Priaulx Rainier

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Priaulx Rainier – (Priaulx Rainier by George Newson  bromide fibre print, 18 October 1984 )

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 The closest which the trail-blazing composer, Priaulx Rainier enjoyed to a community of like minded artists was afforded her when she took up the invitation to take a studio in St Ives, where she fitted perfectly into the rhapsodically modernist circle led by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. From her work designing and planting Hepworth’s garden at the Trewyn studio, to her last work, Wildlife Celebration which was commissioned by Gerald Durrell for the Jersey Zoo, Rainier naturally gravitated away from the confines of an inward looking approach to music.

 The two women were in awe of each others’ achievements. Rainier to Hepworth:

 “You have achieved the world to which I struggle, which is so hard in music.”

 In my own journal, I found the following, written sitting in Hepworth’s garden in St Ives:

 ‘Priaulx Rainier in the Treywn Studio-Communication between artist and composer.A composer listens to an artist at work, in the garden she would plant. The rhythms and pitches of sculpting find their way into a provisional work.’

 In the summer of 1950, Hepworth invited Rainier down to St Ives. This first visit established a pattern which saw Rainier divide her life between there and London. Hepworth had acquired a new studio, Trewyn, the previous autumn, and from the time of this visit, Rainier helped design and choose the plants for the garden.

 On the 20th July 1950, sitting in the Garden, Rainier notated ‘Rhythms of the Stones’ listening to Hepworth at work with her assistants, Denis Mitchell and John Wells. ‘The sound of a mallet or hammer is music to my ears, when either is used rhythmically’, Hepworth later wrote. Later in the 1950’s, in a letter to Rainier, she noted: “I must go, the hammers are not rhythmical”. Henry Moore, writing in 1949 noted a similar relationship, if a more wounding one, between sculpture and rhythm: “Rocks reveal the treate suffered by chipped and broken stone and have the rhythm of an angular, quivering block.”

 Rainier’s Rhythms of the Stones became a lodestone of natural collaboration for me. In some ways it looks back.  

In 1770 Pietro Fabris drew Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing chamber music with Sir William Hamilton in Lord Fortrose’s salon in Naples. It was Fabris who, under Hamilton’s careful supervision was, at that time just beginning illustrations for Campi Phlegraei, Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies, As They have been communicated to the Royal Society by Sir William Hamilton [etc.]…, which would be published in 1776.  In his employer’s proud words words, Fabris’s pictures were ‘among the first, of those dedicated to the Neapolitan landscape, to combine the genre of topographical ‘vedutismo’ with gouache technique.’His pair of drawings of the very different topography of the salon, also depicts other figures than the Mozarts and Hamilton, happily engaged in non-musical  pursuits. A pair of shirt-sleeved grandees fence, and a composer (who may or may not be Jomelli) works at a table to one side. Two dogs, as Auden would have if ‘get on with their doggy lives.’ The various activities-swordplay, chamber music, listening, composing and dogginess, are being carried on in one light-filled space, surrounded by archaeological treasures. It is inconceivable that they would not have some impact upon each other.

Priaulx Rainier was sitting in the garden which she would later plant with many rare species imported from her native South Africa. The garden itself was filled with finished pieces, as well as local fauna. On the occasions that I have had the chance to play there, performances have been interrupted by gulls, and, on one occasions, parakeets, which had taken up residence in the next door garden. Perhaps Rainier had sat down, like Jomelli, to compose, whilst her friends got on with their own work. However the rhythms and pitches of Hepworth and her assistants proved irresistible. Rainier ended up with two pages, not so much of sketches, or composition, but ‘transcription’. This type of connection is the essence of trans-disciplinary exchange.

 [William Glock]: ‘ I think that one should remember that, in contrast to her friends in the visual arts, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, she lacked, because of the unique individuality of her music, a community of composers with whom she could exchange ideas and measure her own progress.

 It is interesting that William Glock was of he opinion that the St Ives artists and makers did provide a sufficient community within which Rainier could develop. So much of Hepworth and Nicholson’s work was about music, or at the very least, deeply informed by it, that it is difficult to see where there might have been a problem. Perhaps Glock was of the opinion, that, had Rainier been part of a group of composers, she might have produced more. However, this opinion seems to look away from the laconic nature of her music, and of its quantity. This was something which she also inculcated in her students, such as the prodigiously gifted Jeremy Dale Roberts, who, although in his 70’s has written a very small number of works. He has also taken his cue from Rainier and Hepworth’s interchange, finding inspiration in the phenomenally understated work of Giorgio Morandi. 

 The composer Nigel Butterly recalled Tippett leading him to study under Rainier:

 “I wrote to Michael Tippett and asked if I could have composition lessons-that was in 1962. He wrote back and said that he didn’t teach. But he recommended Priaulx Rainier. …he said: ‘In my opinion she is the best teacher in London.’…’…she could see- and this as what she pointed out to me- that what I was trying to do was, as it were, pour new wine into old bottles. She realised that what I needed to do was to be freer and not just automatically follow the shapes that I was familiar with; she helped me to ask question s all the time.’’

 Tippett wrote irresistibly of the quirkiness, and sometimes, downright muddle, that distinguished Rainier, Hepworth and the St Ives artists:

 ‘Priaulx’s many quirks tended to divide people. I myself loved her vagueness- for instance, her directions to where she was staying: ‘Take the second exit on the roundabout before the last one.’ But publishers and performers were often irritated. Her driving was incomparably erratic. And when she and Barbara tried to organize a festival at St Ives, in 1953, her administration was hilarious. I was asked for a fanfare, to be played from the four corners of the church tower, and had to rewrite it three times, to match the changing talents of the successive brass groups appointed to play it. Best of all, madrigals were to be sung from a boat in the harbour, but Priaulx and Barbara forgot to check the tides; in ht event, the tide went out, taking with it the boatful of inaudible singers!’


 PSS, Journal, undated.

Art in the 20th Century, a year by year Chronicle, Jean Louis Ferrier, Chêne-Hachette, Paris, 1999, P. 465

 1770 PG 2611

 Quoted in: Dilettanti:the antic and the antique in 18th Century England, Bruce Redford, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2008, Pp.85-6

Notes in Advance, William Glock, OUP, Oxford, 1991, P.178

 Composer to Composer, Andrew Ford, Quartet Books, London, 1993,  P.166

 Those twentieth century blues, Michael Tippett, Pimlico, London   P.119