Stuart Sutcliffe

At Prescot Grammar School (cont.)

Stuart Sutcliff's 1959 portrait of Bill HarryHe was a prolific painter and had a number of works accepted at the John Moores Exhibition, which was quite an achievement. We would meet up during the holiday periods from time to time to compare notes. He was always enthusiastic about his painting and drawing - showing me examples of his Life Class drawings, a facet of the art course, which was not available to us in the upper sixth.

I recall that he told me he had taken rooms near the Art School and had made friends with John Lennon from the Quarry Bank Grammar School, who was keen on music. This was the time, around 1957, when Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle groups were popular—and Stuart seemed keen to join in. I heard that Stuart had painted his room—yellow and black—much to the chagrin of his landlady.

1957 proved to be an important year. Paul McCartney first met John Lennon when John's Skiffle group, formerly known as The Black Jacks but subsequently known as The Quarry Men played at St Peter's Church Garden Fete in Liverpool. The Quarry Men went on to play at the Cavern Club in Liverpool for the first time that year.

In 1957, I completed my A-levels and gained a place at the Royal College of Art in London direct from Grammar School apparently a unique feat at the time.

In 1958 George Harrison, although two or three years younger than John Lennon joined The Quarry Men as a guitarist. In 1959 John, Paul and George entered Carroll Levis' "TV Star Search" at The Empire Theatre in Liverpool and made the final audition.

During the Easter holidays of 1960, Stuart and I met up again and he came to my parents' house in Roby. He told me about playing bass for the Quarry Men with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. He told me that they were intending to change the name of the group to the Beatles. The only connection I could think of at the time was the Beatle Drives my mother would hold for charity. I said I didn't think the name would catch on.

At school Stuart had been one of the first to sport a 'crew cut' hairstyle. It made him look spiky and was in character with his pointed nose, sharp stainless steel spectacles and his general temperament. The relaxed atmosphere of the Art School and release from school uniform allowed more self-expression. This extended to Stuart's approach to haircuts and to clothing - the latter generally endorsing his penchant for black. In letting his hair grow, from the severity of a 'crew cut' it would form naturally into a mop - trimmed at the front to allow for vision. He obviously persuaded others in the group to adopt a similar style.

In May 1960 they changed the name of the group to The Silver Beetles and toured Scotland using the names Paul Ramon (McCartney), Carl (George) Harrison and Stu de Stael (Stuart Sutcliffe), with only John Lennon refraining. These 'stage' names didn't last long! In August 1960, the group finally became 'The Beatles' and, along with their new drummer, Pete Best, made their first venture abroad - to Hamburg.

I saw Stuart very much later that summer, having won a Royal Society of Arts Bursary, which enabled me to tour Europe for an unforgettable ten weeks with a Royal College of Art friend Terry Poole. Stuart told me of his experiences in Hamburg and playing at the nightclubs. The living sounded tough but there seemed to be many compensations. Stuart had met Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer and had also visited Hamburg College of Art where his art works had been admired. In the December of that year other members of the group either left Hamburg of their own free will or were deported for being under age and working in nightclubs after midnight or other alleged, misdemeanours.

Norman Allanson on the roof of Coventry Cathedral, 1961 It was about this time that I undertook a 'year out' from the Royal College of Art as part of my overall course. Professor Dick Russell was working with Sir Basil Spence on the new Coventry Cathedral and he arranged for my placement within the Practice. The year was a very productive one and Sir Basil was very magnanimous providing many people, myself included, with opportunities to contribute their time, creativity and skills to this amazing and high profile project.

As I was working through term times and vacation periods my visits to Liverpool were less frequent. In any event, as far as Stuart was concerned he had by now opted in his heart to stay in Hamburg with Astrid and pursue a career in Art.

1962 saw the Beatles emerging as a popular group, topping the popularity charts in the local publication Mersey Beat. 1962 saw the consecration of the Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry. 1962 also saw the untimely death of Stuart Sutcliffe, on 10th April, in Hamburg, of a brain tumour at the age of 21.

Whilst our career paths were obviously taking off in different directions, it is certain that our friendship would have continued had he lived. I know that Stuart's mother was very supportive of him and promoted his artistic achievements for many years after his demise.

We all think of what might have been, given different events and circumstances. I am now wondering what happened to all those other members of the fabulous form VB.
Text/photographs ©Norman Allanson

Editors note: Norman Allanson DesRCA, FCSD, is a Partner in the Architectural Practice John S Bonnington Partnership (formerly Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington & Collins) and is currently collaborating with Bill Harry on a project to establish a Mersey Beat Village in Liverpool.

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