Walter John Strachan was born on 25 January 1903 in Hull, the son of Bertram Lionel (a manager at Reckitts, one of Hull’s foremost firms of the time) and Edith. His father encouraged him in his love of literature, which he pursued during his time at Hymers College, where his teachers included the published poets John Redwood Anderson and H.H. Abbott. A close friend at school was Tom Divine, with whom during the final years of the First World War he produced a magazine called Shell Splinters. This provides an early illustration of the value Strachan placed on close friendships, where enthusiasms and passions - like art and literature - could be shared. This inspired much of his later activity in different fields like writing, collecting, translating and editing, and he was to build up close friendships with many artists and writers over the years.
The first member of his family to attend university, he read English and French at St Catharine's College Cambridge from 1921 to 1924, where his supervisor was the classical and literary scholar E.M.W. Tillyard. Strachan also began editing St Catharine's College Magazine, for which he succeeded in eliciting a contribution from Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, on 'A young man's visit to John Ruskin' (see WJS/4/22/1); Cockerell, a connoisseur and collector, also became a friend of Strachan.
In 1924 Strachan took up a post as French and English teacher at Bishop's Stortford College, a boys' public school on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex. He remained there for three years, then moved to a teaching post at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire. However, in 1928 he was invited to return to Bishop's Stortford College as Head of Modern Languages; he took up this offer, and remained at the school for the next forty years. He was an inspirational teacher, who was skilled at conveying and sharing his enthusiasms for literature and art with the boys he taught; he was also active in encouraging and organising many out-of-school activities for the boys - which encompassed art, architecture (he founded the school's Architectural Society in 1927), poetry, drawing, listening to music, play reading, modelling, calligraphy and typography (he established the Typographical and Calligraphic Society in 1948). In 1926, he became master in charge of the school magazine, the Stortfordian, and he was also involved in encouraging and producing publications of creative work by pupils, such as the pamphlet First offence, a collection of original poems and decorations by the boys of the College, which was compiled in 1929 by Strachan and the professional artist Percy Horton, who joined the staff as art master in 1925.
Many pupils stayed in contact with Strachan after they left the College and remained lifelong friends. A number of them went on to achieve success in creative fields, and some of them are represented in this collection, which includes letters from (among others) the novelist Geoffrey Cotterell, the screenwriter Dick Clement, and - perhaps most notably - Christopher Hewett, who after leaving the College went on to train at the Ruskin School and the Royal College of Art, and later founded the Taranman gallery and private press.
It was through a friendship with one of his ex-pupils, Tom Jason Wood, that Strachan came to meet his wife. On visiting Wood - who was recovering from a serious illness at his home in Bradford - Strachan first encountered Wood's sister Margaret, whom he married in 1929; the couple had two children - Jean (born in 1932) and Geoffrey (born in 1935).
Strachan also made long-term friendships among his teaching colleagues at the College, probably the most significant being with Percy Horton. The two men shared many interests, particularly a passion for art, and Strachan learnt much from Horton about looking at pictures, as well as improving his own drawing and painting technique. Horton left the College in 1930 to join the staff of the Royal College of Art, later becoming Master of Drawing at the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford. However, the two men kept in touch and maintained a lifelong correspondence which is preserved in this collection. Horton's replacement as art master was the painter and engraver Geoffrey Rhoades, who also became a good friend of Strachan's and encouraged him in his own painting.
In 1937 Strachan became housemaster at Robert Pearce House (a position he retained until 1947), and he moved with his family into the school boarding house. He was here when war broke out in 1939, and as one of the older members of staff he remained to keep the school going during the war years, although his wife and children went to stay in the Lake District during the worst years of the Blitz. It was at this time that Strachan began writing his own poems, and the 1940s saw his most prolific output of poetry. He began publishing poems in numerous well-known literary and political magazines and periodicals of the day, including The Tribune, The Spectator, The New English Weekly, The Adelphi, and one of his poems appeared in the 1944 'New Poets Issue' of Tambimuttu's Poetry London. His first full-length collection of poetry, Moments of time, was published by the Sylvan Press in 1947, and this was followed in 1950 by The season's pause, published by Secker and Warburg. As a published poet he began to make the acquaintance of other writers, and a number of long-term literary friendships were born during this period - notably with Sylvia Townsend Warner, Cecily Mackworth and Stevie Smith, all of whom are represented in this collection. Although he did not publish any other volumes of new poems, he did continue to write poetry, and in 1976 Christopher Hewett's Taranman Press published a signed limited edition of Strachan's Poems; some of these were reprinted from his earlier collections but the book also included new work as well as poems in translation.
Strachan pursued a successful parallel career as a translator. He always had a great enthusiasm for French culture, and visited France a number of times during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1943 he submitted a poem for possible inclusion in Nancy Cunard's anthology, Poems for France; Cunard subsequently became a correspondent and friend who encouraged Strachan in his translations of modern French poets, and in 1948 his major contribution to this field, Apollinaire to Aragon, was published by Methuen. He also began translating modern French fiction, in 1950 producing translations of two novels - Julien Gracq's A dark stranger and Hervé Bazin's Grasping the viper; he went on to translate four further novels during the next eleven years. As a teacher of modern languages he was also keen to provide pupils with access to French literature in its original language. He therefore edited two selections of French literary texts, Ici Paris and Ici les provinces during the 1950s, as well as a number of French novels for Methuen Educational Ltd, beginning with Camus's La peste in 1959. He also translated three German novels - all works by Herman Hesse - and, encouraged by Nancy Cunard, in 1953 he began to publish Italian fiction in translation, including short stories and novels by contemporary writers like Cesare Pavese, Vera Cacciatore and Enrico Emanuelli, having taught himself the language using a Linguaphone course.
Strachan's interest in art had also been flourishing through the thirties and forties - partly through his friendships with Percy Horton and the engraver Stephen Gooden, who lived in Bishop's Stortford. He started to buy original artworks at this time, his first purchase being a watercolour by Alfred Rich called The Chalk-Pit. In 1940 he bought a painting by Edward Bawden and was inspired to write to the artist, from whom he received a gratified response. This reflects the importance he always placed on having direct contact with artists as the key source of information about their own work; later he would visit the studios of many artists he admired to see their work taking shape, which led to a number of friendships with artists whose work he championed in his published writings.
Strachan's skill as a translator and his interest in art led him to translate numerous French art books, beginning with André Lhote's influential treatises on landscape and figure painting (published in 1948 and 1950). During the war years, when he was prevented from visiting France, he developed an interest in the poets of the Resistance like Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard. On resuming his regular visits to France in 1949, he met a range of writers, publishers, artists and printers which provided him with fertile material for his developing enthusiasms. He had long had an interest in book-illustration, typography and fine printing, and a visit with a school party to an exhibition at the National Gallery on 'French Book Illustration 1895-1945' (which included work by Bonnard and Picasso among others) first inspired his enduring passion for the livre d'artiste, or artist's book, a form which originated in France in the early twentieth century. A characteristic of these books is that each of the illustrations is an 'original', having been executed by the artist directly on the surface of the wood, linoleum, copper or stone from which the illustrations were printed; characteristically the artists were not professional illustrators, but had made their names and reputations in painting, sculpture, print-making or another area. In some cases the artists were the authors of the texts but more often the artists' designs were married with texts by established poets and writers, ancient and modern; a number of the French poets whose work Strachan had translated for Apollinaire to Aragon (such as Henri Michaux, Paul Éluard, and Tristan Tzara) had already published work in livre d'art form. He began making an effort to visit the artists, poets, printers and typographers involved in producing these books in France, both to talk to them and to see their work in progress. Early contacts, who later became friends, included Léon Gischia, Jacques Houplain, Albert Flocon, Mario Prassinos and Henri Jonquières. Thrilled by what he saw and learned, Strachan quickly made it his mission to discover all he could and to spread the word about this genre in the UK art world. He embarked on this initially in two ways: through offering to write articles on the subject for periodicals such as Image, The Studio, Typographica and The Connoisseur; and by making what became regular visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum as an "unofficial voluntary ambassador", urging the librarian to buy some of these exciting books being created in post-war Paris. In order to do this, he needed examples of the work, such as title pages and proof pages showing both illustrations and typography. Sympathetic to Strachan's desire to make their work better known in the UK, artists, printers and publishers supplied him readily with what he needed, in the form of pages he could study for himself, show to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and reproduce to illustrate his articles in art periodicals. Each spring he would visit Paris to learn of new and forthcoming publications, returned armed with fresh batches of bonnes feuilles (sheets of illustrations and texts passed by artist and printer as perfect). His mission increadingly bore fruit: some three dozen articles were published in UK art magazines between 1950-1994, and some sixty livres d'artiste purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum, after being shown them by Strachan. The artists and publishers of these books were grateful to Strachan for championing their work, and from time to time he would be given a complete, personally dedicated copy of a particular new livre d'artiste of theirs, gifts which he treasured. In this somewhat unexpected way a rich, diverse and unique collection of both bonnes feuilles and complete books came into being. Selections from it were first shown in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1963, the first of a dozen such exhibitions Strachan arranged around the UK over the next two decades. Also at the Ashmolean in 1963 , Strachan gave the first of what would be many illustrated lectures on the livre d'artiste. Thus he opened up two more vital ways of giving students and art lovers in the UK access to the work he so much admired. His admiration for the painter Roger Chastel's illustrations for a Bestiare, accompanied by poems by Paul Éluard, led to the gift of a special print of the owl he had admired; word spread in the art-world of Paris that Strachan was interested in owls, and he slowly built up a collection of owl prints and originals in a whole range of media (now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum).
Strachan's work on the livre d'artiste through the 1940s and the ensuing two decades had its culmination in his great study of the subject, The artist and the book in France, published by Peter Owen in 1969. This established him as an expert in the field, and in the same year the French government recognized Strachan's contribution to promoting French art and culture by making him a Chevalier des arts et des lettres, a fitting honour for a man described by his son Geoffrey as "a standard-bearer, a white knight of arts and letters" (Only connect, p xvii). Strachan's passion for the livre d'artiste was lifelong, and in 1981 he updated his 1969 magnum opus with an article published in The Private Library.
Strachan's work on the livre d'artiste also led to other interests. His admiration for Jean Lurçat's book-illustrations in the surrealist style led to a meeting with the artist, who was also a master of tapestry design and had played a major part in the 1940s revival of French tapestry; this visit, made in 1952 when Strachan was staying with Nancy Cunard, fired his interest in modern French tapestry, which was to become another major enthusiasm and a topic on which he wrote and lectured.
Strachan also developed a passion for modern sculpture, which was partly kindled by his first meeting with Henry Moore in 1942, when Moore settled in Perry Green, about five miles from Bishop's Stortford. Moore was always welcoming to those with a genuine interest in his work, and over the years Strachan - who became a friend - made numerous visits to his studio, often accompanied by other artists, friends or pupils from Bishop's Stortford College. He wrote a number of articles on Moore's work during the 1950s and 1960s, and played an important role in the production of a livre d'artiste which Moore illustrated in 1951. In 1950, Strachan had befriended the French typographer Henri Jonquières, through whom he gained a useful insight into the production side of the livre d'artiste. In 1951, Jonquières was planning a livre d'artiste version of Prométhée - André Gide's French translation of Goethe's play - and he enlisted Strachan's assistance in persuading Moore to produce colour lithographs to accompany the text. Strachan became a mediator between Moore and Jonquières, and was heavily involved in discussions about the details of the lithographic proofs, produced at Mourlot Frères lithographic studios in France. His major work on Moore was to come in 1983, when Moore nominated Strachan as the most appropriate person to write a book about his animal sculpture, drawings and graphic work; the result was Strachan's study, Henry Moore: animals, published by Aurum Press.
Moore's work stimulated a wider interest in sculpture, and during the 1970s and 1980s Strachan's writing and lecturing focused on modern British and European sculptors, whilst also embracing the work of earlier generations, as reflected in a series of six articles on 'The Sculptor and his Drawings', which appeared in The Connoisseur in 1974, and his 1976 study, Towards sculpture: drawings and maquettes, from Rodin to Oldenburg. As with his work on the livre d'artiste, Strachan placed a high value on obtaining information directly from the sculptors whose work he admired, and he began corresponding with and visiting many contemporary working sculptors, including figures like Barbara Hepworth, Reg Butler, Elisabeth Frink, Kenneth Armitage, Lucile Passavant and Wendy Taylor.
One of Strachan's other planned sculpture projects - a book on Distortion and obsession in modern art: Monet to the present day - did not ultimately come to fruition due to his failure to find an American co-publisher. However, another major project was realised: his extensive and meticulously researched guide to Open air sculpture in Britain was published in 1984 with a foreword by Lady Gibberd, whose guide to sculpture in Harlow, Essex, had inspired Strachan's larger-scale study. His volume contained descriptions and photographs of 552 sculptures on public sites across the UK.
Strachan retired from full-time teaching at Bishop's Stortford College in 1968. As well as inspiring generations of schoolboys, he also left a further legacy to the school: over the years he had encouraged the purchase of numerous artworks for the school - acquiring works through picture dealers and galleries, as well as bringing some original prints back from his visits to France. It was ultimately decided to bring these works of art together as a coherent collection, with a gallery dedicated to their display, and in November 1990 the Walter Strachan Gallery was formally opened at the College. More recently, in 2009 a new Art Centre at the College was named after Strachan, in memory of one of the College's great teachers and advocates of the arts.
Despite retiring from teaching, Strachan remained as active as ever in his artistic and literary pursuits during the next two decades, continuing to publish until he was well into his eighties. Looking back over a lifetime's correspondence with a wide range of English, French, Italian and German poets, painters, sculptors, pupils and others inspired him to put together a selection of these letters for joint publication by Taranman and Carcanet Presses as The living curve: letters to W.J. Strachan 1929-1979, edited by Christopher Hewett. Originally planned for 1983 to coincide with Strachan's eightieth birthday, the premature death of Hewett, Strachan's former pupil and Taranman founder, meant that publication was delayed for a year, and the book formed a memorial to one of his most successful pupils. In 1986 Carcanet Press published his translation of Alain-Fournier's letters from London, Towards the lost domain, and the following year Strachan provided a further update to his work on the livre d'artiste in the catalogue of his gift of artists' books to the Taylor Institution Library in Oxford. He continued to produce numerous magazine and journal articles during the 1970s and 1980s, and he also lectured widely, delivering his final talk - on Jean Lurçat's tapestry - at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1990.
During his final years, Strachan was engaged in looking back over his life's work and the friendships he had made. He was writing draft chapters for a projected memoir, some of which were incorporated into published articles while others remained incomplete. He envisaged combining these chapters with quotes from some of the writers' and artists' letters under the provisional title Encounters and relationships, but this work was left incomplete when he died on 14 March 1994. The material was ultimately published posthumously, edited by Strachan's son Geoffrey, as Only connect...poets, painters, sculptors: friendships and shared passions 1924-1994 (2005). The volume also includes a number of Strachan's own poems, and a selection of the letters he sent to friends - thus forming a complement to The living curve and a standing as fitting testament to Strachan's lengthy career as a champion of art and literature.