Peter Skellern

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Peter Skellern Pencil Portrait
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Peter Skellern was ordained as a deacon and priest of the Church of England, only four months before his untimely death from an inoperable brain tumour in early 2017.

The English singer-songwriter and pianist’s use of brass bands and choirs in his music had created a consistently nostalgic and romantic trademark feel, and if he lacked the equipment to produce bravura vocalising, then his albums always remained warm, engaging and an evocation of a bygone era.

“While I’m away” from the 1978 “Skellern” album and “My Lonely Room” from the “You’re a Lady” debut album (1972) are beautiful recordings with exquisite arrangements and virtuoso playing. Sadly, aside from a couple of recorded collaborations with Richard Stilgoe, Skellern would not be visible in any recording studio after the mid-90’s, although he would continue to perform live.

His catalogue is hard to locate but as always I’m up to the task, as two compact discs and three vinyl albums to date will testify. Whilst there is much to commend many of his original compositions, it’s his unique ability to juxtapose the recorded works of Fred Astaire and Noel Coward with uniquely original arrangements that will provide his legacy. An underrated talent. May he rest in peace.

The singer-songwriter fulfilled a life-long ambition to take Holy Orders in October 2016, and in a rare move, was ordained deacon and priest on the same day, as he had an inoperable brain tumour.

The service, on 16 October, required a faculty from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was conducted by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, in the singer’s parish church, St Wyllow’s, Lanteglos-by-Fowey, in Cornwall. He played the organ at St Michael’s, Bolton. As a nine-year-old, he aspired to the priesthood, but a successful music career intervened. Finally, in 2014, he was put forward for ordination training, but, shortly after, his tumour was diagnosed.

“For about a week, I hung in this abyss, and I just grabbed God,” he said. “I was given a year to live, and everything fell — apart from my belief in God. It was like that for about a week, and then God closed the ground beneath me, and I became resigned and happy, and I have been like that ever since.”

Bishop Thornton said at the time: “Peter has been considering a sense of vocation for a very long time, and it is tragic in many ways that, as he has had this calling confirmed, he was diagnosed with cancer. It seemed right to me that he should be ordained both deacon and priest so that God can continue to work through him, and, in his life and ministry, he can be faithful to becoming the person God wants him to be.”

Recommended listening

You're a Lady (1972)

Hard Times (1975)

Skellern (1978)

Astaire (1979)

Still Magic (1980)

A String of Pearls (1982)

Stardust Memories (1995)