In memoriam: Robert Hutchison

Robert Hutchison, whose rich and varied career included three years as a trustee of the Poetry Society from 2011 to 2014, died peacefully at home on 22nd September 2017 after a short illness. He was 76. Robert was a man of many passions and enthusiasms, notably poetry, environmental campaigning and cricket, and he had an inextinguishable talent for starting things up. His working life included time as a BBC radio producer, as a senior editor at Penguin Books, as manager of the Tanzania Publishing House in Dar es Salaam, as senior research officer at the Arts Council of Great Britain, as senior research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, and in 1993 he joined North West Arts in Manchester as Director of Arts and Deputy Chief Executive.

Three years later he moved south to become Chief Executive of Southern Arts Board, the regional arts board for central southern England, based in Winchester. Robert loved his time at Southern Arts and fought fiercely and imaginatively, though ultimately unsuccessfully, to prevent its amalgamation into the Arts Council in 2002. After this he became Chief Executive at Oxford Inspires for four years and then embarked on a boisterous retirement.

One of his early start-ups was the Wilfred Owen Association, which he established in 1989 as founder chairman while living in Shrewsbury. In 2007 he founded and chaired for three years Winchester Action on Climate Change (WinACC), a thriving and influential organisation dedicated to reducing the city’s carbon footprint, and he also spent five years as a Liberal Democrat councillor.

His final gift to society was the Winchester Poetry Festival. This was born during a stroll through the water meadows, taking in Winchester College’s War Cloister, an atmospheric quad of great tranquillity. He saw the theatrical potential in the space and thought it would be wonderful for readings. With his customary zeal he pulled together a creative team, forged an organisation and the first of the biennial festivals was held in 2014. Its aims were to commemorate the poets and poetry of 1914, to have lots of fun in the process, and bring as much Irish poetry to the city as Winchester could bear. This included commissioning a poem from Michael Longley (with whom he’d shared digs at Trinity College Dublin) which turned out to be ‘The Snowdrops’, now included in the 2017 Forward shortlisted collection Angel Hill.

Working for or with Robert was undoubtedly a treat: always stimulating, sometimes exasperating, and invariably rewarding. He was willing to see the best in people, no matter how puny their efforts, and at all times was ready to inspire, to encourage, if necessary to exhort, and if the worse came to the worst he’d do the job himself. During his time as vice chair at the Poetry Society, he was a steadying hand, candid diplomat and ebullient charmer, in a crack team with chair Stephen Irwin. He is survived by his wife, Liz Kessler, daughter Sarah, and several flourishing organisations.

Keiren Phelan