Artists of Orkney: Harry Berry

Harry Berry on Hoy moor, courtesy of Hoy Heritage Trust

Harry Berry has one of the most fascinating biographies of any Orkney artist. For a start, he wasn’t born here, but in Peckham, south London. In 1920, aged 15, Harry joined the Royal Navy, working his way up to the rank of chief petty officer. It was this career that took him to the navy’s base in Scapa Flow, along with tens of thousands of servicemen and women.

Unlike most of them, Harry stayed on in Orkney after World War Two ended, settling in Lyness, and marrying a local lass, Jean Guthrie. He never lost his strong Peckham accent, but he never travelled south of the Pentland Firth again.

Harry worked for years in the salvage industry, and later as a customs officer. All this time he created painstaking works of art across a range of media. Often he painted seascapes, many of them showing dramatic scenes featuring the Longhope lifeboat, including the tragic night in 1969 when the lifeboat, TGB, went down during a particularly dangerous rescue attempt, with the loss of all eight crew.

Harry Berry, Longhope Lifeboat TGB, courtesy of Stromness Museum, photo Rebecca Marr.

Harry was tireless in his fundraising efforts for the Longhope Lifeboat Station, with many of his paintings being sold or raffled in aid of the RNLI. The Longhope Lifeboat Museum has an extensive collection of Harry’s works, and is well worth a visit if you are on Hoy. As well as paintings there are other objects that Harry experimented with, including plaster novelties and plates, many revealing his quirky sense of humour.

On one famous occasion he made himself a set of false teeth, with fibreglass for the gums, and teeth gathered from a long-deceased sheep he’d found on the hill. The story goes that a local dentist, Bruce Dunnet, was so impressed with Harry’s creation that he offered to make him a proper set of NHS false teeth in exchange for the homemade ones. The swap was done, and the fibreglass set was sent to the dental museum in Edinburgh, where they remain to this day.

That’s the legend, anyway. Is it entirely true? It’s hard to tell, as Harry was a great raconteur and storyteller. In fact, a collection of his stories was published under the title The Driftwood Fiddle in 1990, and is now sought after by collectors. Painter, sculptor, writer – was there no end to his talent? If there was, we’re not there yet: Harry was also a signwriter, a woodcarver, and a repairer of gravestones. And he played saxophone and banjo in a Hoy band, with his wife Jean on piano.

Left: Harry Berry, plaster dog, courtesy of Longhope Lifeboat Muesum
Right: Harry Berry at Melsetter House, Hoy, photo courtesy of Ingrid Tait

For many years, a giant fibreglass trout made by Harry hung outside our jewellery shop in Kirkwall. The sign advertised the fact that we sold fishing flies and rods for visitors and locals going out on the lochs. One Halloween night, pranksters climbed up, unhooked the fish, and carried it across the Kirk Green. There they scaled the war memorial, and lodged the trout in the arms of Britannia standing on top of her arch!

Harry Berry died in Stromness in 1994. He is remembered with affection by many in Hoy and beyond as a uniquely talented and entertaining Cockney Orcadian.

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