Arts: A magnetic portrait of the artist

A treasury of taped interviews moves into its new home in the British Library next week. By Robin Dutt
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BEFORE NEWSPAPERS, glossies, radio, television and the Net was... the voice. Oral history has been part of every culture, and the figure of the wise old storyteller a familiar one. Next week, celebrating 11 years of recording, our own treasury of oral history, the National Life Story Collection takes up residence in the new British Library.

The NLSC was originally established to create life story recordings with a broad spread of people in Britain, particularly individuals whose ways of life belonged to yesteryear - thatchers, costermongers, blacksmiths and so on. Supported by a combination of public and private funding and voluntary effort, the NLSC has Lord (Asa) Briggs as its President and boasts a glittering list of concerned worthies.

Cathy Courtney, a writer and oral historian, was keen to add to the archive a collection of artists' life stories - people she felt had been passed over due to their supposedly elevated or esoteric status. The special section which she originated, which is run in association with the Tate Gallery, includes dozens of formidable British talents, including Eileen Agar, Kenneth Armitage, Sandra Blow, Anthony Caro, Maggi Hambling, Conroy Maddox and Victor Pasmore.

"I was particularly interested in artists," Courtney says, "because so often others report the words of artists in a way which is dense and complicated. Artists frequently use much simpler language, more natural. I wanted to see artists in the context of the society they live in."

Although the tapes - often made by Courtney herself and a dedicated band of critics, writers and curators - are intended for posterity, there is no attempt to sculpt aural hagiographies. Often they are rambling, but all the more interesting for that.

"It is totally different to a journalistic style," says Courtney. "These tapes are meant to be full of digressions and anecdotes. Also, it is not all about being successful. We want to interview those who have been unsuccessful or who are little known."

Once completed - and the process can take several years - the tapes enter the vast vaults of the Life Story Collection and can be heard, free of charge, by anyone who applies for a Reader Pass from the British Library. Typically the listeners are academics, writers, researchers and the like, but the rainy-day escapee will surely not be barred either.

Holding charity status, the NLSC can only add to its collection if the tapes are sponsored, to the tune of about pounds 1,500 per artist - a positive bargain to corporations, for example, who believe in the importance of cultural public relations.

"As an interviewer on these tapes you are both interrogator and shrink," says Courtney. One might add also that over a period of time, the interviewer becomes a genuine friend of the interviewee since almost every question imaginable has been asked.

"We want to know everything," Courtney says. "Everyone has a story and you often find that those who say that their lives have been uneventful have the best stories to tell.

"Another thing about working on the Artist's Lives Collection is that I've noticed how beautifully they speak, with such eloquence - especially the older ones. The younger artists tend to speak less well in terms of exactitude but still their stories are very interesting. These are living treasures. They are people of their country and of their time."

The Artists' Lives Collection and National Life Story Collection are accessible at the British Library National Sound Archive, 96 Euston Road, London NW1. Reader Admissions Office 0171-412 7677