Our series of photographic portraits by Neill Menneer shows Bath people at work
I was born in Mitchum, Surrey. My father was a chemist and we lived above the shop. I remember Saturday mornings when all the local kids, including me, went to watch cowboy movies at the cinema. The poor old manager had to control the children on his own as no parents ever went!
In the park a huge mechanical clock towered above the rhododendrons. It was sponsored by Guinness; I know that because it had a giant Toucan sitting like a bird of prey on the top. Doors opened and metal characters came and bustled about. I loved the theatricality and drama of it, and I think this must have had a profound influence on my tastes and career.
When my father got a job at Aerospace we moved to a caravan in Addleston. The factory, where I occasionally visited him, was build right in the middle of the old Brooklands racetrack and aerodrome. Quite a surreal location, looking back. I went to West Surrey College of Art in Guildford to take a foundation course in art and design. It was the time of the famous sit-ins, which were a very mild version of the famous Paris riots of 1968. Basically, we locked out the tutors and took over the premises.
I remember one student using a lighter to squirt some gas under the door. This was exaggerated in the tabloids to say that students had been gassing the teachers. Early ‘fake news’, I guess. I later went to Farnham to study fine art and sculpture. After my first job making film sets, I went off to the Outer Hebrides. I was in essence a big hippy and had the vague idea that I would live a romantic life of self-sufficiency and artistic personal expression. This didn’t happen as I lived in a cottage with no garden… I loved my year there, but the reality was that it turned out to be unsustainable.
On hearing that artists were supported in Ireland, I set off and hitched a ride which took me as far as Bath. I’ve never really left since. On my first night here I remember walking down The Paragon. The dark soot-covered buildings, the sweep of the crescent and the majestic Georgian architecture made a real impression on me. As did the Hat and Feather on London Road, which I chanced to visit. There I fell in with a gang who were to change my life. They wanted to start a Community Arts Centre – this was to have many artistic repercussions and its legacy still influences the cultural life of the city. The ethos was essentially counter cultural as it was about recycling, sharing and community. Very sixties. However, it wasn’t just pie in the sky as The Natural Theatre, John’s Bikes, The Riverside School, Civil Aid and Christmas dinners for the homeless all came out of the Bath Arts Workshop. There is an exhibition of their work at the Museum of Bath At Work in Julian Road from 8 June.
As I always believed in enjoying my work, I set up the Puppet Theatre and Café under the arches near Pulteney Weir. For 20 years I put on my shows and provided special teas for children.
I mainly create sculptures now, many of them mechanical contrivances with a pinch of humour and maybe even the odd political point thrown in. You can see a few of these at Larkhall Open Studios in May. n
PORTRAIT: Neill Menneer at Spirit Photographic.
Visit: capturethespirit.co.uk, tel: 01225 483151