Guy Portelli’s ‘Wight Spirit’ at Masterpiece Art celebrates 50 years since the iconic 1970 Isle of Wight Music Festival
A summer of live music and large crowds was not to be in 2020. But festival spirits remain high at London’s Masterpiece Art Gallery as they unveil their new exhibition, Wight Spirit 1968–70, accompanied by a documentary feature film which brings to light the history and legacy of the iconic Isle of Wight Music Festival.
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the seminal 1970 Isle of Wight festival — which featured legends such as Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and the Who — this exhibition brings together the latest work of acclaimed sculptor Guy Portelli with a selection of backstage photographs taken by late photographer Charles Everest.
The result promises to put this iconic event back on the map of music history. As Portelli, who has curated the exhibition, puts it, ‘The Isle of Wight Festival is Europe’s Woodstock. You could argue it has more significance, and yet it isn’t venerated in the same way. I am not sure why that is, given the bands that played there and the huge number of people it attracted. My hope is that this exhibition, along with the accompanying film, will help redress that.’
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Portelli’s spectacular glass mosaic panel entitled Wight Spirit. The panel, pictured above, features the handprints of more than 80 musicians who performed at the festival from 1968–70, including members of Jefferson Airplane, Free, Pretty Things and The Move — those whose hands strummed the soundtrack to a generation which lives today only in music and memory.
Portelli has long been fascinated by the crossover of art and music. He is known not only for his numerous UK and international sculpture collections, but also for his memorable appearance on the BBC TV Show Dragon’s Den, where he won an £80,000 investment from three Dragons for his Pop Icons series. Here, iconic figures from each decade were reincarnated in sculpture — sometimes irreverent, always visually striking. These were not just portraits of their subjects but of their times, explorations of celebrity, counterculture and revolution. For example, the Jimi Hendrix sculpture in Pop Icons entitled ‘Hey Joe’ references the flower power movement and divided attitudes towards the Vietnam War.
Showing alongside Portelli’s latest work this summer are over 60 photographs taken by the late Charles Everest who was present at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Everest was a highly successful newsreel cameraman and stills photographer who worked as a Press liaison for the festival organisers. In return, he received unparalleled backstage access to the legends who performed on stage. Realised in collaboration with Cameron Photo Library, the exhibition sees limited editions of Everest’s work made available for the first time. They are the perfect accompaniment to Portelli’s mosaic, together capturing the festival’s heady atmosphere: that last flare of 60s optimism before the dawn of the 70s.
When it began in 1968, 10,000 people attended the Isle of Wight festival. By 1970, this had swelled to 600,000, surpassing the attendance at Woodstock and said to be one of the largest human gatherings in the world. With capacity stretched to breaking point — literally in the case of the festival’s fences, which were torn down by the crowds eager to get a glimpse of Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell — the mood of the festival turned away from the love and peace of earlier days.
But for headliners, the Festival had some of the biggest music acts of all time. For attendees, it had George Harrison, John Lennon, Patti Boyd, and Andrew Kerr, co-founder of Glastonbury which had its inaugural event later that year. The Isle of Wight Music Festival, to which this brilliant exhibition pays tribute, deserves to be remembered as a landmark cultural event in British history.