How Michael Butters got the first Winchester Portrait Exhibition off the ground
PUBLISHED: 15:49 25 April 2017
The first Winchester Portrait Exhibition, which runs until May 2, can now be added to the city's overflowing cultural calendar. Sandra Smith meets the man who got it off the ground, with a little help from his friends
When award winning photographer Michael Butters first nurtured the idea of celebrating residents who positively contribute to Hampshire life, he had in mind a modest display of portraits. But how his initial vision has blossomed. Following a chance discussion with sculptor Nadine Collinson, together with the support of the town’s then Mayor, the first Winchester Portrait Exhibition opened with a presentation of over 100 photographic portraits complemented by mesmerising animal sculptures, all within the historic setting of the city’s Great Hall.
“I’ve always felt we live in a lovely world but there’s a few awful people who spoil it for the rest of us,” Michael explains. “Also, there’s a lot of negativity which I don’t like. I thought of celebrating those who have made a difference, not just well known people. Eileen Berry, the Mayor of Winchester, liked my proposal and said she could help. When I met Nadine, who’d commissioned me to do some photography of her sculptures, I mentioned my plan which she thought had mileage so we teamed up. Since then she’s been the driving force.”
The two creatives are well balanced not only from an artistic viewpoint but in reflecting each other’s enthusiasm.
“This has become our baby, consuming us for the last few months,” Nadine says excitedly. “We have organised photoshoots, there’s a book of portrait subjects including text written by each individual which will be available to buy (£12.99) and we’ve attracted some wonderful sponsors. The venue is fantastic and our subjects are really interesting; for instance, 98-year-old Susan Cook, a longstanding volunteer at Winchester Cathedral. In the past she’s worked with Churchill, flown in twin engine planes and has a Secret Service connection, too.”
Councillor Berry recalls getting to know Michael’s photography during her time as Mayor: “We had a close relationship and I believe in his work. He goes to great lengths to secure good images. I’ve supported him all the way with this and we’re grateful to Hampshire County Council for giving us the Great Hall for several days.”
Eileen confesses she was “bowled over” when initially encountering Nadine’s sculptures and relishes the opportunity to involve so many wonderful people.
“This project originated with Mike but it became a meeting of minds. We’ve gone one better than a regular exhibition because this incorporates the community.”
Chosen subjects come from diverse backgrounds and range from those in the public eye to unsung heroes who have devoted years to organisations throughout the county. Newscaster Alastair Stewart is not only included in the exhibition but will also compere the private view. Fred Dinenage is on board, too, along with charity workers, as Michael explains.
“We looked at small charities like the Blue Apple Theatre, Wessex Dance Club and Winchester Churches Nightshelter. Members of Hampshire Cultural Trust were photographed as a group but mostly I just concentrated on the charity’s main person.”
This Kingsworthy photographer first showed an interest in photography during the “horrible winter of 1963” when the whole country was under snow for some considerable time. Although only 12 years old his father allowed him to “play” with the family camera. He showed a keen interest in capturing people yet took his interest no further since his mother insisted he embarked upon “a proper career” and it wasn’t until over a decade later that he made his own decision to retrain.
“I studied social photography then worked with various photographers as their assistant before going freelance. My father was totally behind me and built me a darkroom so I could develop my own pictures. I also did a lot of promotional photography.”
Before pressing the shutter release, Michael likes to familiarise himself with his subjects, sometimes investing hours of conversation in order to ensure those in front of the camera are relaxed. In contrast to Michael’s long established experience, Nadine’s artistic career began relatively recently.
“I used to do special effects for TV, particularly commercial and pop videos. I only picked up a paintbrush five years ago. I went to an art class but my work quickly grew too big to fit in my car. Then I tried welding. I’ve been on a couple of weekend workshops and I’m still exploring what I can do.”
The Twyford artist’s passion for horses fuelled two sculptures which will be positioned either side of the speaker’s podium.
“I’ll have a few pieces punctuating the exhibition,” she quietly admits. “I’m really into horses; I adore their energy and power. They are so gentle but immense. I try to express the sensation of riding in my sculptures. My horse heads are big and vibrant. I cast in bronze although the ones at the exhibition are plaster resin painted with bronze paint as this makes them easier to transport.”
Exhibition images, predominantly colour interspersed with black and white, measure 9” x 12” with each photograph surrounded by an ivory mount and black frame. Subjects are displayed in alphabetical order and portable panels enable displays to be moved.
Nadine, who exhibits at Stockbridge’s Garden Gallery and is also planning a project with SPUD Youth Programme and the Handlebar Café on the South Downs Way, has, along with her colleague, attracted some generous sponsors such as Paris Smith LLP. Peter Taylor, the company’s Managing Partner, appreciates the opportunity this venture has given the company.
“We are proud of both our local heritage and the contribution which we are able to make to the wellbeing of the communities in which we live and work. We firmly believe in fulfilling our role in enabling success and prosperity across the county for the benefit of all, frequently partnering with others whether they be businesses, individuals, public bodies or charities, who share our values and beliefs.“
Raffle prizes include a magnum of champagne (signed by the Prime Minister) from The Naked Grape as well as donations from Twinings Tea, Eastleigh FC and Southampton Football Club. Visitors might also be tempted by a silent auction and, although entry is free, donations are encouraged with funds going to Winchester Cathedral, which is self funded, and the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Southampton General Hospital, both of which have Peter Cooper Motor Group’s support.
“Since our expansion,” says Group Managing Director, Darren Cooper, “Winchester has become an important part of our area of responsibility and we see the Winchester Portrait Exhibition as a great initiative to help us integrate with the community at the same time as raising much needed funds for local charities.”
Michael says: “I’m very excited. This has grown enormously since I first thought of the idea and that is because of Nadine. It could even be repeated though we’ll let water flow under the bridge first. Meanwhile I’m hoping sales of the book will be ongoing.”
Whether speaking to Michael or Nadine, they each insist the other should take the credit for the exhibition. One thing is clear: their joint talents, commitment and vision have given the public the chance to enjoy a prestigious event in an impressive venue.