Brian Tilbrook's Recollections
(letter to David Dixon - 3rd Dec 2006)

Original handwritten letter is included below.

Drawing from The Government Inspector programme

Dec 3rd (Just back from KL)

Dear David,

First of all I am delighted that you will be writing a book on Saint Nicholas - it could not be in better hands. Secondly I must explain that if I write long hand to you, you would not understand more than a few words!!!

Ordinarily I would enlist Moyreen's computer assistance but she is very hard at work preparing my Malaysian, Japanese and Hong Kong letters for conversion to a book - hopefully!

So I will attempt to recall some of the many magic moments of my first and only school in the UK. I did briefly depart to Malaysia to get married but when I finally left I remember saying in my farewell comments that Robert Watson was very proud of his foundation staff and I was one of the first bricks he dropped thereafter.

My appointment was simply a personal decision by Robert Watson based on a recommendation from Hornsey College of Art. Plenders had trod the same path and if the process could produce someone as good as he then I  would follow in the same excellent mold. This, of course, was a great mistake but Plenders kindly put up with me. I had only been in the school a few weeks when Robert Watson's request for two large paintings based on the life of St Nicholas resulted in Plenders producing a sea-based incident in the saint's life while I concentrated on the miracle of the two horses, one black, one white being slaughtered. Unfortunately Saint Nicholas produced his restorative magic in the dark and the white head went on the black horse and the black head back onto the white horse. Morning assembly was generally a rather serious affair so when Plenders and I spoke about our relative paintings and I explained that I was totally sober at the time the boys cracked up!

From early on I decided that freshly built Saint Nicholas needed a certain amount of mural activity. Plenders had plenty to concern himself with including splendid wood engravings for the magazine and other areas. I did not have the skill to mobilise youngsters though I wanted their classwork on display. So while the first couple of years rolled by I produced a series of restaurant panels above the dining room serving hatch and an appropriate panel across the middle ceiling wall based on "feast and famine". As Pip Appleby and I were in charge of the double sitting of ravenous schoolboys I would bless their culinary prospects with one eye on the mural. Subsequently I produced a huge space age panel at the furthest end of the school eliciting the only negative comment I have ever had from an H.M.I. - namely that my efforts would daunt and depress the boys artistic ambitions - which was of course a load of rubbish!

It was in my second year that I turned my beady eye on the nature and content of the School Fair. I was very enthusiastic concerning the sixth form common room as a great project and promptly go so heavily involved that I spent hundreds of hours designing, making & begging various elements for each Fair which stacked up some rewarding memories. The parents committee were marvellous people and on many an evening I dined splendidly on cucumber sandwiches and gin & tonics. One particular tower of strength was Harry Freeman (and his wife Marjorie) still alive today and still visited by me as recently as this August. Harry always let Northwood know that the fair had started by exploding three or four impressive mortars, but some of the more dramatic moments occurred out of sight. For example I wanted to put a huge advert on the  end of the main building at least four storeys including the roof. A delightful man Morton Demmerly, "Ding Dong" to the boys, who sadly made his life a musical misery, was getting rid of a useless grand piano and with the help of several strong youngsters we got the metal innards up to the roof where the banner was unfurled and weighted down. I then inched the whole contraption up to the edge and it proudly announced the Fair for two weeks. However I had neither the boys nor the inclination, to stagger across the roof and down the stairs after the Fair, and so waiting until the quiet of the evening and double checking that no one was around I pushed the metal inside of the grand piano off the roof where it created quite a dent in the ground below.

On another Fair occasion I had introduced a number of the more talented boys to the Joys of Life classes, on a Saturday morning, at Ealing College of Art where I taught Still Life. I can remember the rather disappointed look on their faces when the model turned out to be excessively overweight and over sixty. But as I was chuckling at their 'let down' I noticed, out of the studio window, a huge papier-mache horse with a splendid knight on its back armed with a huge and threatening lance, so with the School Fair in mind, I asked the art students to gift it to me, got another splendid parent to send a lorry over and the following weekend we took off round the catchment area of the school giving out information and programmes for the Fair. Unfortunately I hadn't calculated the height of the charging knight in relation to the British Railways bridge. No damage was done to the bridge but the knight, poor fellow, was never the same again.

The way the parents, staff and boys co-operated on the Fair was splendid and the only exhausting chore for me was designing, printing and stapling together the hundreds of programmes which the boys then spread round the local community. The resultant money plus the Fair itself always did well financially but not well enough to provide for the 6th form Common Room. Eventually a stalwart family, the Hendersons financed the new building, the sixth form had the use of it much earlier and the loaned money was paid back Fair by Fair - by which time I was safely in Hong Kong. So many boys helped but an outstanding contributor was Clive Tickner whose inventive skills were matched only by his ability to build the most amazing structures. I made a point of always turning the corridor linking the two artrooms into an intriguing exhibition each year. This was fine as long as the sun shone but if it rained close to the Fair date, the boys had nowhere to hang their raincoats etc. I am not surprised that one or two members of staff raised their eyebrows at some of the stunts I got up to - but all in a good cause I would say in my defence.

If the School Fair occupied much of my time towards the end of the year there were other diversions which I recall, with great pleasure - not least the Carol Concert held in the local church and Easter Boat Trips. The Carol Service always involved a lot of the staff and I appreciated the combined result. For me it had some of the atmosphere and beauty of the famous nine lessons & Carols from Cambridge. The Boat Trips organised by Brian Ridge, ably supported by John Jefford, were altogether much more carefree, not least the first one where the skipper grounded us on a submerged sandbank. Always ready to lend a hand, I grabbed a piece of white card and using our one and only bottle of ketchup, painted a large "L" Plate which I hung at the blunt end of the boat. I'm not sure that the gesture was appreciated.

Another diversion which Plenders and I divided between us was the School Play. In particular I shall never forget "Journey's End", extremely well directed by Peter Clarke and Pip Appleby. My contribution was, I thought, one of the better stage designs, starting with a gauze on which I'd painted a battlefield. As George Easom lowered the front lights and lit up the dugout the gauze disappeared. The dugout was a wooden construction with a roof, held in place and hinged by a very stout rope, onto which a great team of boys heaped generous helpings of peat. With the chairman of the governors and other worthy people in the front seats, the play ended with the shriek of a shell, George Easom brought a chopper down on the rope and the roof caved in! It was not until I appeared out at the hall entrance that I realised, watching the dignitaries dusting the peat off themselves, that there'd been a certain amount of unrehearsed audience involvement! I also remember that production which I stage-managed, for my squeezing the last drop of musical emotion from the interval playing of "Nimrod", despite Peter Clarke wanting me to "get on with it" I didn't open the curtain until the last tearful note had ended.

Life at Saint Nicholas was mostly very positive but I can still remember the first boy to die oh so prematurely. Rodney Burnham was a mere sixteen when he crashed his motor bike. I can also remember on a school trip to Rome that the boys were fine, as far as we knew, but Herbert Winter, David Dixon and I did have trouble with unexpected health problems from the 4th member of staff. He must have recovered because Herbert, David and I were able to travel by horse & carriage to a performance of "La Boheme" in the Rome Opera House. Unfortunately local by-laws do not allow horses to park outside the theatre and we had to slink down a side-alley. A few months later I inflicted on the Parents Association an unpardonable sin. I agreed to give a slideshow. We did use a magnificent projector but by the time I'd talked about Malta, Herbert had talked about Rome, and then after the interval I had dodged all over the place illustrating my travels, I suspect the applause at the end was as much relief at the slides stopping , as to the quality of the evening. But of course there was no television in those days, the vote of thanks came from another great stalwart of the Parents Association, Eric Hilburn.

Yet another enjoyable trip involved taking some boys to Germany this time organised by the loveable John Kinsey. We christened him the Gruppen Fuhrer and my limited knowledge of German wines increased enormously. I can still remember the start of our journey. Peter Clarke came round the corner of the hall and I expected a cheery "good morning". "It looks like war", said Peter. I cannot now remember which conflict this memory referred to, but we all returned safely. As did the boys plus one or two parents who I regularly took to concerts at the Festival Hall. I was not trying to usurp Morton Demmery but his hands were full and I simply wanted some of the boys to experience a professional orchestra at close range. We all sat behind the orchestra and the evenings were full of excitement especially when the percussion section got going.

Looking back on so many eventful years from 1956 to 1965 when I finally left, having had a temporary foreign posting for two years to Malaysia, I am reminded of a young man who I perversely protected. His name was Felix Dennis and as his tutor I was always looking on his positive side. This occasionally took some finding. But all attempts to throw him out I blocked until I took off for the two years in Malaysia. When I returned on September 1st, 1964 he had been asked to leave - and is now one of the richest men living in Britain!

Robert Watson had such an effect on me that in my dreams I can still get schools and staff mixed up from Northwood to Hong Kong but Robert reigns supreme. I was very grateful for his faith in me and somewhat taken aback when he said to me in 1965 that he had always assumed I would return to Asia. It seems only a few years ago that the phone rang in our medieval house in Mermaid St, Rye and as I picked it up I could see the Watson family, plus mobile, standing outside. Robert's hearing had largely gone but his capacity for fish and chips was unabated.

I also thought Plenders, or Donald Plenderleith to give him his full name, was extremely tolerant of this newly qualified whipper-snapper who was leaping about the school in a mildly demented manner. When he retired, the full creative pleasure of his painting was finally given space and encouragement. Another good friend was Robert Armstrong who only needed to see me approaching his workshops to know that I wanted something done. And in my first year there was also Peter Banton who was lumbered with me as a fill-in geographer. When I had stopped prattling on about my experiences in Japan we got down to some serious teaching. All the boys failed in my one class but they did do some splendid maps.

With the arrival of Dennis Proudman who I'm still in touch with, it seemed a good time to organise a Film Society. I designed a membership card, Dennis set up the first film, a classic western, "Shane", and to the dramatic introductory music from "The Big Country", the film began. Unfortunately despite our careful planning the film was a poor black and white copy and the hall blackout inadequate. But the club went from strength to strength introducing the boys for the first time to the joys of Spike Milligan, the wonders of filmed Dickens and as a warm up on occasions a jazz group or even one bright musician, Christopher Van Kampen, showing what he could do on the drums. But of course there is always the performance one would rather forget. Mine was a showing of "The Third Reich". I ran the club by myself, Dennis having departed, and Robert Watson with his subject and his war experience enhancing his interest in the film, graced us with his presence. To start with, I managed to reverse history by getting the reels mixed up and then one section came off the projector and rolled gently down the aisle towards the screen. To a sympathetic hush I marched to the front and claimed the offending reel back and, utterly embarrassed, finished the show. Dennis Proudman now lives as far away from noisy civilisation as he can get on an island beyond Scotland and reckons that in his simple lifestyle he is undoing some of the harm I create by flying all over the world. He may have a point!

While I was in Malaysia busy getting married, having my first exhibition of paintings - oh and yes, doing some teaching, my place at Saint Nicholas was temporarily taken by Geoffrey Dye who I had met during my teaching practice at Ealing Grammar School for Boys. Geoff was then an extremely talented sixth form artist but by the time I temporarily departed to Kuala Lumpur Geoffrey was a fully qualified art teacher. But he will never forget his very first lesson with the school's senior artists. Projecting his first lecture slide of a female nude "Let us" he said "consider it as a whole". The boys fell about.

I have, in the past, kept in touch with so many members of staff and the realization that most of them have now died is a vivid reminder of how young I was when I joined Saint Nicholas. As Clive Tickner, now a very successful and honoured director of film photography, said not so long ago, "we boys had no idea that you were only a few years older than us". I was amused to find that almost half of the sixty year olds attended the 50th celebration had been caned by Robert Watson. If he was the ultimate sanction much of the discipline resulted from the wiser and older members of the foundation staff. I think it was Peter Gosden who instigated the "wailing wall", a space outside, in the staff room corridor, where delinquents studied the brickwork. It was Peter Gosden who had to stoically put up with Brian Ridge, John Jefford and myself driving dementedly across France on one of our ventures abroad. Not having a driving licence at the time in no way diminished my enthusiasm for speed. On a more sedate note I also drove with George Easom around Scandinavia where he began to realise that navigation was not one of my strong points.I was delighted at the 50th celebration to see how many "youngsters" crowded round him. Like many staff at Saint Nicholas George was a remarkably able teacher, another tribute to Robert Watson's powers of selection.

When I was asked to design a tie for the 50th celebration I felt determined not to stray too far from Plenders original concept. It is different but not hugely. In the blurb which accompanied the tie there was a cartoon of me in my little white Fiat - about as low in the staff car park pecking order as one could go! But the sentiments I expressed in that same missive hold enormously constant. Saint Nicholas was a quite remarkable school and the educational world was infinitely the poorer for its politically-based demise.

I do hope, David, that some of this is of help to you. Should I think of any other episodes or memories which are possibly relevant, I'll pass them on to you. Use it, reject it, re-arrange it or even keep it as it is but amend it.

Have fun,



PS. As you can see I have already added some thoughts on the Saint Nicholas Film Society .

The Focus Film Society Spring Programme 1962

Artwork from The Government Inspector. School Play, March 1960


Expansion of the Universities (1959-60)

The Life Of Galileo (1965)

Mr P. Banton (1972)