.
Bernard Samuels was a much-loved Director of Plymouth Arts Centre until his retirement in 1996. During this time he was responsible for creating events and exhibitions. Amongst the many artists he “gave a lift” to on their way were a very notable pair namely Beryl Cook and Ben Hartley. The work of Beryl Cook needs no introduction but the name Ben Hartley might be new to you.

Ben died in 1996, the date of Bernard’s retirement. In his will he bequeathed Bernard his entire artistic estate composed of 900 paintings and 300 work books. A new dawn? You could say that. As with any major body of work comes the responsibility of care. This was certainly a new project for a recently-retired Bernard Samuels who embarked on his new career with gusto as the custodian of the work of Ben Hartley.
Major and retrospective exhibitions, newly composed music, children’s workshops, Ben Hartley inspired poetry from Brian Patten, two beautifully illustrated books (Ben Hartley, Sansom and Company, and Pigs Must Eat on Sunday, Green Books ltd) and countless lectures have been the order of the day ever since.
My relationship with Bernard is as a restaurateur at Bistro One based near to his Plymouth home. He was amongst my first customers in 2004 and has been occupying the same table when he wishes to dine or simply popping in for a cup of tea and a chat. Inevitable his work with Ben Hartley’s paintings is normally the subject of conversation so you might say I have the low-down on how he puts it all together. At Bistro One we also support the Arts with original exhibitions of paintings, Jazz for supper and Poetry for Supper etc. With this hat on Bernard and I have created a series of limited edition prints taken from Ben Hartley’s 1953 workbook when as a very young artist he visited Paris – you can find them on Ben’s website.

In recent years Bernard talked of his joy at discovering the letters Ben wrote to Susan his niece in Manchester. These extraordinary letters have, with Susan’s collaboration, now been bound into a stunning compilation illustrated by Ben’s charming drawings. Uncle Bert was how she called him and how he signed off his correspondence. By reading these charming letters you will, like Susan, be transformed into the world of 1960’s rural Britain. Tales of simplicity, walks by the river, strange goings on at the farm etc. all feature in this unique insight to a distant relationship between Uncle Bert and Susan his niece.
A book to pick up and be joyful with or a book to read to children or a book like no other I know, illustrated with a Matisse-like freedom it defies pigeonholing. Only you will know if like me you’re lucky enough to own one.

Stephen Barrett is a Restaurateur based at Bistro One in Plymouth. An ideal and highly recommended stop off for anyone driving west to the Port Eliot festival in need of a bite.

Dear Susan is now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.95.