June 20 2013 Latest news:
by Georgie Keate
Thursday, May 3, 2012
The Journal speaks to renowned theatre set designer John Gunter about his new artistic lease of life ahead of an exhibition of his work at Lauderdale House
Five years ago John Gunter, the world-renowned costume, theatre and opera set designer, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
While the Muswell Hill home he shares with his wife Micheline is brimming with five decades’ worth of sculptures and artwork, the contrast between his work before and since diagnosis is striking.
Scale models of his former stage sets with their intricate perfection have been replaced by sculptures of rocks and abstract drawings that evoke years of creativity and training freed from the practical restraints of the theatre.
Mr Gunter is best known for his work in the ‘80s at the Royal National Theatre, where he won a string of awards for his designs for plays like Guys and Dolls in 1982 and Wild Honey in 1984. Since 2007, he has given over so much time focusing on his personal artwork that his family and friends decided to exhibit the entire collection at Highgate’s Lauderdale House.
Sitting on his sofa in Hillfield Park, surrounded by photos of his productions, Mr Gunter explains the effects of Alzheimer’s. He says: “I can’t remember much of my former work. If people talk to me about it, I have it in my head and then it just goes. I live in another country now, in my head. But, you know, it doesn’t worry me, it’s actually a wonderful release.”
However, as his wife prompts him with memories of theatre productions all over the world, small and often unconnected anecdotes return to him. He said: “There was a play in Buenos Aires. We had to sign the contract with a General who said if there was a war, the whole thing would have to be scrapped.
“There were people just shooting in the street at the time. And I remember too that the play was so moving that the director just wept in my arms.”
Adam Woolfitt, a photographer from Muswell Hill, first met Mr Gunter 10 years ago. When he saw the set designer’s new sculptures after his diagnosis, he was so taken with them that he took photos of each of them, a series which will also be on display at the exhibition. He said: “I’ve never seen anything like them. They are a fantastic extension of design; the freshness is incredible.”
The exhibition presents his 45 years of professional work, including miniature sculptures, and abstract drawings made since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
It opens on Wednesday, May 9 and runs to Sunday, May 20, in the Lower Gallery of Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill, Highgate.