The man who loves art
Catherine Larner meets art lecturer John Sheeran, father of now famous singer/songwriter Ed . . . and something of a crowd puller in his own right
Popular theory on attention span suggests that to engage an audience you need to keep a lecture to 40 minutes. Not in Suffolk, it seems.
Art lecturer John Sheeran is renowned for his fascinating, entertaining and hugely informative talks about the masterpieces of western art and you’ll be lucky to keep him to an hour and a half.
“I do get carried away,” he says. “I thought for my first talk of this new series, I’d give five minutes to each picture but I get so lost in the painting, I don’t really think of the time factor. There is so much to say, I could spend an hour on each painting.”
John’s passion and enthusiasm for his subject have audiences lapping up the information he imparts. Currently he is packing venues in Ipswich, Woodbridge and Halesworth for a series of 10 monthly lectures called Masterpiece. In this chronological exploration of great paintings from periods of art such as the Italian Renaissance, the Baroque, Romanticism and French Impressionism, John takes between 10 and 15 pictures in each lecture to help people understand, appreciate and enjoy art more, highlighting why artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Picasso are so greatly admired.
“The paintings I’ve chosen are the crème de la crème,” he says. “They’re also my favourites. And I try to include pictures which are accessible for the audience – pictures at the National Gallery for example, which I hope they will go and see for themselves.” He considers this a vital part of his talks, to encourage people to see and appreciate the original artworks themselves.
“It’s very common when you go to exhibitions to see people walking straight past pictures. Or you will see a bank of people photographing a painting with their iPads and phones, and then they’ll walk away without actually looking at the picture. I want people to stop and immerse themselves in the pictures.”
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He provides a list of the paintings and their locations for each talk and invites the audience to send him a card from exhibitions or galleries they have visited, showing him their favourite painting. These days John and his wife, Imogen, are making more overseas trips themselves. Their son is the singer and songwriter, Ed Sheeran, and when they join him for his international performances they also take in their favourite galleries and museums.
“He’s so busy and doing so many things around the world – we’re very proud and we don’t want to miss out. But we can’t give weekly art talks if we’re doing that!”
John’s lectures first started in 2008 as weekly art appreciation talks in Framlingham. There were 80 in that programme and it took two-and-a-half years to complete, yet it was so popular that he had to repeat it. People travelled from Kent, Cambridge, Brentwood and central London to listen to him speak.
John draws on vast experience. He worked as a museum curator in the 1980s. In 1990 he and Imogen set up their own independent art consultancy, called Sheeran Lock. For 20 years, they created art exhibitions – including the official 50th Birthday Exhibition of The Prince of Wales at Hampton Court Palace, and the United Nations Millennium Exhibition in New York. They also created groundbreaking art education initiatives for young people in disadvantaged communities in the UK.
“Ultimately I like to encourage people to read the painting – not to know anything about the artist but to look at the composition, the colour scheme, the shapes, mood and atmosphere,” John says. “When you read paintings, you start to look at people and places differently. Once you can read art, you have a gift for life.”