Mr Brew by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

30th May 2014 at 01:00
Teen snobbery had the future designer and television presenter turning his nose up at art. But at last he had an epiphany - to the relief of his eccentric mentor

James Brew, my art teacher at Alleyn's School in Dulwich, South London, was an extraordinary character. Anyone would remember him for his rank eccentricity. He looked like Gandalf, as he was very tall and had a lot of uncontrollable grey hair. It's impossible to say how old he was, although in hindsight he probably wasn't much older than I am now.

He was very unteacherish. He didn't care what he wore and he didn't care what he said. He treated us like grown-ups, unlike the other teachers, who could be terribly patronising.

He was foppish, although not camp. I don't think he was gay. In fact, I'm pretty sure he had a string of women. But there was a deliberate ambiguity that he used to foster and that was part of his devil-may-care attitude.

I never really took art seriously. I used to enjoy academic subjects and much preferred art history to the creative side. I'm not sure why, as I was good at art and won quite a lot of awards and prizes. I suppose I was rather snotty about it and quite snobbish. I would think: "Oh yes, what a good drawing, but that's not what art is about."

Yet Mr Brew encouraged me; I think he saw me as his protg. I remember winning an art prize once, and he invited my mother and me to lunch at his house before we picked up the medal. His home was a crazy magpie's nest of his own work, which I liked very much as it had a mid-century elegance to it.

He was a working artist. Every now and again we would catch him moonlighting at school. We'd find him painting in a remote studio and ask what he was working on. He had a lot of contacts in music and theatre and it would turn out to be the backdrop for a Rolling Stones concert or something.

After my O-levels I had an epiphany. I was about two weeks into the sixth form when I decided to leave and go to art school. I already had art A-level as I did it at 16, so I thought I'd focus on the thing I could do best.

Mr Brew was one of the few teachers who didn't try to talk me out of it. The others all asked odd questions: what if I wanted to get married later on? How would I support a wife if I only had an art degree? Nevertheless, I did go to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and Mr Brew came to my degree show. In fact, he insisted that the school bought a couple of my paintings.

I never really saw him after that, although years later he was interviewed for a television programme I was on. He was an old man then and still lived in the same chaotic, art-filled house. At one point he looked around and said: "As you can see, I've never been governed by ridiculous bourgeois notions of good taste and I think that must have rubbed off on Laurence."

I was very sad when I heard he had died. It was about four years ago, but I was away so I couldn't go to the funeral.

Mr Brew taught me the concept of not being in any way bothered about what people think of you or your work. You do what you do because that's the way you want to do it. You stick to your guns.

I'm sure he would have seen me prancing around on Changing Rooms and thought: "Well done, Laurence, that's a life lesson learned."

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is the Ideal Interiors representative at the Ideal Home Show in Manchester on 6-8 June.

Bright beginnings

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen

Born 11 March 1965, London

Education Alleyn's School, Dulwich; Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (now Camberwell College of Arts)

Career Designer and television presenter who rose to fame on BBC home-improvement show Changing Rooms


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