Published: 4 February 2010
by TOM FOOT
IT was a chance encounter for the young “journeyman” electrician, and one that changed his life for good.
When Ben Baker met the renowned artist Harry Gordon outside his gallery in Parkway, Camden Town, in the 1960s he had given up on his dream of becoming a painter.
Mr Gordon persuaded the young electrician, who lived in Iverson Road, West Hampstead, to apply to the famous Hornsey School of Art.
“Any spare time I had I would be with Mr Gordon,” he said. “He was the one that put the idea of painting in my head. I just thought something like that would be impossible for someone like me.
“He wrote me a very nice covering letter to Hornsey.”
A successful career as a painter followed with Mr Baker, now 70 years old and living in Stroud Green, winning a series of grants and staging high-profile exhibitions in the West End.
But in 2001, doctors discovered a carcinogenic tumour in his gut and he was admitted to the old Middlesex Hospital, now University College London Hospital, in Bloomsbury. Mr Baker’s entire stomach was removed during an arduous programme of surgery that has left him with a different outlook on life and a new artistic style.
He said: “They thought I didn’t have long to live. But the surgery was successful. It sounds obvious, but you do see the world differently and appreciate life better, especially when you are told you were going to die. Before I used to paint very fast, all over the place. But this whole operation has made me think a lot more about the subject.”
After recovering, Mr Baker turned his rehabilitated artistic eye to the “constantly changing” scenes of the River Thames. From a variety of positions – the rooftop of the Festival Hall, the sandy banks during low tide or from boats – he has produced dozens of canvases during a three-year project.
Mr Baker said he had spoken with hundreds of people, from tourists to street performers, and was even once quizzed by anti-terror detectives who mistook his city surveillance project as the seeds of a possible bomb plot.
Thirteen of his favourite pieces are on display, as part of the Painting Through The Seasons exhibition, in the Street Gallery at UCLH until March.
Mr Baker added: “It’s the first time I’ve had my work exhibited in a public space and a percentage of the sales will go to the (NHS) Trust. I just want to give something back to the hospital.”
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