The Le Vasseur connection

Desmond Bagley's portrait 'Moon Fantasy' by Guernsey based artist Peter Le Vasseur © 1980 Peter Le Vasseur.

In 1980 Desmond Bagley commissioned the Guernsey based artist Peter Le Vasseur to paint his portrait with a view to including it in his autobiographical work ‘Writer’. The portrait, titled Moon Fantasy, is currently archived (in storage) at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston USA. The painting, described in more detail later, includes the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle and it feels appropriate to post this article today on this the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission Moon landing. This article tells the story of Peter Le Vasseur, his wife Linda, and how they met Desmond and Joan Bagley forming a close friendship with the couple.

Peter Le Vasseur is an artist of international recognition, his paintings depict strong images linked to environmental themes, and are characterised by their incredibly intricate level of detail. Peter’s early surrealist work, once described as being in the style of Hieronymus Bosch, developed in the mid 1970’s into his current style when he began to concentrate on nature, the environment and the wanton damage man causes to both. That obsession with the subject has been the focus of his work for the last four decades and the environmental message in his intricate artwork is beautiful, powerful and prophetic.

Global Warming 1990 © Peter Le Vasseur.
Global Warming 1990 © Peter Le Vasseur.

Wednesday 22nd April 2020 will mark the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, the World’s largest environmental movement and their campaign ‘Artists for the Earth’ recognises the importance of art and its power to influence and inspire.

It acts as a mirror to society, able to illuminate the human condition in ways beyond pure science or fact. It distills experience, and through it, can raise questions, reveal a conflict or a dilemma and communicate ideas across cultures irrespective of borders. It can elicit emotion, deepen understanding and help to galvanize a movement. [1]

Peter’s work is a paragon of this message. Well known locally, Peter is now perhaps less known outside of the Channel Islands, however the message in his artwork is clearly of the moment.

Peter Le Vasseur with Jewel of the Forest © Emma Hodge.
Peter Le Vasseur with Jewel of the Forest © Mark Leightley.

Born in the Channel Islands in 1938, Peter, aged 18 months, and his parents were evacuated to England prior to the occupation of the Channel Islands by the Nazis in 1940. Peter returned to live in the Channel Islands in 1975 with his wife Linda, who on 2nd July 1995, was ordained at Winchester Cathedral and became Guernsey’s first female ordained Anglican minister. Linda had previously worked as a teacher of both religious education and english, and also worked as a freelance reporter for the Guernsey Evening Press and Star.

In 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Linda’s work as a freelance reporter drew her to the attention of the organisers of a fledgling Jubilee project on the island. Two radio enthusiasts, Dave Eaton and Barry Bridle, knowing how much a hospital radio service is appreciated elsewhere, envisaged a similar facility in Guernsey. The Island’s Jubilee Fund made it possible for Eaton and Bridle to purchase the necessary equipment, and personnel from various youth groups in the island were recruited to help run the project. Linda with her experience in both education and journalism was approached to both head up the reporting team and mentor the young volunteers.

Radio Jubilee was to become the Islands first local radio station and commenced broadcasting from the Princess Elizabeth Hospital on 25th June 1978. Patients were greeted with a special recording by The Spinners folk group:

Come, all you good patients! Won’t you please stay tuned to the Friendliest Station in Town, Hospital radio Guernsey! [2]

It was Linda, keeping a weather-eye on newsworthy items for the radio station, combined with a visit to the island of H.M.S. Guernsey that was to provide the connection between the Bagleys and Le Vasseurs.

H.M.S. Guernsey, the fourth ship to bear the name, was commissioned at Rosyth and was an Island Class Royal Naval vessel designed for offshore patrol, fishery protection and gas & oilfield patrol. The vessel was launched on 17th February 1977 at Aberdeen from the shipyard of Messrs. Hall, Russell & Co., and Lady Martin, wife of His Excellency the Lieut. – Governor Vice-Admiral Sir John Martin, performed the ceremony at the launching.

H.M.S. Guernsey - December 1977 © and courtesy Guernsey Press.
H.M.S. Guernsey – December 1977 © and courtesy Guernsey Press.

The first visit of H.M.S. Guernsey to the island after which she was named took place on Thursday 15th December 1977 and her arrival in St. Peter Port harbour at 09.30hrs that day marked the start of a full programme of events commemorating the visit. Following that inaugural visit the ship was to pay regular visits to the Island, offering an ‘open house’ for visitors to look around the ship together with drinks receptions for invited guests. It was during one such drinks reception, in June 1979, that both couples were among the invited guests.

Peter Le Vasseur noticed Bagley at the reception and took it upon himself to approach the author to try and obtain a radio interview for his wife. Linda, unaware of her husband’s intentions and aware that Bagley had a stammer, watched the events unfold with some trepidation as it was clearly evident Peter was unaware of the author’s speech impediment. Bagley, not one known to agree to radio interviews, started to speak and it became all too clear to Peter during that conversation that he had perhaps made a mistake. However, and this perhaps shows both the mettle of the man and how comfortable he was feeling in his new Channel Island home, Bagley unusually agreed to a pre-recorded interview with Linda for the hospital radio station. The interview duly took place at the author’s home and feeling at ease in Linda’s company the author spoke, with very little stammering, about his work and life on the island. Linda Le Vasseur can be credited with being probably the only person to have ever interviewed Bagley for radio. The interview, recorded on a Uher portable reel-to-reel tape machine, was edited and broadcast and sadly neither the recording or broadcast appear to have survived.

The friendship that followed this incident would often see the couple turning up for a meal unannounced at the Le Vasseur’s home in St. Pierre Du Bois, which was reciprocated by the Bagley’s who would usually take them out to a restaurant. It was really no surprise then that when, in 1980, Bagley wanted to commission a portrait he chose Peter Le Vasseur to be the artist. The level of intricate detail and subject matter of Peter’s body of work no doubt appealed to the author. Bagley gave Peter free reign in the composition of the portrait and it is to the artist’s credit that the portrait depicts important aspects of Bagley’s life: his wife Joan; his writing; computers and technology; and his interest in space and science fiction.

Desmond Bagley's portrait 'Moon Fantasy' by Guernsey based artist Peter Le Vasseur © 1980 Peter Le Vasseur.
Moon Fantasy 1980 © Peter Le Vasseur.

Joan, always by his side and instrumental in her husband’s career, is shown bringing her husband the morning mail, which has recently arrived on the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle.

From his Citizen 60-1012 quartz digital watch, seen in the portrait, to his use of computers, Bagley was an early adopter of new technology. In October 1973 he purchased his first computer, a Hewlett-Packard, costing an astonishing £5,777.46, with the printer costing an extra £1,335.85. In 1979 he upgraded to another machine costing £12,963 and later purchased the Xerox 860 information word-processing system, one of the first of its kind. Bagley was ahead his time in using a computer to assist in the production of a novel. Although not, as he once said, ahead of the author Len Deighton in this respect, who utilised one when writing his novel Bomber. Today we take word processing and data storage for granted, in the 1970’s it was not only pioneering but expensive. In the portrait Bagley is shown sitting in front of his Xerox 860, looking at us with a furrowed brow, intense stare and cigarette in hand, a pose his friends remember so well.

On the screen of the Xerox can be read ‘Writer – An Enquiry into a Novelist by Desmond Bagley.’ This was one of the last unpublished pieces that Bagley worked on. Although it wasn’t intended to be an autobiography it had a fair amount of biographical material in it and Bagley remarked of the work:

This is not an autobiography. I have not led so interesting a life as to want to embark on such an enterprise. It is an attempt to portray the strictly professional life of one writer, to find out how he became a writer, to outline in some detail how a novelist approaches his work and even, perhaps, to answer the elusive question of where he gets his plots. [3]

The author’s grave in Le Foulon Cemetery in Guernsey is marked with a headstone showing his occupation as ‘Writer’, and the distinction between ‘writer’ rather than ‘novelist’ or ‘author’ was important to Bagley. The tenor of his autobiography was that he very much wanted people to appreciate his real love of writing, which had started in his teenage years, not just from the age of 40 when he penned his first novel The Golden Keel.

Also of note is the backdrop show in the portrait. The painting had been partially completed without a backdrop and Peter asked Bagley what he might like in the background. The author, an admirer of Peter’s work, had noted that he had included the Moon as a subject in a previous painting, titled Alien. This appealed to Bagley as both he and Joan had a great love of science fiction. And so the portrait was completed and aptly titled Moon Fantasy. Peter was also to include this location in later paintings.

Alien 1977, The Intruder 1981, No Change © Peter Le Vasseur.
Alien 1977, The Intruder 1981, No Change © Peter Le Vasseur.

Moon Fantasy is truly representative of the author, not only in physical appearance, but in the choice of background and accompanying detail.

This was not the only connection that Bagley had with Peter’s work as when the artist was working on a later version of his piece Nuclear Ark, he needed the assistance of somebody with a mathematical mind for the revised version.

Nuclear Ark by Peter Le Vasseur - Monument Valley, Colorado version and Bears' Beach, Herm version © Peter Le Vasseur.
Nuclear Ark, 1974 Monument Valley, Colorado version and later Bears’ Beach, Herm version © Peter Le Vasseur.

Peter’s 1974 version of Nuclear Ark was set amid the timeless landscape of Monument Valley, a region of the Colorado Plateau on the Arizona–Utah border in the USA. The picture depicts the Apollo 11, Saturn V rocket acting as a modern day Noah’s Ark with animals entering two by two. The new version was to be set on the ‘Paradise Island’ of Herm in the Channel Islands. This Herm version features a large bear prominent amongst the animals as a further reference to the location – ‘Bears’ Beach’, which is located on the west coast of the island, and the privately leased island of Jethou, which was once attached to Herm, can be seen in the distance.

Peter’s problem was that he needed a mathematical mind to work out the proportions of scale for the rocket in relation to the island and knew that Bagley would relish the challenge. Bagley approached the task with his trademark diligence, researching both the location and the rocket, utilising his computer for calculations. The resulting artwork was used on a commercial postcard during the 1980’s.

Peter Le Vasseur – a life in art

Following evacuation from Guernsey in 1940 Peter, and his parents went to stay with Peter’s great aunt who lived in London. The family stayed with her until they could find their own accommodation, a bungalow near the gasworks and a munitions factory, with a railway running behind it. A distinct contrast from Guernsey, not just for Peter and his parents, but for four fifths of the children and almost half the population of Guernsey who were also evacuated.

Peter attended a rough, in his own words, secondary school in Bell Lane, Hendon, London and showed an early aptitude for art, which had started with him copying pictures from comic books. One day whilst working on a project about the Egyptians the school master, Mr Lewis, left the classroom and Peter galvanized a band of unruly students into making models of the pyramids out the only materials available, cardboard, sandpaper and plasticine.

His attention to detail, which would later become a trademark of his artistic style, was evident at this early age and whilst modeling Egyptian workers for the diorama Peter painted their backs with the clear setting ‘gloy gum’ to represent perspiration. Mr Lewis returned and took note of Peter’s artistic talent requesting that if he had any artwork at home he should bring it in to school. Following a meeting with his parents, and with selfless support from teachers who clearly recognised that the eleven-plus examination and tripartite education system had currently overlooked the young artist, he was coached for his thirteen-plus examination. Peter later gained a scholarship to Harrow Art College and stayed at the college until he was 17. With his parents unable to provide the fees necessary for him to progress onto the Fine Arts course and the Royal College of Art, Peter took commissions in advertising, represented by the prestigious Soho based artists agency Artist Partners.

Artist Partners - Celebrating 60 years in the business © Artist Partners.Artist Partners was founded in May 1951 by G. Donavan Candler, L.A. Rix, Betty Luton White, John Barker and graphic designer Reg Mount. They represented a plethora of artistic talent, including Norman Weaver who painted covers for three of the Bagley first editions and the author Len Deighton, who worked as a commercial illustrator before becoming a novelist. Painting in his spare time Peter began to build up a collection of artwork with a view to holding an exhibition.

In 1963 Peter’s first exhibition launched in London at the Portal Gallery in Mayfair, which had opened in Grafton Street in 1959 and was owned by Lionel Levy and Eric Lister. The artists who exhibited at the gallery all combined technical skill with great imagination and unique styles. Peter’s first exhibition was a great success and it led to a further five one-man shows at the Portal over the next ten years, including the exhibitions: ‘Phantasmagoria’ in April 1964; ‘Strange Cargo’ in May/June 1965; and ‘More Phantasmagoria’ 28th June – 29th July 1966.

During the sixties, Peter sold a number of paintings from his exhibitions to many notable people including film stars Rod Steiger and Jerry Lewis, the Duke of Bedford, Lord Porchester and Ringo Starr [Sir Richard Starkey MBE].

The Portal Gallery was adjacent to the offices of Bryce Hanmer, Isherwood & Company at 23 Albemarle Street, London W1, who were accountants to the Beatles, Brian Epstein and his organisation in the 1960’s.

John, Paul, George and Ringo first came here on 5th April 1963 and occasionally thereafter, and it was probably on one such occasion that Ringo happened to spot a painting of the Beatles hanging in the adjacent Portal gallery, at 16a Grafton Street. He bought the piece, by artist Peter Le Vasseur, and it was delivered to Ringo’s flat at Whaddon House on 1 December 1964, the day he went into University College Hospital for the removal of those pesky tonsils. [4]

Starr’s purchase made headline news across the world due to the fact he was a subject in the work. The painting portrayed the Beatles as old time British sailors providing the music, with modern instruments, for three ancient Jack tars who dance a hornpipe on the beach. When asked why he had included the rock ‘n’ roll quartet Peter replied in his matter of fact way:

I don’t know why I put in the Beatles. I was doing a beach scene of sailors dancing the hornpipe. They needed music. [5]

In December 2015, Starr and his wife Barbara Bach auctioned some of their personal and professional items via Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles, which included another Le Vasseur painting, a surrealist piece titled The Helmet.

Interestingly one of Peter’s paintings from one of these early exhibition at the Portal Gallery, Tattooed Sailor purchased by the Duke of Bedford, recently surfaced and was sold in November 2018 for £6,000 at Sotheby’s auction house in London.

Peter’s surrealist work in those early exhibitions was once described by Art Critic Eric Newton as being in the style of Hieronymus Bosch:

Containing small, laboriously meticulous examples of what happens when an artist insists on turning the facts and fancies of life into a fairytale seen through a magnifying glass. [6]

Peter was also commissioned to provide an illustration for The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, a set of two books published in 1969 and 1971, which combined the lyrics of The Beatles songs with illustrations and photographs by leading artists of the period.

In 1969 David Puttnam (now Lord Puttnam) acquired a commission for Peter to produce a series of paintings for The Sunday Times and the National Film Archive, titled The History of Cinema, which in 1971 won an award for the newspaper.

Peter Le Vasseur book cover commissions © Abacus, Ballantine Books, Flamingo, Icon, Penguin, Picador.

Peter’s commercial commissions included book covers for publishers Icon and Pelican Books (an imprint of Penguin Books). These commissions included a number of covers for the Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse, published by Picador between 1972 – 1975. Emboldened by his success Peter decided to approach David Larkin, art Director of Pan Books, to see if they had any interest in producing an art book of his paintings. Lunching with the artist at the Chelsea Arts Club, Larkin browsed through Peter’s portfolio and, though loving his work, he remarked that although impressive his work was unfocussed. It lacked a coherent theme and he wasn’t sure Peter ‘knew who he was’ as an artist. Larkin shrewdly pointed out that all of his pictures to a greater or lesser extent featured nature and the environment. These were similar observations that were echoed shortly afterwards by Francis Kyle, an art dealer and Mayfair gallery owner who told Peter that he should ‘get obsessed by something’. This turned out to be the turning point in Peter’s career, giving him the impetus to focus his considerable artistic talent on nature, conservation and ecology, from which he would have an endless source of inspiration.

Other commercial work has included advertisements for Hirondelle, Guinness and a number of first day cover stamp commissions for the Channel Islands postal services.

Peter Le Vasseur commercial commissions © Hirondelle, Channel Islands Postal service.

The accompanying text of the first day cover The Christmas Story was written by Linda Le Vasseur and the couple collaborated on another long-term project producing annual Christmas story books to be sold for charity, with Linda writing the books and Peter illustrating them. Linda is well known for her work within the Guernsey community and her children’s stories, of which there were fifteen, raised well over £100,000 for local charities. These popular stories sensitively deal with a number of important issues in a manner that children may understand easily, such as Father Christmas’ twin brother, which deals with dyslexia.

Father Christmas' twin brother - © Peter & Linda Le Vasseur.

The Reverend Linda Le Vasseur is currently serving her community as the Lead Hospital Chaplain at the Princess Eizabeth Hospital, and in 1999 led the funeral service for her friend Joan Bagley at St Matthew’s Church in Cobo.

Like Bagley, Peter Le Vasseur is a diligent and highly competent researcher, they clearly have that in common. March of Progress one of Peter’s forest environmental paintings features a jungle full of indigenous colourful birds, flowers and wildlife. Its backdrop is a city gradually encroaching on the precious landscape and a tribe of native Indians leave their homes as ‘civilisation’ forces them to find an alternative place to live. Painted in meticulous detail, it’s hard to believe that the artist had never visited a jungle, it was all done through careful research with the aid of photographic references. This is just how Bagley worked in the early days before he was able to travel to locations to conduct his research on the ground. It is clear to see why both the artist and author admired each other.

Peter, now an octogenarian, still works every day at his craft, producing incredible artwork with a clear and prescient environmental message. He once said in interview:

I realised that we were living in a world where things are finite and that there were some serious issues that I could illustrate through my paintings. [7]

It speaks volumes that Bagley wanted Peter to paint his portrait, and if the author could perhaps have an opinion on our current environmental dilemma he may well have drawn attention to the preface quote he used in his own novel The Enemy (London: Collins, 1977). The original quote by U.S. Naval Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry parodied so perfectly by ‘the Subversive Sociological Cartoonist’ Walt Kelly:

Anti-pollution poster used for the first Earth Day in 1970, showing Walt Kelly's Pogo character © Walt Kelly.
Anti-pollution poster used for the first Earth Day in 1970, showing Walt Kelly’s Pogo character © Walt Kelly.

Peter Le Vasseur’s artwork can be viewed and purchased on his website here. On the website you will find a gallery of 122 works featuring the Environment, Conservation and Ecology, Pop Art, Wild Africa and Wild Britain.

Visit the website of Guernsey crime author Jason Monaghan, who is currently working with Peter to produce an art book on his life and work. In particular the book will feature Peter’s later works with ecological and conservation themes.


Notes

Images: © & courtesy Peter Le Vasseur; © Mark Leightley; © Guernsey Press; © Abacus; © Ballantine Books; © Flamingo Publishing; © Icon Books, © Penguin Random House; © Picador – Pan Macmillan.

From conversations with & kind consent of Peter & Linda Le Vasseur, 2017-2019.

1. ‘Artists for the Earth’ Earth Day Network (2019) [online] URL [Accessed 11th June 2019]

2. ‘Tuned-in to “the friendliest station in town”‘ Guernsey Evening Press and Star (1979) 4th January 1979 pp. 4,10.

3. Bagley, D. ‘Writer’, from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.

4. Schreuders, P., Lewisohn, M., & Smith, A. The Beatles’ London- A Guide to 467 Beatles Sites In and Around London (Interlink Publishing Group: Northampton, MA, 2009) p.20.

5. ‘Ringo buys art picturing Beatles’ The Fresno Bee (California, 1964) 21st December 1964, p. 25.

6. ‘London Galleries by Eric Newton’ The Guardian (1964) 24th April 1964, p.11.

7. ‘Artist in residence – Peter Le Vasseur’ Zenith Issue 2 JSY/GSY (2017) 9th January 2017, pp.8 – 13.


‘What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.’

– Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, July 2015.