Revealing John Hurt, the painter

PUBLISHED: 13:27 09 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:27 09 July 2018

Sir John Hurt, painter (photo: Andi Sapey)

Sir John Hurt, painter (photo: Andi Sapey)

Andi Sapey

With the first ever exhibition of John Hurt’s paintings opening in Holt this month, his widow Anwen reveals the great actor’s artistic side

Lady Hurt, wife of the late actor Sir John Hurt. Pictured with their dog Pilchard (photo: Antony Kelly)Lady Hurt, wife of the late actor Sir John Hurt. Pictured with their dog Pilchard (photo: Antony Kelly)

He was one of the greatest actors of his time, but before Sir John Hurt became an actor he was an artist – and he continued painting all his life.

Now the first ever exhibition of his art is to be held in the county which became his final home, as part of the Holt Festival. (10 things to see at Holt Festival 2018)

It will include drawings dating back as far as the 1960s, as well as portraits and self-portraits completed in the last few years.

The exhibition is being put together as a tribute, and a glimpse into a virtually unknown aspect of the film star’s life, by his widow, Anwen, Lady Hurt.

Sir John died of cancer last year. As we speak Anwen’s eyes sometimes brim with tears, but she made a vow not to let herself be submerged by grief and loss.

John Hurt - As Artist, Kefalonia (photo: John Hurt)John Hurt - As Artist, Kefalonia (photo: John Hurt)

“When John died I said to myself I was going to say yes to everything for a year,” she said. And so she took on much of his public and charitable work.

Anwen and John wed in 2005, two years after a chance meeting in a restaurant and love-at-first-sight romance. Only it wasn’t quite their first encounter.

“We had danced together, years before,” said Anwen. “I remembered it of course, I was dancing with John Hurt! He didn’t remember it and it was simply him holding his hand out to me to join a conga line, rather than a smoochy dance.”

But at their second encounter they fell for each other. Anwen had trained as a concert pianist and was a singer and actress before making television ads and then becoming a film producer and casting director.

Here in Norfolk she worked with Holt-based Capriol on films such as In Love with Alma Cogan and ChickLit – including casting her husband in supporting roles. Famous around the globe he was described by David Lynch, who directed him in The Elephant Man, as “Simply the greatest actor in the world.”

John’s final film, That Good Night, was released this spring. As he played a terminally-ill screenwriter he was himself undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. He died before seeing the final cut of the movie.

It was 10 years ago this autumn that John and Anwen moved to Norfolk. “The plan was that it would be more than a weekend place but our home would still be London. But we just fell in love with Norfolk,” said Anwen. “There’s so much going on here, there’s so much culture here.”

They lived in East Runton first, moving to Thurning weeks before John died. “And there is no question of me moving again. It is my home, the house he wanted, and I think he wanted it for me.”

She said John had been thrilled to be chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts and got involved in organisations such as Sheringham Little Theatre, Cinema City and Holt Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.John had supported Holt Festival from the start and it has just been announced that Anwen will be its artistic director in 2019.

This year’s programme features John’s first-ever art show. “John had always said he didn’t have enough pictures. He would like to do one, one day, but didn’t have enough,” said Anwen.

Now there will never be any more, so, when asked about an exhibition, Anwen knew it was time to reveal John Hurt the painter.

“He had a great feel for paint and colour,” she said. As a teenager he won a scholarship to London’s prestigious St Martin’s School of Art.

“He always doodled and did little drawings in his scripts. But he also took painting very seriously. It wasn’t a relaxation or a hobby. His paintings are mostly figurative but later on he was going much more abstract and really, really enjoying it.

“He was fascinated by faces so he did quite a lot of self-portraits. There is a lovely lino cut and also a fantastically life-like, and life-size painting. It would be on an easel at the window and I would come back and think it was John sitting at the window.

“I don’t think I have a favourite. People ask what would you run in to save from a fire? Well, the dog, although he would be barking and the reason why I knew there was a fire! He would save me.” Anwen and John bought Pilchard together and he has been a great comfort through her grief.

“It would have been nice to have a bit longer in the house together but John had lived a full life,” she said. She is loaning almost all the artworks for John Hurt – As Artist. None are for sale.

“I’m nervous about it, simply because John didn’t hold an exhibition.

“But if he wanted a say in it, he should be here!” said Anwen.

Show and screen

John Hurt – As Artist is at The Mezzanine, Auden Theatre, Holt, Saturday July 21 to Sunday July 29, 11am-7.30pm, entry free.

The festival also includes screenings of three of John’s lesser-known films, which he particularly loved.

Anwen Hurt will introduce The Hit, The Field, and Love and Death on Long Island, and answer questions afterwards.


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