Looking back on a lifetime in the arts

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ARTS impresario Richard Demarco is brimming with enthusiasm as he energetically leads a group of budding artists through the countryside near Dunkeld.

Giving an outdoor masterclass in watercolour technique is clearly a source of joy for the effervescent 77-year-old. But the real reason behind his evident delight today is that he has been asked to recount his memories of the Edinburgh International Festival, ahead of his new exhibition documenting its 60-year history.

One of the most influential figures in the Scottish arts world, with a long involvement in the Festival, Demarco also claims to be one of the few surviving people to have attended every Festival since it first brightened up an austere post-War Capital in 1947.

After co-founding the Traverse Theatre in 1963, he set up the Richard Demarco Gallery, which helped introduce influential European artists such as Joseph Beuys to the Scottish art scene.

The celebrated German artist returned here another seven times after helping prepare Demarco's Edinburgh Festival exhibition, the palindromic "Strategy: Get Arts", at Edinburgh College of Art.

Richard Demarco was born in 1930 in Ravelston, where he still lives. An artist, gallery and theatre director, teacher and art patron, he has captured thousands of the Festival's highlights on camera, from members of the public to images of visiting stars such as Helen Mirren and Jenny Agutter.

He witnessed Richard Burton triumph in Edinburgh as Hamlet, revelled in the comic performances that led to international fame for Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and marvelled at his great friend Sir Sean Connery's audience role in the 1973 festival.

Pausing for a moment in front of a spectacular oak tree, the Edinburgh artist behind approximately 3000 exhibitions and a similar number of theatrical productions states dramatically that "Demarco's Festival" at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will be one of the most important he has ever held.

With an air of solemnity, he says: "I regard my personal experience of each and every Edinburgh Festival as a great blessing.

"However, it also imposes a great responsibility upon me to share that experience with all those who are committed to celebrating the Festival's 60th anniversary."

Of Italian parentage, with Irish blood and married to wife Anne for 50 years, Demarco's first experience of the Festival was as a schoolboy at Holy Cross Academy. He went to see the Comedie Francais' production of Moliere's L'Ecole des Femmes, starring leading French actor of the time, Louis Jouvet.

"It changed my life," he says simply. "It inspired me to pass my French examinations for the first time because it was a French language production."

He was 34 when he was asked to design a set for a play by Shakespeare at Edinburgh College of Art, to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright's birth. "I did one for Much Ado About Nothing. I was showing alongside David Hockney and Peter Blake. When I saw myself in the official Festival programme I was really chuffed."

Demarco got to know Sir Sean Connery when Tommy, as the James Bond star was known then, used to pose for him as a third year art student at Edinburgh College of Art. He remembers him as "a natural model with the ability to hold a pose for extended periods".

He recalls seeing the actor in the audience of a production by Polish playwright Tadeusz Kantor during the 1973 Festival. "Kantor had the audience all made into actors and Connery had to be part of a crowd," he smiles. "It was one of the smallest parts he ever played. It was at the time when he was still 007."

Another vivid early memory of the Festival was watching legendary actor Richard Burton hold an audience spellbound.

"The best performance was Richard Burton as Hamlet and Claire Bloom as Ophelia on an open stage at the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall. He was 24 and she was 21. He was at the height of his powers."

The seven-part exhibition will include artworks from Demarco's archive, photographs, posters designed by John Martin in the 1980s under Sir John Drummond's tenure of the Festival, and a specially-commissioned series of moving image portraits by Scots artists Alex Hamilton and Richard Ashrowan, exploring Demarco's Arts' expeditions to Poland and Romania. Snaps from the Demarco Archive will include those of the artist's favourite "Festival characters", such as dancer Moira Shearer, as well as others from one particular occasion the artist remembers fondly.

"One of my greatest experiences was the first night of Beyond The Fringe in 1960. It made the career of Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller. I attended that first night in the Lyceum and have wonderful photographs of it."

The Demarco Festival is being presented in parallel with Festival Conversations, which will see the arts impresario in daily conversation with other influential figures with memories of the Edinburgh Festival. Amongst those invited are John Leighton, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland; historian Owen Dudley-Edwards; Brigadier Mel Jamieson, former Tattoo director; and Jim Haynes, co-founder of the Traverse Theatre.

Portraits of key figures from the arts and science at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery provided extra inspiration for the Demarco Festival. Says Demarco: "I see these sculptural portraits as an integral part of my exhibition.

"I believe the Scottish Enlightenment laid the foundation for Edinburgh to be considered worthy of the Festival."

His favourite image from the exhibition is a very valuable print by Beuys, made in the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, which shows the German artist next to Greyfriars Bobby in 1974.

In it he is holding up a newspaper headline, which reads: "First of the giants" - referring to the first oil platform - but according to Demarco, Beuys thinks the headline better befits Greyfriars Bobby.

"He's saying no, these are not the giants, the real giant is the little dog as he will live forever."

The arts champion has seen the Festival grow and change hugely over the years, and he believes things are set to improve even further under Jonathan Mills' leadership.

However, he is less happy about other changes to the Festival's direction.

"I remember the Festival when there were no stand-up comics. I think there are too many now and they dominate it.

"The Festival changed dramatically because of economic factors and because prizes were awarded.

"It had a better atmosphere when people came for the love of art, not prizes, and in the days before the giant Fringe venues like Gilded Balloon and the Assembly Rooms."

• Demarco's Festival is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, on Queen Street, from July 28 to September 2.


Demarco's Festival will run alongside the Edinburgh International Festival's programme of classical music, theatre, opera and dance.

The Festival began in 1947, with the aim of providing "a platform for the flowering of the human spirit". Its founders included Rudolf Bing, then the general manager of Glyndebourne Opera, Henry Harvey Wood, the head of the British Council in Scotland, and a group of Edinburgh's civic leaders.

From its inception, the Festival inspired people to put on shows of their own outwith the official Festival, and this grew into the Festival Fringe. Since then half a dozen or so more festivals have grown up around it, and collectively these are often known as "The Edinburgh Festival".

In 2006, Jonathan Mills took over from Sir Brian McMaster as the Edinburgh International's Festival's artistic director.