It will only take a few moments of reflection to see that there is nothing very surprising about artists working vigorously or even with increasing brilliance years after those in other occupations have turned their attention to window boxes. Mathematicians and lyric poets may tend to burn themselves out by 25, but novelists, architects, painters and composers generally improve with age. If laws had always demanded that artists should retire at 65, we would all be the poorer by, inter alia, the major plays of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Wren's designs for St Paul's, buildings by Palladio, Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, Goethe's Faust, Verdi's Falstaff, Wagner's Parsifal, Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, paintings by Lorraine, Monet, Turner, Titian and Picasso, most of Michelangelo's best work including the Sistine Chapel ceiling. . .
That list could be extended for pages, and all of it would simply bear out Tolstoy's maxim - he said it when still relatively young, at 70 - 'The moral progress of mankind is due to the aged. The old grow better and wiser'. But the majority of those artists who have enjoyed late and great periods have spent their youth and middle years developing their technique as they matured. There have been far fewer cases of artists who commence their creative oeuvre after having a career in agriculture or sales.
True, some writers such as Conrad, Dryden, George Eliot and Hardy began their main careers at moderately advanced ages, and it might sometimes be possible for an artist to attain what appears like an overnight aesthetic maturity thanks to having served an apprenticeship in a separate but related field. More often, the late starter will be an amateur or a naive artist - someone who may derive profound satisfaction from their new pursuit but will never gain much public notice unless they are famous for some other reason.
Winston Churchill wrote movingly of the deep relief he felt when, at the age of 40, he found that amateur painting offered him some respite from the depression which dogged him all his life: 'And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue. . . and said, 'Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people'.' If the archetype of the old master has been someone like Leonardo da Vinci, then the archetype of the late starter has tended to be a more eccentric and mildly ridiculed figure like 'Grandma' Moses.
It is not altogether surprising, then, that some of the coverage Minna Keal received two years ago, when her First Symphony was performed at the Proms, should have been either of the patronising, wonderful-for-her-age variety or of the skateboarding-duck school of novelty reporting. Then came the massive rebuke of the work itself. Far from being the sort of lightweight pastiche that some writers clearly expected, the Symphony, to quote the Independent's review, had 'freshness and urgency. . .structurally it follows classical lines, but there is no classical precedent for the emotional charge of the writing'.
In short, it immediately became clear that this was decidedly not the work of an amateur or a dabbler. Advance reports suggest that the same will be true of Margaret Tait's Blue Black Permanent, a complex narrative, set in Orkney and Edinburgh during the Eighties, the Fifties and the Thirties, about a young woman haunted by the mysterious death of her mother when she was a child. For one thing, film companies are simply not altruistic enough to put money in the hands of someone they see as a deserving cause, especially in the present harsh climate. For another, though this is Margaret Tait's first full- length movie, she has been working steadily on shorts since 1951, and writing screenplays since for 'oh ages, yonks. I seem always to have been writing screenplays, and sending them to production companies. But for many years you had a state of affairs where production companies weren't even reading unsolicited screenplays.'
It is this last detail which underlines the most salient feature of these postponed debuts. If late starters are now becoming at once more common and more readily respected, it is not simply because of the much-publicised upwards shift in the age curve, but because one or two circumstances are now more propitious for outsiders. It would be as charming as it would be heartening to think that the Muse simply descended to Minna Keal and Margaret Tait late in life as she did to Sir Winston in middle life. Inspiring as their recent breakthroughs undoubtedly are, however, theirs are tales as much of frustration as of achievement.
Minna Keal was forced to give up her musical studies after just one year in 1929, when her father died and her family could no longer support her. She then had to turn her back on the idea of composition for 46 years until she realised that, 'though my state pension is only enough for bare existence', it none the less made her free for the first time since adolesence to spend hours a day at the piano.
Margaret Tait also spent a year studying her art, at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome, having served in the Army and trained as a doctor: 'I practised medicine for about 20 years, working part of the year and used my earnings to subsidise making films for the other part of the year.' Film directing, pace the examples of Bunuel, Hawks, Dreyer, Hitchcock and others, tends to be regarded as a job for a youngster, but when asked whether her age was any disdvantage, she has a one-word reply: 'No'.
Margaret Tait will make just one concession: 'I suppose you could call my age a disadvantage if you mean, would I have liked to have made a lot of features already. It's not as if I haven't been thinking about this all my life; it's not a sudden thing.' To be sure, not every late starter has possessed quite such a clear awareness of the path they should be following. Minna Keal herself, who calls her own experience 'a life in reverse' claims never to have thought of music in the years when she was working and raising her family.
For others, too, the unexpected discovery of an artistic vocation late in life may have much to do with ambitions that were not so much unfulfilled as unacknowledged. It is striking, and all too understandable, that most late starters in the arts are women: Minna Keal's old friend Ruth Adler published her first novel at the age of 60, and writers such as Mary Wesley or the American novelist Harriet Doerr were also past their middle years when they sat down to the keyboard. To paraphrase Cyril Connolly, there is no more deadly enemy to art than the pram in the corridor.
Yet for all the wasted potential in these postponed careers, there may be certain advantages to a late start. The psychologist Anthony Storr, who has written a number of studies of the creative personality, suggests that 'while you can't necessarily say that the work of older people is going to be better, it is likely to be less stereotyped. It used to be said that your IQ declines from the age of 16, and it's true that it takes longer to learn things as you get older. But in the arts you can be highly creative and innovative when older.'
Dr Storr also suggests that we would do well to foster all this potential creative activity - by expanding adult education, for one thing. At the most modest end of the scale, such initiatives would continue to give retired people new purposes and perspectives. (As Minna Keal says: 'People are much too involved in things and possessions, they have nothing to fall back on when they retire.') At a profounder level, they might do something to revive the belief, common to most cultures until this century, that the old are more likely to produce works of wholeness, harmony and radiance than the young. Meanwhile, we can all at least be cheered by the fact that Minna Keal and Margaret Tait have made such spirited attempts to tear down the calendars.
Minna Keal: A Life in Reverse is on BBC 2 tomorrow night at 7.45pm. Blue Black Permanent opens on 29 Aug at Film House 2, as part of the Edinburgh Festival (031-228 4051)
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