William Finch

Artist, art teacher, writer and lecturer
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The Independent Online

William Finch was an inspirational art teacher who created several careers from unpromising beginnings. Sixty years after he had taught them, old pupils were still gratefully contacting him. As an artist and writer, he left a unique record of the bygone east-coast fishing industry. He took part in a wartime educational experiment that engaged the attention of the Royal Family, the media and Parliament and the derision of Adolf Hitler's broadcasting propagandist. In retirement he became a sought-after lecturer, notably on rural architecture.

William Robert Finch, teacher, writer and artist: born Lowestoft, Suffolk 6 April 1905; married 1942 Alice Macey (two sons; marriage dissolved 1955), 1969 Peggy Hill; died Weybread, Suffolk 15 April 2003.

William Finch was an inspirational art teacher who created several careers from unpromising beginnings. Sixty years after he had taught them, old pupils were still gratefully contacting him. As an artist and writer, he left a unique record of the bygone east-coast fishing industry. He took part in a wartime educational experiment that engaged the attention of the Royal Family, the media and Parliament and the derision of Adolf Hitler's broadcasting propagandist. In retirement he became a sought-after lecturer, notably on rural architecture.

He was born in Lowestoft in 1905, one of three sons and five daughters of William Finch, master mariner. The Finch family had for generations sailed fishing smacks out of the Suffolk port. When, his teaching career over, Bill Finch returned to East Anglia, he wrote and illustrated his own account of its fishing industry, The Sea in My Blood (1992):

I went to Lowestoft and was angered and disgusted to learn that there was no memorial to those ships and men who had brought to the town prosperity and prestige.

The book sold out and was reprinted.

None of the Finch boys went into fishing, and Bill's father was content that he enter teaching. He attended Lowestoft Grammar School, spending a year as a pupil teacher and two as an uncertificated teacher. To obtain his certificate, he was fortunate in 1923 to win a place at one of the oldest training colleges, St John's, in Battersea, which had taken its first students in 1840. While he was there, it amalgamated with the almost as old St Mark's College, Chelsea, becoming the College of St Mark & St John – "Marjons" – and one of the most prestigious in the country. It attracted a staff notable for its distinction and liberal-studies bias, including the poets Michael Roberts and Thomas Blackburn and the musicologist Bernarr Rainbow.

In London, Finch was "an innocent from the outer reaches of coastal Suffolk, to whom the vastness of London was the frighteningly unknown". St John's enforced a Spartan regime, punctuality "ordained and enforced by a gaggle of automatic clocks". The St John's dormitory, "Jerusalem", was cold and notably draughty. One night, Finch piled "the complete contents of my two drawers and my dusty bedside mat" on his bed to keep warm. Food was barely adequate.

Finch left Marjons a certificated teacher with a realistic approach to classroom discipline and a lifelong suspicion of educational psychologists, administrators and theorists. In 1928, he took his first teaching post. After offering history, English and geography as subjects, posts already filled, he told the head that he had always been keen on art. "So at 23, with no experience, I found myself art master of a large suburban senior boys' school." This would become Beal Grammar School, Ilford, and he remained there until he retired.

Painting and drawing dominated Finch's spare time and holidays. He passed Royal Drawing Society and Ministry of Education examinations; set up a School Art Club (pupils qualifying for membership were entitled to put AC on their exercise books); and won glowing praise for his methods from an autocratic Director of Education and the head of the Schools Inspectorate, who published a complimentary article on his work.

Finch became art instructor at the pioneering Bethnal Green Evening Institute, attended by professional boxers, coopers, buskers, market traders and window cleaners. He persuaded George Lansbury, the Labour Party leader, to open a show of their work at the gallery of Foyles, the West End bookshop, pictures being transported there on a costermonger's barrow. He also began to exhibit his own work. He showed at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery, with the East End Academy and elsewhere.

In 1940, in an atmosphere of secrecy, Beal staff and 300 boys were evacuated to a bleak site near Reading where Kennylands Camp School existed until the peacetime return to Ilford:

In three to four years we created a new kind of boarding public school. Our achievement reached the national press, cinema news films, Parliament and many notable people. The King and Queen came. I have a photograph of His Royal Highness scratching the back of one of our pigs.

Food, again, was not ideal. Friday was particularly gruesome, some sort of steamed fish being accompanied by powdered potato that finished up as a grey sludge, all covered by parsley sauce. William Joyce, Hitler's propagandist "Lord Haw Haw", heard of this, broadcasting that near Reading there was a school that was being fed on bad fish from America.

By the time he retired, aged 60, Bill Finch had become an institution. At Kennylands the pupils had nicknamed him Hooker, because of his cricketing ability. He loved teaching – so much that early on he spurned aspirations to become a headmaster – but decided that the time had come to develop his other talents, as lecturer, writer and artist.

After Beal's, he was invited to give lessons to the sixth form at Chigwell School. Locally, he started an Over 40s Art Group, in the belief that people who had reached that age should begin thinking about what to do when they retired. When he retired to Diss he began another, equally successful. He remained a prolific artist, filling his studio but hating to sell his pictures, for "they are my children". He had one solo show, but did not seek another.

While he was still at Beal's, a pupil's father asked him to lecture an adult audience. It comprised big names in the Youth Hostels Association, the Association of Agriculture and the Ramblers' Association, and other leading officials in the youth-club movement. He talked, drew as he spoke and interested and amused them so much that he was asked to address a YHA course at Flatford Mill, made famous by the painter John Constable. At the end, the warden asked Bill to conduct a six-day course on English rural architecture.

Finch had looked at rural architecture and sketched it from the time he began teaching. It had prompted many illustrated articles for Essex and Kent newspapers. He was invited to lecture by bodies such as the Workers' Educational Association and the English Speaking Union, as well as giving extra-mural classes for Cambridge and London universities. A significant spin-off was his authoritative Country Buildings: how to appreciate them and how to sketch them, published in 1951. It is now a scarce volume.

From his training-college days he had recorded pictorially the world of Lowestoft and its fishermen. In his nineties he fulfilled a lifetime ambition by donating to Lowestoft Library over 100 of his paintings, drawings and etchings for its permanent collection, a unique record.

David Buckman



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