John Gunter’s new works are insights into his changing brain
Emmy Award winning set designer John Gunter was diagnosed with Alzeihmer’s in 2007. Since then his creativity has taken a more personal direction
John Gunter’s daughters are showing me the mock-ups of the set he designed for The Rivals at the National in 1983. Each of the miniature Georgian townhouses on the shelf turns around to reveal an intricately designed interior. The houses sit right next to the renowned set designer’s Emmy Award, which he won for the Art Direction in the TV adaptation of Porgy and Bess in 1993 . “The kids love to play with it,” says his eldest daughter Jessica Albert. “They took it to school once for show and tell.”
This is just one of the exhibits in the museum that most of the Gunter family call home. In the hall of Jessica’s part of the house, there are her most recent works – a series of detailed drawings of insects, some of which are on show at a local gallery.
Across from that, a compartmentalised cabinet houses a stash of tiny chairs – all made by John in the course of his 45-year career. “Can you believe you made those, Dad?” says Nicky, the youngest of his grown-up daughters, who is also here for lunch.
Downstairs, in the part of the Muswell Hill home where John lives with his wife Micheline, a model of Icarus falling adorns the chimney breast. “You did that before we met,” Micheline reminds him as I admire it.
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And out in the hall are some of the most recent works in the house. The small sculptures that John has produced since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, which will go on show at Lauderdale House this month. “Most of the works are houses,” says Micheline as we look at the small, surreal constructions. One house has tiny chairs sprouting out of the roof into a kind of fountain. “I think that is because we moved from our original home.”
John can’t remember much about the reasons for his work. He can’t remember his distinguished career where he worked alongside the likes of Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, who recently described him as “an expert, knowledgeable about all the arts, deeply practical and with supremely good taste.” He also can’t remember much of the day when he and Micheline got married in 1969. “It was at Chelsea town hall,” smiles Micheline, who met John when he was set designing and she was a professional dancer.
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“It was all very posh,” says John. “John lived in a one-bedroom flat there – somehow he worked in the kitchen,” adds Micheline.
John’s condition began in a small way. “He started forgetting things and I knew something was wrong” says Micheline. “One morning he woke up and said, ‘When I go downstairs to the kitchen, I think I’m in a foreign land.’”
“I rely on my wife totally,” says John. Since he was forced into retirement by Alzheimer’s, his creativity has endured, and his family have rallied to exhibit the works after friends commented on how valuable they are. John is happy, he says, to be able to express himself without the constraints of others’ ideas. “I went from place to place around the world and it was great but it was very stressful. It really is just wanting to get the enjoyment out of art. You just go on. Whatever comes, comes. It isn’t frightening to me yet. At the moment, it is fine.”
The fact that he can’t remember much of his prolific design career, which included Porgy And Bess at Glyndebourne and Guys And Dolls at the National, isn’t troubling him so much. “I just go on. It wasn’t: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to crash.’ I just don’t mind. I can’t actually say that I’m fighting to get it all back. I suppose I’ve turned a corner and I’m just saying that this is what I’m going to do now. It doesn’t hurt me. I’m very happy with what I’m doing.”
Gradually life has changed for John. The plays he used to read he can’t anymore and his once almost technical drawings have become more abstract – although also very beautiful. Drawing and listening to his favourite musicians: Philip Glass and John Adams are pleasures for him, as is playing with his latest grandson, two-year-old Heath. “He is beginning to have a personality all of his own,” says John.
Micheline shows me a drawing – a mass of green and red lines bounce around the page. It’s not always easy for John, sometimes he gets frustrated, she says. When she points to something on the table and John just can’t see it, I imagine it is frustrating for them both. “These last couple of days, it is getting very hard to get a decent drawing and that’s getting a little irritating to me. Although, I wouldn’t say I’m tearing my hair out,” says John. “If I do do something rather silly, we bypass it and move on. At the moment, one is being shuttered in to what the situation is. You have to get on with what your daytime show is going to be.”
“It’s a horrible condition,” says Micheline. “But you just have to make the best of it. John has taken it better than us in some ways.” The pair often use the local music and singing therapy classes and Micheline can’t praise them enough for the support she has been given.
Back upstairs, one room is part artist’s studio, part exhibition storage room. Jessica and Nicky show me all the drawings that will appear in the exhibition. Some are amazingly surreal. There’s a part frog, part man sat on the toilet. “This was an early one, just before he had been diagnosed. What were you thinking when you drew this Dad?” says Jessica, smiling and picking it up.
Some exhibits, including photographs of his models by Adam Woolfitt will be for sale, in aid of the Alzheimers Society for research into the disease. The models will stay with the family and will go back to friends once the exhibit is over. “The kids want to keep them all, says Micheline. “They are so important to us.”
John Gunter’s exhibition is at Lauderdale House in Highgate Hill from May 9 to 20.