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Peter Hay

From the Independent, Friday, 5 September 2003 "Brave, foolhardy and bloody marvellous" is how Leo de Freitas, organiser of the National Art Library Illustration Awards, described Two Rivers Press, the eclectic publishing house that has played such an important role in transforming public perceptions of the "much- maligned town" of Reading. Peter John Hay, artist and publisher: born Stockport, Cheshire 5 June 1951; married 1989 Jill Johnson (one son); died Reading 26 August 2003. Peter Hay, the press's founder, was one of Reading's most creative champions. He grew up in Stockport, and first came to Reading to study Fine Art at the university in 1975. He was an artist in the mould of John Piper, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Terry Frost, who did so much to link human form with landscape; and he shared the ability of Edward Bawden and Graham Sutherland to take a prosaic subject and represent it graphically and dramatically, with lots of bold colour and strong lines: energetic, flowing and highly romantic. Hay was a genuine polymath, well before his time in the easy way in which he could slip and slide between subjects; his curiosity was sincere and led him down green alleys and into largely unexplored spaces, though this was a trait that did him no favours with commercial art galleries trapped in the over- simplification of genres. He was a Dissenter in the Blake tradition, a visionary who believed in the power of art to combat the sacrilege of developers and planners and all who lay waste to the places people value most: "Ultimately, all I want to do is to make something of beauty and pleasure as a charm against the jackals." He was at the heart of a vibrant "alternative" community who found beauty and magic in the red-brick Berkshire capital. From the Ruins, an elaborate spectacle held in the remains of Reading Abbey in 1994, was Hay's brainchild and perhaps the most unusual and dramatic event to be held there since the Reformation; his contributions to other town events were legion. Hay lived two minutes' walk from Kennet Mouth, where the Kennet meets the Thames, and took part in the successful campaign to prevent a dual carriageway from being built across this beautiful spot. This led to the creation of Two Rivers Press, a pioneering publishing venture that set out to explore the place where art and history meet. Designers, artists and writers, established or otherwise, found ready encouragement and collaboration, and the press achieved national renown; its first publication, in 1994, was Where Two Rivers Meet: the story of Kennet Mouth and over the last 10 years some 35 titles have been published, many of them illustrated by Hay himself. Pete Hay would have made an excellent businessman, if he'd been the least bit interested in money. He took on projects purely on artistic merit, sometimes to the despair of more prosaic friends; yet his commitment and dedication to every aspect of the business won widespread respect. He must have worked his way through every printer in southern England in pursuit of the quality that he required. From Cyprus, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to the English coastline and especially his beloved Cornwall, to the Victorian terraces of Reading, Hay's work could reach a place's mystery with a few deft (and often witty) ideas. I still treasure a linocut "map" in which the two rivers have become the body of a running deer, with Newtown's street-plan by way of antlers, evoking the Berkshire legend of Herne the Hunter for that wildly defiant energy we all needed to resist the road-builders. He was a natural mystic, and had an uncanny knack for finding obscure books on request (he enjoyed a kind of psychic symbiosis with second-hand booksellers) but he was very wary of subscribing to transcendental schemes. Hay had a grounded, quite political, cynicism: he was very down-to-earth. A heron lived at Kennet Mouth, and became for Pete Hay the symbol of the place, its vertiginous bird's-eye perspectives featuring in many of his works. To his friends, the heron itself became Pete's personal totem. For all his soaring imagination, he was essentially a home-bird. His family life was strong and private. His wife, Jill, his partner since 1975, and their son Danny lived good-humouredly around his creative chaos, and the piles of books and paintings, drawings and doodles that filled their tiny house. Every now and then there would be a purge, but within weeks the piles would be back again.
 
 
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