Helen Anderson: Lennon’s Mate (And That Hat)


By Jude Southerland Kessler

Helen Anderson – or “Heloon,” as John Lennon fondly called his friend – was “the life of the party” at Liverpool College of Art. Smart, talented, and full of fun, the lovely brunette artist and later, fashion designer was as affable as she was accomplished. From their first meeting at the famous art college on Hope Street, Helen and John were best mates. Helen witnessed, first-hand, the rise of The Beatles, and when John and the boys left Liverpool for London, Helen left as well – to pursue a very successful career in the world of design and couture. Today, the respected Merseyside artist continues to create unique, one-of-kind fashion pieces, including a hand-made leather Lennon cap, inspired by her friendship with John and the greatest band of the ages.

Jude Southerland Kessler: As a student at Liverpool College of Art, John Lennon was always drawn to prominent, outstanding individuals. Which of your achievements, Helen, initially drew John to you?

Helen Anderson: My first morning at Liverpool College of Art (Sept. 1958) – whilst strutting along the Blue Corridor – a rather amusing boy stopped me in my tracks. “Are you that bird who painted Lonnie Donegan?!” he barked. I answered, “Yes, why?” He replied, “”Cos if you are, I wanna be your mate for life!” That brash boy was, of course, John Lennon.

Just before entering the art college, I had been asked to paint a full-length oil portrait of Donegan – a major British pop star from 1950-1960. I was very young and flattered to receive a portrait commission of 50 guineas (£50/50 shillings in normal English money). Lonnie was a jazz banjo player with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band before branching off to start his own skiffle group – an instant success in Britain with his interpretations of bluesy American railroad songs, cowboy tunes, and folk music. His style was captivating, and the rudimentary skiffle instruments Donegan’s band employed (washboard, tea chest bass, banjo) made his sound even more unique. Lonnie had a style crammed with humor, and he became all the rage in England. John Lennon especially was mad about him! Indeed, John thought by “chumming up with me” he could get tons of inside information on Donegan, his idol.

I had stayed at Donegan’s home for three weeks with his wife Maureen, his baby Fiona, and him during my work on the rocker’s portrait. It was a great honor for me, at age 16, to have been selected to paint Lonnie. Nevertheless, I wasn’t in a position to introduce John Lennon to him! But from that first day at Liverpool College of Art, my time with Lonnie established John and I as very firm friends, “partners in fun,” as it were.

Kessler: You were a part of John’s “inner circle” with whom he cavorted. Tell us about this unique clique and John’s role in it.

Anderson: I quickly noticed John’s extremely sharp sense of humor and wit – his gift of cleverly manipulating the English language and creating edgy double entendres in his poems and ditties. He used language in the most original and comical way. John was so highly intelligent, but he hid this behind his sideburns for fear of being ridiculed and misunderstood. However, it was this very intelligence and humor that drew people to him.

Soon after we met, John gathered around him a coterie of friends and admirers (including Geoff Mohammed and his girlfriend Ann Mason, Dave Davies, Tony Carricker, and me)  who were good artists, quite brainy, and appreciative of John’s graphic, eccentric humor and offbeat art. With this group of mates, he would perform morning to night, non-stop. Ray Coleman in his biography Lennon quotes me as frequently asking John to “be funny.” I did, and he was.

We especially laughed at John’s caricatures of friends, profs, and the “odd sods and bods” of Liverpool. He depicted his characters (including himself) as spotty monsters or “half-human, half-beasty.” John had a wild crush on Brigitte Bardot, so when he did his rare paintings, they were all of a Brigitte character. Many a room in the art college was draped with Lennon renderings of Brigitte, along with sketches of himself and his bandmates, playing music. (I only ever saw two of John’s paintings. The rest were cartoons and amazing, though grotesque, sketches.)

Quite often, in life class, John was asked to sketch our life model, the lovely June Furlong. John had thought that once he got to art college, he would be able to draw voluptuous, “large-breasted glamor girls.” But June and the other models at Liverpool College of Art were shapely and dignified women…not at all the type John was dreaming of! Once, when our class was asked to sketch June’s portrait, John settled into the lofty room with the tiny, one-bar heater (providing only minimal warmth!!) and tried to work in silence with the rest of us. Very quickly, however, John bored of the task and commenced one of his own sketches…a Lennonesque depiction of June’s wristwatch and her slippers, neatly positioned on the floor beneath her chair. Quirky, our John!

I used to glance over at John while I was seriously trying to get on with my work. When he was imagining his next outlandish move, his nostrils would twitch like a bunny. That was the cue that he was about to liven up the place, sending us all into uproars of spurious laughter. Our tutor Teddy Griffiths would stand there, sternly smoking his pipe and trying to ignore John’s antics. But John went right on, impersonating people and making funny sounds. He kept us in hysterics until the lunchtime bell.

Kessler: Helen, you were with John in Liverpool College of Art when his rock’n’roll band began practicing in Professor Arthur Ballard’s Room 22 “of a lunchtime.” Tell us about those early days of The Beatles, please.

Anderson:  As that first year at art college went along (1958), John dared to bring in his guitar, and we heard him play and sing. He told us of the skiffle-style band that he and some of his friends had formed in Quarrybank Grammar (his high school), and he said that he was putting a new group together, including two mates from the Liverpool Institute, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. We were all curious about the ingénue group, and John promised he would “sneak them in of a lunchtime” so that we could “have a listen” and let him know what we thought.

The first revelation occurred in Arthur Ballard’s painting room. Six or eight of us slid up there with our sandwiches; “the band” brought in fish and chips from the Falkner Street chip shop. The first earful of their sound was…wow!!! Something else! Although there were smatterings of Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard in the music, there was something unique about their playing and singing together. Although George was only 15, he possessed amazing guitar virtuosity. And John and Paul’s harmonizing was incredible. In that tiny room with no acoustics, we were all ecstatic! When Professor Arthur Ballard (who had been a boxer in the Army) would stride in with his fists balled – chasing us all out of the room –  we couldn’t bear the lunch hour ending! But Arthur, who really liked John Lennon, allowed this lunchtime session to become an everyday occurrence.

When the weather was decent, the boys would also go down to the Pier Head, jump on the “ferry cross the Mersey,” and cross over to New Brighton whilst playing on the upper deck. Afterward, they’d stand on the grotty seaweed beach and sing like mad to whoever happened to pass by. We’d all sit on the rocks and listen – us girls in our swimsuits, of course. Once, a huge Scouser with a hanky tied in knots around his head, trousers rolled up to his knees, and socks beneath his sandals strolled up to me and growled, “Who do they think they are…the Everly Brothers or someone?” What a hilarious and poignant comment that turned out to be as over the next year John and the boys skyrocketed to what John called “the toppermost of the poppermost.”

Kessler: One of the stories that John’s first wife, Cynthia Powell Lennon, always repeated fondly was how you inadvertently alerted her to the fact that she was in love with John. It was one of my favorite stories in Vol. 1 of The John Lennon Series, Shoulda Been There. Would you please share that touching story with us?

Anderson: Well, Cynthia Powell and I had known each other for a long time; we had both been students together (and close friends) at Liverpool Junior School of Art. We were both industrious and ambitious. We’d do pen and ink sketches every week and enter them into the children’s section of the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo. Several times, we were both fortunate to win the prize of 10 shillings and sixpence, and we’d scream our good fortune together.

We both moved on to Liverpool College of Art, and it was there that Cyn always said I proved to her that she was truly “in love” with John. We were all in the lovely mahogany college amphitheater for a lecture on Renaissance art, and I was seated with John. He had a longish “D.A.” (“Duck’s Arse”) cut at the time (with the front a bit like Elvis) and he asked me to “tidy” the back of his hair. As I did so, Cynthia – over on the other side – seemed to be staring at us with a thoughtful expression.

Later, I learned she’d become instantly jealous…thinking that I was fondling the back of John’s hair. She told me that it was at that moment that she “woke up and realized she’d fallen for John totally.”

I’m glad she was jealous, otherwise she might never have had the courage to gravitate towards John and have at least 10 years of happiness and devotion to him. Her jealousy was unfounded. I was extremely fond of John, but not in the romantic way she thought. He was my best male chum.

Together John, Cyn, and I all shared some wonderful weekends in their home, Kenwood.  We always found something to laugh about, even when they were struggling a bit with the crazy life they had been plunged into. Cyn and I were always close…even more so as the years went along. Having been art school students together, we shared the same memories and spoke the same language. Very sadly, Cyn passed away in 2015 from cancer. I was heartbroken to lose one of my most beautiful and long-standing friends.

Kessler: Helen, after leaving Liverpool College of Art, you moved to Italy and began your career as a portrait painter and fashion designer. I understand that it was Cynthia Lennon who encouraged you to return to England. Tell us about that, please.

Anderson: I moved to Rome as a post-graduate student, painting portraits of celebrities and aristocrats. In fact, I was thrilled to be asked to paint a portrait of President Segni of Italy in 1962, when I was only 21 years old!

It was indeed my friend Cynthia who tempted me back to Liverpool, where (thanks to The Beatles!) things were kicking off! She said, “Why don’t you come back to Liverpool and sell all those fabulous leather and suede clothes you design for yourself? John and I will help you.” I took the bait in 1963, opening a couture leather and suede boutique in Bold Street, Liverpool.

Kessler: And is that when you came to create John’s famous leather cap?

Anderson: Yes, I knew that John was a fashionista. In fact, he once liked a yellow sweater that I was wearing in school so much that he gave me his sketch book in trade for the garment! For years, I’d been making “bits and bobs” for John, including leather ties!

But in 1964, I created a signature leather cap for him – the first of many. It was black leather, with quite a high crown (at his request) and a visible stitching detail along the seams. This is the cap you see him wearing during the filming of Help! in Henry Grossman’s wonderful location photos. (Of course, John was forever losing his caps…and many were stolen by the fans. So I made him quite a few!)

The cap I designed for him in 1964 introduced a “double plait” (or braid) across the top of the peak – fastened to a leather button on either side of the cap. It was unique…a signature piece for John. He was such an unconventional and distinctive character that it never would have occurred to me to make him a plain, run-of-the-mill hat. That being said, John did commission a few plain caps from me later on – presumably so that he had some to give away! (Or for spares…I can’t remember.)

In 2019 – fifty-five years after I made that signature cap for John – I decided to honor my dear lost friend with handmade fashion work that would please him and that his fans would want to own, as a “bit of their idol and mentor, John.” I decided to re-release the famous Lennon cap. Of course, his sister Julia Baird and his son Julian were the first ones to receive the re-released cap. But every single Lennon cap that leaves my shop in Liverpool is lovingly made…never ever mass produced.

In fact, each time I examine a cap before it goes out, I pack it in “Love, Love, Love” paper and place it in a leather-bound keepsake box. And each time I go through this ritual, it brings John “home” again. I hope he knows I’m doing it in remembrance of him. I certainly don’t need to be working so hard “at my tender age,” but I absolutely love it! And the people all over the world with whom I’ve become acquainted have broadened my understanding of the world so much. I’ve encountered new friendships, strange coincidences, and interesting occurrences!

John Lennon is still inspiring my art and my fashion work, and connecting with Beatles fans of all ages keeps me young. “In My Life,” I will always thank John for being my chum…and I will always thank him for believing in me, as I did in him.

This post was previously published on CultureSonar.


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The post Helen Anderson: Lennon’s Mate (And That Hat) appeared first on The Good Men Project.