Uncovering the many lives of Tom Curr
Twenty years ago on a grey Edinburgh morning I stood on the steps of London Road Church waiting to meet a Mrs Helen Wolfe. The People’s Friend had published a letter from me in April appealing for any readers who remembered Harold Copping’s picture The Hope of the World – depicting Jesus surrounded by the ‘children of the world’ - from the time when they attended Sunday school.
Mrs Wolfe was one of over 1,000 people from the UK and the Scottish diaspora who responded, but it wasn’t Copping’s painting she wanted to tell me about, it was another similar picture hanging in her church hall. She invited me to come and see it if I wanted – which I did. We were joined by a friend, Ken Mathieson who would play a vital role in the events that followed.
On seeing the large, framed picture in the hall I was amazed. I knew the image Follow Me from my postcard collection but had never been able to determine whether the artist’s signature was Tom Carr or Tom Curr and, in those early days of internet search engines, had been unable to find out more.
What I had not been able to see on the small postcard, but which was clearly visible in the large format print, was that this version of Jesus with the ‘children of the world’ was depicted walking on the Pentland Hills down to Edinburgh and Leith with the distinctive Portobello power station seen in the distance. Ken Mathieson confirmed that the artist was Tom Curr (1887-1958) adding that he believed some of his family might still be living in the city.
Searching the telephone directory – such physical resources were still available then – I found five entries under the surname Curr and phoned the first one. My call was answered with the words “Duncan Curr speaking.” This was my first communication with Tom Curr’s son who, together with his family, would become part of my life over many years.
Duncan had remarked that he was quite overcome when I told him that I wanted to write an article about his father. I was similarly taken aback when he invited me to visit his home to see the numerous boxes of letters, scrapbooks, photographs, Boys’ Brigade memorabilia, and paintings, all of which had been lovingly preserved since his father’s death in 1958.
All I knew of the artist in 2002 was that he had painted “Follow Me” but on working through Tom’s effects it soon became apparent that an article couldn’t do justice to the man.
He had fought at Passchendale in the First World War, was one of Scotland’s foremost commercial artists, a popular cartoonist for the Edinburgh Evening News documenting events at Tynecastle, Easter Road, Murrayfield or the Borders, an inspirational Boys’ Brigade leader, a painter of Clydesdale horses with examples exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy and a radio and television broadcaster.
The original Scott’s Porage Oats shot putter, the Portobello Bathing Beauty, posters for Cunard White Star, Scottish regiments and the Royal Highland Agricultural Show Society remain popular to this day and are widely reproduced even if the artist’s name is obscured.
Through its 224 pages, ten chapters and over 300 illustrations Edinburgh Rock: The Many Lives of Tom Curr offers the reader a braided biography/cultural history of a man who, in so many ways, served his country, his city and his fellow human beings.
A veteran of the First World War who never forgot those, including his colleague in the art department at McLagan & Cumming lithographic printers, Fred Bland, who died in the conflict serving with the Royal Scots.
It is also about a man who, when delivering his Presidential address in 1947 to the Baptist Union of Scotland, made clear where his priorities were in relation to witnessing to his faith:
“Tonight I am here as your President.
Tomorrow, I shall be at the Missionary meeting. Wednesday, I shall be at the House Mission meeting.
Thursday, I shall be presiding here again.
Friday, I shall be sitting with a crowd of boys eating chips out of a paper.”
Adding that, “I am very conscious of the great honour you have done me… but I feel that when the Books are opened, not the least valuable night will be Friday.”
His commitment to his BB company was reflected by its members regard for their Captain. Norman McRobb, who was a Life Boy (the junior section of the BB), during Tom’s leadership, still attends Canonmills mission, the original meeting place of the 46th Company and made a major contribution to that aspect of the book by providing material and identifying people in the group photographs, including Peter McGinn who went on to become a noted artist and international programme maker.
From his apprenticeship, through his art student days, his active service in France, Flanders and Italy in WW1, the captaincy of the 46th Company of Edinburgh Battalion Boys’ Brigade, his promotion to art manager, achieving an international reputation as an accomplished poster artist, exhibiting his paintings of Clydesdale horses at the RSA, serving as a town councillor, becoming a successful television and radio broadcaster and perennially popular newspaper cartoonist, Tom left his mark.
If his name is not known today Edinburgh Rock aims to address that neglect and deliver a long overdue recognition of the man and his phenomenal body of work. ■
Info Edinburgh Rock: The Many Lives of Tom Curr is an A4 hardback with dust jacket retailing at £20 and available to buy from many independent bookshops, the National Museum of Scotland shop, the War Museum, Edinburgh Castle or online at www.tomcurr.com.
“Glad to see the dear wee boy is not overworking.”
Stanley Cursiter’s watercolour of Tom Curr 1923-30